David Brooks is a strange combination of insight and ideology. He is a conservative at the core, and as a result his occasional epiphanies regarding the social nature of human life, society, and culture wind up in strange territory, like a fox with its head caught in a cookie jar.
This newest episode has Brooks summarizing a recent Pew Research Center survey (which he didn’t link to), which shows that Americans believe — for the first time ever — that the US is having a declining influence on what’s going on worldwide, although they are not advocating isolationism, but instead a deeper integration in the world.
This contemporary, postnormal worldview seems like a dilemma requiring resolution to him. He contrasts it with the false certainties of the postmodern — where his feet are still firmly planted — and then scratches his head in wonder:
David Brooks, The Leaderless Doctrine
These shifts are not just a result of post-Iraq disillusionment, or anything the Obama administration has done. The shift in foreign policy values is a byproduct of a deeper and broader cultural shift.
The veterans of World War II returned to civilian life with a basic faith in big units — big armies, corporations and unions. They tended to embrace a hierarchical leadership style.
The Cold War was a competition between clearly defined nation-states.
Commanding American leaders created a liberal international order. They preserved that order with fleets that roamed the seas, armies stationed around the world and diplomatic skill.
Over the ensuing decades, that faith in big units has eroded — in all spheres of life. Management hierarchies have been flattened. Today people are more likely to believe that history is driven by people gathering in the squares and not from the top down. The liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet.
The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.
This is global affairs with the head chopped off. Political leaders are not at the forefront of history; real power is in the swarm. The ensuing doctrine is certainly not Reaganism — the belief that America should use its power to defeat tyranny and promote democracy. It’s not Kantian, or a belief that the world should be governed by international law. It’s not even realism — the belief that diplomats should play elaborate chess games to balance power and advance national interest. It’s a radical belief that the nature of power — where it comes from and how it can be used — has fundamentally shifted, and the people in the big offices just don’t get it.
That’s the Brooks insight. Yes, we believe that the people in the big offices don’t get it. We are past Reaganism, and Realpolitik: we don’t trust the players that want to play those games. The ideal of a unified International law — a la United Nations, or, in the small, in a united Europe — has fallen short, and are themselves the dreams of the last half of the 20th Century. We look at today’s world order — architected by those ideals — with a resigned sense of profound worldweariness. The defining emotion of our time is weltschmerz, not the nostalgia of the postmodern.
We aren’t waiting for a Jack Kennedy or an Eisenhower to stare down Putin. We know they are all involved in a game of thrones, and we are just pawns, and the world is the spoils.
Brooks, the fox, then gets trapped in the past, and seeks to delegitimize a postnormal rejection of statism and neoliberal globalism:
It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.
Again, postmodern values always lead to postmodern conclusions. Here Brooks calls those that reject the present day system ‘naïve and ‘utopian’. Personally, I consider the postnormal worldview to be protopian: I hope to be able to make the world slightly better. And the primary path of that is dismantling the worst aspects of the postmodern, which has been thrown into our hands like a ticking bomb.
Globalist political conflict and neoliberal financial markets have been brandished as the primary means of ensuring a world order for the past century and more, with decidedly mixed outcomes. Just look at the state of the world today: global warming, conflict and revolution everywhere, sectarian terrorism, genocidal policies, end-of-days religious bigotry, worldwide ineqaulity, and with power concentrated in the hands of the few to the detriment of the many. Is it any surprise that, at long last, we have come to a new appreciation of all systems where we, the people, are led by a powerful elite?
We live in a country in which many people act as if history is leaderless. Events emerge spontaneously from the ground up. Such a society is very hard to lead and summon. It can be governed only by someone who arouses intense moral loyalty, and even that may be fleeting.
On the contrary, history is the tale told by the victorious leaders of past conflicts. It is the future that we hope will be leaderless, where we can harness the technologies of the postnormal to bypass leaders and enact direct democracy based on truly human, local, and global principles of equality.
Brooks, of course, sees only a void at the heart of the swarm, and the destruction of the institutions he believes are needed; where I see a multitude connecting to make a new world order, one that does without leaders trying to get us to march off to war or over a cliff, but instead displaces top-down organization with bottom-up association.
Brooks ends almost spuming in despair, while I find in this growing American rejection of the principles of the postmodern a reason for hope, a new pole star to steer by.
This is one reason that I am promoting leanership as the alternative to leader-focused organizations. The book I am writing — Leanership: A New Way of Work — explores these principles within the business context, but the logical outgrowth is the reworking of our institutions — including governments — to adopt the premises of postnormal economy and culture.