Speaking at a joint press conference with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Obama called for an end to the firing of missiles into Israel by militants inside Gaza, saying “there is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.”
In the conclusion to The Reactionary Mind, I claimed that conservatism was dead. I wrote that in the wake of the 2010 congressional election, at the height of the Tea Party euphoria, when just about everyone was saying the opposite.
Last night, a Harvard professor defeated a faux-populist. A coalition of blacks, Latinos, women, gays and lesbians, and white working class voters in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, defeated the most retrograde versions of homophobia, sexism, racism, and anti-intellectualism (notice I say only “the most retrograde”). For the second time in four years. I think (hope?) it’s safe to say that The Real America, The Heartland, The Silent Majority—choose your favorite kitschy cliche of the last five decades—no longer governs the land. Obama’s coalition, as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira predicted a decade ago, is the wave of the future.
That said, last night Barack Obama claimed that reducing the debt and the deficit—elsewhere they call that austerity—will be a top priority of his second administration. There’s a history to this, as I’ve pointed out. But it also confirms another thing I said in the conclusion to The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism is dead because it lives. It has triumphed. It may lose elections, but its basic assumptions, going back to the reaction against the New Deal, now govern both parties. The economist John Quiggin calls it Zombie Economics, and it has never seemed a more appropriate metaphor. The dead walk among us. They are us.
Here’s the entirety of my conclusion to The Reactionary Mind:
Conservatism has dominated American politics for the past forty years. Just as the Republican administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon demonstrated the resilience of the New Deal, so have the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama demonstrated the resilience of Reaganism.
The conservative embrace of unregulated capitalism and imperial power still envelops our two parties. Consistent with this book’s argument about the private life of power, the most visible effort of the GOP since the 2010 midterm election has been to curtail the rights of employees and the rights of women. While the right’s success in these campaigns is by no means assured, the fact that the Republicans have taken aim at the last redoubt of the labor movement and the entirety of Planned Parenthood gives some indication of how far they’ve come. The end (in both senses of the word) of the right’s long march against the twentieth century may be in sight.
The success of the right, however, is not an unmixed blessing. As conservatives have long noted, there is a dialectical synergy between the left and the right, in which the progress of the former spurs on the innovations of the latter. “It is ironic, although not historically unprecedented,” wrote Frank Meyer, the intellectual architect of the fusionist strategy that brought together the libertarian and traditionalist wings of modern conservatism, “that such a burst of creative energy on the intellectual level” on the right “should occur simultaneously with a continuing spread of the influence of Liberalism in the practical political sphere.” Across the Atlantic, Roger Scruton, a more traditional type of British Tory, wrote that “in times of crisis . . . conservatism does its best,” while Friedrich Hayek observed that the defense of the free market “became stationary when it was most influential” and “progressed” when it was “on the defensive.”
True, these were intellectuals writing about ideas; conservative operatives might be less sanguine about the prospect of trading four more years for a few good books. Even so, if the ultimate fate of a party is tied to the strength of its ideas—not the truth of its ideas, but the resonance and pertinence of those ideas, their cultural purchase and ability to travel across the political landscape—it should be a cause of concern on the right that its ideas have so roundly succeeded. As Burke warned long ago, victory may simply be a way station to death.
Several recent books of conservative introspection suggest that many on the right are indeed concerned about the state of conservative ideas. But most of these attempts at self-criticism seem motivated by a simple fear of defeat at the polls. Oriented as they are to the electoral cycle or to the pros and cons of particular policies, they don’t see that conservatism, like any party, can lose elections yet still control public debate. More important, these writers don’t understand that failure is the wellspring of conservative renewal. They imagine that conservatism can simply be reinvented or retooled to meet the needs of a changing electorate or the hobbyhorses of its theoreticians.
But that is not how conservatism works. Conservatism requires defeat; failure is its most potent source of inspiration. Not failure in the brooding, romantic sense that Andrew Sullivan articulates in his paean to loss, but failure in the simultaneously threatening and galvanizing sense. Loss—real social loss, of power and position, privilege and prestige—is the mustard seed of conservative innovation.
What the right suffers from today is not loss but success, and until a significant dominant group in society is forced to suffer loss—of the kind experienced by employers during the 1930s, white supremacists during the 1960s, or husbands in the 1970s—it will remain a philosophically flabby movement. Politically powerful, but intellectually moribund.
