Tag Archives: imperialism

Ron Paul has two problems: one is his, the other is ours.

3 Jan

Ron Paul has two problems.  One is his and the larger conservative movement of which he is a part.  The other is ours—by which I mean a left that is committed to both economic democracy and anti-imperialism.

Ron Paul’s problem is not merely the racist newsletters, the close ties with Lew Rockwell, his views on abortion, or even his stance on the 1964 Civil Rights Act—though these automatically disqualify him from my support.  His real problem is his fundamentalist commitment to federalism, which would make any notion of human progress in this country impossible.

Federalism has a long and problematic history in this country—it lies at the core of the maintenance of slavery and white supremacy; it was consistently invoked as the basis for opposition to the welfare state; it has been, contrary to many of its defenders, one of the cornerstones of some of the most repressive moments in our nation’s history[pdf]—and though liberals used to be clear about its regressive tendencies, they’ve grown soft on it in recent years.  As the liberal Yale constitutional law scholar Akhil Reed Amar put it not so long ago:

Once again, populism and federalism—liberty and localism—work together; We the People conquer government power by dividing it between the two rival governments, state and federal.

As I’ve argued repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, the path forward for the left lies in the alliance between active social movements on the ground and a strong national state.  There is simply no other way, at least not that I  am aware of, to break the back of the private autocracies that oppress us all.

Even people, no, especially people who focus on Paul’s position on the drug war should think about the perils of his federalism. There are 2 million people in prison in this country. At most 10 percent of them are in federal prisons; the rest are in state and local prisons. If Paul ended the drug war, maybe 1/2 of those in federal prison would be released. Definitely a step, but it has to be weighed against his radical embrace of whatever it is that states and local governments do.

Paul is a distinctively American type of libertarian: one that doesn’t have a critique of the state so much as a critique of the federal government. That’s a very different kettle of fish. I think libertarianism is problematic enough—in that it ignores the whole realm of social domination (or thinks that realm is entirely dependent upon or a function of the existence of the state or thinks that it can be remedied by the persuasive and individual actions of a few good souls)—but a states-rights-based libertarianism is a social disaster.

So that’s his problem.

Our problem—and again by “our” I mean a left that’s social democratic (or welfare state liberal or economically progressive or whatever the hell you want to call it) and anti-imperial—is that we don’t really have a vigorous national spokesperson for the issues of war and peace, an end to empire, a challenge to Israel, and so forth, that Paul has in fact been articulating.  The source of Paul’s positions on these issues are not the same as ours (again more reason not to give him our support).  But he is talking about these issues, often in surprisingly blunt and challenging terms. Would that we had someone on our side who could make the case against an American empire, or American supremacy, in such a pungent way.

This, it’s clear, is why people like Glenn Greenwald say that Paul’s voice needs to be heard.  Not, Greenwald makes clear, because he supports Paul, but because it is a terrible comment—a shanda for the left—that we don’t have anyone on our side of comparable visibility launching an attack on American imperialism and warfare. (Recalling what I said in the context of the death of Christopher Hitchens, I suspect this has something to do with our normalization and acceptance of war as a way of life.) In other words, we need to listen to Paul, not because he’s worthy of our support, and certainly not because the reasons that underlie his positions on foreign policy are ours, but because he reveals what’s not being said, or not being said enough, on our side.

There is a long history in this country of the left not paying too much attention to the ways in which our leaders do things that set the stage for worse things to come.  J. Edgar Hoover got a tremendous amount of traction under FDR and the New Deal because he was perceived to be a spit-and-polish, professional crime fighter.  So trusted and hailed was he by liberals and progressives—when he worked for their leaders—that it was none other than Arthur Schlesinger, in The Vital Center (1949), who urged Americans to put their trust in Hoover rather than in the Red hunters of the far right:

All Americans must bear in mind J. Edgar Hoover’s warning that counter-espionage is no field for amateurs. We need the best professional counterespionage agency we can get to protect our national security.

In 1950, William Keller reports in his essential The Liberals and J. Edgar Hoover, while Truman was still president, Hubert Humphrey took to the floor of the Senate to declare:

If the FBI does not have enough trained manpower to do this job, then, for goodness sake, let us give the FBI the necessary funds for recruiting the manpower it needs….This is a job that must be done by experts.

Yet, as Ellen Schrecker rightly argued in Many Are the Crimes, her definitive account of McCarthyism:

Had observers known in the 1950s what they have learned since the 1970s, when the Freedom of Information Act opened the Bureau’s files, “McCarthyism” would probably be called “Hooverism.” For the FBI was the bureaucratic heart of the McCarthy era.

