22 January 2013

Four Conservatisms -- but I'm not sure about the fourth

The American Conservative magazine has suffered another setback, reducing its publishing schedule to six instead of twelve times a year after starting a decade ago as a biweekly. Its predicament is predictable, since its writers and editors take pride in differentiating themselves from conventional Republican conservatism. As the latest issue editorializes: "The Republican Party itself, Fox News, talk radio and the old think tanks and magazines are nowadays inert; their fundraising may be prodigious, but their ideas have calcified into mere mantras." Despite this inertia, the Conservative perceives four "factions that still possess some sense of direction," each attempting to guide the mainstream in its direction.

1. The neocons -- this magazine's archvillains -- are dismissed as "hav[ing] undergone a reverse evolution" from their purportedly highbrow past to mere "sound and fury" at "an apocalyptic pitch." Their belligerence, their urge "to get Fox watchers riled up to invade Iran (or Syria, or Alpha Centauri) has betrayed their supposed "worldly and cosmopolitan" heritage.

2. The Tea Party, singled out here for its "populism" and "nationalism" and its lack of a coherent foreign policy. That makes the TPs vulnerable to neocon "exceptionalist" rhetoric, though some remain willing to listen to ideas from the third faction.

3. The "liberty movement" consists of the heirs of Ron Paul, including his son, the Senator from Kentucky. The Conservative gives this group credit for its defense of civil liberties and for opposing the "warfare state" as well as the "welfare state," but the magazine differentiates itself from the liberty crowd by more or less defining itself as the fourth faction.

4. "Countercultural Burkean conservatives" differ from the liberty movement in their distance from "the consumerism that looks so lovely in libertarian eyes." They remain suspicious of both jingoistic nationalism and dogmatic libertarianism -- "the nexus of Ayn Rand and William Kristol is their - and our - antithesis." While this group needs a better label at once, articles in the current issue give more details on what the countercultural Burkeans stand for.

The cover story on "Counterculture Conservatism" is written by Andrew Bacevich, the pundit whose opposition to the War on Terror has, arguably, done the most to bring Burkeans and liberals together. A reader might wonder what makes Bacevich a conservative when he confesses himself no fan of: Fox News; Ayn Rand; Milton Friedman; Ron Paul; Ronald Reagan, etc. Against all of the above, Bacevich urges, in seemingly oxymoronic terms, an "updated conservative tradition." It remains essentially conservative to the extent that its adherents "respect received wisdom" and agree that "the passage of time does not automatically render irrelevant the dogmas to which our forebears paid heed." Bacevich is quick to add, however, -- in fact, he writes this first -- that "this does not signify opposition to all change." Instead, counterculture conservatives should be "fostering change that enhances rather than undermines that which qualifies as true." If that last bit begs a big question, Bacevich has already tried to answer it.

As human beings, our first responsibility lies in stewardship, preserving our common inheritance and protecting that which possesses lasting value. This implies an ability to discriminate between what is permanent and what is transient, between what ought to endure and what is rightly destined for the trash heap.

Bacevich's conservatives are communitarian. They "take human relationships seriously" because "in community lies our best hope of enjoying a meaningful earthly existence." Community in its most basic form -- the family, as far as Bacevich is concerned -- is "under unrelenting assault, from both left and right." He identifies the assault from the right with consumerism and dogmatic individualism.

Emphasizing autonomy, the forces of modernity are intent on supplanting the family with the hyper-empowered -- if also alienated -- individual, who exists to gratify appetite and ambition. With its insatiable hunger for profit, the market is intent on transforming the family into a cluster of consumers who just happen to live under the same roof.

Bacevich betrays the limits of his scope by neglecting to observe how these forces harm larger communities -- how they may corrupt social rather than familial relationships. However, he does write that "although conservatives are not levelers, they believe that a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth -- property held in private hands -- offers the surest safeguard against Leviathan. A conservative's America is a nation consisting of freeholders, not of plutocrats and proletarians." That always sound good, but without "leveling," how do we get there from here? Without "redistribution," how do we achieve a more "equitable distribution of wealth?" Since Bacevich remains "wary of concentrated power in whatever form," he can deplore plenty, but can't do much about it. He thinks that countercultural conservatism can make a difference, however, and on some points he is certainly right. While he typically underestimates the cost of "collective belt-tightening ... to curb the nation's lazily profligate tendencies," he makes other demands atypical of self-styled conservatives, first and particularly:

Protecting the environment from the ravages of human excess. Here most emphatically, the central theme of conservatism should be to conserve. If that implies subordinating economic growth and material consumption in order to preserve the well-being of planet Earth, so be it.

For his Conservative readers, the key priority may be "Exposing the excess of American militarism and the futility of the neo-imperialist impulses to which Washington has succumbed since the end of the Cold War....abandoning the conceit that the United States is called upon to exercise 'global leadership,' which has become a euphemism for making mischief and for demanding prerogatives allowed to no other nation." In this context, it's worth noting that this same issue of the Conservative features a friendly interview with Oliver Stone. 

"Forget about dismantling the welfare state," Bacevich rights. His conservatism is countercultural but not counter-revolutionary. Some revolutions, he concedes, are irreversible. I suppose that counts as a kind of conservatism, too, compared to the revanchism of religious fundamentalists. When he chooses the "counterculture" label he's consciously striving to emulate the successful movements (in his ambivalent judgment) of the Sixties and Seventies -- feminism, gay rights, etc. The challenge for counterculture conservatives is "to engineer a change in the zeitgeist through patient, incremental and thoughtful action," even if that's "likely to entail decades of effort." The results may be as incoherent as those of past countercultural movements -- can he really hope to save the environment while continuing to dread concentrated, centralized state power? -- but he does invite readers to let him know if they might have better ideas. Dialogue has to start somewhere, so this may be as good a point as any.


Anonymous said...

Now if only they had the intestinal fortitude to start their own political party in competition to the repugnican party. I think that would be very interesting indeed.

Anonymous said...

Not much to add to this. The Neocons' attitude was summed up perfectly by Mr. Cheney when he stated that some men are born to rule and most men are not. I don't believe neocons support democracy in the least, let alone equality.

Teabaggers hate government, hate taxes, hate supporting the government by paying taxes, yet they want to control the government. They insist that only those "entitlements" which they benefit from should be funded by taxpayers. Hypocrites, one and all.

Libertarians can be summed up perfectly by Ms. Rand's philosophy that "selfishness is good".

The last group sounds like they'd be willing to go into a debate with an open mind and listen to the others, rather than simply waiting their turn to spout their platitudes, propaganda and jingoes in simple sound bytes for the idiot masses.

Samuel Wilson said...

The "counterculturals" do seem to be the only faction for whom "liberty" isn't a conversation stopper. For the others, "liberty" trumps every other consideration, except possibly for the Will of God in the minds of some Tea Partiers. Bacevich, at least, isn't talking about political independence, yet. He thinks the counterculturals can have more influence over the culture the way the Left did in the 70s, but I'm not sure how strong a model for success that really is.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure why the fourth faction cannot simply be named "(true) conservatives". The neocons have authoritarian elements that are found historically on the political Right, but these mix with their fervent belief in cosmoplitan globalisation. Many Tea Partiers have conservative instincts but they play second fiddle to their classical liberal rhetoric. The third faction denies being conservative, even though they co-operate well with localist, constitutional conservatives. That leaves Bacevich's crew. The rest of the proposed factions are historically derivatives of liberalism.