A Manifesto of Meaninglessness

Yet another righteous declaration from the self-proclaimed moral middle, Centrism: A Moderate Manifesto. It’s written by Bo Winegard over at Quillette.

It doesn’t seem particularly coherent, except maybe on an emotional level. It comes across as uninformed and inapplicable platitudes, along with some moralistic patronizing. More of a description of a personality type or a psychological attitude than a political position. The author is basically saying he wants to be a good person and doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Ya know, why can’t everyone just get along?

I’m not going to argue against that sentiment. But there needs to be some meat on the bone, if we are to make a meal out of it.

“The centrist, like the conservative, is therefore worried about radical utopian proposals because the centrist fears that they might inspire dramatic alterations that upset a reasonably successful social order.”

Many people are worried about radical utopian proposals. The minor detail is that those such as myself see the rhetoric of the status quo as radically utopian.

Capitalist realism with its ideals of free markets freeing the world, meritocracy freeing human potential, and creative destruction freeing innovation. Geopolitical neoconservatism proclaiming to spread democracy around the world by force of superior moral example and moral righteousness, in the form of a Whiggish Holy War of Manifest Destiny. Paternalistic Technocracy of learned professionals, wise leaders, and maybe even an enlightened aristocracy.

Is this what such centrists are in the center of? If so, such centrists are radical utopians because the reality on the ground doesn’t match this ungrounded ideological optimism (or rather dogmatic arrogance). Besides, our country is rare in the world for having been founded on soaring idealism, even though it has become co-opted by the reactionaries and authoritarians in power.

I’m not clear what claims of being realistic mean in all of this. Realism always necessitates an ideology by which to judge reality. Almost everyone perceives reality as being on their side. So, whose realism are we talking about? Does this supposed centrist see himself at the center of reality itself?

“So far, so conservative. This sounds like a modern version of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy. But, there are two great differences between the centrism here conceived and conservatism: (1) Centrism does not loath change and (2) it does not accept a transcendental (religious) moral order.”

It does have much in common with Burke’s views. More than the author realizes. Even the supposed differences mentioned don’t apply, which is why it is important to be well informed.

Burke was in the progressive party, the Whigs. He often supported political reform. He was a conservative only in Corey Robin’s sense of the reactionary mind. He was seeking reform in response to a failed traditional order. Burke did not loathe change. In fact, he supported change so far as to support the American Revolution, up to the point that Independence was declared (as he remained loyal to the British Empire, even as he wanted the status quo improved).

On the second point, Burke didn’t believe in a transcendental (religious) moral order. He wasn’t a believer in natural law, although interestingly many early leftists were (and many still are, such as progressive Evangelicals, New Thought Christians, and New Agers). Rather, Burke was a critic of natural law, specifically as a basis of social order and a political system.

“The great conservatives of the past–Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Klemens von Metternich, John Calhoun, T.S. Eliot, et cetera–often evinced a peculiarly fervid attachment to the current social order”

It depends on which individual in relation to which aspect of which then current social order.

Because of his Whiggish progressiveness and reform-mindedness, many arguments have been made for Burke as a liberal, in the way that Locke was a liberal (both having a reactionary aspect that would show up in certain areas, but that is true of many liberals today in the Democratic Party). Remember that Burke was for revolution before he was against it, as initially no one knew what revolution would mean, and obviously Burke didn’t immediately see it as threatening.

Even Calhoun has been categorized as a liberal by Domenico Losurdo, from his European left-wing perspective, and he makes an interesting argument. Calhoun talked of the necessity of divided power and the protection of minorities, even as he defended slavery (many liberals back then weren’t abolitionists).

The centrism being described in the article sounds like what one person called melancholy liberalism:

“Part of the strength of that liberalism has been its power of self-criticism. […] what differentiates liberalism from socialism and premodern conservatism is its conviction that there is no permanent solution to the problems of politics […] as we come up against environmental and economic limits to progress. The conclusion is premature. Much of the globe still lacks the freedom that the West takes for granted; and it is precisely at moments of discouragement that liberalism itself is most vulnerable to attacks from more confident and simplistic ideologies. The beleaguered tradition needs, and deserves, not just critics but celebrants.”

I’m sympathetic with this attitude and worldview. During a transitional period of my life, I was drawn to this melancholy liberalism and drawn to the appeals of moderation and centrism. My present leftism has been an attempt to shake myself free from this narrow thinking.

To return to the Quillette article:

“The conservative is correct that the past is full of wisdom for the future; but the progressive is correct that the past is also full of errors, dogmas, and barbarism. Perhaps one could put it this way: The past is like an old, unused, and rotting library; the books are full of wisdom, but the building is ruined by insects and decay. The conservative wants to keep the library; the centrist wants to keep the books; and the progressive wants to burn the whole thing down and start over.”

Liberalism was founded on an Enlightenment worldview that looked to the past. Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionary leaders were constantly referencing the ancient Greco-Roman world along with the early history of Europe and the British Isles. It related to why they were prone to invoke natural law, a Greek philosophy that had been used by Stoics (and, following their example, early Christians) to challenge imperial authority.

What kind of demented person sees progressives as wanting to burn the whole thing down and start over? The author here shows his reactionary side, a fear of even mild leftism as a danger to the existing social order.

“Centrism, then, is defined by a number of assumptions and tendencies; it is not defined by policy dogmas. Below is an undoubtedly incomplete but useful list of these assumptions and attitudes: (1) Mistrust and disdain for extreme proposals and actions.”

That is true of many people. Only a minority of people anywhere on the political spectrum would embrace extreme proposals and actions. But it always depends on who is defining extreme.

Those on the political left often see the political right as extreme. And as extremist neoliberals and neocons control our society, many outside of the center of power see centrists as extreme, specifically in that the center of power contradicts and subverts the center of majority public opinion. I’ve often noted, on many important issues, how far right self-proclaimed centrists are in comparison to most Americans.

With this in mind, I’ve asked: Is there a balance point in a society of extremes? What can centrism and moderation mean?

Now to the second defining assumption and tendency of ‘centrism’:

“(2) Mistrust of grand political theories or systems.”

