Category: Politics

A Diminished Thing

 

Robert Frost’s sonnet, “The Oven Bird.”

 

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

 

 

The fit is hardly exact, but the phrase “what to make of a diminished thing” echoes in my head far too often these days.  The leftist dreams of a communist utopia died a slow and very painful death from 1920 to 1989.  But who would have predicted, as the Berlin Wall came down, that allegiance to and belief in “social democracy” would be on life support in 2020?  Among the kinds of intellectuals I hang around with, Elizabeth Warren is a sell-out and Bernie Sanders a tolerable compromise, but just barely.  All the talk—as in the novels I considered in the last post—is about the injustice and cruelty of capitalism, and the implacable racism of the United States.  That injustice and cruelty is endlessly documented; everywhere you scratch the surface, you find perfidy.  Corruption, betrayal, cover-ups, outright theft, and endless, ruthless exploitation. Even worse: the almost invisible “structural racism” that infects everything.  It all must go.  Only wiping the slate entirely clean will create a world we can affirm.

I can’t help but think that John Dewey nails it when he calls this kind of political rhetoric sentimental.  “[W]hen we take ends without regard to means we degenerate into sentimentalism.  In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, 73).  No one is offering anything remotely like a blueprint for how to get from here to there.  We just get endless denunciations of here coupled with (in some cases) the vaguest gestures toward there.  Analyses of how fucked up everything is, coupled with stories of outrageous maltreatment, are a dime a dozen.

Recently there has been a revival of a cultural studies move familiar in the 1980s.  Basically the idea is to show that people are not passive victims and to celebrate their ways of resisting—or, if “resisting” is too strong a word, their way of surviving, of carving out a life under bad conditions.  Two fairly recent books, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019) exemplify this trend.  Tsing’s book is wonderful in every way, an exhilarating read for its introduction of the reader into a sub-culture far from the mainstream and for its intellectual force and clarity.  I found Hartman’s book a harder go.  Hartman works diligently to find the “beauty” in the “wayward” lives that she tries to reconstruct from very scanty historical traces.  Her subjects are black women in northern US cities between 1890 and 1915.  For me, the lives she describes are unutterably sad; I just can’t see the beauty as they are ground down by relentless racism and inescapable poverty.  Let me hasten to add that it is not Hartman’s job to make me feel good.  The point, instead, is that she aims to present these tales as providing some grounds for affirmation—and I just don’t find those grounds as I read her narratives.

I don’t want to try a full engagement with Tsing’s book here.  (I am late to this party; her book, like Hartman’s work, has been much celebrated.)  The very short summary: she tracks the matsutake mushroom from its being picked in Oregon, Finland, Japan, and China to its ending up as a treasured (and expensive) delicacy in Japan.  The ins-and-outs of this story, from the mushrooms own complicated biology (it cannot be cultivated by humans and only flourishes in “ruined” forests, ones that have been discombobulated by extensive logging) to the long human “supply chain” that renders the mushroom a commodity, offer Tsing the occasion to meditate on ecology, human migration, the US wars in Southeast Asia, and global neo-liberalism.

But for my purposes, I simply want to record that Tsing is interested in how people cope in the “ruins” that the contemporary world offers.  The “ruins” of decimated, over-logged forests.  The “ruins” of lives by the American war in Vietnam (spilling over into Laos and Cambodia).  The “ruins” of a neoliberal capitalism that has made traditional jobs (with security, benefits, a visible line of command) obsolete. The “ruin” of all narratives of progress, of all notions that technology or politics is moving us toward a batter future.

For Tsing, at least in this book, there is no idea that this ruination can be reversed, or that there are political models (like social democracy), that might address these hardships and try to ameliorate them. Only someone hopelessly naive or delusional would credit any notion of possible progress. Instead, we just need to be getting on with the hard task of finding a niche in the interstices of this cruel world, whose mechanisms of grinding people and the environment to ruin will continue unimpeded.  She isn’t even indulging some kind of 1960s dream of “dropping out.”  We are all in the belly of the whale, so whatever expedients can be adopted to make the best of it are to be celebrated.

