Sunday, October 29, 2006

"Allow me to consult my Milton Friedman on this question"

Here's a good read, courtesy of A&L: GOP and Man at Yale, from the American Conservative. It's a paleoconservative lament, as we should expect from a magazine founded by Pat Buchanan, about the ascent of "mindless Republican boosterism" among college-aged conservatives. Before you dismiss this as the flipside to the liberal coin of complaining about how we youngins aren't activist enough, read on. The author, Daniel McCarthy, makes some (on the surface) salient points about how young Republicans today haven't done their homework: rather than reading the "greats" of conservatism, the Russell Kirks and Richard Weavers and Ayn Rands and Milton Friedmans, they wear "George Bush is my homeboy" shirts and listen to Coulter and Hannity.

The "canon" of conservatism has always interested me. It seems so much more neat, nice, and carefully delineated than the sprawling mass of countercultural pamphlets, vague manifestoes, and pop culture oddities that constitute the "mission statement," if there is one, of the 60s New Left. As a young conservative, one need only read The Road to Serfdom, Capitalism and Freedom, The Conservative Mind, The Virtue of Selfishness, Ideas Have Consequences, and anything by Murray Rothbard and presto, you're a card-carrying member of the movement, with the requisite answer for every political, cultural, and economic question. So, my first response to the piece was a question: What was the comparable reading list for the (60s, New) Left? Was it The Other America by Michael Harrington, books by Arthur Schlesinger, John Kenneth Galbraith, radical philosophy (i.e. good old-fashioned Marx and Engels), Marcuse-style critical theory, Silent Spring, Soul on Ice, The Female Eunuch? And furthermore, what is it today? Who here has read anything from the past fifty years that solidifed their stance as a progressive liberal? (I throw this label out in the "biggest-tent-possible" fashion; work with me here. But dissenters from this label please feel free to, well, dissent.)

But then I got to thinking more about McCarthy's article, and how ultimately irrelevant his canon is. I will grant that popular conservative books were at one time argued more carefully, intellectually, and politely. Intelligently written conservative (and progressive!) books are now more likely to be distributed on highly specialized university presses for higher prices. But is McCarthy correct in supposing that his hallowed books once meant something to a significant portion of the Republican party, or even to a significant portion of its elites, and that that number has lately dwindled? Which is the same thing as saying something like, did Dissent magazine ever mean more to the Democratic elites than it does now? It seems to me that McCarthy is mistaking the periphery for the core here. Except for a few fundamental ideological touchstones, political movements rarely latch on to whole systems of philosophy. That's something only elite academics have time for, because they're not constantly campaigning, forging alliances, formulating policy points to attract the largest possible number of voters, etc. This is not to say that many people don't read political philosophy (very loosely defined) and absorb it into their arguments. I just mean that very few people who are actually politically involved can afford to consult their Mises on every question.

Nor do I think that a decline in erudite study can account for the gutterization of political discourse, something which McCarthy rightly detests. It's the medium more than the message--that is, the technological advances, the rise in cable news, conservative talk radio, "soundbyte" culture, well-funded publishing companies with nothing to lose (Regnery, Crown Forum, et al), shortened attention spans, etc. Mix these with disgusting but attention-grabbing punditry and you get the feedback loop of Rush, O'Reilly, and their ilk. (I would berate the Democrats here as well but there really is no comparable institutionalized hate parade on their side. Rush, Hannity, Coulter and the rest are dyed-in-the-wool Republicans; the most vociferous and uncivil anti-Bush rants tend to come from people who abandoned the Democrats long ago. So when Republicans search for an "America-hating leftist," they can usually only drum up Ward Churchill, an obscure blogger, and Some Guy with a Sign Somewhere [I owe this formulation to Scott Lemieux at the American Prospect blog].)

