As has been in the news, ABC cancelled the revamped tv show Roseanne. It was essentially the firing of the lead actress, Roseanne Barr, for a racist tweet. If it were only so easy to fire the ruling elite, cretinous cronyists that they are, for things as bad and far worse. It’s a sign of the times that a mad man is the head of state who brings out the craziness in supporters and detractors alike.
Some people who know Barr have pointed out that she has dealt with severe mental illness for decades, severe in the sense of including but not limited to split personality. But that is background info. And as many would point out in response, white people are always being given that excuse whenever they do something horrible, even if in this case it is a genuine explanation for her wildly inconsistent ideological views and amazing lack of impulse control.
As far as that goes, the entire United States at present is experiencing a plague of mental illness — with rising rates of depression, anxiety, addiction, suicide, mass violence, etc. This is the result of the highest levels of social, political, and economic inequality seen in world history. This has been proven as a major factor in societal stress and breakdown (see Kate Pickett & Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level, Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder, and Walter Scheidell’s The Great Leveller). American society itself is going insane, the entire society across the political spectrum and in both parties.
That isn’t something to be dismissed. We’ll be seeing more of this kind of thing. It will get worse and worse, until finally hitting a breaking point. That isn’t an excuse for the misbehavior of white privilege or class privilege. It’s an explanation and, more importantly, a warning. Even the rich, powerful, and famous are going off the deep end. And we are beginning to see the elite turn on each other, one of the last signs before precipitous collapse or else authoritarian takeover. Prepare yourself. It ain’t gonna be pretty.
None of that is precisely the main point I want to make. It’s been known for a long time that Roseanne Barr was mentally unstable. Besides, she has years of repeated outspoken and public bigotry. What is worrisome is that, as ABC management had to have already known this, we are forced to assume that they made an economic bet that the short term profit of exploiting a crazy bigot would win over the possibility of being held to account for long term consequences. They lost that bet and so are now trying to cut their losses. But within the dominant system, it seemed like an economically rational decision because much of Barr’s past bigotry targeted expendable scapegoats, Arabs and Palestinians, who were socially acceptable and politically correct.
Anyway, Barr’s bigotry is small time stuff, in and of itself not being of great concern to a media giant. ABC was willing to promote a bigot like Barr for the same reason the corporate (and corporatist) media gave so much free airtime to Donald Trump as presidential candidate. It was the profitable thing to do at the time and, within a plutocratic system, profit and power go hand in hand which has been exacerbated as big biz media became ever bigger with consolidation (along with the parent companies of media increasingly tied to big energy and the military-industrial complex). It is also why corporate media regularly promotes even greater evils by beating the drum for wars of aggression, pushing neo-imperialist propaganda, and giving cover for war crimes — no matter how many millions of innocent people are harmed and traumatized, dislocated and killed. Follow the money.
Now we are getting to the nub of the problem. Corporations these past years have been quick to use censorship to shut down alternative media and outside voices, both left and right, with claims of protecting Americans from fake news, Russian trolls, or whatever other rationalization they invent (not to say there aren’t real threats to democracy, but the greatest threat within capitalist realism is big biz itself). The victims of this censorship onslaught aren’t only crazy bigots, reactionary trolls, and such for also included have been major media personalities and radical critics such as Jimmy Dore. Those outside of the ruling establishment have lost access to advertising dollars on Youtube, been eliminated from Google search results, had accounts suspended on Facebook and Twitter, etc. This is combined with corporate media shutting down comments sections (and public media has become about as corporate as the rest).
As public opinion further sides with alternative media views, public opinion and alternative media are further silenced. The ruling elite are losing control of the narrative. But as they try to aggressively regain and oppressively enforce control, they will ever more lose control. It is the death spiral of a social order that has gone out of control. More people will feel more silenced, more powerless, more disenfranchised, and more frustrated. And with every person who is silenced and unheard, dismissed and ignored, we move closer to greater public unrest, social disruption, and tumultuous change. In playing this game, the capitalist class might find that they have slit their own throats. We are already so close to boiling point and it won’t take much to finally boil over. And the process will be messy.
Rich, privileged, crazy assholes like Barr and Trump are the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t seen full-on crazy yet. The descent into madness is coming. Buckle up!
As always, I should add that I’m not advocating revolution. My lifelong inclination has been toward pansy liberalism in wondering why can’t we all just get along and in hoping that democratic reform from within the system would work out in the end. But the ruling elite and cynical hacks, mindless partisans and lesser-evil voters refused to go the easy way. They refused to listen to the voices of moderation and reason. Now, along with the rest of us, they will suffer the consequences of the decades-long decline into corruption, failure, and injustice. What the American Empire did to others will be done to us. What the comfortable classes did to the poor, whites to non-whites, Christians to non-Christians will be returned in kind. The consequences can be delayed for a while, but not denied. Corporate media implementing perception and opinion management won’t save the social order from the establishment’s own self-destructively suicidal tendencies.
