by Malcom Kyeyune
“Intelligence and rationalism are not in themselves revolutionary. But technical thinking is foreign to all social traditions: the machine has no tradition. One of Karl Marx’s seminal sociological discoveries is that technology is the true revolutionary principle, beside which all revolutions based on natural law are antiquated forms of recreation. A society built exclusively on progressive technology would thus be nothing but revolutionary; but it would soon destroy itself and its technology.”
– Carl Schmitt
Understanding the true significance of events is, at least in some sense, a task best left to historians. Even the fall of the Roman empire can appear as something akin to the normal state of things for the people living through it; the true historical significance of something is generally only clear well after the fact, and every new generation has its own notion of the true meaning of history. To the people living in Germany in 1450, the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest surely meant something very different than it did to the german nationalists of the 19th century. For the former, if people thought about the battle at all, it merely represented a particularly nasty defeat suffered by a long dead empire. To the people struggling to unite the german nation under the banner of a single strong state, the roman defeat by the teutons appeared as a prefiguration of their own political and national destiny.
Hindsight may very well be 20/20, but with that caveat out of the way, some events truly come across as historical in their importance even as they play out in realtime. We might not know what the results will be, but we can feel that something quite big is happening. Watching the fall of the Berlin wall was one such moment in recent history, and watching the twin towers fall was another one.
The retreat from Afghanistan should not have made the list, or least not the top of it. Yet, it has clearly already made its way there, being widely seen as something truly momentous by most if not all the people observing it. The reason it shouldn’t have had those same connotations as the fall of the Berlin wall is because it was not only planned in advance and decided upon by the 45th president, not the 46th, but because almost everyone at this point wished for the war to just end. But it is how it has ended that has really thrown back the curtain and shown the world the rot festering beneath. The Soviet Union was dying in 1989, when it completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan. It still managed to do so in an orderly fashion, with a symbolic column of russian APCs crossing the bridge over to Uzbekistan. The leader of the war effort, one Colonel-General Gromov, symbolically rode in the very last BTR, and then proclaimed to the gathered journalists that there wasn’t a single russian soldier behind his back.
The American withdrawal, by contrast, is a grotesque spectacle, laid bare to the eyes of the world in realtime thanks to the wonders of modern technology. The Soviet attempt at braving the graveyard of empires could, if one was charitably inclined, at least be construed as some form of tragedy (”we tried to help, but in the end, we accomplished nothing”), and the russians did their best to make the entire thing appear somewhat dignified and solemn. Thirty years later, the scene is closer to a black form of comedy. The American consulate was evacuated by helicopter, about one month after president Biden referred to just such an evacuation from Saigon as an example of how Afghanistan and Vietnam were not comparable. The entire government collapsed within a matter of hours, not months. Throngs of people gathered around the airports, desperate to escape; American authorities had no more guidance to offer american citizens stuck in Afghanistan than to ”shelter in place” and then presumably ask the Taliban for a visa once regular flight traffic resumes. Desperate people even clung to the airframes of departing cargo planes before falling to their deaths, like a grim re-enactment of frozen and starving german soldiers trying to escape by clinging to the last planes leaving Stalingrad.
The American withdrawal has turned into a rout of the most desperate sort, with nobody really seeming to be in charge or claiming responsibility. Who will evacuate the american civilians? Who knows? Maybe the plucky russians could do Uncle Sam a solid – the russian consular staff is still there, they didn’t flee Kabul by piling into a waiting helicopter, after all – and help America’s wayward sons and daughters now that America herself seems to just have given up on the job? Maybe it’s now Xi Jinping’s job to clean up this godawful mess, or perhaps the taliban themselves will have to take responsibility for the safety of American citizens and soldiers, given that the actual superpower in the room seems so incapable of doing it? It is hard to talk about the unfolding situation without becoming excessively sarcastic; stories of military dogs being given seating on planes while afghanis desperately cling to the wings just outside the cabin window, or the local McDonalds in Kabul being temporarily staffed by marines, almost defy words. They might not be true, but they don’t exactly beggar belief; the department of defense making sure McDonalds can keep itself staffed in its final days of operation thanks to USMC jarheads pitching in to flip burgers is no more ridiculous than Emperor Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burns down around him. What makes this moment in history so, well, historic, is the almost inescapable sense, shared across the political and national spectrum, that we are watching something very similar before our very eyes: the American empire is burning, and nobody knows what to do about it, much less how to put the fire out.
