For those lucky enough to have survived it, the worst thing that happened in the 20th century was the malaise that defined it: the ubiquitous and relentless attempt of every political power to terminate public discourse, as reaffirmed by Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush at the Malta summit on December 3, 1989. Only weeks before, the world had witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall, as West and East Germans engaged in a spontaneous populist movement to tear down the symbolic barrier that had divided not only them, but also the rest of the world.
On that day, Gorbachev opined: “The world is leaving one epoch and entering another. We are at the beginning of a long road to a lasting, peaceful era. The threat of force, mistrust, psychological and ideological struggle should all be things of the past.” To which Bush added: “We can realize a lasting peace and transform the East-West relationship to one of enduring co-operation. That is the future that Chairman Gorbachev and I began right here in Malta.”
What is most remarkable about these pronouncements is their utopian vision of a world in which “enduring cooperation” between ideologies previously opposed for more than a century would define a perfect global future of classic Hegelian synthesis.
Of course, no sane person had ever wanted the Cold War to heat up into a nuclear holocaust, followed by a nuclear winter that would annihilate all life on earth. So Gorbachev’s veiled concession of defeat at that Summit: “I assured the President of the United States that I will never start a hot war against the USA,” was embraced by most with considerable relief.
President Bush had no need to claim victory on that occasion for the West—Francis Fukuyama had done that for him ten months earlier with an essay bearing the cautiously rhetorical title, “Have We Reached the End of History?” first written for and published by the American military-industrial think tank, the RAND Corporation. In fact, it is entirely within the realm of the conceivable that Fukuyama’s seminal essay provided both the vocabulary and the intellectual framework around which the outcome of the Malta Summit was constructed.
In his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama, newly confident and declarative, elaborated on his earlier tentative and equivocal 1989 essay: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
As if celebrating this alleged millennial victory of capitalist neo-liberalism a twenty-year orgy of “investment” swept the globe, as private, corporate and public entities all sought to secure and grow their share of Capital in this brave new world with what even the conservative monetarist Alan Greenspan would call during his address to the American Enterprise Institute on December 5, 1996, an “irrational exuberance.”
In the rarified diplomatic atmosphere in which the Malta Summit took place, the concluding public statements by the contending parties are never left to chance. It is worthwhile, therefore, to deconstruct exactly what Gorbachev was saying (to which Bush’s statement had merely been a rhetorical afterthought).
The fact that neither the public threat (nor use) of force, nor mistrust, nor psychological terror disappeared from the world after the Cold War (nowhere articulated more eloquently than in Derrida’s famous critique of Fukuyama’s thesis) is something to which we will return, but first let us take a closer look at the fourth alleged “threat” that Gorbachev had decreed should become a thing of the past: “ideological struggle.” Let us pause to look more closely at the political and ideological positions that had defined the dialectics of the Cold War.
On the political side, the combatants consisted of two ideologically opposed blocs of nation states: NATO in the West; and the Warsaw Pact in the East. Both sides had significant allies among nation states not signatories to these two specific treaty organizations—chief among them China for the East and Japan for the West. In the remainder of the world’s ideologically and more often than not economically “underdeveloped” nations, these two blocs competed for “spheres of influence” to which they exported their proxy war(s).
The two leading nation states of these blocs, the USA in the West and the USSR in the East, both represented themselves as democracies: both had allegedly been founded by populist revolutions against former monarchies, resulting in the execution and/or flight of the “loyalists” of their previous regimes; both were federations of more or less autonomous republics; and both guaranteed their citizens freedom. Where, then, lay the roots of their ideological struggle?
In their dialectically opposed definitions of freedom.
The nominally capitalist West tended to define freedom as the “positive, creative” freedom of their citizens to exploit; whereas the nominally communist East tended to define freedom as the “negative, reactionary” freedom of their citizens from exploitation. Each side accused the other, correctly, of governing under a one-party system whose periodic “elections” constituted a public fraud.
Insofar as philosophically neither of these dialectically opposed definitions of freedom are considered to produce a relatively greater public good than the other, it would appear that their simultaneous guarantee remains an equal responsibility for any system of authority that claims to govern with the consent of its citizens.
On this question, nothing in “Have We Reached the End of History?” is more telling than Fukuyama’s only instance of the use of emphasis in his essay: “The vast majority of the world’s nationalist movements do not have a political program beyond the negative desire of independence from some other group or people, and do not offer anything like a comprehensive agenda for socio-economic organization.” For Fukuyama, the Cold War could produce only winners and losers: “But the century that began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: not to an ‘end of ideology’ or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.”
In this sentiment, Fukuyama revealed himself to be as deluded as his self-acknowledged mentor Hegel, who had previously announced the end of history on the occasion of Napoleon’s victory at the battle of Jena in 1806.
