Conservatives and reactionaries

by John Quiggin on January 1, 2012

Corey Robin’s new book The Reactionary Mind has attracted plenty of attention both favorable and otherwise. I don’t want to offer a full-scale review, but to respond to the central thesis. As I read Robin, his central claim is that the current situation in which people who call themselves “conservative” are in fact radical reactionaries is not an aberration, but the norm, and that this has been the case ever since the first self-conscioulsy conservative thinker, Edmund Burke.

I’d put this more broadly – conservatism (and, it’s opposites, progressivism radicalism) are, in essence ideas about process, but the most people active in politics are more concerned about pursuing particular goals than about the way they get there.

To illustrate the point consider the standard claim about conservatism put forward by Michael Oakeshott in 1956  (also cited by Robin)

“To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

Now consider how someone who actually held these views in the Britain of 1956 ought to have regarded trade unions. Of all British institutions, they were surely amongst the most familiar and factual, embodying the preference for actual present benefits over utopian projects. Yet that was not, as far as I can tell Oakeshott’s position at all (though his refusal of an honour from the Thatcher government may suggest some reconsideration later in life).

Robin’s thesis is that claims like Oakeshott’s about conservatism (and also, those of Hayek about classical liberalism) are nothing more than a mask for attempts to resist, and where possible, roll back the claims of the working class against their rulers.

I think this is broadly correct. Although there are people with the conservative disposition described above (and also, people who are attracted by radicalism as such), there is no inherent correlation between conservatism as a disposition and support for the political views commonly associated with conservatism. 

There is an accidental association reflecting the fact that, taking the last two or three centuries as a whole, the ruling class has mostly been losing ground. First, the aristocracy was forced to share power with the bourgeoisie, and, then for most of the 20th century, the working class gained ground against the power of capital. Under such circumstances, people of conservative disposition will generally be found in opposition to the progressive demands being put forward by workers and their supporters.

The crucial test comes in periods such as the Bourbon restoration, or the neoliberal resurgence of the last thirty years or so, when the direction of change is reversed. Genuine conservatives in these circumstances seek to preserve those advances that have been embedded in the way society works (such as the New Deal in the US).  Conservative politics on the other hand, is dominated by reactionaries seeking to restore (an idealised version) of the status quo ante, and gains the support of those with a radical disposition (Newt Gingrich is an ideal example).  It’s certainly possible to find examples of the first kind (the “Wets” who resisted Thatcher for example) but they are clearly in the minority.

Long ago, I planned a book based on Raymond Williams Keywords, and blogged entries on topics including conservative, progressive and reform, which made some of these points. Corey Robin has done a much better job, and his book is well worth reading.

 

 

{ 184 comments }

1

JazzBumpa 01.01.12 at 2:19 am

There might have been some points in time when conservatives actually preferred facts and the actual. That has not been the case since at least the time of Reagan and Thatcher.

Look at the U.S. Republican party now. Their disconnect from reality is nothing short of stunning. The idea that vacuous know-nothings like Palin and Bachmann, and fatuous fools like Cain and Perry – or G. W. Bush, for that matter, could be seriously put forth as candidates for the presidency vividly illustrates the intellectual wasteland that pseudo-conservatism has degenerated into.

Still – though this situation is extreme, it is not really out of the bounds of normal conservatism. I’ve never been able to make it to Pg 40 of Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind,” but that is enough to observe that Kirk openly and enthusiastically embraces ignorance and prejudice as pillars of the conservative mental process. After all, they spare one all that tedious mucking around with actual thought.

My own observation of Conservatives suggests that the other two pillars are magical thinking (the “invisible hand” of the free market) and various forms of denying or negating reality (weapons of mass destruction, Obama is a foreign born Muslim who hates Whitey, Ricardian Equivalence, New Deal Denialism.)

Much of conservatism rises from the function of the cerebral cortex, and displays a lack of empathy for other humans, an overt hostility to intelligence and sophistication, and an utter inability to learn from mistakes.

Consider conservative crowds cheering at the thought of someone without health care actually dying from a curable medical situation. This is sociopathic.

This is conservatism in the early 21st century.

WASF!
JzB

2

Rich Puchalsky 01.01.12 at 2:34 am

“Robin’s thesis is that claims like Oakeshott’s about conservatism (and also, those of Hayek about classical liberalism) are nothing more than a mask for attempts to resist, and where possible, roll back the claims of the working class against their rulers.”

I think that this is broadly wrong. Well, perhaps it is true about particular conservative writers, whom I don’t know enough about individually to judge. But I don’t think that’s the most important part of the situation. The most important part is that a near majority, or perhaps a majority, of the working class is more or less conservative — whether you take the meaning of conservative to be “holding on to past social arrangements” or whether you take it’s more radical version — and it’s not because they’re fooled. They really do value rolling back benefits for others more than they value getting those same benefits themselves.

The “they are fooled by elites” argument is functionally very similar to the good old false consciousness bit, and I think it similarly fails. Talk to any conservative working class person. You’ll get racism, envy, distrust of change, resentment at people who try to change things for the better (i.e. “elites”), desire to roll things back to an imaginary good old days when lesser people knew their place etc etc and it isn’t all coming from Fox News. Maybe the conservative intellectuals try to sugar-coat it. But they aren’t creating it.

3

kth 01.01.12 at 2:53 am

Quite so. The New Deal could last 1000 years, and be as popular as it is now (i.e., overwhelmingly so), yet conservatives would still be unwilling to bestow upon it that Burkean mantle of the tried and true.

4

an adult 01.01.12 at 3:10 am

“The slut should have picked his quarry more carefully!”
Roared the victor in a mocking baritone growl, as he wiped his
dripping blade on the prostrate form, and returned it to its
scabbard.

5

an adult 01.01.12 at 3:24 am

With a nauseating thud the severed oval toppled to the
floor, as the segregated torso of Grignr’s bovine antagonist
swayed, then collapsed in a pool of swirled crimson.
In the confusion the soldier’s fellows confronted Grignr
with unsheathed cutlasses, directed toward the latters scowling
make-up.

6

JazzBumpa 01.01.12 at 4:00 am

Rich P -

I think it’s broadly true of conservative writers and intellectuals in general – Kirk and Buckley in the past, pick anyone form the right today.

I also think what you say about working class conservatives is also correct, and completely consistent with what I said above.

an adult -

Sure, in the USSR Stalinsm was the status quo.

Happy new year!
JzB

7

Bruce Baugh 01.01.12 at 4:15 am

Rich, Robin is writing about political movements, not the many communities out there with actual lives – their would-be governors and leaders, and the people offering what claim to be theories of how it all works, not their subjects. And he discusses the differences.

8

Rich Puchalsky 01.01.12 at 4:34 am

But, Bruce, there was a specific claim made … that intellectual conservatives make claims about conservatism that are nothing more than a “mask for attempts to resist, and where possible, roll back the claims of the working class against their rulers.” That’s an implicit truth claim, isn’t it? — that conservatism really is about rolling back the claims of the working class against rulers. I don’t think that it is. Conservatism is mostly about part of the working class wanting to roll back the claims of the “working class”. If that sounds confused, it’s because the whole idea of the monolithic working class draws on leftist ideas that themselves are hopelessly confused and unable to explain the failure of the left without a lot of special pleading.

You can’t offer a cover for a false idea. If someone like Oakeshott says that conservatism is X, and you think that X is really a cover for Y… that makes no sense if Y is really not true.

9

Jon 01.01.12 at 4:51 am

Did everyone catch Mark Lilla’s take on Corey Robin in the ny review of books?

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jan/12/republicans-revolution/?pagination=false

10

an adult 01.01.12 at 8:24 am

“Remove yourself Sirrah, the wench belongs to me;” Blabbered
a drunken soldier, too far consumed by the influences of his
virile brew to take note of the superior size of his adversary.
Grignr lithly bounded from the startled female, his face lit
up to an ashen red ferocity, and eyes locked in a searing feral
blaze toward the swaying soldier.

11

Anonymous Grad Student 01.01.12 at 8:28 am

From my perspective (cultural) conservatives generally:
1. Want to maintain an extremely narrow band of acceptable difference in society (hence their attacks on multiculturalism, new forms of music and art, harmless but “weird” food or clothing, etc.). This is often coupled with an emphasis on returning society to an imaginary golden age that was supposedly more pure or stable than the present. However, usually the “differences” that conservatives want to remove are things that make them uncomfortable or disgusted but are not (in an objective sense) harmful to society (see some of the extreme evangelical conservatives obsession with rock music or the disdain some conservatives have for “ethnic” food).

2. Believe that some people are naturally better than others. This can take many forms including support for a permanent aristocracy, racism and/or various forms of Social Darwinism (though religious conservatives who believe in this would probably wouldn’t characterize their beliefs in terms of 19th century evolution). This belief often contains a moral element in which those who are “worse” (i.e. at the bottom of the social hierarchy) are seen as less moral than those who are “better.” Of course, any conservative who holds these beliefs assumes that he is in the “better” category (or should be).

Getting rid of things like the New Deal and other social programs articulates very well with these beliefs. A conservative can basically argue that any change that adds more difference to society is dangerous while at the same time arguing that even if an institution is old, it is morally illegitimate if it doesn’t maintain the privilege of “better people.” From my perspective this is essentially what most conservative intellectuals are arguing. They aren’t trying to mask anything. (Though I would argue that there is a disconnect between conservative intellectuals and the actual rhetoric individual politicians in campaigns).

12

MS 01.01.12 at 9:09 am

Rich, who and where are these conservative working class people you are talking to? The attitudes of working class people–if you are using it in any of the standard ways–varies tremendously by region, by ethnicity, by race, by gender, by type of work, etc., etc.

I don’t think the fact that working class whites can be racist and homophobic (to the same degree that upper-middle professionals and pretty much all other white people are) shows anything with respect to this particular issue.

There’s a deep, deep distrust of corporations bubbling under the surface even in the Tea Party. But the Tea Party’s real constituency is white middle-managers or currently economically displaced middle-managers. And sometimes what they are angry about or who they are angry at (e.g., immigrants) is full-on confused and false. So I wouldn’t say they are being fooled by elites. But some people are simply looking for convenient scapegoats and damning fundamental features of the system they still hope has the winning ticket is not going to make sense. But when people’s factual beliefs are so far outside the real explanation for their problems then that itself needs to be explained.

We all take what’s at hand to account for the world. Working class people do this and their accounts and commitments will vary considerably depending on their milieu. People in coastal urban areas, Chicago, Detroit, DC, working class or not, tend to have a markedly different outlook than people in Arkansas or Idaho and a different frame of reference to explain their social and political reality.

13

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.01.12 at 9:20 am

Hmm, I got the impression that modern American ‘conservatism’ has a lot to do with religion, but somehow the role of religion is missing in the linked post.

I think one of the definitions of a ‘conservative’ might be that he/she is simply a god fearing person, sincere god fearing person. God’s will is interpreted by society’s priests, and it usually involves obedience, hard work, self reliance, harsh treatment of the infidels, and so on. Political institutions that aren’t in line with god’s will are, clearly, devil’s. No consistency, in the sense of a political program, is required.

14

Kevin Donoghue 01.01.12 at 9:56 am

I’m a bit puzzled by the reference to Burke. I would have thought him a clear example of a conservative who was not a radical reactionary by any means.

15

Bruce Baugh 01.01.12 at 10:32 am

Kevin, Robin makes an argument that Burke is very, very often mis-read, or rather not actually read at all but just quoted in snippets. That’s a big part of the point.

16

John Quiggin 01.01.12 at 10:40 am

One problem is that the term ‘working class’ seems to have a different meaning in the US (I’ve seen it defined as “not college educated”) than in most political discussions elsewhere. In particular, I recall reading that the average income of working class households is the same as that for all households, which would certainly leave plenty of room for some “working class” people to identify with the wealthy, even in the absence of false consciousness.

17

Soru 01.01.12 at 11:30 am

Not seen many contemporary writers based I the US use the term working class at all. Its always just numerical slices of the income wealth distribution.

You could define a capitalist as someone who has an expectation of receiving more income from capital than from wages. Not just entrepreneurial activities but capital withdrawal, interest or a personal pension. Nothing need be said about the size of the income – it is the source that matters. Then that group would include a substantial chunk of the population, and, being biased towards older people with fewer years of wages to come, an even bigger one of voters.

18

Rich Puchalsky 01.01.12 at 12:51 pm

“Rich, who and where are these conservative working class people you are talking to? The attitudes of working class people—if you are using it in any of the standard ways—varies tremendously by region, by ethnicity, by race, by gender, by type of work, etc., etc.”

Yes, I agree. I wasn’t arguing against the idea of a monolithic working class in order to say that people were all the same in some different way.

I’ll try to write what I meant in a different way. Conservatism is popular. I don’t mean that it equates to populism — you have have more or less left-wing or right-wing populisms — I mean that in most democratic societies, a near majority of people will vote for it. The standard left explanation for this is that people are fooled — that they have to be, because conservatism is about the elite rolling back the claims of the working class, so when people vote for conservatism they are voting against their own interests. I don’t think they are fooled. They simply have different primary motivations than economic ones. Those vary, but one common one is that the person voting conservative is more motivated by denying benefits to others than they are by receiving them, even if they need them.

So this “conservation is a mask over elite rollback” is a kind of self-serving idea for left of center people. Sure, elites use conservatism to their ends — just as they use liberalism. But they are unable to fool such large percentages of people for so long unless those people wanted to be “fooled”. Casting conservatism as something sourced to and for elites is a way of not thinking about it.

19

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.01.12 at 1:31 pm

the person voting conservative is more motivated by denying benefits to others than they are by receiving them

What’s a ‘benefit’? If a benefit is some sort of welfare payment, all this tells me is that the liberal (or progressive, a la Yglessias) model of predation alleviated by redistribution is not very popular. But this is a false dichotomy; being unhappy with the liberal economic model doesn’t make one a conservative.

20

Stephen 01.01.12 at 1:52 pm

John Quiggin asks why Michael Oakeshott, in 1956, did not approve of trades unions as being essentially conservative and familiar institutions, embodying the preference for actual present benefits over utopian projects. Well, some were, mostly. Others weren’t. Seen from Australia, all British trades unions may seem the same, close up they aren’t. Even in 1956 the rather important Electrician’s Trade Union was controlled by a Communist conspiracy, not revealed till the great ballot-rigging scandal of 1961; Fred Kite, in I’m All Right Jack (1959), was a caricature based on a certain amount of reality (as, I hasten to add, were the incompetent bosses in the same film).

And the later development of (one aspect of) British trades unions, into their 1960s/70s form, was a logical consequence of the 1950s aspects. I do not think anyone with actual experience of the great strikes of the later period could possibly believe that Derek Robinson, Arthur Scargill, or Mick “We will not be constitutionalised out of a strike” McGahey were people who ” preferred the familiar to the unknown, the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss”. So I wouldn’t blame Oakeshott for thinking of trades unions (many of their leaders, if not most of their members) as unconservative.

21

chris 01.01.12 at 2:30 pm

I don’t think they are fooled. They simply have different primary motivations than economic ones.

You don’t think “sure, take away my paycheck and my right to unionize, as long as you keep the gays in their place and protect me from the scary brown people” is a form of being fooled? They didn’t decide on their own to value showy distraction issues above the ones that actually affect their lives; or, at least, in the presence of so much propaganda, I would be reluctant to jump to the conclusion that they *independently* decided to think exactly what the propaganda was telling them to think!

22

Cranky Observer 01.01.12 at 4:15 pm

=== Chris@2:30 PM
You don’t think “sure, take away my paycheck and my right to unionize, as long as you keep the gays in their place and protect me from the scary brown people” is a form of being fooled? They didn’t decide on their own to value showy distraction issues above the ones that actually affect their lives; or, at least, in the presence of so much propaganda, I would be reluctant to jump to the conclusion that they independently decided to think exactly what the propaganda was telling them to think! ===

I’m not usually a big fan of Rich P’s posts, but I think you are dismissing his argument here a bit too easily; in particular you are assuming that the propaganda and manipulation came first whereas it is at least equally possible that the propaganda was fashioned to exploit existing internal belief structures. My work in the industrial world over the last 20 years has taken me into the semi-rural and rural areas surrounding US city regions (and a few in the UK as well) where I usually spend a fair amount of time with the peoples that Rich describes, and I can’t agree that their attitudes on certain subjects were created by Fox New or Karl Rove. Exploited and amplified, perhaps, but not created.

Cranky

23

Cranky Observer 01.01.12 at 4:16 pm

Wow – I have absolutely no idea what the CT comments system did to my plain-text quote of chris’s 2:20 PM.

Cranky

24

marcel 01.01.12 at 5:02 pm

Rich P wrote: but one common one is that the person voting conservative is more motivated by denying benefits to others than they are by receiving them, even if they need them.