Here is Tsing’s summation of her vision, the last paragraph before her epilogue:

“Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place.  The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment.  It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction.  Luckily there is company, human and not human.  We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscape—the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations.  We can still catch the scent of the latent commons—and the elusive autumn aroma” (282).

Back to autumn, to the oven-bird with its determination to sing even as summer fades away, and we are left with “a diminished thing.”

The Aesthetic

My friend Nick Gaskill and I have embarked on a plan to read about the aesthetic—and talk about what we are reading over the ubiquitous Zoom.  Nick is interested in “aesthetic education,” partly because his fabulous book Chromographia: American Literature and the Modernization of Color (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) uncovered the (at least to me) surprising fact that American schools at the turn of the 20th century developed specific pedagogies to teach pupils the different colors and their relation to one another.

But this interest is also partly fueled by a return to the aesthetic in recent work—work that Nick has been pushing me to read.  In their own ways, Rita Felski’s anti-critique campaign, Caroline Levine’s book on “form,” the Joseph North history of criticism, Michael Clune’s work on judgment, Fred Moten’s development of his notion of the “undercommons,” and Saidiya Hartman’s interest in “beautiful experiments” all try to mobilize the aesthetic as a site of resistance to the dominant order.

Déja vu all over again.  The 30s and the 80s were all about, as Walter Benjamin put it, making aesthetics political. [In other words, right wing triumphs in the political realm seem to inevitably generate attempts to use art against the regime.] In Benjamin’s case, that project was poised against the ways that fascism “aestheticized politics.”  For Nick (inspired partly by Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories), there is not just the aesthetized politics of Trump (can’t take our eyes off the spectacle he offers daily), but also the meretricious everyday aestheticism of consumer capitalism.  All dressed up and ready to spend.

Can some other (truer? proper? more tasteful?) version of the aesthetic combat its trivialization in our culture?  I have had very little to say about the aesthetic over my long career—and pretty much abandoned literary criticism as soon as I got tenure in 1987.  I read novels voraciously, and taught literature all the time, but I lost (if I ever had) any ability to do the kinds of things critics do, especially fancy formal readings.  I became (probably always was) a “naïve” reader of texts—interested in meaning, content.  I have very little avant-garde sensibility when it comes to art: I like novels with plots and characters.  My taste does run to the abstract in painting, but that’s because I love vivid color, while I find the chaotic incoherence of much surrealism distinctly unappealing.  Pop usually strikes me as cheap, cynical tricks, although I like Roy Lichtenstein.  But give me Diebenkorn over Warhol any day.

More theoretically, I have had two problems with the aesthetic.  The first is how to even define it.  I knew someone who was into vintage cars.  His appreciation for them seemed as fully aesthetic as mine for abstract painting.  And some of those cars seemed worthy of (in fact were) being placed in museums.  Yet it seemed absurd to do somersaults to show how his fascination with cars was political in any way.  And I was similarly (in almost all cases) unimpressed by efforts to show me that Mondrian or Matisse was somehow political.

Instead, it seemed to me that lovers of painting and novels (for some reason) were just more prone to feel guilty about their love than those who fancied antique cars.  That guilt generated their need to justify their love by painting it up as radical, as a blow for the revolution etc.  That two things—a commitment to leftist causes and a love of novels—happened to co-exist in the same person in no way demonstrated that one was related (causally and necessarily) to the other.  No one tries to connect my being addicted to running as exercise to my political convictions.

Worse still, in my view, was that the attempts to tie the aesthetic to politics led to gestural politics.  Proving that a close reading of Moby Dick was political left you off the hook.  You got to spout all kinds of rousing slogans—and didn’t have to do any of the work of political organizing and political action.  “Get real,” I always found myself saying.  Another reading of Moby Dick is not going to change the world.  It is bad faith to pretend otherwise.  And there seemed no lack of bad faith in the various art worlds out there.  Parading one’s virtue stood in for rolling up one’s sleeves and actually going to work.

In fact, it seemed most artists and academics (of the literary variety) were allergic to collective, collaborative work, with all its messy compromises and inefficiencies.  They were loners, pursuing their own visions in splendid isolation before presenting the finished product to the world—and feeling hurt when the world did not respond with astonished applause.  The world also did not transform itself to correspond with the artist or author’s vision.

