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Published on: August 5, 2011
The Invisible Hand Is Writing On Our Wall

The invisible hand has been writing on our wall of late, and the message is scaring the markets.  The markets should be scared; there is real trouble afoot, and the world’s political and economic leaders are terrifyingly out of their depth. In the Book of Daniel, King Belshazzar of Babylon held a great feast for […]

The invisible hand has been writing on our wall of late, and the message is scaring the markets.  The markets should be scared; there is real trouble afoot, and the world’s political and economic leaders are terrifyingly out of their depth.

In the Book of Daniel, King Belshazzar of Babylon held a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and as they ate and drank from the vessels captured when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, they praised the false gods of gold and of silver and of brass, iron, wood and stone.

Suddenly when the party was at its height the fingers of an invisible hand appeared and wrote on the wall: MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN.  The shocked king called for his sages and soothsayers to interpret the message; none of them could until Daniel, one of the Hebrews brought up in the royal court, appeared.  The king promised Daniel any reward he wanted if he would interpret the message.  Said Daniel, rather unlike a modern consultant, “Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another; yet I will read the writings unto the king and make known to him the interpretation.”

MENE:  God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.

TEKEL: Thou art weighed in the balance, and art found wanting.

UPHARSIN: Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and the Persians.

Rembrandt’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” (Wikimedia)

This is the message our markets, and the invisible hand behind them that shapes us like a potter shapes the clay, have for the kings and rulers of this earth, the Davoisie and the bankers, the economic sages and the lords of finance:

You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  Now your punishment begins.

The world’s leaders have been on trial these last few months. In Europe, a long running currency crisis has tested the commitment of Europeans to the social ideals they so often speak of, and to the community of nations they have worked to build since the 1940s.  TEKEL: weighed in the balance and found wanting.

In China they have been on trial as the accumulating evidence suggests that corruption, incompetence and malfeasance damaged the country’s vaunted high speed rail project and led to the deaths of dozens of passengers.  TEKEL.

In Japan they have been on trial since the tsunami last spring.  Would Japan’s bureaucracy tell the truth to the public?  After a lost generation of stagnation would Japan’s government come up with an effective plan to reconstruct the north and rebuild the country’s economy?  TEKEL.

And in the United States we have a stagnant economy, a mounting debt and no real idea of the way forward.  Would Washington come up with a constructive, future-oriented program to move the economy forward and start the adjustments necessary to prepare us to live within our means – and to grow our means so it wouldn’t be hard?  TEKEL again.

Europe, China, Japan, the United States: the leaders of the world’s four largest economies are nowhere near passing the tests that history has set them.  In all four places the instincts of the politicians are the same: to dissemble, to delay, to disguise and to deny.

This is not a partisan message.  The left in Spain, the right in Germany and, frankly, both left and right in the United States are getting well-deserved kicks in the teeth.  Communist tyrants and European democrats, secular dictators and theocratic goons are getting the same message.

The message — and it is not only for the lords of the feast — is that we aren’t great enough for our times.  The challenges are immense and exhilarating; too many of us are shabby and small.  We tread the endless circles of our own habits and ideas while around us the world is changed beyond recognition.  We accept shabby lies and conventional fictions for solid truths; we build our homes upon the sand, and demand government subsidized insurance in case the floods come.

The challenges to the great industrial powers aren’t petty policy challenges.  It is not about not knowing when to move interest rates up or down fifty basis points; it is not about the right size of the budget deficit or the right price for the currency.

The challenges the great powers face today run much deeper.  Behind Japan’s economic problems and the pathetic inadequacy of its political leadership is a much deeper question of identity and purpose.  What is Japan’s job in the world; what does Japan have to teach and to suffer and to do?  What is the special contribution that only Japan and the Japanese can make, and how does the country prepare itself for this?  Do thousands of years of Japanese culture and philosophy culminate in a cheap consumer culture and relentless demographic decline?

It is the same thing in Europe.  The financial problems, real and dangerous as they are, proceed from a vacuum in the hearts of the European peoples.  What is it to be a German, a French person, an Italian, a Greek, a Spaniard or a Swiss?  Is it a matter of blood, belief, or of culture?  What duties do the Europeans have to one another and to the world?  When Europeans talk about their decline in the world – and it is worth talking about, since for 100 years Europe has been steadily and sometimes catastrophically in decline – they too often look at questions of imperial power or relative wealth.  But what was extraordinary about Europe 100 and 200 years ago and is largely lost now was never imperial power or economic might.  It is the cultural energy and dynamism that once made Europe the greatest font of creativity and ideas since ancient times.  The art, the music, the philosophy and the science of Europe captured the world.  Now Europe designs very nice shoes, and its Michelin starred restaurants serve quite excellent meals.

Europe’s challenge isn’t to fix the euro or to reform its pensions.  And it is not to make clunkier shoes or less appetizing meals.  Its challenge is to become Europe once more: to be as adventurous, as profound, as creative and yes as dangerous as it once was.  The core European debate should not be over the constitutional provisions of the European Union or the financial arrangements behind the euro, important as those things are.  What matters in Europe is that the younger generation wakes from the materialist, conformist affluence – deep wells of listlessness, anomie and despair concealed under whatever ephemeral cultural fads and fashionable causes drift by.  They must begin to live, to take risks, to dare, to create and to build – and, among other things, that means they (like the other affluent peoples) must start having children again.

China too has bigger fish to fry than high-speed trains.  The convulsive transformation of the biggest society in the history of the world, the sudden rise of enormous wealth cheek by jowl with poverty made worse by the alienation and dangers of urban life: all taking place in a moral vacuum where neither tradition, reason nor culture softens the harshness of oppression and injustice.  This cannot endure; the people of China are struggling blindly for some better way.  Unless China becomes great it cannot live, but by great I do not mean building a blue water navy and winning the fearful awe of its neighbors.  I mean the interior greatness that comes from disciplined talent, ambition harnessed to service, creativity addressed to the task of healing, and strengthening a people still scarred by a century of war, revolution and soul-crushing oppression at the hand of foreigners and fellow countrymen alike.  China has within it the seeds of an excellence and greatness that the world has never seen.  It can become a garden in which all the beauties and aspirations of past millennia can be fulfilled – but that requires a deeper kind of leadership than one fixed on keeping the growth pot boiling lest popular revolt overthrow the regime.

I have written before of the challenges that face us in the United States and will not say more here except that stale quibbling over expense cutbacks that will not significantly reduce the deficits, and reforms that will change very little, is not what we need.  Americans have the opportunity and the duty and the urgent pressing need to move into the future, to do and be more than ever.  The thin rhetoric of a backward looking president, the obstreperous negativism of an opposition better at rejecting what it hates than building or even conceiving what it needs, the lotus-eating educational formation that cuts us off from our past, and the incessant noise of a superficial pop culture: none of this is worthy of America at its best and none of it will help us now.

Thomas Carlyle (Wikimedia)

Bankruptcy

We are not at the end of the road, but we are close enough now that the specter of national bankruptcy is becoming discernible through the mist.  The frantic twisting and turning in both America and Europe as our societies come to realize just how we have overpromised and underpaid is only the start.  We will blame the politicians as much as we can, but we the people have also lied to ourselves.  We accepted promises that sounded too good to be true, we accepted counterfeit promises and passed them along as good money.