In the last week, liberals and progressives have been arguing about these issues; Digby has been especially cogent and worth listening to. The only thing I have to add to that debate is this: both sides are right. Not in a the-truth-lies-somewhere-in-between sort of way. Nor in a can’t-we-all-get-along sort of way.  No, both sides are right in the sense that I laid out above: Ron Paul is unacceptable, and it’s unacceptable that we don’t have someone on the left who is raising the issues of imperialism, war and peace, and civil liberties in as visible and forceful a way.

From the American Slaveholders to the Nazis…

3 Nov

From my dialogue with Daniel Larison over at The New Inquiry:

In the American context, there is a precedent for the conservative rush to empire, which you suggest is mostly a creation of the Cold War. And that is the slaveholders. But the slaveholders developed a fascinating vision of an imperial political economy, which would be centered around the Mississippi and spread out from there to the Caribbean Basin and beyond. It would be centered on slave labor, and it was thought to be a different kind of imperialism.

And though I’ve never seen anyone discuss this, it strikes me that there are fascinating parallels to be drawn between their vision of a slave empire, based on land, and the Nazis’ vision of an empire in the East, which was also to be based on land. People often forget that Hitler had a major critique of European imperialism in that it was extraterritorial and commercial in its orientation, whereas he wanted an empire that was contiguous territorially and based on slave labor and agriculture.

To Play the Part of a Lord: A Reply to Andrew Sullivan about Conservatism

17 Oct

Andrew Sullivan—whose views on conservatism I take very seriously (one of the main arguments of my book is inspired by and aimed at his writing)—has linked to Sheri Berman’s response to my critique and identified one paragraph in particular as the “money quote.” If these are Sullivan’s apprehensions, they merit a response. If this paragraph is the crux of concern, it can be dispatched fairly easily.

The paragraph in question makes two claims; I’ve divided my response accordingly.


Claim 1: “If conservatism is always about the submission and subjugation of the lower orders, then any popular support for such movements must—by definition—be misguided, misinformed, or the result of trickery.”

This claim rests upon two mistaken assumptions:

  1. The lower orders are a cohesive unit, without divisions and inequalities among them.
  2. There are no groups outside the polity in whose governance the lower orders might participate and from whose governance they might benefit.

If you believe these claims, it makes some sense to think that a movement in favor of subjugating the lower orders could only gain their support through deception and illusion. After all, what could the ruling classes possibly have to offer those orders other than their subjugation, which no rational person could want?

Frederick DouglassI say only “some sense” because it’s perfectly plausible that men and women on the bottom of society might embrace or accept the rule of their superiors in part because they believe their superiors are better and/or because they derive some benefit—material and immaterial—from being governed by them. As Frederick Douglass noted of his early years under slavery, many slaves “seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves.” Much to his horror, slaves would argue among themselves as to who had the finer master. “It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed.”

Douglass’s second observation is doubly important, for it reveals what a believer in this simple model of a homogeneous lower order can’t quite see: no matter how abject a class may be it can always find ways to invent hierarchies within itself, ever more infinitesimal gradations of rank that members of that class will struggle to ascend. And if it can’t accomplish this task on its own, the ruling classes will be only too happy to assist. Either way, that little ladder of ascendant privilege is what the ruling classes have to offer the lower orders in exchange for their submission. Again, Douglass:

Few privileges were esteemed higher, by the slaves of the out-farms, than that of being selected to do errands at the Great House Farm. It was associated in their minds with greatness. A representative could not be prouder of his election to a seat in the American Congress, than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm. They regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by their overseers; and it was on this account, as well as a constant desire to be out of the field from under the driver’s lash, that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth careful living for.

Douglass, of course, is talking about chattel slavery, a system of immense coercion and violence, and not conservatism or even the defense of slavery, in which a not insignificant portion of American conservatism played a part. Even so, his insight stands as a rebuke to the simple view that the only way to conscript the lower orders in projects of subordination and subjugation is through trickery. Not so: the more successful forms of subjugation involve a multiplication of ranks and privileges, particularly among the lower orders, from which those orders receive benefits material and immaterial, real and symbolic.

This insight applies to black slaves, as Douglass shows, but also and more tellingly to their white overlords: what is the history of slavery and white supremacy in this country if not the granting of petty power and privilege to poor whites over blacks, privileges and powers that non-elite whites had perfectly intelligible reasons to hold onto—and that helped maintain the most elite forms of privilege?

In the altogether different setting of the modern American workplace—I trust no one will take me to be arguing that slavery and the contemporary workplace are the same—we see a similar multiplication of supervisory ranks and privileges, which is almost unparalleled among advanced industrial economies. One of the functions of this proliferation is that in addition to offering men and women on the bottom rungs a more proximate opportunity for advancement to rule, it reinforces the unequal distribution of power in the workplace and beyond.