My skepticism duly registered, the point of this collaboration with Nick is (for me; I trust there will be a pay-off for him as well, but it will be a different one) to challenge these long-held prejudices of mine.  There are (immediately) two reasons for me to reconsider.

One, if I have been converted by recent events to the William James view that sensibility, not reason, is the more important factor in our adopting values and commitments, then art does seem to address sensibility more directly and effectively than other modes of discourse.  If the aim is to shape or transform sensibility, then attention to artistic modes seems imperative.  (In my 2002 book Democracy’s Children, I argue the opposite.  Basically, I wrote that since I believe my commitments have a good rational basis, it is condescending of me to assume that others’ commitments are a-rational in a way mine are not. I am still nervous about throwing reasons—offered in the public speech acts by which we try to persuade one another in a deliberative model of democracy—overboard.  But it is hard to retain any faith in deliberative democracy these days, when all sides seem so determined to not ever hear other sides, and refuse to give any credence to what others might say.)

Two, the focus on tying “education” to the “aesthetic” in the phrase “aesthetic education” shifts the playing field in the right direction (I think).  Now it is not the artist or critic’s performance that is political, but the shaping of sensibilities.  The question is not whether the art is political or has direct political effects.  The question becomes how (and why) it is useful to deploy art works as the means to developing certain sensibilities.

This pathway is fraught with many difficulties—and I warn you that, once again, a slew of posts is on the way.  But this educational project is one that makes sense to me in a way that claims for the political efficacy of “radical” readings of Moby Dick does not.

Nick and I started out by reading the first three chapters and the final one of John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934).  So my next few posts will try to consider features of the aesthetic—and the hallmarks of aesthetic sensibility—as gleaned from Dewey’s text.

Leftist Sensibility

As I already mentioned, this one is harder for me because it is my own sensibility.  Thus, I am biased.  The right wing sensibility, in my view, is always going to end up pathologized.  While the left-wing sensibility description will veer toward the panegyric and the self-congratulatory.  That warning stated, let’s plunge ahead.

I have always been attracted by Richard Rorty’s claim that liberalism, when it comes down to it, is simply “bleeding-heart liberalism.”  The core of the leftist sensibility is compassion.  I want to approach this historically.  “Sympathy” was the core of morality for Adam Smith and David Hume.  It was the basis from which they could explain why any human would care about the plight of any other human.  They, of course, thought sympathy was “natural”—and thus the place to begin when trying to construct a morality.

Cruelty (in all its forms from jeering and insulting to torture) tells us sympathy has its limits.  A delight in the suffering of others seems just as natural to humans.  There is something to be said, I think, for the Steven Pinker (stated positively) and Hannah Arendt’s (stated negatively) arguments that “compassion” is actually a fairly new phenomenon—dating from the Enlightenment century, the 18th.  For Arendt, the entrance of compassion ruins politics.  It leads to the collapse of politics into economics, into placing politics at the service of alleviating poverty.  (The argument is central to her book On Revolution, with its comparison of the American and French revolutions.)

It does seems to me that Arendt is on to something (even as her contempt for compassion is the hardest thing in her whole corpus to swallow).  Were their wars (or violence) prior to the American and French revolutions fought for the ideal of equality?  Maybe the Dutch war for independence from Spain?  And there were peasant revolts.  But mostly there were wars of conquest, not wars for the freedom to forge one’s own life.  The “left” after all comes into existence as a political category with the French Revolution.  And so does the modern right—which must find new ways (not based on the claim that God just made it that way) to justify inequalities of wealth, political participation/power, and status.  This battle between left and right is often fought on the grounds of “rights”—to whom should various rights be extended, and what things should be covered by rights.  (Is there a “right” to health care, a “right” to a job, a “right” to old age pensions?)

It seems weird, of course, in light of Christianity and Buddhism to say compassion is an 18th century novelty.  But I think we need to see the novelty as compassion plus rationalism/secularism.  Prior to the Enlightenment, poverty was the result of “fortune.”  It was not something that resulted from human actions or arrangements—and thus not something that could be alleviated by human action or that was a moral outrage (when and if humans refused to do anything to try to alleviate it.) Charity to the poor was encouraged, but that didn’t come with the idea that poverty could be eliminated and that the failure to try to eliminate was a moral failure.

