Tag Archives: Edmund Burke

Aristocrats of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your…shame.

15 Jan

I just heard Ari Shapiro report on NPR about an effort in Britain to “modernize” the aristocracy by allowing women of the nobility to inherit the titles and estates of their fathers. Current British law requires that all heirs to titles and estates be male. No one on the show mentioned the most obvious step to modernity: abolish the titled aristocracy altogether.

There was a time when the battle against sexism and the battle against the aristocracy were thought to be one and the same. No more. As Lady Liza Campbell, one of the aggrieved heiresses-in-waiting, told Shapiro:

Nowhere should girls be born less than their brother. Yes, it’s the aristocracy. You may want to hold a peg over your nose. But it’s still sexism. You can be an atheist and support the idea of women bishops, I think.

It’s easy to pooh-pooh and laugh at this sort of talk, but as I argued in The Reactionary Mind, one of the chief ways that the right defends against the left, and preserves its privileges more generally, is to borrow the tropes and tactics, the memes and methods, of the left. Sometimes, as I said in the book, this act of borrowing is self-conscious and strategic; other times, it happens un-self-consciously, with the defenders of privilege coming under the influence of their antagonists, without even realizing it. This current case seems to be a bit of both.

As if to prove my point, Campbell tells Shapiro at the end of the report that if she and her comrades are not able to change the law in Parliament, they will take their cause to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. The British aristocracy pressing its case before an international human rights tribunal. Edmund Burke, meet Tom Paine.

Indeed, Campbell’s comment reminded me of that moment in Burke where he drops all talk of little platoons and local tradition and starts insisting that the aristocracy and the counterrevolution reinvent themselves as “citizens” of Europe. So “sympathetic with the adversity or the happiness of mankind” should counterrevolutionary Britain be, he writes in the Letters on a Regicide Peace, that “nothing in human foreign affairs,” and certainly nothing in revolutionary France, would be “foreign to her.” Were the counterrevolution to think this way, he sighs dreamily, “no citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.” And the aristocracy might just have a fighting chance of preserving itself.

Aristocrats of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your…shame.

Burke in Debt

24 Oct

Some day someone should write an essay on the struggles of Edmund Burke in his final years to overcome his considerable debts—some £30,000—by securing a peerage and a pension from the Crown.

Throughout his career, Burke’s financial state had been precarious. Much to his embarrassment, he was periodically forced to rely upon well timed gifts and loans from his wealthier friends and patrons.

So terrified was he of dying in a debtor’s prison that he struggled in his retirement to learn Italian. His hope, claimed one of the many visitors at his estate, was to flee England and “end his days with tollerable Ease in Italy.” (He also floated, apparently, the possibility of fleeing to Portugal or America.) “I cannot quite reconcile my mind to a prison,” he  told a friend.

Thanks to the interventions of his well connected friends, Burke secured from Pitt in August 1795 two annuities that would wipe out his debts and a pension that, along with an additional pension and the income from his estate, would enable him and his wife to live in comfort into their old age.

Three months later, when Burke took up his pen against a proposal for the government to subsidize the wages of farm laborers during bad harvest years (so that they could sustain themselves and their families), he wrote, “To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government.”

I feel about Henry Kissinger the way Edmund Burke felt about Warren Hastings

11 Sep

I feel about Henry Kissinger the way Edmund Burke felt about Warren Hastings:

We charge this Offender with…nothing, that does not argue a total extinction of all moral principle; that does not manifest an inveterate blackness of heart, died in grain with malice, vitiated, corrupted, gangrened to the very core….We charge him with nothing, that he did not commit upon deliberation;…They were crimes, not against forms, but against those eternal laws of justice….

…We have brought before you the Chief of the tribe, the Head of the whole body of Eastern offenders; a Captain-general of iniquity, under whom all the fraud, all the peculation, all the tyranny, in India, are embodied, disciplined, arrayed, and paid. This is the person, my Lords, that we bring before you. We have brought before you such a person, that, if you strike at him with the firm and decided arm of justice, you will not have need of a great many more examples. You strike at the whole corps, if you strike at the head.

There might have been a time in the American empire when that last bit was true of Kissinger. Sadly, no more.

The False Attribution: Our Democratic Poetry

5 May

Every two minutes on Twitter, someone tweets, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” and wrongly attributes it to Edmund Burke. Burke never said any such thing. But the myth persists.

I’ve long wanted to write an essay on this phenomenon of wrongly attributed statements. If you dig, you often find that no one famous ever said anything like it. Obviously someone had to say it, at some point, but whoever he or she is, is lost to memory.

I first came across this phenomenon in 2000 when I was writing a piece for Lingua Franca. You know that saying (or some version thereof): Whoever is not a liberal [or a socialist or a progressive] when he is twenty has no heart; whoever is not a conservative when he is thirty has no brain? Everyone always says it was Churchill. It wasn’t. No one said it. Or least, again, no one famous. I even called the editor of Bartlett’s Quotations, whoever it was at the time (Justin Kaplan?), and he had no idea who had said it.

Since then, I’ve stumbled upon many more of these. One of my favorites is “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” General MacArthur cited it in his 1962 address at West Point and said it was from Plato. Nope. But the Imperial War Museum and Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down) also claim Plato said it (the museum actually has the words, with the Plato attribution, carved into one of its facades). Still nope. Something sort of, kind of, like this was once said by Santayana, but not this.

At first, the whole thing annoyed me. You think someone said x, because everyone always says s/he did, and then you look it up just so you can get a citation, only to find that you can’t find the citation. So you look and look, only to find that that someone most definitely did not say x (or at least not that anyone knows of).  So then, if you’re an obsessive like me, you keep looking because at this point you want to know who said the damn thing. Only to find out that no one knows who said it. And then, and only then, do you realize, once again, but as always too late, that you’ve fallen into the rabbit hole of the Wrongly Attributed Statement (WAS).

But the more I’ve thought about the WAS the more charming I’ve found it. Because in many ways the WAS is a tribute to the democratic genius of the crowd. Someone famous says something fine—Burke did write, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle”—and some forgotten wordsmith, or more likely wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it over time into something finer: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Which is really quite fine.

The false attribution: it’s our democratic poetry.

Update (May 6, 9:45 am)

So Santayana did in fact say “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Thanks to commenter Bill for pointing that out. I actually had written that in the footnote of the paper to which I linked above, but for some reason I had forgotten that he in fact said exactly that. In my memory he had said a version of that. I am not immune!

Check out some of the other comments below; they’re terrific. Art Goldhammer has a great example as does Phil Scarr.

Henry Farrell emails me that apparently Robert Merton, as with so many other things, was there first. In his book On the Shoulders of Giants. From the jacket copy:

With playfulness and a large dose of wit, Robert Merton traces the origin of Newton’s aphorism, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Using as a model the discursive and digressive style of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Merton presents a whimsical yet scholarly work which deals with the questions of creativity, tradition, plagiarism, the transmission of knowledge, and the concept of progress.

Update (10:45 am)

On FB, Jeff Shoulson wrote this:

It’s also interesting how the WAS in its democratic form is both different from and related to the renaissance humanist posture of sprezzatura, the fashion of sprinkling your speeches with pseudo-quotations of famous writers that are deliberately inaccurate so as to convince your audience that you hadn’t looked them up the night before to impress them.

Sprezzatura!  Sprezzatura!  Cue Lee Siegel!

Edmund Burke to Niall Ferguson: You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole theory is wrong. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.

4 May

A minor footnote to the controversy over Niall Ferguson’s homophobic remarks about John Maynard Keynes. Ferguson claimed that the key to Keynes’s economic philosophy is a selfishness and short-termism rooted in the fact that Keynes was gay and had no children. No kids=no future=big deficits.

What is supposed to have prompted Ferguson to these meditations was a question comparing Keynes to Edmund Burke. According to the main report, “Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead.” As Ferguson explained in the apology he subsequently issued, “The point I had made in my presentation was that in the long run our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are alive, and will have to deal with the consequences of our economic actions.”