That’s fine. Few ascribe to grand political theories or systems. That isn’t how most people think. But there are always grand political theories and systems playing in the background.

Being a ‘centrist’ doesn’t save one from this fate, considering that the status quo itself is built on grand political theories and systems, one of the grandest (i.e., largest and most encompassing) in all of world history. The status quo that dominates is also quite absolutist in its claims on reality, which is the ground upon which centrists base their moral authority to judge others.

“(3) Skepticism about the goodness of human nature.”

Skepticism in general is found among a wide variety of people. Leftists and left-liberals have a strong skeptical tradition. It’s the reason many of them prefer to focus on systems and environmental conditions, rather than placing their faith in an inherently good human nature that will win out against oppressive evil.

Most people across the political spectrum, including conservatives and right-wingers, think of human goodness as more of a potential than anything else. That isn’t meant to dismiss the genuine disagreements about that human potential.

“(4) Desire to seek compromise and form large coalitions.”

Anyone who knows history knows that compromise and large coalitions have been found among diverse ideological groups and movements. This was particularly true of the political left. The early European workers movement included Marxists, communists, socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, libertarians, etc. And similar to Martin Luther King jr, the Black Panthers early on sought alliances with a wide variety of others: feminists, Native American activists, and poor white groups.

What we see of the left is splintered and beleaguered by generations of oppression and persecution. Cold War witch-hunts, COINTELPRO, and union-busting have had a devastating effect. The once large and diverse leftist coalitions in the US are now but a memory, although there are many on the left who have continuously fought to rebuild them.

“(5) Pragmatic emphasis on science, evidence, and truth.”

What does this have to do with centrism? Scientists and other professionals dealing with evidence (and truth) hold different ideologies, including on the far left and far right. And a wide variety, specifically on the political left, support scientists in this endeavor.

Among those who celebrated the hope and sought the pragmatic application of science included: Nazis, Soviets, and Maoists; New Dealers, eugenicists, and race realists; Progressives, Objectivists, and Libertarians; left-wingers, right-wingers, and centrists; et cetera. Only those like anarchist environmentalists and extreme New Agers along with the most reactionary of right-wingers have consistently and entirely dismissed the dominant scientific paradigm.

This past century has been ruled by science and it required a contrarian attitude to oppose it.

“(6) A healthy admiration for patriotism and a distrust of identity politics.”

Patriotism is a form of identity politics. People hold many identities. In the 19th century, it was common for Americans to identify with their state or their region, not with the country as a whole and certainly not with the federal government. Many others have identified with their ethnic group or religion. The average person has always had multiple identities that overlap and sometimes contradict.

Identity politics isn’t a new invention. Our country was founded on identity politics, specifically that of an institutionalized and legally-enforced racial order that dominated every aspect of life, economy, and politics. Even feminism was a growing political movement prior to the American Revolution, although suppressed for a while following that. If present identity politics gets your panties in a wad, the identity politics of the early twentieth century would have scared you shitless.

“(7) A steadfast dedication to rule of law and fidelity to constitutional principles.”

Few are absolutely against rule of law and constitutional principles. It depends on the political order.

Every major society that ever existed had rule of laws and many had constitutional principles. Saudi Arabia has theocratic rule of law and the Islamic centrists living there have steadfast dedication to rule of law. The Soviet Union and Maoist China were constitutional republics where fidelity to constitutional principles was considered the social norm.

So, what point is the author trying to make?

“For the centrist, one of the more disturbing trends of the past 15 years is the radical moralization of policy preferences.”

Radical and moralization are the kind of words that means many things to many people. To me, radical just means going to the roots (of human nature, an ideological worldview, a belief system, a social order, a country’s founding, or a civilizational project). What one does after getting to the root is another matter — root it out like a weed, pick out the grubs, replant it elsewhere, or whatever else.

“There are many good-natured people on both sides of this debate. However, many on the Left not only disagree with restrictive immigration laws, they denounce those who support them.”

Many? Is the author implying that there are more on the left that denounce those not on the left than those on the right who denounce those not on the right? And why does the author as a self-proclaimed ‘centrist’ pretend to stand above the fray in denouncing others?

“That thought should chasten us and cause us to be as tolerant of the failings of our fellow citizens as we wish our descendants to be of us. Perhaps this is what centrism really is: a tolerant smile at the recognition that we are human, all too human.”

That really says nothing at all. That we are human, all too human is no grand insight of rare wisdom. It’s a fairly standard view.

The crux of the matter is what kind of tolerance toward which humans in which context. Is the author tolerant even of those who are intolerant of tolerance, those who would seek to undermine and destroy it? Should the American Revolutionaries have tolerated the British Empire and British East India Company? Should the slaves in the South tolerated their violent oppressors? Should the Jewish freedom fighters have tolerated the Nazis? Should Native Americans have tolerated those killing them and taking their land? Should workers have tolerated the abusive and corrupt Robber Barons?

What is the alternative? Would peaceful protests, petitions, and hunger strikes have stopped such evil? And what about the present evil of a two party system that promotes vast inequality, a permanent underclass, mass incarceration, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, a military industrial complex, CIA covert operations used to oppress populations and overthrow governments, near continuous wars of aggression around the world, invasion and occupation of numerous countries, the terrorizing and dislocating and killing of millions of people year after year, and on and on?

What morally sane person would want to claim a centrist position amidst such horrifying suffering and oppression?

* * *

Some helpful views from the comment section:

Speaker To Animals
September 1, 2017
“In most of the United States, for example, sex cannot be bought and sold legally. There are, of course, reasonable arguments for the legalization of prostitution, but it is not immediately obvious that society would be better if all potential market transactions were allowed.”
This raises the question of which ‘centre’ centrism is based on – the centre of the sates in which prostitution, for instance, is illegal or the centre where it is not?
Here in the U.K. prostitution is not illegal. Most people think it is, but it isn’t; practices associated with prostitution, such as soliciting and running a brothel are illegal, but not the sale of sex itself. Elsewhere in Europe there are countries where selling sex is legal but purchasing sex is not. In much of the rest of the world it is illegal for a woman to show her hair in public.
What you call centerism is just your own societies status quo. Defending the status quo is fine if you live in a liberal society but not when you live elsewhere. Why not just defend liberalism and call it liberalism?

