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A New America?

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A New America?

10 Blocks podcast November 5, 2020
Politics and law

In a conversation recorded just before Election Day, Bruno Maçães joins Brian Anderson to discuss his striking vision of America’s future. Maçães’s new book is History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Bruno Macaes. He's a former foreign minister, or actually European minister for Portugal. He's a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an international business consultant. He's also the author of three of the most provocative books of the last half decade, The Dawn of Eurasia, Belt and Road, and his new book, which we'll discuss on today's show. It's called History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America, and it was published recently in the United States by Oxford University Press.

Bruno's written a number of great pieces for City Journal since last year, on technology, the pandemic and other themes. His latest essay, which appears in our brand new issue, is called The Crypto State, how Bitcoin, Ethereum and other technologies could point the way to new systems of governance. That article is already available on the City Journal website and we'll link to it in the description. Again, Bruno is here today to discuss his fascinating new book, History Has Begun. Bruno, thanks for taking the time to join us.

Bruno Maçães: It's a pleasure, Brian.

Brian Anderson: Your book opens with a kind of meditation on history with a theme quite prevalent in public debate these days, that America has become decadent. The nation had its time in the sun in this view, but like ancient Rome before it, it's subject to forces that are hastening its decline and fall. That's an old story, but for you, it's quite possibly very wrong when applied to America. Why do you think that?

Bruno Maçães: I think my main intuition there is that we are too focused on the short-term on recent events, particularly since 2016. The debate is very partisan. There are many people that are obsessed about Donald Trump. I quote in the book an essay or a book written by Bruce Ackerman, the constitutional lawyer, back in 2010, where he complains that Americans are too complacent about the success of their constitutional experiment. Now, we've seen the reverse of that. We've seen this widespread pessimism and sense of catastrophe and doom, but I think that's due to the current political debate, it's due to the election, it's due to Donald Trump.

Bruno Maçães: What I try to do in the book is to provide a broader context and a broader framework, and we don't discuss the history of the American Republic looking only at events since 2016. America has been through periods of turmoil of deep transformation. That's how I see the current moment, which is already a bold way to look at it as probably one of the most significant periods of transformation in American history. But let's not get focused on the current debate too much and let's look at history as a larger and more complicated and more torturous process than that.

Brian Anderson: For you, history is neither cyclical as classical authors believed nor progressive as Hegel or Marx or more recently Francis Fukuyama maintain, but open. You describe it as an empty canvas of creation. Could you elaborate on that

Bruno Maçães: Right. I see it as ... And I don't think on this I'm being very original and I will accept ... And in fact, I embrace it in the first couple of chapters of the book, a certain influence from Spengler and particularly from Toynbee, whom I think is really one of the very few authors that I keep going back to and that I'm constantly amazed and learn so much from him, every page. My way of looking at history is not so different. It's a succession of experiments. Start from scratch.

They explore, often to the end, a possibility of human life and the possibility for human life and that that possibility is exhausted and one tries again. Often what happens of course, is that many of these concurring experiments are being tried at the same time. One of the interesting things about the world and every historical period, is to look at how different civilizations, let us call them that, are pursuing different paths and often in a very productive competition between themselves.

Other times they're in conflict, an open conflict or war, but I see history in a way as not so different from the way one often sees the history of science. There are theories, possibilities are explored, and then they may be criticized. They may be overcome. Something else will be tried, but not with [inaudible 00:05:21] not with a final destination. The story is never finished, never over.

Brian Anderson: America has often been seen as a kind of extension or a culmination of the European experiences, at least by 20th century European observers, who often described America as a kind of a Rome to Western Europe's Greece. In your view, this is to miss the originality of America. Its introduction of something new on the historical stage, a new civilizational paradigm. Against this backdrop, you argue that Tocqueville falls short as a guide to understanding America and that figures like Emerson or William James were by comparison, prophetic. What did these thinkers, in your view, get that Tocqueville didn't?

Bruno Maçães: I think one of the basic intuitions of the book is that America, which by 1945 had become the world's superpower, would not remain committed to ideas and ways of life and ways of expression that were developed elsewhere. The book is based on this intellectual wager in a way. I don't think it's possible, it's even conceivable, that a country can rise to the top of the ranking of world power and still remain unable to develop its own way of looking at the world.

My hypothesis is that as America became so powerful after 1945, we would witness a process of transformation by which it started to develop its own way of thinking, way of living, way of looking at the world. To some extent, Emerson was right that this would happen. It was too early for him. This dialectic between power and culture was not yet fulfilled when he was writing. But I think if we make a comparison between Emerson and Tocqueville, I think on the fundamental question of where is this new country going?