Denial has been our closest companion and our best friend.  Unfortunately it will betray us in the end; following the news from Europe and Washington these days I keep thinking of Carlyle’s meditations on the looming bankruptcy of the French monarchy as that country’s revolution approached:

Great is Bankruptcy: the great bottomless gulf into which all Falsehoods, public and private, do sink, disappearing; whither, from the first origin of them, they were all doomed.  For Nature is true and not a lie.  No lie you can speak or act but it will come, after longer or shorter circulation, like a Bill drawn on Nature’s Reality, and be presented there for payment, — with the answer, No effects.  Pity only that it often had so long a circulation: that the original forger were so seldom he who bore the final smart of it!  Lies, and the burden of evil they bring, are passed on; shifted from back to back, and from rank to rank; and so land ultimately on the dumb lowest rank, who with spade and mattock, with sore heart and empty wallet, daily come in contact with reality, and can pass the cheat no further.

To say that Greece is the same as Germany is a lie.  To say that the pensions and health care benefits promised to state and local employees in much of this country will be paid in full is a lie.  Nature does not honor lies; false promises cannot be paid.  Carlyle’s great prose poem in honor of Bankruptcy continues:

Honour to Bankruptcy; ever righteous on the great scale, though in detail it is so cruel!  Under all Falsehoods it works, unweariedly mining.  No Falsehood, did it rise heaven-high and cover the world, but Bankruptcy, one day, will sweep it down, and make us free of it.

Lehman Brothers was once a great name; Bernie Madoff once had friends and a place in the world.  Mr. Ponzi was a very popular guy until the music stopped.

Of what does this looming bankruptcy consist?  In our case it is the looming inability to pay the trillions in unfunded liabilities of all levels of government, but behind it lies a deeper failure and a poverty of soul.  Spiritual near-bankruptcy is the common condition that binds China, Japan, Europe, the US and much of the rest of the world together.

The extraordinary pettiness and superficiality of what passes for social thought among the Davoisie of all cultures is rooted in a spiritual condition that Carlyle diagnoses with his customary mercilessness and clarity. The Davoisie who try to steer the world’s various ships through the reefs and storms of our day have chosen for their core values what Thomas Carlyle rightly called the meanest and most despicable set of goals that the human race has ever found: we have made ease and wealth the goals of our policies, our governments, and our cultures.  This is Carlyle on the worship of wealth.

Moneybag of Mammon (for that, in these times, is what the respectable Republic for the Middle Classes will signify) is a still worse [ideal], while it lasts.  Properly, indeed, it is the worst and basest of all banners, and symbols of dominion among men; and indeed is possible only in a time of general Atheism, and Unbelief in anything save in brute Force and Sensualism; pride of birth, pride of office, any known kind of pride being a degree better than purse-pride…

But the rule of Mammon cannot last; the greatness that cannot be torn out of human nature must ultimately revolt at the staleness, the meanness of a Mammon-centered world.

The Heavens cease not their bounty: they send us generous hearts into every generation.  And now what generous heart can pretend to itself, or be hoodwinked into believing, that Loyalty to the Moneybag is a noble Loyalty?  Mammon, cries the generous heart out of all ages and countries, is the basest of known Gods, even of known Devils.  In him what glory is there, that ye should worship him?  No glory discernable, not even terror: at best, detestability, ill-matched with despicability!

China, Europe, America, Japan:  each of in its own way is moving toward comprehensive bankruptcy: financial, spiritual, social.  Recent tremors in world financial markets are a warning from the invisible hand that we are skirting dangerously close to that final frontier, but we will miss the point if we do nothing more than put our financial affairs in slightly better order.

The great crime of Belshazzar and his cronies was to become disconnected from real values and real events.  They used the sacred vessels of the Temple for an unholy palace banquet; at a time of great danger to the realm they distracted themselves with good food and good wine.  They ignored the great source of meaning that enlightens and guides the world to focus their attention on shiny objects: gold, silver, brass.

All this and more describes our global leadership today.

MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN

show comments
  • sameet

    Succint and poignant.

  • Eurydice

    I agree that we’re not great enough to deal with the great changes with which we’re faced, but I don’t know that we’ve ever been great enough. And I’m not sure about the validity of using the markets, entities which measure success by short-term corporate goals, as messengers warning against the evil of short-term corporate goals.

    But this is quibbling – the question is what to do next. Countries aren’t corporations that can be shaped by a board of directors and a mission statement. If Japan decides on what its place in the world should be, how can that be accomplished without coersion? Maybe I’m thinking small because I’m a small person, but it seems to me that if citizens can live stable and open lives with the freedom to express their talents, then their country will follow whatever path is appropriate given the era in which they live.

  • Scott

    Why is it that whenever smart guys take a look around at our world all they see is a big toilet bowl? I don’t mean to be disrespectful but I realize what a different life you lead than I do. Most people are busy trying to raise kids, pay bills and make their little corner of the world better. One of my little luxuries is to spend a few minutes each day reading smart guy posts such as yours to get a glimpse of a bigger world with bigger thoughts. I then remember I have a carpool to run or dinner to make or a church committee to attend. I realize that may sound rather sad to some smart guys but I would contend that while my vision of the world is from a different vantage point, it is still valid. From where I sit, kids are learning, growing and appreciating things completely foreign to what my childhood was like in a world filled with practically unlimited opportunities. Landmines are everywhere but they are on paths I didn’t even know existed. In a world of billions, there are probably billions of people who are either bad or beyond hope. However, there are even more billions doing a reasonably decent job of being decent.

    You describe a very real crisis that must be understood to be addressed. That is one of many reasons I respect you and give you some the most precious gift I have to offer, my time. But I think you mistake the edge of a cliff for the fall over the cliff. The world is screwed up and, as far as I can tell, always has been. We rarely have the leadership we need but probably have the leadership we deserve. Yet, I firmly believe that we have made tremendous progress despite our best efforts.

    Some smart guy once described our society as a gyroscope spinning on the top of a pyramid, skittering from side to side but not, so far, going over the edge. That smart guy was, of course, you and I wish to remind you that we still haven’t gone over the edge. Think of it as more of an amusement park ride. We may get sick to our stomachs but we’ll survive.

    “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” I know that doesn’t mean we should be idiots and just stare at the oncoming train. But I do believe that it is always important to remember the remarkable good we have been blessed with as well as our history of recovering from our huge blunders. God moves in mysterious ways.

  • section9

    Well done, Professor Mead.

    Every generation needs its John the Baptist. You’re ours. You have done well not to lose your head.

  • Mike

    “we have made ease and wealth the goals of our policies, our governments, and our cultures”

    I think the Professor’s on to something here. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the avoidance of pain, at all costs, is at the heart of our current problems. E.g., Congress has been on a decade-long spending spree, but neither party has the guts to propose or pass the tax increases necessary to pay for it. Avoid the pain of living within our means. E.g., TARP was all about propping up insolvent banks and the investors who’d trusted them to lend wisely. Avoid the pain of deleveraging. E.g., Lowered lending standards imposed by Congress made it too easy for people to buy homes without a down payment. Avoid the pain of saving.

    It’s time to take our medicine, lance the boil, and, yes, suffer some pain. I suspect that the experience of some long-overdue pain may actually help the Western world rediscover its soul and its citizens their purpose in life.

  • Phil in Englewood

    The rough beast is on the move, and I don’t have the faith of the masses that he will be deterred by a pair of sharply creased pants.

  • JJC

    Well stated.

    Indeed, in some fashion reading this and Yates’ “The Second Coming” seem to be very complimentary.

    This is no ordinary recession.

    This is a deleveraging recession that will wipe out entire economies and change radically the parameters and rules by which societies order their commerce and finances. The last 75 years have been a slow crescendo in the growth of government, statism, and deficit spending.

    That will end now.

    The laws of economics, the laws of mathematics will see to it. They neither care nor consider the opinions or the lies of men. They will do what they do.

    Be well.

  • CatoRenasci

    Are we then all to repent and get Religion?