Now, for a final point: McCarthy goes out of his way to establish the conservative Old Guard's anti-war credentials. His point seems to be that if young Republicans delved deeply enough into the classics, they'd find ammunition aplenty against George Bush's particular (preemptive) worldview. But couldn't one counter that it's not as though the Bush administration doesn't read philosophy, it just reads the wrong kind of philosophy? And here we could introduce (yet again) the question of Straussianism. I for one see nothing in this Presidency that couldn't be traced back to a combination of greed, power, and religious fervor (yes, Robot, I read the Wills piece), rather than Plato and Machiavelli. But even if this administration isn't studying ancient texts esoterically, we could still point out that there might still be a more "ideological" rather than "pragmatic" bent to this group. I won't say any more on this topic, but because of it's synthesis of academia and actual public policy I find it fascinating. Any thoughts (on the roughly 400 questions I've raised)?

6 Comments:

Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

An interesting topic. My take on it is that liberal intellectuals, being the elitists that they are, always want to come up (or at least pretend to come up) with a unique ideology on their own. This means that they inevitably disagree on which works are the most influential and that they enjoy considering a new angle every couple of weeks or so. I’m reminded of a certain Ben Johnson scholar who would suggest we read a new radical intellectual pretty much every week to our thesis prep class.
Conservatives, being inherently somewhat backward-looking, have a much easier time agreeing on the proper works because they’re not worried about who is going to be in vogue this week, or who is going to be used to create something new. They just want the same old stuff. Moreover, their options are limited because there just isn’t that much for conservative intellectuals to say, and hence, not that many conservative intellectuals to pick from.
All of these thoughts depend on a fairly typical caricature of the difference between conservatives and liberals, but I think that this caricature has some merit to it.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

One way of looking at it is through Burke. If, as he argues, we should accumulate knowledge through trial and error or a sort of gradual evolution, then it’s probably true that we won’t need a lot of different people to capture the basic ideas of any one generation.
If we look at a radical liberal like Foucault, the goal is to understand the variability of human nature. That means reading a lot of different people from a lot of different times and explains the greater diversity in the liberal canon.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

I agree that Burke seems to be a critical figure here, austin, but I'm a little unsure what you mean by his "trial and error or a sort of gradual evolution" approach. We certainly come to the same conclusion, that his conservatism embodies a textual conservatism as well, but I find that my reasons for believing so are slightly different. That is, the important aspect of his gradual evoutionary approach, if you want to call it that, is that the sources for the evoution had to come within the texts, traditions, etc. of one's own culture. They could not come from abroad, nor could they -- more importantly -- be rightfully imposed on anyone from abroad. Given the almost necessarily limited number of "traditional texts" it doesn't surprise me either that conservatives of the Burkian ilk have less of a canon.

Other than that, I think there's an even simpler historical reason. American conservatism, after all, is a relatively new phenomenon. Many conservatives today (especially those old paleos) were around at the beginning with Buckley et al. It makes a lot of sense to me, then, that they would hold the classical conservative texts of the last 50 years as the classical conservative texts of all time -- much as old Marxists held... Marx and Engels and a small handful of others as the limited canon in early 20th century Europe.

As for any normative opinion, it seems almost too obvious to say thata belief that this group of texts, and this group of texts only, can provide all the answers is a rather absurd take on the world. But in terms of the libertarian economics wing of conservatism, I'm not shocked. When you have ideologized capitalism, as Daniel Bell explained, you sort of lose that gradual evolutionary thing (ie. the pragmatic part) and stick to the ossified gospel.

Now, in answer to your questions, Scantron:
1) Don't you dare forget old C.W. Mills from your list. He, along with Marcuse, were perhaps the two principal intelletuals of the American New Left. As for my own "progressive liberal stance" I'm afraid to say that most of those who have come close to solidifying my own stance were mostly dead before the 60s began. Perhaps after your experience with Rawls you will have something new to add.

