Left-wing conservatism

I’ve long been curious about the phrase “left-wing conservative.”   It’s a label that’s been applied to Christopher Lasch, for example.  And Jacques Delors once declared that “We have to struggle against the conservatives from all sides, not only the right-wingers, but also the left-wing conservatives.”  Though I’ve never gotten around to any of Christopher Lasch’s writings, I’ve always been under the impression that they were well worth reading.  And of course, any enemy of Jacques Delors is a friend of mine.  So one of my goals in life is to get a clear understanding of what the phrase “left-wing conservatism” might mean and to live up to that idea. 

In the 1 March issue of The Nation, Rebecca Solnit makes some general remarks that might serve as a definition of of left-wing conservatism.  Writing of the traditional Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, Solnit grants that for some participants those celebrations might reinforce the privileged positions they enjoy in the existing social order.  But even the conservative aspects of Mardi Gras don’t keep it from being something leftists should embrace.  Considering the ways that the African-American “Indians” and other groups use Mardi Gras to assert power against the local elites, Solnit writes:

The Mardi Gras Indians head out on their own without announced routes on Mardi Gras and a few other days every year, but making the costumes and maintaining the communities lasts all year. This is probably the very essence of Mardi Gras and all Carnival as I understand it: maintaining community.

Now, I believe that community is a subversive force. To understand what I mean by subversive, let’s go back to the defeatists. They, like much of our society, speak a language in which everything but a pie-in-the-sky kind of victory is defeat, in which everything that isn’t black is white, in which if you haven’t won, you’ve surely lost. If you asked them, they’d say we live in a capitalist society. In fact, we live in an officially capitalist society, but what prevents that force from destroying all of us is the social aid and pleasure we all participate in: parents don’t charge their children for raising them; friends do things for each other, starting with listening without invoicing for billable hours; nurses and mechanics and everyone in between does a better job than money can pay for for beautiful reasons all their own; people volunteer to do something as specific as read to a blind person or as general as change the world. Our supposedly capitalist society is seething with anticapitalist energy, affection and joy, which is why most of us have survived the official bleakness. In other words, that’s not all there is to our system. Our society is more than and other than capitalist in a lot of ways.

To say that Carnival reconciles us to the status quo is to say that it affirms the world as it is. Now, for people in Rex, their Mardi Gras probably reinforces their world, but for those in some of the other krewes and rites, the same is true, and the reinforcement of the survival of the mutual aid societies that emerged after slavery is not reaffirmation of capitalism, domination, etc. It reinforces, in other words, their ongoing survival of capitalism and racism. Carnival also reinforces joy and ownership of public space and a kind of confidence in coexisting with a wide array of strangers. New Orleans itself is the place where, unlike the rest of the United States, slaves were not so cut off from chances to gather and chances to maintain their traditions. Jazz and jazz funerals, second-line parades and more derive in many ways from this subversive remnant of a non-European tradition. They didn’t bow down. This is something to celebrate, and it is what is celebrated by some of the people in the streets.

To me, these paragraphs make sense of the revolutionary rhetoric and destabilizing policies that have long characterized the American Right.   For Marx and Engels, the wild churning of capitalism was proof that the system would eventually shake itself apart, generating a proletarian uprising and ushering in communism.  For Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, that same wild churning is the proof that capitalism is destined to reign forever and ever. 

And Gingrich and Romney may well be right.  A labor market in which the highest rewards are reserved for people who are willing to move frequently and move across continents will tend to produce a large population of atomized individuals, unconnected to any community of equals, dependent on their employers not only for their income, but also for their identity.  The flux and churn of hypercapitalism dissolve every relationship not based on monetary exchange, smashing every social refuge in which working people might look for shelter.  Isolated from each other, those who do not own capital are helpless to resist those who do. 

Solnit’s words about tradition and community imply a defense, not only of Mardi Gras and of Carnival, but also of narrative.  A tradition allows us to feel connected to people at other times and in other places because we are all part of the same story; a community takes people who share this sense of connectedness and puts them to work together.  Hypercapitalism drains narrative from life.  Narrative concepts like tradition, community, meaning, endings, seem artificial to people whose lives are largely bounded by markets and machines.  Markets fluctuate, and may in time dissolve.  Machines operate, and may eventually stop.  However, neither system reaches a conclusion.   The forces that drive them into action at one moment are the same forces that stop them at another moment.  To the extent that my life is bounded by markets and machines, therefore, narrative seems to me like an artificial convention imposed on experience.  But how do we know that history is not in some real sense a grand narrative, that our lives are not in some real sense narratives nested inside it?  I can’t see why one of these views should bear a heavier burden of proof than the other.     

Perhaps “left-wing conservatism” is not an oxymoron, but a tautology.  If we are to resist the power elite, whether to overthrow them or simply to put limits to the power they wield over the rest of us, we cannot do so as solitary individuals, but only as communities.  Communities need cultivating and defending.  It takes multiple generations to cultivate and defend a community; so, community is an inherently conservative value.  If leftism means opposition to the power elite, it therefore is an inherently conservative project. 

One conservative thinker who would have reacted with horror if he had ever been described as a leftist was Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.)  Babbitt taught French at Harvard from 1894 until his death.  His name is often mentioned these days by American academics of a traditionalist conservative bent.  Babbitt and his friend Paul Elmer More were  the founders and guiding lights of the “New Humanism,” a school of thought that made a splash in 1930 when it protested against the attempt of another, quite different, group of American thinkers to appropriate the same label. 

