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American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny 
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 American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny
American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny

Please use this thread to discuss the above chapter.



Wed Aug 21, 2019 10:40 pm
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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny
Chapter Two is about Woodard’s experience in the Eastern Bloc during the collapse of communism in 1989, observing “a system whose alleged purpose was the common good, but that instead yielded collective misery.” The shortages, restrictions, state control, arbitrary tyranny, forced industrialization, mad ideology, poverty, waste, oppressive police intrusion, fear, informants and other tragedies of the Soviet Empire explained the mass exodus when the border controls to the west were lifted.

The collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc was taken by conservatives as presaging a universal conversion of humanity to western capitalist free market ideology, but of course Fukayama’s fantasy of the end of history has not happened. Alongside the stubborn persistence of authoritarian politics, western youth now have a widespread sentimental attraction to socialist politics. Communism has ongoing influence in the progressive university milieu.

In Romania, Woodard writes that to finance Ceausescu’s mad fantasies “a nation of farmers stood in long lines to buy pig snouts and feet, the intervening parts of the animal having been sold abroad”.


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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny
Robert Tulip wrote:
. . .
The collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc was taken by conservatives as presaging a universal conversion of humanity to western capitalist free market ideology, but of course Fukayama’s fantasy of the end of history has not happened. Alongside the stubborn persistence of authoritarian politics, western youth now have a widespread sentimental attraction to socialist politics. Communism has ongoing influence in the progressive university milieu.

Though Woodard argues that there are two paths to tyranny, most conservatives would tell you that socialism always leads to starvation and genocide, and so far Woodard seems to agree. In the first chapter he says:

Woodard wrote:
At the farthest extremes of the spectrum, one encounters tyrannical realms. On one hand are the radical libertarians, anarcho-capitalists and followers of Ayn Rand, who want government to wither away and for “free” individuals to engage in unfettered competition without public obligations.
On the other hand are radical collectivists, who would ensure “freedom” by turning all wealth and power over to the all-knowing benevolence of the state, Fatherland, or party. These ideas have not been tried in the United States, but have resulted in the deaths of tens of millions around the world, from the killing fields of Cambodia and Soviet Ukraine to the gas chambers of Nazi Germany and the victims of the death squads of the Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan oligarchies.

According to this passage, radical collectivism results in millions and millions of deaths, while the likes of "radical libertarianism" and "anarcho-capitalism" produce something not nearly as lethal or scary. In chapter two, the author witnesses the fall of communism during 1989, “a system whose alleged purpose was the common good, but that instead yielded collective misery.” So if you had to pick one or the other, it sure seems like we're all better off with individualism. I suppose Woodard's argument will become a little more nuanced. He has argued we need a balance of these forces. And he also says that full-on socialism is not a very real danger in America, where individualism remains much valued. I do think right-wing narratives that demonize the Left as socialist are somewhat disingenuous.

I was surprised to see Nazi Germany included with the other radical collectivist regimes. I have always believed Nazism to be more of an extreme right-wing ideology, although the full name of the Party (the National Socialist German Workers’ Party) was more about the image it was trying to project than its actual underlying fascist ideology.


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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny
Robert Tulip wrote:
Chapter Two is about Woodard’s experience in the Eastern Bloc during the collapse of communism in 1989, observing “a system whose alleged purpose was the common good, but that instead yielded collective misery.” The shortages, restrictions, state control, arbitrary tyranny, forced industrialization, mad ideology, poverty, waste, oppressive police intrusion, fear, informants and other tragedies of the Soviet Empire explained the mass exodus when the border controls to the west were lifted.

The collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc was taken by conservatives as presaging a universal conversion of humanity to western capitalist free market ideology, but of course Fukayama’s fantasy of the end of history has not happened. Alongside the stubborn persistence of authoritarian politics, western youth now have a widespread sentimental attraction to socialist politics. Communism has ongoing influence in the progressive university milieu.

In Romania, Woodard writes that to finance Ceausescu’s mad fantasies “a nation of farmers stood in long lines to buy pig snouts and feet, the intervening parts of the animal having been sold abroad”.

Is it really true that youth today favor stifling controls on the free market? Such central control is the essence of socialism, and with that, capitalism struggles to exist. Generous government programs, consumer and environmental regulation--what some decry as socialism--on the other hand do exist in capitalistic economies. I wish for more care in summoning the bogeyman of socialism. That doesn't mean there is no valid argument to be made for opposing government funding of say, all higher education or all healthcare. It just doesn't ring true to shoot them down with the socialism bullet. There are more substantive reasons to give.

I'd also tend to doubt that communism, of the sort that Woodard describes in Romania, enjoys a vogue with professors. To me, Robert, you're a bit like Ayn Rand, who was so traumatized by what she'd witnessed in the S. U. that she saw any sign of communitarianism as raging communism. Not that you're that extreme.