There is a reason Marx welcomed the stark divide in modern societies between capital and labor: he thought it would finally put an end to that “complicated arrangement of society into various orders,” that “manifold gradation of social rank” that had previously kept the oppressed divided.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms: Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into the two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

At last, the subjugated classes would cease to bicker among themselves and take aim not at their immediate or apparent tormentors but at their true lords and governors. Where else would they have to look?

As it turns out, a great many places. For even on those rare occasions when unity is achieved among the lower orders, their attentions can always be redirected at—or wander to—other groups more despised and disdained than themselves: other races (the famous wages of whiteness); other nations, in the case of imperialism; or the unwanted representatives of those nations at home, in the case of undocumented immigrants.

This endless proliferation of rank hearkens back to late feudalism, only this time the proliferation occurs at the bottom rather than at the top. It offers real, not imaginary, benefits to the lower orders: like their betters, they get to govern an individual (the supervisor and his worker, the husband and his wife) or an entire group or nation (in the form of racism, fascism, imperialism). It is for that reason that I call this “democratic feudalism”: it gives the masses a genuine opportunity to play the part of a lord.

Again, there’s no secrecy or trickery about this; these kinds of arguments are openly made and happily embraced. They are the words and promises of—and to—men and women who sincerely believe the world to be divided into greater and lesser beings and whose only hope is that they themselves are not among the latter.

John AdamsTo that extent, they call to mind John Adams’ observation in his Discourses on Davila that even the lowliest man can be persuaded to accept the rule of his superiors so long as he is assured of an audience of lessers.

Not only the poorest mechanic, but the man who lives upon common charity, nay, the common beggars in the streets…court a set of admirers and plume themselves upon that superiority which they have or fancy they have over some others. There must be one, indeed, who is the last and the lowest of the human species. But there is no risk in asserting that there is no one who believes and will acknowledge himself to be the man….When a wretch could no longer attract the notice of a man, woman, or child, he must be respected in the eyes of his dog. “Who will love me then?” was the pathetic reply of one who starved himself to feed his mastiff, to a charitable passenger who advised him to kill or sell the animal. In this “who will love me then?” there is a key to the human heart, to the history of human life and manners, and to the rise and fall of empires.

This, my economist friends tell me, is what folks in the biz call the “last-place aversion,” which can help us understand popular opposition to a great many programs and policies that might benefit the lower orders—or that might at least bring to heel the higher orders. Whether the economists’ is an accurate description of human psychology or not—my book is a theoretical inquiry into conservatism’s moral arguments and political vision, not an empirical statement about the motivations that might lead people to believe in it—it mirrors one of the critical assumptions of the conservative tradition about how one might go about making privilege popular.


Claim 2: “Robin’s flawed definition of conservatism flatters and consoles the Left rather than forcing it to confront its true dilemma….One need not, therefore, fully engage the rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment felt by the many who hold conservative and right-wing ideas. But if one instead accepts that such rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment are real, then the question becomes: why in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has it found its home so often on the right rather than the left? This is a question that The Reactionary Mind leads directly to; it is not one that Robin—or the Left more generally—can or should avoid.”

T.S. EliotThough I didn’t set out to answer this question about the success of the right or failure of left, my book does address it. The Reactionary Mind reflects my conviction that the left ought to take more seriously the ideas of the right—not the potted wisdom of undergraduate curricula or cheap punditry but the most searching texts and tomes of the conservative canon. For in those texts one will find the rage, the disfranchisement, the sense of exclusion and victimhood that has been all too real on the right—in both its elite and popular forms—and that, as my book argues, has been one of the keys to its success. (In the founding statement of National Review, Bill Buckley complained that he and his brethren were “out of place.” But that, he went onto note, made them “just about the hottest thing in town.”) One of the epigraphs in The Reactionary Mind comes from T.S. Eliot’s essay “The Literature of Politics,” and it expresses well the animating spirit of my approach:

A political party may find that it has had a history, before it is fully aware of or agreed upon its own permanent tenets; it may have arrived at its actual formation through a succession of metamorphoses and adaptations, during which some issues have been superannuated and new issues have arisen. What its fundamental tenets are, will probably be found only by careful examination of its behaviour throughout its history and by examination of what its more thoughtful and philosophical minds have said on its behalf; and only accurate historical knowledge and judicious analysis will be able to discriminate between the permanent and the transitory; between those doctrines and principles which it must ever, and in all circumstances, maintain, or manifest itself a fraud, and those called forth by special circumstances, which are only intelligible and justifiable in the light of these circumstances.

My book doesn’t draw any explicit conclusions for the left—in part because that wasn’t its point—but readers interested in what those conclusions might be can read what I’ve written  here and here.

I’m eager to have a conversation about what this all means for the left, but before we do, we have to get clear about the right. I hope readers will engage with the book’s arguments—its actual arguments— and, ideally, read some of the conservative canon for themselves. Once they do, we can have a great discussion—one that I especially look forward to with Sullivan himself.


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