Vers la flamme

The extraordinary tone poem for piano, ‘Vers la flamme’, written by Alexander Scriabin in 1914, seems to presage the disaster of the Great War. The incredible nervous energy translates easily into an image of a sensitive artist who felt that destruction was coming. Yet, the first years of the 20th century were probably not in general an era of nervous energy or a feeling of impending calamity. In spite of contradictions and dissonant artistic voices, la belle époque was probably understood exactly as that, and its complacent, prosperous societies sleepwalked into the horror of the First World War, as so elegantly described by Christopher Clark in his great book on the lead-up to the war. The dystrophy of Austria-Hungary was widely recognised and the rise of Germany was there for all to see, as was the unease of France and Russia.

The parallels to the current day are evident, with the ailing hegemon, the United States, the rise of China, the unease of India and Japan, the complacency and prosperity of the West. Yet history rarely repeats itself and Henry Kissinger has in ‘On China’ made an eloquent argument for how disastrous great power confrontation can and should be avoided. This notwithstanding it is hard not to read into the current situation a terrible decline of empire (to which Europe belongs) and a temptation of a rising superpower to take advantage. Regrettably, this has translated into a discourse in the ‘West’ about the impure motives of China, rather than a proper analysis of how own decline inevitably whets the appetites of others. The enemy of the United States is not China, but the United States itself. The enemy of Europe is not Greece, the refugees, or China, but Europe itself!

The trouble of the empire of the West is not wealth. Even while we are wringing our hands about our financial distress, the reality is, of course, that we are outrageously rich. The trouble of the US and Europe is our governance systems and the allowance they make for complacency, heartlessness and exclusion.

A system that produces constant stalemate and ultimately allows presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to be taken seriously is in trouble. And a system that first allows the problems of Greece to almost take down the European project and then starts to descend into mindless anti-solidarity faced with a perfectly manageable refugee crisis is in urgent need of revitalization.

When empires fall it is almost always as a result of internal dissonance, even if it is external forces that ultimately seal their fates. The Visigoths and the Vandals did not bring down the Roman Empire; forces within the Roman Empire did!

One of the lessons that can be learned from history is probably that unless internal destructive forces are opposed and overcome by creative internal forces then empire is lost, because then external forces will fill the vacuum – and mostly this is not a pretty sight. When empires are facing stasis they can either reform or die! But also, if the hegemon cannot accommodate the rising power it will normally collapse or be collapsed! So the empire of the West must find ways to accommodate the legitimate expectations of China, if it is to hang on to its wealth and privilege. And, most importantly, the empire of the West must reform itself internally.

As to the latter, Europe must evidently move towards ‘an ever closer union’. The current direction must be reversed. The Westphalian nation state model has essentially run its course in Europe, and the sooner we understand that ‘union’ is more than trade, and is not even truly about economics but about a culture of peace and human cooperation, the sooner we can play a constructive and creative role in the global community. Guarding sovereignty too jealously will invite violent re-organisation á la French Revolution and Napoleon, foreign overthrow, or a descent into insignificance and cultural and economic poverty.

The curious aspect of governance in the US is that a country that is so fond of change hews unquestioningly to a Constitution that was written more than two centuries ago. Perhaps a country with a relatively short history is more prone to treat a historical document like the Constitution as something almost God-given. Many empires have had inferiority complexes and have sought legitimacy in founding documents and associated ‘exceptionalism’. Overcompensation one may argue.

The Constitution is admittedly a remarkably sophisticated instrument, with its implementation of the division of powers of Montesquieu’s theory. Yet, its emphasis on checks and balances and therefor on governmental inaction rather than action has become unworkable as institutions have petrified and the need for action has become more pronounced as society becomes more dynamic, complex, specialized and interwoven. Perhaps having the Head of State and the Head of Government rolled into one was a good idea originally, but perhaps it is no longer! Perhaps it is not such a great idea to leave so much legislative power to the courts, even on key societal questions, just because it compensates for the inaction of the legislative. Perhaps the admirable state equality mirrored in the membership of the Senate should be reconsidered in view of the difference between California and Montana.

How a new or reformed Constitution should look is certainly not for me to say, but it would do the United States a world of good to have new constitutional debates almost twelve scores hence. These debates would perhaps not be conducted by the equivalents of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Patrick Henry, but even less will do. Democracy gains when it is used, discussed and occasionally reformed, but right now the discussions are frightfully superficial and the true issues of substance not addressed. Reality shows are all the rage, but what about a genuine reality show in which ex-President Barack Obama would discuss the revamping of the Constitution with George Will. Could have a good following and would be infinitely more interesting than the Teenage Mum shows. In fact, such a match-up would not be too far off the Hamilton/Madison/Henry model!

The change-resistant might point to the Magna Carta and its enduring significance after 800 years. But even in the UK, without a unified written Constitution, little of Magna Carta remains on the statute books. Fact is that a traditionalist country like the UK has continuously tinkered with and reformed its constitutional set-up, even on fundamental issues like the distribution of powers between the different branches of government, the way the highest court and the House of Lords are constituted, not to mention devolution. This should serve as an example for a US that did not touch its fundamental set-up and its checks-and-balances since the 18th century, despite a fair number of amendments dealing with the voting franchise and other important questions, including how senators are elected.

Of course, a new Constitution in the US might be to no one’s liking, much like when the current one was agreed, but it would give democracy a shot in the arm and shake up institutions that have become fat and dysfunctional! And that is a value in itself!

The work is thus cut out for Europe and the United States, and the key question is whether Europeans and Americans will understand the need to reform their societies in time. Not much is pointing in this direction currently. Putting the head in the sand is not only the natural reaction of the ostrich!

2 thoughts on “Vers la flamme

  1. I could not agree more. In Europe, “the best lack all conviction. while the worst/ are full of passionate intensity.” Yeats so prophetic. It is such a dangerous moment, but few seem fully awake to it. On reform of the US Constitution, I am less qualified to comment, but I see the danger of stalemate, and too much hanging on the Supreme Court, and politicisation of appointments to it.


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