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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny
geo wrote:
According to this passage, radical collectivism results in millions and millions of deaths, while the likes of "radical libertarianism" and "anarcho-capitalism" produce something not nearly as lethal or scary. In chapter two, the author witnesses the fall of communism during 1989, “a system whose alleged purpose was the common good, but that instead yielded collective misery.” So if you had to pick one or the other, it sure seems like we're all better off with individualism. I suppose Woodard's argument will become a little more nuanced. He has argued we need a balance of these forces. And he also says that full-on socialism is not a very real danger in America, where individualism remains much valued. I do think right-wing narratives that demonize the Left as socialist are somewhat disingenuous.

Well, it's easy to believe that communism under the Soviets and others produced the absolute worst systems. It's less easy to evaluate the results of a totally individualistic libertarianism, because that has never existed, and perhaps it can't exist. Woodard says that the U.S. antebellum slave society came close, as did the Gilded Age (Chapter 5). But it seems that the propensity that humans have to organize insures that there will always be agreements that place limits on individual actions. A whole community of libertarians would soon be up to making such agreements. Over time, that activity would morph into something like the government libertarians say we don't need.



Last edited by DWill on Tue Sep 10, 2019 11:24 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny
DWill wrote:
Well, it's easy to believe that communism under the Soviets and others produced the absolute worst systems. It's less easy to evaluate the results of a totally individualistic libertarianism, because that has never existed, and perhaps it can't exist. Woodard says that the U.S. antebellum slave society came close, as did the Gilded Age (Chapter 5). But it seems that the propensity that humans have to organize insures that there will always be agreements that place limits on individual actions. A whole community of libertarians would soon be up to making such agreements. Over time, that activity would morph into something like the government libertarians say we don't need.

Yes, you make very good points. I was sort of just wondering aloud. Though Woodard actually makes a few comments along these lines in the preface . . .

Quote:
Trump . . . effectively followed the playbook of European right-wing nationalists, advocating government activism on behalf of “good” citizens and state-sponsored retribution against internal enemies, for whom constitutional protections might not apply. Without such protections for individual liberties, however, the pursuit of the common good can turn very ugly.

The Republic is in turmoil. As I write this, tens of millions of Americans fear that their democracy is under threat, that racism and bigotry are on the ascent, and that regional differences are hardening in a way that makes consensus building difficult to imagine. People of good faith from across the political spectrum wonder where we go from here.


I sympathize with libertarian principles to some extent, though I do recognize that in a large, complex society, some concessions must be made. Woodard mentions the city of New York in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, passed laws requiring thatch roofs to be converted to tiles in to prevent fire hazards. Still, I bristle at the neighborhood association rules where I just moved. We have to build a garage and it cannot face the street, even though no one would be able to see our garage from the street. I always think rules should apply to everyone else.


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Wed Sep 11, 2019 10:53 am
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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny
geo wrote:
most conservatives would tell you that socialism always leads to starvation and genocide
Poverty and stagnation are more like it, as inevitable results of unbridled socialism. It takes much more than a merely socialist proclivity to achieve starvation and genocide, which both require a genuine level of insanity in the ruling clique.

I have now finished reading Chapter Two, which begins with a demolition of the morality of collectivist tyranny as seen in the Soviet Union, and then moves to an equally profound critique of the morality of extreme individualism, seen in Ayn Rand, Fred Koch, the English planters of colonial Barbados, and their successors in the Deep South of the USA.

These extreme individualists do not represent “most conservatives”. Rand and Koch are reactionaries, profoundly chilled by their personal observations of life under Bolshevism, which Koch describes as “a land of hunger, misery and terror”. Koch’s work upgrading Soviet refineries in the 1930s gave him a lifelong paranoia about communism, which he sought to teach to his sons, especially Charles.

Woodard mocks Ayn Rand, whose sense of autocratic Tsarist individualism was shaped by a life of butlers and maids, then by the abolition of currency holdings and class war under the Bolsheviks before she escaped to America in 1923 to become the mentor for Alan Greenspan and the millions of readers and viewers of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Of course only highly privileged individuals can afford her mentality of the removal of all state protections, a libertarian ideology which cannot get elected even in the USA.

Woodard criticizes Rand for saying the Stalin system was based on altruism. Rand’s point here was that the communist slogan “from each according to ability, to each according to need” enshrines altruism at its heart, despite its complete hypocritical failure in practice.

To see what extreme ‘liberty’ looks like in practice, Woodard takes us to Barbados in the 1600s, where slave plantations produced fabulous wealth for their owners and untold suffering for the slaves, due to the fact that unbridled individualism became the dominant ideology, later transplanted to the Deep South. I may have more to say on Woodard’s interesting historical analysis later, but his interesting point here is that this individualist ideology naturally creates tyranny, since pure competition allows one individual to accrue total power.


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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny
Robert Tulip wrote:
I have now finished reading Chapter Two, which begins with a demolition of the morality of collectivist tyranny as seen in the Soviet Union, and then moves to an equally profound critique of the morality of extreme individualism, seen in Ayn Rand, Fred Koch, the English planters of colonial Barbados, and their successors in the Deep South of the USA.