You’d think, for Ferguson’s claim to work, Edmund Burke would have sired a boatload of kids, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In actual fact, he had one child, which, if my math is right, is only one more than Keynes had.  Not exactly the stuff of which allegedly grand differences of economic philosophy (self-interest versus the social good) are made. And that one child—Edmund’s son Richard—died in 1794, three years before Burke died. In other words, Burke left no one behind.

Maybe that’s why Burke’s economic philosophy put such stress on the vile self-interested short-termism Ferguson is supposed to have detected in the childless gay Keynes. As he wrote after his son died:

There must be some impulse besides public spirit, to put private interest into motion along with it. Monied men ought to be allowed to set a value on their money; if they did not, there would be no monied men. This desire of accumulation is a principle without which the means of their service to the State could not exist. The love of lucre, though sometimes carried to a ridiculous, sometimes to a vicious excess, is the grand cause of prosperity to all States. In this natural, this reasonable, this powerful, this prolific principle, it is for the satirist to expose the ridiculous; it is for the moralist to censure the vicious; it is for the sympathetick heart to reprobate the hard and cruel; it is for the Judge to animadvert on the fraud, the extortion, and the oppression: but it is for the Statesman to employ it as he finds it; with all it’s concomitant excellencies, with all it’s imperfections on it’s head. It is his part, in this case, as it is in all other cases, where he is to make use of the general energies of nature, to take them as he finds them.

The Price of Labor: Burke, Nietzsche, and Menger

17 Apr

Edmund Burke, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity:

When any commodity is carried to market, it is not the necessity of the vendor, but the necessity of the purchaser that raises the price….If the goods at market are beyond the demand, they fall in their value; if below it, they rise. The impossibility of the subsistence of a man, who carries his labour to a market, is totally beside the question in this way of viewing it. The only question is, what is it worth to the buyer? (pp. 68-69)

Carl Menger, Principles of Economics:

Neither the means of subsistence nor the minimum of subsistence of a laborer, therefore, can be the direct cause or determining principle of the price of labor services.

In reality, as we shall see, the prices of actual labor services are governed, like the prices of all other goods, by their values. But their values are governed, as was shown, by the magnitude of importance of the satisfactions that would have to remain unsatisfied if we were unable to command the labor services. (p. 171)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow:

The value of work.—If we wanted to determine the value of work by how much time, effort, good or ill will, compulsion, inventiveness or laziness, honesty or deception has been expended on it, then the valuation can never be just; for we would have to be able to place the entire person on the scales, and that is impossible. Here the rule must be “judge not!” But it is precisely to justice that they appeal who nowadays are dissatisfied with the evaluation of work. If we reflect further we find that no personality can be held accountable for what it produces, that is to say its work: so that no merit can be derived from it; all work is as good or bad as it must be given this or that constellation of strengths and weaknesses, knowledge and desires. The worker is not free to choose whether he works, nor how he works. It is only from the standpoint of utility, narrower and wider, that work can be evaluated. (§286)

Edmund Burke on the Free Market

20 Mar

In the Huffington Post, Alex Zakaras, a political theorist at the University of Vermont, levels a familiar charge at today’s GOP: they’re not real conservatives.

Over the last several decades, the party has abandoned political conservatism and embraced its opposite: an agenda of radical, experimental reform.

I’ve addressed this argument many times, including in a book now out in paperback that’s selling for $16, so there is no need for me to rehearse my position here.

What drew my attention to Zakaras’s piece is this claim:

As of the 2013 Congress, fortified by libertarian ideological purists, the Republican Party can no longer claim this [conservative] tradition as its own….The dominant faction–among the elites who fund and speak for the party–is now driven by a very different ideology. It believes that the size and scope of government should be vastly reduced, that public services should whenever possible be privatized, and that market principles should be extended into ever more areas of human life–from education to retirement savings to prisons. Whatever the merits of this ideology, it is simply a mistake to call it conservative.

Why, then, should true conservatives remain infatuated with unregulated–or minimally regulated–markets?

I thought about composing a long reply, showing how deeply rooted in conservative principles the right’s embrace of free-market capitalism truly is, but a version of that long reply is forthcoming in a piece in the Nation. So I’ll leave that for another day.

Instead, I’ll simply allow someone I trust we all consider to be a true conservative to speak for the team:

The value of money must be judged, like every thing else, from it’s rate at market. To force that market, or any market, is of all things the most dangerous.

Let Government protect and encourage industry, secure property, repress violence, and discountenance fraud, it is all that they have to do. In other respects, the less they meddle in these affairs the better.

Of all things, an indiscreet tampering with the trade of provisions is the most dangerous.

Laws prescribing, or magistrates exercising, a very stiff, and often inapplicable rule, or a blind and rash discretion, never can provide the just proportions between earning and salary on the one hand, and nutriment on the other: whereas interest, habit, and the tacit convention, that arise from a thousand nameless circumstances, produces a tact that regulates without difficulty, what laws and magistrates cannot regulate at all.

The balance between consumption and production makes price. The market settles, and alone can settle, that price. Market is the meeting and conference of the consumer and producer, when they mutually discover each other’s wants. Nobody, I believe, has observed with any reflection what market is, without being astonished at the truth, the correctness, the celerity, the general equity, with which the balance of wants is settled. They who wish the destruction of that balance, and would fain by arbitrary regulation decree, that defective production should not be compensated by encreased price, directly lay their axe to the root of production itself.

The last three of these statements are from Burke’s Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, which he wrote in response to a scheme adopted by the magistrates of Berkshire in 1795 to supplement the earnings of farm laborers with government payments so that they could earn a living wage. The supplement would depend upon a variety of factors: the price of corn, the size of the laborer’s family, the cost of bread. Readers of Karl Polanyi will recognize this plan as the Speenhamland system.

Berkshire was merely the next county over from where Burke lived, and the plan freaked him out. He saw it, among other things, as a portent of the kind of legitimation crisis twentieth-century conservatives would later espy in the welfare state: Extending its commitments to the poor, the state generated expectations and demands it could never meet. The over-extension of the pre-revolutionary French state, Burke argued, generated similar demands and expectations among the poor; that led, in part, to the French Revolution. Or, as Burke put it in his Letters on a Regicide Peace:

This affected pity only tends to dissatisfy them with their condition, and to teach them to seek resources where no resources are to be found—in something else than their own industry, and frugality, and sobriety.

So why should true conservatives remain infatuated with unregulated—or minimally regulated—markets? Because a great many of them always have been.

Hayek von Pinochet

8 Jul

It’s no secret that Friedrich von Hayek was a warm supporter of Augusto Pinochet’s bloody regime. As I wrote in The Nation a few years back:

Hayek admired Pinochet’s Chile so much that he decided to hold a meeting of his Mont Pelerin Society in Viña del Mar, the seaside resort where the coup against Allende was planned. In 1978 he wrote to the London Times that he had “not been able to find a single person even in much maligned Chile who did not agree that personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under Allende.”

Greg Grandin, Naomi Klein, Brad DeLong, John Quiggin (twice), and Michael Lind also have written about the Hayek-Pinochet connection.

By contrast, Alan Ebenstein, Hayek’s biographer (sympathetic doesn’t quite capture the tone), does not mention the connection at all. Ebenstein does, however, quote Hayek making the rather astonishing claim in 1981 that there were not “any totalitarian governments in Latin America. The only one was Chile under Allende.”

I had thought there wasn’t much more to say about Hayek in Chile, but a new article in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology—”Preventing the ‘Abuses’ of Democracy: Hayek, the ‘Military Usurper’ and Transitional Dictatorship in Chile?” by Andrew Farrant, Edward McPhail, and Sebastian Berger—provides some fresh details.

Here is just a taste:

For instance, Hayek—writing to The Times in 1978 and explicitly invoking Pinochet by name—noted that under certain “historical circumstances,” an authoritarian government may prove especially conducive to the long-run preservation of liberty: There are “many instances of authoritarian governments under which personal liberty was safer than under many democracies.”

