Category: Violence

War and Peace (Two)

Further into my journey through War and Peace, I find Tolstoy stating directly his disbelief in people’s ability to transcend their self-interest and submerge themselves in a larger cause.  But with a twist, as you will see if you read the relevant passage:

“It is natural for us who were not living in those days to imagine that when half Russia had been conquered and the inhabitants were ficeing to distant provinces, and one levy after another was being raised for the defense of the father-land, all Russians from the greatest to the least were solely engaged in sacrificing themselves, saving their fatherland, or weeping over its downfall. The tales and descriptions of that time without exception speak only of the self-sacrifice, patriotic devotion, despair, grief, and the heroism of the Russians. But it was not really so. It appears so to us because we see only the general historic interest of that time and do not see all the personal human interests that people had. Yet in reality those personal interests of the moment so much transcend the general interests that they always prevent the public interest from being felt or even noticed. Most of the people at that time paid no attention to the general progress of events but were guided only by their private interests, and they were the very people whose activities at that period were most useful.

Those who tried to understand the general course of events and to take part in it by self-sacrifice and heroism were the most useless members of society, they saw every-thing upside down, and all they did for the common good turned out to be useless and foolish like Pierre’s and Mamonov’s regiments which looted Russian villages, and the lint the young ladies prepared and that never reached the wounded, and so on. Even those, fond of intellectual talk and of expressing their feelings, who discussed Russia’s position at the time involuntarily introduced into their conversation either a shade of pretense and falsehood or useless condemnation and anger directed against people accused of actions no one could possibly be guilty of. In historic events the rule forbidding us to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is specially applicable. Only unconscious action bears fruit, and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance. If he tries to realize it his efforts are fruitless.

The more closely a man was engaged in the events then taking place in Russia the less did he realize their significance. In Petersburg and in the provinces at a distance fromMoscow, ladies, and gentlemen in militia uniforms, wept for Russia and its ancient capital and talked of self-sacrifice and so on; but in the army which retired beyond Moscow there was little talk or thought of Moscow, and when they caught sight of its burned ruins no one swore to be avenged on the French, but they thought about their next pay, their next quarters, of Matreshka the vivandiere, and like matters.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Four)

Tolstoy, at least in War and Peace, is an odd mix of quietist fatalism (it is all in God’s hands, so human action is futile, blind, presumptuous, and never achieves that for which it aims) and radical critic of society and human depravity (a leftist Christian).

Here’s an example of his radical critique of social institutions:

“That evening he learned that all these prisoners (he, probably, among them) were to be tried for incendiarism. On the third day he was taken with the others to a house where a French general with a white mustache sat with two colonels and other Frenchmen with scarves on their arms. With the precision and definiteness customary in addressing prisoners, and which is supposed to preclude human frailty, Pierre like the others was questioned as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on.

These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Nine.)

But Pierre is saved from execution by a moment of human contact:

“Davout [the French governor of occupied Moscow] looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men. At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.

At the first glance, when Davout had only raised his head from the papers where human affairs and lives were indicated by numbers, Pierre was merely a circumstance, and Davout could have shot him without burdening his con-science with an evil deed, but now he saw in him a human being. He reflected for a moment.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Ten.)

This seems plausible to me; how could you look another human being in the eyes—and then torture that person, or kill him or her?  Yet we know it happens.

Pierre then witnesses the execution of five other prisoners, not knowing until after they have been shot that he will not himself be executed.  His response is to lose all faith in life, to sink into complete despair.

“From the moment Pierre had witnessed those terrible murders committed by men who did not wish to commit them, it was as if the mainspring of his life, on which every-thing depended and which made everything appear alive, had suddenly been wrenched out and everything had collapsed into a heap of meaningless rubbish. Though he did not acknowledge it to himself, his faith in the right ordering of the universe, in humanity, in his own soul, and in God, had been destroyed. He had experienced this before, but never so strongly as now. When similar doubts had assailed him before, they had been the result of his own wrongdoing, and at the bottom of his heart he had felt that relief from his despair and from those doubts was to be found within him-self. But now he felt that the universe had crumbled before his eyes and only meaningless ruins remained, and this not by any fault of his own. He felt that it was not in his power to regain faith in the meaning of life.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Twelve).

He is pulled out of his despair through his conversation with a peasant/soldier prisoner who tells him we are all in God’s hands.  We cannot expect to understand God’s plan, but must simply affirm it and place ourselves in the hands of the divine.  Tolstoy’s fatalism is offered as the solution to the problems of evil and of suffering.

War and Peace

I am currently reading War and Peace.  It is good under pandemic conditions to have a nearly interminable book to while away the hours.  But it must be a book that can hold you in its grip for all that time.  Tolstoy is up to the task.

For the most part, Tolstoy is a cynic about human motives.  He would deny that very many people are capable of throwing themselves selflessly into a cooperative enterprise—and scorns the idea (considered in my previous post) that war offers an instance of such full-throated cooperation.  He insists (rather like Arendt on Eichmann’s careerism) that war offers just another venue for the petty seeking for status and preeminence that characterizes 80% of human action in his novel.

The common soldiers know nothing about the so-called “causes” for which the war is being fought, while the officers are all jockeying for advancement and motivated more by the rivalries and jealousies of their relations to their fellow officers than by any larger vision.  Because society and the world of public affairs (politics, war, organized religion, the Masons; business never enters Tolstoy’s novel except in the form of the corrupt stewards who rob the aristocratic owners of estates) is so dominated by the despicable, the only happiness open to his hero Pierre is the domestic bliss that comes from marrying the right woman.

