I sometimes read far right and conservative media. Call it a hang-over from the early 2000s when I was far to the right of George Bush and subscribed to Lew Rockwell’s feed and read Sobrans and the American Conservative. This reactionary period was brief and ended because I was not religious in the strict sense, so I could only stomach supposed libertarians praising Dominionists or warmed over Catholic traditionalism trying to pass itself off as real liberation movement for so long. Or, in short, I was a Buddhist conservative.
This was a brief period of my life. A phase one might say like that period of wearing fedoras after you woke up drunk in a plastic swimming pool in one during your undergraduate parties. Doug Henwood actually describes going through a similar phase in his youth. I quickly cycled through a libertarian phase, although I do proudly say that even when I was a conservative I never voted for a Republican on a federal ticket in the United States.
Lately, I was thinking about by brief three-to-four year detour into reactionary politics. I was fed up by the left which never seemed to do anyway. In the late 90s, I have traveled across the country from Georgia to Seattle to protest the G-8. Then I lived among gutter punks after being disillusion with that. I wrote about this many, many years ago at Unlikely Stories in three parts (here, here, and here) just after 9-11. My contrariness led me to reject the sort of standard left-liberal dialogue as a conservative philosophy Professor introduced me to Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. Soon I was reading J. Alfred Nock and Ludwig Von Mises as well as Leo Strauss. I thought that Bush, who I would jokingly call King George the Third, was incompetent and his cabinet was filled with Neo-conservatives who were really disciples of Max Shachtman who would revert back to their Trotskyism. While there really is a relationship to third camp Trotskyism and neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol was going to break out into the Internationale during a press conference.
Ironically, now I sincerely wish that were true. Strangely, my own brief trip through the right–the paleo-conservative and far right–has led me to be a more passionate “leftist” as I get older. I am sure that people will psychologize my drift, but I think my personal experience agrees with Corey Robin’s conception of the reactionary mindset. That there is a Utopian element to their thinking.
While conservatives (and many left liberals) have called Libertarian-ism the Marxism of the right. Yet even traditionalism itself has a kinship to utopian socialist thought. They want a different society and they see the structural elements that keep the status quo going as a negation of a past. In fact, I have accused conservative ideology, or more specifically, paleo-conservative ideology as being utopian in reverse. It involves an invented past to which they long to return. Both the Utopian sociologist and the traditionalist are acting off a teleology, but with models in different directions. Indeed, Robin’s points this out in the writings of Von Hayek:
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.
This almost could have come from a James Cannon or C.L.R. James.
But back to the story at hand. I had just come in from teaching some classes on, ironically, American Religious culture to my Korean students. A friend of mine who sort of waffles between socialism and paleo-conservatism posted something from the “more-reactionary than thou” Taki Mag.
Charles A. Coulombe has written a relatively thoughtful piece called Leftist Nostalgia on Modern Airwaves on how he feels a tickling kinship with the real left-wing on KPFK. I know the feeling in reverse. Pat Buchanan is odd and I feel like he is a broken clock who happens to be right periodically, but there are times when I wish more Republicans were that honest about what they believe.
Coulombe hits a nail on the head multiple times:
“With the partial exception of the Tea Partiers, the “progressives” who form the station’s fan base are among the very few folk in this country who approach politics with any passion—anything greater than a cynical desire for government employment or else a tribal approach to party labels. The folk who agonize over current events at KPFK really do agonize”
One of the things I have been frustrated with the liberal left is that so much of it is about making excuses for when Clinton or Obama fails. I remember in the years of the Bush administration, it was only the Paleo-conservatives and some of the hard libertarianism who didn’t make bullshit excuses for the failures of Bush. They were ideologically consistent in a way that illustrated something akin to discipline. Yet Paleo-conservatism was in decline: hemorrhaging members to the theological right or to moderate libertarians. The call against the tribal identification with G.O.P. was seen as impractical. Indeed, there movement was defined by nostalgia.
The “radical” left has been too nostalgic for too long. The members of small Marxist parties reliving the debates between Trotskyists and Maoism in the late sixties and who have rigid definitions of what it means to do anything have led even communist luminaries to ignore them. Bookchin has noticed that Primitivism has started to replace other socialist anarchists for a similar reason.