    Unfortunately, we have a veritable Babel of them to choose from, all of which have fallen into disrepute because, like diet soda, they don’t satisfy….

    Nietzsche said that avoiding nihilism in the face of the death of god would require supermen, and we are not even the murderers of god, but their epigoni.

    Once upon a time, the American and European elites were forged with a morality grounded in Western Christianity. For generations after the religious content itself was enervated, the morality and honor survived for the most part.

    Plenty of people were churlish and dishonest, of course, but the ideals were still upheld and enough people still behaved with courage and honor to keep the ship of state and economy afloat.

    Those, from Marx and Freud onward, who sought to destroy civilization have come perilously close to succeeding, as we have now two, perhaps three, generations whose values are nihilistic.

  • G

    I’m not sure if “Davoisie” is your own coinage, but I’m not entirely convinced…

  • Marty

    Another timeless take, tho less than a century old: Kipling’s “Gods of the Copybook Headings,” best read aloud.

  • http://thevailspot.blogspot.com Rich Vail

    Well said. I linked to your article on my blog:

    http://thevailspot.blogspot.com/2011/08/its-economy-stupid-chapter-497-balanced.html

    Congress must start it’s spending cuts with tthe 2006 budget and cut that by 30% acrooss the board. That’s the only way we as a nation will be able to weather the current economic down-turn. But they won’t. The GOP leadership has “gone along to get along” for far too long…and have sold their principles along with their souls.

  • axelhose

    You hit all the points that I have been thinking and said it much better than I could have ever done.

  • JDLee+

    I worry most about those saviors in the not too distant future that will effectively show dispirited and hopeless people a “path to greatness”.

    I think we’ve seen this horror story before, and it consumed much of the world for a good half century.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @JD Lee: yes, if good and serious leadership does not appear, the bad guys have an opening.

  • http://www.thomastthomas.com Thomas T. Thomas

    Walter, I think you’re spot on. The problem is not that we’ve decided collectively to spend more than we take in–not only at a government level but at a personal level, cashing in home equity for current pleasures. We in the west have stopped looking ahead as a people. We no longer look to a future of colonizing the planets or building great public spaces or creating great art. Any of that requires sacrifice, risk, and discipline. We want to feel good and be rewarded for floating downstream. People don’t write books or music or make movies to touch people; they see creativity as a way to catch the brass ring of fame and fortune. Toss your latest comic book movie against the wall and see if it will stick. The question now is, how do we turn this around? Can it be turned around, or are we, like Rome, doomed to fade?

  • Randy

    @CatoRenasci,

    You bring up an interesting point. What would Nietzsche say today now that all of our ubermenschen are stinking up the place?

  • Tex Taylor

    Very nice article – one of the best I’ve read.

    There are a few modern day Daniels out there. I have heard them. But I’m afraid the masses are not listening, as their hearing has dulled and their vision clouded with scales.

  • http://ktcatspost.blogspot.com/ K T Cat

    People and societies are more adaptable than you’re giving them credit for. Yep, the debt bubbles are bursting and the Great Progressive Experiment has clearly failed. Still, I’ll put my money of societies being able to work their ways out of this and not on chaos and doom.

  • John Barker

    Apropos of WRM’s discussion of Europe’s cultural decline, I just started reading Peter Watson’s “The German Genius:Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century”.This book describes the a productive culture that has been obscured by the horrors of war and the Holocaust. I believe that America benefited greatly from this “genius” and one can hope that out of the chaos of the current crisis a new Germany will arise. I am aware of the dangers inherent in this eventuality and can only hope that the new leadership is more like Frederick the Great than other possibilities. I am beginning to research German educational practices since they once proved so productive and may contain hints to helpful to our reform efforts.

    Note to Scott,

    In my years in education, I have met many fine men and women like you, devoted to their families and faith. I think that the scope of your activities may need to be broadened,since people of high moral purpose will be needed to clean out the mess and set new standards and values in the public sector, a place where your children will have to live most of their lives.

  • Dan

    Read Roman history, when they stopped being Romans; courageous, honoring the gods, respecting their own morality, they died out. It is obvious that many today are trying to redefine what it means to be an American. It used to be about independence and freedom from government intervention, the can do attitude. What are we now? First have a vision, that shining city on a hill.

    Listened to my neighbor at a party. World traveler, everywhere in the world people do have a vision of America, and they all want to come here. Why? Freedom! They can own property here.

    What is America to you?

  • http://www.pacrimjim.com PacRim Jim

    What type of person seeks power over millions of others? Politicians. Why do you suppose that is?

    Now consider: Given the Butterfly Effect, chaos theory, and the hyper-complexities of the global economics of systems within systems within systems, what hope is there that narrowly educated and transient humans could understand–not to mention manage–the global economy?
    None. Zero. Zilch. The square root of negative one.

  • Scott Wood

    Love your stuff, Walter. Usually.

    You are correct, but for the wrong reason. You have rightly identified that something is fundamentely wrong with the great powers and have even pointed out their congruence with Babylon. But then you missed the most important point. Have you even READ Daniel, or was the story simply a convenient device to build your rant upon?

    The problem with Belshassar’s Babylon and indeed the current world powers is put succinctly in verse 23 of that same chapter: “And you have lifted yourself against the Lord of heaven.” There is a spiritual bankruptcy, but it’s creditor is not simply Nature. And certainly not petty gods like Mammon. You named Him in your early quote (and then subsequently back-pedaled from) “God hath numbered thy kingdom..”

    There is a true God to worship and even to offend. America used to acknowledge this God, from foundational documents to coinage, but now we is trapped in our own ‘preference falsification.’ History is littered with fallen empires who also forgot which side their bread was buttered on.

    I’m reminded of de Tocqueville, “when America ceases to good, she will cease to be great.” Our founders knew which way was up, and Who was there. The current great powers in all of our current ‘wisdom’ may have outsmarted ourselves.

  • BC

    “The more I think about it, the more I believe that the avoidance of pain, at all costs, is at the heart of our current problems.”

    Technological progress has allowed citizens of the modern West to live like royalty. Human nature hasn’t changed during the past century; what has changed is the ease and opulence of our everyday lives.

    Of course, the problem with living like royalty is that our story becomes the Princess and the Pea: As major discomforts are felled, the lesser ones loom larger. Amid luxury, discomfort becomes more pronounced. And so we pile up the mattresses, in an ever-growing stack that eventually becomes rickety from its own height.

    It’s as if our own progress sets a stage for eventual disaster: The closer we get to perfection — to perceived perfection — the more furiously we work to achieve it. So we stave off pain, and we stave off pain, and we stave off pain… and we set ourselves up for a fall that’s going to really, really hurt.

  • Merina

    There is a great deal of truth in what Prof Mead says, but Scott also makes some valid points. When I look around me, I see many people living good, responsible lives, raising kids, helping their elderly parents and helping other people with these responsibilities through various kinds of service. Yes, most of us are materially blessed, but most important to the people I know are friends, family, community and faith. The people I know recognize the problems our country and the world face. We all expect to help solve those problems and are willing to sacrifice to do so. I think this attitude is more prevalent than Professor Mead acknowledges. Generally I’ve encountered optimism from him, so I am a little puzzled at the great pessimism in this post.
    Perhaps it is the inadequacy of the debt deal that is so demoralizing? I think most people understand that the debt deal didn’t really solve anything, but the point is that the ship is slowly turning. The deal is at least a start in changing the trajectory of the country. People are now thinking of cuts and the restucture of entitlements. Reality is slowly setting in. The truth is that we didn’t get into this mess overnight and we won’t solve it overnight, but as our thinking changes we will find the will to solve it. The thing is–the brave new world that Professor Mead describes will be in many ways both brave and new, but it will also be built in part through the traditions and understandings that we already possess. My children are part of the younger generation that is eager to make these changes. I have a lot of faith in them and their friends. If there is one thing they know, it is how to use technology to solve problems. As for myself and my friends–we are boomers and we know that entitlements have to be reformed. We are planning for our own future. Everyone I know believes that for all our problems, America is still the world’s best hope. We value personal freedom and rule of law. We still have children and faith. I see no reason for this level of pessimism.

