Saturday, December 3, 2011

What Would Napoleon Do?

While I recognize the differences between the ideals and the reality of the historical French Empires, this excerpt from Des Idées Napoléoniennes, a booklet by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III, is very interesting:
"The Napoleonic idea has as many branches as there are phases of human genius. It vivifies agriculture, it invents new products, it borrows useful inventions from foreign countries; it levels mountains, spans rivers, facilitates intercommunication, and compels nations to shake hands; it gives work to all hands and capacities; it enters the cottage, not holding forth barren declarations about the rights of man, but with means to slake the poor man's thirst, to quench his hunger, and with a glorious story to awaken his patriotism."
In light of the savage austerity forced upon many nations today, the Napoleonic Idea seems rather progressive. Indeed, in the above we can interpret a commitment to full employment, the elimination of material want, the expansion of production and the harnessing of the power of nature for the benefit of all humankind. All of these themes were present in the New Deal tradition in the United States as well as in the various populist and social democratic movements in post-war Western Europe and its offshoots such as Canada and Australia. Even the socialisms trapped under Soviet domination maintained at least a theoretical commitment to the advancement of the material and moral condition of the masses. However, under neoliberalism, workers have actually become poorer.

When I read articles like this one, where an American investor is on some kind of personal crusade against Russia and Vladimir Putin, supposedly because of Russian gangsterism, I have to laugh and remember why strong leaders like Putin are sometimes quite popular with their people, even if they are often far from perfect. It is a bit rich to hear about Western businessmen complaining about gangsterism in Russia when they were supportive of all kinds of nefarious activity in Russia when it was benefiting them and their Russian oligarch friends in the 1990s. Because Putin refuses to kowtow to the Russian oligarchs and Western capitalists, he is decried as a monster.

Bonapartist authoritarianism derives its strength from the excesses of wealthy oligarchs who hide behind  the masks of constitutionalism, liberalism and sometimes even democracy. Indeed, wealthy interests are increasingly doing away with even these pretenses as evidenced by the installation of banker puppet regimes in Greece and Italy. The modern champions of plutocracy claim the mantle of objective technocracy, but most sensible observers recognize the absurdity of this claim when so many technocrats are connected to Goldman Sachs and other financial powerhouses. In light of this reality, I have to ask: what would Napoleon do?


  1. Very well-written post, John. As a fan of Metternich, I may end up differing with you on some of the interpretations surrounding the legacy of Old Boney. World spirit on a horse he may have been, but a friend to the traditional Catholic order (in France or elsewhere) he certainly was not.

    However, you certainly have a solid point regarding the relationship between Putin's rule and the Western-backed Russian experiment with shock therapy (and the tanks Yeltsin required to enforce it). I likewise recognise the hypocrisy with which neoliberals and neoconservatives alike use the rhetoric of constitutionalism and democracy to advance very ANTI-democratic agendas. (Indeed, that has been my very fear regarding the 'liberal' movements and 'colour revolutions' in post-Communist countries such as Poland, the Ukraine, Georgia and China.) I would like to think that our democratic institutions are strong enough to withstand the global economic system they find themselves burdened with, but... I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.

    Thanks for another good read, John! All the best,

  2. Hello Matthew!

    Thanks for the comment. I agree that the Bonaparte legacy is decidedly mixed. To be honest, I am more of a fan of Napoleon III than Napoleon I, even though the latter had a much most illustrious career.

    Great point about the colour revolutions. In many ways, things have not changed much since the Cold War. The West backs nasty regimes when it is in its interests to do so.

    Just look at how the West handles the Gulf monarchies with kid gloves, and those regimes are probably at least as bad as Iran when it comes to human rights abuses and support for terrorism.