[Hayek] noted that if “Strauss (who I met during a reception in Chile briefly)” had been “attacked for his support for Chile he deserves to be congratulated for his courage.” [Franz Josef Strauss was a right-wing German politician, who had visited Chile in 1977 and met with Pinochet. His views were roundly repudiated by both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats in Germany. Hayek apparently wanted to help Strauss become chancellor of Germany.]

Though Hayek’s 1981 interviews with El Mercurio have attracted much attention, scholars have ignored El Mercurio’s coverage of Hayek’s initial visit to Chile in 1977. In particular, El Mercurio notes that Hayek—quoted as saying that Chile’s efforts to develop and reform its economy provided “an example at the global level” (1977: 27)—had met with Pinochet: “At the end of his visit . . . Hayek . . . was received by President Augusto Pinochet. He [Hayek] told reporters that he talked to Pinochet about the issue of limited democracy and representative government. . . . He said that in his writings he showed that unlimited democracy does not work because it creates forces that in the end destroy democracy. He said that the head of state listened carefully and that he had asked him to provide him with the documents he had written on this issue.”

According to Hayek, Pinochet had requested copies of Hayek’s writings (“documents”) explaining why unlimited democracy would inevitably lead to the destruction of democracy (1977). Consequently, Hayek asked Charlotte Cubitt (his secretary from February 1977 until his death in 1992) to send Pinochet a draft of Hayek’s ‘A Model Constitution’ (Cubitt 2006: 19). Importantly, Hayek’s chapter—‘A Model Constitution’ (1979b: 105–127)—provides a three-page discussion of the conditions under which the adoption of Emergency Powers (124–126) and the suspension of democracy are supposedly justified: The “basic principle of a free society . . . [“the coercive powers of government are restricted to the enforcement of universal rules of just conduct”] . . . may . . . have to be temporarily suspended when the  long-run preservation of that order [the free society] is itself threatened” (1979b: 124).

When Hayek visited Chile in 1981 he “took time off from his official commitments to walk around and see for himself whether people were cheerful and content. He told me that it was the sight of many sturdy and healthy children that had convinced him.”

As Hayek notes, “democracy needs ‘a good cleaning’ by strong governments.”

The Pinochet junta “enacted a new constitution in September 1980. . . . The constitution was not only named after Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty, but also incorporated significant elements of Hayek’s thinking.”

Farrant et al demonstrate that Hayek’s support of Pinochet was not contingent or begrudging—an alliance of convenience due to Pinochet’s embrace of free market economics—but was rather the product of two longstanding ideas and commitments.

First, a belief that welfare/socialist states of modern democracies have a tendency toward totalitarianism. This has been the subject of some debate over at Crooked Timber, but Farrant et al show just how consistently Hayek held this belief throughout his career: from The Road to Serfdom to volume 3 of Law, Legislation and Liberty, in which he describes his “growing apprehension about the direction in which the political order of what used to be regarded as the most advanced countries is tending” and his “growing conviction, for which the book gives the reasons, that this threatening development towards a totalitarian state is made inevitable by certain deeply entrenched defects of construction of the generally accepted type of ‘democratic’ government.” As Hayek put it in a 1981 interview with Renee Sallas of El Mercurio: “All movements in the direction of socialism, in the direction of centralized planning, involve the loss of personal freedom and end up ultimately in totalitarianism.”

In his defense of Pinochet (and elsewhere), Hayek invokes the oft-repeated distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian societies, and though Farrant et al don’t mention this, it struck me that this old saw—so beloved of figures like Jeanne Kirkpatrick—might have served as some of the glue holding together neoconservatives like Kirkpatrick and neoliberals like Hayek, especially in the 1970s.

Second, a belief in the virtues of temporary dictatorships as a means of saving these totalitarian-bound democracies from themselves. In 1981, Hayek told Sallas:

[A]s long-term institutions, I am totally against dictatorships. But a dictatorship may be a necessary system for a transitional period. At times it is necessary for a country to have, for a time, some form or other of dictatorial power. As you will understand, it is possible for a dictator to govern in a liberal way. And it is also possible for a democracy to govern with a total lack of liberalism. Personally, I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking in liberalism. My personal impression. . . is that in Chile . . . we will witness a transition from a dictatorial government to a liberal government . . . during this transition it may be necessary to maintain certain dictatorial powers, not as something permanent, but as a temporary arrangement.

While critics have cited this quotation before, Farrant et al note that Hayek had been offering similar encomia to Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar as early as 1962.

Interestingly enough, Hayek had sent Salazar a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (1960) in 1962 and Hayek’s accompanying note to Salazar is particularly revealing: Hayek hopes that his book—this “preliminary sketch of new constitutional principles”—“may assist” Salazar “in his endeavour to design a constitution which is proof against the abuses of democracy.”

Unlike most defenses of temporary dictatorship, Hayek’s was not framed around a foreign threat to the security of the state or a domestic insurrection (though he does offer a brief discussion of “emergency powers” in such situations in Volume 3 of Law, Legislation and Liberty); his was explicitly designed to countermand the creeping tyranny of social democracy. If the visions of Gunnar Myrdal and John Kenneth Galbraith were realized, he wrote in Volume 3 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, social democracy would produce “a wholly rigid economic structure which…only the force of some dictatorial power could break.” Dictatorship, as he put it in his El Mercurio interview, was “a means of establishing a stable democracy and liberty, clean of impurities.”

As Farrant et al note, Hayek’s faith in the stewardship of good dictators flies in the face of his own warnings against trusting in the good intentions of government bureaucrats—not to mention his admonitions against an earlier generation of liberals and leftists, who were prepared to accept the allegedly temporary dictatorship of the Bolsheviks as a way station to the future.

Indeed, Hayek (1948: 207) took H. D. Dickinson—one of his opponents in the interwar socialist calculation debate—to task for defending the supposedly naive idea of a ‘transitional’ socialist dictatorship. Dickinson—like Hayek tellingly invoking the example of Oliver Cromwell—had argued that “[d]uring the . . . transition from a capitalist to a socialist society . . . [economic and political] liberty may be abridged, just as during the early phases of the struggles which made possible . . . political liberty those very liberties were temporarily eclipsed . . . Cromwell and Robespierre ruled arbitrarily, yet the ultimate influence of their rule was to establish civil liberty…. [Although] Lenin and Stalin have shown scant respect for the preferences of the . . . consumer . . . if they shall have been the means of establishing a classless society, their ultimate influence will be for economic liberty. After a socialist order has been safely established, the raison d’être of restrictions on liberty will have ceased” (Dickinson 1939: 235–236). As Hayek tartly noted, any adoption of transitional socialist dictatorship would more likely culminate in a permanent regime akin to that of Hitler or Stalin than in the “beautiful and idyllic picture . . . of ‘libertarian socialism’” painted by Dickinson (Hayek 1948: 207). Much the same criticism, however, can be readily leveled against the best case (or implicitly maximax) assumptions underlying the giant leap of faith that is implicit in Hayek’s own defense of transitional dictatorship.

But, it seems to me, in the course of defending Pinochet and Salazar—and the whole idea of temporary dictatorship— Hayek was prepared to entertain an even deeper betrayal of his own stated beliefs. As he said to Sallas in 1981, when any “government is in a situation of rupture, and there are no recognized rules, rules have to be created.” That is what a dictator does: create the rules of social and political life. (Again, Hayek is not referring to a situation of civil war or anarchy; he’s talking about a social democracy in which the government pursues “the mirage of social justice” through administrative and increasingly discretionary means.)

