Doubtless you have read or heard comments like those of the TV journalist Jen Griffen about Joe Biden’s brief remarks on Friday regarding Afghanistan. “I’m having a hard time digesting what we heard,” she said, “because I couldn’t fact-check it fast enough in real-time because there were so many misrepresentations of what is happening on the ground.” Bottom line: “This was just an alternate reality that was presented to us from the White House.”
I presume what she had in mind were statements by Biden like this: “We know of no instance where the Taliban are not letting our citizens through the checkpoints freely.”
Or, in response to a question from the Associated Press, that he has seen “no question of our credibility from our allies around the world.”
The problem is, of course, the wondrous world of instant communications. We have all seen these videos of the Taliban manhandling the crowds outside the gates of the airport, not to mention the scads of anxious reports from people trapped in their homes, awaiting a knock on the door from the Taliban, and news reports of the condemnation of the Biden Administration by the British Parliament. And there is the now-iconic image of that gigantic military transport plane lumbering down the runway in Kabul, surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands, of Afghans, some of whom clung to the landing gear only to fall from the plane after it took off.
For the last week, chaos has ruled, notwithstanding Biden’s assurance on July 8 that the (supposedly) 300,000-man-strong Afghan army was among the best equipped and trained in the world and would be able to handle the 75,000-man-strong Taliban (which, for some reason, he pronounces “tally-bahn”). Pentagon spokesman John Kirby echoed his sentiment a few days later: “Kabul does not face an imminent threat from the Taliban,” he said on August 14.
“Imminent” is such a relative concept.
A Crisis of Legitimacy
One word has been repeated again and again, all along the ideological spectrum, in the reporting on the disaster in Afghanistan: “incompetence.”
Incompetence there has been aplenty, and its display is both depressing and ubiquitous. It turns out that the technocratic elite to which we have entrusted our lives, not to mention the lives of the Afghans, is technically maladroit and incapable of effective governance. Our preposterous and “woke” Secretary of Defense epitomized the incapacity a few days ago when he admitted that the United States does not have the “capability to go out and collect large numbers of people.” Hello?
But incompetence is only a surface presentation of a much deeper malady, which revolves around the question of legitimacy.
I mean this in the deepest sense. It’s not just a matter of whether certain rules have been followed in putting various people in office or securing their government sinecures.
That’s one sort, perhaps an essential but ultimately superficial sort, of legitimacy.
What is happening here is something much deeper, more existential, if you will.
What just happened—what is happening still—in Afghanistan is an unfolding horror for the Afghan people.
For the United States, it is a rude snatching away of the curtain of legitimacy.
That curtain concealed a rotting edifice.
Many people have known this for some time. Some are only now, suddenly, aware or half aware of it.
Two people in the latter category are Kamala Harris, vice president of the United States, and Antony Blinken, secretary of state. They were the two most interesting people to watch during Joe Biden’s remarks on Friday. Sporting identical black masks, they stood behind the president, Blinken on his left, Harris on his right. Both clasped their hands nervously in front. The masks accentuated their eyes, which told a tale of confusion, incomprehension, and terror. “What is happening here? What is Joe saying? What does it all mean?”
Biden several times turned to his secretary of state (and at least once to his secretary of defense, who was also behind him out of view of the TV cameras but whose name the president apparently cannot remember) looking for affirmation on some point or other. Blinken accommodated the leader of the free world with little nods, but, again, his eyes told a painful story.
Legitimacy is the rechargeable power source that nurtures sovereignty, keeping it upright and vital.
The Administrative Threat
In the United States, sovereignty has been under pressure for many decades, at least since the Progressive era. I have written about this on many occasions, perhaps most fully in “The Imperative of Freedom,” my contribution to Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism, and my introduction to Who Rules: Sovereignty, Nationalism, and the Fate of Freedom in the Twenty-First Century. The Constitution vests sovereignty in “We the People” and all legislative power in our duly elected representatives in Congress. But many forces have been eating away at that arrangement. Philip Hamburger, in The Administrative Threat, shows how the abandonment of legislative responsibility by Congress, and its subsequent occupation by the alphabet soup of governmental administrative agencies, decisively undermined the idea of sovereignty envisioned by the founders.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Hamburger’s analysis is the historical connection he exposes between the expansion of the franchise in the early 20th century and the growth of administrative, that is to say, extra-legal, power. For the people in charge, equality of voting rights was one thing. They could live with that. But the tendency of newly enfranchised groups—the “bitter clingers” and “deplorables” of yore—to reject progressive initiatives was something else again. As Woodrow Wilson noted sadly, “The bulk of mankind is rigidly unphilosophical, and nowadays the bulk of mankind votes.” What to do?
The solution was to shift real power out of elected bodies and into the hands of the right sort of people, enlightened people, progressive people, people, that is to say, like Woodrow Wilson.
Thus Wilson welcomed the advent of administrative power as a counterweight to encroaching democratization. And thus it was, as Hamburger points out, that we have seen a transfer of legislative power to the “knowledge class,” the managerial elite that the political philosopher James Burnham anatomized in The Managerial Revolution and other books. A closer look at the so-called “knowledge class” shows that what it knows best is how to preserve and extend its own privileges. Its activities are swaddled in do-gooder rhetoric about serving the public, looking after “the environment,” helping the disadvantaged, etc., but what they chiefly excel at is consolidating their own power.