The crazies will get crazier, as will we all in losing our collective bearings. It is what it is. At this point, it doesn’t matter what any of us wants or hopes for. Societies change not because of ideological schemes and utopian dreams but, first and foremost, because the old order stops functioning. We are going to have to pass through dark times to see what, if anything, is on the other side of the storm.
17 thoughts on “Voices Crazy and Silenced”
A follow-on argument to this one is made by Frank Bruni in the NY Times today at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/13/opinion/trump-midterms-robert-de-niro-samantha-bee.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage . It’s advice to liberals, a version of ‘take the high road’, or really, a combination of that and “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
I hate his argument. Long experience with immaturity among the public about jackasses in power has formed my opinion that it’s all good: that there are people who are nice, and people who aren’t when they’re getting abused by power. I do think it’s key to remember that being mean and crude isn’t enough, that we desperately need people who are calm and reasoned and measured. But any talk of poisoning the well and losing the mid-terms is symmetrical, in the sense that not enough mean resistance is also a nightmare right about then. Another way of saying it, which I prefer: stop pretending like you know what the hell is going to wake up the country and put us over the finish line first.
Sorry; chaniging the subject, I suppose, Just irritated with the “calm is always best” activism argument.
Here is how I see it.
None of us knows exactly what all of this means, what will precipitate change, and where it is all heading. All that is certain is we’re heading into new territory. Even speaking of revolution doesn’t tell us much, since revolutions can be transformative or turn reactionary, can be peaceful or violent. And I don’t see how revolution will be avoided without authoritarianism to brutally suppress it.
All the talk about ideologies, parties, elections, etc misses the point. That isn’t what causes change. There is a deeper, much more profound sense of societal unease. It will shake our country to its foundations. What might be rebuilt in its place is anyone’s guess. But I’m fairly sure the present order isn’t going to be saved, not that I’m looking forward to its worsening failure.
From the comments section:
I agree with the premise in principle. However, the problem with this approach vis a vis more centrist and less partisan democratic candidates is that we have watched the progressive left systematically eviscerated from within. When the average current dem candidate is arguably more in line with Reagan than with FDR, I’ve got a serious problem with that.
I agree that under any circumstances we MUST wrest control from the republican choke hold, but to do so at what cost? Do we on the left simply abandon our core principles simply for the sake of electing milquetoast republican-light “Democrats” who are legitimately wolves in sheep’s clothing?
One of these days, we on the left need to stand for something other than “not trump”, and our candidates need to exhibit that as well. Otherwise they’re not really worth voting for.
Peter E. Knox
Seriously? Neither Bee nor De Niro is an office holder or a candidate. I don’t necessarily like their choice of words any more than I did that of Nugent or Barr. But private citizens, even if they are celebrities, will not move the needle in either direction by outbursts like this, unless columnists and reporters keep getting suckered into focusing on these distractions.
“When they go low, we go high” would be a good title for a book that explains why Hillary Clinton is not currently in the White House. It is a great motto for life, but a disastrous strategy for politics. Once upon a time, Democrats understood that winning sometimes requires fighting dirty. FDR knew it. JFK and LBJ certainly knew it. Now, we get people like Mr. Bruni telling us that we need to be nicer to Trump and his supporters. Aside from the fact that this is terrible political advice (midterms are base elections, and the Democratic base is not interested in being nice to Trump and his supporters), it is broadly indicative of the fundamental weakness that has crippled the Democrats for the past 40 years.
Here’s a simple way to understand the current situation. Trump is the consummate bully. As we’ve all been taught, the best way to stop a bully is to confront him head on. You don’t try to reason with him, you don’t try to befriend him, you don’t try to pretend the he isn’t there. You fight. If the Democratic Party wants a slogan going forward, it should look to Winston Churchill (“We shall fight on the beaches…) not Michelle Obama (or Frank Bruni).
When they go low, go lower and smarter. That is the way to win. Otherwise, it is bringing a knife to a gunfight.
Politeness and stability are not going to win over Trump supporters.
It seems that Mr. Bruni thinks that the path to getting rid of Trump is to convince independents that the Democratic Party is the better choice, and that Mr. Trump is a dangerous man–using civil discourse. I’m not sure I agree. If the independents are not convinced that Mr. Trump is bad for the country by now, I’m not sure that there is anything mere mortals can do to convince them. It could be argued just as strongly that many of the independents (and Trump voters) could be brought over by running leftist candidates who will actually help these people–not more establishment candidates like Hilary who commanded such a terrible turnout because they only pay lip service to their problems.
Yet another call for civility while Trump and his goons laugh at your willingness to be pushed around. Yeah, show patience and tolerance to the bully while he stomps you. He’ll respect your rationality and calm demeanor. Sure he will.