Yet Hayek is famous—arguably most famous—for his notion that the rules of social order are neither known nor made; they are tacit and inherited. As he argued in Volume 1 of Law, Legislation and Liberty:

The first of these attributes which most rules of conduct originally possessed is that they are observed in action without being known to the acting person in articulated (‘verbalized’ or explicit) form. They will manifest themselves in a regularity of action which can be explicitly described, but this regularity of action is not the result of acting persons being capable of thus stating them. The second is that such rules come to be observed because in fact they give the group in which they are practised superior strength, and not because this effect is known to those who are guided by them. Although such rules come to be generally accepted because their observation produces certain consequences, they are not observed with the intention of producing those consequences—consequences which the acting person need not know.

Hayek was hardly the first conservative intellectual to write paeans to the slow accumulated wisdom of the ages by day, only to  praise Jacobin interventions of the right by night. Edmund Burke, I’ve argued, did much the same thing. Hayek even went so far as to defend his preferred brand of politics as a kind of dogmatic utopianism.

A successful defence of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concessions to expediency.

Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today…But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.

How one squares Hayek’s praise of dictatorship with his conception of a spontaneous order, I’m not yet sure. But with his vision of an unmoved mover knowingly and forcibly creating rules, by design, from a lawless firmament (not to mention his conception of democratic drift), Hayek puts himself within the orbit of Carl Schmitt, with whom he maintained a running dialogue, and who famously described the moment when a new order is brought into being—a new order of rules and routines—as a “an absolute decision created out of nothingness,” as the moment when “the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism [the democratic state] that has become torpid by repetition.”

Update (July 11, 10 am)

Here’s a pdf of the piece by Farrant et al.

Protocols of Machismo: On the Fetish of National Security, Part I

22 Apr

As part of my ongoing series of short takes from The Reactionary Mind, I excerpt here chapter 9, “Protocols of Machismo.” This chapter originally appeared as a review essay in the London Review of Books in 2005. Because that piece remains behind the firewall, I’ve decided to reproduce the chapter here in its entirety: Part 1 today, Part 2, I hope, tomorrow.

In the last several months, I’ve spent much time defending the state against both libertarians and anarchists. In this chapter, however, I go after the state and one of its most powerful and primary fetishes: the doctrine of national security. I also expand beyond my analysis of conservative intellectuals, taking on prominent liberal theorists like Michael Walzer and, in Part 2 to come, constitutional law scholar Sanford Levinson.

• • • • •

The twentieth century, it’s often said, taught us a simple lesson about politics: of all the motivations for political action, none is as lethal as ideology. The lust for money may be distasteful, the desire for power ignoble, but neither will drive its devotees to the criminal excess of an idea on the march. Whether the cause is the working class or a master race, ideology leads to the graveyard.

Although moderate-minded intellectuals have repeatedly mobilized some version of this argument against the “isms” of right and left, they have seldom mustered a comparable skepticism about that other idée fixe of the twentieth century: national security. Some writers criticize this war, others that one, but has anyone ever penned, in the spirit of Daniel Bell, a book titled “The End of National Security”? Millions have been killed in the name of security; Stalin and Hitler claimed to be protecting their populations from mortal threats. Yet no such book exists.

Consider the less than six degrees of separation between the idea of national security and the lurid crimes of Abu Ghraib. Each of the reasons the Bush administration gave for going to war against Iraq—the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Saddam’s alleged links to Al Qaeda, even the promotion of democracy in the Middle East—referred in some way to protecting the United States. Getting good intelligence from informers is a critical element in defeating any insurgency. U.S. military intelligence believed (perhaps still does believe) that sexual humiliation is an especially useful instrument for extracting information from recalcitrant Muslim and Arab prisoners.

Many critics have protested Abu Ghraib, but few have traced its outrages back to the idea of national security. Perhaps they believe such an investigation is unnecessary. After all, many of these individuals opposed the war on the grounds that U.S. security was not threatened by Iraq. Some of national security’s most accomplished practitioners, such as Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as theoreticians like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, claimed that a genuine consideration of U.S. security interests militated against the war. The mere fact, these critics could argue, that some politicians misused or abused the principle of national security need not call that principle into question. But when an idea routinely accompanies, if not induces, atrocities—Abu Ghraib was certainly not the first instance of a country committing torture in the name of security—second thoughts would seem to be in order. Unless, of course, defenders of the idea wish to join that company of ideologues they so roundly condemn, affirming their commitment to an ideal version of national security while disowning its actually existing variant.


In its ideal version, national security requires a clear-eyed understanding of a nation’s interests and a sober assessment of the threats to them. Force, a counselor might say to his prince, is a tool a leader may use in response to those threats, but he should use it prudently and without emotion. Just as he should not trouble himself with questions of human rights or international law, he should not be excited by his use of violence. Analysts may add international norms to a leader’s toolkit, but they are quick to point out, as Joseph Nye does in The Paradox of American Power, that these rules may have to give way to “vital survival interests,” that “at times we will have to go it alone.” National security demands a monkish self-denial, where officials forego the comforts of conscience and pleasures of impulse in order to inflict when necessary the most brutal force and abstain from or abandon that force whenever it becomes counterproductive. It’s an ethos that bears all the marks of a creed, requiring a mortification of self no less demanding than that expected of the truest Christian.

The first article of this creed, the national interest, gives leaders great wiggle room in identifying threats. What, after all, is the national interest? According to Nye, “the national interest is simply what citizens, after proper deliberation, say it is.” Even if we assume that citizens are routinely given the opportunity to deliberate about the national interest, the fact is that they seldom, if ever, reach a conclusion about it. As Nye points out, Peter Trubowitz’s exhaustive study of the way Americans defined the national interest throughout the twentieth century determined that “there is no single national interest. Analysts who assume that America has a discernible national interest whose defense should determine its relations with other nations are unable to explain the failure to achieve domestic consensus on international objectives.” This makes a good deal of sense: if an individual finds it difficult to determine his or her own interest, why should we expect a mass of individuals to do any better? But if a people cannot decide on its collective interest, how can it know when that interest is threatened?

Faced with such confusion, leaders often fall back on the most obvious definition of a threat: imminent, violent assault from an enemy, promising to end the independent life of the nation. Leaders focus on cataclysmic futures, if for no other reason than that these are a convenient measure of what is or is not a threat, what is or is not security. But that ultimate threat often turns out to be no less illusory than the errant definition of security that inspired the invocation of the threat in the first place.

Hovering about every discussion of war and peace are questions of life and death. Not the death of some or even many people, but, as Michael Walzer proposes in Arguing about War, the “moral as well as physical extinction” of an entire people. True, it is only rarely that a nation will find its “ongoingness”—its ability “to carry on, and also to improve on, a way of life handed down” from its ancestors—threatened. But at moments of what Walzer, following Winston Churchill, calls “supreme emergency,” a leader may have to commit the most obscene crimes in order to avert catastrophe. The deliberate murder of innocents, the use of torture: the measures taken will be as many and almost as terrible as the evils a nation hopes to thwart.

For obvious reasons, Walzer maintains that leaders should be wary of invoking the supreme emergency, that they must have real evidence before they start speaking Churchillese. But a casual reading of the history of national security suggests not only that the rules of evidence will be ignored in practice, but also that the notion of catastrophe encourages, even insists on, these rules being flouted. “In normal affairs,” Cardinal Richelieu declared at the dawn of the modern state system, “the administration of Justice requires authentic proofs; but it is not the same in affairs of state . . . . There, urgent conjecture must sometimes take the place of proof; the loss of the particular is not comparable with the salvation of the state.” As we ascend the ladder of threats, in other words, from petty crime to the destruction or loss of the state, we require less and less proof that each threat is real. The consequences of underestimating serious threats are so great, Richelieu suggests, that we may have no choice but to overestimate them. Three centuries later, Learned Hand invoked a version of this rule, claiming that “the gravity of the ‘evil’” should be “discounted by its improbability.” The graver the evil, the higher degree of improbability we demand in order not to worry about it. Or, to put the matter another way, if an evil is truly terrible but not very likely to occur, we may still take preemptive action against it.

