The Paradigm Story of “Western Political Thought”

Here is an excerpt from my manuscript The Story of Politics that details what I see as the way this “discipline” understands the basic history of political thought:

From Classicism to Barbarism

The dominant political story of the West suggests that civilized political thought began in ancient Greece, or more precisely, in Athens and somehow manifested itself in the Roman Republic.  The end of the Roman Republic occurred when three major leaders, Marcus Licinius Crassus (ACrassus@), Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) and Gaius Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar) took power as the ATriumvirate.@  Crassus died in battle.  Civil war between forces backing Pompey and Caesar ensued.  With Julius Caesar’s victory in this civil war he became, in effect, sole ruler of Rome.  His assassination, which most of us know more through the work of William Shakespeare than from actual historical accounts, prevented him from lasting very long as Adictator and consul for life,@ a title that had been granted to him in 45 B.C.E.  After his death a new period of civil war ended with victory for his great-nephew and adopted son Octavianus, who was named “Augustus Caesar,” the first of the official Roman Emperors.  Rome had been an empire in the sense of a single state that controlled many others for some time prior to this, at least since the defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War in 146 B.C.E.  Rome received tribute from a number of states throughout the Mediterranean world which it ruled through its tribunes.  But the empire was substantially expanded by Julius Caesar when he conquered Gaul and parts of Britain. and the ensuing events fundamentally altered the structure of Rome and its empire, transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.  From the fourth century the Empire was divided between the Western and Eastern Empires.   The story continues with the ultimate Afall@ of the Roman Empire, meaning the Western Empire that had by then “ruled the world” for nearly five hundred years.  On this standard account the fall was followed by a roughly five hundred year period of chaos that was not really ended until the beginning of feudalism.  “Barbarism” ruled in Western Europe as a result of the disappearance of the Empire. The Empire in the East continued along a different path existing until the fifteenth century.  Today it is usually referred to as the Byzantine Empire, although it never officially adopted such terminology.  After the end of the “Dark Ages,” North Western Europe experienced “the Middle Ages” or a “Medieval” period, so the story goes.  This period was marked by a system known as “feudalism” in which the major issue for political thought was the question of the relative roles of the Roman Catholic Church and secular rulers, ultimately the Holy Roman Emperors as well as local princes.  Only with the “rebirth” or “Renaissance” of classical culture, around 1500 did Western Europe become what we know as “modern,” in this view that is widely held, if not always explicitly stated.  In the story told in this way we have a picture of Europe which “declined” and was held fast by barbaric superstition and the development of theologically-based systems for nearly a thousand years.  The “rebirth” was accompanied by the development of genuine knowledge “science” and an emergence from a long period of stagnancy.  Only since the Renaissance has Western thought become thoroughly rational.

