Politicians Who Can’t Speak the Language of Leadership

In response to Sakharov’s first major official effort to caution the Kremlin about the dangers of the monstrous bombs he was responsible for inventing before he gained sufficient moral stature to become a dissident, Khrushchev responded with the following public humiliation (words that only a few years earlier would have been a death sentence):

Leave politics to us–we’re the specialists. You make your bombs and test them, and we won’t interfere with you; we’ll help you. But remember, we have to conduct our policies from a position of strength. We don’t advertise it, but that’s how it is! There can’t be any other policy. Our opponents don’t understand any other language. [Andrei Sakharov, Memoirs (Tr. Richard Lourie), N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1992, 217.]

It should really come as no surprise when politicians are short-sighted bullies who speak only the language of force: whether or not that language is the most effective way to conduct foreign policy, it is indeed the only language that seems effective in a bureaucracy, and politicians either rise through bureaucracies or have to work with them once they have risen.

Is there any on-the-job training for being a leader that could possibly be worse than being a politician?

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Bureaucratic Flavors

Bureaucratic behavior comes in many flavors – it’s hard to predict until the fine lens of crisis is applied. Then, one discovers what sort of government one has. Speaking of the bureaucratic response to a non-political plague, Albert Camus had this to say about the flavors of bureaucratic behavior:

Mais ils [the bureaucrats] lui [the citizen requesting special consideration] represenaient ordinairement que c’etait aussi le cas d’un certain nombre de gens et que, par consequent, son affaire n’etait pas aussi particuliere qu’il l’imaginait. A quoi Rambert pouvait repondre que cela ne changeait rien au fond de son argumentation, on lui repondait que cela changeait quelque chose aux difficultes administratives qui s’opposaient a toute mesure de faveur risquant de creer ce que l’on appelait, avec une expression de grande repugnance, un precedent. Selon la classification que Rambert proposa au docteur Tieux, ce genre de raisonneurs constituait la categorie des formalists. A cote d’eux, on pouvait encore trouver les bien parlants, qui assuraient le demandeur que rien de tout cela ne pouvait durer et qui, prodigies de bons conseils quand on leur demandait des decisions, consolaient Rambert en decidant qu’il s’agissait seulement d’un ennui momentane. Il y avait aussi les importants, qui priaient leur visiteur de laisser une note resumant son cas et qui l’informaient qu’ils statueraient sur ce cas; les futiles, qui lui proposaient des bons de logement ou des addresses de pensions economiques; les methodiques, qui faisaient remplir une fiche et la classaient ensuite; les debordes, qui levaient les bras, et les importunes, qui detournaient les yeux; il y avait enfin les traditionnels, de beucoup les plus nombreus, qui indiquaient a Rambert un autre bureau ou une nouvelle demarche a faire. [La Peste, (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), 86-87.]

The Formalists: Those who fear creating a precedent

The Smooth-talkers: Those who reassure rather than taking action

The Hotshots: Those too important to do anything

The Trivialists: Those who offer worthless advice

The Paperpushers: Those who offer a form to be filled in and file it

The Overwhelmed: Those who have nothing to offer

The Tired: Those who turn their eyes

The Traditionalists: Those who send one elsewhere

Camus, for whatever reason, omitted one critical type, a type that as a Frenchman, he perhaps considered too obvious to need mentioning:

The Little Stalins: Those who believe it is their mission to command.

Another Frenchman, not coincidentally, beautifully characterized the Little Stalins long before Big Stalin strode the earth. Alexis de Tocqueville, speaking of the ancien regime before the centralization movement of the French Revolution, described the French bureaucracy thus:

Ce qui caracterise deja l’administration en France, c’est la haine violente que lui inspirent indistinctement tous ceux, nobles ou bourgeois, qui veulent s’occuper d’affaires publiques, en dehors d’elle. Le moindre corps independent qui semble vouloir se former sans son concours lui fait peur; la plus petite association libre, quell qu’en soit l’objet, l’importune; elle ne laisse subsister que celles qu’elle a composees arbitrairement et qu’elle preside. [L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution (Gallimard, 1967 ((1859))), 136.]

