An interesting way to identify the end of an epoch, the waning of a distinct era, is by noticing vestigial things. Full organs that are there in form yet no longer in function. History is replete with such examples.
The 1st century BC saw the end of the Roman Republic and its transformation into the Empire. In the final decades, the Republic hadn’t been a republic at all anymore. All power had been practically vested in the hands of extremely powerful men commanding the wealth of entire kingdoms-turned-provinces – Pompey, Caesar, Crassus, Mark Antony, Octavian. When Caesar wished to become a dictator for life he was simply calling things by their true name.
Despite this reality in which all power was vested outside the old institutions, the old institutions continued to appear as if functioning: The Senate continued its meetings, the various assemblies and committees continued to be summoned, and tribunes of the people continued to be elected. These old forms would continue to hover about light ghosts for a very long time.
The ghost of the Senate would prove an extremely enduring one. It would survive even the Empire itself with the Senate, by then no more than a social club, meeting under the reign of Alaric the Goth.
The last centuries of Byzantium are another example. The Byzantine Empire was fast becoming anything but an empire. Paying tribute to various overlords and incapable of retaining its territory, by the 15th century it had practically become no more than a large city-state. Yet here as well all the forms of old, of the empire, had endured – an emperor, imperial protocols, vicious battles for succession, pomp and circumstance.
You may call such times the twilight years.
We too are in the midst of a twilight era. Not sure? Apply the method above and examine our main institutions. Are they real of mere vestigial forms?
Let’s begin with Congress. Like the Romans, we too have a Senate once glorified as the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” Yet when was the last time our Senate had deliberated anything? Despite the enduring myths of elementary school civics, laws are not prepared or deliberated in the Senate or in Congress in general. When laws are made at all, they come ready-made from lobbies and interest groups, brought up by congressmen loyal to this or that cause, and voted on based on pre-determined positions.
No, Mitch McConnell doesn’t write any laws. Nor does Nancy Pelosi. They don’t even debate their suggested bills. Clearly, they make no attempts to persuade one another of anything. In the glory days of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, a congressman would commit hours of oratory to memory and then dazzle an eager House with supreme eloquence. Not any more! The croakings of AOC or Adam Schiff are not meant to persuade anybody, only to signal ideological zeal and loyalty.
What about the Presidency? In theory, the President should be commanding the vast executive apparatus of agencies and sub-agencies, but does he? He can’t even fire agency employees at will. The agencies, supposedly, are accountable to Congress, but Congress has no means of directing them and the President has no authority to undo them. And so the President sits atop an administrative pyramid like a dead pharaoh without much means to control the world of the living below.
What about our economy? Traditionally, a nation’s economy means the national capacity to make things, trade, and accumulate wealth. Are we doing that? What exactly does it means that for several decades now we suffer from gigantic trade imbalances? What exactly is an economy that only buys but hardly ever sells? Yes, yes, trade imbalances mean that capital flows in to compensate for them (we pay China with dollars, China sends dollars back as investment), but that means our assets are being bought and our debt being financed.
Our strange credit-fueled economy has also created strange credit-fueled jobs. What exactly is a “management consultant?” What do “investment bankers” do? The fact that your mother can’t understand what it is that you do is not a testament to her stupidity, but to the stupidity of your own job. “I coordinate regulatory due diligence efforts to facilitate buy-side deals.” Sorry, that’s BS, dear. Many of us now live as transactional leeches upon a credit-fueled market in which things simply swap hands.
What about the world’s nations? America is still a real country, sure. But elsewhere? When studying world history, a certain hyper-active entity springs to life through the pages – the state. The historical state engages in discovery expeditions, creates colonies, fights, loses, wins, builds fleets, and maintains a unique culture. Does Canada do any of that? Does Belgium? Does England? What are these non-living creatures? Are they different in any meaningful way from a large suburb? Is the Netherlands more vital than Naperville, IL, or Arlington, VA?
Crepuscular Sounds Better
We live in a time of twilight then. Our Congress is a vestigial organ as well as our presidency, our economy, our jobs, and our allies. They are all forms that no longer function as they were once designed or perceived to function.
But it’s not exactly a surprise. We all sense this is so. This is the source of the existential anxiety many of us feel, our continuous realization that the present is nothing but a euphemism for things that are not as they should be.
Our extremely ugly art is effective in capturing this reality. It too is a euphemism, an empty form – displayed in galleries and museums originally meant to feature the treasures of our civilization, it still attracts the well-heeled and culture-curious. Yet where once beauty was venerated, ugliness now reigns, made even more grotesque by the empty champaign galas that celebrate it.
Interesting times are ahead.
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