Furthemore, Coulombe hits on another crucial point:
But the station reminds me of Chesterton’s dictum that the left is right about what is wrong but wrong about what is right. To put it in medical terms, their diagnosis of the illness is often as spot-on as their prescription is lethal. Their complaints about an oligarchic power structure that has little or no care about its subjects’ welfare? True. A burgeoning underclass without hope of betterment? Absolutely. Endless wars that are waged without any relation to their stated goals? Correct. Did the antiwar movement seem to vanish as soon as Obama occupied the White House? Yes, I noticed that, too.
The frustrations, however, of those who operate on principle are similar even if our answers are diametrically opposed. Now the “moderate” would generally say, “that is because you have an ideological orientation that blinds you to reality?”
But I would appeal to both modern psychology and Althusser: You, dear moderate, do not realize your ideological orientation. As the Chinese saying goes, “A fish does not know it is in water.” Those of us with more modal values realize exactly where we deviate. In other words, the idea that things could be different and have been RADICALLY different in past. David Gaeber points this out on our idea of currency and money: even metal commodity money returning as a major commodity of exchange is relatively recent. It is the psychological of investment–or to use something that isn’t infected with the rhetoric of business–the psychology cognitive dissonance going there.
If only all my opponents were as consistent as Coulombe. I miss battles of real differences too instead of luke warm world of tribal party politics between the center-right and the more-right-center-right one has in most of the Western Europe and the U.S. now. That’s a bit of my nostalgia.
Side note: Read Corey Robin’s bit on Anton Scalia on why perhaps I should be a bit more careful with my nostalgia.
The Radical in the Right and the Left
One thing that is often ignored by many leftists is that same weapons of analysis derived by Henri Lefebvre and Louis Althusser have been either co-opted, or more problematically, literally developed in a parallel traditions. One reason for this is many of thinkers of the radical right, particularly in the fascist sense which in some ways can be harder to place on the ideological spectrum that many left-wingers are actually willing to admit, actually come out of a Hegelian tradition.
So I have been reading Corey Robin’s book, The Reactionary Mind, posits conservatism as opposed to traditionalism. The traditionalist isn’t conserving anything, he is merely the extension of the old regime according to Robins, but the conservative is a sort of a reactionary project that not only co-opts the left tactics for practical reasons but also because the reactionary prerogative comes from a sense that it is too late. I have called this before inverse utopianism. I would say, however, that most people in the far right use the terms in the opposite matter.
One thing that Robin’s does not do, however, is talk about the contemporary truly radical right and how it should be very discomforting to many leftists. Note I did not say liberals again, who should already find it discomforting, but many leftists in the tradition of Marx. So I was listening to Alterative Right podcasts today: I was amazed about how much more blatantly Spencer and company were willing to talk of race outright and admit they were racial nationalists, not just separatist but supremacists ones. Most lefts and liberals turn it off right there, but I kept listening because I noticed Robert Spencer when interviewing Alex Kuragic sounded remarkably like many, many leftists I know. The talk of collapse, of the decline of the liberal class, and the ability to seize the moment in the turn against the illusions of Democracy. What Spencer and Kuragic called the left-liberal period can easily be fit into what contemporary Marxists like David Harvey and Jodi Dean call the neo-liberal periods. Instead of the proletariat or the working class being the only class to change society, it was the return to white supremacy and tradition that was posited.
My socialist friends have offered two responses to these eerie similarities: the first is simple co-option, which is true in some cases but not all. The second is that this kind of conservatism is a revolt of the vulgar middle class—either that of the Lumpenproletariat or that of blue collar middle class. One socialist friend of mine went so far as to say that fascism is always the revolt of the middle class against both the lower class and capitalist class, socialism the revolt of the working class, and anarchism the revolt of the peasant class. When I challenged him as to how in the hell that was true outside of early 20th century revolutions in Mexico and Spain, he just said “individuals do not always manifest as clearly as materially emerging class types.” This is obviously an attempt to create a category that is immune not only from critique but from any differentiation between modern movements.
I think the implication may be more bothersome for the Marxist if she or he is honest. It is the revolt against modernity on both sides of spectrum which is part of the impetus for the Marxist and the Radical right, but even that combining Hegel with some pre-existing train of thought is part of the mode of operations for both groups. Spengler parallels to Marx cannot be overstated, but Spengler focused on a completely different typological end of the dialectical process. So instead of the clash of class, there is a clash of civilizations in decline.