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While I was in Italy and before I went I tried to get some understanding of the contemporary political situation.  It was very confusing.  In my weak Italian I told someone that I didn’t understand it very well. He said “e caos!”  Well this isn’t very profound perhaps but the more I tried to make sense of what was going on the more it made sense.  Of course in one sense it is pretty clear: Silvio Berlusconi owns it.  (Confusion arises here too.  His official title is “Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri.” Although people thus sometimes erroneously call him the President of Italy and he is referred to in Italian papers often by the official title, the actual President of the Republic of Italy is Giorigio Napolitano, of the Democratic Left Party –he was formerly a major leader of the Communist Party.  Getting clear about all of this I thought “well, presidents are usually elected by popular vote and prime ministers are chosen by the parliament.” Silly me! The President of the Republic of Italy is actually chosen in a rather complex manner by the parliament. The President of the Council of Ministers (Prime Minister) is chosen by the parliament in a more or less common way. The President of the Republic, as head of state, does have the power to call new elections before the statutory end of the Prime Minister’s term. All this arose since I was confused reading the Italian press about how the President of the Council might lose his office and new elections be called soon. Indeed some people were referring to Berlusconi as what we would call a “lame duck.” All of this because the President of the Chamber of Deputies (how many Italians does it take to be president?) Gianfranco Fini was forming his own new group in the Chamber. So why not look all of this up and find out what parties were involved? Well, talk about confusion. Fini was one of the founders of the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement. The MSI became the National Alliance (AN) and finally Fini seems to have joined the new People of Freedom Party (PdL) which presumably united the right after Berlusconi created the PdL, merging other groups with his Forza Italia (named after a soccer team he owned?).  Now Fini was breaking with Berlusconi who immediately began to attack him.  But Fini claims to be loyal to the coalition that elected him and to the executive (Berlusconi).  And it turns out that in the elections Italian voters apparently vote for coalitions of parties, not simply for individual parties.  Did I say confusion?
Berlusconi does what he likes, including bringing young women to parties at his residences and evading prosecution for numerous criminal charges by attacking judges as “Communists” who want to drive him from power.  It seems that he can get by with just about anything. Maybe that’s just how Italian culture works? Yet the papers are now full of predictions that he will be replaced fairly soon.  His position now depends almost entirely on placating the ultra-nationalist Lega Nord (Northern League).  The League seems at first sight to be a fairly typical xenophobic party of the right which claims that the lazy people in the southern half of the country live off the largesse of the more affluent north.  They want decentralization and a sort of federalism where their taxes won’t go to the central government. They claim to represent “Padania,” a real nation that is oppressed by the Italian state.  As one Lega website puts it:

The penetrating and persuasive strength of the Padanian identity cannot be explained a priori as the reaction to the oppressive tax burden, the mafia, uncontrolled immigration, the arrogant bureaucracy, the inefficiency of the Italian State, the distortions of free competition, the rule-by-party system, the systematic destruction of small and medium-sized businesses, etc. All of these grave situations, even if considered together, do not allow for a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon. The reality is that we Padanians identify Rome and the unitary Italian State as the carrier of all these threats to the progress and stability of OUR life in civil society. And we have steadily developed the awareness that the problem can only be solved by us alone. The Italian State, the Italian rule-by-party/vote-pandering system is a beast afflicted with incurable ills which thrives on forcibly and deceptively holding together Peoples of different civic traditions. Attempts at reform from within this system have proved to be pious illusions.

So the nationalism in question is dependent on the idea of a nation founded on an old Celtic group oriented around the Po River.  Given my interest in trying to make sense of pre-Roman Europe I should, perhaps, be attracted to this idea.  After all, as I will make clear in another post under “political philsophy” a study of Celtic institutions is essential to be clear about the actual history of Europe.  But this also raises very nasty memories of Nazi ideology and it’s notion of the “Aryan” peoples.  In fact there are many reasons to think of the League as a basically Fascist organization.  But in chaos there is confusion. Who would think that the League is also very environmentalist?  Does this raise serious questions about the way in which many of us link environmentalism with left or progressive causes?  Perhaps it is a bit frightening to see how some of this sounds a lot like our “tea party” movement?   Is there a danger that this clearly populist movement will try to coopt a lot of environmentalists in the U.S?  I guess this calls for a post under a different category.
Is the right in Italy a neo-fascist coalition disrupted by the Lega Nord or is the Lega Nord the real neo-fascist threat? Or (another post for the future I guess) is this all about organized crime? A strange hint here is the really confusing issue that arose about “intercettazioni” or phone tapping. Any good American progressive or liberal would surely oppose phone tapping, why was the left trying to stop a law that would regulate it in Italy? Oh, because it is about journalists publishing tapes of phone conversations including political figures that seem to be demonstrating their corruption and relations with organized crime!
I repeat: Confusion, confusion, confusion. Let me know if you can help clarify any of this for me.

I was so confused that I went to the Quirinal, (described as the Italian White House), mistakenly thinking Berlusconi lived there and lifted my middle finger to show my displeasure.

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