That administrative dispensation has been living on borrowed time for years. The Tea Party movement was one response to its depredations, corruption, and incompetence. Donald Trump was another. With the ascension of Joe Biden, the empire has struck back. But as in the sci-fi movie, its Death Star, its machinery of control, has been incapacitated. What is happening right now, today, in Afghanistan illustrates the extent of the damage.
It is probably too early to issue any sort of assessment of that damage, or offer any prognostication about whether it is fatal. At least, I am not prepared to do so.
“Farewell to Bourgeois Kings”
Others are not so shy. A friend sent me a remarkable essay by the young and (I gather) renegade left-wing Swedish blogger Malcolm Kyeyune. It is called “Farewell to Bourgeois Kings,” an allusion to the philosopher Carl Schmitt, who showed how political legitimacy, in the deepest sense, tends to disintegrate when it loses its founding aspirations and becomes merely a matter of administrative efficiency. “In the history of political ideas,” Schmitt wrote in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923),
there are epochs of great energy and times becalmed, times of motionless status quo. Thus the epoch of monarchy is at an end when a sense of the principle of kingship, of honor, has been lost, if bourgeois kings appear who seek to prove their usefulness and utility instead of their devotion and honor. The external apparatus of monarchical institutions can remain standing very much longer after that. But in spite of it monarchy’s hour has tolled. The convictions inherent in this and no other institution then appear antiquated; practical justifications for it will not be lacking, but it is only an empirical question whether men or organizations come forward who can prove themselves just as useful or even more so than these kings and through this simple fact brush aside monarchy.
Carl Schmitt is a dangerous person to quote because, besides influencing thinkers from Leo Strauss to Jacques Derrida, he was also (sort of) an apologist for Nazism. That said, Kyeyune is right that Schmitt sees something essential about the metabolism of political legitimacy, something that events in Afghanistan underscore with respect to the fate of the ultimate legitimacy of the progressive project.
“Every ruling class throughout history,” Kyeyune notes, “advances various claims about its own legitimacy, without which a stable political order is impossible. Legitimating claims can take many different forms and may change over time, but once they become exhausted or lose their credibility, that is pretty much it.”
Consider the career of socialism. Socialism, as Kyeyune points out, “once had a claim to rule that wasn’t merely about washing machines or electricity.” On the contrary, socialism was about something transcendent. It promised the utter transformation of society, “one that represented, in a secularized way, humankind finally breaking free of the legacy of the Fall.” A look at the literature of socialism in the early decades of the 20th century is shot through with that current of utopian anticipation.
Eventually, though, the dream decayed; it was replaced by something else, something “much less divine and much more practical: socialism is better than capitalism [it was said], because it’s just a much better and more efficient way to organize things. That might have seemed a somewhat persuasive claim in the 60s, but it quickly became impossible to believe. . . . Once your only promise to your citizenry becomes that you’ll give them more blue jeans than the Americans, you will live and then die by those blue jeans.”
Has Afghanistan presented the American regime with a similar contingency? Perhaps. Afghanistan was a poster child for the whole neoconservative, NGO, democracy-spreading elite. Kyeyune gets it exactly: In Afghanistan, “the brightest minds of that international government-in-waiting without a people to be beholden to, were given a playground with nearly infinite resources at their disposal. There was so much money sloshing around at the fingertips of these educated technocrats that it became nearly impossible to spend it all fast enough; they simply took all of those countless billions of dollars straight from the hands of ordinary Americans, because they believed they had a right to do so” (his emphasis). Afghanistan’s former president, Ashraf Ghani, fled with a reported $169 million of U.S. taxpayer money and, as I write, is holed up in the United Arab Emirates. Nice work if you can get it.
The Bell Tolls for Technocracy
Which leaves us—where? Kyeyune is right, I think, that the technocratic promises of our administrative masters have been exploded. What is happening in Afghanistan is only one instance of how hollow those promises are turning out to be. Once upon a time, the bureaucrats—the Bidens and Blinkens as far as the eye can see—were “believed to be able to mobilize science and reason and progress to accomplish what everyone else could not, and so only they could secure a just and functional society for their subjects, just as only the rightful kings of yore could count on Providence and God to do the same thing.” Yes, these ideas are essentially metaphysical because all political legitimacy, in the end, rests on something transcendent—a matter of belief, not simply calculation.
Kyeyune thinks that the “epoch of the liberal technocrat is now over,” that the “bell has well and truly tolled for mankind’s belief in their ability to do anything else than enrich themselves and ruin things for everyone else.” Maybe so. Yes, inertia is a powerful force. The institutions we’ve been living with are likely to persist, more or less hollowed out, for some time. And what might replace that technocratic dream is a question that admits of markedly different answers, many unpalatable. (How many speak English? A troubling question, that.)
Francis Fukuyama was, I believe, about as wrong as it is possible for a pop political philosopher to be when he predicted the “end of history” and the efflorescence of liberal democracy everywhere and forever.
Of course, Fukuyama is a Hegelian, which at least partly explains his silliness. What is happening now in Afghanistan, and in America because of Afghanistan, is another in a long line of counterexamples to Fukuyama’s thesis. It may, however, turn out to be a more fundamental challenge than anyone could have foreseen even a few weeks ago. For that, we have the bumbling, mentally incontinent Joe Biden to thank, he and his clown car of self-absorbed spiritually adipose bureaucrats who prance about in a cloud of self-importance, shedding disaster like dandruff.