There are two sides to this:

1) tall poppy syndrome (allegedly common in egalitarian societies such as Australia and Minnesota)

2) one that is less easily summarized, but which is well captured by an alleged Serbian folk tale that I recall hearing shortly after the end of the Balkan wars to explain behavior there:

A peasant found a lamp with a genie that promised him one wish, with the proviso that whatever the peasant received, his neighbor would receive double. After a moment’s thought, the peasant said, “Take away one of my eyes.”

It seems to me that it should be easy to construct just-so stories explaining (and unifying) both attitudes on the basis of the kind of hierarchies common among social primates (and as someone with a layman’s interest in primatology this suits my inclination). The tall poppy syndrome, especially, should be easy to fit into the relatively unstable hierarchies characteristic of males in these societies. So when we are railing against either of these traits, it seems to me that we are railing against our primate brains (in contrast with both our lizard and our human ones).[3]

Lot’s of “alleged” above, but it’s New Year’s Day, and I can’t be bothered to google enough to track down citations, and I don’t want to make out-and-out unsupported assertions, so I use the rhetorical equivalent of scare-quotes, the scare-allegedly.

25

Brad DeLong 01.01.12 at 5:09 pm

There are many, many Burkes. The Burke of “On Conciliation with America” is a liberal. The Burke of “Reflections…” is a conservative. The Burke of “Letters on a Regicide Peace” is a reactionary.

26

bianca steele 01.01.12 at 5:19 pm

I’ve been thinking about reading Robin’s book, but I seem to remember having read several of the individual pieces already, so I put it off. I coincidentally had just downloaded Shari Berman’s book (the one discussed here at CT a while back) right before reading her critical review of Robin, and (although some of the other criticisms of the book seem to me to get at features I found annoying in the essay’s I’ve read) I thought she was off-track and mostly agreed with Robin’s response to her.

In the US, there is a lot of smoke and fog around the idea that (for example) “Reagan was not a real conservative, he was a radical,” usually voiced by people who called themselves liberals, Democrats, etc. This seems to have meant something like, “the Burkean center of the country is actually a bit further to the left than e.g. Reagan would wish it to be.” (Rather than, for example, something like, “in the US the institutions and groups that are usually considered conservative are actually a bit further to the left than e.g. Reagan and his supporters are.”) But lately, for some reason, I’ve been questioning whether this was really the case (not least because some of those from whom I heard it were, in retrospect, probably on a mugged-by-reality path toward neoconservatism by then already).

27

bianca steele 01.01.12 at 5:32 pm

I usually agree with more of what Rich says than most people here do, but I think this @17 is not quite true: Conservatism is popular.

There have always been schoolteachers and clergymen (not to mention aldermen and police) who certainly did not say their flock, when it disagreed with them, had a better right to be considered “conservative” than they did. It would be a peculiar system in which they did, and would probably indicate a degree of instability in the system that was not likely to last long.

28

Sebastian 01.01.12 at 5:38 pm

You don’t need to look very deeply to understand why conservatism is popular. Nostalgia is popular, the familiar is more desired than change often even if the familiar sucks. Conservatism (the mental temperament) is all over the place, even among people who think they have a radical mindset if they are talking about things that will effect their own lives. Talk to professors about almost anything that would effect their own lives or their own privileges–the disappearance of a favorite restaurant, having to change offices after ten years, whether or not tenure is a broadly useful social construct–and you’ll see a streak of conservative thinking a mile wide and justifications which sound exactly like they come from a conservative temperament.

So I think the thesis of the first paragraph and much of the post is wrong. Interestingly I agree completely with the second paragraph, which is a different thing entirely: “I’d put this more broadly – conservatism (and, it’s opposites, progressivism radicalism) are, in essence ideas about process, but the most people active in politics are more concerned about pursuing particular goals than about the way they get there.”

But this is broadly true about politics and maybe even thinking in general: people decide first and justify the decision later–that is why it is so hard to get people to change their mind.

29

Eleanor 01.01.12 at 6:01 pm

I spent most of my working life (40+ years) as an office clerk or warehouse worker. My partner spent most of his working life as a med tech or a truckdriver. I figure we met a lot of members of the American working class. Some were conservative. Many were not. (My partner just said, “Talk to Denny and see how conservative he is.” He is one of the maintenance guys in our building. He’s a 75+ white guy, who is a Wellstone progressive. When we took off for Xmas, he said to us, “Are you going to Occupy or is this a vacation?”)

30

chris 01.01.12 at 6:05 pm

A peasant found a lamp with a genie that promised him one wish, with the proviso that whatever the peasant received, his neighbor would receive double. After a moment’s thought, the peasant said, “Take away one of my eyes.”

The way I heard it, it was specifically the wisher’s worst enemy who would receive double, and he wished to be beaten half to death. But isn’t the point of the story (in either version) to mock the folly of vindictiveness? Surely, the audience isn’t being invited to follow his example.

I guess if your point is just “stupidity springs eternal”, then sure, it does. But it doesn’t have to become so endemic in society that it undermines any attempt at collective action generally, or support for the needy specifically. Several existing societies demonstrate that. Others have a toxic culture of divisiveness that keeps the working class struggling against each other and not trying to improve their condition vis-a-vis the upper class. Fixed and immovable characteristics of the primate brain can’t explain those differences.

in particular you are assuming that the propaganda and manipulation came first whereas it is at least equally possible that the propaganda was fashioned to exploit existing internal belief structures.

Aren’t “came first” and “existing” rather slippery concepts in this context? Elites have been practicing divide-and-conquer on the lower classes for thousands of years. All of their subjects grow up in the environment of that kind of history — either in a society where divisiveness is the norm, or one where the effort has failed or even been abandoned. Their “existing” belief structures are going to be a product of their childhood and upbringing.

31

Barry 01.01.12 at 6:07 pm

I’m minded of an account from a meeting in Ohio, after the ‘crush the unions’ bill was passed, where a (sheriff’s deputy? firefighter?) was expressing surprise that they’d actually take away his union (for all practical purposes). He clearly didn’t expect the right’s anti-union rhetoric (and long history of actually destroying unions) to strike *him*.

That’s false consciousness right there.

Every firefighter/police/other largely right-wing union member in Wisconsin, who found out that ‘death to unions’ meant *theirs*, not just some vague liberal union, had false conscious.

Every Republican voter who thinks that only spending on *Other People’s* programs was going to be cut (such as programs enabling ‘young bucks’ to buy t-bone steaks, or to drive Cadillacs) has false consciousness.

Every Republican-voting soldier who thinks that the Right would take care of the Hero’s, and that ‘entitlements’ didn’t mean them has false consciousness.

Those Tea Party members with signs like ‘keep the government out of my Medicare’ all have false consciousness.

32

Barry 01.01.12 at 6:08 pm

(sorry for the bad formatting – I swear it looked better in the comments window!)

33

Geoffrey 01.01.12 at 6:41 pm

Not having read the book in question, I find the initial post jibes pretty well with my own thoughts. I find Rich P.’s comments almost ridiculously ignorant of the way actual people thing and behave. Barry P at #30 is spot on – false consciousness (which is not the same thing as ignorance) is very, very real.

An example, if I may. A friend of mine, who was a supporter of Newt Gingrich was shocked when I made clear from factual information that he, along with most of the rest of the Republican establishment is not so much “pro-life” as they are anti-woman. That this situation has been blindingly obvious to many people for a very long time did not mean everyone saw it. It took quite a bit of work to make it clear.

The mix-up of beliefs and hopes, of facts and pseudo-facts that many people (even well-educated liberals!) carry around with them are too often impervious to challenge because, as Oakshott said, we prefer the familiar. . . .

34

an adult 01.01.12 at 6:49 pm

Eyeing a slender female crouched alone at a nearby bench,
Grignr advanced wishing to wholesomely occupy his time. The
flickering torches cast weird shafts of luminescence dancing over
the half naked harlot of his choice, her stringy orchid twines of
hair swaying gracefully over the lithe opaque nose, as she raised
a half drained mug to her pale red lips.

35

Phil 01.01.12 at 6:55 pm

I wrote a bit about this some years back, in a post where I suggested that politics needed four axes rather than the usual one (L/R) or two (L/R + authoritarian/libertarian). My suggestions (in the form of either/or questions) were:
– are people basically good, needing to be liberated, or bad, needing to be controlled?
optimistic vs pessimistic accounts of human nature; more or less a reframing of the authoritarian/libertarian axis
– will a better society be achieved by continuing current trends or breaking with them?
moderate reform vs radical disruption; NB you get to pick the trends you want to continue, as long as you sincerely think they’re going to lead us to a better society
– which is better: to conserve what’s good at the risk of losing potential innovations, or to innovate at the risk of destroying good things that exist now?
conservatism vs progressivism in the narrow sense
– do the best and most enduring things get done by a powerful central government or by grassroots movements?
statism vs localism; nuff said

I think all four of these are orthogonal; what’s more I’m not convinced that I don’t need a fifth axis to capture the main (class-based) element of the L-R axis.

Anyway, we can see the difference between “true conservatives” and plain old reactionaries in the third question, and also to some extent in the second: some reactionaries don’t just want to go back to the good old way, they genuinely think that the world needs to be turned upside down in order to get there.

Personally I’m an optimistic localist conservative radical (or a Hippie Historian), but that’s my problem.

36

Eleanor 01.01.12 at 7:00 pm

If I am remembering correctly, Walker was going to exempt police and firefighters from the “death to unions” law. The cops and firefighters came out in Madison, none the less. Yes, there is false consciousness. But people are actually quite complex. Having just spent a week with the upper middle classes, I’d say the working class is often more complex. Working people have all kinds of ideas, which come from the mass media, pop culture, their own local culture and traditions. Minnesota Iron Rangers tend to be pro-union, pro-gun and anti-abortion, due to a history of union struggle, a hunting culture and a lot of Catholic ethnic groups. I don’t see this as consistent, but I am not a Ranger.

37

Phil 01.01.12 at 7:01 pm

Drat and bother. There’s meant to be a line break after all those italicised passages as well as before them. The four questions are:

are people basically good, needing to be liberated, or bad, needing to be controlled?

will a better society be achieved by continuing current trends or breaking with them?

which is better: to conserve what’s good at the risk of losing potential innovations, or to innovate at the risk of destroying good things that exist now?

do the best and most enduring things get done by a powerful central government or by grassroots movements?

38

bigcitylib 01.01.12 at 7:01 pm

#30 A fellow I know ran for the position Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament a couple of times, and won at least once. He said that his experience of campaigning–of meeting people on their door-step and selling them his political wares, as it were–was that they wanted to be lied to. Insisted upon it, in fact. It was all about what you could do for them; what actually needed to be done to right the ship of state was typically not up for discussion. If he had told him THAT, he would have never have won. Is this the false conciousness you speak of? I should say that the party he served was broadly speaking progressive in nature.

39

Eleanor 01.01.12 at 7:05 pm

I know I’m running on, but the Iron Range is Democratic Farmer Labor. The local DFL politicians are pro-gun and anti-abortion, but Rangers stick with the state DFL, though the party is not pro-gun and anti-abortion. The lifestyle issues do not trump the class issues in this case. People are complex.

40

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.01.12 at 7:15 pm

Every Republican voter who thinks that only spending on Other People’s programs was going to be cut (such as programs enabling ‘young bucks’ to buy t-bone steaks, or to drive Cadillacs) has false consciousness.

Nah, I don’t think this sort of resistance to a liberal welfare state is either false consciousness or manifestation of conservatism. Where there is a perception that people are free riding and getting something for nothing, people will get angry, and that’s natural. The sentiment “he who does not work shall not eat” has been shared by such luminaries (who could hardly be characterized as conservative) as Paul the Apostle and Vladimir Lenin.

There is a problem with top-down redistributive liberalism, in that it creates the illusion that, first, people get what they deserve, and then a part of what they rightfully own it taken from them and given to some free riders. The tension is intrinsic, what can you do.

41

Hob 01.01.12 at 7:21 pm

What Robin says about working-class reactionaries, if I understand him correctly, is that they’re voting for a worldview in which you can count on hierarchy and property. The fact that the reactionary movement promises to roll back many social benefits they now enjoy is offset by the promise of making them kings of their own territory, securely placed above their wives, or their employees, or a racial other. The leaders of the Confederacy saw it that way, or at least wanted to encourage their followers to see it that way: every white man can be an aristocrat regardless of wealth, as long as he can have slaves. And rather than a return to the status quo ante, reactionary movements promise something better, a purified version in which the weak and corrupt elements of the old order are thrown out— so even if your boss has you over a barrel, you can convince yourself that when things are made right, you will be the boss. The progressive/democratic alternative, in which you just don’t have so many one-sided power relationships, can’t offer that vision of security— of being one of the winners.

42

Stephen 01.01.12 at 7:30 pm

I think we can consistently combine JazzBumpa @1
” Much of conservatism rises from the function of the cerebral cortex, and displays a lack of empathy for other humans, an overt hostility to intelligence and sophistication, and an utter inability to learn from mistakes”
and an adult@4
“The conservatives in the USSR were Stalinists”
to reach the conclusion
“Politicians we deeply disagree with, who committed crime after crime, are/were conservatives.”
This may not be the most useful of political insights. It would seem to suggest that Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, Kim I/II/III are/were conservatives. I’m not sure it tells us much useful about conservatives in relatively free liberal societies, or liberals in relatively free conservative societies.

43

Hob 01.01.12 at 7:43 pm

Forgot to say @40: Robin further argues that, given this definition of the reactionary movement, reactionaries are always going to be far more popular than “true conservatives”— since “let’s not do anything” only sounds good to the people at the top of the heap— and that’s why self-described “conservatives” have usually been reactionaries, at least if they cared about developing a mass following— so in Robin’s view “true conservatism” is a semi-mythical irrelevant beast when discussing actual politics.

44

Stephen 01.01.12 at 7:51 pm

JazzBumpa @1
” Much of conservatism rises from the function of the cerebral cortex”.
I hate to inject a little pedantic, paralytic scientific accuracy into a fine, free-flowing political dialogue, but this is not the ultimate condemnation you seem to think it is.

The cerebral cortex is generally understood by neurobiologists to be, as per the American Heritage Science Dictionary, “responsible for higher functions of the nervous system, including voluntary muscle activity and learning, language, and memory”. Any intelligent conservative would happily agree that learning, language and memory are of course fundamental bases of the conservative world-view, which does indeed arise from the higher functions of the nervous system.

I hope you would concede that learning, language, memory and the higher nervous system do have something to do with the non-conservative approaches also.

I hesitate to put words into your mouth, but are you perhaps thinking (or should you have been thinking) of the basal ganglia? Though that doubtless influences conservative and non-conservative thought alike.

45

Stephen 01.01.12 at 8:17 pm

From the original post: “the ruling class has mostly been losing ground. First, the aristocracy was forced to share power with the bourgeoisie, and, then for most of the 20th century, the working class gained ground against the power of capital.”

We may not need Monsieur Vieuxtemps to assure us that this is a remarkably Anglocentric view of the world. That the “ruling class” has consistently lost ground as a whole during the 20th century in China, Russia or India, or in a wide range of Asian or African states, is something to be demonstrated, not asserted: certainly the ruling class has changed its members, but who had more power over the working class before or after the change?

Going by the reviews of Robin’s book – I’ve not read it and so am very cautious with interpretation – it seems possible that he sees politics as a split between conservatives who wish to oppress the working class, and progressives who wish to liberate them. Some commentators here seem to hold that view also. Dismal experience seems to me to suggest that all governments of necessity oppress somebody, and the worst oppression usually comes from revolutionaries of one sort or another. (I would of course include the Greatest Nonsmoking Vegetarian Chancellor of All Time as a revolutionary.)

46

Kaveh 01.01.12 at 9:36 pm

I don’t think this definition of “conservative” in terms of process explains neocons or “Eurabia” fearmongers very well, because these all embrace liberalism at least in process terms–they claim they are defending liberal societies from anti-liberal ideology. Geert Wilders is conservative on taxes and govt regulation, but promotes better pay for teachers and police, and has at least been consistent in his defense of LGBT rights. I’m aware of at least isolated cases of elective affinity between LGBT activists and neocons in the US, too (e.g. Dan Savage’s infamous support for the invasion of Iraq), and neocons are very well-represented in the Democratic party, and probably would be more so if the invasion of Iraq hadn’t become such a defining issue for the left in the US.

Or to put it in more general terms, how do we explain which innovations become canonized by conservatives as a status quo in need of defending against the “cultural marxist” barbarian hordes, and which ones don’t?

47

Random Lurker 01.01.12 at 11:21 pm

While I broadly agree to the idea that many people who self define as conservatives are really reactionaires, this leaves me with this doubt:
Maybe center left guys are the actual conservatives?
for example, the economy we live in is mostly defined by Keynesianism, so people who argue that Keynesianism is the solution to prevent the breakup of the social contract as we know it are really making a conservative argument.
If so, then maybe the working class conservatives aren‘t that stupid: what‘s the point of voting someone who. wants to keep alive a social situation were you are losing?

