Motivational speakers, from what little exposure I have been forced to have with them, seem fond of telling people that they should “do the impossible.” This may well be simply part of the meaningless verbiage intended to get employees to pay attention to the context of the facts they face. To “think outside the box” makes some limited sense if taken in this way, though it generally means nothing. But impossible dreams have been the stuff of daily life in politics for far too long and have caused a great deal of damage along the way.
In business “the box” may mean simple inertia, or bad assumptions that have ossified into conventional wisdom. Then again, it may mean customers’ expectations or the requirements of a firm’s expensive, long-established infrastructure. Some boxes needlessly confine, others provide the stability necessary to give shape to a line of business. Workers may do what they thought was impossible for them, if by “impossible” we mean outside their mistaken conception of their own capacities. Workers, and especially bosses accustomed to being told they can do no wrong, may attempt the impossible and fall to the ground, hard.
None of this is to say that people should not “dream big.” It is only to say that we cannot dismiss the context in which we live as irrelevant. Sadly, too many people try to do just that. In business there are natural limits to this kind of activity. Markets and creditors have a way of putting an end to flights of fancy that lack grounding in fact. In politics, unfortunately, it has proven much easier, and costlier, for impossible things to seem possible, and to lead entire societies to disaster.
The classic and seminal example of doing “the impossible” in politics is the French Revolution. The French Revolution attempted the impossible in more ways than one. The much-lauded “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” was (and continues to be) at the heart of a fantasy of political power. In that document the National Assembly—a group of representatives of various sections of the nation that decided to appoint itself a sovereign body with unlimited power to legislate for France—sought to waive a rhetorical magic wand and change the world.
Much in that Declaration sounds good. For example, “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.” And “Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.”
In these two provisions we see general statements supporting liberty and the rule of law—two very good things. But can such things be established through mere declaration? The drafters of that document certainly thought so, for in their preamble they stated that “the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments.” That is, the French Revolutionaries, from the very start, acted on the belief that simple statements, including the declaratory statements of law, can change the world in and of themselves. The most egregious example of this thinking came in a separate act, with the legislative statement, “The National Assembly abolishes the feudal system entirely.”
Now, this declaration was followed up by various specific actions, eliminating various rights of the nobility, the tithe system which taxed people for the support of the Church, and, later, replacing the old judicial system. The nobles’ rights affected, here, included payments from peasants, which were to be made up through rents but were taxed away. Also taxed away was any benefit from the ending of tithes, which after all were for support of a national church establishment. Nevertheless, the nobility and Church remained problems for the French Revolutionary regime until they were, in essence, exterminated. The guillotine and the sword, by which the nobility was slaughtered by the thousands and the Church was made into an impoverished department of the central government, were necessary to make the impossible goal of wiping away centuries of history “possible.”
None of this is to say that there were not very real abuses in the feudal system—or rather the decayed and corrupted leftovers of a formerly mixed system that included feudal elements among many others. Moreover, as that great analyst of the rise of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville argued, it would be wrong to claim that the French political system had not already seen an astonishing concentration of power in the hands of a small number of central government administrators answerable to a single sovereign. But Tocqueville’s point was that the French Revolution, for all its violence, did little to change the manner in which France was governed; it simply substituted the tyranny of a few ideologues for the arbitrary power of King and Court, in both instances carried out through administrative fiat.
One thing did change, however, on account of the impossible dreams of the French Revolutionaries. Where law previously had been understood to be formed properly through compromise and consensus among a variety of interested groups, it became the tool of absolute power, seen as absolutely legitimate because it ruled in the name of the people. Law, meaning orders from the sovereign, could not, in fact, accomplish the impossible, but it came to be seen as having that mystical power. The result was, and remains, the presumption on the part of rulers and ruled that what the lawmaker says can and must be done.
The Declaration of Rights captures this idea rather well in stating, “Law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to contribute personally, or through their representatives, to its formation.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s General Will, adopted by the French Revolutionaries, is intended to stand for the interests of the people as a whole, as opposed to the selfish interests of any particular group. In practice this means that people are deemed to consent to whatever the ruling body in a polity declares, having been accorded an opportunity to “form” it, usually by voting for members in an assembly or, as with Napoleonic plebiscites, voting “yes” or “no” to some governmental proposal.
It is easy to criticize and even mock the notion of a General Will now that we have seen totalitarian “democratic republics” at work in various communist countries. But these criticisms generally assume that the General Will is a sham. This is no irrational assumption. Yet, even were the General Will to somehow be properly formed and genuine, it would by nature be tyrannical because it is an attempt to overthrow nature—to do the impossible. The General Will assumes that the people have the right and the ability to make whatever decision they please in regard to the shape of their own nation. And this simply is not true. As Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, along with a host of later historians, pointed out, the Jacobins and their successors sought to remake the human person himself, to restructure society along “rational” lines pulled from their own frenzied imaginations, and to wipe away the past that forms any culture. The result was, of course, mass murder, chaos, and subjection to a tyrant (Napoleon) and his grand ambitions of conquest.
The call to “do the impossible” in politics is the call to reject our past, to ignore our circumstances, and to invest fatal power in the hands of political actors. This can end, and only has ended, badly.
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