The leftist sensibility, then, is a mixture of compassion with the belief that different social arrangements than the status quo (effected by either reform or revolution) would be preferable and are feasible.  As Steven Lukes has put it, the left is committed to a project of “remediation.”  It points to unjustified poverty and unjustified inequalities, claiming that these sufferings are not necessary (they could be otherwise), and that there are reasonable plans for remediation.

The left’s notion of justice, therefore, is built upon the notion of equality—of the idea that everyone is entitled to an equal chance for a flourishing, satisfying life.  No person should have a life that only serves to provide others (and not him- or herself) with the means for flourishing.  In short, Kant’s kingdom of ends where no person is ever only a “means.”

I think that this commitment to equality and to the understanding of justice that follows from it entails universalism to the extent that all humans must be accorded the same right to the necessities for a good life.  From that conviction comes the idea of “effective freedom” (i.e. that freedom is only “real” when a person has the means to act on freely chosen alternatives).  It seems to me that contemporary critiques of universalism are always complaints that the various versions of universalism on offer are not universal enough.  And I think that Sen and Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach” offers a good way to reconcile respect for and attention to differences while holding on to the broad commitment to a universalism that can be all-inclusive.  But I am not going to get into the weeds of that argument here today.

The formula of compassion plus reason runs into serious trouble when Romanticism comes onto the scene.  The Romantics keep the compassion, but are suspicious of reason.  Nationalism is the Romantic passion par excellence on the political front.  And nationalism limits compassion to one’s compatriots even as it eschews a rationalist approach to social policies.  American health care: the best in the world, says the patriot, wonderfully immune to all the facts that clearly indicate otherwise.  Romanticism, in short, is not necessarily leftist or rightist.  It is wildly overstating the case to say that Romanticism leads directly to Hitler, just as it is a wild exaggeration to say that rationalism leads directly to Stalin.

Still, it does seem we have leftists (like Blake and Shelley) of the romantic stripe and leftists (Bentham and Marx) of the rationalist stripe, and that the romantics are more likely than the rationalists to think art is crucial to the leftist cause.  It is also worth saying that, generally speaking, the rightist sensibility comes across as aggressively masculine while the leftist position (with its compassion and desire to care for the well-being of all) is feminized.  Within that framework, the rationalist leftist position can look like a compensation against the feminization of a leftist sensibility.  Poetry is for sissies–so either men worried about their masculinity must eschew it or write like Ted Hughes as over-compensation.

The leftist sensibility I would recommend features compassion connected (tempered) by rationalism.  It is that mixture that has led contemporary leftists to be extremely wary of violence in all its forms, opting instead for various modes of non-violent action to effect political change.  The argument is, on the compassion side, that violence harms people, and on the rational side, that violence only unleashes more violence and thus cannot effect the kinds of changes that it aims for.  Yet (as I have agonized over on this blog) eschewing violence seems to place leftist reformers in a very weak place in relation to those in power who are determined to hold onto that power and are not shy of using violence to maintain that hold.

Because the left has so often been ineffective (especially over the past forty years—since 1980—of the right’s resurgence), the right accuses it of hypocrisy.  The left parades its bleeding heart in public (especially since the chattering classes are full of leftists) while leading very comfortable lives under current arrangements.  The left never really puts its money where its mouth is. I know of a professor whose grad students called her a Neiman Marxist.

Meanwhile, the left itself splits between the so-called “liberals” who work for reform within the “system” (i.e. accept democratic electoral politics and some version of the market) and the “radicals” who express contempt of the ineffectual liberals at every turn (but remain muddle headed about what means of change they actually endorse—since very few of them openly call for violence.  Terry Eagleton may be the exception in his attitude toward violence, but I can’t tell for sure because his books on tragedy and “radical sacrifice” become obscure—in contrast to his usual bracingly direct style—precisely at the point where the question of political violence arises.)  For the most part, the argument between the “left” and “liberals” seems to be an argument about rhetorical style, with the left scorning liberals for their mamby-pandy refusal to denounce capitalism and Western perfidy, and the liberals scorning the left for their gestural politics of absolute purity that has little relation to facts on the ground or any possible political constituency.