48

basil 01.01.12 at 11:28 pm

The plutocrats and all of Occupy would be very surprised that

“the ruling class has mostly been losing ground. First, the aristocracy was forced to share power with the bourgeoisie, and, then for most of the 20th century, the working class gained ground against the power of capital.”

49

JL 01.01.12 at 11:58 pm

Only a shallow thinker would surmise that conservatives (or liberals, or whatever) have their particular views because they are evil or unempathetic or because they want bad things to happen to large swathes of people. It is simply nonsensical to claim that a high percentage of the electorate are essentially sociopaths. Anyone who thinks so should get out of their ideological enclave and meet some people with different political views.

50

Rich Puchalsky 01.01.12 at 11:59 pm

“I would be reluctant to jump to the conclusion that they independently decided to think exactly what the propaganda was telling them to think”

Cranky Observer basically answered this already: the racism / authoritarianism / etc came first, the propaganda later. The propaganda certainly coordinates it and gives conservatives talking points, but it doesn’t create it. As for “Elites have been practicing divide-and-conquer on the lower classes for thousands of years” … that’s a degree of reification of “elites” and “lower classes” that’s even worse than the standard one.

As for false consciousness meaning that right-wing union members are surprised when their union goes … maybe. Maybe they just didn’t think about it much because their union wasn’t the most important thing to them. It’s like the popularity of Social Security. People will say that polls show that Social Security in the U.S. is very popular. And sure, if you ask someone in the abstract whether they like getting it, they may well say yes. But if you change the poll question and ask if they’d like to get it as long as poor black people get it too, the same person might well say no, assuming that you could somehow get an honest poll. The same goes with the right-wingers in unions. Were they really surprised? Of course some of them were, given human variation. But was this the most important factor? I don’t think that people are that stupid; I think that most of them are happy to complain about losing their unions as long as people they hate lose theirs too.

51

marcel 01.02.12 at 1:16 am

Rich P wrote:

And sure, if you ask someone in the abstract whether they like getting it, they may well say yes. But if you change the poll question and ask if they’d like to get it as long as poor black people get it too, the same person might well say no, assuming that you could somehow get an honest poll. The same goes with the right-wingers in unions. Were they really surprised? Of course some of them were, given human variation. But was this the most important factor? I don’t think that people are that stupid; I think that most of them are happy to complain about losing their unions as long as people they hate lose theirs too.

Or, if I may be self-referential, so long as their neighbors lost twice as much as they did!

52

Cranky Observer 01.02.12 at 2:04 am

= = = = = marcel@5:02
A peasant found a lamp with a genie that promised him one wish, with the proviso that whatever the peasant received, his neighbor would receive double. After a moment’s thought, the peasant said, “Take away one of my eyes.” = = = = =

= = = chris@6:05
The way I heard it, it was specifically the wisher’s worst enemy who would receive double, and he wished to be beaten half to death. But isn’t the point of the story (in either version) to mock the folly of vindictiveness? Surely, the audience isn’t being invited to follow his example. = = =

And yet for the last two years we have been assured by A-list political analysts (e.g. Ezra Klein) that legislation or executive action to address the mortgage / foreclosure crisis is “impossible” because “the politics are toxic”. What does “toxic” mean in this context other than ‘we would rather see the economy crash than see a person we consider undeserving get his mortgage modified’?

Cranky

53

chris 01.02.12 at 2:06 am

The progressive/democratic alternative, in which you just don’t have so many one-sided power relationships, can’t offer that vision of security— of being one of the winners.

But that vision is a lie — must be a lie. Not everyone can be on top of one-sided relationships, by definition. If believing that you’re definitely going to be a winner in a society with sharper differences between winners and losers isn’t false consciousness or being fooled, what is? (Especially when the real winners have to be in a small minority in order to benefit from enough other people’s work to qualify as the real winners.)

The plutocrats and all of Occupy would be very surprised that

“the ruling class has mostly been losing ground. First, the aristocracy was forced to share power with the bourgeoisie, and, then for most of the 20th century, the working class gained ground against the power of capital.”

Would they? Material things have gotten cheaper and more available for everyone, but how many plutocrats have even one servant anymore? (I suppose you could think of things like landscaping services as a kind of timeshared servants, but that still pales in comparison to having a full-time gardener on staff — let alone the kind of estate where you actually need one.)

And for all Occupy members’ legitimate grievances, more incidents like Triangle Shirtwaist aren’t (yet) among them. On a long timescale, say a century, the ruling class HAS been losing ground — it’s just that the last couple decades may be an exception in the US specifically. (Globally is more of a mixed bag, AFAIK.)

That’s one of the reasons reactionaries want to turn the clock back — society actually was more unfair then, which was great if you happened to be one of the people in whose favor the unfairness worked.

54

JazzBumpa 01.02.12 at 2:19 am

Stephen @ 44

You’re right. I got the brain structure nomenclature wrong. I was referring to the reptilian brain, whatever it is properly called, and specifically excluding the limbic and neo-cortex regions.

Of course I recognize that all three brain regions and their functions are used by all people. I was going after which functions dominates in critical situations. Instinctive reactions arise in the reptile brain, which is devoid of empathy and learning ability. If we can agree that conservative thought and world-view is characteristically more hierarchical, more rigid, more compulsive, more territorial and bellicose, more typically concerned with things than with people, more prone to exploitation, and more responsive to knee-jerk fear-mongering and xenophobia as compared to progressive thought, then we can agree that conservatives are relatively more engaged with their reptile brains when these issues are prominent.

I’m thinking specifically of the Republican party in the U.S. since the early 90’s as an extreme case, but I’ll suggest the the list in the previous paragraph holds more or less true for conservative thought in general.

Thanks for the response, and for pointing out my error.
JzB

55

Consumatopia 01.02.12 at 5:34 am

The data point most convincing to me is that political conservatives oppose environmental protection and conservation.

56

Rich Puchalsky 01.02.12 at 6:36 am

“Or, if I may be self-referential, so long as their neighbors lost twice as much as they did!”

Sorry, marcel, I should have acknowledged that you wrote basically the same thing earlier. But a whole lot of people have already said what I’m saying: I remember Brad Delong, for instance, writing a while back about his talk to some Tea Party activists and how they were saying that they had lost their jobs so unionized people should lose theirs. Does ressentiment count as false consciousness?

I’m active in my local Occupy branch… and it’s interesting to see how people treat “We are the 99%”. I mean, it’s a great slogan. But some people seem to think that it’s a poll result, and it isn’t. In the relatively small town that I’m in, we don’t have the luxury of having actual stereotype 1%ers to drink champagne and scoff from a balcony somewhere. The conflicts are basically within the putative 99%. And I don’t see how their consciousness is false while ours is true: that depends on a leftist analysis that has done nothing but fail. If we’re talking about people maximizing their happiness rather than some kind of economic quantity, the right-wingers in police unions may well really be a lot happier with no union and making less money but with greater freedom to bully people.

57

tensor 01.02.12 at 7:14 am

“…are nothing more than a mask for attempts to resist, and where possible, roll back the claims of the working class against their rulers.”

While I agree that the reactionary “conservatism” of the US fits this pretty well, I think if we replace “working class” with “labor” and “their rulers” with “capital”, it becomes exactly right.

“Conservative politics on the other hand, is dominated by reactionaries seeking to restore (an idealised version) of the status quo ante, and gains the support of those with a radical disposition…”

Which is why some policies, no matter how long-standing, well-established, or beneficial, can ever become “conservative”. Social Security is a great example; Republicans wanted to stop it in the 1930’s, and eliminate it in the 1950’s, 1980’s, and today. Reproductive choice is another; even though it has been law in the US for almost forty years, and has positive effects (e.g. Chapter 5 of “Freakonomics”), even self-described “small-government conservatives” still support having the Evil State all up in her naughty bits. Teabaggers are just our modern Archie Bunkers, happy with their New Deal-borne prosperity, and eager to deny it to others.

58

marcel 01.02.12 at 1:40 pm

Apropos 2 of Chris’s points:

1) Not everyone can be on top of one-sided relationships, by definition.

Well, in Lake Wobegon…

2) Material things have gotten cheaper and more available for everyone, but how many plutocrats have even one servant anymore? (I suppose you could think of things like landscaping services as a kind of timeshared servants, but that still pales in comparison to having a full-time gardener on staff—let alone the kind of estate where you actually need one.)

This calls to mind what was perhaps boniest mot attributed to Joseph Schumpeter: A servant is worth a thousand gadgets.[1]

[1] I say “attributed” because only one site that appears near the top of a search on his quotations lists it; nevertheless, I maintain it to be “his” best bon mot.[2]

[2] In D-squared’s near complete abandonment of any (obvious?) public presence in the blogosphere, someone must maintain his standards with regard to footnotes. It is the least that I can do, since I cannot sustain his simultaneously high levels of snark and average insight and analysis.

59

Soru 01.02.12 at 1:45 pm

Just as a reminder, everyone is using universal terms like ‘conservative’ and ‘reactionary’, let alone brain areas, while using examples pretty much solely from the last 30 of the US. Which is a real outlier in terms of the last 2 centuries, in that median real incomes probably slightly declined in real terms. By comparison, incomes approximately doubled in the uk over that time span.

If you replace reactionary, conservative, etc. with ‘policies defensible for an economy _this_ rich’ , things make much more sense.

60

Rich Puchalsky 01.02.12 at 2:23 pm

“While I agree that the reactionary “conservatism” of the US fits this pretty well, I think if we replace “working class” with “labor” and “their rulers” with “capital”, it becomes exactly right.”

That seems awfully convenient in terms of denying responsibility to a large swath of the voting population. Well, it denies responsibility in exchange for making them out to be fools. But what about the left-liberals, and the moderate left elsewhere? Someone willing to make the same kind of analysis as I’ve made could say that liberals in the U.S. are happy to have foreign kids die in drone attacks as long as they get to keep rights and privileges enjoyed by the middle class — or really, while not happy, they are happy to complain just like the right-wing cop who lost his union complained. Where is the labor vs capital? Capital is heavily invested in the military-industrial complex, which wants to keep making those drones and having wars. But one of the things I remember learning from the environmental movement is that when it comes to bad societal projects, labor and capital often want the same thing.

61

geo 01.02.12 at 5:17 pm

Rich @56: I don’t see how their consciousness is false while ours is true: that depends on a leftist analysis that has done nothing but fail

Why is the “false consciousness” analysis false? If it means that many people act on false beliefs that are deliberately inculcated by a large ruling-class propaganda apparatus, then it seems obviously true. A great many voters believed that Obamacare (and even Hillarycare) was socialized medicine, and that socialized medicine means losing your doctor and getting inferior care. This was not a belief that came out of nowhere. Likewise the belief that unions are generally corrupt and oppressive and don’t do workers any real good. Likewise the belief that debt, not unemployment, is the chief problem facing the society. Likewise the belief that the US is overtaxed and over-regulated, or spends too much on humanitarian foreign aid, or is sincerely concerned to promote democracy and prosperity throughout the world.

These are all false and consequential beliefs; they are carefully articulated and disseminated by a huge and complex apparatus for manufacturing consent; and many voters act on them not realizing that their own condition cannot be fundamentally improved until those beliefs are recognized as illusions and firmly rejected. Isn’t that all “false consciousness” means? And what does it mean to say that it’s failed? If all it means is that the left has not won power, then why shouldn’t the left jettison its belief in human brotherhood, since that hasn’t enabled it to win power either?

62

Don Levit 01.02.12 at 5:17 pm

One of the problems trying to categorize people as liberal or conservative, is that at some point, the definition becomes so murky, it breaks down.
To me, it would be scary to have a conservative who met all the parameters, and had not an inkling of liberal in him.
The biggest disconnect I can find is conservative Christians who believe that their financial success is determined 99% from their efforts.
Don Levit

63

Shelley 01.02.12 at 5:34 pm

I’d just toss in here the need to avoid the false equivalency between far-right and far-left.

Opinion based on fact is qualitatively different from opinion based on non-fact.

Rachel Maddow is not the equivalent of Rush Limbaugh.

64

J. Otto Pohl 01.02.12 at 5:45 pm

Shelly: I would hardly classify Maddow as far left in the context of the 20th and 21st centuries. The term is usually used to describe people like the Gang of Four in China. I would also submit that Madam Mao et al were far worse than Limbaugh. While there have been some awful far right wing regimes I can not see that they are morally any worse than Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and some other left wing dictatorships. And yes I do think Stalin and Mao were as bad if not worse than Hitler. You can defend Stalin on this relative basis like Zizek all you want, but I don’t think it holds any water.

65

Jim Harrison 01.02.12 at 6:05 pm

It would be extremely convenient if reality or even just politics could be understood in terms of simple dichotomies, so convenient in fact that the continuous failure of all such schemes has never discouraged fresh attempts to arrive at new ones. For my money, you get further by pursuing the more modest program of defining recurring constellations of ideas and feelings among political movements and actors, ideal types rather than comprehensive taxonomies. Robin is good when he draws characters, but unconvincing when he attempts to generalize ‘em into a larger patterns. The structure of his book reflects the problem: it’s a collection of essays attempting to metamorphose into a treatise and getting stuck halfway.

Robin’s right that conservative thinkers do frequently resemble one another in very specific ways, including, importantly, sharing an ambivalent attitude towards the past they supposedly idealize. Which is why reaction in politics turns out to be revolutionary just as fundamentalism in religion turns out to be heretical. That it all comes down to a reassertion of control strikes me as a much less convincing generalization because it’s simply too general.

66

Donald Johnson 01.02.12 at 6:13 pm

J Otto Pohl–

“Far left” in a country like the US would mean someone like Ralph Nader or going further, anyone who would call himself or herself a democratic socialist. On foreign policy issues it would mean someone who uses a phrase like “American imperialism”, though there are also some conservatives (Andrew Bacevich and Ron Paul) who would probably use that term, so they also have to have very liberal positions on domestic issues to qualify. Maddow, from what I’ve seen of her, isn’t “far left”.

Considering someone like Stalin or Mao “far left” suggests we need to use that two dimensional scale one occasionally sees online to describe someone’s political ideology. Stalin and Mao were left but more importantly, like Hitler they also ranked very high on the authoritarian scale.

67

Ben Alpers 01.02.12 at 6:17 pm

FWIW, I wrote a post last week on the US Intellectual History Blog about Robin’s book and Mark Lilla’s recent review of it in the NYRB.

68

Bruce Baugh 01.02.12 at 6:23 pm

Chris@53: Servants? More than you might think. Robert Frank’s Richistan is appalling and fascinating research about how the wealthiest strata live. His subjects, both the people in the very highest tiers and those who cater to their needs and wants, have a fair amount to say about their part of the world as experiencing a long enjoyable rise from the dark egalitarian depths of the ’50s. I read this book right after one of Krugman’s, and found the contrasting takes on the Great Compression and time since then really intriguing, along with horrifying and a variety of other adjectives.

Early on, there’s a whole section about businesses that train people for a variety of domestic service roles, and it’s apparently quite a growth industry. So while most of us have no servants, and even those near the top are more likely to have folks like cleaning services coming in on fixed schedules or for specific occasions, there’s a spreading band of for-true full-time servants up there at the top.

69

philofra 01.02.12 at 6:26 pm

If it hasn’t been said: “Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.”
John Stuart Mill

70

Linnaeus 01.02.12 at 7:41 pm

If folks are interested, here’s Alex Gourevitch’s response to Lilla’s review in Jacobin.

71

Meredith 01.02.12 at 7:58 pm

Thanks, Linnaeus. Really interesting essay.

72

casino implosion 01.02.12 at 9:08 pm

@ #2…Quiggin oversimplifies Robin’s thesis, which is that conservatism is the reaction of people who are losing status, power, and position to other, upstart people.

This could be economic elites losing control of the workplace to unions….or it could be working-class men losing their traditional position in the home to advances in feminism.

73

Rich Puchalsky 01.02.12 at 9:35 pm

“Why is the “false consciousness” analysis false? If it means that many people act on false beliefs that are deliberately inculcated by a large ruling-class propaganda apparatus, then it seems obviously true.”

The apparatus exists, and certainly functions, but I don’t think the consciousness is very false. Take global warming denialism, for instance. I don’t think that most denialists are actually fooled. They don’t really think that they know better than scientists do what the atmosphere is doing. Instead, they hate liberals (in the U.S. context), and the propaganda furnishes them with ways in which to express hate. Deep down, they know what they’re doing. In the U.S. context, if global warming was admitted to be a real problem, this would lead inevitably to governmental interventions that would legitimize the kinds of things that they think would lead to money going to black people. They’d rather have the world warm up, safely after they’re dead, and have the pleasure of expressing their hatred and denial now.

“And what does it mean to say that it’s failed? If all it means is that the left has not won power, then why shouldn’t the left jettison its belief in human brotherhood, since that hasn’t enabled it to win power either?”