There may be a deeper aspect to this than a lot of people might perceive at present. On the level of pure geopolitics, the utterly embarrassing debacle of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan can only serve to make China more bold in any future confrontation over Taiwan. The American eagle is faltering, and its rivals will not sit idly by for long. But this is probably the lesser of the big consequences of Afghanistan. There is another, much more significant implication of the collapse of the American project here, one with much more acute bearing on the immediate future of American society itself. To understand why, it’s useful to reflect on a certain political and historical point made by Carl Schmitt in his by now nearly hundred year old essay, whose english name is often rendered as The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. The essay is well worth a read in full today, and the reader might be surprised (or maybe not) at how relevant many of the descriptions of the ongoing political crisis in 1923 may seem to us today, nearly a hundred years later. The most relevant passage, however, deserves to be quoted in full:
”In the history of political ideas, 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.”
What Schmitt is saying here is very important, and it might very well end up being the true cost of the Afghanistan debacle. Every ruling class throughout history 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.
In the age of monarchy, kings justified their right to rule through some form of the argument that they were simply born to do so. A king was not just an ordinary human, but in some sense a vessel for a divine principle of sorts. As such, there exists cases in medieval jurisprudence where the legal issue at stake was whether the king in his human form or his metaphysical form had signed a particular contract. If it was the former, the contract could very well be legally void by such circumstances as the king being a legal minor. But the situation would be different if it was the capital K King – the virtual, platonic essence of the realm who was located in, but not bound by, the king’s physical (and in this case, underage!) body – whose hand had signed the document, as the King in this sense was not a minor and in fact could neither age nor die (there is a good book on this subject by Ernst Kantorowicz, called The King’s Two Bodies, for those interested in reading further).
What Schmitt is saying is that when the legitimating claim for a particular form of elite is used up, when people no longer believe in the concepts or claims that underpin a particular system or claim to rule, the extinction of that particular elite becomes a foregone conclusion. Once Napoleon came along, it became increasingly impossible to actually believe (or at least effect a suspension of disbelief) that kings were born to rule and had a right to rule. As such, the only argument kings were left with in order to be tolerated by their own subjects became practical in nature: look at how useful this king is, look at how well his administration runs, look at how much stuff you’re getting out of letting him sit on the throne. But once you are merely left with practical arguments of that kind, as Schmitt rightly points out, your replacement becomes a question of simple empiricism. The moment someone more useful is found – like, say, a president – out you go, never to return. The replacement of Louis XVI with a republic was a world-shattering event. The fall of his nephew, Louis Philippe I, in favor of another republic, was a mere formality by comparison. By the time of his fall, not even Louis Philippe himself believed in kings being some sort of semi-divine beings. Certainly almost none of his subjects did.
One can get a pretty good understanding of this process if one looks at the Soviet Union. Socialism once had a claim to rule that wasn’t merely about washing machines or electricity; socialism promised – by applying the power unleashed by the industrial revolution to the task of solving the human condition as such – to literally create a new form of society, one that represented, in a secularized way, humankind finally breaking free of the legacy of the Fall. A lot of socialists spent the 20s and 30s grappling with the conspicuous non-arrival of this new society (and here one should read The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine to really get a feel for the messianic dimensions inherent to this period), and eventually, ”the point” of socialism got revised down to something much less divine and much more practical: socialism is better than capitalism, 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. To borrow from Schmitt; first the kings had turned bourgeois, and soon they disappeared. Nikita Khrushchev’s claims that the Soviet model would ”bury” the west represented the communists themselves becoming properly ”bourgeois”, in Schmitt’s terms. As it turned out, it didn’t take too long for them to disappear, either. 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.
Though it didn’t start out that way, the war in Afghanistan morphed over time into a sort of modern Verdun for the liberal world order, a Verdun in a very ideological sense. For the french in the first world war, the name Verdun was made into the symbol of the french national spirit and willingness to win. It was the battle that defined the spirit of the entire war. Afghanistan, almost a century later, came to take on a similar ideological life of its own, now as the focal point of an entire worldview and historical epoch. It was in Afghanistan more than anywhere else, that the rubber hit the road for the post-Soviet, hegemonically liberal, ”end of history” era of human flourishing that Francis Fukuyama so famously (and somewhat ambivalently) christened just as the Soviet Union was rattling its final death throes.
