Ross Douthat Channels Georges Sorel

Ross Douthat, writing in today’s New York Times (“The Decadent Left“):

Yes, Occupy Wall Street was dreamed up in part by flakes and populated in part by fantasists. But to the extent that the movement briefly captured the public’s imagination, it was because it seemed to be doing what a decent left would exist to do: criticizing entrenched power, championing the common good and speaking for the many rather than the few.

The union rallies and the Keystone demonstrations, by contrast, represented what you might call the decadent left, which fights for narrow interest groups rather than for the public as a whole.

Whatever your politics, there’s arguably more to admire in the ragtag theatricality of Occupy Wall Street than in that sort of self-righteous defense of the status quo. Even if it has failed to embrace plausible solutions, O.W.S. at least picked a deserving target — what National Review’s Reihan Salam describes as the “moral rupture” created by Wall Street’s and Washington’s betrayal of the public trust.

Better a protest movement that casts itself (however quixotically) as the defender of “the 99 percent” than a protest movement that just represents Democratic interest groups. And better a left that flirts with utopianism than a left that adheres to the dictum attributed to Leonid Brezhnev during the Prague Spring: “Don’t talk to me about ‘socialism.’ What we have, we hold.”

Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (1908):

The whole of classical history is dominated by the idea of war conceived heroically: in their origin, the institutions of the Greek republics had as their basis the organisation of armies of citizens; Greek art reached its apex in the citadels; philosophers conceived of no other possible form of education than that which fostered in youth the heroic tradition…social Utopias were created with a view to maintaining a nucleus of homeric warriors in the cities, etc. In our own times, the wars of Liberty have been scarcely less fruitful in ideas than those of the ancient Greeks.

There is another aspect of war which does not possess this character of nobility, and on which the pacificists always dwell.The object of war is no longer war itself; its object is to allow politicians to satisfy their ambitions:

The syndicalist general strike presents a very great number of analogies with the first conception of war: the proletariat organises itself for battle, separating itself distinctly from the other parts of the nation, and regarding itself as the great motive power of history, all other social considerations being subordinated to that of combat; it is very clearly conscious of the glory which will be attached to its historical rôle and of the heroism of its militant attitude; it longs for the final contest in which it will give proof of the whole measure of its valour. Pursuing no conquest, it has no need to make plans for utilising its victories…

This conception of the general strike manifests in the clearest manner its indifference to the material profits of conquest…

Politicians adopt the other point of view; they argue about social conflicts in exactly the same manner as diplomats argue about international affairs; all the actual fighting apparatus interests them very little; they see in the combatants nothing but instruments.


  1. Paul Rosenberg December 4, 2011 at 9:57 am | #

    “The union rallies and the Keystone demonstrations, by contrast, represented what you might call the decadent left, which fights for narrow interest groups rather than for the public as a whole.”

    Ah yes. The American middle class & the world population for the next 1000 years or so are “narrow interest groups”. It’s preposterous BS like that which makes it entirely impossible for me to take Douthat seriously long enough to even contemplate engaging in a serious historical critique.

    Thus I am deeply indebted to you, Corey, for going where my gag reflex prevents me from going on my own.

  2. Deb December 4, 2011 at 4:28 pm | #

    Perhaps a recent interpretation of ‘myth’ in US would be the puffing up of marginal–and marginally intelligent–figures into towering leaders of the Western democracies by Neocons occupying a loud bully pulpit on the op-ed pages and Sunday morning “talking-head” shows:

    Danny Postel: In the Straussian scheme of things, there are the wise few and the vulgar many. But there is also a third group—the gentlemen. Would you explain how they figure?

    Shadia Drury: There are indeed three types of men: the wise, the gentlemen, and the vulgar. The wise are the lovers of the harsh, unadulterated truth. They are capable of looking into the abyss without fear and trembling. They recognize neither God nor moral imperatives. They are devoted above all else to their own pursuit of the “higher” pleasures, which amount to consorting with their “puppies” or young initiates.

    The second type, the gentlemen, are lovers of honor and glory. They are the most ingratiating towards the conventions of their society—that is, the illusions of the cave. They are true believers in God, honor, and moral imperatives. They are ready and willing to embark on acts of great courage and self-sacrifice at a moment’s notice.

    The third type, the vulgar many, are lovers of wealth and pleasure. They are selfish, slothful, and indolent. They can be inspired to rise above their brutish existence only by fear of impending death or catastrophe.

    Like Plato, Strauss believed that the supreme political ideal is the rule of the wise. But the rule of the wise is unattainable in the real world. Now, according to the conventional wisdom, Plato realized this, and settled for the rule of law. But Strauss did not endorse this solution entirely. Nor did he think that it was Plato’s real solution—Strauss pointed to the “nocturnal council” in Plato’s Laws to illustrate his point.

    The real Platonic solution as understood by Strauss is the covert rule of the wise (see Strauss’s ‘The Argument and the Action of Plato’s Laws’). This covert rule is facilitated by the overwhelming stupidity of the gentlemen. The more gullible and unperceptive they are, the easier it is for the wise to control and manipulate them.

    Former mayor of Wasilla, AK became a serious candidate for presidency after getting a visit from a Neocon pundit.

    • Vielle December 5, 2011 at 12:37 am | #

      It seems contemporary politics has toppled this topology, inverting the pyramid so that the few are not the wise but the vulgar–“lovers of wealth and pleasure… selfish, slothful, and indolent. They can be inspired to rise above their brutish existence only by fear of impending death or catastrophe.” It is the 1% who have seized the puppet strings, not the wise. Curiously, if in this scheme Cheney, Rove and their ilk are the vulgar few, then George W. Bush is one of the gentlemen: true believers in God, honor, and moral imperatives.

      What a difference a few thousand years makes….

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