Neither statement was meant to justify great crimes of state, but both suggest an inverse relationship between the magnitude of a danger and the requirements of facticity. Once a leader starts pondering the nation’s moral and physical extinction, he enters a world where the fantastic need not give way to the factual, where present benignity can seem like the merest prelude to future malignancy. So intertwined at this point are fear and reason of state that early modern theorists, less shy than we about such matters, happily admitted the first as a proxy for the second: a nation’s fear, they argued, could serve as a legitimate rationale for war, even a preventive one. “As long as reason is reason,” Francis Bacon wrote, “a just fear will be a just cause of a preventive war.” That’s a fairly good description of the logic animating the Cold War: fight them there—in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola—lest we must stop them here, at the Rio Grande, the Canadian border, on Main Street. It’s also a fairly good description of the logic animating the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union:

We are fighting on such distant fronts to protect our own homeland, to keep the war as far away as possible, and to forestall what would otherwise be the fate of the nation as a whole and what up to now only a few German cities have experienced or will have to experience. It is therefore better to hold a front 1,000 or if necessary 2,000 kilometers away from home than to have to hold a front on the borders of the Reich.

These are by no means ancient or academic formulations. While liberal critics claim that the Bush administration lied about or deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq in order to justify going to war, the fact is that the administration and its allies were often disarmingly honest in their assessment of the threat, or at least honest about how they were going about assessing it. Trafficking in the future, they conjured the worst—“we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”—and left it to their audience to draw the most frightful conclusions.

In his 2003 state of the union address, one of his most important statements in the run-up to the war, Bush declared: “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words and all recriminations would come too late.” Bush does not affirm the imminence of the threat; he implicitly disavows it, ducking behind the past, darting to the hypothetical, and arriving at a nightmarish, though entirely conjectured, future. He does not speak of “is” but of “if” and “could be.” These words are conditional (which is why Bush’s critics, insisting that he take his stand in the realm of fact or fiction, never could get a fix on him). He speaks in the tense of fear, where evidence and intuition, reason and speculation, combine to make the worst-case scenario seem as real as fact.

After the war had begun, the television journalist Diane Sawyer pressed Bush on the difference between the assumption, “stated as a hard fact, that there were weapons of mass destruction,” and the hypothetical possibility that Saddam “could move to acquire those weapons.” Bush replied: “So what’s the difference?” No offhand comment, this was Bush’s most articulate statement of the entire war, an artful parsing of a distinction that has little meaning in the context of national security.

Probably no one in or around the administration better understood the way national security blurs the line between the possible and the actual than Richard Perle. “How far Saddam’s gone on the nuclear weapons side I don’t think we really know,” Perle said on one occasion. “My guess is it’s further than we think. It’s always further than we think, because we limit ourselves, as we think about this, to what we’re able to prove and demonstrate . . . . And, unless you believe that we have uncovered everything, you have to assume there is more than we’re able to report.”

Like Bush, Perle neither lies nor exaggerates. Instead, he imagines and projects, and in the process reverses the normal rules of forensic responsibility. When someone recommends a difficult course of action on behalf of a better future, he invariably must defend himself against the skeptic, who insists that he prove his recommendation will produce the outcome he anticipates. But if someone recommends an equally difficult course of action to avert a hypothetical disaster, the burden of proof shifts to the skeptic. Suddenly she must defend her doubt against his belief, her preference for politics as usual against his politics of emergency. And that, I suspect, is why the Bush administration’s prewar mantra, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”—laughable in the context of an argument for, say, world peace—could seem surprisingly cogent in an argument for war. “Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions,” Burke noted, “than ruined by too confident a security.”

As Walzer suggests, an entire people can face annihilation. But the victims of genocide tend to be stateless or powerless, and the world has difficulty seeing or acknowledging their destruction, even when the evidence is undeniable. The citizens and subjects of great powers, on the other hand, rarely face the prospect of “moral as well as physical extinction.” (Walzer cites only two cases.) Yet their leaders seem to imagine that destruction with the greatest of ease.

We get a taste of this indulgence of the state and its concerns—and a corresponding skepticism about non-state actors and their concerns—in Walzer’s own ruminations on war and peace. Throughout Arguing about War, Walzer wrestles with terrorists who claim that they are using violence as a last resort and antiwar activists who claim than governments should go to war only as a last resort. Walzer is dubious about both claims. But far from revealing a dogged consistency, his skepticism about the “last resort” suggests a double standard. It sets the bar for using force much higher for non-state actors than it does for state actors—not because terrorists target civilians while the state does not, but because Walzer refuses to accept the terrorist’s “last resort” while he is ready to lend credence to the government’s, or at least is ready to challenge critics of the government who insist that war truly be a last resort.

For Walzer, the last resort argument of antiwar activists is often a ruse designed to make a government’s going to war impossible—and a muddy ruse at that. For “lastness,” he says, “is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life; it is always possible to do something else, or to do it again, before doing whatever it is that comes last.” We can always ask for “another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution, another meeting,” we can always dither and delay. Though Walzer acknowledges the moral power of the last resort argument—“political leaders must cross this threshold [going to war] only with great reluctance and trepidation”—he suspects that it is often “merely an excuse for postponing the use of force indefinitely.” As a result, he says, “I have always resisted the argument that force is a last resort.”

But when non-state actors argue that they are resorting to terrorism as a last resort, Walzer suspects them of bad faith. For such individuals, “it is not so easy to reach the ‘last resort.’” To get there, one must indeed try everything (which is a lot of things) and not just once. Even “under conditions of oppression and war,” he insists, “it is by no means clear when” the oppressed or their spokespersons have truly “run out of options.” Walzer acknowledges that a similar argument might be applied to government officials, but the officials he has in mind are those who “kill hostages or bomb peasant villages”—not those who claim they must go to war. Thus, Walzer entertains the possibility that governments, with all their power, may find themselves racing against time, while insisting that terrorists, and the people they claim to represent, invariably will have all the time in the world.

To be continued…here!

Isn’t It Romantic? Burke, Maistre, and Conservatism

3 Mar

 

Over at The American Conservative, political theorist Sam Goldman offers a thoughtful response to The Reactionary Mind. Among its many virtues, Goldman’s post manages to get my argument right. As we’ve seen, that can be something of a challenge for some reviewers.

Goldman also agrees with me on some fundamentals. Conservatism, he says, is a reactionary ideology. It is a defense of hierarchy against emancipatory movements from below. It’s not a disposition or an attitude; it’s not a philosophy of liberty or even of limited government.  (It supports the idea of limited government, Goldman says, but that’s a consequence, not a premise, of the theory.)  It is first and foremost a coherent set of ideas about inequality that gets forged in the crucible of revolution.

Where some liberal and moderate writers react to my argument with all the rage of a blasphemed church—even though they’re not members—here we have one of our more serious right-wing journals calmly taking my claims in order and agreeing with a great many of them. Interesting.

But Goldman has two criticisms of my book. First, he doesn’t think I do justice to the conservative critique of revolution and defense of hierarchy. Goldman doesn’t claim that what I say about that critique is wrong (though that might be out of mere politeness on his part.) Instead, he says:

Robin is so eager to make the connection between past and present that he does not develop the classic [conservative] position in detail. A “consistent and profound argument” deserves careful analysis. In The Reactionary Mind, we get a few intriguing but not exactly dispositive quotes from Burke and his Francophone disciple Joseph de Maistre.

Goldman’s second criticism follows from his first. Because conservatism is, in his account, a critique of any politics that rests its claims to legitimacy on the need for consent—a politics, Goldman suggests, that includes not only revolutionary Jacobinism but also liberalism and contemporary conservatism—it has nothing to do with contemporary conservatism.

What does this backward-looking, theologically inflected ideology of hierarchy have to with the contemporary America conservative movement? The answer is: not much….Classical conservatism is essentially communitarian, and locates individuals in structures of obligation that are not derived from their choice or consent. The American conservative movement, on the other hand, appeals to many of same beliefs about natural freedom and equality that inspired the French Revolution.