I do think that the left should jettison its belief in human brotherhood, since what that belief means in practice is continually kowtowing to “workers” and trying to “educate” them out of false beliefs when those people are actually opposed to the left. It’s condescending and feeble and people can tell that. Conservatism is elites like the Koch brothers, but it’s also the guy down the street, and a belief in false consciousness means that you’re always trying to tell the guy down the street “But you’re really on my side!” as they oppose you.

The propaganda apparatus does furnish necessary rationalizations, yes, and coordinates hatred that might otherwise be directed at, I don’t know, low-income housing at targets chosen by the fossil fuel industries. But in what sense does a theory of false consciousness lead to anything useful for the left? What are the successes that you see?

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James 01.02.12 at 10:24 pm

Rich Puchalsky@72 ” They don’t really think that they know better than scientists do what the atmosphere is doing. Instead, they hate liberals (in the U.S. context), and the propaganda furnishes them with ways in which to express hate.”

Right idea, wrong extreme. Conservatives (from a US centric view) simply believe that Liberals are wrong. The Reagan quote sums it up best “The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn’t so.”

Extending your global warming denialism example, conservatives know the global warming Scientist have a better understanding of global warming physics, they question the accuracy of the theory. Appeal to experts fails to convince conservatives (check out gun control topics if your interrested why) and this is generaly the clincher for liberals. This leads conservatives to check for standard signs of lying: EG refusal to show proof, steps to conclusion, actions that disagree with stated belief, how does it match with history, etc. None of these arguements are convincing to the US liberal, but they are proof possitive to a US conservative that some one somewhere is lying to them.

If you want to understand a US conservatives a view point, just assume they believe that you as a libarl are smart, honest, and wrong.

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Curmudgeon 01.02.12 at 10:40 pm

I think this post from today at No More Mister Nice Blog sums up the conservative mentality accurately:

http://nomoremister.blogspot.com/2012/01/to-american-right-there-is-no-such.html

As I see it, conservatives are who they are because they don’t believe in society or in any concept of collective action for purposes other than punishing “bad” people. It’s impossible to reach out to these people because they have a completely different conception of what it means to be human than the leftist minority (that’s us) does.

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tensor 01.02.12 at 10:54 pm

“That seems awfully convenient in terms of denying responsibility to a large swath of the voting population. Well, it denies responsibility in exchange for making them out to be fools.”

You’ll have to explain what ‘responsibility’ you mean in this context. As I was responding to the claim that “conservatism” is in fact a cover for “reaction”, am I denying that “a large swath of the voting population” is responsible for this cover? Or are they “fools” for not seeing that it is? Perhaps said voters prefer to mislabel as conservative their reactionary opposition to, say, reproductive freedom, because it makes them feel better about supporting statist policies without admitting it.

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Anderson 01.02.12 at 10:58 pm

You’ll get racism, envy, distrust of change, resentment at people who try to change things for the better (i.e. “elites”), desire to roll things back to an imaginary good old days when lesser people knew their place etc etc and it isn’t all coming from Fox News.

IOW, a lot of people are assholes. This seems both empirically sound and powerfully explanatory. Assholes do vote, after all. Why shouldn’t a political party woo them?

… I think Rich P and Cranky are broadly correct, and that failure to recognize that fact is a huge unsolved problem for liberals and the Left. Sheri Berman asks in her Robin review, how the hell did the *Right* get the mass movement arising out of the 2008 recession? (Don’t pretend that OWS is on a par with the Tea Party, please.) I think a lot of the answer to that question goes to the resentment that possesses so much of the working class, the kind of resentment that Perlstein chronicles in Nixonland.

It wasn’t just a matter of Nixon’s tricking people into being racist reactionaries. Nixon saw that lots of people *were* racist reactionaries, and capitalized on it.

Living in Mississippi, I have plenty of opportunites to listen to conservative folks going on about their worldview. They feel despised by the Democrats, which is one reason they can pose as anti-elitists. So far as they see it, liberalism means a culture that rejects them. To the extent they’re racist, sexist, fundamentalist reactionaries, they’re absolutely right. We *do* despise them. Do not deceive yourselves that such people are confined to the South.

Friendly folks though, so long as you’re not black, or unemployed, or wanting to marry your gay lover, or ….

78

gordon 01.02.12 at 11:04 pm

I congratulate Geoffrey (at 33) for taking the time and trouble to argue his Newt Gingrich-supporting friend out of at least one false belief. Maybe ultimately it will be the educational function of Occupy which will have the most profound effects. They seem to be very concerned about their libraries of reference works.

Back in the sixties, we had teach-ins…

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Rich Puchalsky 01.02.12 at 11:08 pm

“You’ll have to explain what ‘responsibility’ you mean in this context.”

I see the standard left-of-center model, which “[conservatism is]] nothing more than a mask for attempts to resist, and where possible, roll back the claims of the working class against their rulers” participates in, to go something like this: there are elites, and those elites run a propaganda and coercion apparatus. Anyone not in the elite has a natural economic interest against the elite, so if anyone not in the elite supports conservatism, they must have been either (rarely) bought off or (more often) fooled. “False consciousness” means that they’ve been fooled really comprehensively. Therefore, conservatives not in the elite are not responsible as political actors; they are automatically defined as dupes, as unwitting extensions of the elite. Political contests between left and right are then seen as being between non-elites organizing for mass action and between a tiny number of elites who manipulate their tools.

Working and middle class conservatives basically don’t exist in that worldview. I mean, they are there, but they have no reason for believing what they do other than because they’ve been conned for life.

80

Kaveh 01.02.12 at 11:16 pm

@72 Deep down, they know what they’re doing. In the U.S. context, if global warming was admitted to be a real problem…

“Deep down” is doing a lot of work here. Just how deep down is their knowledge that global warming is real? How deep can it get before we can say that it’s not there at all?

@56 If we’re talking about people maximizing their happiness rather than some kind of economic quantity, the right-wingers in police unions may well really be a lot happier with no union and making less money but with greater freedom to bully people.

I think this is spot on, and I would take it to a higher level of generalization: what conservatives fear, and what they know deep down, is that in a world with much less violence, they will become irrelevant and less valued.

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bob mcmanus 01.02.12 at 11:36 pm

78:Rich you are such a downer.

Look we socialists have always recognized all the other factors determining social relations and hierarchies and hegemonies etc. The point of socialism is that a) the economic and class relations are the ultimate objective determining factor because b) the other factors are bullshit.

Yes the working class gets comfort and goods from racism, sexism, nationalism etc. If you want, it is an article of faith that those things can be educated or socialized away and are not intrinsic parts of human nature, and much more easily than the economic relations. There is empirical evidence that supports at least some level of optimism.

They have “false consciousness” because racism, sexism, and chauvinism are “false.” Capitalism, on the other hand, is real.

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Bruce Wilder 01.03.12 at 12:05 am

We make a mistake, to regard “conservative” as a philosophy, and not, any of several sets of (psychological) attitudes cum worldviews.

We make another mistake, if we do not distinguish leaders from followers. Politically, we have a lot to fear from the combination of leaders oriented toward social dominance, with authoritarian followers. The latter are suspicious of leaders, and their motivations and hidden agendas, but can be terrible at discerning fraudsters.

Authoritarian followers are inclined to some, shall we say, illiberal views. But, they also care about fairness, and are pretty egalitarian.

A program like Social Security will always be a target for those oriented toward social dominance, because it interferes with the ability of financial capital to have its predatory way. On the other hand, authoritarian followers are likely to regard Social Security very favorably.

The contempt and hostility that many American liberals and progressives feel for authoritarian followers is a significant handicap in political competition for votes. Historically, big-city machine politics, trade and industrial unions, fraternal organizations, religion and ethnic identity, and even white supremacy, put a lot of authoritarian followers into the Democratic Party.

Winning a significant fraction of authoritarian followers for liberal or progressive causes, with “populist” appeals (the kind of appeals that work with authoritarian followers), is a sine qua non of successful progressive or socialist politics. If we are waiting for everyone to be educated into being a liberal, we will be waiting a long, long time.

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Anderson 01.03.12 at 12:07 am

If you want, it is an article of faith that those things can be educated or socialized away and are not intrinsic parts of human nature

Irrational hatreds and resentments “are not intrinsic parts of human nature”? Mistrusting those who look different from oneself isn’t intrinsic? I wonder.

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Anderson 01.03.12 at 12:14 am

We make a mistake, to regard “conservative” as a philosophy, and not, any of several sets of (psychological) attitudes cum worldviews.

Bruce, would you disagree with Nietzsche that _every_ philosophy is in fact a “set of (psychological) attitudes cum worldviews”?

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Bruce Wilder 01.03.12 at 12:16 am

We ought to recognize that neo-liberals have their own peculiar ways of losing the framing for liberal and progressive ideas. A Brad DeLong will very reliably make the costs of responding to global warming a burden. He will assure us that the restraints required on greenhouse gas emissions will only slow economic growth a little. That it is a small price to pay for an insurance policy. Etc. That’s his line.

None of this has anything to do with the tribalist hostility of noisy right-wing ranters, except that it does undergird their sense of their own seriousness. After all they are just opposing the excessive prudence of the libruls, who want them to eat tofu, and drive safely. And, they are on the side of economic growth! Brad DeLong said so.

DeLong has the frame exactly upside down, which I suppose is what makes him a neo-liberal. Global warming is a certainty, and runaway acceleration of global warming a high probability. Peak oil, peak-everything-else, ocean ecology collapse, overpopulation, etc. mean that measures to constrain and conserve can be expected to increase (or if you prefer, reduce the downward trajectory) of (per capita) economic growth. We should intervene in global climate change, because it is the only way to prevent driving off an economic cliff, into economic decline (despite advancing technology).

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an adult 01.03.12 at 12:22 am

“We make a mistake, to regard “conservative” as a philosophy, and not, any of several sets of (psychological) attitudes cum worldviews.”

It’s safe to say, given your language, that you’re making make the same mistake about liberalism. Im happy to see my liberalism it as an attitude, and to leave it at that.

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Bruce Wilder 01.03.12 at 12:23 am

Nietzsche’s view, as I recall, was more in the nature of a suspicion that many philosophies, historically, have tended to be an expression of cowardice.

The political attitudes of authoritarian followers tend to be a product of fear and a sense of personal powerlessness, which is often not entirely unrealistic.

I imagine a Kant or a Hume or a Voltaire or a Schopenhauer knew from fear and personal powerlessness. That may count for something, or not. That Hume was braver than Kant seems certain; Nietzche seems to have appreciated that.

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Bruce Wilder 01.03.12 at 12:30 am

an adult @ 85

I do not, in fact, think “liberal” in the American sense is ever anything more than any of several sets of attitudes. Sorry to have given any other impression.

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Corey Robin 01.03.12 at 1:00 am

Don’t want to weigh in or take up too much space here as I’m trying to listen and take in all the back and forth. But just a clarification: however one defines a false consciousness model, it’s not my model. I think people have lots of different interests, and I think an elitist project like conservatism actually offers non-elites certain opportunities for power (though power that is always allied/hitched to subjection), which is one of the reasons non-elites support it. I wrote two blog posts about this, in response to that original NYT review that raised these issues. You might disagree with my account, but it’s not a false consciousness one. Here are the posts:

http://coreyrobin.com/2011/10/07/the-new-york-times-review-of-the-reactionary-mind-my-response/

http://coreyrobin.com/2011/10/17/1157/

Anyway, sorry to interrupt. Am really enjoying the back and forth.

Corey

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js. 01.03.12 at 1:15 am

Take global warming denialism, for instance. I don’t think that most denialists are actually fooled. They don’t really think that they know better than scientists do what the atmosphere is doing. Instead, they hate liberals (in the U.S. context), and the propaganda furnishes them with ways in which to express hate. Deep down, they know what they’re doing.

What’s the evidence for this? I’m even having a hard time thinking of what could be evidence for this. I should say that I have some sympathy for the anti-false consciousness view, given what it sometimes seem to imply. But I think given geo’s (@61) formulation, it’s exactly right. The above, on the other hand, seems problematic in precisely the way the false consciousness view sometimes does: by attributing some sort of “deep psychology” that isn’t (or may not be) in any way transparent to the agent.

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an adult 01.03.12 at 1:21 am

“Only if something worth offering is within my reach.”
Stated Grignr,as his hands crept to embrace the tempting female,
who welcomed them with open willingness.

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William Timberman 01.03.12 at 1:43 am

Bruce Wilder @ 81

We have been waiting a long time. We will be waiting a long time. I’m not certain that we should be concerned about the length of the wait. What I get from Nietszche is that thinking one’s own thoughts doesn’t violate any Urprinzip worthy of the name. What I get from Marx is that it does no good pretending that we aren’t what the world we’ve been born into has made us.

Somewhere in between the two, it seems to me, is as much freedom of action — and freedom from guilt — as any sane person could want. Which, I think, is what makes effective political action conceivable, even when the means to that end seem for the moment to escape us.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.03.12 at 2:06 am

js: “I’m even having a hard time thinking of what could be evidence for this.”

Kaveh is right that “‘Deep down’ is doing a lot of work here.” I think that the idea is, in principle, falsifiable, perhaps with a clever battery of tests, so that I could be proven to be wrong. But I didn’t mean to imply that what I was suggesting operates at that deep a psychological level — I think that if you found some way to get most denialists to tell the truth, they’d have to admit that they are consciously lying. They don’t really think that there is some gobbledegook about “standard signs of lying: EG refusal to show proof, steps to conclusion, actions that disagree with stated belief, how does it match with history” that means that all atmospheric scientists are engaged in some big conspiracy, they’re just lying and saying that they believe that, because they know that it pisses liberals off and that because somehow if they admit the truth it’ll mean more money for poor people.

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Soru 01.03.12 at 2:34 am

It’s certainly interesting the way some things can be defined as a deficit increasing a debt that will need to be repaid, while others are a cost that is justified by preventing a catastrophe. Without there actually being any functional difference between the two situations.

On the other hand, I heard the other day that someone had estimated the net value of the earth’s atmosphere to be 4.94 quadrillion dollars. Which strikes me as some kind of fundamental category error.

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John Quiggin 01.03.12 at 2:38 am

I had a go at explaining absurd conservative belief claims as shibboleths a while back.

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Omega Centauri 01.03.12 at 2:51 am

I really do think a pretty substantial fraction of conservatives do believe their own rhetoric regarding global warming (or other liberal/conservative issues). They keep entering into projects which are meant to overturn the current science (i.e. expose the lying bastards once and for all), and being disappointed as their new principle investigator becoms a turncoat. Most of the population doesn’t understand that science -at least in the ideal, is a good faith attempt to ascertain the truth about nature. Most of the population is entirely familar with bought and paid for experts (particularly in the legal system), whose job is to make a convincing case for their clients. So the default mode of thinking tends towards the conspiratorial.

Then we have Secular Animist’s claim that conservative think tanks merely pick up and amplify pre-esiting thought patterns. In one sense it is a tautology, they do “market research” to see what memes are sellable to a substantial segment of the population, then open up a campaign to market them to the population. Now many people may have weak agreement with many of these memes, but that doesn’t mean they might not also weakly hold other contradictory memes. By reinforcing the desired memes, they become strengthened, and the contradictory ones weakened. Thus over time the cemter of mass of the target’s cognition can be moved. So it is correct that the themes are not just implanted from out of the blue, but the entire directed process is designed to make fundamental changes in attitudes over a long period of time. In some rather crude way, this resembles breeding. A breeder cannot create a phenotype out of whole cloth. But, if he creates substantial selection pressure and has sufficient time and patience, he can effect dramatic change.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.03.12 at 3:00 am

“You might disagree with my account, but it’s not a false consciousness one. Here are the posts:”

Thanks for the links. I think that I basically agree with the “democratic feudalism” part of it, and that this doesn’t make it a false consciousness account.

I still have some problem with conservatism being described as an “elitist project”, though. I see it as a hierarchical project. A person a step from the bottom can be just as invested in it as someone at the top. Sure, the elite uses it most effectively, and exerts the most control over it, because they are after all at the top. But calling it an elitist project makes it seem like it’s a project only for them, and it isn’t.

I also have some trouble with “the claims of the working class against their rulers”, although I haven’t looked back to see how much of this is Corey Robin’s language, and much is a gloss by someone else. “The claims of the working class” seem to be to be a specific set of policies that were worked for a specific set of political activists. Sure, they told people that they were the working class, just as we tell people that “we are the 99%”. But it assumes a whole lot into existence to assume that these really are some kind of really true claims of the working class, as opposed to the false claims of those workers who’d rather have conservative arrangements.

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Carl Weetabix 01.03.12 at 3:02 am

Bob Altemeyer essentially claims that “conservatives” are “authoritarians” in his “The Authoritarians”:

http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

Still I’m hesitant to try to pigeonhole “conservatives” into some sort of genomic designation. My experience has been that there are plenty of liberals that can exhibit the same sorts of cognitive dissonance, dogmatism, unreasoning, etc. if the topic is right and/or they support a specific candidate (ie: they sound just like conservatives, just spouting so-called “liberal” topics). For instance, if one reads the comments at Balloon Juice, one often sees Obama supporters who “drank the Obama cool aid” in the same way that Tea Party-ers “drank the Beck cool aid” (they will give no quarter, no matter what the logic).

