Saturday, September 6, 2014

Parallel Lives (protracted)

What was originally merely an occasion-note, has ballooned to Plutarchean proportions, and is accordingly reposted under a different name.

We begin with the relevant portions of our original post from June the sixth.

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A factoid for D-Day

I’m currently reading William Shirer’s The Collapse of the Third Republic (published in 1969).  The title might be confusing;  unlike for his better-known book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer did not retain the political term in the original language;  he means La Troisième République.  Anyhow, regarding the aftermath of the first World War (whose groaning later echo  we commemorate today), he writes as follows  about the much-derided reparations, often pointed to as a burden on Germany that fueled the resentments that eventually led to WWII (p. 150):

Actually, Germany never had to pay a single mark out of her own resources.  Her borrowings from America bankers, which were never repaid, amounted to more than her total reparation payments.  Naïve American investors footed the German reparations bill.

The matter is even more curious in light of a companion fact mentioned on the next page:

Though the United States refused to take a cent of reparations from Germany, its government and Congress insisted that its Allies, especially Britain and France, pay their war debts in full and with interest.

Meanwhile, we are once again not being very gentle with our former French ally:

[Update, 7 juin, D-Day’s “Boxing Day”, or “D+1-Day”.  AKA le lendemain du Débarquement.] 

During that post-War period of wrangling over debts and reparations, France and Germany each repeatedly stomped, stabbed, and shot themselves in the foot:  bitterly remarking, “Take that!”

Intent on not letting a cent of reparations to go to France, after the Ruhr occupation the German “government deliberately organized the destruction of the currency, the mark falling to … 25 billions [to the dollar], becoming worthless” (id, p. 148).  (The folk term for this is:  Cutting off your nose to spite your face. )  France, facing much larger infrastructure reconstruction costs than did Germany (a point often forgotten, since France was ultimately the nominal victor:   but the war had been fought largely on its own soil), was left in the lurch by the French rich, who vigorously evaded such direct taxes as there were, and squirreled their capital abroad (p. 154).   The State was allowed to teeter on the brink of bankruptcy for years.  The tacit strategy of the wealthy was:  fiat opulentia, et ruat respublica :  for if the Republic did fall (as, in 1940, it did) “were there not other forms of government possible which promised more security for entrenched wealth?  The thoghts of some of the biggest entrepreneurs began to turn to the Fascist ‘experiment’ in Italy, and to the growing success of the Nazi Party in Germany” (p. 157).  Meanwhile, “instead of raising taxes, the government raised loans, a habit it had acquired during the war.”   As for those (mostly the thrifty French petite bourgeoisie) who were foolish enough to buy those government guarantees, “In the end, the state, in effect, repudiated most of it  by allowed the franc to fall to] one-fifth of its prewar value” -- an 80% haircut for those who had retrieved their savings from beneath the mattress, and entrusted them to the stabilization of the State.

At this point, a light-bulb begins dimly to flicker, in the mind of the suspicious reader.  “Wai-ait a minute!  Is this whole thing intended as some kind of allegory of the Bush Administration, and subsequent obstruction/destructivism of the Tea-Party types?”  Well, it didn’t start out that way;  but as you read along, the parallels become stark.

And the point here, indeed, is not to rake over the chronicles of another place, another time, but to remind ourselves that “He who forgets History is condemned to …” …. to … darn it  it was on the tip of my tongue … something-something …  Forgotten.  Anyhow (to quote our gnomic ancestors again), “If the shoe fits, wear it.”  
(Note, and not:  “If the shoe fits, buy it on credit and stash it in your fashion-closet and then go out and buy a dozen more pairs.”
-- Though actually, that was exactly the scene in Paris, in July of 1926:
“Along the boulevards, large crowds of women were storming the department stores  and the smart shops  in a frenzy to convert their falling francs into something more durable” [p. 162].)

[For our essays touching on this Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose aspect of things, click here.]

And so to the parallels:

The bankers and businessmen, and even the more thriving peasants and shopkeepers, came to believe, with a certainty that brooked no compromise, that the political “Left” -- which, aside from the small Communist Party, was in reality little more than reformist and middle-of-the-way, -- was incapable of governing the country.
-- Wm Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969), p. 166

(Cf. the meme of the centrist Obama as “socialist”.)

The employers’ associations, having lost their fight to prevent Parliament from enacting the modest social-security legislation, continued their well-financed campaign  in rthe press and on billboards  to render it ineffective  and to get it repealed.
-- Wm Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969), p. 167

(Compare the continued assaults on “Obamacare” -- a program that Congress itself passed not long ago.)

There are even parallels in the sideshow characters.   On the magnate François Coty:

Flattered by the politically discontented,  who used his money to assault the Republic, Coty began to conceive himself as a savior of the nation who one day  not too far off  might be called upon to take over the helm of state and save it from democracy.  Ridiculous as the thought was, for Coty was a political nincompoop, he seems to have taken it with growing seriousness.
-- Wm Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969), p. 158

Remind you of someone whose name rhymes with “rump”?   (A further parallel:  Both Coty and Trump made their fortunes in the degraded armpits of the Lucullan-Bacchanalian economy, the former in fancy perfumes, the latter in casino gambling.)


So, then as now, the picture isn’t pretty.   But the wan hope is, that if the Plutocratic Party ever manages to get rid of that Nigerian-born socialist and control both houses of Congress,  they will immediately cease their antics and their Wrecker strategy, and begin to govern responsibly.  Something like that did happen in France in 1926, with the election of the sensible conservative Raymond Poincaré.