Which leads me to wonder about the long-term prospects of the Tea Party, the latest variant of right-wing populism. Has the Tea Party given conservatism a new lease on life? Or is the Tea Party like the New Politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the last spark of a spent force, its frantic energies a mask for the decline of the larger movement of which it is a part?
It’s impossible to say, but this much is clear: So long as there are social movements demanding greater freedom and equality, there will be a right to counter them. With the exception of the gay rights movement, there are today no threatening social movements of the left. Once they arise, a new right will arise with them—not a right that needs to invent bogeymen like Obama’s socialism but a right with real monsters to destroy. Until then, we can chalk up the current state of the right not to its failures of imagination or excess of spleen—as some have done—but to its overwhelming success.
Modern conservatism came onto the scene of the twentieth century in order to defeat the great social movements of the left. As far as the eye can see, it has achieved its purpose. Having done so, it now can leave. Whether it will, and how much it will take with it on its way out, remains to be seen.
Update (10:45 pm)
On an unrelated note—to this post, though not to this blog—a commenter writes:
Also, there’s an aspect to the weed legalization initiatives that Corey should be interested in. Neither Colorado’s nor Washington’s laws prohibit employers from firing employees for testing positive for smoking off-duty. Colorado’s legislature and courts haven’t explicitly taken a side, but employers interpret the law in a way favorable to them, so people will probably be fired in the near future for testing positive. Washington explicitly allows firing those that test positive, even for medical marijuana patients.
So state legalization means you can smoke or you can have a job. Freedom!
When Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law in 1996, many hailed it as a necessary step toward ending the dependency of the poor. Dependence on the state, that is. Barack Obama praised the bill during his presidential campaign, and in fact made a point of noting that he had helped cut the welfare rolls when he was in the Illinois state legislature. Rick Santorum has said it gives the poor “something dependency doesn’t give: hope.”
But as Jason DeParle points out in this must-read piece, thanks to welfare reform and the terrible state of the economy, poor people are doing worse today than they have in years. Even in this recession, states like Arizona continue to cut the welfare rolls. So what do poor people do now that they can’t turn to the state?
The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow.
Esmeralda Murillo, a 21-year-old mother of two, lost her welfare check, landed in a shelter and then returned to a boyfriend whose violent temper had driven her away. “You don’t know who to turn to,” she said.
The economic effects of welfare reform are obvious and catastrophic. But welfare reform has also decreased freedom. That lost government support doesn’t just increase poverty. It actually drives vulnerable people—almost always women—back into the repressive hold of coercive forms of power: in this case, the coercive power of abusive husbands and boyfriends. Welfare reform doesn’t decrease dependency; it increases coercion.
I’ve talked a lot on this blog and in my book about “the private life of power,” how conservatives seek to reinstate hierarchies of power in which men and employers are able to rule and ruin the lives of women and employees. That is, and remains, a fundamentally conservative project. But that doesn’t mean so-called liberals haven’t participated in it. They have—and in the case of Clinton, actually pioneered it.
I’ve also talked on this blog and elsewhere about how the left needs to reclaim the politics of freedom. Welfare is no picnic for poor people; caseworkers and bureaucrats can be—and often are—incredibly intrusive, meddling, paternalistic, patronizing, coercive. And many people on the left have long sought to address these problems, sometimes with success. But the critical point about state supports is that, whatever their limitations, they provide us with some measure of freedom and autonomy from the domination of our private superiors, whether they be violent spouses or pleasant bosses.
So when we talk about ending the dependency of the poor, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about emancipating the poor or any such thing. We’re talking about returning them to the repressive hold of their private governors.
In On the Jewish Question, Marx famously critiques liberal theorists of religious freedom on the grounds that they merely wish to emancipate the state from religion. Assuming—wrongly, it turns out—that the 19th century state, or at least the American state, had indeed been fully emancipated from religion (e.g., there was no official state religion, no specific confessional requirement for the exercise of political rights, etc.), Marx notes that the American people are nevertheless quite religious. This leads him to the observation that “to be politically emancipated from religion is not to be finally and completely emancipated from religion, because political emancipation is not the final and absolute form of human emancipation.” We may be free of religion at the level of the state, but we are not free of it in our everyday life (like most Enlightenment thinkers, Marx thinks of religion as a defect). To be truly free of it, we need to emancipate ourselves from religion, to shift our focus from the state to society itself, to get past the distinction between our public lives and private selves. Not just in matters of religion, as it turns out, but in other areas as well.
President Obama’s recent “compromise” over contraception—where religious-based employers like Catholic universities and hospitals are required to provide insurance coverage that includes free birth control but are not required to pay for it, leaving insurers to eat the costs; churches and other explicitly religious institutions will remain exempt from the provision—makes me wonder if we’re not moving in the reverse direction.