In short, there’s something a bit “notice the conservative’s brow” about this that leaves me uncomfortable, though certainly I have been tempted to try to draw broad differences myself.

I think the thing that most detracts from any thesis that “conservatives are X and liberals are Y” is that often the difference between why one becomes a conservative and another a liberal is what household or religion they grew up with. Politics is at least as much about identity (tribalism, nurturing) as any “nature”.

Sadly I think for most, regardless of which side of the political spectrum, conservative vs. liberal is merely a costume to be worn, with little actual import. Certainly there are many that actually understand and have internally confirmed their beliefs, but far more (the everyman as it were) belong to one side or the other because, well, that’s what dad was (or like in my case, what dad wasn’t).

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liberal 01.03.12 at 3:19 am

Anderson @76 wrote,

…how the hell did the Right get the mass movement arising out of the 2008 recession?

First, I’m not that convinced it’s much of a mass movement—seems like more of a repackaging (of standard right-wing Republican politics).

Second, to the extent it is a mass movement, it had to deal with certain collective action problems, which are made a lot easier with money. Which the Right has a lot more of.

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Carl Weetabix 01.03.12 at 3:25 am

Actually in my rush to write this out I’m mischaracterizing Altemeyer’s thesis – Altemeyer’s thesis is far more nuanced. Basically he’s saying (if I remember correctly) that those things we often identify negatively with conservatives can be categorized as “authoritarianism”. While such characteristics may be more prevalent in conservatives, it is hardly limited to conservatives and thus we find the same symptoms say in “Stalinism”, which is supposedly a “liberal” or “leftist” endeavor.

The ultimate point being that it isn’t really conservatives that suck, but authoritarians and while one may be found more on one side than the other (particularly today), ultimately the problem is authoritarianism, not necessarily a specific political worldview.

This also helps avoid the “notice the conservative brow” problem and explains why being a liberal has not been an antidote to being an asshole throughout history.

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Alan 01.03.12 at 3:59 am

Aren’t designations 0f conservative/liberal often self-identified and indexed by singular or minimal-set values that are regarded as sine qua non? No abortions, or at least some abortions, or no taxes, or some taxes on the rich, or some such? Other adherents of political identities seem to see themselves as ordered but somewhat more rich-set value-based politicos, especially involving disjunctive and weighted values, such as less-pro-choice than more-debt reduction, or more income-distributive than less pro-gay, which might move them to conciliatory positions but guided by the weight of commitment to big values. I take this to mean that (1) people are typically single-minded as to issues and (2) the major political parties get that and play to shotgun strategies that will galvanize voters on issues that they identify with in the use of appropriate propaganda. Republicans seem to have the upper hand on that strategy. No one seems to address any holistic balance of issues, which is the political black hole that will consume us all eventually.

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Meredith 01.03.12 at 4:39 am

Like Corey, I’m mostly just learning from the back and forth here. One thing I’m learning is that, much as I used to joke that I am at heart some kind of anarchist, I think I really am, no joke. Let me put it this way. I think the classic notion of “false consciousness” has real explanatory power, but only so long as we all remain alert to the fact that each and every one of us has false consciousness (from the point of view of some unknowable god-term or god-position). Which is why we must listen to one another, most of all to those with whom we are inclined to disagree (especially when those who think differently from us are not speaking from a position of unaccountable authority/power). False consciousness can become, after all, just another authoritarian bludgeon. Perhaps we should be like good teachers, who not only take seriously where their students are “coming from” but actively enjoy the experience of learning from their students, however less learned and critically astute those students in many ways may be.

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Lee A. Arnold 01.03.12 at 5:03 am

I think the root of U.S. conservatism is a little different. The history of the United States is mostly conservative in the sense of skepticism and distrust of centralized government. The workers believe that if they also distrust big business, as of course almost everyone does, then the way to fight that is by unions, or by individual voice and choice in the marketplace, but not by government action because government action only gets co-opted by big business. The same kinds of crooks are in charge of both spheres. Consequently almost all U.S. politicians have run against big government, in one way or another. Wilson and Kennedy were not in favor of big gov’t, though like many other Presidents (including many Republicans of course) they changed some of their positions after getting into office. However, liberalism in the sense of public support for government expansion had a brief ascendancy: from the post-WWII boom through the Cold War security state, starting with Eisenhower through the 70’s. After that, things returned more or less to the historical norm. New Dealish programs like Social Security and Medicare have survived because workers believe that they pay for it. But now, conservatism has come to a transformative historical juncture. What is happening now is something that the founding fathers, indeed all the early modernists, could not have comprehended — although Sitting Bull evinced an early inkling… In a nutshell, the world-system is getting too complicated for conservatism and perhaps for any other sort of dogmatism as well. Economic crises and environmental crises are accelerated and bigger. Medical advances are expensive yet we can’t deny them to people who can’t afford them. It would appear that our system can get so complicated that individual choice in markets cannot manage the damage, as everyone from neoclassicals to neoliberals once hoped was possible. We need government to cover some more things. We need more things like expert committees, making rules about issues like global warming, because is not predictable yet appears to be possibly catastrophic. What we need is very dangerous, due to the possibility of capture by big business, and due to the inability of voters to pay attention and stay informed. Yet this is an inevitable development, and it strikes at the heart of conservatism. U.S. conservatism is failing now because it is impractical and it is theoretically in trouble.

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Anderson 01.03.12 at 5:58 am

99: But however you parse it, the question is, how did the *right* get its batteries charged by what should’ve been so discreditable to Wall Street and the elites?

It seems like the national center got shifted right after Carter and the Reagan-Bush years, and liberals have been playing catch-up ever since. And that was the legacy of the Nixon realignment.

105

Meredith 01.03.12 at 6:13 am

Quick supplement to Corey Robin’s argument as supplied by JQ or e.g., in his appearance on Chris Hayes:
http://www.thenation.com/article/159748/reclaiming-politics-freedom

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Rich Puchalsky 01.03.12 at 6:46 am

From Corey Robin link above: “We must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom. Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer, who has the power to determine not only their wages, benefits and hours but also their lives and those of their families, on and off the job.”

Bob Black: “Your foreman or supervisor gives you more or-else orders in a week than the police do in a decade.” (link)

“There is more freedom in any moderately deStalinized dictatorship than there is in the ordinary American workplace. ” (link)

Bob Black is kind of interesting — but the point of this is that there’s a reason why American left-liberalism hasn’t taken this turn. Balancing one hierarchy against another is firmly in the American political tradition of division of powers and so on, but it’s an inherently dicey thing to do. For one thing, it requires the two sources of power being set against each other — government and business, in this case — actually have different interests. Do they?

Or perhaps a strong left theory of kind could animate this “government hand in the economy” that would protect people. There isn’t one. As has been demonstrated here, people are still falling back on the remnants of analytical Marxism.

Without trust that government power is going to be used in this way, trust that Obama’s first term helped to destroy, what a distrust of business control gets you is basically anarchism… the animating spirit of OWS. That’s really where we’re going that I can see, and it’s not really compatible with left-liberalism.

107

Lee A. Arnold 01.03.12 at 7:09 am

The rudiments of a theory that explains government value already exist: Institutions reduce transaction costs (Coase), and public institutions reduce public transaction costs, including the costs of overcoming market failures. Some of these transaction costs are not monetized, but they still cost time and effort, so taxation to pay for their reduction is paying for an efficiency gain; and in this sense, public institutions and consumer goods are formally similar. Both government and markets need feedback to work correctly; governments have voting, and markets have prices. The critique of government power (public choice theory) applies equally to business firms; in other words, government failure and business management failure are subdivisions of institutional failure, and all their concerns fall under the same rubrics of agency, responsibility, and renewal.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.03.12 at 8:04 am

All this talk about false consciousness, but I’m pretty sure, according to the marxist doctrine (that owns the term), both American conservatism and American liberalism are manifestations of false consciousness. Not to mention that the doctrine, just like Rich’s bad white people, has a great contempt for the lumpen proletariat.

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basil 01.03.12 at 9:16 am

What I don’t understand about this debate is the basic assumption that there’s a useful difference in attitudes towards domination – power, authority and wealth between self-defining conservatives and broadly, US liberals and progressives.

Corey in the nation piece, in April 2011, defines Obama as a progressive. On what planet, especially considering his attitude towards whistleblowers and violence, e.g. the joke about drones.

Are US left-anarchists also conservative because they’re opposed to big government?

“the ruling class has mostly been losing ground. First, the aristocracy was forced to share power with the bourgeoisie, and, then for most of the 20th century, the working class gained ground against the power of capital.”

I don’t know that I have my history right, but ISTM that never before in the history of mankind, have so few had so much power over the lives of so many. Sure, you’ve had powerful emperors in the past, but they didn’t have the economic systems, media power, legal and education systems, drones, economic sanctions and massive, effective, technologically advanced militaries and police forces at their disposal to make subservient and willing subjects out of so many.

Also, isn’t union power in decline across the world? Aren’t there close to 50 m Americans living below the poverty line? How exactly has the working class gained ground on the ruling class?

110

reason 01.03.12 at 9:53 am

Lee A. Arnold,
I’m not sure how your comment fits in the discussion, but it is unusual to read something substantial that I agree 100% with. Very well said.

111

reason 01.03.12 at 10:57 am

“On the other hand, I heard the other day that someone had estimated the net value of the earth’s atmosphere to be 4.94 quadrillion dollars. Which strikes me as some kind of fundamental category error.”

Well it is standard economic talk of course, but there is a fallacy at its heart. It is like thinking that you can compensate for an insufficiency of food with an excess of DVD recordings. The price of essential goods goes to infinity as their supply goes to zero, not so with non-essential goods.

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belle le triste 01.03.12 at 11:52 am

the term “lumpen proletariat” — which marxist doctrine doctrine also “owns”* — isn’t exactly contempt-free

generally the flaw in the notion of “false consciousness” is simply that the people deploying it believe they have a clever little formula by virtue of which they can never be mistaken, least of all about situations they never before encountered (of course people who don’t deploy it also often believe this)

*great petty-bourgeois communist formulation there, henri

113

Random Lurker 01.03.12 at 12:33 pm

I will propose my personal theory of politics:
In the 19th century, there was a progressive and quite utopian political theory called “liberalism“ that claimed that, by increasing personal freedoms at the expense of ancien regime institutions, everyone could be better of in a quite equal society.
classic liberalism basically won its battle but the world isn‘t that utopian, thus three different political theories arose:
1) a broadly defined socialism that believes that society is ruled by class (and not idividual) dynamics
2) a broadly defined liberism that tries to turn the classic theories of liberalism against moder istitutions that are rather different from the original ancien regime ones;
3) a multifaced opinion that socoal dynamics are caused by identity (including ethnic) groups. since eachidentity group fights against the others, we don‘t see this as a unified political theory but we see that the different groups are enrolled either in the socialist or liberist camp. the extreme form of this identity politics theory is fascism, that really isn‘t either left or right.
so conservatives in the sense of liberists should be distingued from conservatives in the sense of identity conservatives.
also some quibbles: I think that marxist theory of false consciousness is different from indoctrination from above, and really is the idea that prolets don‘t have the cultural tools to build a counterculture of their own, and thus see the world from bourgoise eyes. Thus they naturally don‘t see themselves as a class and as a consequence resort to identity politics (in other words false consciousness refers exactly to the kind of natural assholeness that Rich P. says is the opposite of false consciousness).

114

Rich Puchalsky 01.03.12 at 1:04 pm

“I think that marxist theory of false consciousness is different from indoctrination from above, and really is the idea that prolets don‘t have the cultural tools to build a counterculture of their own, and thus see the world from bourgoise eyes. Thus they naturally don‘t see themselves as a class and as a consequence resort to identity politics (in other words false consciousness refers exactly to the kind of natural assholeness that Rich P. says is the opposite of false consciousness).”

I agree that this thread hasn’t really been using the phrase “false consciousness” in its classic Marxist formulation. I was arguing against the fooled-from-above idea, for instance in geo’s comment @ 61. But the classic false consciousness argument has always appeared to me to be part of an apparatus that justifies acting in the name of the working class without the actual agreement of any substantial part of it, because the people in it can’t even know what they really want. In other words, it’s part of the authoritarian leftism that people uneasily fall back on whenever they insist that the working class means labor and that labor really has one true interest which can be derived from some books written in the 19th century.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.03.12 at 1:13 pm

@113 Random Lurker: three different political theories arose

well yes, the three main (and utterly contradictory) political values of the Enlightenment: liberte, egalite, fraternite. Liberalism, socialism, and nationalism.

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an adult 01.03.12 at 2:07 pm

The trek to Gorzom was forced upon Grignr when the soldiers
of Crin were leashed upon him by a faithless concubine he had
wooed. His scandalous activities throughout the Simarian city
had unleashed throngs of havoc and uproar among it’s refined
patricians, leading them to tack a heavy reward over his head.

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Guido Nius 01.03.12 at 2:10 pm

115 has to be the best summary of cultural pessimism ever.

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Main Street Muse 01.03.12 at 2:25 pm

“To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

I wish conservatives preferred facts to mysteries, but today’s American conservatives seem to prefer fiction over all else.

And I wish the impact of conservatives only pertained to the American domestic labor front. But that, sadly, is not true.

[Saddam Hussein's WMD; waterboarding is information gathering, not torture; Obama got Osama only because of info Bush/Cheney et al gathered by using torture; the prison guards at Abu Ghraib were themselves responsible for degrading prisoners, not following protocol established by the VP of the US, the invisible hand is all we need to regulate greed out of the financial sector; etc. and so on.]

The current delusional version of American conservatism has had a profound and dangerous impact on global events. In looking at the choices the GOP is offering for president, they are obviously content to continue down that path.

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LFC 01.03.12 at 3:28 pm

Wallerstein argues that it was the (failed) 1848 revolutions “that transformed the ideological panorama from one with two ideological contenders (conservatives versus liberals) into one with three” — i.e., conservatives, liberals, and radicals. (World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, pp.63ff.) Link

(I’m not necessarily endorsing this view, just throwing it into the mix)

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Lee A. Arnold 01.03.12 at 3:53 pm

Reason #110, Sorry, I came late to this discussion. I was responding to the interview with Corey Robin in John Quiggin’s first link.

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Barry 01.03.12 at 4:40 pm

“To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

Seconding the absolute disconnect between this and anything in the USA right. They prefer radical changes (so long as the immediate effect doesn’t hurt them). They want to ‘roll back’ to *at best* a world of their childhood, which they didn’t understand, because they were children.

It’s one thing to reminisce about the days when you could roll out of bed in a pair of shorts, hit the ground running and playing all days, without a care in the world. It’s another to pretend that you have a clue about what life was like for adults (and for those children who bore extreme cares from an early age).

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geo 01.03.12 at 5:45 pm

Do you suppose that if we just replaced “the problem of false consciousness” with “the problem of false beliefs,” then perhaps we could just get on with figuring out why so many people believe things that are false and support policies that are harmful to them?

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js. 01.03.12 at 6:03 pm

Rich @114:

I’m still not seeing why you think the geo-style view is wrong. The examples and mechanisms mentioned at 61 are obviously real and make a whole lot of sense. I’m not sure this best described as a “fooled-from-above” view, and I’m pretty sure it’s not best described as a false consciousness view, but surely the phenomenon of manufactured consent is very real and hugely relevant to the current state of political discourse.

On the other hand, I continue to find the “deep down they know they’re lying” bit pretty unconvincing. And anyway, even if it turns out to be true about global warming denial, how do you provide this kind of explanation in the case of people saying things “Keep govt. hands of my medicare”, etc? Obviously, the examples can be multiplied. And resentment, etc., while surely relevant will simply not fully explain what people are saying and doing.

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js. 01.03.12 at 6:04 pm

Sorry, last post crossed paths with 122.

cheers,
js.

125

AcademicLurker 01.03.12 at 6:09 pm

Amanda Marcotte over at Pandagon has some thoughts that are germane to the “do they know they’re lying deep down?” question.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.03.12 at 6:11 pm

“perhaps we could just get on with figuring out why so many people believe things that are false and support policies that are harmful to them”

Taking these in reverse order: why are you so sure that people support policies that are harmful to them? I mean, I’m sure that some do. But why should we assume that this is the main thing going on? Can you really say that some conservative working-class person is harming himself when he votes for the party that will take away his health care? Maybe he’s really so distressed by the idea of those icky gay people that this is less harmful to him, from his point of view. Weren’t people right here on this blog writing things like “Oh, I don’t support Obama killing foreign kids, but he’s the lesser evil”? What you seem to be saying is that only you, and people with your sense of values, get to decide what harm is, and what someone should make their decisions on the basis of.