Emerson was correct and Tocqueville was almost tragically wrong. I think Tocqueville has been a problem for the way we look at America because many of us have remained committed to this idea that America represents Europe's future. It's been very difficult to get out of this paradigm. I myself admit in the book at one point that I used to think of things in these terms and this book was an attempt actually to move beyond that.

Brian Anderson: The two world wars of the 20th century marked an enormous shift, of course, in how America and Europe viewed each other. It marked an enormous shift in terms of power, as you note and this certainly reemphasizes the theme that America is something different from your America's might, especially this was true in World War II was directed against Europe. To see America solely as a kind of extension of the European experience, misses something profound about that.

How do you see the differences between Europe and America today when it comes to their respective trajectories, to their conceptions of political organization?

Bruno Maçães: There's still a lot in common and as I think I mentioned in the preface to the book, one should still be very interested in the notion of a transatlantic relationship. I want to make it dynamic. I want to place Europe and America in a dialogue between each other. Even though the book expresses a lot of sympathy for the American philosophical way of looking at politic order, I would in the end, want to leave the question open, whether Europeans are right or Americans are right.

But I think there's a very productive dialogue that could be established and that often, because we are so subject to a certain dogma of unity, the idea that there are no differences between Europe and America and anything of importance, we actually lose and miss the possibilities of that dialogue. The book is written also to try to develop that. Now, when we speak about the differences, I make it very clear in the book that I'm not particularly interested in the old debate in the 30s, 40s, 50s, of America as being an extreme form of European consciousness, where everything is faster, bigger and bolder.

There was still a hyper Euro, by way of looking at America as an extreme version of Europe. I'm more interested in more recent developments where you really start to see a fundamental difference of consciousness between the two sides of the Atlantic. That's become, I think more and more obvious. We had an example of this, this week or last week, where many French intellectuals expressed their perplexity about American wokeness and how it didn't fit conditions in Europe anymore. How Americans had become divorced from political reality in Europe.

There are other recent, but not so recent images and debates that we can go back to. In the book, I'm interested in these differences of American sensibility on very important issues. The death penalty, guns, religiosity, political correctness, and issues that Europeans consider decisive. You cannot become a member of the European Union, the United States, first of all, because of death penalty question. There are differences. Then the question is how to interpret them. It's very common still in Europe and perhaps parts of the U.S. to think that we are converging.

It's no longer very clear who would be doing the convergence but I think in Europe, five or 10 years ago, there was some hope that Barack Obama would bring this about. That he would establish universal healthcare, that he would approve gun control laws, and that slowly but surely Americans would become a bit more like Europeans, or I think as Fukuyama suggests, that America would move towards Denmark. Donald Trump to some extent represents a moment when, if this was impossible before, now it really is impossible, very difficult to believe this.

In the book, I try to fit these sociological facts into a bigger theory of what distinguishes America from Europe. Of course, I rely on a different approach to reality and the problem of reality. Americans are more comfortable with fantasy. They are more comfortable with imagination. This contrasts very vividly, not only with European tradition of the enlightenment, but with European Union as a project. We saw today one of the commissioners in Brussels argue against internet platforms because they create a world that is not real. That is purely virtual.

This is still a very powerful way of looking at the world in Europe. I argue in the book that Americans have turned this upside down and that virtual reality is now present everywhere in American life. That's how I tried to establish the difference as it appears, but the goal there is very clearly one of providing coherence to some disparate elements. Guns, religion, and many other elements. Try to show that it's not by chance that these things are different, but that they actually can be combined and unified in a certain civilizational pattern different in Europe and the United States.

Brian Anderson: One of the most fascinating discussions in the book, in my view, is on the role of the frontier, the role that that has played in America's evolution. Both the physical frontier of the old West and the internal frontier, what you call the infinite roads of the imagination, a beautiful phrase. Could you explain that a little bit?

Bruno Maçães: I'm attracted by this idea that the frontier was decisive for American consciousness and obviously many famous texts arguing that starting already at the end of the 19th century. Then what happened when the frontier was closed? One possibility was that America would become more like Europe, where the states have reached their final configuration and they start a process of internal organization.



But America was always less confined and more open to the roads either of the frontier or then as I suggest in the book, that the frontier was turned inwards and the possibility of exploring new worlds and new adventures was turned into an imaginary possibility and no longer present outside the frontier. It's interesting to think that, in a way, the cowboy, that such an important figure when you want to think about America, became a figure of imagination in Hollywood and in Disneyland, but it was already from the very start, a figure of fantasy.