Your final point, though a bit confusing, is I think an important one. This administration IS heavily influenced by ideology, and where does ideology come from if not ideas, books, philosophy, etc. The neo-conservative agenda that has more than all else inspired this administration I think does have roots in (misinterpreting or not) Strauss, in ancient philosophy, in a kind of fundamentalism that often mirrors the religious sort. I leave you with this quotation from a book review of "Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy" edited by Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, and published in the spring 2001 issue of The National Interest. The review was written before the Iraq War, by a conservative foreign policy analyst (at least according to Yglesias, who demands props for the discovery).

"It would be a bad mistake, however, to dismiss the book as the work of armchair warriors from the academy. At its heart lies a tightly woven philosophy leading to a matrix for action. The policy recommendations may be uncomfortable for the diplomatic mainstream, but they present a serious challenge to the conventional norms of conducting business between nations. Explicitly rejected are the notions of 'normalcy' and 'strategic pause' as unworthy of a great nation like the United States, appropriate only for nations once described by Kipling as 'lesser breeds without the law.'

THE BOOK'S central assertion is both negative and positive. First, it is a rejection of the idea that, in American foreign policy calculations, pragmatism should take precedence over ideology. Instead, the authors unapologetically and enthusiastically enthrone ideology, defined as the 'set of universal principles derived from natural rights as enunciated in the Declaration of Independence', as the dominant feature of American foreign policy practice. This, in turn, leads the way to positive action. The authors argue that American moral exceptionalism should not just be a general source of inspiration (in the manner of John Quincy Adams) but should be actively asserted to 'advance civilization and improve the world's condition'--for example, by promoting regime change' in states like China that do not meet American standards."

1:09 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

The case of Burke is interesting, because I think actually that most modern-day libertarian conservatives would disagree with him completely. Burke had no use for "liberty as an abstraction," which of course Milton Friedman will defend to his death. Like de Maistre, Burke thought that human beings were inherently unequal and that this inequality of character (the noble few vs. the unwashed masses) necessitated a more authoritative and inegalitarian government. Or at least, that the chances of the masses enlightening themselves to the point of individual autonomy and competent self-governance were slim. We could say, therefore, that Burke thought that human beings were different, but that human *relationships* more or less remained the same--i.e. that there would always be need of top-down power. Contrast this with the Hobbesian view that human *individuals* are inherently the same, but that we're all so similarly bastard-like that we can't help but turn over power to a central authority. Completely different first principles, I think. I really need to read Burke again, in any case.

Contrarily, libertarians (and most modern-day conservatives and liberals, at least in principle) believe that individuals are free and autonomous, so that they should be uncoerced in their dealings (especially their business dealings; indeed, capitalism is pretty much impossible with paternalists like Burke around). Inequalities in society arise from the freely chosen decisions of individuals, or at least from a system of just acquisitions and dealings. In this respect, I've always kinda wondered why conservatives look back to Burke so much, because there are plenty of other thinkers who advise caution and moderation in all things. Am I missing some major connection here?

As a side note, I still see old-school Burkean elitism pop up sometimes, for instance in an astonishing Jonah Goldberg article I read once about voting, in which he argued that voter registration drives were worthless because people who can't be bothered to register on their own, or those who would be reached by registration methods such as automatic enrollment through their welfare forms, are either too lazy or stupid or ill-informed to "deserve" to vote anyway. This instance interestingly mixes in libertarian ideas about "meriting" all of one's privileges (no handouts!). But I digress.

Austin, you bring up Foucault as an example of a "radical liberal." I suppose this is an accurate hard and fast description, but there is an extensive debate about what exactly Foucault was. For instance, precisely because Foucault thought that human nature was so variable, did he then deny several crucial ingredients for a progressive standpoint, such as a common set of interests, the ability to rationally critique one's position in society and society as a whole, the ability to resist authority? No matter what the answer, using this set of criteria we see that someone like, say, Chomsky, is much more of a radical liberal than Foucault.

