Web Only / Features » November 10, 2012
Born Losers (cont’d)
In reading the book, I was struck by how seriously you take conservatism. I think it’s a seriousness that isn’t found very often on the Left. You write, “Liberal writers have always portrayed right-wing politics as an emotional swamp rather than a movement of considered opinion.” Elsewhere: “It remains an unfortunate reality of American higher education that social scientists and historians can get through their training with only the most passing acquaintance with conservatism.” It seems like many on the Left feel it unnecessary to treat conservatism as worthy of careful examination because the soundness of the Left’s ideology speaks for itself; why, then, would we need to waste our time with this obviously absurd set of beliefs, conservatism?
I think it goes a little deeper than that. There’s an assumption that comes from the Left but which has been popularized: that morality has to have certain categorical features, namely the recognition of autonomy, moral equality of all men and women. Any philosophy that would depart from that notion, people believe, is no longer morality. It’s not even a philosophy but something else—emotion or selfishness and greed—and though it exists, it has nothing to do with ideas.
Part of what I’m trying say is, “No, there are people who believe in certain ideas of hierarchy, and they are really ideas—moral ideals.” I think to claim you have a vision of a good society that is premised upon radical forms of inequality is just unthinkable to many people—they can’t wrap their minds around that framework.
You have an entire chapter on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He comes across as a kind of gleeful opponent of the Enlightenment. You quote him from a few years ago saying to an audience of conservative Christians, “We must pray for the courage to endure the scorn of the sophisticated world, a world that will have nothing to do with miracles. We have to be prepared to be regarded as idiots.” What’s the takeaway about conservatism as a whole that we get from someone like Scalia?
I think what’s interesting about Scalia is that he’s not simply an opponent of the Enlightenment. He is very much an opponent of equality and liberty—of freedom—and the unity of those two ideas. And it’s how he does it. He brings this unabashed, unashamed audaciousness to that project. He’s not the traditionalist. He gives tradition (or his idea of tradition) a revolutionary flavor. He sounds like a Jacobin in his scorn and his contempt for the assumptions of legal liberalism.
Part of what he hates about the Left is that he thinks there is a kind of easygoingness to it—an assumption that conflicts will work themselves out, that peace is good and conflict is bad. He hates that. He appreciates the value of conflict, not for its own sake, but because there are real differences in the world. That’s part of his appeal and his importance. Because as I’ve said, on the Left, we have all these middle-of-the-roaders saying, “Oh no, we can’t be disruptive, we have to be polite.” The irony is that Right’s genius lies in its appreciation of the value of disruption and conflict. The Left completely misses the story on that.
The last thing is something nobody has really picked up on in the reviews and commentary of my book, but which I thought was very important to that chapter: the opinion Scalia offered in this golf case, PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin. In that opinion, he offers a vision of hierarchy and privilege that is not your conventional “Whoever is the most meritorious should reap the most.” Nothing like that. It’s a real vision of supremacy and struggle, and that’s why he’s so fixated on the value of games, and why he sees games as a form of Homeric contest. Once you eliminate antagonistic competitiveness, Scalia believes, the world really becomes decadent and dead; you need to remain antagonistic and striving in order to be valuable and alive.
In reading your work, I sense a desire on the one hand to go to battle with the reactionary mindset in order to further the project of expanding liberation, but on the other hand a kind of fundamental respect for conservatism’s appeal. Is that accurate?
Well, it depends what you mean by “respect.” I want to acknowledge its integrity and the depth of its appeal. But I don’t have any love or admiration for it. Conservatism is a vision I would like to see defeated. I don’t think it ever will be, but it’s one I would like to see defeated.
You write that conservatives have a nimbleness in their response to the Left, precisely because they are reacting to what these movements for liberation are doing. “Unlike their opponents on the left, [conservatives] do not unfurl a blueprint in advance of events. They read circumstances of situations, not texts and tomes; their preferred mode is adaptation and intimation rather than assertion and declamation. … They possess a tactical virtuosity few can match.” It seems the Left is at a structural disadvantage that doesn’t allow it to effectively fight back against counter-revolution, precisely because it doesn’t have that kind of nimbleness and willingness to adjust tactically that the Right has.