Because what the cowboy did was to offer people living back in the East, a possibility to live life in its habitual form and sometimes in its oppressive form, the factories of New England and go look for a completely different and new world where you could create an alternate reality. The cowboy was already a fictional figure, even when he was a real cowboy. Then he was painted over by a second level of fantasy in Hollywood and in John Ford's movies, where this is all so obvious that the cowboy is a figure of fantasy, a figure of invention living almost entirely in the imagination.

It's such a powerful pattern in American literature and American arts. You really find it everywhere in Kerouac, Fear and Trembling in Las Vegas and so many of the movies, Easy Rider and so on. This search for a new reality, an imaginary world outside what we know.

Brian Anderson: Well, in this context, you write, "American life continuously emphasizes its own artificiality in a way that reminds participants that deep down they are experiencing a story." Is this why you see television, or more broadly communications media, as the secret key you describe it as being of the American experience?

Bruno Maçães: Yes. There is I think a deep artificiality. This is not easy to prove or to show with evidence. It's a feeling that many Europeans have and I've had discussions about this. That the experience of moving to America is in a way, the experience of acquiring this relation to social and individual reality, that is much more mediated, where you are always thinking of yourself as a character in a novel or in a television series. This takes different forms, I think. In some sense, I regard, and I think many Europeans would regard American life as a scripted, to some extent.

It has its rituals of passage, and one does see a constant similarity between life and art. They're always much closer it seems to me than they are in Europe. There are different forms that this takes, of course. Then it takes a political form in more recent decades. To some extent it was there from the start. It was there one could argue even from the pilgrims. That's what I try to trace in the book, how this idea, which is present in germ from the beginning, then develops and takes a life of its own, to the point in the present wherein I think it is all powerful.

Brian Anderson: Certainly you argue that it helps us understand the rise of Donald Trump or on the other side of the political spectrum, the emergence of a figure like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, AOC, as she's called over here. While these figures inhabit and create storylines, what they say and do does have an impact on reality, right? A reality doesn't prove completely malleable. We don't live entirely in a fantasy.

Bruno Maçães: Not entirely, but one could make the case that the promise of American life and American politics is actually of creating an enormous distance between politics and reality, which I regard as potentially a very good thing, capturing the spirit of liberalism better than liberalism did, because what we want is for things never to become too real. On the one hand for them not to become too real, too dangerous, too harsh. On the other hand, it is also important for them to be experienced as just one possibility among many so that creativity is not completely foreclosed.

Something that can be abandoned. Something that can be exited. Something that is not definitive. Something that is not inescapable. That's I think the great promise of American life, where you can always leave, or you can always turn it off, switch it off. We're probably going to see that in a few days. We don't know. That's how I would interpret a Biden victory. This possibility that you always have when things seem to be becoming a bit too real to turn them off, to switch them off and to move on.

It's often the case that people will, and it's been almost a chorus over the last few months and years, to call for a return to reality, to facts. It's become part the anti-Trump movement to call for a return to facts. I'm always puzzled by this because in fact, the rule of facts and the rule of reality has been very dangerous in the European political tradition. I always give the example of Nazism and Sovietism. They were not ... I don't know if Anna [inaudible 00:21:07] said this, certainly people are quoting her today. Quote her as saying this.

I don't know if she said it. If she did, I haven't read it in quite a while. She was wrong because Sovietism and Nazism were not about fiction, were not about fantasy. They were in fact the harshest example we have of political movements trying to subject human beings to the rule of reality. Biological reality in the case of Nazism and historical reality in the case of Sovietism. One should keep in mind that reality in politics is a very dangerous thing.

When you say, "Well, it does have some consequences," but if Americans were able to reduce the links between politics and reality, that might not be a bad thing in the end.

Brian Anderson: The chapter of your book that struck home quite a bit with me is on the limits of liberal political philosophy. This is what you were beginning to talk about here, especially as advanced by Harvard's late political theorist, John Rawls, whose theory of justice, it really dominated political theory for several decades. Certainly when I was studying political thought in graduate school, it was basically a ceaseless commentary on Rawls a thinker I found incredibly empty about the true stakes of life.

Could you elaborate a little bit for our listeners on what you found frustrating about Rawls' work? You've coined a phrase, virtualism, and you were just beginning to talk about it there, the contrasts with the Rawlsian model of liberal thought.

Bruno Maçães: Here's how I see the problem, and I'm not so negative on Rawls because I think he actually understood what the problem was better than almost anyone else. He wasn't able to provide a very good solution, but I think he always struggled with this problem throughout all his life. I even think that maybe I learned to think about the problem from him. What is the problem? In a liberal society you want people to be free to experiment with different possibilities in their lives, different adventures. You want, in fact, your life to be rich in experiences.