Keith Ammann
September 1, 2017
   The author mischaracterizes progressivism. It’s not looking to burn down the library or anything in it. It wants to build a library that’s capable of accommodating new books. If the old library can be repaired and expanded, great. If not, demolishing and rebuilding it is simply common sense.
Also, the author condemns the left’s “radical moralization of policy preferences.” I would point out that many of these “preferences” are actively undermining the 20th-century international human rights consensus. Given the atrocities that led to the establishment of this consensus (in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”), how can we consider attacks on this consensus to be anything BUT a moral issue, perhaps the most important one of our era? Should we excuse policies that overtly and aggressively assault people’s rights and dignity, that dismiss equal justice, civil liberties, freedom of conscience, and economic security and opportunity, as mere differences of opinion about which people can disagree and still get along? If “Philando is a human being, as deserving of life as I am” is a radical moral position, then I have no use for any centrism that shies away from it.

stephencataldo
September 1, 2017
At least at the start with broad strokes, I feel very comfortable calling myself a centrist by that definition: not a Republican, not a utopian calling on us to trust our neighbors unaware of human instincts or game theory.

Here however is the bs that gets moderates correctly mocked:
“the centrist has no sympathy for crowds shouting, “Jews will not replace us.” But it is crucial to remain committed to the rule of law and to protect free speech.”
If you want to represent moderates, if you want moderation to rebuild the center of American politics, then when people fly swastikas you need to be there. You need a plan, you need to do organizing. When you say “no sympathy,” that is the same as the centrists who had no sympathy for the original Nazis, closing the shutters on their windows and leaving it to someone else to do the work.
Moderation doesn’t need the defense given here. I think most people — certainly most of the left out to the Sanders or Chomsky edge — have an idea of human nature, have an idea of the value of the democratic movements that came mostly out of part of Europe (though I would rather be more specific.) Moderation needs to have politically crushed the Birthers and now the Alt-Right, ok, choose the methods, but you have to do the work to get to the end result.
The broad strokes ring true: No wild Communist revolutions. Instead, breaking up monopolies, national healthcare, making sure that everyone has job opportunities with dignity, and you’re going to come up with a real plan for getting the Nazis to be again unacceptable, rather than complain about the people trying something, right? The problem with moderation in America is not that it lacks respect from left or right — it’s not a philosophical problem — but that it is too apathetic and doesn’t do the organizing work. You can see something similar on the left: you talk about Antifa, which is a microscopic organization that liberals all the way out to Chomsky (well past Sanders) think is counter-productive. They organize.
The extremes are out-organizing the middle. To me the middle is single-payer health care; to you it might be something else. But screw the philosophy, almost everyone wants to be a moderate, almost no one wants to work. But 10,000 moderates on the street next time the Nazis have a rally, instead of having only thousands of liberals and dozens or a 100 or so Antifa show up.

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The Way of Radical Imagination

Someone questioned me about what is radical imagination. I wasn’t sure if they were being merely disingenuous in playing Devil’s advocate as an intellectual pose. An intellectual debate about the issue wouldn’t have brought either of us closer to understanding.

Anyone who has ever had their mind shook loose by seeing in a new way knows the power of radical imagination, whether or not they could explain it. Radical means that which goes to the root. As such, radical imagination is what has the capacity to shake us to our foundation or send us tumbling down unexplored caverns.

The intellectual who was interrogating me seems more attracted to the dark imagination than to the radical imagination, not that the two are mutually exclusive. He considers himself a radical and yet he apparently has a hard time imagining what exists outside of the iron prison. I get the sense that he has come to romanticize dystopia and apocalypse, which he rationalizes as his seeking to understand. The danger is that it can lead to a mirror image of the dogmatic utopian, exchanging one absolutist fantasy for another.

I’m not dismissing this motivation to bleakly stare down ugly truths. Some of my favorite writers leaned heavily in this direction. There is a dark bent to Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, etc; but their speculations didn’t end in mere gloomy cynicism. They were always looking beyond. Even a perverse and pessimistic visionary like William S. Burroughs sought to creatively portray alternative societies and other ways of being.

In my own sense of radical imagination, what drives my thinking is a profound epistemological dissatisfaction and ideological disloyalty, not just toward the status quo but also toward much of what opposes it. I’ve grown tired of predictable conflicts that endlessly repeat, like some cosmic tragicomedy. Each side reinforces the other, making victory for either side impossible. Radical imagination, however, seeks to escape this trap.

No amount of studying the hegemonic order will necessarily help one to see the hidden aporia and lacuna, the gaps in the structure. Negative capability is only useful to the degree that it opens the mind to negative space as creative void and a passageway through. The darkness can paralyze us in blind immobility or it can shift our perception into other senses.

The stakes are high. And the consequences all too personal. It goes far beyond any social order. This touches upon our humanity, the psychological reality of our being.

We stand in a hallway of doors, not knowing what is behind them. The entire social reality we live within is that hallway. We stand there in that tight place, the crowd shuffling back and forth. Groups form taking up different positions along the hallway and sometimes fight with the other groups. A few curious souls notice the doors themselves, but the doors remain unopened. That hallway is warm and safe. We are surrounded by the familiar and we have no fear of loneliness.

But what if some of the doors were cracked open, allowing one to barely glimpse something else? What then? Radical imagination is that inability to ignore the light coming through the crack, the temptation to press against the door, the curiosity about what is on the other side.

 

Predicting an Age of Paine

Thomas Paine was the most radical of the main founders. He was close friends with many of the other founders and they respected him. Some of them even saw him key to the success of the Revolution. Even John Adams, in criticizing Paine, acknowledged his importance — referring to the “age of Paine”. Most Americans don’t realize how radical was the American Revolution. Originally, the word ‘revolution’ just meant a cycle, as it was referred to astrology and astronomy. Civilizations rose and collapsed, in cycles. But the American Revolution didn’t just demonstrate a cycle for it created something entirely new. That is how the word ‘revolution’ gained a new meaning.