  • CatoRenasci

    @Dan wrote: Read Roman history, when they stopped being Romans; courageous, honoring the gods, respecting their own morality, they died out.

    When our nation was aborning, the Founders had all read Roman history, and kept it well in mind. The American elite read (at least some) Roman history as a part of a liberal education from the Founding until at least the Second World War, until it slowly slipped from the consciousness of every educated man and woman, becoming the pedantic niche of ancient historians and classicists.

    @Randy,

    our “uebermenschen” bear the same relation to Nietzsche’s conception as Marxism-Leninism does to democratic values: claims to be the same, uses the same words, but have absolutely nothing real in common.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    “. . . in Europe, the financial problems, real and dangerous as they are, proceed from a vacuum in the hearts of the European peoples. What is it to be a German, a French person, an Italian, a Greek, a Spaniard or a Swiss? Is it a matter of blood, belief, or of culture? What duties do the Europeans have to one another and to the world? When Europeans talk about their decline in the world – and it is worth talking about, since for 100 years Europe has been steadily and sometimes catastrophically in decline – they too often look at questions of imperial power or relative wealth. But what was extraordinary about Europe 100 and 200 years ago and is largely lost now was never imperial power or economic might. It is the cultural energy and dynamism that once made Europe the greatest font of creativity and ideas since ancient times. The art, the music, the philosophy and the science of Europe captured the world. Now Europe designs very nice shoes, and its Michelin starred restaurants serve quite excellent meals.

    “Europe’s challenge isn’t to fix the euro or to reform its pensions. And it is not to make clunkier shoes or less appetizing meals. Its challenge is to become Europe once more: to be as adventurous, as profound, as creative and yes as dangerous as it once was. The core European debate should not be over the constitutional provisions of the European Union or the financial arrangements behind the euro, important as those things are. What matters in Europe is that the younger generation wakes from the materialist, conformist affluence – deep wells of listlessness, anomie and despair concealed under whatever ephemeral cultural fads and fashionable causes drift by. They must begin to live, to take risks, to dare, to create and to build – and, among other things, that means they (like the other affluent peoples) must start having children again.”

    AMEN – though I’m not so sure about the “dangerous” part. Apart from that, I can’t imagine anything world-political that more urgently needs saying. In tandem it would also be good, I think, to take some steps towards overcoming – or at least closely re-examining? – our post-Cold War patterns of mutual aversion and mutual disdain on both sides of the pond. I mean, it’s not like we’ve ceased to have common concerns (a rising – or merely overconfident – China?), or even common enemies (is jihadism disappearing, or merely dispersing and metastasizing – perhaps even [cold shudder] into OTHER religions?).

    Remember when we were all just more or less “the West,” and proud to be so? Or have we “post-historical” Yanks and Europeans really been progressing so smoothly, these past 20 years, that we’re reluctant to break new habits?

    “But what was extraordinary about Europe 100 and 200 years ago and is largely lost now was never imperial power or economic might.” [That one was so spot-on I had to repeat it.]

    And amen. But I must say, I wish somebody’d been around to tell that to Napoleon’s France. And to Bismarck’s and the Kaiser’s Germany (Hitler’s Germany was long past listening in any case).

    PS – To the Europeans: And by all means let’s start breeding again.

  • Eurydice

    @Thomas T. Thomas – People are writing books and music, they’re creating art and making movies, but they’re not all doing it through the old delivery systems. For example, there’s legitimate movie making going on on youtube – character-driven storytelling which had moved to television is starting to move to the internet. Musicians compose, record and distribute online. There are artists’ cooperatives which have bypassed the politics of the art community and are showing their work online. All of this takes work and dedication.

    And even if we’re not in an era of great art and music, humans have never been great at everything all at once. This time it’s a revolution in how we distribute and receive information and I think we’ll find that’s more profound than colonizing another planet

  • John R

    Excellent article and comments. I would like to add one thought. When men begin to believe in Darwinian evolution and not God, it becomes normal to look for comfort and security since there is nothing more important for which to live. If there is no God, we have no obligations to the future, hence we won’t reproduce ourselves at a sustainable rate. We can deal with others to maximize our gain (pleasure, profit, power) rather than as people of infinite worth.
    Since the elites of the Western world have largely relegated God to the status of an absurd fantasy, they will continue to ply their trades with an eye on the here and now. Only if those of us who have a higher view of mankind get involved and change the culture one person at a time will we be able to reverse the catastrophe that Professor Mead so ably lays out for us.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Cultures change with glacial speed, despite that, Mankind is now evolving culturally thousands of times faster than we ever have genetically. This means that “survival of the fittest” or in other words “There’s no arguing with Success” now applies. The most successful culture in Human history is American culture, which is an offshoot of British culture, which is in turn an offshoot of Western culture. Every other culture is playing catch-up with American culture at this time.
    One of the strengths of American culture was set in place by the founding fathers, the limiting of the Government Monopoly, with checks and balances.
    Monopolies all suffer from the same faults, waste, corruption, feather bedding, empire building, and the attitude of those in the monopoly that “What’s good for us is good for our customers” which is never true. This is why the Government Monopoly will never work like the Leftists, Liberals, Socialists, Communists, etc… Want it too, despite however many times they say “this time we’ll do it right”.
    American culture is already responding strongly to the global financial crisis. Only in America has an overt grassroots movement like the TEA Parties formed to limit the Government Monopoly which created the crisis in the first place.
    It will be fun watching American culture, having once again fallen in a cesspool, come out smelling like a rose.
    The Chinese have a curse “May you live in interesting times”. For Americans interesting times are seen a challenge, Americans thrive on challenge and wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • chuck

    …the obstreperous negativism of an opposition better at rejecting what it hates than building or even conceiving what it needs

    And yet this curiously misrepresented opposition is likely where the future lies. It is where the values you claim to value persist. I don’t see how it serves the truth to damn all sides equally; to see a barren plain where there are hills is to blind oneself.

  • Kenny

    Good analysis to which I have two minor points:

    1. Spiritual near-bankruptcy is the common condition that binds China, Japan, Europe, the US and much of the rest of the world together.”

    U.S. is not as religious as it once was — especially as far as our elite go — but it is when compared to Equite spiritual (Christian) when compared to Europe, etc.

    2. Regarding our pending bankrupcy. It strikes me that the parasite class is killing the goose that has been laying the golden eggs for them.

  • Matthew

    All wonderfully written, but misses the simple truth. The World’s vitality and spirit has been sapping ever since the West’s intelligentsia abandoned classical liberalism as anachronistic and moved into Socialist thought. That nefarious, soul crushing organizing principle is now cloaked in the the pernicious language of Post Modernism. It infects everything and everyone it comes into contact with. Even the conservative right in the United States has come to speak the language of Post Modernism whether they realize it or not. Think me a simpleton if you want, but there it is, pure and simple though it may be.