Respectfully disagree. “When they go low we go high” was a losing strategy. It sounds elitist and suggests an inherent passivitiy. I prefer to quote John Lydon, “Anger is an energy.” Anger gets people motivated. Anger gets them to the polls. There is right now, today, in America, a repurposed Wal-Mart with blacked out windows that has been turned by Mr. Trump into a prison for children as young as 2 years old. Rage at the machine. Throw the bums out.
It is fascinating to me that Frank Bruni thinks that a single Trump voter is going to say, “I would have voted Democratic after all of the bigotry and lies and the loss of my job, but I won’t because Samantha Bee used a bad word.” Besides, the words that she and Mr. DeNiro used are perfectly acceptable to Trump voters when applied to the people they dislike–and wouldn’t vote for anyway.
You couldn’t be more wrong, Mr. Bruni. It is in fact you, by sowing and encouraging division amongst those who oppose Trump, who point the way to losing the next election. We are a center-left coalition, an alliance of both the analytical and the passionate, and, yes, the polite and not-so-polite. Don’t throw stones at your allies.
I share the frustration of people who are tired of “going high” while the Republicans and DJT seem to get away with everything. But I notice that the most successful Democratic races so far are the ones in which the candidates reach out to their potential constituencies and offer solutions to local problems that the incumbents have failed to deliver. I agree with Frank on that, and on some of the other commenters who push voter turnout (Democrats are not very good at that in a lot of cases). However, I have to add that the media and cable news, with its obsessive coverage of every burble DJT makes, bears some blame for people’s anger. Can we stick to issues and actual news about what’s happening in the country, please?
But media types and columnists also told Americans that a Trump presidency was entirely unlikely.
I say Americans ought to ignore columnists and analysts, and be angry.
Through the Fog
Frank Bruni makes some good suggestions, but his ultimate position is not all that different from those of Republicans who refuse to push back because they are afraid of riling up the beast.
Instead, a spectrum of responses are warranted including the composed, logical, and informative one Bruni advocates, which may well alter the perception of those few Trump followers who may still be open to argument and who still have some resistance to Trump’s babbling mesmerism.
I think there is certainly a place, however, for Samantha Bee’s and Robert De Niro’s more aggressive approaches, and I thank them for their valuable contributions. In their cases, the effect is perhaps less that of transforming the opinions of Trump followers than of an equally useful one of bringing together and reassuring opponents that there is a community of like-minded individuals who still see a way forward out of these increasingly dark times.
Shorter version: Democrats can make no mistake that is not fatal. Only Republicans, for whatever reason, are entitled to to be outrageous under any reason under the stars. Some might demur and suggest that Democrats will never win if they are afraid of all shadows.
Okay, Frank Bruni, you’re right about not losing one’s temper publicly regarding Donald Trump, and you’re also right about not descending into a battle of insults hurled at Mr. Trump and his vociferous supporters.
But, Frank Bruni, you’re only telling half of the story.
Those of us who are liberals always talk about social contracts and freedom of the press which cannot be violated. We rely upon a strong press – not a meek, well-behaved press.
We thought we had a contract with you to do your jobs.
There is a White House press corps which Americans count on to do its job. We’re still waiting for a consistent willingness of those journalists to ask the tough questions and follow-up questions of Donald Trump and to stop allowing Sara Huckabee Sanders to sidestep questions so easily.
We’re still waiting for them to walk out of the room as a group to protest being manipulated and hushed.
Donald Trump rose to the presidency by playing the mainstream media like a violin, and he is still getting away with it.
Until reporters, columnists and broadcast news hosts get tough, we, the news consumers, are occasionally going to use profanity when Trump’s name comes up.
Get over it.
There is a famous social psychology experiment on influence. Two groups were attempting to persuade townspeople regarding fluoridation of their water supply. Scientists and doctors were on one side. Angry citizens were on the other. The professionals brought charts and graphs, rationally explaining the benefits of fluoridation. The angry citizens shouted “Don’t place rat poison in our water supply.” (In large dosages, fluoride may be used to kill rats. However, in the dosages recommended, it significantly prevents cavities in children’s teeth and is not toxic.) The townspeople subsequently supported the emotional pleas of the angry citizens, not the rational assertions of the scientists. Similarly, while Frank Bruni’s position is to use logic and rational analysis in Democrats’ efforts to influence voters, in fact, it is usually the emotional calls to action that tend to be the most effective.
Forgive me, Mr. Bruni, but the Democratic party needs to drop the pretense of civility. None has been extended to us. This is a knife fight and we walk in armed with a copy of Amy Vanderbilt?
And after the way 2016 played out, I would think that you might be a tad reticent to wade into the whole “I know the direction Democrats must take to win” thing. Again.
