Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Jeane Kirkpatrick in Retrospect: "Traditional" and "Revolutionary"

I was an adolescent whose political consciousness was just dawning when I first read Jeane Kirkpatrick's Dictatorships and Double Standards. I was outraged at her amorality. Kirkpatrick has now recently died, and in the surrounding flurry, many others have having the dubious pleasure of reading her work, perhaps for the first time. Her argument has stuck with me ever since. This occasion is as good an excuse as any to address a few posts to her article.

Kirkpatrick purports to discuss the difference between authoritarian and totalitarian governments and explain why totalitarians are worse. She does not, however, define her terms. The distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian was raised long before Kirkpatrick's article. The usual distinction is that authoritarians seek to control only the government and will allow some independent institutions outside government control, so long as they do not directly challenge the regime in power. Totalitarians seek to control all of society, to destroy all independent institutions or subordinate them to the government and, in many cases, to compel everyone to participate in government-controlled institutions.

Instead of dwelling on this distinction, Kirkpatrick automatically equates "authoritarian" with "traditional" and "totalitarian" with "revolutionary" (read "Communist") and largely blurs the distinction between revolution and totalitarianism. Thus she considers any regime that upholds the status quo as inherently preferable to any one that challenges the status quo, and justifies almost anything done in defense of existing institutions. Her most famous (or infamous) quote is:

Traditional autocrats leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other resources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.

Precisely the opposite is true of revolutionary Communist regimes. They create refugees by the million because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands in the remarkable expectation that their attitudes, values, and goals will "fit" better in a foreign country than in their native land.

What is wrong with Kirkpatrick's assumptions? She presupposes an immutable distinction between what is traditional and what is revolutionary, and that whatever is not Communist is, by definition, traditional and therefore not disruptive of ordinary peoples' lives. In fact, no present-day society can truly be called traditional, or non-disruptive. Africa, for instance, had its genuinely traditional societies severely disrupted in the 19th century by European colonialism, and again in the mid 20th century by independence. In Latin America, the traumas of colonization and independence were older, but contemporary society is being buffeted by modernization and urbanization. Perhaps the most extreme example is Haiti. Haiti's modern history begins with the complete extermination of its indiginous population and their replacement with slaves, forcibly transported from Africa. Because the death rate among slaves on Haitian plantations was so high, new slaves were constantly being imported (at great cost to their "habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations.") Then the slaves rebelled, killed off the colonizers, destroyed the plantation system, and sunk the country into general anarchy. Eventually a social order emerged which somehow rates as "traditional."

Legitimate distinctions between totalitarian and authoritarian do not necessarily tell us which form of government will be more disruptive. Consider the comments of Kirkpatrick critic Tom J. Farer:

If a revolutionary state commands people to move from one section of a country to another, we naturally condemn this ugly ct as violating the right to travel freely and choose one's place of residence. But if the state enforces an absentee landowner's decision to expel sharecroppers, who have tilled the land for generations, and if the landowner's choice was a rational response to market forces, even if those forces were themselve determned by political decisions about subsidies or the tariff on imported farm equipment, many economists will applaud it. . . . Quietly and anonymously, economic and social forces unleashed or at least aided by the state can eliminate entire cultures.

On the other hand, how long does it take before what was once revolutionary becomes traditional? Once people's lives have been disrupted enough by the new patterns enforced by revolutionary change, those, too, become "traditional." New "habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations" develop, along with new "traditional gods . . . and taboos." At the time Kirkpatrick wrote, the Soviet Union had been Communist longer than most African countries had been independent. Anyone in 1979 watching Soviet newlyweds lining up at Lenin's tomb to view his body could be forgiven for seeing it all as a new "tradition."

Next post: Just how much violence does Kirpatrick advocate to uphold the status quo?


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