  • Gern

    The overlooked message of capitalism is that we, the people, are the invisible hand. We guide markets thorough our almighty dollars. Companies exist to serve us. When we seek to tear down companies we are tearing down our servants. When it corruption and policy subvert our invisible hand, then markets falter because trust in the ability of the economy to serve the people is lost. It is not blind opposition to recognize that markets are faltering because they have long ago ceased to be free. It is a warning cry that we have allowed ourselves, and through us, our governments and markets to be corrupted by the appeal of getting something for nothing. When the reality that there is always a price for getting something for free, and that the price is often our own freedom, when we begin to yearn again to be a free people desiring to stand on our own two feet, only then will our society return to what it could be.

  • WigWag

    Kudos to Professor Mead for a highly entertaining sermon. As I was reading it I could not shake the feeling that I was sitting in a drafty and rickety old chapel in New Bedford waiting for something to warm me from the icy winds gusting outside.

    Next thing you know, in comes striding Professor Mead looking like the spitting image of Father Mapple. He carries no umbrella, his hat is covered with melting sleet and his coat weighs more than he does because it is drenched.

    Before he starts to opine, our indefatigable pundit approaches the pulpit which is set at a lofty height. There are no stairs leading to this pulpit, only a rope ladder donated by an old widow who has been a long time member of the congregation.

    Mead casts a look upwards and then with a truly sailor-like but reverential dexterity, hand over hand, Mead mounted the steps as if ascending the main-top of a vessel. Upon reaching the pulpit, Mead pulls up the ladder behind him till the whole of it is deposited out of sight, leaving Mead impregnable in his own little Quebec.

    If only Mead’s sermon had been from the Book of Jonah, the imagery would have been complete.

    I only hope that the Professor has found some interns or Bard graduate students to translate his sermon into Chinese and Japanese so that the people from those debauched societies can learn from the Professor the same way we are.

    In the meantime maybe Damir Marusic can translate this punditry into Serbo-Croatian. After all, people in the Balkans have as much to learn from Professor Mead’s metaphorical expedition as we Americans do.

  • Steve

    A fine essay, but some of the critiques of Japan are unfair. The country clearly suffers from demographic issues and bureaucratic malaise, but …

    Its consumer culture is hardly “cheap” – the attention paid to traditional arts and culture throughout the population is greater than in any other G20 country, and if foreign reporters tend to focus on deviant subgroups, that is more of an indictment of their journalism than the country. One does not indict the US as a whole based on reality TV and the “Left Behind” books.

    Arguably many people in Japan have more of a viable vision of itself in the world than the other countries do – the goal of being a globally competitive economy with a focus on innovation, technology, and quality and efficiency & sustainability, and a commitment to peace in diplomacy. It’s not about a “place in the sun” but that doesn’t make it any less of a viable vision.

  • Yancey Ward

    “The strongest iron is forged in the hottest fires.” It may very well be that great tribulations will be required before these societies find the will and the leadership to change.

  • Mike Mahoney

    Foretold in the book of Samuel. We were foolish to have King’s appointed over us when we already had one.

  • J. Ram Ray

    Want is the root of all sorrow. We are in trouble because everybody, Europeans, Indians, Americans, “want” rewards regadless of effort. Many European countries want to offer a minimum living standard to minorities and immigrants, regardless of their contribution to society, and a comfortable retirement, with a car, home and good health care, for every worker, one after 20 or 25 years of service. The US welfare policy has built a huge underclass who don’t know life outside the welfare culture but expects the government to provide income support, food stamps, subsidized housing and health care! Doctors in the US health care system believe they are entitled to their BMW and golf club lifestyle, and CEOs of hospitals, which rely mostly on Medicare and Medicaid, think they have “earned” their seven figure compensation packages. In India every petty government worker feels entitled to the same lifestyle as the executives of multi-national corporations…and willing to demand and collect bribes for performing routine government functions like processing property tax bills, makingf the entire public sector into a cesspool.

    Everyone must learn to live with less – but since the political leadership in these countries doesn’t have the gutts to tell the truth, austerity is forced on everyone by a combination of crude chain-saw massacre style politics and market forces!

  • ryan

    Thomas Carlyle was deeply and offensively racist, but rich folks seem to admire him no end.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ryan: and yet somehow his racism doesn’t get quoted much … almost as if people who like some things he said find those ideas deeply loathsome and wrongheaded. It’s almost as if people are complex beings, capable of great good and great evil at the same time.

  • Jay

    How ironic that such babble is instantly available to the masses via the internet! 15 years ago this transforming holy-grail medium basically didn’t exist; and now overnight all societies are being transformed. So this writer dwells on the negative, as the globe comes together. Even China will crack and discover democracy, because of the internet.
    We are entering a truly golden age. Miracles of medicine, super computers, space exploration upcoming. Its all happening now! So who cares if Europe is 100 years past cultural prime, humanity is starting – early on here – to blossom into the universe. Bye to the cafe critics, bitter those who cannot contribute.

  • johnwerneken

    WOW great article I entirely agree now I’m gonna read the comments see how others feel…which I rarely do…this hit my heart, bigtime, and I firmly believe that it ids entirely true. I also believe that if it turns out that enough of us feel that way also, we MIGHT be able to do something about it! I would be willing to do ANYTHING WHATSOEVER if I really thought I could change this! ANYTHING!

  • Craig Purcell

    The truly creative people will survive the coming onslaught while those who rely on formulaic solutions and copying the middle road will wither as they must for the formulas have been found to be flawed.

    Not sure Obama can lead us out as he is a creation of the Daley Machine & Chicago and really has no entrepreneurial skill having been groomed since forever for the Presidency.

    Wall Street has abused it’s customers — not a wise thing in a consumer culture heavily wired for communication.

    It is time for “We The People” whomever we are to take action and create. One cannot glide to success playing the odds and working the angles in this environment.

  • johnwerneken

    Interesting and intelligent comments mostly. But I suppose this must be a US website and one for conservatives at that. There ARE quite a few comments who think this is mostly about the US or the Christian God or maybe about the arguements about the size of the State. ITS ABOUT THE WORLD AND THE PEOPLE AND THE LEADERS COMPETING TO DODGE REALITY IN PERSUIT OF MATERIAL GAIN IN IMPOSSIBLE WAYS. If people anywhere in any large numbers every act otherwise, its for spiritual reasons. Spiritual in the who-are-you, what-really-matters sense.

  • Anthony

    “The message…is that we aren’t great enough for our times. The challenges are immense and exhilarating; too many of us are shabby and small. We tread the endless circles of our own habits and ideas while around us the world is changed beyond recognition. We accept shabby lies and conventional fictions for solid truths; we build our homes upon the sand and demand government subsidized insurance in case the floods come.”

    Motivation and morale on macro level (micro level, individual families, neighborhoods may be making effort inferred) tied to values, wants, and purposes must become an endless task for both citizens and leaders respectivly in WRM’s aforementioned countries.

    The Writing On The Wall is an intellectual attempt to make sense out of the established order; WRM conceptualizes politico-economic dynamics via four countries while focusing reader attention on commonality of man’s striving at long term expense of inner spiritual core (listlessness, despair, and anomie, concealed under whatever ephemeral cultural fads and fashions, cited are very real and debilitating). WRM’s prescription to wake up, to the younger generation, may apply to many of us – if we are no longer satisfied by half measures from those who “aren’t great enough” for these times.

  • http://www.herotransformation.wordpress.com Rhett

    This article is a well-written, logical, eloquent example of unintentional irony. The article seeks to point out how petty and empty world society has become with empty bluster and lame, overused Biblical “hell in a handbasket” references.

    And the author is wrong. If anything, global society is more vibrant than ever, but you won’t read about it in newspapers and textbooks.

  • valwayne

    Obama has been the biggest disaster in the history of the U.S. and the history of the world. Everyone looks to the U.S., which means Obama to take the lead, but Obama only knows how to lead from behind, which means not at all. We will all pay a dear dear price for having put and inexperienced, incompetent in the White House. A terrible price!

