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Strange deaths

April 14th, 2005

I’m not sure if this is an occult link with the Zeitgeist, or just a manifestation of the reallocation of attention that leads new parents to notice other people’s babies, but a month ago, I finally got around to ordering “The Strange Death of Liberal England” (George Dangerfield) which arrived at Easter. In the ensuing couple of weeks I’ve seen not one but two uses of the same idea, with both Protestantism and Toryism dying strange deaths. Maybe this is happening all the time and I’ve just started noticing.

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  1. Katz
    April 14th, 2005 at 22:18 | #1

    JQ, here’s yet another reference in the form of the “Strange Death of American Liberalism”

    http://www.brothersjudd.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.detail/book_id/864

    As the reviewer of this book observes the strangeness of the death of Liberal England lay in the fact that it shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

    The belief in the possibility of gradual amelioration and rational reform, so long a tenet of the Whig view of history, according to this reviewer, may have been possible for only a brief and privileged period of world history. The rest of history, according to this view, is characterised as a desperate struggle by entrenched opponents enmired in a Hobbesian world of nastiness and brutishness.

    Perhaps the zeitgeist you refer to is a dawning recognition of the permanence of the return to that Hobbesian world. And the melancholic sonorousness of the trope “The Strange Death of …” is evocative of a return to a darker, diminished age.

    And it is a theme worth pursuing. Perhaps rational amelioration and reform seem possible when there seem to be no limits to human progress. It is noteworthy that the liberal age coincided with the rapid decrease in real price of fossil fuels — first coal and then oil. These cheap resources allowed the Great War to be as horrific and as all-encompassing as it was.

    This particular race between progress and barbarianism was won by the latter, as usual.

  2. April 14th, 2005 at 23:33 | #2

    Katz, you are wrong about the contributing factors to the length of WWI. The most immediate factor of that sort was the development of industrial chemistry to the stage where the blockaded central powers could function for as long as they did. Even in 1905 they couldn’t have hung on for more than 6 months or so at that rate, without access to Chile Saltpetre.

    Sure, fossil fuels were a precondition for that kind of chemical engineering on that scale – but that had already been around for decades.

  3. April 15th, 2005 at 08:32 | #3

    Actually, Dangerfeld’s thesis is that Liberal England died before the War.

    Just on the political decline of the British Liberals from governing party to irrelvance in a few short years, the impossibility of reconciling a belief in a rational compassionate foreign policy and individual freedom with governing during War was a major internal factor that tore the Liberals apart.

  4. April 15th, 2005 at 11:15 | #4

    “The strange case of the liberal in the night time”..?

    “Death of a Protestant Salesman”….?

  5. Katz
    April 15th, 2005 at 11:56 | #5

    PML, an event as vast as the horror and duration of the Great War cannot be explained monocausally. As your second thoughts tend to acknowledge, the preconditions for the magnitude and length of the Great War include ready and more or less balanced access to fossil fuels. German technological triumphs in organic chemistry were well known to the Allies. Any failure to take appropriate account of this information in assessing the costs of war must be assigned to recklessness.

    Abundant fossil fuels allowed belligerents, among many things, to escape the tyranny of food production and to maintain long and heavy volume supply lines on land and sea. These are essential preconditions for total war.

    The central propostion is unassailable:

    No fossil fuel, no total war.

    Mark, I was interested in how the review cited above extended and generalised the insights provided by Dangerfield. Dangerfield’s great accomplishment is to enable empathetic understanding of how British Liberals experienced the agony caused by a slowly dawning recognition that the rationality and compassion were inadequate qualities for goverance of a modern society in a crowded and dangerous world.

  6. April 15th, 2005 at 13:00 | #6

    Not disagreeing, Katz, just clarifying.

  7. April 16th, 2005 at 18:37 | #7

    Katz, I too was clarifying, and also pointing out that you’d picked on the wrong industrial constraint on 1914-18 (and you did again – it wasn’t German organic chemistry that made the difference then, though it helped in 1939-45 with synthetic rubber and petrol; what 1914-18 had was synthetic nitrates from the Haber-Bosch Process).

    So I wasn’t presenting second thoughts, I was clarifying that industrial strength wasn’t the make or break precondition by 1914. Ersatz – substitute – resources were, though they too rested on the industrial constraint (which, however, wasn’t the make or break thing then). German military thinking has tended to quick wars, which they didn’t manage to get; there was a planning failure too.

    The central position as rephrased is unassailable, but it wasn’t the key difference as at 1914. As at 1905, they still had that – but the Germans couldn’t have coped with even a short blockade, and they knew it. The original proposition related to the direct enabling of mass war on a 20th century scale, and that wasn’t there in the long 19th century even though the latter half of it did have the fossil fuels needed.

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