You have no idea how upset people are outside of NY and DC at DeNiro. What he did was so insulting not just to Trump voters, but to people who believe the presidency as an institution deserves more respect. NY Times readers may disagree with that last line, but your disregard for the reasons why so many support Trump continues to be your downfall, and will result in another four years for him in office.
I agree with much of Bruni’s column, but part ways on the Hitler analogy. No, I don’t think trump is necessarily the second coming of the Third Reich, but then how many Germans in the 30s anticipated the its first coming. So it’s not only appropriate to compare our era with 1930s Germany – it’s essential, lest we forget. It CAN happen here.
“I’m noting that when you extrapolate too wildly into the future, you sometimes wind up distracting people from what’s happening in the here and now.”
Authoritarianism, like climate change, becomes increasingly “expensive” to deal with the longer you wait. The problem with focusing solely on the “here and now” is that it eventually that becomes, “too late”.
Still your primary point is a good one: “[democratic] candidates whose appeals were tempered and whose profiles make them formidable general-election contenders … [are] the best bets for wooing less fiercely partisan voters and snatching seats currently in Republican hands.”
Sure, whatever it takes.
But having witnessed an American President effusively compliment a mass murdering dictator who even uses chemical weapons on his own family, I do hope there is some room to express “De Niro-esque” sentiments. Think of it as rallying the anti-Trump, pro-democracy base. Turn-out is critical and the “go-low” crowd has been winning.
Probably shouldn’t go all De Niro / Bee at the Country Music Awards though.
The main thing is this.
Neither main party in their present form (as the two faces of the bipartisan stranglehold of corporatocracy) is going to confront political dysfunction, moral failure, and public outrage. It appears to be the case that, no matter who is elected, no one will have the power and ability and willingness to fight the plutocracy that is causing the worsening inequality.
And that means everything will continue to get worse. I’d argue that there is no way to slow down or turn around the Titanic before hitting the iceberg, despite the iceberg not yet being visible in the dark waters ahead of us. I just don’t see it happening. But I’d love to be proven wrong.
At a gut level, do you genuinely believe that as a society we are going have peaceful democratic reform and progress that will avoid both revolution and authoritarianism? I’m curious about how many people really believe that or are simply pretending to believe it out of fear of the more probable future(s) that is threatening.
There is an underlying thought to this post. I remember some years ago reading about one particular observation about high inequality. And the point was emphasized in Keith Payne’s book, which I read more recently. To put it simply: Inequality harms everyone, even the rich. This is seen in the high inequality data itself, as all across the socioeconomic spectrum there are higher rates of social and health problems.
Payne pushed the conclusion one step further by arguing that inequality mimics poverty, causing people to feel impoverished in creating a general state and pervasive atmosphere of stress, uncertainty, anxiety, and desperation. Everyone increasingly acts in ways crazy and dysfunctional, from aggressive behavior to short-term thinking. Basically, the sway of the reactionary mind takes hold at the collective level and few escape its infectious power.
This point is driven home when we hear in the news about the rich and famous going off on crazy rants, killing themselves, and such. It reminds us that no one remains untouched by such vast societal, political, and moral failure. That is what makes the ruling elite and the comfortable classes so foolish in thinking they are above it all. When the shit storm comes, there will be no where to hide and we will all get covered in it. And as I’d argue, the shit storm has already begun.
Everything gets magnified and exacerbated, pushed to the breaking point both individually and collectively. The narcissism of small differences erupts into vast chasms of tension and conflict. Previously hidden or ignored fears and prejudices, class war and identity politics gets forced to the surface and takes on gigantic proportions. Everything and everyone gets touched by the craziness in the air.
This post hit close to home; this is only anecdotal, but with hindsight I can see a strong connection from the time I began taking and withdrawing from anti-anxiety meds and accepting reactionary premises without criticism. Before expressing conservatism on this blog and elsewhere I had a pretty shallow leftist streak, and I suppose when someone’s brain is in turmoil its easy to fall back on what that person grew up with. Its still embarrassing, but I hope to write more in the future that goes against some of the Burkean opinions I was saluting earlier this year.
In less solipsistic news, I’m pretty impressed with the center left of the DSA and various union groups in America recently. Going past the decorum and civility that is often used to stifle any meaningful action, and using tactics like this are one way to wrest some measure of power back for the people.
I’m understanding of the reactionary impulse, for the simple reason that I understand the craziness of our society. But I’m not always so forgiving on a personal level. I sort of know anxiety in others and in myself, although I’m more prone to unipolar depression, not so much anxiety and even less mania. I tend toward the numbness and apathy end of the scale. On a gut level, it’s hard for me to sense the attraction of the reactionary mind because to me it is just an irritant.
