Has a Rubicon Just Been Crossed in America?

13 January 2021

6.1 MINS

Editor’s Note: This is a sobering piece from diplomat Stephen M. Young, on the tattered state of American politics and society. Read the original article at the Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism.


Dear Friends and Colleagues:

Given the momentous and historic lawless disruption of the U.S. Congress this past Wednesday, serious and necessary questions are being asked: what is happening in America? I would like to provide some background from my personal perspective on the course of history now unfolding in this country.

Metaphorically, the Rubicon has just been crossed in the American cold civil war. The American republic is on the edge of a death spiral. Civility between the contending parties has been abandoned. Uncivil disobedience, even violent lawlessness, is taking its place. There will be no going back to more halcyon days. Our leaders are crying “havoc” to their followers and are letting slip “the dogs of war.”

The 2020 presidential election started that ripping up of our domestic political compact, a rupture ironically nearly 400 years to the day after the first compact, the 1620 Mayflower Compact, which framed our experiment in self-government.

There is now and never will be closure on the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory. Tens of millions of Americans are more than disconcerted by “innovations” introduced into the presidential election process last November.

For example, many commentators have complained that, in the months prior to the election in the key states which tipped the election to Biden, Democratic Party activists arranged for the sending of mail ballots to everyone, unprecedented numbers of Americans voting by mail and not in person, waiving voter ID requirements for those afraid of Covid, making available insecure mobile ballot boxes, election officials “curing” and not discarding faulty ballots and not purging voter registration lists of those not eligible to vote. Then, one billionaire donated $350 million to finance election clerks, judges and vote counters and open more poll locations in Democratic voter strongholds.

Jonathan Turley, Professor at George Washington University Law School and noted commentator, has pointed out that these actions were recommended by David Plouffe, John Podesta, David Axelrod and Stacey Adams, all leading Democratic strategists.

The day after the election, such arrangements immediately raised suspicions among Trump supporters, who were already unforgiving of his political enemies. And due to court rules on civil procedure, there has been no trial on the merits of the accusations. Responsible officials just denied the charges and did not produce any evidence that would substantiate their denials. Doubts as to their integrity were not put to rest. Whether the election was fairly conducted in 6 or 7 key states is and will remain a question of “He said, she said.”

In today’s post-truth culture, tastes vary from individual to individual and cannot be questioned to another’s discomfort. Personal narratives prevail over facts and reasoned argument. “All is vanity,” we read in Ecclesiastes. The text continues:

“All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.”

Tinder for a bonfire of political vanities is all around us now. Some of it was lit by the November presidential election. More by Wednesday’s lawless ransacking of the Capitol in Washington. Even more tinder will likely be set on fire in the months to come.

The failure of the presidential election to establish its legitimacy is the crossing of a political frontier similar to the crossing of the Rubicon River by Julius Caesar with his personal army on January 10, 49 BCE, when he challenged the legitimacy of the Roman Republic.

Today is the 2,070th anniversary of that dramatic challenge to the constitutional order of the Roman Republic.

Caesar’s jaunty quip that day was alea iacta est — “The die is cast.” Civil war was the result. He won the toss, but later paid for his victory with his life.

Trump is now having to pay personally for his hubris. Like Caesar before him, Trump rose thanks to a dynamic personality, but, also like Caesar, that same personality has twisted him into a loser.

Heraclitus said that ethos anthropos daimon — “Our character drives our destiny.” In this formula for success or failure in life, an unregulated character can lead to hubris. Hubris, then, necessarily brings on nemesis — downfall and destruction. This is true for nations, as well as for individuals.

British military advisor and strategist John Glubb asserted that no empire can survive much more than 10 generations or about 250 years. Our 250th anniversary will be upon us in 5 years.

Several years ago, Professor Francis Fukuyama had already written presciently on political “decay” as something Americans should now worry about. After Donald Trump was elected, I went to see him at Stanford to ask him how he thought we might reverse the rot eating away at our politics. He replied slowly:

“I can’t think of anything.”

Now, four years later, a widely questioned presidential election would constitute a pretty significant undermining of our political well-being. That the Democrats “stole” a presidential election has now entered the mythology of American history. Too many people — tens of millions of them — believe that to be the fact and they will never change their minds. Nor will they submit to “re-education” sessions shoved down their throats by their social “betters.”

On the other side, even more Americans have locked themselves into a narrative that nothing went awry in the vote count. They are afraid to admit any failure of due process in the election. To so admit might precipitate an unraveling of their authority. It might even end up with their having to accept personal responsibility for the collapse of our republic.

The worst possible electoral outcome is now a reality — no truth, just bitterly conflicting partisan narratives. Having a clear victor and so also a clear loser would have been an outcome having the force of undeniable truth behind it. Those on the losing side would resentfully and angrily, but nevertheless genuinely, resign themselves to the outcome and get on with their lives.

I can imagine Karl Marx rather joyfully looking on from wherever he is as we Americans validate his thesis of dialectical materialism. Our culture war has now solidified into a class war. Each class has its separate relationship with our system of production. The ideology of each class, just as Marx insisted, so aligns with its economic self-interest that we might say each rival ideology is a rationalization programmed to legitimate a class interest.

Our new system of production is more sophisticated than the capitalism studied by Marx. Now, finance is not the most important form of capital. Over the last 30 years, we have, through public agencies, created massive amounts of liquidity — trillions and trillions of dollars in every major currency. The world is floating on a huge sea of currency and currency equivalents as never before in history. That is one reason why the price of money — interest rates — are so low. Supply is surging and the laws of economics are working just fine.

Our global post-industrial economy now runs on forms of capital which were once marginal, such as human capital, intellectual property, social capital such as celebrity, credentials, brand equity, customer goodwill, corporate culture and the asset implicit in controlling regulatory power. The old form of capital — liquidity — is now most easily appropriated by those who possess the new forms of capital.

Since nearly every sector of the economy is dominated by a few firms, corporations can extract rents over and above competitive market prices. Corporate officers are, more and more, part of the new ruling elite by virtue of their credentials and human capital which gives them preferential access to liquidity. Thus, we now have “woke” capitalism.

In our current form of capitalism, the middle and lower classes don’t have any of the new forms of capital. An old fashion work ethic can’t compete with credentials or social mediatized status. Mere labor, as always, isn’t much of a capital asset. So, those who have been called the “deplorables” have become the new proletariat. They are the social base for the Republican Party. Democrats who are also part of this class have become Republicans. Republicans who belong to the new capitalist class are becoming Democrats, voting for Joe Biden. The Democrats have become the party of the new American ruling class — those who are woke, well-credentialed and blessed with white collar employment in large institutions.

In the time of Julius Caesar, the opposing classes in the Roman Republic were, on top, the patricians, the “fathers” who gave direction (also called the optimates or the “best ones”) and on the bottom, the plebeians.

In a premonition of the mob violence which has unexpectedly broken out this year in America, first with Black Lives Matter and Antifa challenges to the establishment and now with Trump supporters storming the Capitol, the very successful 2019 movie Joker (grossing $335.5 million) told a story of the marginalized rising up in the streets to turn the tables of law and order on their betters. It made one think of the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the barricades in Les Misérables.

So, America now has in more pestilential form than at any time since the election of 1860 perhaps, an irreconcilable antagonism between two social classes, each with its own culture of virtue and each with its own economic reality.

Bismarck’s famous remark that “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards and the United States of America” is about to be tested for its truth.

Sincerely yours,

Stephen B. Young
Global Executive Director
Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism

[Photo by Jake Schumacher on Unsplash]

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