More germane to this ongoing thread in the blog is the connection of the leftist sensibility to an aesthetic sensibility.  Where am I headed with this?

  1. The aesthetic sensibility as currently exhibited seems to me to share Romanticism’s suspicion of reason. (Maybe that’s why North has to fixate on “method” and “rigor.”  He’s trying to get rationalism back into the aesthetic, from which is has mostly been banned.)  So the aesthetic sensibility shares the compassion for the excluded and down-trodden.  But it is less attuned to reformist projects or prospects.  I will want to say more about how the aesthetic expresses its compassion, its solidarity with those unjustly treated.
  2. I don’t think there is any direct path from the aesthetic to the leftist sensibility—or that there is any necessary connection between them. To the extent that those who go in for aesthetics in the current moment also tend to be leftists of some variety, I think that’s because of a political education, not an aesthetic one. In short, it has been hard to get an aesthetic education since 1970 without getting a political one alongside it.  The relation between the two is neither necessary nor direct (as I have said), but their adjacency has been almost universal.  I believe it is sloppy thinking to believe there is a deeper connection between the two.
  3. The million dollar question remains: how do you instill a sensibility? What kind of education does the trick?  If sensibilities really are the fundamental drivers of moral/political commitments and of actions undertaken, then how are they formed?  What are the crucial sites of intervention?  Is there a formula?

Right-Wing Sensibility

“You cannot greet the world in the morning with anything less than ferocity, or be evening you will be destroyed.”  Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light, p. 543.

What I want to do here is characterize right-wing sensibility. I will, in a subsequent post, try to characterize left-wing sensibility, which I find much harder to do.

I think Dick Cheney, more than Donald Trump, is a good exemplar here.  Recall his one-percent doctrine.  “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_One_Percent_Doctrine

For the right-winger, it’s a dangerous world out there, full of enemies.  If you let your guard down, you are toast.  Pre-emptive violence (another doctrine of the Bush years) is best, but hitting back with ferocity is second best.  The “bad guys” are everywhere and eternal vigilance is required to keep them in check.  Conservatives are always the “party of order” because the challenges to order are everywhere.

The difference between us—the guardians of order—and them, the sowers of chaos—is, inevitably moralized.  They aren’t called the “bad guys” for nothing.  The maintenance of order becomes the maintenance of moral order.  And that requires punishment.  Justice for conservatives is “people getting what they deserve.”  It has nothing to do with equality, since some people are better, more worthy, than others.  Hayek wrote that the whole notion of equality is a travesty of justice.  How could equal treatment be just, he wrote?  The whole point of justice is to discriminate between the guilty and the not-guilty. A justice system that treated everyone the same would not be just.

Because it is a dangerous world, the conservative wants a strong military, a strong national security apparatus, and a strong leader.  The niceties of democracy, the rule of law, and tolerance are distractions, even hindrances, when it comes to securing the nation against enemies external and internal.  The moral division between good and bad translates fairly directly into strong-in-group bias.  The members of my group—the nation—are good; the outsiders are, at best, never to be trusted, and, at worst, dangerous foes incessantly plotting against us.

Obviously, this mind-set encourages paranoia, the continual identification of new groups that are a threat to my group.  Right-wing movements of the past two hundred years have always traded on identifying an “internal” enemy as well as an external one.

The moral component of conservatism rests on a strong sense of “desert” (less politely called “entitlement.”)  My standing in the world, the goods I possess, are deserved—and for that reason it is fully just to deny those goods to the undeserving.  The right-wing fury about the “nanny state” is about taking what I have earned and giving it to those too lazy or otherwise too morally deficient to have earned something for themselves.  A very basic sense of justice is the source of the indignation against the welfare functions of the modern liberal state.  (I believe that the fact that conservatives and liberals mean absolutely distinct things by “justice” goes a long way to defining the political divide between the two camps.)