Dialectics of universality or Utopian inevitability
The shape of this thought should really horrify most of the more orthodox Marxists with their class typology. Not that I am the first to notice this, not in the least actually. Both Arendt and the National Bolsheviks have made this argument for since the 1940s in the sense that the development of teleologies of dialectical ideas.
In a sense, one can admire the right for their lack of reliance on materialist conditions or implied teleological biases. Indeed, in further points, I would say that aside from the populist front of religious right in America, no one is taking anything as given teleological formation. The populist religious right on these points are frankly schizoid in their attempt to hold view which as obviously incompatible such as American exceptionalist theology with Christian catholicity, or trying to reconcile benefiting from rationalist science in terms of antibiotics while rejecting the frame of thought that makes it possible or belief in things like the prosperity gospel. Such religious right benefit and are damned by their inability to understand points of context and their own internal contradictions.The nationalist right of Spencer and Alternative Rght is a return to a mixture radical traditionalism in both pagan and Christian spheres despite the fundamental contradiction of those religious outlooks. Now there are other internal fractures here as well, the narrative of hyper decline which they somehow special plead that they somehow do not represent as well. The critique of ‘mainstream’ conservatism and there increasing separation from it sounds like a critique of liberalism by leftists. In another interview on the conservative cannon, I take Paul Gottfried’s point as valid, most of what passes for conservatives by Andrew Sullivan, Sam Tanenhaus, and even the neo-conservatives in the cabinets of Reagan and Bush are really various versions of different ideological groupings from Enlightenment liberalism. Of course, these guys do not recognize distinctions amongst their enemies in the “elites of the cultural Marxist liberal-left, but then again, most leftists do not recognize this either. In fact their refuse often to acknowledge that all disharmony is not rooted in class or even in an extension of class into race or gender, they often miss that there are other enemies than the capitalist class and that capitalist never actually completely superseded the old regime any way. It just co-opted large parts of it.
In fact, one can almost admire Spencer and Kuragic’s spleen in comparison to the self-deception of otherwise sound thinkers like the Tory philosopher Roger Scurton, who calls all Foucault merely rhetoric, says that English law is proof that power is not necessarily oppressive, and that Thatcher is somehow an embodiment of sound English values like home and hearth. As everyone from the socialist Orwell to the neo-conservative Daniel Bell has pointed out, the family was eroded by capitalist developments like the ones Thatcher advocated. However, these soft conservative-liberals like Scruton who praise high culture, traditional family cultural and praise the market without realizing that both the aristocracy and the conservative religious knew that those three idols do not ever really lock together.
Dialectical or Analytical Marxism. . . or Both.
But let’s go back to the left: I sometimes wonder if insistence on things like “Universal nature of the working class” are no different than the neoliberal foolishness about the end of history. In other words, it’s a failure of imagination and a dependence on history as teleology to make sure the desired ends could even happen. Hence the way traditional Marxists have held dialectics to be crucial and have disparaged both post-Marxists in the post-structural “tradition” and the analytic Marxists who have held that one must rid Marx of “bullshit” or “essentialism” as unacceptable heresies or deviants or revisionisms. I actually hold by the analytical Marxist line that Marx is like Darwin, his empirical predictions stand as science or they don’t stand. However, here are the issues: Marx’s critique of capitalist political economy isn’t dependant on the dialectic, its dependent on a materialist view of ideology and taking classical political economy as a given. It is an analytic heuristic in the classical sense. Marx’s final stage of communism as a wage of a universalized class is completely dependent on the dialectic. So Marx as prophet DOES dependent on dialectics and a specific, although materialist, teleological version of the process.
Now, I am not sure we must abandon dialectics, but structures of decline and progress are eerily similar in their critique, but eerily vague in their possible solution. I will be reading Fedric Jameson Valences of Dialectic in order to more truly understand the possibility of the dialectical process, but what I can safely say is that dialectic must stand up analytically or it doesn’t wash. Now I still consider myself somewhere oriented in something like the left, but one must admit that one of the things about the radical right is that since they are not assuming they will win. That assumption in many ways makes them far more powerful than most leftists or liberals would be likely to admit.