Of course I agree with you, broadly — someone should feel harmed when they get sick because they have no health care, and they should not feel harmed by the public existence of gay people. But if people want to have an evil value system, then they can have one. It doesn’t mean that they are “supporting policies that are harmful to them” unless you are the judge and jury of what’s harmful to them, and you aren’t.

Next, why do they believe things that are false? Well, in many cases they do, but in the majority, I’d say, they don’t really believe them. John Quiggin linked back to an agnotology discussion. Do people really believe that Obama is Kenyan and can’t be President? Maybe some crazy people do. But this being a matter of fact, and not one of values, you have to be pretty crazy to really believe this. I don’t think that most of the people who say that they believe it really believe it.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.03.12 at 6:26 pm

I’m sorry to be over-commenting, but…

“surely the phenomenon of manufactured consent is very real and hugely relevant to the current state of political discourse.”

I agree that it is real, and hugely relevant. I just think that it works differently. When someone who works for the U.N. on researching R2P comes to Crooked Timber and tells people here that the upcoming Libya intervention is a humanitarian intervention, not a “liberal intervention” regime change one, that’s a primary example of a propagandist being sent out to manufacture consent. When someone from the coali industry makes the connections for conservatives that tell them that pissing off liberals means they should deny climate change, that’s another example… but I don’t know whether people are really being fooled, per se. The believer in R2P is looking for a rationalization that lets them continue to support Obama, and gets one. Or a way to make themselves feel morally superior. The newly minted coal industry supporter is looking for tribal identification and a new way to hate poor people. In none of these cases are people really being convinced of things like “in order to stop people from being killed we have to kill a lot of people” or “all of the scientists are really wrong.”

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Norwegian Guy 01.03.12 at 7:00 pm

I haven’t read the book, but it seems to me to be not about conservatism, but about the political right. These are not the same. There are some conservatives who are centrist or even centre-left. On the other hand, there are plenty of non-conservatives on the right wing, including many liberals. After all, there must be a reason why conservative and liberal parties form bourgeois/bürgerliche coalitions against the social democratic left in many countries. But if you’re looking for ‘liberalism’ in the index, you’re re-directed to ‘left’!

If, as Quiggin argues, the main feature of modern-day reactionaries is trying to turn back the welfare state, liberals, at least in Europe, are as complicit as conservatives. After all, how much less reactionary are people like Clegg, Rutte, Westerwelle and Björklund in this regard compared to Cameron, Balkenende, Merkel and Reinfeldt? So it looks like liberalism is almost as reactionary as conservatism, and often more reactionary than Christian democracy.

Then again, the phrase ‘Christian Democrat(ic)’ is nowhere to be found in the book. Modern non-US conservatives like Cameron, Harper, Merkel, Sarkozy and Howard are completely absent, and these heads of government of major countries must be at least as significant as the former governor of a small US state, who even gets named in the title. So it looks like it’s a history of American conservatism, masquerading as a general, unifying history of all varities of conservatism past and present. Or perhaps “(western) conservatism globally until the mid-20th century, then an exclusive focus on the USA.” And there is nothing wrong with that, but a book that has an extensive coverage of 18th and 19th century European conservatism – Burke is named in the title too – could perhaps have continued its coverage of non-US strains of the ideology up to the present as well.

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geo 01.03.12 at 7:11 pm

Rich @127: Yes, but there’s an important difference between the two cases. It’s the difference between a “propagandist” and someone whom you just strongly disagree with. Conor’s arguments — which I disagreed with — were at least plausible and made in apparent good faith (ie, by someone who appeared to respect the rules of evidence and logic). That’s not the case with climate-denial flacks.

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Bruce Wilder 01.03.12 at 7:16 pm

I don’t know how you distinguish “false consciousness” from stupid or ignorant. Many actual voters have bizarre ideas about politics, because they just do not pay much attention, and do not have the education understand much of what they do pay attention to. This is hardly only a problem on the right or left; it’s arguably most acute in the “center”.

The libertarian/anarchist argument that government/authority cannot be trusted, and therefore the only “practical” politics is to minimize government, can be seen as a semi-rational response to the difficulty of “controlling” elites from the bottom.

I have a basic understanding of how insurance works. So, when I advocate, say, for single-payer, universal health insurance, I do so, from what I think is an informed perspective, and with a well-founded belief that single-payer is the framework most likely to result in a moderate-cost, efficient system. I have no great depth of expertise, but most people have a less economically sophisticated understanding. And, when it comes to any particular policy proposal, my general outlook isn’t really of much help. How would I evaluate Obamacare — a huge bundle of policies and programs, phased in, tentatively, over several years? I don’t have any way to evaluate it. Not really. I am just as suspicious as some Ron Paul groupie, and probably as ignorant, when it comes right down to it, with relation to health care. In terms of what I personally pay, for an individual policy, I note that Obama is screwing me, to benefit giant corporate insurers, which fits in with my view of Obama as a subsidiary of Goldman, Sachs; Obama has done nothing to contain costs or rein in the power of financial corporations — there’s news you can’t use.

It does seem to me that the political problem of constraining and controlling elites is a constant, but it is a constant enveloped in a particular, swirling fog, at any one place and time.

Because it is a fog, there can be two broadly different versions of “conservative”. One actively wants to remove the constraints on the elite, and on elite power. Another may just be confused, or repelled by the prospect of struggle and violence. Upthread, it has been suggested that some among the 99% may feel that they benefit from hierarchy. It is possible that some would simply prefer peace and what they know, to what may well turn out to be worse.

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bianca steele 01.03.12 at 10:28 pm

Andrew Hartman at the blog Ben Alpers links above, has another post on the book. He mentions “The Vital Center.” It seems to me that if “the vital center” now implies calling oneself “conservative,” in a politics where it’s admitted everyone is either a conservative or a liberal, something has gone wrong. (FWIW it also seems to me wrong if calling oneself a “liberal” now implies the next word is “Republican,” in a politics where it’s admitted everyone is either a conservative or a liberal. And FWIW too, it seems to me wrong to call oneself a “conservative Marxist” and actively promote Marxist texts while remaining safely conservative in all one’s other dealings.)

Barry @ 121 also has an interesting point.

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LFC 01.03.12 at 11:59 pm

bianca @131

I really don’t understand this comment at all.

It seems to me that if “the vital center” now implies calling oneself “conservative,” in a politics where it’s admitted everyone is either a conservative or a liberal, something has gone wrong.

Who says the “vital center” implies calling oneself conservative? Hartman’s point (I skimmed down to that paragraph in his post) would rather seem to be that the “vital center” was a facile rhetorical device to carve out a certain position in between perceived ‘extremes’.

it also seems to me wrong if calling oneself a “liberal” now implies the next word is “Republican”
This is even more bizarre. So-called liberal Republicans are virtually extinct. Make that extinct, period. Charles Percy and Mark Hatfield both died last year. That was it, basically. There are no more “liberal Republicans” AFAIK.

it seems to me wrong to call oneself a “conservative Marxist” and actively promote Marxist texts while remaining safely conservative in all one’s other dealings.
Who calls himself or herself a ‘conservative Marxist’?

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Omega Centauri 01.04.12 at 12:09 am

I think a lot depends upon the stories we hear, and tell to others. If you hear a lot of stories whose theme, is “government is stealing your money and giving it to underserving people”, you are on a mental trajectory toward the US right. A lot of people repeat such stories without thinking they are promoting one side or the other in a great left/right battle, but simply because they heard them and they struck a chord, the fact that they have been recruited as an unpaid soldier in an ideologic war doesn’t even occur to them. In the US one side of this war has a very well funded and organized system for creating and promoting the stories they want to circulate, and the other is largely disorganized and not so well funded.

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bianca steele 01.04.12 at 12:41 am

LFC,
If I understand Hartman’s post, Mark Lilla (whose review Hartman is considering) is trying to define “conservatism” that encompasses “the vital center.”

I was really only serious about the first point, the one not in parentheses, but regarding the first two points generally, I had in mind Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America, which I remember basically as an apologetic for the New Deal. I read it in high school as trying to persuade the right to evolve and embrace more left-wing ideas, but I suppose it might be read as trying to persuade the left to embrace a more “classical” liberalism. For the third, I had in mind the scattered “leftist” blogger out there who seems interested mainly in leftist attacks on things the right also attacks, for the same reasons.

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LFC 01.04.12 at 1:34 am

bianca steele @134
If I understand Hartman’s post, Mark Lilla (whose review Hartman is considering) is trying to define [a] “conservatism” that encompasses “the vital center.”

Mark Lilla may indeed be trying (rather unsuccessfully perhaps) to mark off a reasonable, pragmatic “centrist” conservatism and distinguish it from a reactionary version of conservatism, but dragging in Schlesinger’s The Vital Center, even in passing as Hartman does, I think just muddies the waters. As B. Alpers says in a comment on Hartman’s post: “Though you [Hartman] are right to compare Lilla’s (and others’) attempts to discover a sensible conservatism to Vital Centrism, Schlesinger’s “Vital Center” was, of course, a self consciously liberal construction.”

So when you, bianca, say: “It seems to me that if “the vital center” now implies calling oneself “conservative”…something has gone wrong,” your “if” clause is the problem. The “vital center” (whatever Lilla wants to suggest) does not imply conservatism. Schlesinger was not a conservative. He was an anti-Communist, pro-Cold War, pro-New Deal liberal. More importantly, the phrase “the vital center” sounds a bit ridiculous or anachronistic as applied to contemporary U.S. politics. A (dwindling) number of U.S. politicians may still present themselves as “moderates,” but no one talks about “the vital center”. The phrase has no real meaning in the discourse of contemporary U.S. politics.

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bianca steele 01.04.12 at 2:11 am

Schlesinger was not a conservative. He was an anti-Communist, pro-Cold War, pro-New Deal liberal.

True. But so was Lionel Trilling–at the time–now he’s considered a neoconservative. So was Irving Kristol–at the time–we know who he is. Leo Strauss defended “liberalism” repeatedly. Schlesinger might be the only “anti-Communist, pro-Cold War, pro-New Deal liberal” left. And I’m not ruling out the existence of people who feel the term “liberal” was hijacked, prefer the “European” definition of the term, and resent not being able to identify themselves publicly as such, though I wouldn’t pin this on them without their consent or admission.

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LFC 01.04.12 at 2:46 am

@136
Schlesinger might be the only “anti-Communist, pro-Cold War, pro-New Deal liberal” left.

According to Wikipedia (not usually my preferred source but in a pinch it will have to do), the founding members of Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 included:
Hubert Humphrey
John Kenneth Galbraith
Joseph P. Lash
Walter Reuther
Eleanor Roosevelt
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

And one might add the name of Joseph Rauh, who also helped found ADA (though Wikipedia only mentions that fact in its article on Rauh, not its article on ADA — go figure).

As far as I know, none of these people became a neoconservative (Eleanor Roosevelt died before the term ‘neoconservative’ even came into currency). I would describe Humphrey, Galbraith, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rauh, and Schlesinger as anti-Communist liberals. Reuther was also of course anti-Communist but his politics were or became more social democratic. (These lines get blurry: was Galbraith a liberal or a social democrat?)

None of these people is still alive, and the phrase “anti-Communist liberal” has had no particular resonance in U.S. politics for a long time, for obvious reasons. But there was a time when the phrase did have a meaning and there were people to whom it applied. Schlesinger was not alone. Not at all.

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Main Street Muse 01.04.12 at 2:47 am

When Betty Ford died last summer, here’s how she was remembered in the NY Times:

“Few first ladies have been as popular as Betty Ford, and it was her frankness and lack of pretense that made her so. She spoke often in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, endorsed legalized abortion, discussed premarital sex and revealed that she intended to share a bed with her husband in the White House.”

In 2012, we’ve lost the ability to even imagine the spouse of any GOP president publicly advocating any of those things, except, perhaps, the intention to share a bed with her husband, because that is, after all, the duty of any Christian bride. And in the eyes of the GOP, this is a Christian nation, with little room for other religions – or the Constitution’s insistence on the separation of church and state, for that matter.

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Christian Hiebaum 01.04.12 at 10:59 am

Rich Puchalsky @126: “Of course I agree with you, broadly—someone should feel harmed when they get sick because they have no health care, and they should not feel harmed by the public existence of gay people. But if people want to have an evil value system, then they can have one. It doesn’t mean that they are “supporting policies that are harmful to them” unless you are the judge and jury of what’s harmful to them, and you aren’t.”

While I broadly agree with you (as I do, perhaps strangely, with geo), this particular argument does not do the work it is supposed to do, or so it seems to me. If being harmed is conceived of as equal to feeling (or believing) to be harmed, then we could well do without the concept of harm. That is, instead of saying that policy x is rejected by the persons it harms we could leave it with “x is rejected by some persons.” Hence, if I were against gay marriage simply out of disgust or because of my belief that homosexual partnerships are “against nature” or otherwise deeply unethical, yet still sincerely claimed that my rejection is based on the fact of being harmed by gay marriage, my “consciousness” would be false in the strongest sense. This would be a case of self-deception or conceptual confusion.

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Brett Bellmore 01.04.12 at 12:36 pm

As a somewhat conservative libertarian, I think all I’d ask, after reading over 130 comments, is some greater recognition, (In keeping with paragraph 2 of comment 130.) that plutocrats aren’t the only ‘crats’, and when you try to increase the power of government to deal with plutocrats, you’re increasing the power of another set of crats. And maybe some conservatives are just more afraid of those crats, than the ones you fear.

After all, my supervisor may issue more orders to me than the government, but if I don’t do what he says, all he’s going to do is stop paying me. The government might throw me in a deep, dark hole, or even kill me. Is it irrational to prefer to be subject to the former, rather than the latter, power?

Who’s suffering from the false consciousness here, if you really think you’re going to increase liberty by increasing government?

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Rich Puchalsky 01.04.12 at 1:30 pm

“if I were against gay marriage simply out of disgust or because of my belief that homosexual partnerships are “against nature” or otherwise deeply unethical, yet still sincerely claimed that my rejection is based on the fact of being harmed by gay marriage, my “consciousness” would be false in the strongest sense. This would be a case of self-deception or conceptual confusion.”

I think I see what you’re getting at, but for this particular case, people (in the U.S.) would tend to say “society is harmed by gay marriage”. “Why do people choose things that harm them” is, after all, a condescending question from outside, and is rarely used by someone to describe themselves.

If we do take “harm” out of the description and come back to political preferences, then you’re just left with “some people have a stronger preference for anti-gay politics than they do for politics that would help get them health care” or something like that. And the nature of a (two-party, by the way elections in the U.S. are set up) representative democracy is that policies are bundled together, so they don’t get to choose anti-gay and pro-health-care. As I’ve written in this thread before, perhaps some of them complain about the lack of health care in the same way that people here who plan to vote for Obama nevertheless complain about his drone attacks.

But then we get to the real manufacturing consent, propagandized-from-above part of this — people on the right don’t tend to (ineffectually) complain quite as much in this way. One of the things that right-wing media does is get them into a whole tribalist package in which their individual anti-gay prejudice, or whatever they started with, can be pulled into broad agreement with the right, so that they really do end up opposing health care provision. But I think that they consciously know what they’re doing. I mean, if someone was cheering for their sports team, and you came up and said “Wait. Is your sports team really the best of them all?” you’d get indignant argument, but at some level the people involved would know that it really wasn’t the best of them all.

So the right-winger ends up opposing ObamaCare, even though he, perhaps, knows that it would actually help him … but this is not necessarily false consciousness if the right-winger also knows that what he really really wants is for gay people to have a bad time. He “chooses what harms him” in only a slightly different way to which the people here choose to have foreigners killed by drones. And his way is, in some senses, politically more rational: if you’re going to end up supporting a party, you might as well go all in.

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Christian Hiebaum 01.04.12 at 2:28 pm

@141: No objections. I definitely do not want to claim that voters who are not exclusively motivated by their own interests suffer from false consciousness. But something like that comes into play when they have a strong preference for decision makers who care about their particular interests and still habitually vote for those who act against most of their (even quite fundamental) interests. If they vote for them just because they hate most of the things (largely unconnected to their interests) the other candidates seem to stand for, the case is different. Just like you, I don’t want pompous and quite abstract false consciousness theories to be applied to every wrong or unreasonable attitude. But neither does geo, I guess.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.04.12 at 3:16 pm

“If they vote for them just because they hate most of the things (largely unconnected to their interests) the other candidates seem to stand for, the case is different.”

I’m not sure what work “interests” is doing here. Some people have quite visceral homophobia. Maybe it really makes them completely upset and angry when they think about gay people kissing like they wish they could do, I mean, like disgusting people going against the word of God. Maybe that feeling is a much stronger factor in their lives than whatever economic loss they take by providing their own health care. What is that person’s interest, and who is anyone else to tell them what it is?

Or maybe that’s a bad example because homophobia is so widely thought to be a false-consciousness syndrome for closeted people. Let’s take a coal miner who hates those liberal, interfering elites who are always telling people what to do for their own good and making up stories so they can increase the size of government. The people he votes never help him, yet he’s aware that if the people he hates win, he’s going to be out of a job. Is he working in his rational interest? Maybe the “left” party might end up helping him overall, but over a much longer time-scale.