My sympathy only goes so far. I have an allergy to the reactionary. It’s far from being moral superiority. I simply find it tiring and draining, sometimes to the point of total exhaustion. When the reactionary vibe is turned on high, my depression shuts down my mind and emotions. I just can’t take it. I’ll sometimes lash out and I’ve been known to block or unfriend people. My psychological tolerance is extremely low.
This is what depresses me to an extreme when I see a left-winger turned reactionary. It happens way too often. Left-wingers, in particular, seem to be prone to falling into the reactionary mind. It’s their Achille’s Heel. Liberals tend to just become conservatives in a standard sense, not going for the full-blown reactionary right-wing. Liberals can be naive and pathetic, just not as often reactionary to an extreme. That said, liberals are easily swayed into submission when reactionaries come to power, and so it can be the same difference. The DNC has a reactionary vibe right now, the more they push to the far right to escape the political left.
Corey Robin talks of how easily bored reactionaries get. They need to be constantly excited, antagonized, energized, or whatever. They get a buzz from a state of anxiety, at times pushed to levels of cosmic battle and existential dread. It’s the attraction they have to violent imagery, rhetoric, and actions. Conflict gives them a sense of meaning and purpose. I’m too much of a pansy liberal for that. And I’m so sensitive that I avoid anything over-stimulating. When reactionaries talk about boredom, it is simply outside of my experience. I don’t get bored. The very idea of boredom seems bizarre to me, as does the dynamic between boredom and anxiety.
This is my personal bias. I can’t take personal credit for it, of course. It’s just the way I’ve been for as long as I can remember. Unipolar depression is plenty shitty in other ways. But, at least, no one has to worry about unipolar depressives taking over the world. Then again, after the collective anxiety levels get high enough, anything becomes possible. If nothing else, decorum and civility will go out the window for many of us as we feel pushed to the wall.
An example of my anti-reactionary predisposition came with the 9/11 terrorist attack. My response was world weariness. I had the instant thought that all of this was to be expected. I was the opposite of surprised. It elicited very little emotion in me.
I’d been hearing about terrorist attacks around the world for years and so it seemed inevitable that a terrorist attack would happen in the US. It gave form and evidence to the crappy feeling I had about the world, a crappy feeling that had been oppressing me for years.
All the news obsession, propaganda, and beating of the war drums was predictable as well and tiresome. It didn’t make me hate Muslims or Arabs. If anything, it made me hate my own country even more. The US had been spreading misery and despair around the world for longer than I’ve been alive.
I was in a severe state of depression back then. Depression is one of the most powerful inoculations for the reactionary virus. I was so depressed in that moment of my life that almost nothing could have touched me.
One thing that has been on my mind is that of suicides. Most people only pay attention to it as a public issue because some famous people killed themselves. But of course it is a much bigger problem. What is odd about it is that the suicide rate has gone up precisely during the past decades as the homicide rate was going down.
It popped up into my mind that maybe it has much to do with my generation, which has been reaching middle age. When younger, we had high rates of homicide. And now as we age, we are showing signs of other problems. My generation has always been problematic and the victims of problems (e.g., high lead toxicity rates. We are damaged goods.
That is personal in multiple ways. Besides being a GenX loser, I am prone to suicidal ideation and once upon a time I even attempted it, landing me in the loony bin for a brief vacation from the world. Such is why it is harder for me to resonate with the reactionary mind, as my natural response to a world gone reactionary is to want to kill myself — not exactly a fruitful line of action.
That would be a cure for the reactionary movement as a whole, though. If we had a way of afflicting the reactionary leadership (Trump, Bannon, Peterson, etc) with severe suicidal unipolar depression, the problem would solve itself. Reactionaries tend to project their hatred outward onto a scapegoat or simply onto the larger world, whereas depression is turning hatred inward.
For a social order, suicide is much more troubling because it demonstrates people have given up and that is when they are most dangerous in a deeper sense. Reactionaries can find a sense of meaning and purpose, at least in relation to what they are reacting toward. But in severe depression, it’s as if all feeling to life disappears, the deadening of affect — one’s psychological commitments to the world are retracted.
It makes me wonder about the relationship of anxiety and depression as the reactionary impulse takes hold and grows stronger. What do you think? Do you agree with Corey Robin’s perspective on reactionaries and boredom? And do you see it connected to anxiety? I sense a larger dynamic here. It might relate to why Clinton loss and Trump won, primarily not because of who voted but who didn’t. The political left has fallen into collective depression, along with the apathy that follows. Meanwhile, reactionaries at the moment seem highly motivated, relishing the left-wing decline.
There is something to it all. A pattern that needs to be sussed out.
Here is one view that I’ve come around to. As we are social creatures, ultimately everything we are and do is social in nature. That is true for all that is being discussed here and much else: reaction, anxiety, depression, suicide, addiction, etc (even personality traits follow along predictable and stereotypical regional patterns).