[Note:  Readers of this blog will feel their ears prick up at the surname.  Any relation to Henri, eponym of the Poincaré Conjecture, and one of the immortal heroes of both physics and mathematics?  Indeed;  they were cousins.  And since I’m not especially fond of Cousin Raymond, I’ll post a photo of Cousin Henri instead.]

To restore national solvency, the new French President  “rushed through Pariliament, practically without debate, a number of laws calling for new taxes, and increase of old ones, which the bankers and businessmen and the political Right  would never have accepted from a less ‘conservative’ government.” (p. 164)
Such is the fond faint hope of the Left and Center, that by knuckling under and electing a ‘conservative’, some necessary reforms might be enacted (as happened under Nixon and under Reagan) which the same party would oppose hysterically they came from the Democrats (compare the very different treatment of those twins, Romneycare and Obamacare).

The whole financial crisis had been a charade (again, compare the Republican push to go over the “fiscal cliff”):

In six months, Poincaré had stabilized the franc. … There was -- there had been all along -- plenty of French money to restore the finances of the state.
-- Wm Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969), p. 165


Back when I was a grad student at Berkeley, the fashion in the Generative Semantics circle  was to construct politically-slanted example-sentences to illustrate some basic semantic/pragmatic point.  Perhaps the best-known was:

John called Mary a Republican, and then she insulted him

(with contrastive accent  indicated by italics).   Here the sentence as stressed and worded  necessarily implies a presupposition that (for John, for Mary, and probably for the speaker of the sentence as well), for John to call Mary “a Republican” constituted an insult (to which she replied in kind).   Contrast

John called Mary a Republican, and then she [went and] insulted him

where the presupposition is reversed.  (This sort of thing was considered quite amusing in the student lounges of the time.)

Anyhow, what dredged from memory that moss-worn anecdote, was seeing Shirer write of President Poincaré,

Though conservative, he was a man of utter integrity.

The expression sounds quaintly prejudiced, coming from the pen of a historian.  But Shirer knows his materials;  and perhaps things stood then as now, on the Right.  For the likes of Boehner, Trump, Perry, Rove, Delay, et alia, are not “men of utter integrity”.    The hope of the Center, that the next Republican President might be a Poincaré -- or a Nixon, with all his faults -- may be a pipe-dream.  Instead of a Nixon, we might get an Agnew;  instead of a McCain, a Palin.

And not only have the ranks of potential Republican leaders  degenerated after years of stewing in the vile juices of ressentiment,  so too the electorate has taken an ugly turn.  Again, a parallel from late-1920s France:

A certain proletarianization of a good many solid citizens of the middle class took place at this time.  Like the workers, they found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, but  contrary to the workers  they turned politically  not to the Left  but to the extreme Right  in hopes of salvation.
-- Wm Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969), p. 165

This is the old problem of “false consciousness”, which in America (both in this century and the last) has gone under the catch-phrase of “What’s the matter with Kansas?”


Yet another parallel, between something in France of the 1920s, that makes no sense, and something that makes no sense in our own day:  yet together, they may illuminate each other, with their spectral swamp-spawned light.

The weakness of the presidency,  and the mediocrity of the politicians who held it  in the last years of the Third Republic,  contributed to the instability of French governments.  We have seen Clemenceau confessing that, in the elections of the National Assembly  for President of the Republic, he always voted for the most stupid candidate.
-- Wm Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969), p. 170

But -- Why would anyone do that?  Because “The members of Parliament preferred  … weak and mediocre men for President” -- men they could control.  (George Dubya, without an idea in his head, was a reliable mannequin for Cheney and Rumsfeld -- and whoever-all lay behind those. -- Hugenburg had thought that the comic-opera Hitler would fill that bill;  but Hitler got out of hand.)

So, seriously, ideology aside -- Let us all agree for the sake of argument, that we all subscribe to the doctrines of Calvin Coolidge, Alexander Hamilton, Kaiser Wilhelm, Attila the Hun -- whoever you please.   Why should the party carrying on that illustrious tradition, be reduced to the present pack of morons?  
It’s effing embarrassing, for one thing.  And though I have satirized it, I don’t really understand it.  How did the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Luger, manage to drive out all men of substance from its ranks?


The scene in 1937, in the waning days of the premiership of Léon Blum:

As the first Socialist -- and Jewish-- Prime Minister in the history of France, he was determined to keep his word, as he said, “to exercise power only within the framework of capitalism.”  His scruples do him credit.  But in a harsh world of conflict, in which it was evident that the economic and financial elite were out to destroy his government --at whatever cost to the country -- his lack of boldness, of toughness, proved his undoing.
-- Wm Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969), p. 323

Remind you of anyone we know?

Note:  It is no part of the purpose of this post, to criticise or second guess, from the plush comfort of hindsight or the sidelines, either Barack Obama  or Léon Blum.  Both are admirable statesmen.   Merely, their predicaments are similar.
Further:   For anyone who imagines that the perverse obstructionism which our President has been dealing with, is anomalous,  check out Shirer’s account of the premiership of Blum.

Foot-Note:  Well aware (alas) of our shallowness and deficiencies  in matters of historical commentary, we can at least play to our long suit -- linguistics -- in offering this:  The surname Blum  is pronounced “Bloom” in French.

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