“We cannot save the world by playing by the rules,” thunders Greta Thunberg, voicing the sentiment of practically every violent radical, terrorist, and concentration-camp builder throughout modern history. Here is a 21st-century question: Is the 20-year-old environmental campaigner old enough to know better?
There was a time, not that long ago, when this would have been understood as a nonsensical question, the answer to which is: Of course. V.I. Lenin spent much of his 20th year translating The Communist Manifesto from German into Russian. This was an act of devotion, not an act of necessary scholarship, the work already having been translated by Mikhail Bakunin some years earlier. No copy of Lenin’s translation exists—it would have been of interest to compare it to other versions. Lenin, of course, was very much of Thunberg’s mind—no time for the rules, no time for niceties when you are saving humanity. The problem is, the thing radicals are always saving humanity from is humanity—hence the inhumanity typical of radical movements. When the other young idealists moved to abolish capital punishment in the utopia they were building, Lenin quashed the reform. “How can you make a revolution without executions?” he asked. He charged those pressing for a more humane approach with “impermissible weakness.” He summed up his strategy: “terror.” His version of “We cannot save the world by playing by the rules” was his call for “unrestricted power based on force, not law.”
By the age of 20, Joseph Stalin already was immersed in radical activism. He read widely in contemporary socialist literature and was discoursed by the moderation of many would-be reformers. The socialist writer who most spoke to him wrote under the name “Tulin.” This was, of course, none other than Lenin. Stalin’s hatred for rules-abiding moderates was enduring: Social democrats were, in his diagnosis, “objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Osama bin Laden was only a few years away from his first real jihad at that age and already working with radical groups. Pol Pot was making contacts with future political allies in Paris. Hitler, the slacker, was a semi-vagrant bohemian in Vienna at 20, but his great antagonist, Winston Churchill, was preparing to be commissioned in the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars when he was Thunberg’s age.
Greta Thunberg is, by most accounts, poorly educated. (She did finally finish high school this year after 251 weeks “on strike” from schooling.) Perhaps she is not familiar with the history of the ideas she espouses.
But she should be.
The military junta that just overthrew the government in Niger? Big “we cannot save the country by playing by the rules”-type guys. The January 6 cretins here at home? Same deal. Weather Underground? Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Irish Republican Army, Zapatistas, Sandinistas, National Socialist German Workers’ Party, et al.? Same energy.
This isn’t to say young Greta Thunberg is the moral equivalent of Joseph Stalin—but, then, neither was young Joseph Stalin. The point, rather, is this: If you want to save the world, then you are saving it for—something. Presumably, that something is not a Hobbesian state of nature, in which everybody thinks that everything everywhere all the time is too important to play by the rules. If you believe, as many people of good faith do, that more rigorous worldwide action on climate policy is necessary, then your only real hope is that people—and countries, and institutions—play by the rules, because that is the only way anything gets done on that scale. Mock the idea of a “rules-based order” as a neoliberal fiction all you like, but we have a much more effective global trade apparatus than we do a global climate-policy apparatus because we have effective rules that have developed largely organically and through negotiation over time and which, for that reason, command a certain grudging consensus.
Young David Hogg says, “The time for debate is over.” Barack Obama was fond of saying that, too. All right, then—what comes next? How do we go about putting a stop to debate, the time for debate being over? Hogg’s issue is gun control, and what is arrayed against him includes long-standing democratic priorities and the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is, politically speaking, our most important set of rules. Time to stop “playing by the rules,” then?
Rules are all we have to go on.
When somebody talks about the need to throw out the old rules, it bears asking: Which rules? Property rights and economic freedom are almost always the first to go. But do you know what is stopping the imposition of a radical global climate program of the sort Greta Thunberg advocates? It isn’t capitalism—it is democracy. No democratic country in this world has taken up the sort of radical program put forward by the hardcore climate activists, and even in the European Union, where climate activism looms larger as a political issue than it does in the United States, climate action typically is rated by voters a considerably less urgent concern than are things such as economic growth, jobs, and health care. One of “the rules” that radicals don’t like to play by is the one that says people in civilized countries get a say in how they are governed and that governments respond to their priorities. Democracy includes the right of the people to be wrong.
Young Romans typically put on the toga virilis, the garment of adulthood (manhood, of course, the times being what they were) between the ages of 14 and 16. Then as now, adulthood meant becoming a full political citizen, with the rights and duties that go along with that. Once taken up, the duty of political adulthood was not put away again—you could take off the toga, but what the toga stood for stayed. I don’t expect Greta Thunberg to start acting like an adult, and I don’t think many other sensible people do, either. But when somebody says, “We cannot save the world by playing by the rules,” the people who are dressed in the garment of civic maturity should understand what they are hearing, which is a call to chaos.