Of what brilliance some reactionaries have, it is in understanding this social dynamic. It’s what often sets them apart from mere conservatives. Reactionaries such as Bannon are seeking to create a social movement, in order to capitalize on our collective state of anxiety. And reactionaries such as Peterson want to save young men from depression, apparently by making them more anxious about the fate of Western civilization.
On the other hand, liberals (or what usually goes for liberals) seem to be incompetent when it comes to social movements or really a social response to anything. The response of liberals to what has been going on is to be perplexed. They didn’t see it coming and they don’t know what to do with it now it is here. This is because, as I argue, liberalism can’t operate under illiberal conditions. It breaks down, something the more insightful reactionaries are able to grasp and take advantage of.
We are all caught up in social patterns. Even reactionaries don’t really have a clue. They’re just better at reacting and the shittier it gets the more they love it. They get all excited. But reactionaries inevitably crash and burn, and sometimes take others down with them. Liberals are instead more of a slow burn that rarely shows much immediate results. To see the social pattern of liberalism, you have to look across generations and centuries. But in the short term, liberalism tends to look like a pathetic loser ideology, full of ideals and dreams while incapable of accomplishing anything.
There much else that is going on. And I can’t claim to understand a fraction of it. I just get the sense that we are trapped in these patterns. They are so hard to discern and even harder to do much about. It makes us all easily influenced and manipulated.
The part of reactionary thinking that appealed to me was, ironically the sense of having a continuity, and connection with history– you are part of a movement toward “ordered liberty” that reaches back to the Roman world– never mind that in that world it wasn’t unusual for both the military elites and the common people to express their displeasure with regimes by killing their rulers in the streets. Burke’s writing on the French Revolution seems haunted by this history more than any (then contemporary) awareness of “conditions on the ground” in France that were causing people to revolt. Reading Paine’s responses to Burke and his vision of what America could be were what made me realize that the only vision of America’s future that has any future is Paine’s democracy.
I do think Robin has a good thesis on reactionaries and boredom. I’m currently working through some writings on “Euro-modern Marxist” Walter Benjamin’s literary battles with the revolutionary right wing in Germany during the inter-war period. His thesis, as much as I can understand it ( I regret not learning French or German), was that “art for art’s sake”, the aesthetic sense, was being gratified through war and mass displays like Nuremberg. Ernst Junger’s ideas were similar, although he at first exalted events like WWI as the birth of something like a post-human future. I think these writers have under-appreciated potential for horror, which is why my last fiction post is an attempt to use some of their ideas ( I’ll have more soon ).
Junger’s work after WWII is much less studied than his inter-war writings supporting the German conservatives. While he never really disavowed his conservative cred, I wouldn’t lump him into the same category of reactionaries and post-Nazis that dedicated leftists usually consign him to. His writings on tyranny are almost an informal anatomy of power, in a completely different way from the French theorists ( although they can complement each other). He has a very strange, almost remote and distant sense of the world that benefits his writings about the regimentation of modern societies ( and it takes one to know one; I’m more inclined to listen to his words because of his past).
It’s intriguing how close Junger comes to the Frankfurt social critique; he even uses words like “automatism” to describe modern economies and combinations, which is similar to Adorno’s idea of standardization.
“All these liquidations, rationalizations…and pulverizations require neither culture nor character, both of which are a threat to the automatism. Wherever in our period power is essential, it is attracted by the individual in whom the insignificant is coupled with a strong will.
The extinction of free competition plays a special part, leading to a curious distortion. Where it ceases… the speed formerly produced by the race of competition must now be produced by fear.
In the one case the standards of efficiency depend on high pressure, in the other on a vacuum. There it is the winner who sets the pace, here it is the man who is worse off.
For this reason the state feels constantly compelled to subject a segment of its population to atrocities. [BOLD] Life has become gray, but it may well seem bearable to the man who, next to himself, sees the absolute black of utter darkness.” [/BOLD] – The Forest Passage
Yeah. Corey Robin discusses much about the reactionary sense of the past. He points out, though, that the emphasis is more on loss than continuity. His argument is that on some level the reactionary knows they are creating something radically new, not merely reinstituting ancient traditions. For example, Joseph de Maistre observed that conservatism appeared after and not before the decline and collapse of the ancien regime.
That is actually one part of the reactionary mind that I can resonate with. Everyone understands loss, but the reactionary puts it at the center of their world. The longing for continuity is a longing for a fantasy, of course. It is the moral imagining of something being salvaged in the wreckage of history, that maybe it isn’t too late to turn back — as William F. Buckley jr put it: “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
I sometimes feel that about modern industrialized capitalism. Many a left-winger, such as radical environmentalists like Derrick Jensen, have said similar things — nostalgically motivated by a different variety of haunted moral imagination (there is some interesting environmentalist writing about the idea of the world as ‘haunted’). There certainly is nothing inherently conservative about it, although this is what leads more than a few left-wingers into the pull of the reactionary. And I’ve felt that pull at times. We all have our weak spots. The sense of loss is pervasive in modernity, as so much has been destroyed, eroded, and forgotten — just faint traces remaining that can be occasionally discerned, enough to realize how far different was the past.