I’ll confess to feeling slightly disoriented in reading that statement, coming on the heels of a two-week controversy over the right of women to sexual autonomy, in which the Catholic Church has played a not insignificant part. Goldman seems to think the center of gravity of the American conservative movement is to be found in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia—an error all too common among political theorists who don’t know much American or European history and don’t keep up with the facts on the right-wing ground. I’m not saying that’s true of Goldman—I suspect it’s not—but it’s definitely true of a great many political theorists. (Mark Lilla’s comments about the contemporary conservative movement in his review of my book, for example, were positively wince-inducing to anyone who’s read the historiography.) In any event, I’m confident I provide plentiful evidence in the book demonstrating the continuities between the classic and the contemporary position, so I won’t dwell on that part of Goldman’s article here.

Let me focus instead on Goldman’s characterization of the classic position, particularly the role of history in the arguments of Burke and the notion of sovereignty in the arguments of de Maistre. Goldman’s is an influential if standard account, for good reasons. So while much of this will seem like fairly rarified intellectual history, it’s important that we have this discussion because I fear that certain set pieces of academic political theory are preventing us from getting clear on the nature of the contemporary right.

Burke and History

Goldman’s account of Burke’s theory of history is, as I said, a fairly standard one, for good reasons, so it’s worth giving it some space here:

Burke’s answer was that the French Revolution was the consequence of an extraordinary new theory of society. According to this theory, which Burke attributed to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, human beings are naturally free and self-sufficient. Because each man is potentially a Crusoe, any relations between individuals are essentially voluntary.

The question, then, is whether the “chains” that bind one person to another reflect the will of every individual involved. If so, they are legitimate—a term that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to transform from a principle of dynastic succession into the moral justification of rule as such. If not, they lack moral authority and may be rejected, potentially with violence. So, in Burke’s view, went the philosophical argument behind the revolution.

This reasoning was mistaken, Burke argued, not so much in its logical structure as in its first principle. In fact, human beings are born into networks of sympathy, obligation, and authority. These networks make us what we are, transforming unformed potential and dispositions into concrete identities. On this view, there is no Archimedean point from which the legitimacy of existing social relations can be assessed. As Maistre put it in a brilliant formulation, “In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians….But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.”

If the social arrangements that characterize national communities are background conditions of humanity, they are not legitimatized by the consent of those who participate in them at any given time. Instead, they derive their authority from the way that they bind together past, present, and future in an enduring partnership. It follows that men and women of today have no right to dissolve the partnership in which they are involved merely because it seems inconvenient to them. Society, which always means a particular society, is an “entailed inheritance,” like a landed estate whose owner is legally prohibited from selling.

Now it’s certainly true that Burke puts a great store on the value of history and tradition. (Though it’s also true, as I show in my book and have argued repeatedly since its publication, that Burke can be positively scathing about the role of history and tradition—a point Goldman steers clear of in his piece. This becomes a bit problematic later in his article, when Goldman talks about the virtues that are acquired by those who are longstanding witnesses to power; for Burke, that kind of experience can be as much a curse as it is a blessing. Again, something I’ve already talked about at length, so I won’t dwell on it here.) But I think Goldman, like many interpreters of Burke, misses the point of what Burke says about history and tradition.

Goldman assimilates Burke to a standard communitarian position, which holds that our history, culture, and inheritance make us who we are. It’s a root theory of identity, in which the past and society more generally are the soil and seed of our personhood and agency, the condition of our possibility without which we would be stumbling in the dark, unable to find our way.

The problem with this claim is twofold. First, it’s not a particularly conservative claim. Nor did Burke, assuming he made it, originate it. As Sankar Muthu has argued, both Diderot and Kant were firm in the conviction that men and women were not the isolated monads of a stereotypical Enlightenment but “cultural agents.”  That view—this is me now talking—had little bearing on their predilection or aversion to radical politics: Diderot was a key inspiration of the French Revolution, Kant a prominent defender. And as Alex Gourevitch noted in his critique of Lilla’s review of my book, one can find versions of that rootedness position throughout the liberal and radical tradition, from the nineteenth century onward; no necessarily conservative conclusions—at least not in the reactionary sense that Goldman agrees is essential to conservatism—follow from it. It simply doesn’t tell us very much that’s distinctive about conservatism.

More important, it misses what’s most interesting in Burke’s account of our historical being. To fully appreciate that account, one has to understand the kind of moral psychology Burke lays out much earlier in his career in his essay on The Sublime and the Beautiful. Forgive the very long quotation from my book, but it helps situate what I’m about to say about Burke’s view of history.

The Sublime and the Beautiful begins on a high note, with a discussion of curiosity, which Burke identifies as “the first and simplest emotion.” The curious race “from place to place to hunt out something new.” Their sights are fixed, their attention is rapt. Then the world turns gray. They begin to stumble across the same things, “with less and less of any agreeable effect.” Novelty diminishes: how much, really, is there new in the world? Curiosity “exhausts” itself. Enthusiasm and engagement give way to “loathing and weariness.” Burke moves on to pleasure and pain, which are supposed to transform the quest for novelty into experiences more sustaining and profound. But rather than a genuine additive to curiosity, pleasure offers more of the same: a moment’s enthusiasm, followed by dull malaise. “When it has run its career,” Burke says, pleasure “sets us down very nearly where it found us.” Any kind of pleasure “quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference.” Quieter enjoyments, less intense than pleasure, are equally soporific. They generate complacency; we “give ourselves over to indolence and inaction.” Burke turns to imitation as another potential force of outward propulsion. Through imitation, we learn manners and mores, develop opinions, and are civilized. We bring ourselves to the world, and the world is brought to us. But imitation contains its own narcotic. Imitate others too much and we cease to better ourselves. We follow the person in front of us “and so on in an eternal circle.” In a world of imitators, “there never could be any improvement.” Such “men must remain as brutes do, the same at the end that they are at this day, and that they were in the beginning of the world.”

Curiosity leads to weariness, pleasure to indifference, enjoyment to torpor, and imitation to stagnation. So many doors of the psyche open onto this space of inertial gloom we might well conclude that it lurks not at the edge, but at the center of the human condition. Here, in this dark courtyard of the self, all action ceases, creating an ideal environment for “melancholy, dejection, despair, and self-murder.” Even love, the most outward of raptures, carries the self back to a state of internal dissolution. Suicide, it seems, is the inevitable fate awaiting anyone who takes pleasure in the world as it is.

If the self is to survive and flourish it must be aroused by an experience more vital and bracing than pleasure or enjoyment. Pleasure and enjoyment act like beauty, “relaxing the solids of the whole system.”  That system, however, must be made taut and tense. The mind must be quickened, the body exerted. Otherwise, the system will soften and atrophy, and ultimately die. What most arouses this heightened state of being is the confrontation with non-being. Life and health are pleasurable and enjoyable, and that is what is wrong with them: “they make no such impression” on the self because “we were not made to acquiesce in life and health.” Pain and danger, by contrast, are “emissaries” of death, the “king of terrors.” They are sources of the sublime, “the strongest”—most powerful, most affecting—“emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”  Pain and danger, in other words, are generative experiences of the self.

Pain and danger are generative because they have the contradictory effect of minimizing and maximizing our sense of self. When sensing pain or danger, our mind “is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” The “motions” of our soul “are suspended,” as harm and the fears it arouses “rush in upon the mind.” In the face of these fears, “the mind is hurried out of itself.” When we experience the sublime, we feel ourselves evacuated, overwhelmed by an external object of tremendous power and threat. Everything that gave us a sense of internal being and vitality ceases to exist. The external is all, we are nothing. God is a good example, and the ultimate expression, of the sublime: “Whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him.”

Paradoxically, we also feel our existence to an extent we never have felt it before. Seized by terror, our “attention” is roused and our “faculties” are “driven forward, as it were, on their guard.” We are pulled out of ourselves. We are cognizant of the immediate terrain and our presence upon it. Before, we barely noticed ourselves or our surroundings. Now we spill out of ourselves, inhabiting not only our bodies and minds but the space around us. We feel “a sort of swelling”—a sense that we are greater, our perimeter extends further—that “is extremely grateful to the human mind.” But this “swelling,” Burke reminds us, “is never more perceived, nor operates with more force, than when without danger we are conversant with terrible objects.”