This general outlook is only tempered a bit by the remarkable meditation of Prince Andrew on the eve of the battle of Borodino (a battle that produced the most casualties of any battle during the Napoleonic wars).  Andrew finds (to his surprise) a fundamental patriotism in himself, but also articulates a clear-sighted vision of war’s barbarity.  He scorns the need to believe that there are “rules of war,” since the appeal to such rules only serves to hide the fact that war is murder.  And he despairs when he thinks that men will ask god to bless, even aid, their acts of murder.  Humans are beasts—and it is disgusting to see them dress up their bestiality as noble and honorable.

My father did join the Marines in 1942 for high-minded reasons.  And he seemed, for the most part, to retain that high-mindedness through his tough years of service in the Pacific theater.  Reading Tolstoy fills me, once again, with my basic incredulity.  Men do this?  How?  And why?  In one remarkable passage in his description of the battle at Borodino, Tolstoy depicts an infantry regiment standing in a field in reserve.  They are also being shelled by the French.  After each cannon ball falls among them, they gather up the dead and wounded, carry them off, and then close up ranks.  How is it possible for men to act this way?  To stand still under bombardment?

Here’s the long passage that gives us Prince Andrew’s musings.

‘Yes, yes,’ answered Prince Andrew absently. ‘One thing I would do if I had the power,’ he began again, ‘I would not take prisoners. Why take prisoners? It’s chivalry! The French have destroyed my home and are on their way to destroy Moscow, they have outraged and are outraging me every moment. They are my enemies. In my opinion they are all criminals. And so thinks Timokhin and the whole army. They should be executed! Since they are my foes they cannot be my friends, whatever may have been said at Tilsit.”

’‘Yes, yes,’ muttered Pierre, looking with shining eyes at Prince Andrew. ‘I quite agree with you!’ The question that had perturbed Pierre on the Mozhaysk hill and all that day now seemed to him quite clear and completely solved. He now understood the whole meaning and importance of this war and of the impending battle. All he had seen that day, all the significant and stern expressions on the faces he had seen in passing, were lit up for him by a new light. He understood that latent heat (as they say in physics) of patriotism which was present in all these men he had seen, and this explained to him why they all prepared for death calmly, and as it were lightheartedly.

‘Not take prisoners,’ Prince Andrew continued: ‘That by itself would quite change the whole war and make it less cruel. As it is we have played at war, that’s what’s vile! We play at magnanimity and all that stuff. Such magnanimity and sensibility are like the magnanimity and sensibility of a lady who faints when she sees a calf being killed: she is so kind-hearted that she can’t look at blood, but enjoys eating the calf served up with sauce. They talk to us of the rules of war, of chivalry, of flags of truce, of mercy to the unfortunate and so on. It’s all rubbish! I saw chivalry and flags of truce in 1805; they humbugged us and we humbugged them. They plunder other people’s houses, issue false paper money, and worst of all they kill my children and my father, and then talk of rules of war and magnanimity to foes! Take no prisoners, but kill and be killed! He who has come to this as I have through the same sufferings.’

Prince Andrew, who had thought it was all the same to him whether or not Moscow was taken as Smolensk had been, was suddenly checked in his speech by an unexpected cramp in his throat. He paced up and down a few times in silence, but his eyes glittered feverishly and his lips quivered as he began speaking.

‘If there was none of this magnanimity in war, we should go to war only when it was worth while going to certain death, as now. Then there would not be war because PaulIvanovich had offended Michael Ivanovich. And when there was a war, like this one, it would be war! And then the determination of the troops would be quite different. Then all these Westphalians and Hessians whom Napoleon is leading would not follow him into Russia, and we should not go to fight in Austria and Prussia without knowing why. War is not courtesy but the most horrible thing in life; and we ought to understand that and not play at war. We ought to accept this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. It all lies in that: get rid of falsehood and let war be war and not a game. As it is now, war is the favorite pastime of the idle and frivolous. The military calling is the most highly honored.’

‘But what is war? What is needed for success in warfare? What are the habits of the military? The aim of war is murder; the methods of war are spying, treachery, and their encouragement, the ruin of a country’s inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to provision the army, and fraud and falsehood termed military craft. The habits of the military class are the absence of freedom, that is, discipline, idleness, ignorance, cruelty, debauchery, and drunkenness. And in spite of all this it is the highest class, respected by everyone. All the kings, except the Chinese, wear military uniforms, and he who kills most people receives the highest rewards.‘

‘They meet, as we shall meet tomorrow, to murder one another; they kill and maim tens of thousands, and then have thanksgiving services for having killed so many people (they even exaggerate the number), and they announce a victory, supposing that the more people they have killed the greater their achievement. How does God above look at them and hear them?’ exclaimed Prince Andrew in a shrill, piercing voice. ‘Ah, my friend, it has of late become hard for me to live. I see that I have begun to understand too much. And it doesn’t do for man to taste of the tree of knowledge of good and evil…. Ah, well, it’s not for long!’ he added. Book Ten, Chapter 25.)


I will only add that since World War I, the notion that soldiers are the most honorable, “the highest class,” is no longer universally accepted.  The current taboo against criticizing the common soldier stems (again only in more left-leaning circles) from a perception that they are the victims of the deplorable adventurism of our political leaders.  The soldier is not to blame for the evil he does; he is caught up in forces he cannot control or gainsay.  But the idea that the killing he does is not evil, but in fact noble, has far fewer adherents today than it did in 1815.

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.”

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.