Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Left Conservatism

Hang on; this is going to be another long one. It's been building up for a while.

If you Google "left conservatism," you're going to come up with references to a late-1990s debate amongst various left-leaning political, social and literary theorists, centering on a 1998 conference at UC Santa Cruz (thoroughly discussed here). The conference featured some well-known scholars, a couple of whom (Judith Butler, Wendy Brown) I'm actually somewhat familiar with, but by and large this particular style of theorizing (poststructuralist, antifoundationalist, and communicated primarily through various forms of cultural studies rather than philosophy proper) has never really appealed to me, and hence I draw a blank at a lot of the names that get dropped in the field. This is why God and/or John Holbo invented The Valve, with their huge throwdowns on what to make of Theory with a capital-T: so folks like me can figure out what all the fuss is about (or was, as the case may be).

While Google it at all, then? Because ever since I was put onto Norman Mailer's description of himself as a "left conservative" back during his 1969 run for mayor of New York City (by Bill Kauffman's book Look Homeward, America, mentioned in a previous post), I've been thinking that there was something useful to the term. Mailer has continued to use the label (for instance here), though in a rather idiosyncratic way. Basically, he wants to be an egalitarian, but he doesn't want to be a liberal, because liberalism simply isn't compatible, in his thinking, with "family, home, faith, hard work, duty, allegiance" and other "dependable human virtues," to say nothing of Mailer's belief in God and the Devil. But he can't be some sort of "compassionate conservative," because the folks that coined that term have turned out to be "flag conservatives": people who, according to Mailer, don't believe in living out American ideals so much as reifying them and turning them into something that can be served by military might, something that can be imposed by force. So he sticks with "left conservative," though he allows he has to constantly explain that description to everyone who asks about it.

I've blogged about political and religious labels a couple of times before; looking back at those posts now, I wonder if I didn't try to push what is basically a semantic point too far. Obviously, calling someone "left" or "conservative" (or "Christian" or "liberal" for that matter) can have different meanings depending on the situation. All I really meant to get at in those posts was this: many labels can equally describe a full-blown ideology, with philosophical and ontological underpinnings and a set of theories and arguments detailing how things do and ought to work, or an attitude or "adjectival" posture, a tendency that governs how one works through and expresses one's chosen ideology for reasons which may be completely unrelated to the ideology in question. For me, as someone who finds the fullness of liberal philosophy unpersuasive both philosophically and ontologically, "liberal" only works as secondary description--by which I don't refer to its importance, but rather its relationship to my intellectual whole. I strongly believe in being liberal, in the sense of being careful and giving and tolerant and generous; but I don't think those things (which I suspect Mailer wants to condescendingly--and unfairly--lump together as signaling a kind of weak "optimism") in any sensible way describe the essence of human nature or human society. So, I want to use the term "liberal" carefully; when I'm talking about ideologies and ideas, anyway, I'm happy to call myself a liberal this or that, but not an advocate of liberalism itself.

So what do I advocate--some sort of conservatism? Well, yes. But it is a very narrow and specific kind of conservatism: I believe that that are goods--real, material, moral, essential goods--that need to be conserved if any kind of decent society is to be achieved, much less maintained. Practically speaking, all this means is that I hold certain standards, certain virtues, to be larger than, and thus not necessarily subject to, individual preferences or arrangements. You might protest that almost everyone's "conservative" under that definition, and I would agree: we all need to be part of a larger community and history, though most people seem to want to deny or downplay that fact. But even if you do consciously take such communitarianism and traditionalism to be the deep structure of civilization, there remains the question of how you respond to it, and indeed what you think there is about that structure than can be responded to.
Amongst these serious, tradition and community-oriented conservatives--call them Mailer's "value conservatives," or call them paleoconservatives, or call them crunchy conservatives; whatever it takes to distinguish them from those market-praising, flag-waving Republicans whom Alasdair MacIntyre called "conservative liberals"--you find some who are, deep inside, still attached (sometimes strongly attached, sometimes less so) to the kind of tribalism and pessimism that Ross Douthat identified in John Derbyshire's oeuvre: "Favor your family and friends; kill your enemies or avoid them; regard everyone else with a certain suspicion." This is a crude and somewhat unfair but not entirely inaccurate way of describing this perspective. Tradition and community are taken to be necessary and important because they are the only things that cannot (at least cannot easily) be turned into abstractions which in turn can be taxed away from you or turned against you; to the extent that the modern world sees profits, wars, borders, religions, families, markets, marriages and more as institutions and events best understood, conducted, and transformed in light of some abstract principle--whether that be individual rights or personal conscience or democratic harmony or economic progress--then the modern world has gone wrong, gotten away from the instinctual truths and embedded necessities of human existence. This is why so many religious believers have in recent decades moved towards greater fundamentalism and orthodoxy: they are looking for a faith that builds connections with real particulars, not ideal generalities. On the other hand, this is also why many "theoconservatives," as much as they may overlap politically with such deep conservatives, often actually have very different presuppositions; too many of them, to my mind, want to create an explicitly--or at least significantly more--conservative and Christian regime in the midst of the abstractions of the liberal order, rather than using their religion to rethink that order (as some do).