I’ve had a prediction. I don’t make too many predictions. But this one I’ve been saying maybe since the Bush administration. Here it is. If there is ever a major Hollywood movie or cable series about Thomas Paine (like the HBO series about John Adams), it will be a sign that the US is on the verge of revolutionary-scale changes.

We haven’t yet seen such a major production about Thomas Paine. But I did notice a smaller production. It is a one-actor play written and acted by Ian Ruskin, To Begin the World Over Again. It was filmed last year, recently played on PBS, and is available online. Sadly, few people probably have heard about it, much less watched it. I can only hope that it might inspire someone else to do something further with the story of Paine’s life. He wasn’t just the most radical of the founders, as he also led the most interesting life. If the life of the excruciatingly boring John Adams can be made into a successful HBO series, then an HBO series about the adventurous, rabble-rousing and wide-traveling Paine would be pure entertainment.

I watched Ruskin’s portrayal with my father. He enjoyed it, I suppose. He had a hard time understanding my prediction, why more Americans learning about the radicalism at the heart of American history would in any way inspire change or indicate change already under way, something that seems obvious to me. From a conservative perspective, Paine came off as a bit socialist to my father, which misses the context of that era of feudalism ending while colonial corporatism and plantation slavery took its place. And he thought Paine had a bit of a bad attitude, constantly complaining.

But I noted that Paine didn’t make it a practice of personally attacking others, particularly not others who didn’t first personally attack him or betray him, as he perceived having been done by George Washington in abandoning Paine for political convenience. Besides, how does one have a positive attitude about a world full of suffering? And how does one relate well to those benefiting from that suffering? It’s specifically Paine’s bad attitude that I respect to such a degree, as it was a moral righteousness fueled by compassion. I will never judge anyone for hating oppressive power with all their heart and soul. If that is a bad attitude, then I too have a bad attitude.

Washington was a man of respectability who dedicated his entire life to playing the role of enlightened aristocrat, even when that meant suppressing his own beliefs such as deism and sacrificing personal relationships such as with Paine. That is something Paine couldn’t understand for all the suffering, oppression, and injustice in the world was extremely personal for those who were its victims and for those who put their lives on the line. Paine identified with the downtrodden, as he didn’t have the privilege of an aristocrat to stand above it all. Paine knew poverty and struggle on a concrete level of life experience, in a way that was simply incomprehensible to someone like Washington who existed in a world of wealth, luxury, pleasure, and slaves serving his every need and want.

Obviously, ‘revolution’ meant very different things to these men. The Federalists like Washington simply wanted to reestablish centralized power as quickly as possible in order to put the people back in their place and once again enforce a social order ruled by an elite. There was no question that the same Americans who fought British oppression should be oppressed by Washington when they kept on demanding their rights, as happened in the violent attack on Shay’s Rebellion. The revolution was over when the elite said it was over. Washington had no intention in allowing a democracy to form. Neither did John Adams, who as president passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a pure expression of anti-democratic authoritarianism that demonstrated the true intentions of the (pseudo-)Federalists and proved right the Anti-Federalists (i.e., true Federalists advocating the democratic republicanism of decentralized Confederation). Those like Paine understood all too well the game being played and they had no interest in trading one oppressive rule for another.

Thomas Paine represents the radicalism that many Americans have forgotten, not unlike how many British had forgotten the radicalism of the English Civil War. Anything that would cause the scales of historical amnesia to fall away from the public’s eyes would be a radical act. Radicalism always begins in small ways, often by a few people standing up and speaking out. From there, no one knows what will follow. In a recent post, S.C. Hickman described Paine’s left-wing politics and asked, “Where is the Thomas Paine for our time?” Well, centuries ago, those like Paine asked similar questions. The simple truth is that no one is born a radical. There are potential revolutionaries among us at this very moment. The question is how do the rabble-rousers get noticed and get heard in a political and media system more tightly controlled than the pre-revolutionary British Empire. Radicalism is already in the air. It’s just a matter of what will follow.

 

The Reactionary Mind in a Reactionary Age

The reactionary mind has interested me as much, if not more, than the bicameral mind. Corey Robin was my introduction to the former, although maybe that credit should be given to Richard Hofstadter. Robin’s book on the topic was enlightening. But soon after reading it, I wished someone had also written book like it about liberals.

I’m not sure it matters, though. I’ve since come to the conclusion that conservatives and liberals are kin, existing on a continuum and even of the same essence, together forming a shared dynamic. I’ve even gone so far as to argue that we live in an all-encompassing liberal age and that, therefore, conservatism is just another variety of liberalism. Conservatism, for sure, is a particularly reactionary variety of liberalism. That doesn’t let liberalism off the hook. The reactionary mind is inherent within the liberal paradigm, a necessary consequence. Or here is another thought: Maybe the reactionary mind precedes both. That is a much more interesting line of thought.

The impulse to categorize people, according to ideologies or otherwise, goes back to the post-bicameral Axial Age. That era was when reactionary politics, such as among the Greek philosophers, first became apparent—and when rhetoric began to develop. Bicameral societies (and other pre-Axial societies), on the other hand, would have had no place for the reactionary mind.

Just some ideas rolling around in my head. My inspiration came from perusing some articles and blog posts about reactionary politics, specifically in terms of Corey Robin and one of his critics, Mark Lilla. I haven’t yet read any books by the latter.

I might note that Robin is a leftist of some kind who is critical of liberals as well as conservatives while Lilla is a (former?) conservative who dislikes what he perceives as the mob of Tea Party libertarians. So, as Lilla longs for the supposed moderate conservatism of yesteryear, Robin strongly argues that no such thing ever existed. On the other hand, someone noted that Lilla’s views may have shifted in his latest writings, undermining some of his past criticisms of Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism.

It should be pointed out that Robin is in good company in making his argument. There was a right-winger during the French Revolution who observed that conservatism only comes into existence after traditionalism is on the wane. That is to say conservatism isn’t traditionalism but a response to its loss, but then again liberalism is also a response to the same thing. The issue, in that case, being what is the difference between response and reaction.