As I assume you know, I was raised by conservative parents and spent my young adulthood (from 8th grade to off and on for for a few years after high school) in the reactionary Deep South. That did influence me, in two ways. I did incorporate certain ‘conservative’ traits and to a greater extent than the average conservative. The main example of this is my embracing of the precautionary principle, which conservatives uphold in theory but less so in practice, hence demonstrating the reactionary strain in their thought. Actually following the precautionary principle might be one of the better protections against the reactionary, as it forces one to contend with the radical nature of the reactionary mind the context of radical modernity (i.e., the weirdness of the WEIRD).
The problem with the reactionary, in any of its forms, is that there really is no turning back. What is lost can’t always be saved or resurrected, certainly not in the exact form that once existed (not that there ever was any single form). But still we can and should learn from the past, which requires us to see past the fantasies of the past. There is a continuity of sorts, though not what reactionaries fantasize about. The past was more complex than is generally appreciated. Which parts of which past is one hoping to continue? Even progressive liberalism and radical leftism have their roots in the ancient world, specifically changes that happened in the Axial Age. There is no rational justification for the reactionary to pick and choose a few things to ‘save’, much of which has little to do with the actual past anyway.
What you write about Walter Benjamin and Ernest Junger interest me. Like much else, I have only a passing familiarity of those two thinkers, by way of references I’ve come across in writings. I’ll have to look further into that sometime, along with the thousand other things that capture my curiosity. Anyway, that is a great quote you shared.
I’ll add that I don’t have a problem with the modern world per se or think technology with it’s “levelling” effects ( to use one of R. Kirk’s favorite invective terms ) are bad things ( sometimes technological change or effects of it like climate change are [i]terrible[/i] , like Benjamin captures in his “Angel of History” concept) . I’ve always tended to favor that side of conservatism that advises standing back from the “realm of change” that is the world and observing from a place of Stoic and aesthetic detachment, but as I’ve read Paine and Locke and other thinkers I’m more convinced that as a political animal humans cannot do without social action, and the political subjectivity that arises in democracies is the furthest this has been carried to ( not often, as most of our history has shown ). Locke didn’t go far enough with his ideas on liberty and the populace, otherwise he would have arrived at something like Paine’s thought near a half century earlier.
Your view seems less the anxiety-and-boredom-driven extremes of the reactionary mind. Rather, it’s more akin to the mood of philosophical pessimism, philosophical horror, or a gnostic-like sensibility.
I can completely sympathize with “standing back” in “Stoic and aesthetic detachment”. If capable, I’d prefer to stay detached. But I never seem capable of it or else it feels like the world as it is won’t allow me. The impulse behind detachment is partly a longing for simplicity. Isolated or relatively isolated indigenous hunter-gather tribesmen don’t sit around worrying about the larger world, much feeling anxious and bored as their immediate lives, families, communities, etc keep them preoccupied.
The fact of the matter is most of the billions of people in the world right now don’t live such simple lives. It’s just not a choice, unless total collapse of civilization happens along with mass death. Reactionaries may fantasize about such catastrophe as a threatening inspiration, but no one really wants the incomprehensible suffering that would necessitate. Even if humanity as we know it was wiped out, we still wouldn’t return to how the world was in the past. It would be something radically new arising out of the rubble and ashes of civilization. There is no way of getting around the past being lost forever.
We might as well embrace what is happening, the irreversible path forward, and hope to redirect it toward a happier result for all or at least most involved. I sure hope that optimists like Thomas Paine turn out to be right in the capacity for humans to take the best from the past and cobble together an even better future.
Here’s another idea– I think it was in Michael Moorcock’s essay on fantasy fiction, “Epic Pooh”, where he observes that the great canon of “weird” and fantasy writers like Tolkien and Lovecraft were extremely conservative, and could only conceive of urban life as a smoking pit of hellish appetites and miserable squalor, so they yearned for an idealized rural or antiquated world ( I think he was somewhat wrong about the quality of Tolkien’s writing, but the main point stands).
This dislike bordering on horror of the city is a large part of reactionary thinking today, even when it doesn’t always line up with what people actually value ( rural fisherman and outdoors types are often more interested in ecological preservation than big city liberals in practice ). It’s a large part of the conservative imagination; but what happens when people who disdain urban life are tasked with governing populations who mostly live in cities? Hence the importance of creating another vision, that sees possibilities in the things that conservatives turn away from and liberals neglect through the haze of their own farts.