Exactly. When it’s doing its job, the Left is engaged in a politics of initiation. By that I mean, it’s beginning a cycle of politics, of overthrow, of challenge.
Take a union struggle: you’re trying to start something, and in order to do that, you need to articulate a coherent ideology, and you have to include people who have never been included before in collective action. To do all of that, you have to make claims about the world, about their rights and all the rest of it. Once you get people to believe all of that, you can’t go back very easily. So there is an inherently democratic imperative at the heart of left-wing politics that is very hard to handle.
This doesn’t mean the Left isn’t hierarchical—often times it can be extremely hierarchical. But it has trouble with those hierarchies and wrestles with those hierarchies, and it’s always a very conflict-ridden project.
You argue that conservatism’s entire raison d'être is to respond to threats from the Left. We’re currently at a moment when the Left has largely been vanquished by the counter-revolutionaries. But instead of celebrating its victory, the Right continues to conjure up this wildly powerful Left. It’s as if, if there aren’t radical leftists under every rock, or a surreptitious Marxist in the White House, then the reactionaries have nothing to react to. Is this the inevitable result of conservatism in power, that it can’t help but see a deep and dangerous radicalism even in a mostly defeated Left?
Yes, in some ways. Something of what I argue in my conclusion is that what you’re seeing today, with things like the hysteria of the Right about Obama, that he’s a Kenyan Muslim Socialist, etc. What that’s about is really the exhaustion of the Right. They have to reach back into ancient history in order to come up with a language to vilify this man, Obama, who’s really a moderate Republican. It shows you that they’re not present in the moment; they’re somewhere else. And that’s a sign of both their ultimate weakness and long-term demise, I think.
And it’s not until we have a real Left again, that we’ll see a renewed right. I don’t think Occupy is that left, at least not yet. People have made the claim, but the fact is that most Republicans ignore it. I don’t think too many conservatives are remotely interested in it. I think it’s because they rightly see that it probably will not, in its current form, threaten any relationship of power.
Compare the current right-wing rhetoric and mobilization against Occupy to that against the disorders of the 1960s; there’s just no comparison. Until that threat materializes, I think you’re going to see conservatives on a continued downward slope. The ultimate proof of this is the most recent Republican presidential campaign, of how long it took the GOP to get their act together and rally around Romney. It’s sort of unthinkable in modern political history for the Republican Party to have been that disorganized. I don’t think it’s because there’s bad leadership or lack of talent. I think it’s because they don’t have the disciplinary force on the other side that would force them to really get their act together.
You were recently on Up With Chris Hayes with someone from Frum Forum. There’s an attempt, seen most explicitly in David Frum, by some on the Right who think the Conservative movement needs to modernize if it’s going to stay relevant in the future. What do you think about the prospects for those kinds of projects given your analysis of the nature of conservatism?
Whatever you think about what Frum is trying to do, the fact is that he lacks that disciplining force on the Left that would make his arguments persuasive, or even frankly coherent. I think most people on the Right listen to his stuff and think to themselves, “What the hell are you talking about? Look around you, we’re not in power, and yet things are kind of going our way. We have a president who’s scared to raise taxes, who’s cutting entitlements, who’s killing Muslims abroad. We have a Democratic president elected by an overwhelming majority with extraordinarily strong with the majorities in both houses of Congress, and what is he doing? He’s bailing out banks!”
The Republicans try to whip up this rhetoric to get people out, but it doesn’t work because there is a reality that they can’t overcome. So when Frum comes along and says, “We have to modernize, or it may be a disaster,” it’s a response to a hypothetical problem in the future, not a present problem. And a response to actual threats on the grounds is the conservative modus operandi.
So without those threats—not future demographic threats, I mean real threats of actual political forms of dispossession—I think the things that Frum warns against don’t make that much sense to the Right.
Micah Uetricht is the web editor of In These Times. He is a contributing editor at Jacobin and the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity. He has written for The Nation, Al Jazeera America, Dissent, and the Chicago Reader.