98% of sexually active Catholic women essentially reject the Church’s position on contraception. In this respect at least, society has emancipated itself from religion. Even so, the state allows its policies to be dictated by the Church elders. And judging by the growing Republican discontent with even this compromise, the state’s capitulation to religion and religious sensibilities could get worse. Keep in mind, as Katha Pollitt points out, that we are not talking about isolated sects like the Amish, which don’t depend on all manner of tax subsidies and public monies for their operations; these are large-scale institutions that would not exist in their current form were it not for the state’s ongoing support.
Speaking of conservatives, the birth control debate recently led Mike Konczal back to Ludwig von Mises’ classic 1922 text Socialism. Mises was a pioneering economist of the Austrian School, whose political writings have inspired multiple generations of libertarian activists in America and elsewhere. Mike took a special interest in the fourth chapter of Socialism, “The Social Order and the Family,” in which Mises has some retrograde things to say about women and feminism. This led Mike to conclude prematurely that Mises was against birth control, which he wasn’t, but as I make clear in the comments thread, Mike’s larger point—that Mises was not in favor of women’s sexual autonomy; nor, for that matter, was he in favor of other kinds of autonomy that would free women from the dominion of their husbands—still stands.
All this back and forth about the text prompted Brian Doherty, author of a wonderful history of libertarianism, to waspishly comment that, well, who really gives a shit what Mises may or may not have thought about women and birth control. Libertarians care about liberty; all the rest is commentary.
Mises does go on to address “natural barriers” that socialists want to overturn, and doubtless some of his own personal opinions about what those natural barriers might be would differ from moderns, liberal or conservative, which is exactly why [Konczal’s] entire implied point doesn’t make any sense to begin with. Those concerns are far more matters of opinion, not political philosophy, and in no sense should bind even those who have sworn fealty to Mises’ general views on economics and liberty. (For example, I’m quite the Misesian in most questions of politics and economics, but can imagine an intelligent conservative argument that the “rationalization of the sexual passions” is in some sense harmed by birth control, though not in the specific procreational sense he is addressing specifically.)
But let’s address the larger point, if there is one, besides that atop all of our heads for even talking about this: That polemical points can rightly be earned laying some judgment, whether real or imagined, of an intellectual founding father or influence on a political movement or tendency on to the backs of its younger followers–either to mock them or to insist that, no, this is really what their intellectual mission is: not to promote liberty, but to work for whatever Ludwig Von Mises liked or didn’t like.
It is interesting, for those interested in intellectual history, that Mises saw free love as part of some larger socialist mission to destroy the family. But for the libertarian the relevant question is, is this voluntary or not, does this infringe on anyone’s life, liberty, or property or not? “Anything that’s peaceful,” baby, as Leonard Read, one of Mises’ great popular disciples in America, wrote.
Thus, there’s a libertarian case to be made against forcing anyone to cover any specific medical care, birth control or whatever, in the insurance deals they make with their clients. But it has nothing to do with whether Ludwig von Mises was comfortable with free love, or birth control, or with catheters, or blood transfusions, or any other specific medical procedure that might or might not become a political controversy when the government tried to force people to sell insurance only on the condition that that insurance cover that procedure or medication’s use.
Set aside the strangeness of someone who’s written—for what were obviously more than antiquarian reasons—one of the best intellectual histories of libertarianism, in which Mises plays a not insignificant role, telling us that intellectual history, and Mises’s role in it, doesn’t much matter.
Also set aside Doherty’s declaration by fiat that Mises’s views on women are just “matters of opinion,” which can be discarded as so much ancient prejudice, rather than genuine “political philosophy.” (This chapter on Robert Nozick in Susan Okin’s Justice, Gender, and the Family should make any reasonably literate political writer leery of the notion that a libertarian’s views on women are somehow contingent or incidental and separable from their larger worldview. In Mises’s case, it’s doubly important to remember that he saw his chapter on women as one part of his campaign against socialism, an effort in which he styled himself the lonely leader of a small, heterodox band.
Socialism is the watchword and the catchword of our day. The socialist idea dominates the modern spirit. The masses prove of it. It expresses the thoughts and feelings of all; it has set its seal upon our time. When history comes to tell our story it will write above the chapter “The Epoch of Socialism.”
