In the preface to his much admired biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow wrote that “to repudiate [Hamilton’s] legacy … is to repudiate the modern world.”
Hamilton, of course, was America’s first treasury secretary. He created the framework for an American empire. That anyone would repudiate the modern world was inconceivable to Hamilton’s biographer. Times were good in 2004, notwithstanding the lingering shock of 9/11, for which an appropriate response was underway.
And yet, there were heretics, a word the late University of Minnesota history Prof. David W. Noble (1925-2018) often applied to himself. Noble did repudiate the modern world. With painstaking diligence, he investigated cycles of despair and hope that have been repeated throughout human history. Always wary of hyper-rational wishful thinking, he believed that the free-market modernists had gone too far. Hamilton had helped create America’s system of checks and balances, but this no longer mattered, apparently. The neoliberal ideology promised eternal prosperity, the triumph of reason over nature and “the end of history.”
In “Debating the End of History: The Marketplace, Utopia, and the Fragmentation of Intellectual Life,” published in 2012, Noble explains why neoliberalism is extravagantly delusional. What the utopians are peddling, he wrote, is the American dream redux. Noble never believed in dreams of any kind. He believed in and wrote about reality.
Born in 1925, Noble grew up on a small dairy farm that failed during the Great Depression. He saw his own immigrant parents’ belief in the promise of a new and perfect world shattered. The family was rescued from starvation by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Noble learned then to be wary of “American exceptionalism” (any sort of exceptionalism), and as a soldier in World War II he never forgot how the German people were willing to accept “their” fuhrer’s megalomania in exchange for modest financial security and a degree of national pride. To Noble, the Third Reich was an exponentially more horrific version of what could happen anywhere, even in America.
Noble attended Princeton on the GI Bill and developed a taste for literature, in particular “lost generation” authors like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Noble’s parents belonged to that generation. They, too, felt hoodwinked. Another influence was the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, whose theory of American exceptionalism had an outsized impact on the American ego. A prime example was Teddy Roosevelt. The 1898 Spanish-American War was not just this swaggering president’s finest hour (in his own mind) but America’s first foray into European-style imperialism. It ended with Spain handing over the Philippines, which remained a U.S. colony until 1946.
After Princeton, Noble pursued a history Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. There he befriended ecologists and learned about the redeployment of war technologies for “peaceful” purposes. Petroleum-based synthetic nitrogen would “feed the world.” The ecologists saw this as unsustainable. They predicted overpopulation and soil depletion and the greenhouse effect. They were ignored.
At the University of Minnesota, Noble helped start a department of American Studies. Now he was able to broaden and deepen his inquiry into human nature. He assigned readings on literature, art, science, philosophy and religion. He wrote 10 books. “Debating the End of History” is his last.
Both memoir and a summing-up of a life’s work, it begins with a critical appraisal of a metaphor known as “Plato’s cave.” The cave represents blind ignorance. Dark and suffocating, it is a kind of hell on earth where potentially reasonable people are held captive by nature, the animal nature both within and without. Liberation from Plato’s cave was the rallying cry of Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers. But the issue most hotly debated then and now is not scientific revelation (e.g., Isaac Newton’s law of gravity) so much as methodology — specifically, whether “truth” is mutable or if it can be arrived at through “irrational” intuition and imagination.
Newton put himself in the former camp. He presented his theories as provisional, fluid. Though a brilliant mathematician, he saw math as a tool, not an end, whereas Cartesian logicians (the so-called positivists) deemed a balanced equation the final arbiter.
That Adam Smith, a staunch Newtonian, also valued subjective reality is largely ignored by free-market purists. In the interests of advancing self-interest theory as seminally explained in “The Wealth of Nations,” they disregard Smith’s call for political systems that would temper “animal spirits” with what he called “sympathy.” Noble, for his part, saw the new gospel of enlightened self-interest (“unfettered capitalism”) as window dressing to mask the animal appetites of a privileged few.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, a world of unfettered excess seemed plausible. Right-wing economist Francis Fukuyama made it sound like a fait accompli in “The End of History and the Last Man,” published in 1997. After all, a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, was then deregulating Wall Street, cutting welfare and expanding the military to protect U.S. investments overseas. Neoliberalism, as Clinton rebranded neoconservatism to make it sell to “social” liberals (as if social and economic imperatives were somehow two different things), dodged a bullet just over a decade later, when another obliging Democrat, Barack Obama, signed a taxpayer bailout that left corrupt banks bigger than ever.