Babbitt and More identified themselves as fiercely right-wing.  Babbitt’s political testament, his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership, was widely criticised as being all leadership and no democracy; More, as editor of The Nation, responded to the Ludlow massacre by proclaiming that “To the civilized man, the rights of property are more important than the right to life” (in an essay collected in Aristocracy and Justice, page 136.)   Yet I would argue that the emphasis Babbitt and More place on tradition, gentility, transcendental belief, and historical continuity puts them in need of a thoroughgoing critique of capitalism.  These things simply cannot coexist with the demands of the modern market economy.  Tradition counts for nothing against the new new thing; self-restraint and well-curated taste count for nothing against the tides of fashion; transcendental belief counts for nothing against the need to appeal to youthful demographics; historical continuity counts for nothing against the need to impress the shareholders today.  Babbitt acknowledged as much on several occasions.  For example, in Democracy and Leadership Babbitt quoted Henry Ford’s remark that the prohibition of alcohol was a necessary consequence of mass production, that “Liquor had to go out when the Model T came in.”  Babbitt’s responded was that Americans had become so craven a people that they would degrade the Constitution for the sake of mere things. 

Another article in this issue brought Babbitt and More to my mind.  That was William Deresiewicz’ essay about Tolstoy.  Deresiewicz uses a construction that Babbitt and More labored to avoid, what might be called the “Academic We.”  There is of course the Royal “We“, first-person plural pronouns monarchs use to refer to themselves when they are speaking in their official capacity.  And there is the Editorial “We,”  which editorialists use when expressing the official position of their publications.  In a case of the Academic “We,” a college professor uses first person plural pronouns when characterizing the current state of knowledge or opinion among some unspecified group of people.    Deresiewicz’ essay includes a splendid example.  Tolstoy’s later writings are:

Not a body of work the contemporary reader is apt to find congenial. Leave aside the religiosity. We have learned to distrust the story with a message, any message. We disdain the writer who comes to us bearing ideas or ideologies. We don’t like a moralizer, don’t want to be preached at, don’t believe in answers, in endings. We put our faith in ambiguity, complexity, irresolution, doubt. Life isn’t that simple, we think. It doesn’t happen that way. But that is exactly what Tolstoy believes.

The Academic “We,” even when I hear myself using it, always leaves me with a desire to quote Oscar Brown, Junior’s song about the Lone Ranger and Tonto.  “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”  Who is this “contemporary reader” who has learned all these attitudes?  Deresiewicz’ description fits my habitual impulses fairly well, I admit.  But that may just be because living among markets and machines has inclined me to disbelieve in narrative.  Perhaps there are “answers” in the world.  Perhaps there are “endings” to be reached. 

Babbitt and More would have something to say about people who put their “faith in ambiguity, complexity, irresolution, doubt.”  As scholars, Babbitt and More were quite willing to suspend judgment indefinitely and to study other cultures and other periods of history on their own terms.  This is only fitting, as Babbitt was America’s first Professor of Comparative Literature and More’s most popular book was titled The Sceptical Approach to Religion.  In that sense, Babbitt and More were thoroughgoing relativists.  However, they did not endorse relativism as a doctrine.  Their view was that dogmatism, whether for the sake of relativism or of absolutism, was a failure to achieve the virtue of urbanity.  Indeed, in its most extreme form dogmatic relativism was indistinguishable from dogmatic absolutism.  In his 1912 book The Masters of Modern French Criticism, Babbitt derides the “19th century gospel of relativity,” excoriating Anatole France in particular for devoting himself to “the doctrine of the absolutely relative” (page 317.)  And More’s books, most notably his Demon of the Absolute, are full of efforts to explain how a clear-minded person might avoid dogmatic relativism without becoming a dogmatic absolutist.  While neither Babbitt nor More was entirely successful in explaining what intellectual attitude one ought to adopt in order to qualify as fully urbane, Babbitt did at least provide a quip I’ve often provoked chuckles by quoting: “An open mind is an excellent thing, provided it is not open on both ends.”   So we might put our faith in ambiguity, complexity, irresolution, doubt”; but if we put a fervent, proselytizing, intolerant faith in these things, we are unlikely to accomplish much of value. 

So, I distrust not only the Academic “We,” but also much of what is known as the “Academic Left.”  The “defeatists” Solnit complains of in her piece are those who hold to a “dimming down of Mikhail Bakhtin’s famous writings” because they are are “furiously attached to hopelessness, to narratives of decline and despair, to an omniscient them who always wins and a feeble us who always loses.”  Most Bakhtinians of my acquaintance aren’t like this; they tend to be pretty a cheerful lot.  That may be because most of them are Classicists and Bakhtin was very fashionable in Classics for several years, so they all have tenure now.  Still, postmodernism in general does tend to be a rather gloomy and fiercely cloistered pursuit, destructive of community.  The New Left historianship with which postmodernism is often intertwined sometimes seems to be almost unique in its political impotence.  The ostensible scepticism about the concept of narrative which often characterizes the Academic Left may well be a way, not of trying to live without narrative, but of keeping hold of “narratives of decline and despair.” 

I certainly would not want to return to the view of history Babbitt displayed in his eulogizing of George Washington, John Marshall, and Abraham Lincoln.  Certainly we should not deify these men.  But I would like to recognize the virtues of the traditions they represent.  To the extent that “virtue” and “tradition” are narrative concepts, that means that I would like to affirm the reality of narrative.  Without narrative, there would be no conservatism; but without narrative, there would be no vocabulary in which to rally opposition to the power elite or to lay out alternatives to their plans for us.

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3 Comments

  1. Taylor

     /  March 7, 2010

    This was interesting. Thanks.

  2. acilius

     /  March 8, 2010

    @Taylor Rawlings: Glad you liked it.

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