Similarly, we might ask whether the elitist need for newer and shinier ideologies is really a liberal position. I'm not sure, and there doesn't seem to be a clear answer. For instance, do identity politics and cultural studies deepen our understanding of the forces that exert power over us, or do they rather posit that there are as many irreducible forms of power as there are forms of culture and society? This would almost be a return to Burke! And, in fact, it is a huge debate on the left. In one corner are the critical theorists and progressive liberals, in the other the Nietzscheans, irrationalists, and some of the more hardcore cultural studies people. Now, any traditional conservative is going to look at this motley crew and think they're all equally nuts, but there are serious differences. For instance, there's Stanley Fish. He's radical enough. But is he a leftist? A liberal even? Hell no. I hope this doesn't come off as pointless name-dropping or tedious hair-splitting but as a deepening of the debate. (And what was the debate again? Oh yeah!)

Robot, you read my mind on the National Interest piece. I actually searched long and hard for it before posting, but couldn't find it in Yglesias' archives. So that was basically what I was getting at. The biggest question to ask in the case of the Bush administration (having established, firmly, that they indeed have an ideological agenda), is whether or not they mean all those rosy phrases they spout about democracy, freedom, and the shining example of America. Could they in fact be saying this, but actually mean "We want a world in which we possess unchallenged power, and we're happy to have you as our ally even if you're a human rights-abusing dictatorship or reactionary theocratic oligarchy"? Food for thought.

10:02 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Burke
While I don't really want to get mixed up in an interpretative argument over Edmund Burke, I'm not sure I can agree with what either of you have said about his thought.
Robot, you seem to think that Burke is categorically against foreign influence in politics. I don't really see any evidence of that in the one piece that I'm really familiar with, Reflections on the Revolution in France. In that piece he addresses a Frenchman (which may or may not be a rhetorical ploy) and explains why he does not support the revolution in France, and why it would be ill-advised to pursue a revolution in Britain. Also, I'm not really sure what problem you have with my characterization of Burke as advocating "trial and error or a sort of gradual evolution" in politics; I find it a bit irritating that you hint at an objection without citing evidence to the contrary or putting forth a reasoned argument.
Scantron, your characterization of Burke as primarily concerned with ranking and privileging one set of people over another doesn't ring true, either. Sure, he has his moments, but he's not Robert Filmer; after all, he argued for the revolution in America because he believed the king had violated Americans' rights as Englishmen.
What Burke has in common with libertarians is his belief in the value of spontaneous social arrangements and his distrust of the careless destruction of those arrangements. This does entail a distaste for those who would "level" society, but it's not that Burke prefers, apriori, a ranked society, as much as he believes that leveling society is destructive to it. This is demonstrated in Reflections: As I read it, his argument against the French Revolution was based more on the fact that it involved the likely destruction of France's customs and civil society.
Conservatism and Iraq
The destruction of "customs and civil society" should ring a bell. That's because it's exactly what happened in Iraq. As Fukuyama points out in America at the Crossroads, neoconservatives who believe in Tocqueville, Burke, and Strauss should have recognized the folly of nation-building in Iraq, just as Burke recognized the self-propelled nation building in France and later observers decried attempts at the same in the USSR, etc.
The reason it's so hard to find the origins of what we currently call "conservatism" in America is that it has jettisoned those roots. Conservatives never endorsed the Marshall Plan, and authentic conservatives would not have endorsed invading a country, destroying all of its institutions, and trying to create new ones out of thin air.
So where did this new ideology come from? First, I don't think it merits the name of ideology, if by "ideology" we mean a consistent doctrine that can be applied to a broad set of situations. Instead, it's a snapshot of an ideology, a thin, two-dimensional slice of something that should be full-proportioned and three-dimensional. Where economics says "Tax cuts can be beneficial to the economy," the Bush administration says that "All tax cuts must be good." Where Tocqueville and Burke say "Religiousinstitutions are beneficial to civil society," the Bush administration and other current republicans say "Religious institutions should be given more power no matter what." Where the same conservative thinkers say "The breakdown of traditional morality can be dangerous to society," our "Conservatives" say "The only moral issues that matter are abortion and gay rights--let'sillegalize those even if we have to fudge some other ethical issues". Where Strauss says, in agreement with Burke and Tocqueville, that the constitution of a society is much more than it's laws, current conservatives pay attention to him when considering domestic policy but suddenly forget about him when thinking about foreign affairs. And finally, no one needs Strauss to help them justify lying. First, Strauss'sesotericism is an interpretative issue for old, great books of philosophy. Second, the Bush administration doesn't need an intellectual justification to lie; the point of lying is that you don't respect the other partyenough to tell them the truth.
The point is that the Bush administration has taken political theorists and interpreted them with the same selective eye that they use when reading the Bible. So, while we can certainly say that so-and-so has allegedly influenced their thought, we cannot say that so-and-so is the origin of their thought. They select what they want from whomever they want when it fits their needs. So, in this, I agree with you Scantron. There's no canon for this bunch of conservatives because they've abandoned any consistent philosophy or set of goals in favor of a cynical portrait of a doctrine.
So, in the end, I'm inclined to agree that "College Republicanism" is an appropriate name for the intellectual doctrine of the current bunch of conservatives. Perhaps the current implosion of the Republican party will lead to some real introspection.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I'm unconvinced by your Burke comments. For concerning the American revolutionary case, and Burke's support for American subjects asserting their rights, just because one has certain "rights," it doesn't mean that one isn't in a much larger sense ultimately subordinate to the monarchical power, the sway of tradition, etc. Feudal and/or monarchic political systems never denied that (ideally, at least) subjects had some rights underneath the sovereign. (For the sovereign to treat them unjustly/unlawfully was an abuse of power, and should be avoided.) So one can side with a group whose customary rights have been violated without necessarily buying in to a liberal rights scheme. Annoyingly, my Penguin edition of Burke is without an index, so I can't really delve into the American question further. Do you know about where this is in the text?