I have already mentioned in a prior point above that often the Marxist refuses to see the differences between elements of the old regime, the feudal order, and the capitalist class , OR the radical differences between conservatism, traditionalism, and libertarianism. The similar is true of the right: neo-conservatives, theo-conservatives, libertarians, paleo-conservatives, and ethnic nationalists. What destroy the simple oppositional dialects are often ideologies that are considered most dangerous: integralist, fascists, national Bolsheviks, distributists, anarcho-capitalists, mutualists, etc. The typical move is claim that the blended ideologies are just new forms of the old ideological spectrum. Corey Robins like to basically revolutionaries and reformists and current regime and counter-revolutionaries.
I don’t think this is distinct or subtle enough. I have laid out my categories for ideology before: explicit and illicit, attitudinal and orientational, and closed and opened. However, there are some other areas that make understanding a banal conservative intellectual like Scruton from a radical rightist like Evola from an American partisan populist like Herman Cain.
First, conservative and liberal have attitude orientations as well as pure ideological ones. This has been noted before by people must more in tone with things like values indexes and even neurology. This can be seen in the work of Jonathan Haidt for example.
What has not been talked enough is that radical and reactionary ALSO have attitude and ideological variants. Many of the counter-revolutionary or nationalistic reactionaries have a radical mind-set while many liberals and leftists are essentially reactionary in attitude, they have no plan and react to the threats from outside. This is a problem. The radical is on the offensive, the reactionary merely reacts to attack or decline. The progressives, for all there talk of progressive, are often defensive in their tactics for a variety of reasons, but more often than not they don’t have an any real plan.
The first in this series is here.
It was 2002 and I was in my conservative philosophy professor’s office after writing a paper on Wittgenstein as the end of epistemology. The kind of pseudo-profundity to which ambitious undergraduates are given. Between Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke speeches, Aristotle, Rosen’s Nihilism, and Summa Theologica sat a copy of Saul Alinsky’s rules for radicals. My professor stopped for a second and smiled:
“I got that during the Reagan administration?”
“What?” I stood dumbfounded. I was a former-Chomsky-reading radical who had been de-radicalized by the Black Bloc at the Battle for Seattle. I knew something of the book as kind of a relic of the sixties, but the I read that conservatives used it never hit me.
“It’s one of the most useful texts for the conservative movement. Liberal dishonesty being what it is, we learned from it. Used it.”
“Yes, conservatism isn’t about ideology. It’s about pragmatic government and stability.”
Which I now take to mean, “conservatism is about winning.” But this is something about Rules for Radicals that, perhaps, the left didn’t understand and center-liberals definitely didn’t. For all the whining one heard from George Lakoff which made “framing” a conservation akin to Democratic pornography of language, it seems like the rules for radicals worked against Alinsky.
Since that time, despite the disparaging of President Hope, I have seen more conservative discussions of Rules for Radicals than radical discussion. Now, I didn’t see it always used as a scare tactic the way saw Glen Beck trump up fears about the “coming insurrection.” My old reactionary professor, who I may add is a brilliant man and scholar of the counter-Enlightenment par excellence, was right: they have learned from it.
Today I was suffering around on information to write about and I noticed there was a book called: Rules for Radicals for Conservatives by David Kahene who is actually Michael Walsh..
But let’s look at some of what Alinsky has to say:
“He who sacrifices the mass good for his personal conscience has a peculiar conception of ‘personal salvation’; he doesn’t care enough for people to ‘be corrupted’ for them.”
This, of course, is an apologetic. One I that anyone who has studied self-realizations should know and one that is so easily twisted against you that it is laughable how it all works out: while I doubt Alinsky saw himself as this, his rules were a conception of ideology that confused organization with goals. Indeed, most of my complaints about post-left anarchism seem just as much rooted in Alinsky as John Zerzen or Crimethinc. This is embodied in a particular quote by Alinsky:
As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be – it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system
For a person who decried liberal concessions and yet who also have trouble working with the left, its an awfully lot like the justifications made by many on the Democratic said. Thom Hartmann even quotes Alinsky saying how the right understands him.
Then why are Alinsky’s rules so easy to co-opt: they are just tactics and rationalizations for those tactics. For all of Alinsky condemning people quoting the old lionized leftists–which is a bit of a necrophilia even I find distasteful–he seemed to think that his enemies couldn’t read his book.
One of the ironies of the Alinsky, conservatives use it better than he did while comdemning the left for the mechanization. This article itself tarring #Occupy with the ghost of Alinsky while essentially using almost ALL of the tactical advice in rules for radicals.
Ends are not means. The left should remember that or be haunted by Alinsky’s ghost