It’s interesting to see these learned thinkers grapple with such issues. But my recent preoccupation with Jaynesian theory (and related views) has led me down other pathways. I wonder if the likes of Robin and Lilla aren’t probing deep enough or going back as far as they should (Lilla, though, might be looking at some earlier origins). Also, maybe they are constrained by their focus on political history and their omission of the truly fascinating research done in classical studies and the social sciences. There seems to be a particular worry and wariness about dealing with the messiness of psychology, i.e., the basic level of human nature that precedes and permeates all ideologies.

My basic sense, in reading some of the analyses and responses by and to Robin and Lilla, is that there is much confusion about the reactionary mind. What exactly is it? What causes it? And what purpose does it serve? The main confusion being its relationship to conservatism. Is there anything to conservatism besides reaction? For that matter, does or can conservatism exist outside of the liberal paradigm (and if not what does that say about liberalism in its relationship to the reactionary mind)?

The latter brings me to some thoughts from this past year, in watching the campaign season spiral into standard American psychosis. Why are liberals so prone to falling into reactionary thought, either temporarily or permanently? And when liberals permanently get stuck in a reactionary mindset, why it they so often if not always become conservatives or right-wingers (or else anti-leftists)? Just look back at liberals during the Cold War when liberals were among the harshest critics and most dangerous opponents of left-wingers. Or look at the study done on liberals after 9/11, those who saw repeated video of the attack became more supportive of Bush’s War on Terror. If liberals aren’t liberal when it really matters, then what is liberalism?

I’m also brought to questions about the moral imagination, the social construction of reality, symbolic conflation, and much else. I have no clear conclusions. Just wondering about what it all means and what it says about the world we find ourselves in, how we got here and where we might be heading.

More than anything, I wonder what all the reaction is about. We are dominated by reaction. Why is that? What is being reacted to? Reasons that reactionaries give change over time, from generation to generation, century to century, and yet the basic reactionary mindset remains unchanging, maybe for millennia. Is reaction inevitable? Or have earlier societies found other ways of dealing with change and uncertainty?

* * *

Roads Not Taken: Mark Lilla on Political Reaction
By Daniel McCarthy, The New York Times

LILLA’S FORTHCOMING SHIPWRECK
By Gabriel Sanchez, Opus Publicum

How Does the Mind of the Political Reactionary Work?
By Hans Rollman, Pop Matters

The Flight 93 Election
By Publius Decius Mus, Claremont Institute

“What’s it all about, boy? Elucidate!” – or – How To Avoid Huge, Shipwrecked Minds
by John Holbo, Crooked Timber

Here’s the most powerful (and chilling) case for Trump you’ll ever hear
By Damon Linker, The Week

Reactionaries In Our Time
By Rod Dreher, The American Conservative

Republicans for Revolution
By Lilla, The New York Review of Books

‘The Reactionary Mind’: An Exchange
By Corey Robin, reply by Mark Lilla, NYB

Contraception and Counterrevolution
By David V. Johnson, interview w/ Corey Robin, Boston Review

Wrong Reaction
By Alex Gourevitch, Jacobin

Lilla v. Robin
by Henry, Crooked Timber

Online Fracas for a Critic of the Right
By Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times

Mark Lilla’s Truly Awful Review of Corey Robin’s Book
By Andrew Hartman, S-USIH

Redefining the Right Wing
By Daniel Larison, The New Inquiry

Reactionary Minds
By Ari Kohen, blog

Conservatives and reactionaries
By John Quiggin, Crooked Timber

Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years
By Rick Perlstein, Rolling Stone

The Reactionary Libertarian
By A. Jay Adler, the sad red earth

To Become Radical in a Time of Change

I’ve identified as a liberal, ever since I was old enough to think about such things. My liberalism means a number of things. I’m most fundamentally psychologically liberal, and so it is a personal sensibility and identity. But I’m also socially and culturally liberal, which is the basis of my worldview and the way I relate to others. As far as ideology goes, I’m broadly liberal in supporting democracy.

All combined, I don’t know how not to be liberal. It is my fate. It is the core of my being.

I’m consistently principled in my liberalism. It isn’t about party politics. For this reason, I’m more radical than and more critical of what goes for liberalism in the mainstream. Also, my radicalism has increased over time. I’ve become more radical precisely because of my liberalism. I’m not radical by predisposition. It’s just that, according to my liberal values, radicalism naturally follows as a moral response to present conditions in our society.

I see no way of genuinely being liberal without becoming radical. I’d rather be a moderate, if I lived in an ideal world and a just society. But I have to deal with this world I was born into.

This puts me into an odd position. I defend my liberalism because it is core to who I am, for good or bad. I understand the complaints against liberalism and often agree with them. My values of liberalism are what make me critical of the liberalism I see that contradicts those values. Much of what gets called liberalism doesn’t seem liberal to me, by any fundamental sense of the word, at least to my liberal mind.

What got me thinking about this is the recent Ferguson protests. Because of social media, I’ve been more connected to the local activist community. This led me to get more involved than I normally am, at least in recent years. There aren’t many blacks in this small Midwestern liberal college town (Iowa City), but there presence is significant enough. We have one of the highest racial disparities for arrests in the country. The local rallies and marches have been organized by the blacks who live here, most probably being college students.

I’ve been closely observing events and discussions. I’m always curious about what things signify at a deeper level.

This town is atypical in many ways, including the type of black living here, especially in terms of activists. There are poor blacks here, often referred to as “those people from Chicago”. But I’m not sure about the backgrounds of the local black activists, probably less likely to have come from the most impoverished inner city neighborhoods. What has stood out to me, in interacting with them, is how lacking in radicalism they are, as far as I can tell so far. Their demands seem completely in line with a simplistic identity politics narrative. Most of the local radicals, instead, are white (see here and here). One local left-winger I’ve been talking to does know of one black radical in a nearby city, Cedar Rapids, who is critical of identity politics… but he apparently hasn’t yet spoken out publicly.

I know black radicals are protesting in other cities and doing so vocally. I know black radicalism has a long established history in this country. Yet the black leadership, just like the white leadership, is typically moderate. Most of the protest messages play right into the mainstream racial narrative.