It appears to have seemed immaterial to Hegel that Napoleon, whom he claimed to have exported the civic values of the French Revolution to the world, had two years previously been declared Emperor of France, and commissioned a portrait of himself dressed in the full regalia of a Holy Roman Emperor—as immaterial as it must have seemed to Fukuyama that he published his seminal essay on the question of whether or not the world had reached the end of history in the late 20th century with the RAND Corporation.
But what was most significant about the ideological struggle of the Cold War is what its sound and fury had disguised: its subtext—the ideology of monetarism. Though colloquially considered a relatively recent neo-conservative discourse on how the control of the money supply influences the economy, monetarism is here used in its classical sense: a methodology of quantifying the value of assets by monetizing them—assigning a monetary value to them—a precondition for buying and selling them in the marketplace.
This larger dialectic that has persisted since the dawn of history is not the question of to whom the “surplus” Capital (or Equity) identified on the balance sheets of our financial statements as a Liability is owed; but rather how we constitute the value of the balance sheet’s other side: its Assets.
As Hegel had pointed out two centuries earlier, “Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights.” The great tragedy of the 20th century was that capitalist and communist regimes of every political stripe and permutation—from imperialist monarchies to liberal democracies to fascist dictatorships to totalitarian socialists—had been arguing over which face of the same coin depicted its rightful owner: the individual symbolized by its head, or the community symbolized by the iconography on its tail. While both sides had been “right” insofar as the art of politics has always subsisted in the craft of balancing the interests of the individual with those of the community, what they had forgotten is that Capital is always identified as a Liability on the balance sheets of our financial statements—it is always owed—to someone or something, by someone or something.
Insofar as the ideological struggle of how, exactly, to define and distribute the value of both private and public Assets (and not just Liabilities) on our balance sheets equitably and justly remains unresolved in the public realm to this day, the answer to Fukuyama’s rhetorical question of 1989, “Have we reached the end of history?” will remain a simple and resounding “No.”
As Tony Judt points out in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008), “Fear is reemerging as an active ingredient in political life in Western democracies… And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.” This observation will not be news to anyone who follows the popular media, the sole purpose of which often seems nothing other than to evoke the emotions of pity and fear—the old newsroom adage “if it bleeds it leads” has never been more true than in our age of terror. And more than any other human emotions, pity and fear isolate us from others, trap us within our private selves, focus all of our attention on the present, and relegate history to the realm of the immediately immaterial. We live, in the 21st century, in what Judt calls “an age of forgetting.”
If humanity is ever to achieve the catharsis of pity and fear that Aristotle claimed was the sole purpose of the public performance of tragedy, and which constitutes a necessary precondition for public discourse, we must remember and reengage what we have repressed—the lessons of history, particularly those of the age of conquest, the horrors and genocides of which the 20th century was the spectacular apotheosis.
But in the recollection and reappraisal of history necessary for us to imagine our future, we must avoid the virtualization of its lessons in the manner of that other current populist historian, Niall Ferguson. His The Pity of War (1998) indulges in the most extreme forms of “counterfactual history.” His The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (2008) conveniently glosses over the fact that the most profitable commodity traded by Europe’s earliest merchant city-states was neither silk nor spices, but “Slavs” (from which we derive our word slaves) . His Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011) attributes the “superiority” of the social economies of the West since the 16th century to the “purely coincidental” conjunction of six “killer apps”: competition; science; property rights; medicine; the consumer society; and the work ethic (the unfortunate, though profoundly telling irony of his use of this colloquial phrase in this context seems to have escaped the author), only half of which are, in fact, historically unique to Western Europeans. Together, these books amount to a sweeping apologia for the age of conquest, summarized as follows on page 314 of Civilization: “As we have seen, Western civilization did indeed destroy or subjugate most of the world’s civilizations after around 1500. Yet much of this was achieved with a minimum of outright conflict, at least compared with the number and scale of wars the Western powers fought with one another.” Clearly, Ferguson consulted neither with aboriginal people of the “New World” on this question, nor Adam Hochschild’s critically acclaimed King Leopold’s Ghost  on colonial conditions in Africa. And it certainly comes as no surprise that Ferguson’s forthcoming book, Henry Kissinger: A Life , is being touted as a “warts and all” biography of the supreme architect of the victory of the Cold War by the West.
