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. 


Virtue Engendered; or, Big States Breed Small Souls

I found two highlights in this issue: a review of Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? and a review of David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel is a major figure in the revival of “virtue ethics,” the school of thought pioneered by Aristotle.   As its name suggests, virtue ethics tends to emphasize the importance of developing particular character traits.  Virtue ethics was out of fashion among academic philosophers for quite a long time, but now it seems to be on an equal footing with the two other leading schools of ethical thought, utilitarianism and deontology. Utilitarianism is a set of approaches that take their cue from Jeremy Bentham’s definition of the Good as that which brings the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest number of people; deontology first crystallized in the work of Immanuel Kant, defender of the idea that moral duty and rational understanding are inseparable one from another.  So, an advocate of utilitarianism might argue that we should sustain friendships because societies composed of people who like each other tend to have lots of healthy and cheerful citizens, and an advocate of deontological ethics might argue that we should sustain friendships because the universe only makes sense to people who recognize a duty to grow close to each other.  An advocate of virtue ethics, on the other hand, might argue that being a friend means developing traits of character that are valuable in themselves and that can be attained in no other way.     

Sandel, like other virtue ethicists, is associated with a tendency in political theory called “communitarianism.”  Communitarians criticize classical liberalism for its image of the individual human being as a self-contained unit.  As The Nation‘s reviewer puts it:

Nearly thirty years ago, in his massively influential debut in political theory, Sandel argued that communal belonging precedes individual freedom–that, in his language, the self is “encumbered” and therefore not altogether prior to the ends it chooses. An intrepid technical dissection of his colleague [John] Rawls’s epoch-making A Theory of Justice (1971), Liberalism and the Limits of Justice made Sandel’s name as a “communitarian.” Sandel demonstrated that for Rawls, the freedom of individual choice alone is the morally relevant starting point for inquiry into justice, an assumption that renders things like family ties, religious belief, group loyalty and historical identity irrelevant, except as a secondary extra. Communitarians like Sandel, Charles Taylor (with whom Sandel studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford) and Michael Walzer responded that most people, even in liberal societies, prize those things at least as much as personal autonomy. The most attractive part of Sandel’s criticism was his contention that relationships, rather than being the result of previous choices, are the sphere in which identity is possible at all. (To put it in more technical terms, there is no individual subject not intersubjectively constituted from the first.) Ever since making these claims, even as political theory has substantially evolved, Sandel has continued to argue for the priority of the communal good in an account of justice, even as he recognizes its risks for liberty.

Because a person’s virtues are part of his or her identity, communitarianism and virtue ethics inevitably go hand in hand.    

The same review discusses a book by Amartya Sen that prompts the reviewer to mention that many philosophers were dismayed when political theorist John Rawls declared that the nation-state was “the natural forum for justice.”  Otherwise dedicated Rawlsians rebelled against this pronouncement, arguing that justice requires a worldwide framework.  I value Sandel and the communitarians because their position points to a different response to Rawls.  I haven’t studied Rawls’ work deeply, but what I have read suggests to me that his theory does indeed presuppose the nation-state as the standard of community.  The communitarians, on the other hand, have the intellectual resources to challenge that standard, not by arguing that the nation-state is too small to be just, but that it is too big.  The nation-state, especially in the form of continental behemoths like the USA or the former USSR or China or India or the European Union, is bloated beyond any capacity to nurture healthy relationships.  The only connection citizens of such enormous empires can achieve with each other is the one they feel when they cheer their rulers on and rejoice as their warriors smash the Enemy, whoever that Enemy may be at the moment.  The qualities of character that we develop when we do those things are hardly to be called virtues. 

That big states breed small souls is supported by material cited from David Finkel’s reports from Iraq.  The American public is separated from the perspective of the American soldier by official censorship, and so has a distorted view of what is being done in its name in Iraq.  Senior American commanders, too, have a distorted view, in their case because sycophantic briefing officers tell them what they want to hear rather than what their subordinates on the ground are actually seeing and doing.  The reviewer describes a scene in which Finkel reports on a briefing given to the celebrated General David Petraeus.  Finkel attended the briefing, and had been an eyewitness of the firefights deascribed in the briefing.  He makes it clear that what the general heard had little or no relationship to the events Finkel saw.  Even ground troops themselves see an ever smaller portion of what they are doing; “the Pentagon’s continued dependence on unmanned Predator drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan means that even soldiers aren’t seeing the full contours of the global battlefield,” as the reviewer points out.  Of course, it’s long been an axiom of military history that a researcher should ask a participant in a battle for eyewitness accounts only of events that took place within a meter of that participant’s face, and shouldn’t expect extreme clarity even in those accounts.  But these added degrees of separation certainly don’t improve our ability to take responsibility for what is done in our name.  Finkel apparently pulls out the emotional stops in an attempt to protest against this separation:

The chasm between over here and over there is central to another heartbreaking sequence, when the wife of a severely wounded soldier transferred from Iraq to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, remembers a visit from President Bush. Finkel recounts not only what the soldier’s wife said to the president–“Thank you for coming”–and not only what she wished she had said to him–“He doesn’t know how it feels”–but why she hadn’t said it: “Because I felt it would not have made any difference.” Communication is fruitless, because if Bush can’t see the problem staring at him from that hospital bed, he’s already living on too remote a planet.