I also can't agree with the idea that Burke favored "spontaneous social arrangements," or at least ones comparable to those espoused by libertarians. For libertarians, spontaneous social arrangements are those arrived at by the just acquisition and discharge of property, set in a scheme that protects the maximum amount of liberty for the individual. Burke thought none of this. If by "spontaneous" you mean "arrived at gradually," rather than through rapid social engineering (although that takes away our usual connotations of "swiftness" in the word "spontaneous"), you're right. But if by spontaneous you mean "through the individual participants' free will," that's incorrect. Also, the whole raison d'etre of libertarianism is liberal individualism, which the French Revolution was entirely about, at least ideologically.

Really, though, I am at fault for this whole argument. I asked why libertarians are so enamored of Burke, which I really have no evidence for other than a few sources, like Andrew Sullivan. There are of course, many *conservatives*, not libertarians, who espouse Burkean ideas, and this is totally understandable, because a large strand of conservatism is totally unprincipled (as opposed to liberalism and libertarianism) and reliant on custom more than anything. (I suppose you could hold up the phrase "We don't do that around these parts" as a principle, but that's a stretch.) In any case, a happy Burking time has been had by all.

As for the neoconservative question, the only thing I would ask is that you elaborate this statement: "They select what they want from whomever they want when it fits their needs." I agree, but I do not know what you think their needs are. Power, money, control? Obviously, there can be more benign needs too. But are their needs different from former administrations' needs? And what exactly shapes their needs?

Oddly enough, Lenin at Lenin's Tomb has just today provided a Marxist answer to the question we are raising:

http://leninology.blogspot.com/2006/11/how-neoconservative-moralism-works.html

He addresses the "idealist" versus "pragmatic" question, as well as the "roots" of the movement (Trotsky, Strauss), ultimately dismissing both questions as distractions from the greater theme of US/capitalistic imperialism.

Matthew Yglesias counters that Strauss and Trotsky are undeniable factors:

http://www.matthewyglesias.com/archives/2006/11/operation_comeback/

11:10 PM  

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