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Sebastian H 01.04.12 at 4:23 pm

This post exists in weird counterpoint to the nearby post on the ECB. Why don’t [many] people trust the government? Because it has the power to screw things up more deeply than your foreman. The plutocrats might work together with the bureaucrats and the technocrats to screw things over in a very comprehensive way. Your foreman can have you fired, but the bureaucrat can throw you in jail or have you killed and the technocrat can invoke mumbly jumbly pseudo-science to destroy your whole industry. This by the way is where global warming denialism gets easy play–technocrats have cried wolf too many times on too many trivial issues and backed their rhetoric with pseudo-science. So when similiar people (or sometimes the exact same ones) want to upend your whole life with similar sounding justifications that they used the last hundred times they wanted you to [ban booze, change your whole diet, change big parts of it back because they were just kidding about margarine being better than butter, vastly change how you raise children, change it back again because it didn't work, not smoke on the sidewalk outside your office building, pretend that coddling criminals will stop crime, etc. etc.] lots of people are going to resist out reflex *even if you really are finally right this time*.

For a bunch of people, lots of government intervention ends up looking like over-active busy-bodys getting around trying to over-rule every last decision you might want to make–for your own good of course.

Now I’m describing a feeling that gets channeled politically. Sometimes it gets channeled in a helpful way (to curb government excesses). Sometimes it gets channeled in an unhelpful way (to break down perfectly useful government interventions). But that is true of all sorts of feelings that get channeled politically. Liberals and radicals have other feelings that get channeled politically in ways that end up leading to incomprehensible results. (See the ECB for the Europe project–which has tended to be opposed by conservatives in Europe–though that is a complicated thing, or see the fact that radicals can tend to destroy even useful institutions and then fail to replace them with even-as-useful institutions).

People just aren’t as rational as we like to pretend. Conservatives have an impulse–I don’t like change. They often have an additional impulse–I like the way things used to be. In a good world these impulses would be leavened by an admission that sometimes things get better with change and that sometimes the risk is worth taking. But conservatives are human, just like liberals and radicals. So for the most part they end up acting on their core impulses rather than. The person whose core impulse is to change the world to better suit their vision will tend to try to do so, and won’t pay proper attention to evidence presented that their changes may suck. The person whose core impulse is to not change will tend to try to do so, and won’t pay proper attention to evidence presented that the change is good, or that change can’t be avoided.

One of the big problems in this discussion is that conservatives are NOT some sort of mysterious creature that you have no hope of understanding. They are a lot like you. Which should probably be scary.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.04.12 at 5:07 pm

Brett, Sebastian H, I’m an anarchist these days, so for me at least I don’t see the contradiction in what I’m writing. Other people who are still liberals have pretty explicitly said that their theory involves pitting one source of power against another: that you need the government as a check on control by business, and presumably vice versa. Whatever you think of this, it’s a fundamental and long-standing American political idea, and the basic reason why we have separation of powers and an executive, legislature, and judiciary and all that. I think that this really becomes catastrophically wrong-headed when the people in charge of government demonstrate that they aren’t going to be that balance even when they have the power to do so, but there are plenty of other people who are quite willing to demonstrate their superior cynicism and say that this never should have been expected anyways. This pretty much directly leads into “why did you ever expect anything from Obama? Ha ha, I didn’t, you foolish person” and “Our role now is to go out and support the lesser evil in the full knowledge that nothing will really come of it except that things won’t be quite as bad.”

But just because I don’t think that our role is to do that doesn’t mean that I think you’re right. A real, grown-up adult can see very well that scientists are right about global warming and not justify their resistance on the basis that someone told them not to smoke sometime. I won’t tell conservatives that they have false consciousness and don’t know their own real interests and all that, but their reasons for doing things are bad.

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bianca steele 01.04.12 at 5:15 pm

LFC @ 137
Fair enough. Though Wikipedia is suggestive of an anti-left purge in the creation of the ADA, but on the other hand, that’s certainly not applicable to its recent leaders, and the first book I picked up that mentions the ADA puts its founding well before the Wallace presidential candidacy debacle and Reuther’s purge of the CIO.

The reassignment of apparently originally left or popular/ist ideas to the right does bother me a little bit. It would be nice if more left-leaning people could find it in them to simply embrace the ideas they find interesting, regardless of who now “owns” those ideas’ originators. The right should be happy to share, after all, ideas that support their own point of view. Ideas really shouldn’t be partisan, should they? (But far off-topic.)

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geo 01.04.12 at 5:31 pm

Sebastian H: technocrats have cried wolf too many times on too many trivial issues and backed their rhetoric with pseudo-science

Crying wolf even once is “too many times,” of course. But if you mean that the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, the Bureau of Mines, and other government bodies have, in general, been overzealous in protecting the public and constraining business from polluting the environment and marketing unhealthy products, I’d have to say, with all possible respect, that you’re daft.

As for pseudo-science, read books like Doubt Is Their Product, Merchants of Doubt, and The Republican War on Science to see who the real proponents of pseudo-science are. (Hint: it’s not government.)

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soru 01.04.12 at 5:59 pm

After all, my supervisor may issue more orders to me than the government, but if I don’t do what he says, all he’s going to do is stop paying me.

And, if you are outside the 1%, stop access to health care for you and your family. There are hundreds of documented cases of the path ‘Boss takes dislike to something someone said -> sacks them-> their child dies’. Certainly many more than the hundred or so a year killed by the routine functioning of the legal and homeland security systems.

The figure of 45,000 has been calculated as the total excess for excess deaths amongst the uninsured. No-one really knows as no-one bothers counting, but it almost certainly overlaps with the scale of things that in a different form would get called state atrocities or civil war. You’d have to go to ‘genocide’ or ‘holocaust’ before you would be overstating it.

It is certainly interesting that that is true, and nevertheless widely ignored, to the point where people will state the opposite without any thought of being contradicted. I suppose even that is not really false consciousness. Some is just the valid self-interest of the 1%, who have no need to fear poverty, or indeed pretty much anyone without a navy. The rest is simple Stockholm syndrome; those whose lives literally depend on the good opinion of someone in the same room will naturally come to identify with them, adopt their goals as their own.

The Tea party can get a lot of people out chanting; so can the North Korean government. That what the power of life and death _does_ to people.

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Sebastian H 01.04.12 at 6:04 pm

I think trying to frame it as “the real” proponents of pseudo-science is falling in to the trap of demonizing your opponents and excusing the people on your side. A large percentage of people, on all poltical sides from conservatives, to libertarians, to anarchists, to liberals, to Communists, are happy to take up science and logic when it supports them and happy to ignore it when it doesn’t. This is ESPECIALLY true in economics, where professors and professionals speak with far more authority than the development of the research warrants.

Yes, the Republican Party appears to have totally gone off the road, flipped over into the ditch, and has gasoline leaking all over. I’m not denying that AT ALL. If you want to say that *at this very moment* conservatives in the United States are giving into their stupid sides more than liberals I’ll agree with you. (Though the *amount* of difference is probably something I’ll disagree with you on.) But far more is going on in this post and comment thread. Here it is suggested that conservatives generally are dramatically more prone to that kind of thinking. But you have to write a lot out of the more progressive movements to get that. Progressive eugenicists anyone? That was the psuedo-science that led to the sterilization of black ‘undesireables’ in the United States. That wasn’t conservatism.

And the whole thing falls apart in Europe. Who is avoiding feedback in the EU project? Conservatives have broadly speaking resisted the project. The reality-deniers there are something other than conservatives.

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Consumatopia 01.04.12 at 9:06 pm

Conservatives have an impulse—I don’t like change.

I’m not sure this thread, or anyone else, has done a good job pinpointing exactly what the core conservative impulse is. But it’s safe to rule out “I don’t like change” or “I don’t like concentrated power”. Their favorite institution, the marketplace, accelerates both of those. Even if every single issue position they take is sincere, their stated reason for packaging all those issues up into a single ideology is not.

Perhaps attempts to find the “core impulse” of liberalism/progressivism would run into similar problems. But that doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem for their arguments. The left makes arguments for environmental protection, social tolerance, and egalitarian economic reforms, but doesn’t generally try to make a single argument that applies to all three of those issues.

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Anderson 01.04.12 at 9:32 pm

Perhaps attempts to find the “core impulse” of liberalism/progressivism would run into similar problems.

Maybe. I think liberalism, whatever its problematic ramifications, is easier: liberty for the individual. freedom to think, associate, and live according to one’s own best lights. You get into arguments about positive vs. negative liberty, but both sides are arguing from the same first principle.

So, blithely pretending that’s a working definition of liberalism, the conservative is the person who objects to such liberty, in the name of … what?

I don’t think there can be one answer to that, and it’s probably a sign of how successful liberalism has been that it sets the agenda: the conservative is, first and foremost, an anti-liberal, defined by what he opposes. You can oppose liberalism in the name of white privilege, male privilege, Christianity, eugenics, aristocracy …

Which supports, I suppose, Robin’s thesis that conservative = reactionary, tho (not having read the book) it seems he has an economic emphasis that has to fall prey to the fragmented nature of the anti-liberal reaction.

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Sebastian H 01.04.12 at 9:47 pm

Your definition of liberal runs very much counter to what passes for left around here. So if you’re right about liberalism, you still have problems not only with the right, but also the left. (See especially paternalism–feminism anti-porn crusades, progressive anti-smoker crusades, everyone’s anti-drug crusades).

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Anderson 01.04.12 at 9:58 pm

Your definition of liberal runs very much counter to what passes for left around here.

Well, I think that’s correct – for the same reason that conservatism is anti-liberalism, leftism defines itself against liberals.

But I think it’s like the libertarian-liberal split. Trotting out the heuristic positive/negative liberty axis, libertarians are at the extreme negative pole, and leftists at the positive one. Liberalism has a problem theoretically justifying where in the middle it lies. But I think the Left agrees with the premise of liberty, just mocks liberalism for not achieving it (which would supposedly be accomplished by socialism, say, or some other -ism).

154

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.04.12 at 10:32 pm

‘Schlesinger might be the only “anti-Communist, pro-Cold War, pro-New Deal liberal” left. ‘

True of most of the ex-Trots from CCNY, but organization like DSA (Michael Harrington, Irving Howe) and SDUSA (a lot of the AFL-CIO union leaders like Lane Kirkland) would fit that bill with differing levels of Cold Warriorhood. Not to mention Max Shachtman.

155

bianca steele 01.04.12 at 11:08 pm

Sock Puppet,
The who? Really? (I mean, really, it is actually more probable than not that I didn’t understand what they were saying.)

156

LFC 01.05.12 at 2:21 am

Sock Puppet of Great Satan @154
I’m beginning to be sorry I engaged on this tangential issue at all. But Harrington was well to Schlesinger’s left (esp. on domestic/economic issues but also int’l). That’s obvious. Ditto (with some additional nuances) for Howe. Yes, I know about their famous fight with the New Left in the ’60s (which Harrington later regretted). It doesn’t change the point.

157

John Quiggin 01.05.12 at 2:21 am

@Sebastian: On Europe, I’ll concede that lots of people on the Left, including me, expected progressive outcomes from a closer union, and that in the current crisis, the opposite has happened, to the point the whole project now appears doomed.

Those making the decisions are conservative political leaders (Merkozy) and the ultra-neoliberal ECB. The left has been defeated, at least for the moment, and is now being forced to seek an alternative strategy under unpromising circumstances. After all, it’s not as though things are significantly better in the UK except as regards monetary policy.

But I don’t see that there is anything delusional here. In particular, if there is anyone trying to give a leftwing spin to the current push for austerity, I’m not aware of it. I’m probably at the extreme end of optimism about the current crisis, which means I think it’s too early to give up all hope .

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Dave2 01.05.12 at 3:23 am

Here’s a pessimistic view that might harmonize much of the above disagreement:

* The ‘false consciousness’ view is right in saying working-class conservatives really do see the world through misinformation propagated by elite conservatives. (Rich P. is wrong to suggest that deep down they don’t believe their own bullshit.)

* Rich P. is right that working-class conservatives embrace a value system of spite and resentment, opposing undeserved help for the hated poor at all costs. (Hopeful liberals are wrong to think that deep down we all share the same values.)

* So, even if working-class conservatives were disabused of all their illusions, or even if they had never been taken in by conservative misinformation in the first place, they would still be the same sort of ‘poor people don’t deserve help, criminals don’t deserve rehabilitation‘ conservatives, all because of their value system.

In other words, the propaganda really does work, but it’s not the major factor: values matter more than information.

159

John 01.05.12 at 3:37 am

I think that Corey is exactly correct re the deep toxicity of so called conservative politics in 2012.
A tangential response.
We are all more or less insane, except that most/all of what is now called “conservative” in 2012 is a form of individual and collective psychosis.
Art is always coincident with culture.
The most powerful art form of our time is film and TV.
TV anti-“culture” now rules the entire world. That “culture” is completely indifferent to the well-being, or even the survival of both humankind and Earth-kind
I would suggest that the unspeakably vile film reviewed at this reference provided an in your face “vision” of the applied politics of the time, and of what we are experiencing in 2012.
http://www.logosjournal.com/hammer_kellner

I would suggest that most/all of so called conservatives, especially those that presume to be religious, would have wet their pants in enthusiasm about this unspeakably vile film.

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John Quiggin 01.05.12 at 4:30 am

@Dave2 (and others) A big problem with this analysis is that working-class Tories have always existed, but for most of C20 they weren’t numerous enough to stop the advance of social democracy. And, if you look at the actual conditions at the time that advance was halted, they had a lot more to do with the failure of Keynesian demand management, which rendered the rightwing critique of social democracy more plausible (though still, in the end, false) than with the racial resentments that Rich seems to be obsessed with, or even with “downward envy” more generally.

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johnny johnjon 01.05.12 at 4:39 am

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mclaren 01.05.12 at 5:40 am

John Quiggin remarks that “Robin’s thesis is that claims like Oakeshott’s about conservatism (and also, those of Hayek about classical liberalism) are nothing more than a mask for attempts to resist, and where possible, roll back the claims of the working class against their rulers.”

That seems like a broadly accurate summary of the book. Close-up observation of so-called “conservatism” in America, however, suggests a far more radical agenda. To wit, what goes by the name “conservatism” in America in 2012 appears more in line with the Stalinist effort to create the “New Soviet Man.” The essential goal of the various ideological purges by the USSR was to destroy rationality itself as a value — facts (such as the decline of the Soviet Union’s population after Stalin’s systematic starvation of the kulaks) were not facts if they proved politically inconvenient. The Stalinist purges were attempts to teach the Soviet citizens a form of doublethink according to which the ideological needs of the party trumped facts + logic. Only ideology mattered: observed reality had to be warped and twisted by the individual citizen to fit whatever requirements were set by the party.

Likwise, we see with so-called “conservatism” in America a systematic attack on the basic concept of critical skeptical thinking and a massive effort to discredit facts + logic as a way of dealing with the world. Consider, by way of example, the Republican party’s uniform position of global warming denial and evolution denial. These facts have been established by scientific experiment about as well as any facts possibly can be — yet the Republicans blithely deny them, and regard an acceptance of these documented facts as a litmus test the failure of which requires expulsion from the ranks of conservatives.

Likewise, the anti-abortion mania, the frenzy about gay marriage, and so on, up to and including fantastical pseudoscience like The Bell Curve (neither of whose authors is an expert in population genetics; Charles Murray is a political scientist, and has no degree or experience whatsoever in any of the hard sciences, such as statistics or genetics) or Ron Paul’s bizarre the-U.S.-government-created-AIDs newsletter articles.

These kinds of descents into delusion pseudoscience are not rare or exceptional in the Republican party. From Ronald Reagan’s eager embrace of the absurd Star Wars missile ‘defense’ boondoggle to enthusiastic Republican funding for crackpot Pentagon R&D programs like the “hafnium bomb”, anti-rationalism and crackpot pseudoscience seem to form a central pillar of modern conservative thought.

So from the perspective of someone living in America, dealing with so-called “conservatism” as merely a form of class struggle greatly understates the rift. Conservatives appear to have drifted off into a rapture-index adam-and-eve-riding-dinosaurs fantasy world, while the non-conservatives in America have chosen to remain in the “reality based community.” This sounds more like the difference between pyschotic hallucination and skeptical critical thinking than like a class struggle, at least from my point of view.

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BT 01.05.12 at 6:02 am

As far as the US is concerned, most working people are not as politically savvy or involved as people in the UK or Europe. So a lot of the analysis offered here assumes a level of political thought that is just not really ‘there’, here in the US. We go with our gut, as did out last President, to the great distress of many.

In any case, a huge swath in the US is simply having their most base impulses manipulated by conservatives: religion, sex, fear of strangers, fear of commies, fear of foreigners, racism, resentment of elites, dislike of Cities. The list goes on and on. Really on and on.