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    Governments have taken 3.5% average economic growth for granted for too long. It seemed that almost nothing could derail it so they felt free to do whatever they wanted without any fear of consequences. What they didn’t realize is that they were chipping away at the foundation, the underlying reasons for this bounty like termites burrowing unseen thru a house frame. They were sure the system could not be broken by their fecklessness and are now SHOCKED to find out that it can be, and they have no clue whatsoever about what to do about it.

  • Gmason

    If I had only faith in “leaders” I would agree with you, and thus, be bending into a depression of my own spirit. But America to me is and always has been a miracle. I’m not quite ready to give up on her yet.
    FDR did not win World War II, it was the brave men and women who stepped up to the plate and did what needed to be done that won that great conflict.
    What gives me hope is not the great thoughts from “smart people” but the reasoned and level-headed responses from the average Joe’s and Jane’s. If we have OUR way, the Republic will be preserved. If it is up to us, America will prevail.
    I thank God for being born in this country, unlike any other in history, and I thank God for my fellow citizens, most of whom have more common sense in their little finger than all the politicians that have ever inhabited Washington.

  • PerryM

    S&P downgraded America from AAA to AA – thanks a lot Obama.

    Obama doesn’t care, he is on a Jihad to destroy the infidels and is winning.

    Americans are getting a good taste of Marxism – it works until the money runs out and the S&P just told us that the money has run out….

  • Dondre

    The problem that faces societies and governments around the world is Socialism. Socialism uses endless lies to convince the people that they should embrace ever expanding government control over their lives and eventual dictatorship. Socialism ignores human nature and economic realities. Politicians that subscribe to Socialism thus repeatedly make decisions based on incorrect assumptions. Throughout the world, the politician’s central goal becomes achieving economic justice rather than achieving economic expansion. All of the economic ills and many of the social problems that plague the world currently can be traced to that disconnect.

  • LittleDixieChuck

    I much appreciated your analysis of the present world crises. In certain respects it read as much like a timely sermon as a political essay, which raises the question: are you available to deliver it in churches?

  • Random Blowhard

    Panem Et Circenses – And you’ll like it or else…

  • Gary W

    Look, there is only one solution, and that is to inflate our way out of the debt crisis. With 12% inflation, the debt will be down to 1/4 in 12 years (in real terms). And the best way to inflate is a series of quantitative easings.

  • jetty

    If our kingdom is not any present earthly kingdom, but one that is to come, should we care? Come what may, should we not be following the Founder and Perfecter of our faith? It seems like too many Christ-followers have involved themselves with the things of this world (politics and economics, for instance).

  • Doug Page

    I’m afraid, very afraid. And I fear for the future.

  • Chester White

    Yes, and you voted for this utter failure of a president not three years ago.

    It’s easy to see now, huh?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Actually, no. The Republicans were in such disarray that a GOP president faced with a Democratic Congress would have likely faced both foreign and domestic car crashes as bad or even significantly worse than anything we’ve seen. We have an inadequate leadership class and the elections of 2000, 2004 and 2008 were all contests in which neither candidate had what we needed. Let’s hope for better things in 2012.

  • http://Smoothingplane.blogspot.com Kerry

    @Ryan, Richard Wagner was a horrific anti-Semite. Should all of his operas be burned in atonement? Karl Marx lived off the fortunes of the Engels family. Does this taint or validate Marxism? @J Ram Ray, ” Everyone must learn to live with less”. How much less should the Haitians live with? If material things brought happiness, no one in this country would be unhappy, and yet…
    The financial bankruptcies are a reflection of spiritual bankruptcy. I humbly suggest going to one’s knees, (gratitude is a good place to start, and/or penitence), before events force one to one’s knees. “IHS”

  • JDComments

    I like your Biblical reference, though I would have used Matthew 16:26 to capture our problem.

    We’ve lost our souls, and no amount of wealth is worth that.

    The problem now is recognizing those who would help us from those who will lead us further astray. The same problem that has bedeviled us throughout history.

  • randy dorcey

    Our greatest leaders are too busy to sit in the pews.

  • teapartydoc

    Our problem is not that we are not great enough for our time. It is that we are not small enough for our time.

  • JLK

    Dr Mead

    All well and good to speak of higher ideals and greatness of soul. But the reality of the world is we have many billions living in grinding poverty especially in your idealized China.

    For most of modern history mammon has been the benchmark to a better life. Especially for those forced to live without sewer systems, indoor plumbing, clean and healthy food etc. The reductionor elimination of the scourge of diseases such as Polio, Cholera amd smallpox did not come from high ideals but from hard work and reward systems based on that nasty money. So in that way mammon is moral.

    Our problems in the west are not philosophical. Many of today’s difficulties stem from societies that have become too rich with a surfeit of leisure and a lack of true challenges.

    And this is the point in societal evolution where we (you and I) converge. Human nature is too weak to innoculate itself from the blandishments of societies that have become TOO rich.

    Everywhere you look in Europe and North America you see ads for expensive cars and designer clothes. In a democracy these things, theoretically, are available to anyone who works hard enough. BUT if you don’t have the skills, itelligence or whatever to actually EARN these things, then the Blue State philosophy is there to tell you that it is not fair to be stuck with your station in life. The solution is wealth transfer from those “greedy rich” and giving checks to those longing for equality of outcome. (as opposed to those in true need)

    For some unknown and to me incomprehensible reason this is now considered the “moral high ground”. The result is overleveraging from the top of society to the bottom in order to maintain or “improve” lifestyles that have not been “earned” in an economic sense. Why work when the government will send you a check from someone else’s earnings? Especially if that is the “moral” thing to do?

    As one very smart guy said we have chosen the “Comfort Society” over the “Dynamic Society”. The results are an inexorable race backward.

  • JLK

    BTW has anyone noticed the irony in S & P’s downgrade? They with their cohorts at Moodys and Fitch were among the hyper-villains and fellow travelers to the banks, govt and Wall Street who saddled us with the first round of the current “crisis” by giving AAA status to anything with a pulse.

    Remember the Sub Prime Crisis”? How long ago it seems now.
    JLK

  • Chris

    The answer to Daniel can be found in Jonah.

    That king was a leader.

  • russ in nc

    Our Founding Fathers saw this day and provided a way out:
    “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them…
    [treasonable suggestion deleted — ed]

  • boqueronman

    As always a thought provoking essay.

    During these past few days I have been thinking about my current life span and how my thoughts would be different if the 63 encompassed a different set of decades.

    Since I was born in 1947, I have seen much turmoil and change, including the Cold War, space travel, real time delivery of pictures and sound from anywhere, and the exponential increases in brain power from omputerization.

    But then I remember the book I read earlier in the year entitled The Vertigo Years describing the years 1900-14 in Europe. Along these lines, how would my perception of the world change if I had been born in 1847 and it was now 1911?

    The 63 years of changes I have actually experienced pale in comparison with what I would have experienced 100 years ago: transportation, electricity, telephones, moving pictures, etc. Most of these advances would have been inconceivable in 1847.

    Obviously, our leaders have, without exception, shown themselves to the the “naked emperors” in dealing with the structural transformation now underway. Knowing as we do what was to be the unfolding of world history after 1911, can we say that the leaders of that era were any more prepared than now?

    I know of two scholarly disciplines which foresaw the coming of 2008 and the subsequent challenges that we are still facing. One is the Austrian School of Economics and the other is the combined theories of Generational Dynamics and the impact of demographic waves. It would behoove one to gain some understanding of them.

    It seems to me the “new leaders” will be formed by events, probably unfortunately, rather than forming the events.

