Goose and Gander

Eric Rauchway has a short comment on John Gray’s forthcoming Black Mass that really interests me (and got me to pre-order the book from Amazon.)

Rauchway describes Gray as arguing that Thatcherite neoliberals assumed that reducing the size of the state and empowering markets would reinvigorate a mannered, respectable and traditionally moral middle-class culture within Britain. Instead, one of the fruits of neoliberalism on the domestic front was a less judgemental, more tolerant society that was even more socially and culturally decentralized than the post-1968 society the Thatcherites looked on with distaste. This, to Gray, explains the rise of neoconservative enthusiasm for state interventions into social, cultural and moral concerns.

With adaptations, this argument seems useful in the United States as well. For me, one of the key convergences of the last two decades in American political life has been in arguments used by a culturalist right and a culturalist left. Both factions assume that the only way to explain why many Americans do not “naturally” favor their own vision of naturally moral behavior is that the state and civic institutions are pervasively meddling with mass consciousness. Both groups ended up being challenged by the results of neoliberalism or deregulation of key social and cultural marketplaces.

In some cases, the consequence is that activists scurry back to brute-force conceptions of ideology or tradition, agreeing that in fact human beings do not naturally favor some ideal moral or social practice and must be compelled to do so in the strongest possible terms. In other cases, it leads to a desperate scavenger hunt for something, anything, that has yet to be subjected to neoliberal policy. Or, as in the case of some neoconservatives and communitarian liberals, to a belief that the state needs to reinvigorate its role as moral guardian and enforcer.

In terms of American conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s, though, these kinds of shifts either mean that the foundational claims and intellectual waypoints that conservatives claimed as their own were never offered with genuine seriousness or that a lot of conservatives got cold feet once a more deregulated society actually presented itself to their view. If you only cite Edmund Burke when you’re trying to keep federal or state governments from enforcing racial desegregation (as some conservatives did in the 1970s and 1980s) but enthusiastically call for the use of centralized power to forcibly transform everyday life and practice when it is your own favored issues at stake, then you’re not a conservative, you’re just looking for a fig leaf to cover a defense of racism. If you’re all for neoliberalism until you find out that what people want, you don’t want them to want, you’re not much of a defender of free markets.

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5 Responses to Goose and Gander

  1. SamChevre says:

    I think you are missing social pressure as a fundamental force. Red Family, Blue Family is a helpful frame.

    In a small-government society (say, Victorian England), you need your family/church/peers (hereafter, tribe) to help you survive. They are your social safety net, and you have to care what they think; being an outcast has real, tangible costs.

    In a big-government society, there is a social safety net; you don’t have to care what your tribe thinks.

    The government (intentionally and accidentally) has followed a “starve and strangle” strategy wrt tribes over the last century. Starve them of needs to fill, and strangle their ability to provide benefits. The net result is that it is very very hard to make the neighbors care what you think today relative to the past.

    Thus, to maintain the traditional level of bourgousie values REQUIRES much more reliance on law than it did.

  2. withywindle says:

    You are off–although sufficiently general as to preclude specific critique. In general, here as elsewhere, you try to turn conservative (and other) principles into harsh, universalizing ideologies, where any failure to live up to any one of them at all times and in all circumstances exposes you to the charge of hypocrisy. This is of minimal utility when describing any non-ideological system of belief–and to describe all beliefs as ideologies is to steal a few bases–but particularly unsuited for a description of conservatism. Note Russell Kirk:

    Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata. …. conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order. …. The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata.

    To oppose government-imposed schemes aimed at racial desegregation, and to favor government intervention in some other circumstance, in and of itself tells us nothing about racism (or any other of the liberal decalogue of sins), nothing about putative conservative hypocrisy, nothing about conservativism in any way, shape, or form. It tells us only that circumstances varied, and so too did proposed conservative solutions. Perhaps the variation does reveal racism, hypocrisy, etc.–but this requires sustained argument to prove, far beyond the mere statement of varied application of the several conservative principles. (Consider, incidentally, that one could oppose forced busing without remotely being a racist; you are making some unpleasant and unwarranted assumptions.)

    For all your praise of particularism, your inability to conceive of principle in unideological terms reveals a generalizing frame of mind.

  3. withywindle says:

    Addendum: when you say “opposition to desegregation,” are you limiting yourself to Bull Conner et al and the formal legal system of segregation, or did you (as I assumed) also mean South Boston, and informal segregation? I took you to mean the looser definition.

    Also, I’m off for a few days–beg pardon if I can’t continue on the conversation. If it’s still going when I return, I’ll post something more.

  4. back40 says:

    Bryan Appleyard’s review is longer and, I think, more insightful.

  5. abstractart says:

    conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order. …. The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata.

    Except that that’s not, as an empirical statement about how the term “conservative” is used in this country, true.

    Unless Christian evangelicals (who are *hardly* a group lacking in dogma or ideology) no longer count as “conservative”, for instance.

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