The fact the conservatives in the US have been very successful in these manipulations this does not mean the people being manipulated are conservatives, even if they think they are conservatives. It makes them idiots.

And ‘liberal’ politicians in the US have failed to match ‘conservatives’ in the effectiveness of crafting communications that reach people. That is the problem with politics in America at this time.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.05.12 at 6:47 am

” And, if you look at the actual conditions at the time that advance was halted, they had a lot more to do with the failure of Keynesian demand management, which rendered the rightwing critique of social democracy more plausible (though still, in the end, false) than with the racial resentments that Rich seems to be obsessed with, or even with “downward envy” more generally.”

I’m speaking from a U.S. context, and as per Nixonland, it’s important not to underestimate how much racism still matters. And the U.S. never really had social democracy.

But the last few comments have portrayed the U.S. as some unique land of right-wing working-class nutballism. Is that really worse than what’s supposedly going on in Europe? JQ writes:

“Those making the decisions are conservative political leaders (Merkozy) and the ultra-neoliberal ECB. The left has been defeated, at least for the moment, and is now being forced to seek an alternative strategy under unpromising circumstances. After all, it’s not as though things are significantly better in the UK except as regards monetary policy.”

“The left has been defeated” seemingly without even the need for propagandistic intervention among the 99% — just by the elites doing it directly, or with a bit of minimal propaganda about austerity. Holding my skepticism at bay for a moment, that’s a pathetic showing for the left. I’d almost rather have people manipulated by elemental fears and resentments than have them fooled into direct belief in austerity, or so helpless that they can’t do anything even a purportedly much closer to 99% vs 1% situation. It might lead to some kind of lecture about how people should have known better about the Euro and the loss of democratic control, except for the inconvenient fact that the UK is essentially in the same place.

But it’s certainly an explanatory problem for people who want to blame the whole thing on the elites and deny the significance of conservative popular involvement. Why has the left in Europe been so extraordinarily easy to defeat?

165

David 01.05.12 at 7:11 am

I want to defend two theses:

1) Conservatives do in fact generally hold (at their deepest levels) false beliefs about things like climate change and the results of legislation which are partially brought on by top-down spread of misinformation.

2) Opponents of the false consciousness view, such as Rich, do not need the presence of these deep down beliefs to make their arguments.

For top-down false consciousness to offer a correct characterization of why conservatives act in the way the do, it is not enough that 1) be true. In addition, the false beliefs about climate change and health care would have to represent the actual reason why conservatives act the way they do. If, on the other hand, the beliefs are merely rationalizations designed to promote as guilt-free an advancement of their resentments as possible, false consciousness does not account for what’s going on.

I find it extremely plausible that the disbelief just is a rationalization. Ask yourselves, “Why do conservative disbelieve in climate change?” Do you really think it’s because they’ve been lied to? Why were they so much more receptive to the lies than to the similarly accessible truths? It seems clear that they were looking for excuses, however poor, to disbelieve. But that they really do disbelieve upon finding the excuses fails to vindicate false consciousness. This is because the disbelief is the result of the true causes of their political behavior rather than the cause of it.

In light of this, it seems unnecessary (and I think unwarranted) for Rich to continue arguing that there is some deep level at which conservatives believe the truth on these matters. There were obviously a number of gigantic simplifications throughout this post. I hope whatever was correct in it survived them.

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John Quiggin 01.05.12 at 7:19 am

@RP The left started in a very weak position, with New Labour and its equivalents having conceded a lot of ground to market liberalism, and therefore unable to formulate a consistent defence of social democracy once the immediate crisis had passed. Voters can hardly be blamed if they aren’t presented with any alternative. (That’s true in spades in the US, especially before Obama’s recent recalibration of his position.) And such alternatives, along with the supporting analysis, take time to appear.

167

Salem 01.05.12 at 1:51 pm

“A big problem with this analysis is that working-class Tories have always existed, but for most of C20 they weren’t numerous enough to stop the advance of social democracy.”

Strongly disagree. The Tories were in power for most of the 20th century. “Social democracy” didn’t happen because of consistent majorities for it, but because of occasional radical governments, often with very slim majorities, which rarely lasted long. It wasn’t that working-class Tories weren’t numerous enough, it was that they weren’t focused on social democracy as the problem – they also cared about empire, and national greatness, and social issues, and so on. And “social democracy” was institutional, and therefore hard to break down.

But now the left has basically won on most of the other issues, which makes the opposition to “social democracy” much more vital to the right, as it has come to define the movement – it’s existentially necessary. Someone like Macmillan could basically favour something like social democracy in the 1930s but what made him a Tory were his social and foreign policy attitudes. And conversely the left has lost a lot of its vitality. A lot of people think the battles have been won and things have now gone too far. Other people would like to go further in some directions but less far in others, and aren’t accepted on the left because of that – socially conservative social democrats aren’t welcome, and act accordingly. And because their social views are only accepted on the right, eventually they come to think that hey, maybe those guys have it right on the economy, too…

And I don’t agree that the 1970s was just a failure of demand management, at least in Britain. It was also an institutional failure of “social democracy,” in particular union power. There is a reason that “New Labour… conceded a lot of ground to market liberalism.”

But, if you want to think positively, it is that the same process has now been working in reverse for thirty years, so in another few decades the right will be exhausted.

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Sebastian H 01.05.12 at 4:42 pm

It seems weird to talk about false consciousness style problems in the US context, where it is at least plausible that Rush Limbaugh and the like really are causing the problem and then step directly to a discussion of Europe. There isn’t any regular crazy-maker with even a tenth of the reach of Rush Limbaugh much less Rush Limbaugh plus all his US imitators to be found in Europe. So it seems to me that if Europe is having the same problem, it casts serious doubts on the thesis.

169

Sebastian H 01.05.12 at 4:54 pm

As for rationalization/bull-headed resistance, again you only get to the idea that it is a particularly conservative trait by ignoring huge swaths of evidence that non-conservatives do the same thing. Take for example the abortion debate. The pro-choice side of the US debate is so crazy-making they become practically unhinged over laws that would seem ridiculously permissive in France (very few post first trimester abortions are permitted without going to extreme lengths to prove that the unborn child would be severely damaged upon birth) or Sweden (very few mid term abortions allowed without a review by a multi-doctor medical board to show that the unborn child. Or take the long resistance of Western leftists to deal with the problems posed by Stalin and Mao. Or take the problem of a certain prominent linguistics professor whose name will cause a troll descent, at admitting to Cambodian genocides that didn’t fit his theories about US foreign policy.

Conclusions first, rationalizations next, is how humans operate in general. Which is bad, and should be resisted. But it isn’t a function of just one side of politics over time. (Which is not to deny that at this moment in time, Republicans in the US are indeed worse.)

170

Donald Johnson 01.05.12 at 5:09 pm

“Or take the problem of a certain prominent linguistics professor whose name will cause a troll descent, at admitting to Cambodian genocides “

That unnamed linguist started off saying in 1977 that the human rights record of Pol Pot was “gruesome” , admitting that it could be worse, but obviously not convinced, and ended up using the term “genocide” by 1980 or so. It’s all rather similar to the debate over how many people died during the Iraq War (even the range of numbers is in the same ballpark), though I’m not saying that because the high numbers turned out to be true in Cambodia necessarily means they are correct in Iraq. And if I’d said that about Cambodia in 1979 then that would make me a terrible Pol Pot apologist.

171

Donald Johnson 01.05.12 at 5:12 pm

I agree though, with your larger point–people across the political spectrum tend to reach conclusions first and then go looking for evidence afterwards.

172

Uncle Kvetch 01.05.12 at 5:12 pm

That unnamed linguist started off saying in 1977 that the human rights record of Pol Pot was “gruesome” , admitting that it could be worse, but obviously not convinced, and ended up using the term “genocide” by 1980 or so.

Sebastian has never been one to let the facts get in the way of a good false equivalence.

173

Anderson 01.05.12 at 5:46 pm

“Social democracy” didn’t happen because of consistent majorities for it, but because of occasional radical governments, often with very slim majorities, which rarely lasted long.

But the Tories in 1951 didn’t dare try to undo Labour’s welfare programs, precisely because they figured there was indeed a consitent majority for those, and that rolling back the clock would roll them out of office. No?

174

Donald Johnson 01.05.12 at 6:20 pm

Uncle Kvetch–

Well, he does say Republicans in the US are worse at the moment, so I’ll take that. In the grand scheme of things it is true that lefties have made fools of themselves endorsing Stalin or Mao or other leftist dictators, so I can’t disagree with his point that both left and right sometimes have this problem with letting ideology come before facts, even if I think the right is more guilty of this most of the time.

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mds 01.05.12 at 7:18 pm

99: But however you parse it, the question is, how did the right get its batteries charged by what should’ve been so discreditable to Wall Street and the elites?

At least in the US, the right didn’t get its batteries charged by the 2008 recession. The right got its batteries charged by the election of an uppity Democratic president (partially helped by the 2008 recession). That’s why the Tea Party Patriots didn’t get their start when TARP was first being debated. That’s why the Oath Keepers didn’t nucleate around their self-righteous concern about “unlawful orders” when the US was engaged in widespread torture of detainees, but only after the commander-in-chief became a Democrat again. Mr. Puchalsky has something of a point about resentment as a motivator.

Of course, some of the reason for how kneejerk the “Democrat == anti-American demon” response has become has its roots in propaganda of various sorts. Contra Mr. Puchalsky’s claims about “deep down,” my own father disbelieves anthropogenic climate change because only God can change the weather. And even mild criticism of Israel is an attack on Biblical principles. Those would seem to be “deep down” enough to qualify as incorrigible propositions. But how did his devoutness get tied to these specific cases? “Climate change” isn’t in my concordance, so some religious leader made the link for him. Religious leaders have told him that modern Israel is sacrosanct until the End Times. Meanwhile, every US president in recent memory has offered at least mild criticism of Israel, so some media outlet has downplayed the Republican cases and hyped the Democratic cases beyond all reason. So I think that on the false consciousness vs. deliberately nihilist asshole question, it’s “both / and” rather than “either / or.”

Outside of the US, I think it’s been Duverger’s Law at work more than the right recharging its batteries. In multiple cases, when the putative party of the left was in power, their response was too often cribbed from the right’s policies. Voters thus turned to the opposition, even though that was just going to mean more of the same at best. So, e.g., Spain has turfed out the Socialist Workers’ Party over anger at the consequences of austerity, and turned the keys over to the People’s Party, who have declared that now Spaniards are really going to get austerity good and hard. But what other electoral option did they have? (United Left picked up the third-largest percentage of the vote, but remained a pittance.) This also played a role in the 2010 Republican resurgence in the US Congress, more so than resentment over gay marriage, miscegenation, or the abolition of the gold standard. People voted against lack of action on the economy, or didn’t bother voting, and got near-defaults, obstructionism, deficit committees, and about eight hundred bills about abortion. But what other electoral option did they have? I swear, it’s almost enough to make left anarchism attractive.

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Rich Puchalsky 01.05.12 at 7:30 pm

“Contra Mr. Puchalsky’s claims about “deep down,” my own father disbelieves anthropogenic climate change because only God can change the weather.”

Yeah… I agree that that’s probably the weakest part of what I’ve been saying. I think that David @ 165 is probably right in that it doesn’t really matter to figure out whether people really believe or just claim to really believe in these things.

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Salem 01.05.12 at 7:36 pm

“But the Tories in 1951 didn’t dare try to undo Labour’s welfare programs, precisely because they figured there was indeed a consitent majority for those, and that rolling back the clock would roll them out of office. No?”

Yes, but only because of the two parties’ respective positions on all the other issues. At the margin Labour’s welfare programs were perhaps decisive. But the coalitions have shifted, and the margins have moved. Labour would have lost in a landslide if they’d proposed 2012’s social and international policies. Elections are not referendums on a single issue, they are coalitional battles.

Labour used to be mostly focused on social welfare and nationalisation, whereas the Conservatives had lots of fish to fry. These are orthogonal, so Conservatives didn’t pick a big fight about the welfare state, but they did invade Suez and talk about “rivers of blood.” Now Labour has lots of fish to fry, whereas the Conservatives are mostly focused on market liberalisation and the EU. These are orthogonal, so New Labour didn’t pick a big fight about the unions, but they did have devolution for Scotland and Wales and civil partnerships.

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mclaren 01.06.12 at 2:21 am

Rich Puchalsky @164 asks: …the last few comments have portrayed the U.S. as some unique land of right-wing working-class nutballism. Is that really worse than what’s supposedly going on in Europe?

How many Creation museums do you see in Europe featuring Adam and Eve riding dinosaurs?

How much money did France or Germany or the Netherlands spend spend on orbital missile “defense” programs?

65% of the American population believes in the literal existence of the Devil among them (perhaps lurking behind the local Dairy Queen, or possibly a nearby Tast-E-Freeze outlet). What percentage of Europeans literally believe that an actual creature with cloven hooves and horns and a pointed tail lurks among their population?

One of the most illuminating quotes from a conservative I’ve heard is this one:

“You know, it’s so honest,” Sister Dorothy told Hoffman after reading it, “but sometimes Satan cloaks himself in truth.”

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Kaveh 01.06.12 at 3:09 am

FYI

“New Hampshire Republicans are taking textual originalism to a whole new level: three lawmakers have proposed a bill that requires that all legislation find its origin not in the U.S. constitution, but an English document crafted in 1215.

“All members of the general court proposing bills and resolutions addressing individual rights or liberties shall include a direct quote from the Magna Carta which sets forth the article from which the individual right or liberty is derived,” is the bill’s one sentence.”

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Rich Puchalsky 01.06.12 at 3:11 am

It Takes A Nation Of Millions (Of Nutballs) To Hold Us Back.

I didn’t mean that Europe could compete with us in terms of Creation museums. Just that we, at least, have a reason for our failure beyond having social democratic parties that don’t present any alternative for us. At least when I go to an Occupy demonstration I can count on some 20-something guy to yell “Go back to Cuba” out of his car or some decidedly non-wealthy-looking person to ask why I don’t just do what it takes to get rich. Better that than to be, I don’t know, denouncing the ECB and having everyone else say “Yes, we too also sanely detest the ECB! There is nothing we can do, though, for some reason.” Depressing.

181

Anderson 01.06.12 at 3:21 am

America to Europe: “we’re crazy – what’s your excuse?”

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rf 01.06.12 at 4:13 am

Just to clear up, this:

“But the last few comments have portrayed the U.S. as some unique land of right-wing working-class nutballism” (Rcih P)

isnt unrelated to this

“I’ll concede that lots of people on the Left, including me, expected progressive outcomes from a closer union,”(John Q)

You cant remove the EU (ECB) from its component parts. ‘Europes’ response is what it was always going to be, a reaction to political pressures at home and short sighted miscalculations of the national interest. Parts of ‘Europes’ extreme(but competetive) right are far more worrying than the Tea Party. (This might be the wrong thread, so feel free to ignore, but the conversations drifted this way)

I think Rich is on the right track with this:
“Better that than to be, I don’t know, denouncing the ECB and having everyone else say “Yes, we too also sanely detest the ECB! There is nothing we can do, though, for some reason.” Depressing.”

Except It’s too much. Its difficult for Americans to understand the restrictions put on peripheral Eurozone countries at the minute.

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chris 01.06.12 at 4:23 am

Take for example the abortion debate.

…which is pretty much 99% normative. I don’t see how you can draw any parallel between that and denial of evolution or anthropogenic climate change — empirical questions where one party is steadfastly opposed to the verifiable evidence.

Come to think of it, I guess there are some big empirical whoppers being flung around in the abortion debate… by the anti-abortion side. Mythical side effects, for example.

False equivalence FAIL.

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Sam C 01.06.12 at 1:59 pm

John Quiggin at #166: “The left [in the UK] started in a very weak position, with New Labour and its equivalents having conceded a lot of ground to market liberalism, and therefore unable to formulate a consistent defence of social democracy once the immediate crisis had passed. “

I would quibble with “conceded”, rather New Labour embraced market liberalism and was seduced by the trappings of wealth and power, at last they could be players rather than campaigners!

It’s not relevant to economics, but remember how Tony Blair responded to some criticisms of the absence of any attempt on his part to prevent the illegal and immoral wars started by GW Bush, he said something along the lines of “you’re assuming that I don’t agree with what he wants to do”. Blair might have had his heart in the right place in wanting a nice country for kids and to improve the lot of the poor, but he wanted that with the trappings of wealth and power for his elite.

In the UK Coalition Government, it is increasingly apparent that Nick Clegg (the leader of the minority Liberal Democrats) is really a rich toff Conservative in most of his attitudes. He and David Cameron get on well because they’re both from the same privileged backgrounds of inherited wealth and never had to do an honest day’s work in their life. But the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is another career politician who just does it for fun, not because he has deeply held beliefs derived from bitter life experience, he’s just part of the family trade.

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