Is there any other kind of true conservatism besides this one, a conservatism that actually means something as opposed to just being a rather pedantic use of the term on the one hand, or an almost wholly rhetorical one (in the sense of nominally conservative liberals just trying to slow up the progress and creative destruction they've otherwise made their peace with) on the other? I think so. When Mailer called himself a left conservative in his strange and magnificent The Armies of the Night, he said that he aimed to "think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke." (I liked that quote so much I put it up on my sidebar.) What I take that to mean--and I have no idea if Mailer himself did ever or would ever elaborate it in quite this way--is that the modern world has been fundamentally conditioned by the kind of abstractions and transformations which the conservatives I described above loathe. Traditions and communities cannot exercise the same authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self (at least in the West--but increasingly, most everywhere else as well). Technology, social fluidity, democracy: all genies let out of the bottle. This could be cause for a jihad-like revolt against modernity, or a St. Benedict-like retreat from it (both of which are themselves interestingly compromised responses, but leave that aside for now). Or, it could be cause for calling forth a Marxist response, one carried out on behalf of Burkean communities and traditions. By Marxist, I don't mean historical determinism and revolution; I mean a focus on the central Marxist insights: alienation, commodification, imperialism, and so forth. Why a Marxist response? Because Marx--and what I'm really getting at here is also present in a wide range of socialist responses to modernity--recognized the truth of the Burkean (though for him it was really more Hegelian, and therefore Rousseauian) insight into the connection between consciousness and communal, historical, material reality. Repairing the human consciousness did not mean a continuing project of subjective liberation, with the aim of making the burdens of modernity privately manageable, but rather addressing issues of power and production that make the transformations of modernity into alienating burdens in the first place.

Ah, many conservatives might say, you've just there gone completely off the rails: imagine trying to put Rousseau and Burke into the same sentence! It's audacious, I admit. But I think the only reason why it seems audacious is that the deep Burkean tradition (and its echoes in the conservatism of Americans like Russell Kirk, the Southern Agrarians, Robert Nisbet, and so forth) has evolved into a position which basically accepts the collapse of the modern project: with the end of the authority of tradition comes the impossibility of community, a banal emotivist future, and the likely decline (or violent overthrow) of the West. In short, to borrow a point from Michael Walzer, such Burkeans are the sort of communitarians who think that we are at the point, or nearly at the point, where our communal nature is irredeemably broken up. The problem with this argument, however, is that--given that the human race, even in the decadent liberal (or is it postliberal now?) West is, well, still here--it implies that community and tradition must not have been part of our "deep structure" after all. Whereas the Rousseauian perspective says, fine, okay, our original nature has been lost, we're in chains. The liberal response is to deny the chains, or insist they aren't relevant to individual life anyway; the deep "right" conservative response, especially in its more religious iterations, is to say something like, yes, the chains are real, it's a catastrophe, but in a sense the chains have been there since the fall of Adam, so let's just make the best of it until the eschaton. Rousseau's response preserves true conservative seriousness, but rejects the identification of specific social and economic and cultural problems with original sin. Instead, it, respects the need for embeddedness and connection by suggesting that we remake our chains. Why can we do that? Because within and through modernity the deep structure abides; we're just having difficulties actualizing it, because we've been so intent in fighting internecine battles within liberalism that we've ignored all the other ways in which we could be responding to the world. (The position I'm articulating here is heavily influenced by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who has made I think very persuasive arguments for an alternative understanding of modernity, one in which the ecology of modern life itself reveals a consciousness of, and need for, traditionally and communally realized moral instincts and epiphanies.) Liberal goods are real, this position says, but they must not be allowed to interfere with the conservation of more necessary, traditional and communal Burkean goods. But at the same time, it is "left"; it follows Hegel and the romantic tradition (which itself drew upon older, mystical ones) in acknowledging that there is a subjective, constructed, willed aspect to our deep structure, and those traditional and communal goods which reflect it; it sees that structure as something which must be regularly (as the Goethe quote I've also added to the sidebar makes clear) re-articulated and thus contextually realized. And so it insists that traditions and community must not become fetish items, so static that their advocates focus only on preserving (or mourning for) their content, and not the context that allows people to discover, even in the midst of modernity, new ones.