You want to try different things. The problem with this is that as you try different possibilities in a way you foreclose other possibilities and you can even run the risk of turning society as a whole into a specific project. Could be the pursuit of religious piety, it could be the pursuit of wealth, could be the pursuit of a specific national project, or it could be the pursuit of individual goals that the rulers of this society have. Liberalism is always very concerned to prevent the full exploration of any given possibility.

The contradiction then is that you have a regime that both wants to encourage experimentation and wants to discourage it because it can become dangerous. It's possible that a liberal society, if it fully embraced the idea of experimentation, would embrace, well, let us experiment with a theocratic regime. But then liberal would be abolished and it would turn into a theocracy. On the other hand, if you cannot fully explore the possibilities of religious life, is liberal freedom really freedom?

This is a very serious problem and Rawls struggled with it all his life, and wasn't really able to provide a solution. Now, what I argue in the book, and I'm glad you like those passages, those pages, because I actually personally feel they are the most important in the book. I hope they can be developed either by me or other people. There's a possible solution here that I think is being pursued in America, which is to allow room for experimentation, but turn this experimentation into something of a virtual life or a virtual reality.

You experiment with different possibilities, but you never turn them into reality. Then you live within the dialectic where these possibilities have to be fully immersive. You have to accept them as real, but they never become fully real. Political institutions have to be built around these two contradictory goals. Allow people to experiment fully so we shouldn't be shocked with Trump and we shouldn't try to bring him down as soon as he's exploring an unusual possibility.

On the other hand, it's important that the virtual experiment introduced by Trump, virtual nationalism if you want to call it, doesn't turn into a literal, actual, real virtualism. Political institutions have to live with this dialectic, but it is a very promising dialectic, which in the end consists of this, that we can experiment everything in life but we experiment everything on the level of virtual reality. But if the experiences are fully immersive, then they are just as good as the real thing with the advantage of not becoming as dangerous, as limiting, as confining and as oppressive as reality itself.

Ideally, the United States could become a society where you can be Iran and Russia and India and Europe and combine all these experiments but as a form of virtual reality, never turning into a definitive possibility. Sounds so theoretical and philosophical but I think we're still struggling with how to provide a way to live freedom fully. My frustration in the book is with those people who seem to think that a purely abstract form of freedom, where we have the possibility to do anything, provided we actually don't do it, which is what liberalism has become in recent years and recent decades.

That's not a way out and that can never work. To the extent that Rawls ended up with that, yes, his project was frustrated in the end. But it's still encouraging to read his books and understand that, particularly when he turns from the first book, A Theory of Justice to the second, Political Liberalism, what he's trying to do, is to move away from that very abstract, very dry, very empty liberalism, and try to open the gates so that people can experiment things more fully. The second book very clearly says, we need a society where people can be fully religious.

I was wrong in the first book to think that this abstract freedom was enough. We have to create space here. That's a very interesting debate because creating space is not a purely abstract proposition. It consists in very concrete things, the Supreme Court judgments, decisions about how one has to give enough room for religious communities to truly be fully religious communities. For example, one should be willing to run a certain number of risks, that a religious community should be able to withdraw children from public schools at a relatively early age.

That's a risk one has to be willing to run if we want to have a society where people can actually experience religion in an immersive full way. The alternative is to tell them they can be religious, but then never allow them to actually be religious.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. It's a fascinating discussion. For this U.S. edition of History Has Begun, you've added a new chapter on America and the coronavirus, a theme you've written about for City Journal. Now, the Trump administration has been compared unfavorably with Europe and its response to the virus, but that seems now to be overstated as we see infections skyrocketing across Europe. The real contrast seems to be between the West, if we include American in the West, and Asia. What's the difference? Is it technological? Is it cultural? How do you see the world shaping up post-pandemic?

Bruno Maçães: I think the pandemic has helped us understand the basic fundamental principle moving each regime. It's been very helpful in that way. It's easier now to understand what's really at the core of the European regime, the European Union in particular. What's at the core of the American regime? What's at the core of the Chinese regime? So on and so forth. If we talk about Europe, it seems very clear to me that what I talk about in my first book, Dawn of Eurasia, as a kind of rule of the algorithm, it's become the main obstacle to actually dealing with the virus in Europe.

We saw yesterday President Macron announcing that there will be a lockdown and the lockdown will be removed when the number of daily cases falls below 5,000. As if he's put in place an algorithm that is now going to work automatically rather than actually looking to the future, which was politics used to be, and make those decisions looking into the future and trying to anticipate it. He's put in place an algorithm that responds to data as it evolves.