There is, undoubtedly, a tension between the individualism that celebrates moral responsibility and what one has earned for oneself and the willingness to submerge the self in the larger group of the morally just.  (The group of the saved, of the elect.)  The aggression of a conservatism that is always on the lookout for enemies is complemented (perhaps even washed clean) by a concomitant willingness to sacrifice the self for the group in the event of violence.

Right-wing thought, because so focused on good guys versus bad guys, tends to the Manichean, toward moral absolutism, and, thus, to the conclusion that there is no compromising with the devil.  Negotiation is a sign of weakness—and every weakness with be exploited.  Strength is the only source of security in this dangerous world.  The evil are just evil; their badness is not to be explained away, and the idea that they can be rehabilitated is sentimental liberal claptrap.  For this reason (its inability to detect middle grounds), conservative thought is particularly attracted to slippery slope arguments.  Medicare is Socialism and we are on the road to serfdom.  Give them an inch and they will take a mile.  Hysteria about drastic consequences to even the mildest of reforms goes with the territory.

In certain strains of right-wing sensibility, there can be a strong sense of one’s own potential depravity, an Augustinian sense of all humans as weak, sinful creatures.  In that case, the appeal of a strong leader and an authoritarian social order extends to the need for external constraints to rein in one’s own tendency to sin.  We are in superego territory here, where the masochistic desire to submit to a strong hand flips quickly and almost seamlessly into the sadistic need to punish depraved others.  [This dynamic is very complex in US conservatism; it seems to play no role at all in the many shameless right-wing moralists.  But it runs through various sites of evangelical fervor, where drinking, domestic violence, drug abuse, and covert hetero- and homo-sexual behavior co-exists with a deep attachment to “saving grace.”]

I do think attitudes toward the necessity of punishment—and to the severity of the forms it should take—are central here.  Conservatives (Kipling is a great instance, but think of most policemen and many soldiers) hate liberals because liberals (in the conservative view) leave the dirty work of punishment and the enforcement of order to “the thin blue line.”  The liberals benefit from the police and from prisons, yet not only refrain from doing the dirty work themselves, but also disdain those who do that work.

Here we tap into another feature of the right-wing sensibility: a sense of grievance.  Their own rectitude, their doing the essential work society requires, is never appreciated, while the spongers, the eggheads, the chattering classes, not the mention the Jews, the blacks, and the immigrants gather in all the spoils.  Society rewards the wrong people—a proof of society’s corruption and of the need for a strong leader to pull it back onto the right path.

In short, something is wrong somewhere—and that wrongness is either the product of evil people or of a fundamental, unchangeable fact, of a dangerous world replete with people out to get you.  In either case, aggression is the best response.  As my conservative students tell me, the Machiavelli of The Prince basically has it right.

Conservatives are capable of exemplary generosity to those in their in-group.  That generosity, you might say, matches their ferocity to those deemed outside the pale.

Given the priority conservatives place on security, it was one of the great intellectual coups of history when the neo-liberals (Hayek and Friedman in particular) captured the word “freedom” to describe what capitalism delivered—and, on that basis, make a defense of unregulated capitalism the hallmark of late-twentieth-century conservatism (Thatcher and Reagan).  Traditional conservatives (Burke and Carlyle) saw capitalism as destroying communal solidarity by pitting each individual against the rest in endless competition.  They associated capitalism with the destruction of social order.

Hayek and Friedman, in contrast, correctly recognize that capitalism (because of the coercive force of economic necessity for most people) poses no danger to order.  Assured that order is not threatened, they can undertake their propaganda campaign for “free” markets by insisting that government is the source of coercion (as well as the source of inefficiency) while the market will set us free.  Ignore the fact of economic necessity—or of the disastrous results of profitable enterprises always shifting the costs of “externalities” elsewhere—and their argument makes some sense.  And it fits perfectly (Hayek’s work is the perfect model here) with right-wing Manicheanism.  The market all good; any efforts to regulate the market (either by states or by unions) all bad.