What I also have noticed is the absence and/or silence of other minority perspectives in this town (with 17.5% total minority population, about equal parts black, Hispanic, and Asian; along with a small percentage of other non-white races/ethnicities). I’m not sure that these non-black minorities are actually being silent or just getting lost in the noise. There are some Native Americans in the area with, for example, the nearby Meskwaki settlement (not a reservation, for they bought the land); although there are fewer in Iowa City. More significantly, there is a fairly large Hispanic community around here.

As far as I know, no minorities besides blacks were involved in any of the local organizing around recent events. These other minorities aren’t being heard or even acknowledged. The organizers said they were creating one particular rally as a safe place for black voices. But what about a safe place for Hispanic voices? Where is the solidarity among the oppressed? Why do blacks dominate the narrative even when there are also other minorities impacted? Hispanics are regularly targeted, profiled, harassed, brutalized, and killed by police. Why do the voices of Hispanics get ignored not just by the mainstream media but also by mainstream activists, both white and black?

This is how identity politics ends up dividing and isolating people.

Like poor whites, Hispanics don’t fit the mainstream racial narrative. Part of the reason is because Hispanics aren’t a race. They are split between those who identify as black and white. Yet they also experience all the same problems blacks experience. As far as that goes, there are more whites in poverty and these are concentrated in specific ethnic populations that have been in poverty for centuries. They also are part of the permanent underclass that has existed for longer than the social construction of race as it developed out of colonial thought.

There has always been state violence, social control, and a permanent underclass. All of that existed long before racism, long before a racial order, long before racialized slavery. But race gets conflated with everything in American society. It is the metaphorical hammer with which everything looks like a nail. Racism is a real problem, and yet few understand what it really means. Our language is too simplistic and our knowledge too lacking.

Class divisions and oppression preceded race issues. Racism was created to serve old class divisions and social control, not the other way around. Racism is built on and dependent on classism. There is no way of getting around that fact.

Racial ideology obscures more than it clarifies. Certain poor white populations have rates of social problems and incarceration as high as any poor minority population. There is no monolithic white population. Many of these poor white populations have always been impoverished and isolated, but they haven’t always been considered white. The legacy of their questionable whiteness persists. They also are victims of an oppressive racial order. For all intents and purposes, the poorest isolated rural whites aren’t ‘white’ in how the mainstream media uses that word in contrast to ‘black’. They don’t fit into the story that typically gets told about American history.

The territory between Hispanics and poor whites is a nether region in the American psyche. It is also a growing sector of the society. Poverty, of course is growing at present. Also, as the minority-majority emerges, the most quickly growing demographic is that of Hispanics. I suspect it is this shift that is throwing the social order off keel. Hispanics, in their communities, embody the full range of the racial order. No other population in the US is like that. Hispanics aren’t just a threat to WASP culture but to the entire racial order and its concomitant racial narrative. Blacks fit nicely into American understanding of race. The Civil Rights movement can be made sense of without challenging the racial status quo. This is why blacks can never represent an equivalent threat to mainstream society and the dominant class.

That is what so many activists don’t understand. And, as long as they are committed to the racial narrative, they will never understand. This is also what keeps the typical black activist and leader from a truly radical vision. This is what disconnects so much of black activism right now from the message Martin Luther King, jr. was preaching near the end of his life. There are important black radicals to be found, such as Angela Davis, but the mainstream doesn’t pay them much attention, at least for the time being.

What many have noted is that racism arose in a particular context and has been tangled up in other factors. The twin forces of modern history has been the racial order and the capitalist order, i.e., racism and classism. Capitalism, however, was a unique brand of classism that didn’t previously exist. It formed out of colonialism and globalization. We are experiencing the results of a centuries old project. The racial aspect evolved during that time and continues to evolve. A new racial narrative no doubt will form, but it won’t be what we can expect based on the past.

A shift is happening. We have to look at the clues to see what this means. We can’t simply force new challenges into old narratives and think we’ve got it all figured out. Mainstream rhetoric and bourgeois politics aren’t helpful.

I don’t know what this shift is. I’ve been following the trends for more than a decade now. I see a shift or shifts happening, but heck if I know what it all adds up to. What I do feel sure of is that it will be a game changer.

This is what draws my mind in the direction of radicalism. We need new thinking and language, new narratives and visions, new ways of organizing and forcing change. We meed to get to the root of what is happening. We need to harness this change with new understanding, rather than being harnessed by our own ignorance.

We are beyond the hope of minor reform. Activism needs to become radical again. Our complacency will not last, whether or not we are ready for what comes next. We might as well embrace change with open arms for change already has its grip on us.

There Are Always Reasons

“During the war, we all learned to stop looking for reasons why things happen.”

Those are words from the ending monologue of How I Live Now. The movie is about World War III. The storyline concludes with the conclusion of fighting and the return to living. It is shown through the very personal view of someone still very young. The viewer, like the protagonist, has no understanding of the war. It came and went, as if a force of nature with no human meaning.

My thought, upon hearing that monologue, was that there are always reasons. One may not like or comprehend the reasons, but they exist. She speaks these words in reference to death and violence that is, from her perspective, best forgotten. Completely understandable.

A retreat from reasons or from reason entirely is a natural response to the utter shattering of what had previously seemed like a reasonable world, a society of law and order, of stability and certainty, of family and community. All gone in an instant, as nuclear war begins and martial law is declared.

 * * * *

I imagine revolution would feel very similar, maybe even more traumatic than even a nuclear bomb going off in a nearby major city leading to a World War. What is so horrifying about revolution is that it is the enemy from within, the danger lurking among us. Even revolution far away in a foreign country poses the threat that revolution might be contagious.

There is a strange dynamic of reason and unreason. When it comes to what feels like mass chaos, no reason ever seems satisfactory. Yet, in the case of the French Revolution, Reason itself was blamed by the counter-revolutionaries. It’s not as if the counter-revolutionaries lacked reasons of their own or lacked the capacity or desire to reason when it served their purposes. Many of the criticisms of Reason ironically take on the appearance of being reasonable.

The fearful vision of ‘Reason’ is an imagined demon haunting the collective mind. It’s symbolic of or, maybe more accurately, a conflation with something greater. But what is it pointing towards? Also, what makes the reasons of the revolutionary supposedly different and more dangerous than the reasons given by their opponents?

