Our Congress Of Vienna Moment

During the height of the Arab Spring some months ago, observers compared the Arab uprisings to the democratic revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. Like their Arab counterparts, the 1848 revoutionaries aimed to wrest control from the rigid, autocratic rulers of the day.

The revolutions of 1848 provided a sharp counterpoint to an event, the Congress of Vienna, that occurred about 35 years earlier, in 1814-1815.

          The Congress of Vienna was a meeting of ambassadors from the great powers of the day, Austria, Prussia, Russia and Great Britain, plus other nations including post-Napoleonic France. It was chaired by ultra-conservative Klemens von Metternich, who in the next century became a role model for Henry Kissinger.

The basic aim of the Congress was to restore the status quo as of 1793, before Napoleon’s attempt to spread French power across Europe – which incidentally cleared the way for the ideals of the French Revolution. Another aim was to insure that the warfare just ended would never reoccur. To these ends, the Congress restored traditional monarchs to their thrones, redrew boundaries, and agreed to help any member state put down uprisings that might spread to other countries.

In fairness, the Congress did a fairly good job of keeping the peace.  Although the international arrangements established by the Congress steadily eroded, there was only one significant European war (the Crimean War) between 1815 and 1914.

But all these arrangements, all these agreements, were by and for the monarchs – who generally considered their authority to derive from God – not the people. Demands for democracy and nationhood for the various ethnic groups were ignored.

The Congress of Vienna is a prime display of Power at the expense of Humanity.

The revolutions of 1848 were Humanity’s reaction to the conditions promoted by the Congress of Vienna. The revolutions themselves were largely suppressed within a few years, but the democratic impulse, as we know, did not die.

Since that time, Power and Humanity have contended for supremacy like two wrestlers, first one on top and then the other, both in Europe and in the U.S. In the United States, for example, the Gilded Age was followed by the  Progressive Era, followed in turn by the Coolidge era and then the New Deal, and so on.

But in the long term, Humanity has been on the upswing, slowly but steadily. Consider the changes in the United States in the past 100 years. In 1911, women lacked the right to vote, and they were seldom to be found in responsible positions in the workplace. The labor movement was established but was narrow in scope. Blacks and other minorities were definitely second-class citizens, and no means, however violent, was spared to let them know it.

Fifty years ago conditions had improved, but there was still much to be desired. In 1961 women had the vote, but the idea of women in the professions or in  management positions still hadn’t caught on.  (Think of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who graduated from law school and was offered only a job as legal secretary.)  Gays were still outcasts at best. The situation for minorities had advanced – the armed forces were integrated, for example – but they were still second-class citizens, explicitly in the South and by unspoken convention in many Northern states.

Despite long-term progress, Power and Humanity still alternate in gaining control. And we are now going through a period in which Power is in the saddle:

Big business has the Supreme Court in its back pocket. 

The American people seem to think of CEOs as Santa Claus, generously granting jobs when the people are nice to them, and withholding their favors if the people are so naughty as to impose regulations or raise taxes.

Conservative advocates have sold the American people an amazing amount of snake oil: They have convinced the public that the wealthiest among us deserve to be immune from their proper tax burden because they have taken risks in order to implement innovative ideas that benefit society. A sensible idea, except that the conservatives extend the risk premium to everyone at the upper end of the income scale, including for example, entertainers and sports figures and, more notably, professionals of all sorts. (We know that doctors face a tough grind on the way to attaining their professional status, but are they taking a risk? Is there any uncertainty as to what their financial future will be? Is there any possibility of their losing anything?  Please! And what holds for doctors holds even more for lawyers, accountants and other professionals and most businesspersons. Not to mention those who live on inherited wealth.)

The American people have also bought into the idea that the wealthy, in spending obscene amounts of money on their houses or perfumes or motor cars, are graciously bestowing their bounty on the working class. Why? Because for their ten or fifteen dollars per hour the workers can produce goods for the wealthy instead of producing for the great majority of the public.

And through it all, money pulls the strings of government.

In this low and oppressive period, as Power is stifling Humanity, what can partisans for Humanity do? Here are my suggestions:

Be calm. Remember that history is on your side. The Congress of Vienna is now a laughable anachronism, and today’s injustices face the same fate. But history needs materials to work with. Help lay the groundwork for Humanity’s next advance.

Bear witness to your ideas and principles, whether in the public forum, in print, or in private conversation. Someone will remember.

Present ideas, based on your principles, that furnish practical solutions to specific problems. (See Sen. Sherrod Brown as a model for this.)

Leave slander to your opponents. They seem to enjoy it so much, and it might be their only weapon.

Be careful of your sound bytes. Sound bytes are not inherently bad; Socrates gave us some good ones: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” “All I know is that I know nothing.” “I am the gadfly of Athens.” But the big problem with today’s sound bytes is that they are pure emotive rhetoric, lacking a factual foundation or relevance to the significant issues at hand. So make sure your sound bytes can be unpacked into arguments that are factually supportable, logically sound, and relevant.

Having done what we can, let us wait for history to have its way.

Footnote #1:For all his flaws and failings, Barack Obama MUST be re-elected, for one simple reason: the Supreme Court. As you no doubt know, the Supreme Court is divided among four conservatives (relatively young in age) and four liberals (or better, center-liberals), with Justice Kennedy the often-deciding vote in the middle. It is likely that Kennedy or one of the liberals will retire in the next four years. And in all probability, a Republican president would replace him or her with a conservative, meaning that the Court would be controlled by a rock-solid conservative majority for decades to come. And don’t count on one of the relatively moderate Republican candidates to offer a suitable candidate. Remember that George H.W. Bush (the better Bush) gave us Clarence Thomas.

Footnote #2:  On some interpretations, the Mayan calendar ends in 2012 with an unprecedented cataclysm that will bring about the end of the world as we know it. My question is this: How did the Mayans get the idea that Rick Perry (or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin) would be elected president?

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Volume 7, Issue 18, Posted 10:48 AM, 09.07.2011