Hayek and Friedman also have to ignore all the evidence that capitalists hate risk.  Security remains the watch-word.  Capitalists always try to minimize competition, to shift costs and risks elsewhere, to never face personal bankruptcy. That’s why capitalism tends toward monopoly.  Competition (just like economic downturns) does not spur risk-taking; it spurs ever more ingenious ways to mitigate risk.  Innovation occurs within secure environments—like research tanks and universities.

Conservatives hate liberals—and the most common charge is that liberals are hypocrites.  Somewhere in the conservative psyche (maybe I am giving them too much credit) there are guilt feelings about their aggressive, uncharitable relation to their fellow human beings.  I would think there is a similar guilt about the costs of aggressive behavior (both military and economic) on the world and its inhabitants.  Such massive destruction (of cities, of the environment, of the people trampled by military and economic adventurism) is hard to justify—and do-gooder liberals keep pointing out that unpleasant fact.  For a conservative like my father, that finger-pointing spurred rage.  In his milder moments, he would brand war a sad necessity, taking a tragic view of what this world inflicted on us, these constantly fighting human animals.  But in less mild moods, the rage generated fantasies of violence against those liberals, the desire to place them in the front lines of battle, to have them subjected to violence.

Because determined to defend their own rectitude (no matter the deep, hidden doubts or guilt feelings that make liberal accusations sting), conservatives respond with similar rage to accusations of racism.  They will fall back on “desert”—which is why a certain kind of Darwinian and/or free market fundamentalism is so appealing to the right wing.  There has to be a mechanism (shades of Calvinism) to separate out the “elect” (the deserving) from the “damned” (the undeserving).  And it is much better if that mechanism can be demonstrated as “natural,” as a process uncontrolled by human hands and, thus, unbiased in any way.

Hayek himself avoided the crude claim that the market’s creation of winners and losers was just.  Desert, he was willing to concede, played only a small role in market success.  But Hayek was adamant that the processes of the market were beyond human control—and that all efforts to control them would lead to worse results than laissez-faire.  The point is that the conservative is going to strive to avoid taking any responsibility for the ills the liberal harps on (poverty, racism, environmental degradation, workplace dangers etc.)

Three final thoughts.  One, I don’t know what to do with people like the Koch brothers.  Their animus against workers, environmentalists, and any kind of regulation is so over the top, so relentless, and so directly hostile to the well-being of millions of people even as their own wealth is beyond what could be spent in a thousand life-time, that I cannot fathom their motives or sensibility.  What is at stake for them?  They have been given a sweet, sweet deal by this world—and yet are filled with rage against it and a desire to do hurt.  What’s their beef?  It’s baffling.  As Gary Wills put it many years ago (reporting on either the 1992 or 1996 Republican convention in the New York Review of Books), what explains all these aggrieved millionaires?  It is one thing for politicians (eager for power) to exploit the sense of grievance among those the economy has not served well, providing those souls with enemies to focus on.  But why would a millionaire fall for that poison?  And I end up thinking (simplistically, but with no place else to go) that even as there are souls for whom no amount of power will ever suffice, there are souls for whom no amount of money will ever suffice.  Just greed simpliciter.

The second thought is spurred by Walter Benjamin’s insight that the logical end of fascism is war.  At the extreme right, the only plausible response to the identified enemies is extermination, and the only way to offer “the masses” participation in power (the opportunity to exercise that strength, that “ferocity,” that insures survival into the evening—to recall my opening quote) is to put a gun in their hands and march them off the battle.  Trump’s America has not reached this point; the undercurrent of violence in his politics is unorganized at the moment, only inspiring lone shooters, not para-military or official violence.  With the courts increasingly in right-wing hands, most of the contemporary conservative movement (especially its “respectable” political and business wings) is willing to effect its coup through the law.  And liberals have been hand-tied by this strategy, with its vote suppression, roll back of regulations, business friendly court decisions etc.  The left, I believe, will eventually have to resort to defying court decisions–the way much of the South defied the Brown decision.

Third:  I have deliberately not talked of Trump in this post.  I don’t think him easily exemplary of the right-wing sensibility.  His craving for attention, his obvious insecurities, his participation in the pursuit and circuits of “celebrity” make him a rather different animal.  There are overlaps of course, but better not to be confused by thinking there is a perfect match.