In the face of the sublime, the self is annihilated, occupied, crushed, overwhelmed; in the face of the sublime, the self is heightened, aggrandized, magnified. Whether the self can truly occupy such opposing, almost irreconcilable, poles of experience at the same time—it is this contradiction, the oscillation between wild extremes, that generates a strong and strenuous sense of self. As Burke writes elsewhere, intense light resembles intense darkness not only because it blinds the eye and thus approximates darkness, but also because both are extremes. And extremes, particularly opposing extremes, are sublime because sublimity “in all things abhors mediocrity.” The extremity of opposing sensations, the savage swing from being to nothingness, makes for the most intense experience of self hood.

Burke, it should be clear from this discussion, has an extraordinarily subtle and supple theory of human nature, in which the experience of selfhood is especially fragile and fraught. If we now apply this account to what he has to say in the Reflections about the relationship of the self to history, we find two critical points.

First, far from situating an integrated self in the warm and loamy soil of a nurturing history, Burke’s history is an altogether more enigmatic, impenetrable, and agitated affair. Listen to the old man:

Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain, we are never wholly obsolete.

History is permanence and flux, birth and decay. At each and every moment, we inhabit three modes of time: past, present, and future. The self is not simply situated in time; it is distended by time. The implication of that kind of temporality is that multiplicity and fragmentation—not integration or rootedness—are the essence of our experience. Flux and fluidity—those proverbial specters of postmodernity—haunt the Burkean self, making for the kind of sublimity that Burke believes is necessary to sustain the self in the face of its ever present and irrepressible drive toward death.

History, in short, is not the root of our identity, making us who we are; it’s the contradictory poles of our experience, forever pushing and pulling us in opposite directions. History is the extremity that threatens us with fragmentation and thereby makes it possible for us to feel, however fleetingly, the potential density and perimeter of our being.

Second, Burke sees in the past a great weight. But far from intimating some kind of plodding traditionalism or conventionalism, that weight is also suggestive of the sublime:

Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. The idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity, which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are first acquirers of any distinction. But this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It carries an imposing and majestic aspect. It has a pedigree, and illustrating ancestors. It has its bearings, and its ensigns armorial. It has its gallery of portraits; its monumental inscriptions; its records, evidences, and titles.

Notice that this is not a simple theory of history’s constraints. It’s not that history limits our freedom; it’s that that limit enlarges and magnifies our freedom. It gives it depth, majesty, grandeur, awe—“an awful gravity.” The weight of the past does not simply weigh down on the present; it gives weight to a present that would otherwise be weightless. Through that weight, the present—and the small selves of that present—acquires largeness, profundity, extent. (The backdrop of religious notions of awe should be obvious here; in fact, later in the Reflections Burke makes oblique allusion to the story of Noah and his sons, particularly Shem and Japheth, when he says that one “should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.”)

So what function is history serving for Burke? Rather than securing for us an identity, without which we would be at sea, history is the source of sublimity, of dissonant experience and agonistic passion, without which we would be dead. Not because history is the secure ground of everyday experience but because it subverts the secure ground of everyday experience. The real threat lurking beneath the revolutionary assault on history, to Burke’s mind, is not anarchy or disorder; it’s weightlessness, the—to be sure, avant la lettre—proverbial emptiness and existential nausea of modernity that later theorists like Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Schmitt will lament. And while that sense of weightlessness is by no means exclusive to the right, the connections that Burke draws between it and the antinomian forces of egalitarian revolution is. (“This is one among the revolutions which have given splendour to obscurity,” Burke writes in the Reflections, “and distinction to undiscerned merit.” Revolution flattens the world by pressing its extremities of high and low together; inequality keeps them apart, endowing the world with texture and depth.)

It’s important that we not assimilate, as do Goldman and many others, Burke’s theory of history to an anodyne communitarian position in part because we will overlook the much more turbulent and novel theory that is being forged there, a theory that doesn’t look backward to the eighteenth century but forward, to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It’s also important because we’ll fail to see the ways in which Burke—and other “classic” conservatives—stand at the headwaters of what will become the raging torrent of the radical right, in Europe and the US. In Burke’s focus on constraint and overcoming, we see not only glimmers of the figures I mention in the previous paragraph but also, as I show in my book, glimmers of the economics of Ayn Rand and the jurisprudence of Antonin Scalia.

Maistre and Sovereignty

We can see this forward-looking dimension even more clearly in another “classic” conservative figure Goldman discusses: Joseph de Maistre.  Here’s Goldman (again quoting him at length):

Yet the counterrevolutionaries were not simply authoritarians. Unlike Hobbes, to whom it was a matter of indifference who ruled so long as someone did so, Burke and his disciples were deeply concerned with the character of the wielders of power. This was not simply a matter of natural endowments, although the conservatives did observe reasonably enough that men are not born equal in strength, intelligence, or other capacities. Instead, the classical conservatives insisted that only certain persons are in a position to develop the skills and habits that fit them for rule, not for their personal enjoyment, but rather to secure the common good that is available only when men acknowledge the distinctions that God and nature have established.

The content of the relevant distinctions, however, is a point of difference between the conservative tradition as it developed in the English-speaking world and on the Continent. Although it was fundamentally anti-egalitarian, the former took its bearing from the ideal of the gentleman, who did not necessarily bear a title of nobility and was most at home on his rural estate. For Burke, the possession and care of landed property had a central role in cultivating the virtues necessary to rule others well. As the reference to an “entailed inheritance” suggests, Burke saw the management of an estate and its tenants as the basic model of harmonious social relations. On the other hand, those who earn their living from rapid exchange can hardly resist habits of short-term thinking, deference to the whims of customers, and the less than frank speech necessary to succeed in business.

Even a successful merchant, then, could not make himself into a gentleman. He might, however, hope to be successful enough that his grandsons would be. The assumption that social mobility is possible, although never frequent or easy, inclined English-style conservatism to the idea of a powerful but permeable aristocracy. Burke’s own rise from obscure man of letters to the ideologue of the establishment testifies to the plausibility of this assumption.

But “the spirit of the gentleman,” as Burke called it, did not exist in the same way on the Continent, partly because European titles passed to all of a nobleman’s sons rather than only to the eldest. In its place, Bonald, Maistre, and German counterparts like Friedrich Gentz deferred to the nobility of the sword. The natural rulers, as they saw them, were not a class of squires periodically refreshed by talented outsiders. They were the titled commanders of armies.

Continental conservatives generally acknowledged the necessity of a class of civil servants to administer the state. But they rejected the Aristotelian principle that participation in politics is an important component of virtue, in favor of a military monasticism that alienated the elite from the society that it was supposed to lead. Among the reasons that Burke’s conservatism supported his commitment to parliamentary government, by contrast, was that he saw politics as a fit occupation for a gentleman. Indeed, one of Burke’s central criticisms of the French Revolution is that its subversion of all civil authority made military dictatorship inevitable—an outcome for which he had no sympathy whatsoever.

Despite their disagreement about who the natural rulers were, Burke and his European counterparts agreed about how this rule was to be exercised. In both cases, power was to be constrained by the complex structure of relationships that make up a whole society. A father might be the authority in his own home, but he owed obedience to the local lord of the manor. The lord might rule his estate, but not in defiance of the king. And the king had to be prepared to account for himself before God for his stewardship of these relationships, which are not of his making or subject to his will.

