Mediocrity as the Camel’s Nose of Monsters

Though a central category of the critique of Modernity, the phrase “the banality of evil” is, owing to its origin, mostly associated with the Second World War and Hitler’s circle of power. John Quiggin takes the opportunity of Armistice Day to point out the relevance of the concept for the First World War (“Armistice Day,” 11 November 2009):

The cataclysm of the Great War brought forth monsters like Hitler and Stalin, who killed millions. But the War itself, with the millions and tens of millions of lives it took, directly and indirectly, was loosed on the world by political leaders more notable for mediocrity than for monstrous greatness.

The names of Asquith, Bethmann-Hollweg, Berchtold and Poincare are barely remembered, yet on any reasonable accounting they belong among the great criminals of history. Not only did they create the conditions for war, and rush (eagerly in most cases) into it, they carried on even as the death toll mounted into the hundreds of thousands and beyond. Even as the original grounds for war became utterly irrelevant, they continued to intrigue for trivial postwar benefits, carving up imagined conquests among themselves.

The First World War no longer seems like the nadir of civilization after the horrors of the Twentieth Century that were to follow — the collectivization and the famine, the purges, the Holocaust, Barbarossa, Stalingrad, Bataan, the area raids, the atomic bomb, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But the First World War set the conditions. In this regard, mediocrity often prepares the ground for monsters.

Civilization is fickle and an inopportune mediocrity in governance is a great danger. Unhappily, this is probably the realm where ken pales and Fortuna runs amuck.

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The First Sovereign to Fall?

It would appear that Iceland will be the first sovereign imperiled by this spreading financial crisis (McVeigh, Tracy, “The Party’s Over for Iceland, the Island that Tried to Buy the World, The Observer, 5 October 2008):

Iceland is on the brink of collapse. Inflation and interest rates are raging upwards. The krona, Iceland’s currency, is in freefall and is rated just above those of Zimbabwe and Turkmenistan. One of the country’s three independent banks has been nationalised, another is asking customers for money, and the discredited government and officials from the central bank have been huddled behind closed doors for three days with still no sign of a plan. International banks won’t send any more money and supplies of foreign currency are running out.

People talk about whether a new emergency unity government is needed and if the EU would fast-track the country to membership. On Friday the queues at the banks were huge, as people moved savings into the most secure accounts. Yesterday people were buying up supplies of olive oil and pasta after a supermarket spokesman announced on Friday night that they had no means of paying the foreign currency advances needed to import more foodstuffs.

Iceland is outside the Euro zone so they are facing a currency crisis as well. Take a look at ECB exchange rate data. The Icelandic krona has fallen 181 percent against the euro, from €86.25 one year ago to €156.13 on Friday.

I wonder if there’s any substance to the idea of fast-track E.U. membership. Just like this crisis has precipitated a wave of bank consolidation, maybe it will allow the E.U. to snap up a few holdouts as well. I notice that that hole in the E.U., Switzerland, is also overrepresented as the homecountry to a number of troubled banks.

Update, 6 October 2008: Iceland had to bailout its third largest bank, Glitnir. The problem is that Iceland’s top three banks have assets nine times the GDP of Iceland (Magnusson, Niklas and Helga Kristin Einarsdottir, “Iceland Savers Fear ‘House of Cards’ May Collapse After Glitnir,” Bloomberg, 3 October 2008). One of Portfolio.com’s bloggers points out the obvious (Salmon, Felix, “Iceland: When Too Big To Fail Becomes Too Big To Rescue,” 3 October 2008):

Received opinion has it that if Iceland backstops the Icelandic banks, then the other Nordic countries, or someone, will backstop Iceland.

This was my point in emphasizing the idea of fast-track E.U. membership, E.U. membership being more dignified than IMF intervention.

A Western Union?

Okay, I’m going to advocate one of those bigthink political ideas that has absolutely no possibility of becoming reality (see, e.g., Foreign Affairs).

The United States should join the European Union.

Commentators are concerned that the world may be breaking into competing trade blocks, with North America and Europe being the most contentious. Both are constantly at odds over their respective agricultural subsidies. The U.S. engages the E.U in an epic battle at the WTO over its banana import regime. European antitrust czar Mario Monti vetoes the merger of General Electric and Honeywell and finds Microsoft €497 million for anticompetitive practices after the U.S. gives both a free pass. Both countries have strategically critical airplane manufacturers, Boeing and AirBus. The U.S. complains that AirBus is E.U. subsidized. The E.U. retorts that the U.S. hides its subsidies of Boeing in the Department of Defense budget. Why not take all these high-stakes squabbles out of the indeterminate realm of international disputes and bring them under the more normal procedures of federal politics?

In denial of its complete impracticality, the United States and Great Britain have already experienced a considerable amount of political harmonization — which I take to be the prerequisite to political union. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ushered in simultaneous conservative revolutions in each country. Both were followed by short-lived toadies in the persons of John Major and George Bush, Sr.

But it doesn’t stop at Britain. Much of mainland Europe seems to be on a nearly synchronized political periodicity. As Thatcher and Reagan were putting their revolutions in place, French President François Mitterrand was backing off from his socialist program to become one of that country’s historic liberalizers. Germany was also headed by the conservative Helmut Kohl in the 1980s, to be followed by the third-way Gerhard Schröder in 1998. Indeed the trio of like-minded politicians Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder seemed quite a phenomenon at the time.

The United States already has a treaty of military alliance with Europe in the form of NATO. At the WTO the U.S. and the E.U. form a more or less unified negotiating block against the G-20 group of developing nations and Mercosur.

There is much idol discussion of a league of democracies so supplement or maybe supplant the United Nations. A U.S.-E.U. union would get us most of the way there. Throw in the British Commonwealth of Nations — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and so on — and what more is left?

If we’re on the way to one world government, but convergence is what is required, this seems like the next most logical step.

Finally, there is a persistent, nagging, Spenglerian fret over the decline of the West. Call it civilizational status anxiety. If the United States is serious about the idea of the West and defending it, why not make it official. Instead of the West being an idea from books or a lose political affiliation, make it a real political entity.

On the downside, it would really get us well on the way to Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia and would reify the clash of civilizations.