This is very typical of Europe because after 1945, we have such a deep suspicion of political decisions that we want to put algorithms in charge and algorithms are purely mechanical. They don't make decisions and no one is in charge so we don't run the risk that someone will acquire too much power. We're still fighting against the ghost of fascism and our instinct is to put in place some mechanism that can never turn into fascism. America, I see, that's just what I argue in the book, as having been captured by the spirit of unreality that I discussed all throughout the book.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was very curious to see whether America would wake up from its fictions and fantasies or whether the virus itself would be absorbed by these fictions and fantasies. I think the latter happened. It's been extraordinary, both terrifying in a way, but also exhilarating. There's a certain kind of bravery, a certain kind of courage in actually not running away from the virus, but absorbing it in your own interests and in your own stories.

What we've seen in America is the complete dominance of both cultural wars and media narratives. It was much more important at some point to know what to call the virus. China Wuhan virus or something else, than actually to fight the virus. This is not about Trump. The anti-Trump media was much more captured by these specific fantasies than Trump himself was. We saw how really complex narratives were built from scratch.

I remember at one point there was a lot of interest in this idea that Trump had become an Aztec or Mayan king that was leading Americans to a ceremony of human sacrifice to the gods of the economy, which had absolutely no correspondence with what was happening at the time when Trump was actually adopting a number of very restrictive measures. But this seemed to satisfy people's hunger for a big story within which to absorb the virus and in a way to humanize it. That's how I see the story in America.

It's been very different in America and Europe. Then if we turn to China, we see also how the virus was immediately interpreted as a national security threat, a threat to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Then quickly was interpreted actually as a possibility for what the Chinese authorities are very interested in. The realignment of global power. Each main region in the world has reacted to the virus in a very specific way. Remember in [inaudible 00:34:09] there's this discussion about the active principle of every regime.

I think what I've seen in the past few months is the active principle of the European Union and the active principle of the American Republic and the active principle of the Chinese Communist Party have been exposed in a very vivid way, allowing us, those of us who are interested in actually trying to look under the hood of each of these regimes to see what the active principle really is everywhere.

The second part of that question was just, how do you see, if you're willing to make a few projections, the world post-pandemic? If technology allows us to get on top of the virus next year, which is a possibility with vaccines in the pipeline and better medical treatments.

Bruno Maçães: I think, writing or starting to think about a book on the pandemic, I see it as a watershed moment in world politics. Briefly I put it in this way. I think we had gotten used to the idea of world politics, geopolitics as a system of states, state A, state B, state C. That's how I, in my first book, described world politics. There's the European Union, there's China, there's the U.S., there's Russia and how do these pieces interact? It's now become the case, if it wasn't before, the virus has introduced a new actor, which quickly became the dominant actor in fact.

That's the environment. In this case, it's an environment of a pandemic, a natural environment, but it could soon become the question of climate change and its impact on human life and in human societies. We now have to deal with a world where in a way, the system states has been opened up and each state is no longer primarily concerned with the other states, but with the threat coming from an external environment. When it is concerned with the other states, the competition happening is actually a kind of indirect competition.

What China has been doing, China has been moving faster on this and I think moving faster in interpreting the new conditions. What China has done over the past six months is not to compete directly with U.S. but to use the virus to realign global power, to use the virus as a way to increase its relative power compared to the U.S.. That seems a very promising way to actually change the distribution of global power rather than through direct conflict between the two sides. To go back to the beginning, I think it's a watershed moment.

If I was drawing a diagram here of how the world looked when I wrote my first book or it looked to me, but I think it looked to everyone, and how it looks now, it's a much more complex figure. We now have this supernational actor, which is not United Nations, which is not the European Union. It's the virus, but if you want to have a broader description, it's broadly speaking the environment or the world, which is creating challenges for every state that they really did not expect.

The way we thought about world politics was, the threat came from other states and that's what you were supposed to manage. Like many people, I think the virus is in a way the introduction to the new world and a very instructive preface to what will be the world of climate change.

Brian Anderson: Well, that's a good place to end, I think, Bruno. Don't forget to check out Bruno Macaes' new book, History Has begun, which we've been talking about, but also his earlier books, which as I noted at the top, are really among the best non-fiction books for the last five years, the Dawn of Eurasia and his book on China's Belt and Road Initiative. You can also find Bruno on Twitter. His Twitter feed is extremely interesting. It's at M-A-C-A-E-S Bruno. That's at M-A-C-A-E-S Bruno.

You can also find City Journal of course on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @Cityjournal_mi. As always, if you like what you've heard on 10 Blocks, give us a rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening. Thanks very much, Bruno, for joining us.

Bruno Maçães: Yeah. It's been a great pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.

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