Burke’s insistence that good government is always limited government is well known. But Maistre, who has the reputation of a crazed absolutist, insisted on the same principle. Elaborating his theory of sovereignty, Maistre explains that while sovereignty must, in certain senses, be absolute, it should never be arbitrary or exercised outside its proper sphere. Although the king’s will must not be challenged, “Religion, laws, customs, opinion, and class and corporate privileges restrain the sovereign and prevent him from abusing his power…”

The insistence that power be embedded in restraining traditions and institutions is the crucial distinction between classical conservatism and the fascism that would eventually replace it on the European right. Conservatism defends the authority of lords, of generals, of kings—but not of a “leader” who emerges from and rules over the disorganized mob.

I’ve already indicated, here and elsewhere, why I think this account of the virtues of the Burkean gentleman is at best incomplete. But when it comes to Maistre, it’s, well, not particularly Maistrean. In his St. Petersburg Dialogues, to cite only one example (I discuss Maistre’s Considerations on France in my book, so I won’t repeat that here), Maistre offers a chilling account of power and its exercise that looks very little like the picture Goldman paints here.

Maistre opens the Dialogues by saying, “God, wanting to govern men by men, at least exteriorly, has handed over to sovereigns the eminent prerogative of punishing crimes, and it is in this matter especially that they are his representatives.” To the casual reader, this sounds conventional enough: the sovereign is God’s anointed representative on earth. But Maistre’s focus on punishment—“and it is in this matter especially that they are his representatives”—strikes a discordant note. With the exception of Nietzsche and Foucault, possibly Bentham, no modern political theorist has ever placed so much emphasis on the potency and power of punishment. For Maistre, punishment is not the unfortunate sign of a fallen world, a sad concession to a corrupt reality; it’s an endlessly generative postulate with enormous creative potential.

Quoting from an English translation of the Indian “laws of Manu,” Maistre goes on to write:

Punishment is an active ruler; he is the true manager of public affairs; he is the dispenser of laws; and wise men call him the sponsor of all the four orders for the discharge of their several duties. Punishment governs all mankind; punishment alone preserves them; punishment wakes, while their guards are asleep….The whole race of men is kept in order by punishment.

Notice the subtle inversions and subversions. We’ve gone from the sovereign being God’s anointed on earth, especially in his capacity to punish, to punishment now being the “true manager of public affairs.” The significance of that shift will become clear momentarily, but for now it should alert us to the fact that this is hardly a standard account of sovereignty we’re seeing. Where punishment was first a capacity, albeit a critical one, of sovereignty, it is now sovereignty itself.

Also notice Maistre’s dig at conventional political authority: “punishment wakes, while their guards are asleep.” Who are these guards? What are they guarding? It’s not entirely clear, but what Maistre may be suggesting is that the customary protectors of men and women—kings and magistrates and constables—may not be up to the task. They are asleep (Maistre voices that suspicion, so common to the conservative tradition, that established elites and rulers are decadent and dissolute.) Punishment is the real protector.

But who or what is “punishment” if not the king and his agents? According to Maistre, it is a figure of a tremendously frightful and awful countenance: the executioner.

And yet all greatness, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner; he is both the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and in a moment order gives way to chaos, thrones fall, and society disappears. God, who is the author of sovereignty, is therefore also the author of punishment.

Two things are going in this passage. First, Maistre has completely shifted the source of order and sovereignty: it’s not the king wielding punishment, it’s the punisher himself. The executioner is not the king’s agent; it’s the reverse, with the executioner now standing in direct relation to God. The world has been turned upside down, possibly reflecting Maistre’s own absorption of the Revolution’s democratic ethos. (As I argue in my book, conservatism often works by borrowing from the very revolution it opposes.)

Second, and even more suggestive, in claiming that violence is the source of order, Maistre registers the newly dynamic and turbulent world of democratic history—a revolutionary world, as I noted in my first book Fear: The History of Political Idea, where dynasties rose and fell within a matter of years, if not months—that Burke points to in his Reflections.

As the word suggests, violence hints at movement or change: there’s the physical fact that violence requires the movement of bodies acting upon other bodies; there’s also the fact that violence is used to engineer change—war, for example—or signifies that a change, a violation, has occurred and needs to be remedied—as is the case in punishment.

Kings rest their power on God, tradition, law: these are things of stability, if not permanence. To say that the violence of the executioner governs the world is to say that something more active, more dynamic, is necessary to maintain the world as it is. The very features that Goldman maintains are essential, in the conservative argument, to the long-term stability and security of a polity are, for Maistre (and for Burke, as I’ve argued elsewhere), its liabilities.

As Maistre proceeds to describe the executioner, these inversions of sovereignty become even clearer—and, oddly, more democratic.  Or at least more plebeian.  Who is this executioner? He is “in effect, found everywhere.” He’s a family man. He’s a professional: he cares about his job, he does it well, he likes to get paid. He’s an everyman; he eats, he sleeps. “He is made like us; he is born like us.”

And yet there’s something uncanny and extraordinary about him.  He’s chosen this awful profession for reasons that no one can fathom (the fact that he’s chosen it also suggests that he is a creature of this new democratic world where men choose their professions.) He’s not only inscrutable; his very existence is sui generis: “For him to be brought into existence as a member of the human family a particular decree was required, a FIAT of creative power.  He is created as a law on to himself.” Much like Schmitt’s later discussions of sovereignty in Political Theology (“Looked at normatively, the decision emanates from nothingness”), the executioner is the closest thing on earth to the Creation itself: the making of something from nothing.

And there is, finally, the grisliness of his chosen task, which Maistre does not shrink from describing:

An abject minister of justice knocks on his door to warn him that he is needed. He sets out. He arrives at a public square packed with a pressing and panting crowd. He is thrown a poisoner, a parricide, a blasphemer. He seizes him, stretches him out, ties him to a horizontal cross, and raises his arms. Then there is a horrible silence, there is no sound but the crack of bones breaking under the crossbar and the howls of the victim. He unties him and carries him to a wheel. The broken limbs are bound to the spokes, the head hangs down, the hair stands on end, and the mouth gaping like a furnace, occasionally emits a few bloody words begging for death. He has finished; his heart is pounding, but it is with joy. He congratulates himself. He says in his heart, No one can break men on the wheel better than I. He steps down; he holds out his bloodstained hand, and justice throws him from afar a few gold coins, which he carries away through a double row of men drawing back in horror. He sits down to table and eats; then he goes to bed and sleeps.

There’s are lot more of this kind of stuff in the St. Petersburg Dialogues—“the decree of violent death written on the very frontiers of life;” “there is no instant of time when some living thing is not being devoured by another”; tables piled with corpses, museums built out of bones; the kind of stuff that makes Adorno’s (really Brecht’s) observation that high culture is “built on dogshit” look mild by comparison—as well as in the Considerations. But you get the picture.

We are, in other words, far away from Goldman’s world of squires and generals, of limited government and restraint. Whether we are in the world of the Blitzkrieg and the Konzentrationslager, as Isaiah Berlin famously suggested, is another question.

What’s not in question is that this is not a world that the contemporary right would find entirely foreign. This valorization of violence as a creative force, as I show in my book, plays a critical role in neoconservative thought. The mixing of high and low, the transfiguration of patrician into plebeian and vice versa—this also plays a critical role in contemporary conservatism.

But more interesting to me is the figure of the executioner himself: this miraculous appearance from nowhere, inscrutable yet democratic, self-willed and self-created, this lowly, uncredentialed being upon whom kings depend and sovereignty hangs, that is sovereignty itself. As I’ve suggested in some interviews, the reason Sarah Palin is/was such a suggestive figure on the right is precisely that she reflects this romance of the extraordinary ordinary. Like the executioner—and Joan of Arc, who occupies such a central place in the French radical right—she comes from nowhere, acts for inscrutable reasons, is unlicensed and untutored, and yet, to her followers, is ready to assume command of the free world. Her lack of interest and preparation in political matters only seem to confirm, in the eyes of her admirers, her fitness to rule.

All in all, this is an extremely romantic view of power: turbulent, tormented, stormy.  It has its own logic and integrity, but it also has tremendous potency as a political ideal. For it manages, in one single figure, to embody the central imperative of conservative politics: to provide a defense of hierarchical rule for a democratic age.

 

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