The above reference to Stalin should of course not be read as implying that French democracy resembled Stalinism, but just that the mentality of the right to control rather than the duty to serve was analogous. Stalin showed us all the danger of such a bureaucratic attitude.

Nothing but “Bureaucratized Anarchy”

While everyone gets excited about the crisis of the day – perhaps a colonial war of liberation or a terrorist threat, the real threat to the democratic society of the homeland comes from within. The near collapse of French democracy in the 1950s as a result of the cleavages within French society between those insisting on retaining oppresssive French rule in Algeria and those willing to contemplate a compromise with the Algerian Arab public is a case in point with vast lessons for today. Consider these remarks  by Albert Camus on one tiny event, the imprisoning of one Jean de Maisonseul on the classically vague authoritarian charge of having committed “imprudences” (surely more than enough reason to toss a man in prison without, in the case, trial or access to lawyers) by advocating an agreement by both Algerian independence fighters and French colonialists that the two sides would cease killing women and children. Note that the imprisoned person was French, not Arab. Chickens come home to roost.

…il faut dire que cet esprit civique a disparu d’abord de nos milieux gouvernementaux, ou le service public est en passe d’oublier s dignite. L’entrainement, l’indifference due a l’usure, la banalite des caracteres, parfois, y ont fiat prevaloir une conception diminuee du pouvoir qui traite alors l’innocent avec desinvolture et le coupable avec complaisance. L’Etat peut etre legal, mais il n’est legitime que lorsque, a la tete de la nation, il rest l’arbitre qui garantit la justice et ajuste l’interet general aux libertes particulieres. S’il perd ce souce, iul perd son corps, il pourrit, il n’est plus rien qu’une anarchie bureaucratisee. [Albert Camus, Chroniques algeriennes 1939-1958 (Gallimard, 1958), 194-195.]…

…les seuls hommes fermes sur leurs devoirs sont ceux qui ne cedent rien sur leurs droits. A plus forte raison, ne pouvons-nous rien ceder sur le droit de l’innocent emprisonne. [p. 196.]

Honey-Mouthed Politicians

Li Linfu, powerful chancellor of Tang dynasty China from 734 to 752, was renown for his devious ways and honeyed voice, evidently an early master of political correctness. Employing his skills to personal advantage, he ruled by backstabbing all potential competitors (which naturally included all patriotic officials intent upon serving their country) while his emperor focused on the development of new forms of music. Continue reading

Truth vs. Lying

In his mid-70s analysis of Soviet socio-political conditions, dissident Marxist historian Roy Medvedev quoted an essay called “Think” by another Soviet dissident, Boris Shragin (Lev Ventsov) saying that the basic conflict in Soviet society was not one of:

political doctrines, ideology, parties and classes, but something quite different, much more deep-rooted, more deep-rooted than anything else–it is a conflict between truth and lying as a matter of expedience; between honesty and self-seeking of the worst kind; between a sense of justice, warm human sympathy, and cruelty rabid in its cowardly vindictiveness; between a sense of law and the total lack of it; and finally between an awareness of personal dignity and a feeling of one’s own insignificance raised to a principle of life. This historical clash of values takes place inside every individual, and everybody who has the capacity to do so is faced by the need to make his own choice. The scales of history are tipped by all those individual choices. [Roy Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, 74.]

If anyone has a source for Shragin’s original essay, in Russian or English, please let me know. I trust the relevance of his remarks today is obvious.

Guilt

Guilt, innocence, and justice–albeit favorite crumbs for tossing out to the crowd–are, to most politicians, acidic concepts whose merest touch can corrode that all-important amour-propre. “Team players,” as one says in Washington–does anyone know what the term would have been in the old Soviet Union???–would never allow such rudeness to pass their lips in a policy meeting. Continue reading