A number of people have made the connection between horror fiction and conservative ideology. I’ve had observations along these lines. There might be a post directly about the topic and several others that touch on it.
I totally agree about the “dislike bordering on horror of the city”. That is why, as with liberalism, I see the reaction to liberalism as being rooted in the Axial Age. That was the first era of mass displacement and urbanization, multiculturalism and cosmopolitianism. It followed the collapse of the smaller-scale Bronze Age civilization. The new empires and city-state coalitions brought on radically new ways of living and thinking. An example of this is how a large number of classical ‘Greek’ thinkers weren’t even ethnically Greek. But there are many other examples, specifically in terms of the abrupt rise and embracing of syncretism with diverse cultures colliding and merging into other forms. There was such things as Hellenism but even the Jews were mixing things up with versions of hybrid religiosity with forms of Yahweh-Zeus.
Empires like that of the Romans kicked it up into high gear with diverse populations like never seen before (e.g., a Buddhist monastery near Jesus’ supposed home during his lifetime). Later on Augustine converted to Christianity from his earlier Manichaeanism, the latter of which was a syncretic tradition that combined a Jewish baptismal cult, Buddhism, and much else. And of course, Christianity succeeded by borrowing a little bit of everything from what was floating around at the time: Zoroastrian dualism, Neoplatonic Judaism, Mystery cults, Virgin Isis worship, resurrection godmen, Stoic natural law and martyrdom, etc. This is why Axial Age religions, despite containing the seeds of liberalism, are so often useful toward the reactionary vision. This is true with later forms of these religions such as how the Protestant Reformation enforced a new secularism and individualism that set the stage for the Enlightenment while also creating the conditions for counter-revolutionary authoritarianism.
In all of this, the reactionary gained foothold. Every tradition that formed and survived did so by becoming reactionary to varying degrees. It was one of the greatest periods of tumultuous change in human history, in some ways more radically transformative than even the Enlightenment Age. And more than anything, the stresses of crowded city life is what made this possible. These stresses affect us all, including liberals and left-wingers. No one is immune to the reactionary impulse, and that is ever more true as the stresses push to worse extremes. Before it’s all over, everyone might end up a reactionary of one sort or another — all the more reason to understand the phenomenon of the reactionary mind.
The city life angle is quite important. And I’m not sure Corey Robin ever touches upon it. But it has been a focus of mine for a long time, longer than I’d known about any notion of the reactionary mind. The reactionary frame, though, helped me to develop my thinking further… beyond a philosophical stance and environmentalist critique, from the left-libertarian Transcendentalism of Henry David Thoreau to the left-anarchist green rage of Derrick Jensen.
One early insight I got was from a different but related perspective. I came across it in Jackson Lear’s Rebirth of a Nation. It’s about the Populist Era. It was powerfully fueled by the reactionary mind, the reason for why some thinkers (e.g., Richard Hofstadter) have considered the original Populism to have been right-wing. There was much fear about mass urbanization and mass immigration leading to multiculturalism, not to mention the fear of city life making boys effeminate and the general loss of manhood and rites to adulthood, which led to the creation of the national park system, Boy Scouts, American imperialism, and much else.
But that response to the urban can be seen in earlier eras. It happened with the mass urbanization during the enclosure movement that ended feudalism and sent the landless serfs into the cities. That is the main cause of much tumult: Peasant’s Revolt, English Civil War, early modern revolutionary era, etc. Burke was responding to the fears of that era of mass urbanization, something Paine not only saw with his own eyes but experienced in his own life in terms of being thrown amidst those throngs of landless serfs. Going further back, the likes of Socrates and Plato gave early voice to the reactionary turn, the terror the new urban elite had toward the new urban masses.
This reactionary response is a visceral component of the human psyche as it is forced into unnatural social conditions. It has been shown in scientific research that conservatives have a strong fear-and-disgust response, as related to a larger and more active amygdala. I came across further evidence to explain how this relates to city life — as summarized by Susan L. Prescott and Alan C. Logan (The Secret Life of Your Microbiome, p. 28):
“In a series of recent brain imaging studies, Korean researchers have compared brain responses to urban built environments and rural nature scenes, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The results of their studies have been remarkably consistent — scenes of natural environments increase the activity in brain regions associated with positive mood, emotional stability, sharing resources, empathy, and love [i.e., liberal mind]. Again, this study was not set up as an act of contemplation; images of nature were presented in a two-minute block, but the researchers showed a new image every couple of seconds. By comparison, city scenes reliably increased the activity in the amygdalae. These almond-shaped structures are known as the fear centers because they proc threat, arousal, and risk assessment [i.e., reactionary mind].”
Ironically, it is the reactionary mind that complains about urbanization that is so empowered and energized by the stresses of city life.