Okay, you might say: even if all this is acceptable, and "left conservatism" is more than just an odd neologism, what kind of policies does it actually suggest? Well, a whole range of them, would be my response; there would be no single left conservative platform. (That's why this post is titled "A Left Conservatism"; there's more than one.) For Mailer, during his ill-fated run for New York City mayor back in 1969, his beliefs led him to emphasize decentralization and "community control" over the powerful corporate and bureaucratic interests in the city; this appealed to those at the intersection of the anarchist New Left and the libertarian right, but not many others. In more mainstream terms, what left conservatism boils down to is a communitarian politics, one that seeks an egalitarian civil society without trusting too much in either state bureaucracies or corporate munificence; it might be described as socially traditionalist and traditionally socialist, more or less. This could plausibly include Christian social democrats, Red Tories, egalitarian populists, various "Third Way" types, and many more. Most of these folks would surely disagree with one another in some important ways, and probably one of the few things they would agree upon would be to reject the label "left conservative," even if they did accept my explanation of it. It makes far more sense for them to simply see themselves as liberals who happen to reject some of the more individualistic and secular presumptions behind many modern liberal arguments, and thus are perhaps critical of the Democratic party's commitment to abortion rights, or struggle to reunify progressive causes with religious orthodoxy, or seek to articulate a liberal politics of public morality and the common good, while at the same time insisting that the real focus of any leftist critique of American society should begin and end with the real material concerns of class and culture. I don't think that's quite where they're at, but so what: at the level of policy, lining up correct philosophical labels is less important that knowing what it is you support. For these folks, that might include policies aimed at community empowerment, employee ownership, unionization, participatory democracy, parental involvement and respect, civil service, anti-consumerism, progressive taxation, media responsibility, fair trade, civic religion, localized and decentralized bureaucracies, limitations on corporate power, and more: any of these could be plausibly be described as part of this kind of left conservative platform. And this is what brings us back around to the beginning of this post.

I have no particular position in the broad argument over the implications of the postmodern attack on the Enlightenment, metaphysics, and modernity. (Well, actually, given what I've written on Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida, I guess I have at least a small one.) I don't know, and have no strong opinion, on what "Theory" necessarily implies for politics and morals. However, it does seem to me that whatever else cultural criticism over the last few decades has become, it is definitely anti-essentialist, and thus undecided unconservative. There are plenty of gray areas here, as I alluded to above. But basically, if your primary concern is the (de)construction of identity or narratives or meaning, then you probably don't take too seriously the call to acknowledge certain goods as essentially worth conserving. And if that is the case, then however radical or influenced by Marxist categories your thought may be, you may well be either unconsciously ignoring or consciously denying the central claim that human beings need to be and usually want to be embedded in a historical and communal context. Which will further mean that your efforts to reform and redistribute and repair human society will be more liberal than otherwise--focused on individual preferences and perceptions, rather than collective good. Those who belong to an older, a more "conservative" left, one that has roots in a populism or a socialism or an egalitarianism that preceded the full working out of individualistic modernity over the past 50 years or so, are likely to find this sort of leftism at best a distraction, at worse a liberal elitism that ignores the real concerns of the poor and disenfranchised in the name of pursuing self-indulgent identity politics. And so people like Katha Pollit, Richard Rorty, Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank, and Martha Nussbaum, all committed progressives, got cranky about all the cultural obsessions they see abounding on the left, made snarky comments, defended talking about progress in terms of human nature, social class, and historical communities, and the poststructuralists blew up in return. This was, to be sure, very much a 1990s thing, when mocking some of the ridiculous excess of theory--think Alan Sokal's hoax in the pages of Social Text--became a standard trope of even among committed theorists. But echoes of this same debate can be heard on the blogs today.