  • thibaud

    A surprisingly weak effort from WRM. Let’s start with the incoherence that comes from lumping together such vastly different political economies as Europe– which tightly regulate its bankers– and the US, where the bankers run wild, and China, where the state/military/party are one and the same as the bankers, and the Japanese, who carefully regulate every aspect of their economy, bankers included….

    Mead seems to b hankering for a religious revival, or maybe what Hillary Clinton used to call a politics of “meaning.” This is too cosmic, by half. We don’t need to go to church, or hold hands and bow before some secular equivalent like the Great Community Organizer. We just need to rein in our bankers, fix the broken housing market with tried-and-true workout structures based on debt for equity swaps, stop importing illiterate dropouts, and educate our children better in basic areas like vocational ed programs on the German model.

    Mead is way off base in looking to an economically-illiterate 19c reactionary nut like Carlyle as a guide to fixing global capitalism in this century. Enough already with the spiritual crisis BS.

  • Richard Hansen

    What a bunch of [disliked substance]. You are responding to the reality of the moment like a child with a child’s mind and a child’s ability to reason. Sure, we are doomed, but the doom is of our own making and has nothing to do with God.

  • Anthony

    WRM’s four socioeconomic examples can be interpreted as metaphor on middling social/political/economic leadership during accelerating change. Metaphor illuminates listless leadership core rather than comparative political/economic systems; perhaps, values, purpose, and identity going forward is thematic (leadership) message imbued in metaphor via WRM’s four examples.

  • Kris

    I am often reminded of Richard Feynman’s maxim: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

  • Toni

    Dr. Mead, you may be blue over the crisis of the Blue Social Model. But that gives you no right to see Red at those you’ve always considered Blues’ opponents. I refer to

    “the obstreperous negativism of an opposition better at rejecting what it hates than building or even conceiving what it needs.”

    Dr. Mead, isn’t that a tad angry, snotty and fact-free for someone who likes to ground his essays in evidence? How do you know? When did you last investigate and weigh the merits of the opposition’s views? Never?

    Ponder the possibility that the GOP’s cuts-only victory in the debt ceiling fight may, in retrospect, turn out to have been the moment when the rise of our national debt began to slow and our collective federal finances began to heal. A new generation in the U.S. House is already, and has been, conceiving new ways to get the budget under control without slashing social spending.

    It’s a new day, Dr. Mead.

    You’ve no more faithful fan than I, but frankly I’m affronted at your refusal to be fair to foes of the Blue Social Model. Please reconsider.

  • John Mainhart

    I agree Professor Mead.
    I remember when secularists tried to convince us that it was the environment that made people act badly so we had to spend lots of money to create a nice environment and people would just naturally act in a positive way. Nonsense. What makes humans act decently are the values they cherish and if they are to learn and respect those values thet must get them from God or at least from people who are unselfish. You certainly can’t get them from people who think that what motivates good behavior is the desire for money or goods. I guess the other side of that selfish equation is that we pass a plethora of laws that take away the goodies we think people want if they don’t do what they are told.
    The quintessential example of this kind of thinking comes from New York City. Mayor Bloomberg convinced a number of his rich friends to create a cash reserve that he could use to improve education. The mayor decided that if he gave irresponsible parents money when they attended Pta meetings or meetings that the teachers planned, to get parents to come to school to find out about their childs progress, things would improove. He also decided to give noney to irresponsible children to come to school, and learn. The idea that you can use money to get people to adopt liflong values that will make that person change, past the time they stop getting money, is absurd. It is hard for me to think of something that is more damaging to the social fabric than that idea.
    Then the press, who in general doesn’t like the hard work of investigating reporting, tells us how much Mayor Bloomberg has improved the education system. To their credit they did not mention the facts I just stated to support their conclusion. They merely stated that the mayor had some information to show how much learning had improve but, as usual the did not share that informationm with us. Our institutions must get back to value centered policies or we are certainly lost.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    At least Mr Mead is addressing seriously the prospect that some of the problems we face may have serious moral and spiritual components, as well as the usual technical ones. He at least is exploring the possibility of moral and spiritual answers, in addition to our (at least) decade-long prescriptions of harder work, less leisure, and above all more fervent and sincere love of Mammon. Some of you talk like you’re voices in the wilderness. If so, I must say it’s become an extremely popular (and well-populated) wasteland. And who can tell – at this early point – what part even it may have played in creating our present (global) wilderness? Really, does NOBODY out there read the Economist anymore? Please try it again some time. You might find that you’re not lone Elijahs – that there may be as many as 400 or more prophets of the one true Mammon scattered in caves – or penthouses? – throughout the advanced industrial world. And that their message is alive today as it was 15 years ago. Check for me, will you? Has Mr Jagdish Bhagwati’s gospel changed all that much in the past 3 years?

    And that reminds me. In America, as I understand it, Madison is ragingly popular these days. But what about Franklin, Adams, even Jefferson? As I recall, THESE Founders believed also that moral character had its place in a self-governing polity – perhaps almost as much as intellectual drive and enterprise. That free societies occasionally require more than just smarter, more ingenious, more aggressive seekers of opportunity (yes, and maybe I’m living on a different planet, but it seems to me we’ve already been enjoying a windfall number of those – in EVERY walk of our political and economic life – since at least 1995). Sometimes to REMAIN free, a society also needs folks who are more responsible, conscientious, considerate and (dare I say it? even) KINDER neighbors and friends. And granted there’s always a certain amount of dissimulation and hypocrisy in any socially-encouraged good-neighborliness. But isn’t there also a certain degree of doing-it-because-you’re-obligated – at least among some of us – in a social climate that promotes self-promotion and entrepreneurship? I know there is in my case.

    Far be it from me to deny that the Soul of Man is a mysterious thing. But who’s to say which part of us is the deeper – as distinct from the more swollen and encrustated: the part which seeks productivity or promotion (or even power), or that part of us which is sociable and convivial? And who knows – might not BOTH be necessary to the constitution of any healthy self-governing, as well as self-starting, society? Not to mention at least half-a-dozen other fascinating facets of our human makeup.

    Needless to say, Prof Mead has taken us only half-way through the problem – if that far. As some have already suggested, the rest of the journey lies in determining WHICH set of moral and spiritual answers are going to be most helpful and least destructive. A journey of which the BETTER part, as always, has been an individual’s path. On the other hand remember (however fast we may be losing the gracious art): No one human is unpersuadable.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    Zoroaster has all the answers. We are in trouble because we are not following the one true God. What? You had a different religion in mind? I get it. You are a follower of the great religious revivalist Rick “The First Amendment is only for Christians” Perry.

    BTW WRM we had quite a religious revival in the 60s. But it was nipped in the bud (heh) when it was found the sacraments actually worked. You didn’t have to fast for 40 days. You could tale a pill.

    We did put a stop to that one. Quite effectively. And the results are now coming in. The Church is still strong (thanks DEA) and the faith is still weak. Of course we also lost the use of medicines quite helpful for dealing with PTSD. That bit about Christians being into healing is bunk. They are in to Power and Control – just like every other organized faction.

    If God comes back it will not be because of the churches.

  • Charming Billy

    Mr. Mead,

    As I’m sure you know, the bourgeois moral pygmies against whom Carlyle directed his fulminations managed to keep Europe out of war from 1815 to 1814. It was not until Kaiser Bill and his ilk began to seek heroism rather than prudence that the clouds of war gather.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Charming Billy. A) I assume you meant 1914. B) Crimea? 1866? 1870-71? Balkans? C) Algeria? Indochina? Congo? China, repeatedly? Those bourgeois were busier than you acknowledge. But in any case I think of Carlyle as an important critic rather than as an important positive guide. There’s a difference — and you can be a very good critic and simultaneously be useless as a guide to practical steps forward.