Mises did not think his views on women were refractions of the age; he thought they were the dissonant wisdom of someone who had thought long and hard, against the dominant view, about such issues. And given that many socialists were making feminist arguments and gaining ground across Europe—Remember Red Vienna? It wasn’t all economics, you know—I’m not sure Mises was entirely wrong in his self-understanding.)
Finally set aside, as one commenter on Mike’s thread pointed out, the fact that many of Mises’s views persist in later libertarian arguments.
The real reason Mises’s arguments about women are so relevant, it seems to me, is that in the course of making them he reveals something larger about the libertarian worldview: libertarianism is not about liberty at all, or at least not about liberty for everyone. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Here’s Mises describing the socialist program of “free love”:
Free love is the socialists’ radical solution for sexual problems. The socialistic society abolishes the economic dependence of woman which results from the fact that woman is dependent on the income of her husband. Man and woman have the same economic rights and the same duties, as far as motherhood does not demand special consideration for the women. Public funds provide for the maintenance and education of the children, which are no longer the affairs of the parents but of society. Thus the relations between the sexes are no longer influenced by social and economic conditions….The family disappears and society is confronted with separate individuals only. Choice in love becomes completely free.
Sounds like a libertarian paradise, right? Society is dissolved into atomistic individuals, obstacles to our free choices are removed, everyone has the same rights and duties. But Mises is not celebrating this ideal; he’s criticizing it. Not because it makes people unfree but because it makes people—specifically, women—free. The problem with liberating women from the constraints of “social and economic conditions” is that…women are liberated from the constraints of social and economic conditions.
Now Doherty will reply, well, that’s just Mises’s view of feminism, who cares, we libertarians stand for freedom. But the underlying logic of Mises’s argument—in which the redistributive state is criticized not for making men and women slaves or equals but for making them free—cannot be so easily contained. It can easily be applied to other realms of social policy—labor unions, universal health care, robust public schools, unemployment benefits, and the like, which the left has always seen as the vital prerequisites of universal freedom—suggesting that the real target of the libertarian critique may be the proposition that Mises articulates here so well: that all men—not just the rich or the well born—and all women will in fact be liberated from the constraints of their “social and economic conditions.”
I’m supposedly on vacation this week and next, yet I somehow find myself caught in the interwebs. Anyway, a few things of mine came out recently that you might have missed.
Once upon a time I wrote a book on fear. I hadn’t been thinking much about that book in recent years, but Sasha Lilley, host of the fantabulous radio show “Against the Grain” out in the Bay Area, tracked me down for a one-hour interview about it. Turned out to be one of the most engaging interviews I’ve done, all thanks to Sasha’s excellent questions. It’s every author’s dream to be interviewed by someone like Sasha. You might want to check out some of her other interviews as well.
Coming on the heels of our roundtable on Obama, the London Review of Books asked me to write a piece on the debt ceiling crisis. I’m glad they did because it gave me a chance to step back from the immediacy of Obama’s presidency and take the long view. The really long view. Like 400 years long. So, by way of Charles I, Louis XVI, and Marx, I reach the conclusion that:
Liberals often have a difficult time making sense of these movements – don’t taxes support good things? – because they don’t see how little the American state directly provides to its citizens, relative to their economic circumstances. Since the early 1970s, with a few brief exceptions, workers’ wages have stagnated. What has the state offered in response? Public transport is virtually non-existent. Even with Obama’s reforms, the state does not provide healthcare or insurance to most people. Outside wealthy communities, state schools often fail to deliver a real education. In such circumstances, is it any wonder ordinary citizens want their taxes cut? That at least is change they can believe in.
And here Democrats like Obama and his defenders, who bemoan the stranglehold of the Tea Party on American politics, have only themselves to blame. For decades, Democrats have collaborated in stripping back the American state in the vain hope that the market would work its magic. For a time it did, though mostly through debt; workers could compensate for stagnating wages with easy credit and low-interest mortgages. Now the debt’s due to be repaid, and wages – if people are lucky enough to be working – aren’t enough to cover the bills. The only thing that’s left for them is cutting taxes. And the imperialism of the peasants.
Which prompted a friend of mine to ask: “Did that really take 400 years to prove?” Tough crowd.
Had I had more space and time, I would have liked to have explored the idea, inspired by a conversation with Alex Gourevitch, whose blog is must reading, that there is a fundamental tension in a democracy between funding government operations through debt or taxes. It’s an old debate, which goes back to Jefferson, Hamilton, and Paine (and before that to the debates between the court and country parties in Britain). But the current crisis cries out for revisiting those old themes. Alas, no time, no space.