The Eighteenth Brumaire of George Bonaparte
29 April 2001
Pundits across America today have written columns about George Bush's first 100 days in office. In doing so, they make allusion, often in ignorance, to the roughly 100 days between Napoleon's escape from Elba and his defeat at Waterloo. I submit that there is a better direct historical analogy to Napoleon Bonaparte's reign: Bush's first claim to power take place on the same day in the year as Napoleon's claim to power in 1799. An indirect historical analogy is better still. George Bush exhibits all the makings of fulfilling the latter phrase in Marx's famous claim that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
In American politics, the concept of the first 100 days dates to Franklin Roosevelt's administration, which used its 100 days to establish the programs that made up the New Deal. In this sense, the 100 day milestone is unfair: it is rare that a new President has such a complete overhaul of previous policy in mind than did Roosevelt. However, the notion of a 100 day milestone dates to Napoleon Bonaparte. After escaping from Elba, he ruled for approximately 100 days, from his retaking of Paris in March 1815 to his defeat at Waterloo just over 3 months later. I cannot explain why commentators have used this historical 100 days as a benchmark for American Presidents. Even the worst of them have not had a defeat analogous to Waterloo.
One of Karl Marx's more comprehensible works compares the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to his nephew, Louis Napoleon. He starts off The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by writing:
Hegel observes somewhere that all great incidents and individuals of world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. (Eugene Kamenka, ed., The Portable Karl Marx (New York: Penguin, 1983) 287.)
Unfortunately, Hegal never wrote those words. But Marx's idea that the forces of history often repeat their influences has merit.
Coincidence can be a very powerful thing. Marx's title refers to the date in the French revolutionary calendar (see this site), 18 Brumaire VIII, or 9 November 1799, of the coup d'etat of Napoleon Bonaparte. On 18 Brumaire CCIX, 9 November 2000, George W. Bush first declared himself elected President of the United States. This is a better, albeit imperfect, historical analogy to Napoleon that the 100 fleeting days of power that Bonaparte enjoyed before Waterloo. Not only has Bush not emerged from exile; not only is he not likely either to fight anyone in Belgium, or find it on a map; but he also is unlikely ever to face the massive might of the British army.
In addition to providing a counterpart to Napoleon Bonaparte, Bush also serves as a counterpart of sorts to Louis Bonaparte. The only question at hand is the determination of the tragedy for which Bush provides the farcical mirror. I seek not to replicate Marx's materialist analysis of the two French revolutions, but to highlight a way to see the Bush presidency with respect to history.
Hayes emerged victorious from the 1876 Presidential election by an electoral college vote of 185 to 184, but only after political battles that went into March 1877. By a party-line vote of eight to seven, an electoral commission, comprising five senators, five representatives, and five supreme court justices, awarded disputed electoral college votes from Oregon, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida to Hayes. After the inauguration, the Republican party unofficially shed its mantle as the party of Lincoln. It removed federal troops from the South and ended its Reconstruction policies. The Republican majority in Congress tragically sacrificed the political, economic, and social rights of millions of Americans for short-term political gain.
Bush became President in 2000 only by the assertion by five members of the Supreme Court that a full recounting of the ballots in Florida could not be done because of the unequal treatment such a recount would have on voters in Florida. The court's ruling took pains to explain that it applied only to the case at hand, and not to future cases, other states, or even other elections on the Florida ballots. In essence, the Republican majority on the Supreme Court farcically sacrificed the for political gain the country's faith, until then not totally misplaced, of the judiciary as ultimately impartial observers.
Reagan won the 1980 election and delivered to the American affluent a huge tax cut. Supposedly the tax cuts would trickle down from the rich to the rest of the economy: cuts in social programs and a booming economy would counter the costs of huge tax cuts and larger military budgets. His advisors knew that the deficits that the new budgets would cause would force future presidents to keep social spending low. In reality, the trickling down never occurred. Rich Americans generally speculated in the stock market with their newly-found savings. The United States saw year after year of record budget deficits, high unemployment, and growing economic inequality.
In foreign policy, the Reagan administration financed its own private war in Nicaragua as a side effect of a scheme to sell arms to a sworn enemy, Iran, in exchange for the release of American hostages in Lebanon. It publicly supported governments in Africa, the Americas, and Asia that covertly and overtly terrorized their own citizenries, all in the cause of anti-communism. The Reagan administration demonized the moribund Soviet Union so much that it spent hundreds of billions of dollars for missile defense systems that never worked, new missiles for Western Europe that are no longer deployed, and new bombers that cost more than gold ounce for ounce and cannot fly in the rain.