And what about all the rest of those self-identified conservatives out there, whether "deep" or "flag" or actually really just liberal? How do left conservatives relate to them? Well, obviously the bulk of the Republican party, whether neoconservative or not, don't know what to make of them; even if the left conservatives in question end up supporting more Republicans than otherwise (which is possible; those of us of this persuasion can even learn from libertarians on occasion), they're still kooks in the Republican playbook, as some of the harsh reactions to Rod Dreher's "crunchy con" manifesto makes clear. As for other conservatives of the "right" or traditional or paleo variety, Ross's comments in the post I cited above are pertinent: the Derbyshires of the world in all their variety provided needed reminders to folks like myself. For instance, I benefit from testing my thoughts against those of Daniel Larison. I think he's quite wrong in his attack on Tony Blair and his defense of Margaret Thatcher's "there is no such thing as society" position--but it's good for me to reminded, every once in a while, of Christopher Lasch's suspicion that communitarianism was too beholden to sociology, too likely to turn social embeddedness itself into an abstraction, and thus end up both statist and anti-essentialist at the same time. I also think he's very wrong about Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address, and the possibility of belonging at least in part to a "proposition"--yet it's to my benefit to be forced to think often about the fine line between acknowledging the (I think inevitable) willing and imagining involved in finding oneself in a history and community, and allowing subjective ideas (like "all men are created equal") to get in the way of one's particular and preferably local familiarity with that history and community. This is the task that, I think, provides the real measure of the best movements and efforts in American history: the degree to which they attempt to move our society towards greater equality, greater decency, greater opportunity, while always being conscious of the need to conserve (and recreate, if necessary) the connections between people and places that allow equality, decency, and opportunity to really have meaning in the first place.

Ok, this has become ridiculously long. But I still have a couple of things to say on the topic, picking up on posts and arguments from some of the people I've mentioned above, as well as a few others, going back several months. (I told you this one has been building up for a while.) Expect some posts on nationalism, populism, progressivism, and Canada, hopefully in short order.


Silus Grok said...

A lovely post, as usual... though, I fear — not being conversant in the philosophical shorthand — that I missed about half of your point.

* sigh *

But one thing did strike me: it would seem that the left's pathalogical inability to come together on so many issues is not, after all, a failure to organize or a failure to plan... but, rather, it is the simple manifestation of the left's anti-communitarian under-pinings. There is no consensus because — the rhetoric of the Republic of Berkeley be damned — the left doesn't believe in consensus. 

Posted by Silus Grok

Delicious said...

I'll have to make my way through this whole post, but I prefer the term "Red Tory."  

Posted by Delicious Pundit

Russell Arben Fox said...


I would insist that if the left doesn't believe in consensus, then it isn't really "left." The way I see it, being "left" in the present moment in history has got to mean, if it means anything, a populist/progressive/democratic/revolutionary belief in the power of people to collectively take up their inheritence, their received context, and change it for the better, the emphasis there being on "collectively." It is contemporary philosophical liberalism which has so often allowed the "social" to fall out of their political aims; if various leftist or socialist groups have gone along with them (as, I suppose, the history of schisms suggest many of them have)...well, I would say that's why they need something "conservative" to be "left" about.

Delicious Pundit,

"Red Tory" is possibly my favorite out of all the possible labels and associations I include herein as well. Too bad there's hardly anyone left in Canada who uses the label properly any longer. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Gene Shinai said...

Hi I just read your post on Left Conservatism as well as American Conservative's 2002 interview with Norman Mailer. After giving it some thought, I think a better term might be the "Communitarian Right". The Reason I say this is that I feel that like most American Conservative movements, the communitarian right has to have a 'bad guy' from the outside from the onset to bring them together. While its is true that the 'Left' also employs Outside boogie men, it is my observation that the American 'Left' tends to wait until something tends to actually happen to them before they mobilize. This leads to a perception of ineffectualness among the wider populus. But of course this is just my opinion.

Thanks for the article, and are there other articles I should be reading to gain additional perspective?