It was in Afghanistan that not just a new rules-based international order was to be formulated, but also the new liberal ”world spirit”, in the Hegelian sense of the term. Where Hegel saw the spirit of the new age in the figure of Napoleon riding through Jena, the spirit of the liberal age increasingly came to be consciously and rhetorically centered, at least in part, in the figure of the afghan woman finally getting a chance to play football, celebrate pride month, and studying critical gender theory. This is not a polemical point, by the way. Many might laugh, especially today, at the notion of the university of Kabul graduating its first class of gender studies experts, but this was a small part of a much greater historical and ideological puzzle, a mere step in the great march called the progress of mankind. Gender studies might be laughable even to some of its advocates, but the historical teleology that underpinned the effort in Afghanistan was no laughing matter to anyone.
Moreover, on a more practical level, the war in Afghanistan became another sort of crucible. In very real terms, Afghanistan turned into a testbed for every single innovation in technocratic PMC governance, and each innovation was sold as the next big thing that would make previous, profane understandings of politics obsolete. In Afghanistan ”big data” and the utilization of ever expanding sets of technical and statistical metrics was allowed to topple old stodgy ideas of dead white thinkers such as Sun Tzu or Machiavelli, as ”modern” or ”scientific” approaches to war could have little to learn from the primitive insights of a pre-rational order. In Afghanistan, military sociology in the form of Human Terrain Teams and other innovative creations were unleashed to bring order to chaos. Here, the full force of the entire NGO world, 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.
Their spectacular failure on every conceivable level now brings us to the true heart of the matter. Western society today is openly ruled by a managerial class. Where kings once claimed a divine right to rule, and the bolsheviks of old claimed a right to rule as messiahs of a future kingdom on this earth (bearing a conspicuously strong resemblance to a very old tradition of messianic christianity with the serial numbers filed off, by the way) the technocrats of today base their claims to lordship not necessarily on the idea of the democratic will of the people, but on the historical inevitability of technocracy as such. Just as there once was a properly ”socialist” way to understand great literature, there is today a properly technical, scientific, or ”critical” (in the academic sense of the term) way of understanding war, nation building, cinema, primitive marriage rituals, or whatever else. Our managerial leaders deserve to rule us, because managerialism as a world ethos is the only means of effecting functional rule in the context of a modern, international, post-national, information driven, knowledge economy, rules-based… well, you probably already know all the familiar buzzwords beloved by this class of people. Kings ruled in the epoch of monarchies, because only kings could rule, or at least so they all claimed. Technocrats rule our post-Soviet era for very much the same reason; they are, according to the legitimating narrative of our age, the only ones that can rule. Much like you can’t put a monkey in charge of a battleship, you can’t possibly hope to rule a modern country without being part of the educated managerial class. And just like the kings of old, our technocrats at one point claimed (and even enjoyed) a form of quasi-magical power in the eyes of their peasantry; a view once commonly shared that they could use the very thing that made them rightful rulers – science, logic, rationality, data – to lay on hands, cure ills, and improve society.
Put plainly: managers, through the power of managerialism, were once 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. At their core, both of these claims are truly metaphysical, because all claims to legitimate rulership are metaphysical. It is when that metaphysical power of persuasion is lost that kings or socialists become ”bourgeois”, in Schmitt’s terms. They have to desperately turn toward providing proof, because the genuine belief is gone. But once a spouse starts demanding that the other spouse constantly prove that he or she hasn’t been cheating, the marriage is already over, and the divorce is merely a matter of time, if you’ll pardon the metaphor.
I suspect we are currently witnessing the catastrophic end of this metaphysical power of legitimacy that has shielded the managerial ruling class for decades. Anyone even briefly familiar with the historical record knows just how much of a Pandora’s box such a loss of legitimacy represents. The signs have obviously been multiplying over many years, but it is only now that the picture is becoming clear to everyone. When Michael Gove said ”I think the people in this country have had enough of experts” in a debate about the merits of Brexit, he probably traced the contours of something much bigger than anyone really knew at the time. Back then, the acute phase of the delegitimization of the managerial class was only just beginning. Now, with Afghanistan, it is impossible to miss.