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June 20, 2011
 by Steven Hill

STICKY GLUE, SOCIAL CONTRACTS, AND FULCRUM INSTITUTIONS: A PAINTING IN THE RIJKSMUSEUM TALKS TO ME...In the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, hangs an obscure painting that speaks volumes about the modern dilemmas of government and the natural tension between individual freedom and the ties that bind us together. The masterfully rendered work, dating from approximately 1899 by the Dutch painter Otto Eerelman, shows hundreds of soldiers costumed in the dress blues of a military parade in Amsterdam, and mounted on brawny stallions. Leading the procession are erect, square-shouldered officers in their fine, medal-adorned coats and feathery chapeaux-de-bras, with a palace looming in the background. Banners, pennants, and coats of arms are flapping in the breeze, and a few members of the public are standing at attention. The military swarm has surrounded an elegant, cream-colored carriage of royal pedigree, with the soldiers sitting atop their steeds, clutching long swords pointed skyward, at vertical attention.

What is curious about the painting is that inside the carriage are the only two females apparent in the entire male militaryscape: a young woman of eighteen, named Wilhelmina, who is about to be crowned queen of the Netherlands, and her mother, Emma, who as Queen Regent has been holding the post until her daughter came of age. The sea of soldiers and their long knives are darkly rendered, but the painter’s skill has bathed the two women and their delicate carriage in a glazed light, as if the hope and aspirations of a nation are ensconced in their halo at the heart of the painting. As I stood staring at this image, what initially struck me was the frailty of these two women anchoring this muscular display. Any one of these soldiers could simply canter close to the royal barouche, say, “Good day, Your Majesty,” and with a couple swings of his sword run them both through. The two women, one young and the other old, would be powerless to defend themselves.

Yet the soldiers don’t do that, quite the contrary. Instead, they all hold the line, at attention while the carriage rolls past, as if all the soldiers are hypnotized by some kind of spell. Only a couple of the horses appear to buck against whatever rule is binding them to an unspoken consensus: that this vulnerable young woman shall rule over these brave hard men, indeed over an entire nation. I felt transported by the artist’s skill, as if I were standing there in the Frederiksplein as the procession rolled past. The sheer incongruity of it all, of a delicate woman more powerful than all these armed men, is what entranced me.

I knew I was witnessing, from my distant perch, the social and political agreements that had bound them all to their national fate, the invisible threads of connectedness that wrap countless personal lives into a web of officialdom. Every generation, as well as every nation and political order, makes its agreements, its social contract, bonded by the “sticky glue” that holds it all together and that keeps the human heart of darkness from ripping us apart. While seeming second nature to those living under them, the rules of agreement are rooted in the past, in culture and local color, looking both backward and forward at the same time. And once you step outside the picture and observe the rules from another place or distant time, you can see that often they made sense only to those who lived under the dome of their social and political contract.

Queen Wilhelmina went on to become a popular monarch who reigned for fifty years, a symbol of national unity that inspired the Dutch people with her staunch resolve during the Second World War. But at the time of this painting, who could have known what the future held for the young queen or her nation? It made me wonder about the unwritten agreements, compromises, and social contracts we live by today.

Every national paradigm, every political economy, whether the European “social capitalist” democracy, the Japanese-style “zaibatsu cronyism” democracy, the Iranian mullah-ocracy, the Chinese state communism or Russian state capitalism, the previous Soviet command-style economy, or the American “Wall Street capitalism” democracy, has its rules and agreements that establish the manners and modes for the inhabitants of that time and place to live by. These rules are incorporated into certain fulcrum institutions that work as an integrated whole, which, when taken together, forms a distinctive American Way, or a European Way, or a Japanese or Chinese or Russian Way. The great historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote, “Countries have characters that are as distinctive as those of human beings,” and each fulcrum institution is a component part of a greater whole that contributes to the formation of a “national character.”

As in the past, different national characters exist in the world today, and while the American Way and the European Way share much in common, they also exhibit basic differences that are diverging and were leading to frequent clashes even before the U.N. rift over Iraq. It’s as if we are staring at two different paintings, hung side by side, each revealing its intricate web of unwritten rules, agreements, and social contract. While it’s possible to stress what Europe and America have in common, it behooves us to recognize the differences as well, and approach this divergence a bit like an art historian might approach a Da Vinci alongside a Michelangelo, straining to understand which work might be the better harbinger of the future. More than we realize is at stake: few in the world wish to emulate the Chinese or the Russian Way, stuck in their authoritarianism and low standard of living, and certainly not the Islamic fundamentalist way, which is synonymous with poverty, bloody conflict, religious intolerance, and women’s oppression. But all nations, even Muslim nations, desire the wealth and quality of life of the United States and Europe. Thus, this clash between the American Way and the European Way is about the future direction over the best development model for the world during this make-or-break twenty-first century.

The American Way and the European Way have diverged in two crucial ideological areas: first, in the role and size of the military, with militarism being a core part of the American Way. U.S. militarism acts not only as a projection of international power but also as a stimulus of the economy, a voracious consumer of national wealth, and an indicator of societal values and priorities in a classic “guns versus butter” tradeoff. America spends more than twice as much of our gross domestic product on the military as Europe spends, while Europe spends around 50 percent more of its gross domestic product on social spending than the U.S.

Second, while the American and European ways are both founded on capitalist economies, they have diverged in their conclusions regarding age-old debates about individual property rights versus the common good, liberty versus equality, and the role of government. These basic differences in turn have led to the fashioning of distinct fulcrum institutions incorporating the laws, unwritten rules, and social contracts that guide their respective ways. Both the European and American ways are deeply rooted in old traditions, even in different branches of Christianity, which will shape any attempts to forge a new transatlantic understanding. I explore these unique Christian ideological origins in an article published by The Globalist, America and Europe: John Locke vs. Saint Augustine.

What the differences boil down to is that Americans prioritize the principle of protecting individual property rights and commercial interests, which is believed to be best accomplished by limiting the power of government. Government is viewed more skeptically as inefficient and inept or — even worse — as a vampire that sucks the life out of the body politic. Government regulation, seen as an infringement on individual property rights, is to be used as little as possible. That ideology triumphed during the Reagan revolution and ran rampant over subsequent decades, when Republicans and Democrats alike joined in a deregulatory bacchanalia. That in turn became the toxic Wall Street capitalism that ultimately collapsed and brought the global economy to its knees.

In Europe, however, the idea of the social contract has been extended to the notion that companies and businesses must earn their commercial rights by operating in a socially legitimate fashion. The ownership of property and the exercise of individual and commercial property rights are not seen as absolutes, as they are in the United States. Rather, they are viewed as a privilege that confers reciprocal social obligations. Article 14 of the post-war German constitution, for example, specifies that "property imposes duties. Its use should also serve the public weal."

This, in turn, affects attitudes toward government. Across Europe, and across Europe’s political spectrum, there is a great commitment to the notion that all residents should have an equal right to participate in economic, political and social life, and that government is more than a safety net of last resort. It is the fundamental vehicle for the delivery of this equality. What Europe shows is that, rather than being locked into rigid and even fundamentalist notions of property and commercial rights, a nation can subject these rights to negotiation and compromise via the vehicle of a pluralistic, representative democracy. The political process then is what allows the economic process to be harnessed for the good of all, subject to ratification by a consensus of all sectors of society.

That's why the European approach of a society that balances property rights with social obligation -- what I have called “social capitalism” -- is a better fit for today's world. But in the United States the political process is broken and mired in antiquated 18th century political institutions and practices, which in turn has led to a “trickle down” economy and toxic Wall Street capitalism.

Steven Hill 10:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
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