Some days, not often, he still believed that revolution might begin with him. The way a bonfire took from one spark. The way, centuries ago, bonfires passed Joss Fritz’s revolutionary message from hill to hill through the Rhine valley. His optimism in this direction had to do with the strong black coffee he drank early in the morning on Richard’s back porch. He drank his coffee, listened to the birds, and thought that maybe it had not all been in vain.
But thinking, he knew, was only an organized method of self-deception. Topel had no truck with credulity, not at this age. And still, it was very hard to know. The delusion and fantasy of the ruling classes kept pace with the wishful thinking of idealists. The edifice of established order practically tesselated cracks. And most of them were cosmetic, sure, but it only took one fatal line of distress. When the structure came down, it would come down in a hurry. History taught as much. It would come down fast and unexpectedly, and later we would say, inevitably, looking back and seeking to restore our faith that behind history sat a governing narrative logic. First though people would need leaders, answers, and a program. They would need the idea of a future to strive into. So strange, wasn’t it (marvelously strange, Topel heretically thought) that a world built on stuff, on the gross practicality of the human body, in fact rested on a background webbing of ideas. Ethics, theories, ideals. On a vast immaterial buy-in, our collective faith in an order we never more than half-consciously espoused – its reality, inevitability, and justice. The law deceived us in obscuring this. Civil order endured thanks to police and judges to about the degree that a coat of paint kept a house upright. Nail polish on an idle fist. Nietzsche’s superfluous man, who thought himself good simply because his claws weren’t sharp – a good description of the modern type, Topel thought, as smug in his self-approval as in the disavowal of his power. The strength of a social fabric derived from people’s confidence in it and their acceptance of it, and it followed, then, that the cloth was as strong or weak as the aggregation of individual belief. Courts offered little more than a show of dispassion in the moral sanctioning of slavery and misuse. Like the Church, they obscured the conservative aim – the preservation of authority and wealth – in ceremony and doctrinal arcana. But then the question of why the system had endured so long. This had troubled Lenin a century before. And capitalism had returned from the precipice of its excesses many times since, from the moment in cannibalizing itself when functional return did not seem possible. Topel had gotten into it with that kid reporter the other day.
‘Shouldn’t we consider,’ the kid had said, ‘after the big crises – ’29, ’08 – after the fall of the Soviet Union, the reforms under Deng Xiaoping, after – God – Nazism and the consequences of Versailles, and on the plus side the success of social democracies in Europe – don’t we have to consider at least that a market system and representative government might be the most stable model? The most flexible – imperfect, maybe, but able to self-correct just enough?’