  • mnemos

    I would love to read all the posts here, but don’t have time – so I hope I’m not repeating what has already been said. One recurrent theme here is the hope that many people around the world have had looking toward America as a country with freedom and the rule of law. My current pessimism comes very specifically from the loss of the rule of law. Most of us know instinctively that the rule of law is something important, but among our current elite that is not commonplace. We need to think about what this means. The GM bankruptcy deal was a usurpation of the rule of law to pay back political favors from a union. The health care “bill” is 2000 pages of non-legislation which gives legislative power to the executive, which is leaving many aspects of the law to executive branch judgement, which is a formula for cronyism. The Dodd-Frank bill again gives the legislative power to the executive and again leaves the basis of the law executive judgement, ripe for cronyism.

    When we have officially lost the rule of law (eg. one more Supreme Court appointment like Kagan) it will not be easy to regain it. This seems to me the most serious issue of the day.

  • COSMO281

    I have been a constant reader of every one of your essays that come my way. I’ve noticed that you seem to reference (paraphrasing here) “new social paradigms,” “new responses to the brand new challenges” and our need to “move into the future, to do and be more than ever.”

    I keep wondering if you’ve got some specific and concrete ideas about what the above might look like in the real world. Otherwise, you are only noticing the tacks on the highway. Ever since Plato, it’s always been easier to rail about the dark clouds looming on the horizon; it’s the guys who draw a diagram of an umbrella who are much more rare, I fear.

  • James Geoffrey

    Revelation Chapter 18:10-20 – For in ONE HOUR the CITY (banking & commerce) of BABYLON will be made DESOLATE! – The financial earthquake will come quickly and without any further warning – and all the merchants shall weep and mourn!

    W. R. Mead is absolutely correct when pointing out that we no longer have the leaders nor hold the moral values that are required to meet the challenges of these end times in which we live.

    The Great Beast in the vision of Daniel Chapter 7 – is Mammon’s New World Order – the progressive collectivist’s centralised one world government run by the banking elite. However, the feet of the beast are made from metal and clay; something that will not mix and hold well together – and fortunately the STONE that is carved from the Mountain without hands will destroy it, because no one else can!

    So until then, buy Gold and find a real safe place to hide it. But remember, the patriot act now allows the Government to open your bank safety deposit box and confiscate whatever they consider necessary…

  • john hughes

    It’s wrong to wish suffering on anyone; we can’t do that. But other than military occupation or destruction, which is extremely unlikely, it’s difficult to imagine any scenario other than national bankruptcy that could force a narcissistic and materialistic society to see the necessity of depending on God.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.pederson Eric

    Two questions:

    Are you suggesting we might have more purpose than to accumulate wealth and things, or to achieve a certain number at a certain thing, or to live as long as possible whether or not we have a purpose to our life?

    Are you from the Western World?

  • Charming Billy

    I mean to say they kept Europe out of a general European war, as in the Napoleonic Wars and the general European wars that preceded it. And yes I mean 1914.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    As regards how bourgeois values may or may not have “kept the peace” until 1914:

    One topic, that might repay a good deal of study, is how far Nietzschean values modified those of old-fashioned bourgeois “Mammonism” in the last quarter of the 19th century. Nietzsche among others, as I recall, was very good at bewailing the “decadence” of his bourgeois contemporaries. And not just for their alleged love of money and material things, but for what he perceived to be their addiction to comfort, predictability and security. Of course that’s an anything-but-fair-or-accurate indictment, especially of today’s entrepreneurial capitalists, SOME of whom at least – I suspect – would much more readily identify with Nietzsche’s ubermenschen than with anything resembling the great herds of “bourgeois” humanity he despised.

    But getting back to Nietzsche’s own century: It may be that the values of, say, German and Italian society in particular slowly became more Nietzscheanized in the last few decades. Not in a “pure” way that he would have commended, of course – but rather in a way that made certain values of his, e.g., elitism, rights of the strong, contempt for the weak, and above all primacy of the will, somehow compatible with high-intensity industrialization, monopoly capitalism, even “nationalistic” militarism. Nietzsche himself naturally would have been appalled. But that’s not to say his disciples were necessarily misguided in their attempts to “modernize” him, much less uncreative or unsuccessful in their results. Oswald Spengler in particular, in my view, very plausibly combined a high and genuine admiration of bourgeois entrepreneurship (and engineering acumen) with a depiction of humanity – at least in its highest specimens – as essentially predators whose vocation was to conquer and crush the weak of whatever species, wherever they happened to find and could not otherwise use or enslave them.

    As I understand it, many at least of the lower bourgeois in both Germany and Italy came to embrace not a few Nietzschean values. Not in their “classical” purity, again, but as refracted through a more fashionable early 20th-century glorification of modernity, speed, violence, youth, contempt of “antiquity” and worship of “the Future.” My guess is that, once this new move of the spirit caught on with the ever-impressionable academic classes, it was only a matter of time before certain “fresh, youthful and dynamic” nations – Germany, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, etc – started agitating for their own respective “places in the sun.” And even for expansion – where necessary – at the expense of “old, decadent” colonizers like Britain, France, Russia, etc. Yet for all their contempt of “old” Europe, some of these neo-Nietzscheans – Moeller van den Bruck, even Spengler himself in some instances – were not without admiration for American “youthfulness and dynamism.” Strangest of all, the momentum towards militarism – if not war – seems to have been stronger among the manufacturing rather than what we commonly call the working classes.

    My conclusion: Let no one say 19th-century bourgeois “Mammonists” were incapable of learning from others, much less critiquing themselves. One could argue, indeed, that sometimes they carried that “Carlylean(?)” self-criticism to the point of embracing “unwonted” policies of military aggressiveness. Which in turn may have played no small cultural part in carrying Europe to the brink of war in 1914.

  • Charming Billy

    I dunno. I’m not so sure if quasi prophetic figures like Carlyle and Nietzsche act as leaders, or as diagnosticians. A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house, comme on dit.

    But surely as European values became less complacent around the turn of the century the main theme of self criticism wasn’t contrition, but rather a kind of almost sophomorically heroic revulsion at bourgeois values.

  • Mietopol

    Mr Mead Your writing is always sensational. And the views are easy to agree with. To conclude we should pray for the leader of the same caliber as Daniel to guide this nation under God into bright future.

  • vivianclare

    Superb writing, great summary of where we are at from a long-range viewpoint. A couple of notes: @mnemos – great point about the rule of law–I’ve observed this since the failure to remove Bill Clinton from office, as well as the farce of a trial for OJ Simpson.

    @thibaud–I think you’re missing the overall similarities that Mead is making. For one thing, we do not have bankers running wild in the U.S. What we have is a lot of insane regulation, a government that is in bed with Wall Street, and a crony arrangement between a socialist government and large corporate heads. We’re in trouble when the guys with the guns and the guys with the most business join forces. When you have a Jeffrey Immelt, big donor and friend of Obama, and head of GE, moving HQ of divisions from Wisconsin to China, a Warren Buffet attempting to force the rest of us to pay more taxes, cabinet members from Goldman Sachs, etc., and a Federal Reserve head from the same who continues to serve under an opposing party, you can’t exactly describe this as a “free market”. The U.S. has been gradually regulating itself, inflating, and spending its way into oblivion. And it has been happening bit by bit since Hoover, at any rate, and probably earlier. The philosophy driving this has dominated the Democrat party, who has largely been in control of the nation since then as well, despite its pathetic attempts to paint itself as a chronic underdog.

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