* * * *

The world is full of reasons. What the revolutionary does is question and challenge the reasons that have become unstated assumptions. Most reasons that motivate us go hidden and those in power wish to keep them hidden. That is the secret of power and its Achille’s heel. To question and challenge this is to pull back the curtain and show what is behind. This action, to those with power or aligned with it, is in itself an act of violence, even before a single drop of blood is shed.

Reasons can be scary things. The best and worst within humanity is motivated by reasons of all kinds. There is always a reason, usually many reasons. What revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries both understand is that ideas have power. A reason unleashed can destroy or transform entire societies. And, once unleashed, it is impossible to put it back in Pandora’s box.

It isn’t the violence of revolution that is so horrific. States in non-revolutionary times regularly commit more violence than any revolution. The fear is that reason will lead to unreason, that an ideal will lead to a Reign of Terror where the outcome is uncertain. The fear is the uncertainty. The everyday violence of police and militaries is predictable and known. Most of the time, we humans prefer the familiar, like an abused child who returns home everyday to a parent who both beats them and feeds them. It is all the child knows. To stand up to the abuse would lead to possibly unforeseen consequences.

Still, there are those who do stand up to abuse. In politics, these sometimes become revolutionaries. They have their reasons, of course, but ultimately it is the unknown that excites them or gives them hope. They refuse to accept the status quo, what is established and known.

* * * *

As argued by revolutionaries of centuries past, this world is for the living, not the dead. This is why many revolutionaries believed no social construct (whether property, patent, or law) should outlive the lifetime of a single generation. That is what defines democracy in its only true form. It’s the ideal of establishing revolution itself as the norm, every generation its own self-ruled governance, the future’s unknown made into a familiar element of present society.

No reason is a sacred cow, no matter how long it has been passed on nor how deeply institutionalized. It is easy to attack the other guy’s sacred cow, but to be consistently principled is something entirely else. This principled stance is what made the counter-revolutionaries so fearful of ‘Reason’. They realized that revolutionaries would make no exceptions, that if possible they would follow justice to its inevitable conclusion.

Conservatives and libertarians will judge harshly the views of opponents, even going so far as demonizing them. They say taxation is theft, except for the tax laws they favor and when used to fund their preferred policies and programs. They say that the state is oppressive, except when it’s oppression against their enemies and against convenient scapegoats. They say that government is the problem, except when it supports their agenda and serves their interests.

Liberals can have similar problems, although typically being more subtle in their hypocrisy. Liberals don’t tend to argue for principle, come hell or high water. Liberals at least openly admit that they aren’t against any of these things on principle. Their principle, instead, is moderation. They are less concerned about taxes, governments, and states as general categories, while being more concerned about what purpose these serve, what ends result. The failure of liberalism is within this moderation. The weakness of liberalism is a fear of going too far and so never going far enough. Liberals, pathetic and weak as they can be, often play into the hands of their adversaries. This is taken as excusing them of blame for their own failure.

Conservatives and libertarians might have a point in their complaints, if they were only to act as though they genuinely believed what they said. If conservatives followed their principles without exception, that could be seen as admirable and liberals might then merit the criticisms lodged against them. But, in that case, conservatives and libertarians would then be radicals instead.

Principled consistency is the sole possession of the radical. Only those willing to go to extremes are willing to both acknowledge the unanswered questions and demand they be answered. The answers, the ideals, the reasons they offer may be deemed wrong or undesirable, but it is harder to accuse them of avoiding the difficult problems that afflict both left and right.

* * * *

Those who wish to escape reason often turn to God or Nature. They say that is just the way the world is. They refuse to take responsibility for their own beliefs. Instead, they project their beliefs outward, just as they project their fears. Still, to less extreme degrees, we are all resistant to the demands of reason. Human capacity for reason is imperfect, but it is nonetheless very real. Reason exists within human nature as much as does reason’s failure.

No matter what our response, in this post-Enlightenment age, we all live under the dominion of reason. Revolutionaries won that battle, even as they lost the war. The new order of reason we’ve inherited is battle-scarred and shell-shocked. In the light of reason, even when a mere candle flame in the dark, our collective madness has a hard time hiding its true nature. But what are we to do with this unsavory knowledge? We can reason ourselves literally to the moon. What reason hasn’t achieved is peace and justice. We use reason to build more devastating weapons and yet we can’t find a way to reason ourselves into not using them.

Faced with self-induced horror, our instinct is to deny reason, to escape the sad truth that it would whisper in our ear, to blame the light for what it causes us to see. Yet to say there is no reason leaves us also without hope. There can be no return to Eden’s innocence. Existing without reason is not a choice available to us. But where will reason lead us? What reason, what ideal and hope will we put forth as a guiding light?

Our reasons form the path we take. This is why we should choose our reasons carefully and with awareness. The reasons we give for the past will determine the reasons that shape our future. There are always reasons and maybe that is a reason for hope.

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions

The Master’s Tools

In speaking about violence, injustice and utopias, Ursula K. Le Guin offers an interesting metaphor. She writes that, “Audre Lord said you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. I think about this powerful metaphor, trying to understand it” (“War Without End”, The Wave in the Mind). It is an interesting, albeit troubling, metaphor. It frames a particular way to think about our society.

This metaphor implies a number of things.

First, it portrays society as something intentionally created and actively formed. It is built by someone and for some purpose. A social order doesn’t just happen anymore than a building just happens.

Second, it claims that what has been built isn’t just any building, but the “master’s house”. It is built with the master’s tools and one assumes according to the master’s specifications. We can throw out the master’s blueprint. We can surreptitiously build something else while the master isn’t looking. Or we can try to tear it down. The master might punish us or we might get the upperhand. We could become our own builders for our own purposes. We could become masters in our own right. Even so, the tools we have are still the master’s tools with the limitations that those tools present.

This metaphor represents the view of the outsider, the person already standing back from the work being done and those attempting to undo it. It doesn’t automatically imply a particular ideological standpoint. But, in our society, this view is most often presented by the leftist and often directed at liberals most of all. I’ve increasingly been persuaded by the criticisms originating from the leftist perspective. I wonder what we have built and what or whose purpose it really serves.