What is perhaps most disturbing to those with an interest in “what history teaches” are the peerless intellectual credentials that both Francis Fukuyama and Niall Ferguson enjoy at what are considered the very best of the 21st century’s institutions of higher learning in English: Fukuyama is the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; Ferguson is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, the William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and a Senior Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Anyone wishing to challenge the current received wisdom that we have indeed reached the threshold of humanity’s utopian millennial age in our century, and that living in our global village under a system of the one-party rule of capitalist neo-liberalism in which all ideological opposition has become by degrees privatized and thereby ultimately criminalized, governed by socio-economic “authorities” whose legitimacy is based on a virtualization of history and the relegation of memory to the immaterial, has before them a seemingly insurmountable ideological struggle—particularly in the face of Ferguson’s famous anti-intellectual, preemptive threat to his potential critics: “Nobody should ever imagine that they can do that kind of thing to me with impunity. Life is long, and revenge is a dish that tastes best cold. I’m very unforgiving.” (The Guardian—April 11, 2011)
Keeping permanent public accounts of who owes how much of what to whom seems to underlie the very invention and original purpose of writing. The earliest written form of Sumerian, for example, can be found on inscribed clay tablets representing commodities, and predates the use of cuneiform to construct narrative by at least 500 years.
Our current global methodology of keeping accounts is based on what is known as double-entry bookkeeping, a closed system, zero-sum method of recording the Assets and Liabilities (debits and credits) of a person, corporation, entity or government in such a way that they “balance.”
On November 10, 1494, right at the beginning of a period variously known as the “age of discovery / exploration / conquest,” Luca Pacioli published a book, Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalità, that contained a thorough description of double-entry bookkeeping, which had clearly been used in the Italian merchant and banking city-states centuries before his time. Written in the vernacular, Pacioli’s Summa quickly became a popular textbook for teaching mathematics.
By devoting an entire chapter of his Summa to this “Venetian method” of accounting, Pacioli elevated double-entry bookkeeping to the status of an objective science, fully comparable to his discussion of the principles of algebra in the same volume.
Interestingly, Pacioli also translated the Elements of Euclid [c. 300 BCE], not into the vernacular, but into Latin. While the 23 definitions, five axioms and five postulates on which Euclidean (or plane) geometry is based, particularly his Fifth Postulate concerning parallel lines, were still considered to be objectively unassailable in Pacioli’s time, they have been the subject of scientific debate since they were first claimed by Euclid to be self-evident truths over two millenia ago.
Then, around 1830, the Russian mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky described a mathematically consistent hyperbolic geometry by negating Euclid’s Fifth Postulate concerning parallel lines. At the same time, and working independently, the Hungarian mathematician János Bolyai, who had also postulated a hyperbolic geometry based on a constant negative curvature of space, demonstrated that any resolution of the debate as to whether the physical universe is most accurately rendered (described) by either Euclidean or hyperbolic geometry could not be proved by mathematics, but only by the physical sciences.
Shortly thereafter, the German mathematician Bernhard Riemann theorized the existence of an infinite series of geometries, the simplest of which was elliptic geometry, based on the postulate of a constant positive curvature of space.
By the end of the19th century, Madam Currie had done for physics and chemistry what Darwin had done for biology, and Riemann, Bolyai and Lobachevsky had done for geometry. It is no accident that the abolition of slavery in the Western world also occurred, by degrees, in the same century that witnessed a complete reappraisal of the fundamental axioms and postulates upon which all of Western science and civilization had been based since at least the 15th century, and most probably much earlier still—possibly, for some of its precepts, as far back as the 5th century.
It is reasonable, therefore, to ask why the fundamental axioms and postulates underlying the “science” of double-entry bookkeeping, (which is a more accurate analogue to geometry than it is to algebra), have not been subject to the same level of scrutiny since the 19th century as those which underlie all the other hard or objective or physical sciences of the West.
The answer, of course, is that there have remained too many vested socio-economic interests at stake that have prevented us—throughout a century that began with the technological slaughter of the war to end all wars; then indulged in a holocaust of multiple genocides; and finally presented us with dialectically opposed “scientifically demonstrable” threats of planetary extinction, first through a nuclear winter, then through a scorching summer of global warming—from shifting our ideological focus on only one subset of our balance sheets that has dominated not so much our age of forgetting as our age of denial—Das Kapital—to the fundamental axioms and postulates which underlie our methodology of accounting per se.
That reappraisal of our system of accounting for value and hence the wealth of nations, its potentially profound outcomes, and its historic necessity for the survival and sustainability of life on earth, will be the subject of Part Two of this article, scheduled to appear in the next issue of subTerrain.»
Part II of Karl Siegler’s essay On Value, “Our Unacknowledged One-Party Capitalist Oligarchy” appears in issue #63, on newsstands now.
From issue #62
The European slave trade and its seminal relation to the evolution of monetarism in the West is referenced by Pirene’s classic text, Economic & Social History of Europe, Routledge & Kegan Paul ; elaborated upon in Robert Latouche’s The Birth of Western Economy, Methuen ; and confirmed in Michael McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD 300-900, Cambridge —yet it is disingenuously denied in David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 years, Melville House .