28 December 2011

Republicans for Revolution

On the train this morning, I read Mark Lilla's New York Review of Books piece Republicans for Revolution, on Corey Robin's book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. As in most NYRB articles, it's really less a review than an article that uses the book as a point of departure.

Lilla is sharply critical of Robin for ignoring important distinctions between different strains of conservative thought. I can't speak for Robin's book — it's sitting on my shelf, thus far unread — but Lilla's description of Robin's thesis lines up with Phil Agre's masterful summation of conservatism, which suits me just fine. The result of this objection is useful, though: Lilla uses it as a springboard to provide a quick survey of different conservative schools of thinking and their history ... bringing us to our contemporary Republican party, with its “mainstreaming of political apocalypticism”. I like to think that I know a bit more about the history of conservative thought than a lot of lefties, but I don't know as much as I think I ought to, so I got a lot out of Lilla telling it from the perspective of a thoughtful person sympathetic to conservatism but profoundly unsympathetic to the turn that American conservatism has taken in recent years. Terrific stuff.

The ending of Lilla's essay, though, drives me bats. He has drawn a clear line from the history of conservatism to postwar American conservatism to the madness of contemporary Republicanism, and expressed a proper terror about that last. Then he concludes:

All this is new—and it has little to do with the principles of conservatism, or with the aristocratic prejudice that “some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others,” which Corey Robin sees at the root of everything on the right. No, there is something darker and dystopic at work here. People who know what kind of new world they want to create through revolution are trouble enough; those who only know what they want to destroy are a curse. When I read the new reactionaries or hear them speak I’m reminded of Leo Naphta, the consumptive furloughed Jesuit in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, who prowls the corridors of a Swiss sanatorium, raging against the modern Enlightenment and looking for disciples. What infuriates Naphta is that history cannot be reversed, so he dreams of revenge against it. He speaks of a coming apocalypse, a period of cruelty and cleansing, after which man’s original ignorance will return and new forms of authority will be established. Mann did not model Naphta on Edmund Burke or Chateaubriand or Bismarck or any other figure on the traditional European right. He modeled him on George Lukács, the Hungarian Communist philosopher and onetime commissar who loathed liberals and conservatives alike.

Cue Rick Perlstein:

I get the question all the time from smart liberal friends: what is conservatism, anyway? They're baffled. “As far as I can tell, anything someone on the right does is, by definition, ethical. It's not about the act, or even the motivation. It's about who's perpetrating it.” It has become the name for a movement that can scream from the rooftops that every Supreme Court nominee should have an expiditious up-or-down vote, then 15 seconds later demand tortuous proceduralism when that nominee is Harriet Miers. Flexibility is the first principle of politics.

I'm trying to make here an argument not about instances, but about a structure of thought. It is the structure of thought betrayed, I think, by Ahmed Chalabi, explaining his deliberate deception of U.S. intelligence: “We were heroes in error.”

Is Chalabi, or Jerry Falwell, a “principled conservative” or a “pragmatic conservative.” That's a question I'd like to pose to you all. My head hurts just thinking about it.

This part of my talk, I imagine, is long after the point a constitutive operation of conservative intellectual work has clicked on in your minds: the part where you argue that malefactor A or B or C, or transgression X or Y or Z, is not “really” conservative. In conservative intellectual discourse there is no such thing as a bad conservative. Conservatism never fails. It is only failed. One guy will get up, at a conference like this, and say conservatism, in its proper conception, is 33 1/3 percent this, 33 1/3 percent that, 33 1/3 percent the other thing. Another rises to declaim that the proper admixture is 50-25-25.

It is, among other things, a strategy of psychological innocence. If the first guy turns out to be someone you would not care to be associated with, you have an easy, Platonic, out: with his crazy 33-33-33 formula--well, maybe he's a Republican. Or a neocon, or a paleo. He's certainly not a conservative. The structure holds whether it's William Kristol calling out Pat Buchanan, or Pat Buchanan calling out William Kristol.

As the Internet's smartest liberal blogger, Digby, puts it, tongue only partially in cheek: “ ‘Conservative’ is a magic word that applies to those who are in other conservatives' good graces. Until they aren't. At which point they are liberals.”

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