All and Nothing

 Posted by on July 26, 2013
Jul 262013

It is a popular charge. The Republican Party has “evolved” from “proponents of radical policy changes to a gang of saboteurs who would rather stop government from functioning at all.” In that respect, writes Jonathan Chait, they are comparable to “the radical left of the sixties, had it occupied a position of power in Congress.” Of course, if the old Savios wished to prevent the proverbial machine from working at all, it was only because they believed they had no positional or institutional power within that machine. Had they an effective hand in governing the machine, that may have annulled their impulse to destroy it.

But what would have qualified to them as a sufficiently effective hand in governance? Would the old Savios had settled for half measures and partial successes? Or was it all or nothing? Protest and demonstration are the forms of political action that remain for those who have been excluded from governance. They are also the forms of political action chosen by those who cannot imagine — or cannot suffer — obtaining a sufficiently effective hand in governance. That is perhaps one difference between the old and new Savios: what the old did for lack of choice, the new do by choice.

If it is all or nothing, and all is unobtainable by conventional means, then nothing remains. Nothing is not always inert absence. It can have its own peculiar creative energy that finds expression in at least two directions: active nihilism or counter-cultural utopianism. The nihilist wishes to abolish this world, the utopian to depart from it. Though the former destroys and the latter escapes, the negative impulse to forsake this world and shun all responsibility for it is the same. Longing to relieve themselves of the burdens of this place, they both yearn to deliver themselves to a more perfect no-place.

The old Savios never identified their all with nothing. For them, all and nothing were mutually exclusive alternatives. If they once sought to cast this world aside, it was because they thought this world had already done the same to them. The modern Republican Party, however, identifies all with nothing. It is their all to propagate nothing, and when they wield political power they use it exclusively to create nothing. Bent on obliteration, theirs is a derelict crusade of abandonment.


 Posted by on July 7, 2013
Jul 072013

They are “servants to political power,” courtiers, in truth. By “defending the royal court and attacking anyone who challenges or dissents from it,” they do “what courtiers have always done.” Glenn Greenwald has made the same characterization before, as have others. I hardly dispute the term. The Washington media establishment are courtiers, and as courtiers they are, in Chris Hedges’s words, “hedonists of power” who “feed off the scraps tossed to them by the powerful and serve the interests of the power elite.” No doubt they are watchdogs of a sort, but they are watchdogs for power,  not “adversarial watchdogs” over it. They stand vigilant to attack as an enemy anyone who would upset their tidy and cozy company town. “That’s how they maintain their status and access within” their court. “That’s what courtiers to power, by definition, do.”

If there is any fault in these characterizations, it derives from a blending of court and king that conflates the interest of the king and courtier. Courtiers are institutionalists, not devotees of powerful individuals. If they serve and defend the powerful, this is not because they are committed to any persons in power, but because they are committed to their courtly life in the place of power. Serving the king is one possible ancillary effect, not their determinate cause. Polonius lived to prate matterless art for the father and the uncle, just as he would have done, had he not been slain, for the son or Fortinbras.

One cannot quite define a courtier as someone that serves those in power, though often they do. A courtier’s essential interests are the maintenance of both courtly life and their position in that life. They care neither who is in charge, nor what is done, provided that the court continues to afford them a secure and comfortable home. The king does not throw them scraps; he is not their benefactor. Rather, the king is their host, though they are not his guests. Courtiers are less “hedonists of power” than parasites of power. Sometimes the courtier must serve the king, and sometimes he must simply remain tolerated.  In any case, the courtier must appear — even be — genial, benign and innocuous. He is obliged to parrot the commonplaces of accepted wisdom, and to incline toward pleasantries and the pretenses of conciliation. The courtier is by necessity and practice unctuous, shallow and trivial.

There is, however, one definite circumstance when the independent interest of the courtier will assert itself within the court. The watchdog for the court will become an adversarial watchdog the instant the conduct of the powerful imperils either the court itself or the courtier’s agreeable life within it.

Reversion To The Norm

 Posted by on June 19, 2013
Jun 192013

Or, On Richard Hofstadter’s “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” Third Foray.

Change a few examples, and the decades old essay could be republished today as a commentary on current politics. Almost. The essay revokes its uncanny impression of contemporary presence as soon as it enters the mires of its intellectual milieu.

“My generation,” Mr. Hofstadter reflected, “was raised in the conviction that the basic motive power in political behavior is the economic interest of groups,” but economic interests, he maintained, did not motivate the pseudo-conservatives. Their political motivations appeared so different and so novel that Mr. Hofstadter struggled, and in his first attempt failed, to describe them adequately.

As he saw it, “pseudo-conservatism is in good part a product of the rootlessness and heterogeneity of American life, and above all, of its peculiar scramble for status and its peculiar search for secure identity.” Within the country’s “prestige hierarchy,” American identity binds together with personal status, and yet neither is given. The population is heterogeneous, and the hierarchies of caste and class have tended toward fluidity. A man cannot take for granted his “relative place” within the community, and his “rudimentary sense of belonging to the community — that is, what we call his ‘Americanism’.” These are all uncertain and contestable.

“Political life,” Mr. Hofstadter surmised, “is not simply an arena in which the conflicting interests of various social groups in concrete material gains are fought out; it is also an arena into which status aspirations and frustrations are … projected.” And project the pseudo-conservative did. But “status politics” alone, he later added, did not fully explain pseudo-conservatism. “In our political life,” he continued, “there have always been certain types of cultural issues, questions of faith and morals, tone and style, freedom and coercion,” that are distinct, or at least distinguishable from economic and status concerns, and which yet often “become fighting issues.” Pseudo-conservatism joined status politics with cultural politics.

Today it is commonplace to acknowledge that economic interest conflicts and combines with both status politics and cultural politics to shape American political life. If Mr. Hofstadter perceived this complex as a novel and radical intellectual departure, this is perhaps only because he apparently forgot, at least momentarily, the actual character of American political life throughout the country’s first century.

From Mr. Hofstadter’s perspective, the country experienced “relative ethnic homogeneity” into the 1870s, and the loss of this homogeneity prompted and promoted much of this seemingly new anxiety and uncertainty. But this narrative of loss only makes sense if this “relative ethnic homogeneity” ever truly deserved the appellation, and it certainly did not. America’s first century was an uninterrupted stream of regional quarrel, which was hardly confined to economic interest. It was saturated with contentions over culture and status. These conflicts began before the country formed, and they turned violent more than once. The Civil War was an extremity, not a disruption of the ordinary course of American political life.

If Mr. Hofstadter’s essay feels contemporary, it is not simply because we still harbor pseudo-conservatives in our midst. It is because he described the ordinary condition of American political life. If he perceived something novel in that condition, that is only because he came of age when a succession of wars and depression displaced that normal order. He witnessed not a previously unseen phenomenon, but the reversion to the norm.