Reagan himself became less and less important to the Reagan administration. Reagan always delegated a vast amount of work to his staff and did not trifle with details. The free rein that he gave his staff contributed in no small part to the Iran-Contra affair. Most tragically of all, by the middle of his second term, his advisors noted behaviors that in retrospect they recognized as symptoms of the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
Bush has pushed a $1.6 trillion tax cut, aimed at the wealthy, that has alternately been a tax cut justified by current and future surpluses, or a needed impetus to a struggling economy. Most recently, the latter explanation has been popular, even though many of the tax cuts will take years to appear, and even though some of the cuts relate to a repeal of the estate tax. Despite the checkered recent history of massive tax cuts, Bush is undeterred. Even worse, he is still supportive of investment of social security funds in the stock markets, despite recent evidence that stock markets can go down, way down.
Bush has called for spending of billions of dollars for anti-missile defenses against enemies that seem to include China, one of our largest trading partners, and North Korea. Were either country actively aiming missiles at the United States, then this concern might well be valid. North Korea has made overtures this year to South Korea and the United States to end its missile program in exchange for economic aid. The Bush adminsitration has emphatically rejected these overtures. It was tragic to waste billions of dollars on an arms race with an avowed enemy. It is farcical to spend billions of dollars in an arms race that does not to happen at all.
Like Reagan, Bush has sought to surround himself with knowledgeable professionals with years of government service, professionals who are given a great deal of responsibility. Like Reagan, many of these same officials come from the Ford administration. However, Reagan's choices were made to bolster a clear Presidential ideology; Bush's choices seem uncalculated. On China, for example Bush's Vice President has been publicly hostile, but his national security advisor has been publicly amenable. On the environment, for example, Bush has public contradicted his environmental head twice already, on carbon dioxide emissions and oil drilling in Alaska.
Bush has not been totally uninterested in the minutiae of foreign affairs. He showed his true mettle in the aftermath of the downing of the American spy plane in China. He needed to know if the crew had bibles, and whether they were getting any exercise. I suppose that aides inquired about the psychological well-being and health; about the status of the aircraft and its gear; about the Chinese government's plans for the plane, and the like. Nevertheless, even the best of satirists could not imagine a President so concerned with the most bizarre of details about a failed intelligence mission.
George H. W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis, a so-called technocrat, in the 1988 election, thanks in no small part to his experience in foreign affairs and the federal government in general. After making millions in the oil business, he served only two terms as a U. S. Representative, but served as ambassador to the United Nations, chief liaison officer in China, and director of the CIA. After serving for eight years as Reagan's Vice President, he ran for President in his own right.
Despite his experience at the highest levels of government and historically high approval ratings early in his term, Bush was unable to escape the contradictions that engulfed him. He was the first U.S. President to have served in China, yet he granted most-favored-nation trade status to China in the aftermath of the Tianamen Square massacre. He was a hero in World War II, yet his prosecution of the Gulf War was too timid to end Saddam Hussein's reign and too aggressive to spare the people of Iraq from suffering. He was an expert in clandestine operations, yet he claimed to have been "out of the loop" in the Iran-Contra affair.
George Bush, his son, served for six years as governor of Texas, his only elective office, before winning the Presidency last year. His also tried to make millions in the oil business, but failed. A staunch supporter of small government, he made his millions by having the state of Texas subsidize the baseball stadium that his team needed to build. While his father faced criticism for not acknowledging the economic recession of 1992, Bush fils tried to create the perception of a recession in 2001. In contrast to his father, Bush fils became the first deserter to serve as commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces. In China, where his father had simply sacrificed human rights on the altar of free trade, Bush fils could not decide how to treat China at all: enemy of Taiwan; trading partner; potential adversary; or better yet, all three at once.
All three of these former presidents could well represent the tragedy that serves as the antecedent for the farce that is the Bush presidency so far. (At least two other historical figures, Warren Harding and Dan Quayle, have myriad similarities to Bush, but each seems more farcical than tragic.) Perhaps George Bush, or the forces around him, will change sufficiently that he will not resemble a grotesque shadow of those who have gone before him. I do not believe that he will change, because the forces that propelled him to his current station--the interests of the rich and the multinational corporations--are unlikely to change anytime soon.
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