The role of the Barbados planters was new to me; I'd never heard of the claim that that group was responsible for a more virulent strain of slaveholding than was already present in Virginia. If Woodard is correct, it's an example of what often happens in history: an initially radical ideology gradually becoming mainstream. The South Carolinians inheritors of the island planters' mentality were known as the fire eaters before the Civil War, when secession was too radical an idea for most of the South. Then the South Carolina radicals attacked Fort Sumter and Lincoln's response pushed more states to throwing in with S.C. Southern slavery had by then become something new in the world, based entirely on race and justified "scientifically."

Similarly, when Donald Trump debuted his act in the Republican debates, hardly any other Republicans envisioned going along with his radical approach to politics. Circumstances convinced the lot of them that they'd have to ride that train or become irrelevant.



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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny
DWill wrote:
I wish for more care in summoning the bogeyman of socialism.

I agree. There are huge distinctions between the democratic socialism seen in Scandinavian countries and dictatorial socialism seen in Cuba and elsewhere. But I've almost given up on those differences being understood, at least in America. The knee-jerk socialist/commie attack has been very successful against anything like education reform, expanding health insurance, etc. and they're not about to give that up.

For one example, consider at will employment. This means you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. There are some exceptions based on discrimination such as race, gender, and other categories, but otherwise you can be fired for having a spot of dirt on your shoe (or no reason at all) if the employer so desires. There was an attempt to modify this locally and what did we see in response? Billboards with the hammer and sickle. :?



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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny
Pretty clear to me that there is a Goldilocks zone regarding the mix of individual freedom vs. government regulation and assistance. That zone will be different according to the culture of the country. When libertarians or conservatives yell "socialism!" they're not making a cogent criticism, since the list of government interventions they accept without acknowledging will be long. They're really just saying that a particular program rubs them the wrong way, perhaps because it seems excessive, outside of the "just right" zone. That might actually be a valid concern, but they confuse matters by objecting on the grounds of "socialism!"

Woodard shows well the ups and downs of Americans' acceptance of government intervention to make individual lives less vulnerable to the whims of oligarchic factions and the gyrations of the market. But it appears that the general trend is toward the realization that we need quite a lot of government in our lives, the larger and more complex our society becomes.



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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny
The overreaction to communism seems to be the salient point of "Two Paths to Tyranny".

One extreme in opposition to the other as noted by the references to Ayn Rand, Fred Koch, Alan Greenspan and our current Rand Paul. It is abundantly clear that these objectivist/libertarians aren't able to be a mere mild rebuke of a rival system,(communism) but as we are witnessing today they are a failure of governance as well. So well documented by Woodard of the history of extreme laissez-faire and the gilded age of America and the parallel to what we are living currently. It is uncanny, the acceptance of this extreme economic freedom because of the fear generated by a word, ("socialism").

We have a member here at BookTalk.org; Mr. Lehel Vander who wrote an excellent book about the Romanian Revolution called "Ears". Thumbing through my copy of it now I see that there are literally dozens of dog-eared pages.



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Post Re: American Character - Ch. 2: Two Paths to Tyranny
DWill wrote:
Pretty clear to me that there is a Goldilocks zone regarding the mix of individual freedom vs. government regulation and assistance. That zone will be different according to the culture of the country. When libertarians or conservatives yell "socialism!" they're not making a cogent criticism, since the list of government interventions they accept without acknowledging will be long.

Now that I have moved back to the U.S., I find myself running up against this knee-jerk reaction against government. The experience has renewed my suspicion that the reaction is a mix, between ideology based on an admiration for self-reliance and individual accountability, on one hand, and a taint of racism on the other hand.

The process by which the effects of discrimination lead to despair and to desperate behavior, which then confirms white prejudice that "those people" don't deserve any support and will just waste it, is alive and well in the suburbs of the Western state where we have moved. It does not seem to be part of an active, oppressive racism (though the police do engage in a certain amount of that) but rather a sort of malignant neglect that refuses to see its own effects.

The opposition to socialism in America seems to be rooted in both individualism and racism. We don't have a history of true aristocracy, with its treatment of the mass of ordinary people as serfs for the lords to make their living from. So the ordinary appeal of "social ownership of the means of production" never made sense in America the way it did in the Old World. Yet the American version, a resistance to regulation as a matter of "liberty," turns out to be pretty vacuous. I believe it gathers its main appeal from resentment against the campaign that broke down racist structures. There certainly are small businesses who hate the cost of dotting i's and crossing t's to satisfy one-size-fits-all bureaucratic regulations, but it's just as common to find that the regulations matter because there are corner-cutters scamming the public.

If defenders of capitalism want to refute young people who see public priorities outweighing the liberties of business, they might consider what effect it has to defend the liberty to destroy the climate, and the liberty to discriminate against women and LGBTQ people. That's a hard sell to the young, and ought to be a hard sell to anyone.
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But it appears that the general trend is toward the realization that we need quite a lot of government in our lives, the larger and more complex our society becomes.
And that is a side effect of a good thing, not a nefarious plot by people who like to run other people's lives.



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