Enter the Anthropocene Age. Merit meets money. They fall in love. The union is consummated. The fittest thrive in a dog-eat-dog world, while everyone else … well, their demise would prove Plato’s point. Instead of the meek inheriting the earth, they would be replaced with fewer but higher-quality humans. The modern world is overpopulated anyway. Problem solved.
Noble wrote that history’s end would spell doom for an “imagination-driven, timeful and artful” way of life that modern thinkers associate with “primitive” peoples and the Dark Ages. He thought humans were happier in a humbler condition, one that acknowledged and embraced the cycles of nature — what ecologists call balanced ecosystems — and didn’t seek to destroy them in the name of individual freedom. His definition of freedom was closer to that of America’s founders than to Ayn Rand. Noble believed that humans would always be conflicted, God love ’em, because they inhabit two worlds.
To Noble, intuition and objective “truth” are equally valid and symbiotic. Their collaboration can create havoc, but it also fosters creativity, kindness and love.
Neoliberals argue that the private sector can do better than government … at everything. This is the overarching theme of the Aspen Ideas Festival, Davos, TED, the Council on Foreign Relations, the WTO. In “The World Is Flat,” published in 2005, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared that free-market globalization would usher in a utopia in which traditional (national) governments had a minimal role. Consumers would be the new voters in a democratic economy. The grow-or-die capitalism that Friedman implicitly condoned ignored natural limits. If resources run out, well, humans will always find a way to replace them.
Among elitist billionaires, colonizing Mars became a legitimate long-term goal, one that Noble found absurd, not to mention immoral given the plight of Mother Earth and the billions of people whom it could no longer support and who would be left stranded.
Then Friedman changed his mind, making a startling discovery: The world is “Hot, Flat and Crowded.” Published the same year as the bank bailout, his new book was subtitled, “Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America.” He admits that he had perhaps been premature in predicting history’s end. After all, the first “Flat,” subtitled “A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century,” was written just five years into the century in question. Now Friedman recommended, astonishingly, a return to nationalism, government-mandated rationing and reinvestment (not just carrots but sticks) in renewables.
Noble commends Friedman’s conversion to two-world thinking in “Debating the End of History.” But in the 11 years since, little has changed in U.S. economic policy. The jury is still out: Will corporations find solutions before consumers are forced to do without such must-have modern amenities as jets, smartphones, SUVs, frosted flakes and disposable clothing?
What goes around comes around. The pendulum swings when you’re a mere human with a foot in two opposite worlds. Noble writes that in FDR’s “world of national interest, politics involved words such as community, equality, social justice and compassion.” Sadly, “[t]he sacred language of the marketplace could not allow such words. They were replaced by freedom and efficiency [that] expressed the essence of independence, rationality, and objectivity.”
Noble died in 2018 at age 92. He lived just long enough to witness the event that proved him right about history having no end: the election of a neofascist climate-denier, Donald Trump, as U.S. president. Market and social chaos look far more likely now than an orderly transition to utopia.
In the interests of efficiency, we must send our political leaders, not our CEOs, to Paris to forge an agreement with other nations that may or may not save the planet. Time is running out. More of the same is no longer an option. History will not end, nor markets prevail over the rule of law. We live on a finite planet, and only government can be the final arbiter of who gets which of the scarce resources left.
A progressive capitalist with experience and vision is humanity’s only hope for a soft landing. In my view the likeliest candidate to bring voters to their senses is U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
I wish I could sit down with Prof. Noble and ask him: Is there still time? My guess is that he would answer: Of course there is! Being both a skeptic and an optimist goes with the territory when you live in two worlds, one rational and the other timeful, artful and imaginative.
Bonnie Blodgett, of St. Paul, specializes in environmental topics. She’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.