Liberals attempted to dismantle the house of, in our case, the slave master for that is what our society was built upon. We dismantled slavery and other overt forms of oppression, but we weren’t able to fully dismantle the cultural structures that made oppression possible. This is, according to the metaphor, because we have continued to use the same tools.

 * * * *

Whose Welfare?

I’ve come to this understanding most directly from my thoughts on welfare. I’ve speculated that, if all welfare were to end instantly, revolution would happen over night. Our entire society, both the social and economic orders, is being propped up by the welfare state. Capitalism (as we know it) most of all couldn’t operate without the welfare state, without the direct and indirect subsidies of the government supporting companies and their employees in a thousand different ways.

I gained some insight when trying to make heads or tails out of Edmund Burke’s politics. Why would a supposed conservative or reactionary have been so adamant and consistent in his pushing progressive reform? An insight gelled in mind when I read a comparison of Burke and Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Burke in America by Drew Maciag). In their own words, it became clear that they promoted reform within the system in order to defend the status quo of the system. Small changes prevent big changes (i.e., revolutions).

This is why Burke took a reactionary stance when actual revolution threatened, when progressive reform became less relevant and brute oppression deemed necessary. This is also why Burke only cared about the complaints of Americans until their independence was won, and afterward it was no concern of his as they were no longer part of the British Empire which is the only social order he cared about. Burke’s concern was about the British Empire, not so much about the people who might be oppressed or otherwise affected by the British Empire. He only concerned himself about the problems of people when ignoring such problems might threaten the social order he was part of.

(My complaint against Burke here isn’t ideological. I would make the same complaint against a mainstream liberal in modern America, which is my entire point. Also, my inner libertarian wants to know where Irish Burke’s social identity and moral concern would have fallen when the British Empire violently suppressed the Irish bid for independence, a clash that caused more deaths than the French Reign of Terror he so harshly criticized.)

We focus so much on the calls for reform that we rarely stop to consider what is being reformed. And we defend what we identify with without really understanding why. We need to look beyond individual issues and parochial concerns toward a broader understanding. We need to consider what we are building as we consider how we go about that activity. We need to consider the foundation upon which our house is built.

* * * *

Tools and Blueprints

Progressive reform is one of the master’s tools, to be used or not as necessary for the master’s plans. But it’s just one of many tools, not the blueprint for what is being built.

I say this as someone whose natural impulse is to support progressive reform, slow and steady changes from within the system. I’m not a radical. It just isn’t in me to be a radical. And yet I find it impossible to deny the radical’s critique. Like it or not, I suspect leftists are at least partly correct in what they say about liberals.

The welfare state doesn’t simply or even primarily serve the interests of the poor. Rather, it serves the master(s), the ruling elite and their status quo. It is the bread part of the bread and circus equation. Does anyone genuinely think the leaders of the Roman Empire ordered bread to be thrown to the poor because of some liberal agenda to steal from the rich and spread the wealth? No, they wanted to keep the hungry masses under control by any means necessary, which sometimes meant bread and other times violence, but more often some combination of both (the carrot and the stick).

As a lifelong liberal, I feel pulled in two directions. To seek to reform the system may just continue the suffering. To seek to end the system, though, will also likely lead to more suffering. In terms of immediate options, it can feel like suffering is unavoidable. Is the only way to force change by forcing suffering to its extreme? Then what? We have no guarantee that anything good will result. Suffering isn’t a magical elixir.

A desperate people are as likely to turn to demagoguery and authoritarianism as to face up to the problems that are the cause of their desperation. The liberal’s complaint is that we might end up worse than we already are. Small steps of progress toward the public good is, as the liberal believes, much safer than risking it all on a gamble.

The vision of suffering, no matter what form it takes, too easily play into the hands of the powerful. A state of despair isn’t inspiring. It makes us feel impotent and apathetic. Isn’t there a third option, one that would offer genuine hope?

* * * *

The Problems We Create

The welfare state is just a single example among others. We could also include the minimum wage, which in a sense is another aspect of the welfare state.

If we had a society where economic (and political) inequality was less extreme and where social mobility (along with the attendant opportunities) was higher, then a minimum wage might be unnecessary. A minimum wage deals with the symptoms, rather than the disease. When you are sick, it is natural to want the doctor to make you feel better, even if it is just symptom management. You also hope, though, that the doctor is meanwhile seeking to cure the disease and will bring you back to health.

In our society, the metaphorical doctors are technocrats who have little concern, much less understanding, about fundamental causes. Their purpose is the purpose of the master, which is the building and maintaining of the master’s house: the status quo of the established social order. It would be as if doctors were more concerned about the hospital and their place within it than they were for their own patients’ care; the patients being seen as serving the purpose of the hospital, instead of the other way around. Such dystopian doctors would be mainly concerned about symptom management in the way technocrats are mainly concerned about human resource management and population control (along with economic manipulations and military coercion).

We look for solutions to the problems we create. But, as Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

* * * *

Building Something New?

The system precedes any individual person, and so the individual person by intention or default serves the system. But whose system is it?

It is first and foremost a system for the minority, a system of wealth and power. It is the master’s house. As always, the majority are the builders who build what the master(s) tell them to build. We are born into this society without choice, the house already under construction, the foundation and walls already in place. We reach adulthood and someone places the master’s tools into our hands. What can and should we do? Throw away these tools and starve? Throw the monkey wrench into the works and see what happens? Or use these tools to try to build something new? If so, how? One could argue that many have tried and failed.

We have seen the near continuous implementation of progressive reforms since the revolutionary era. Have our social problems been solved? Of course not. Even with the ending of slavery in the Western world, there are still more slaves in the world today than there were in the past and there are more African-Americans in US prisons now than there ever were in slavery. It is hard to see this as evidence of progress. Some have benefited while many have suffered.

Progressive reform, sadly, doesn’t necessarily solve problems. It can feel like a band-aid on a gaping wound. And a band-aid won’t stop the blood gushing out. Even if the wound stops gushing on its own, the band-aid won’t prevent infections and gangrene, won’t prevent scar tissue from forming. The wound needs to be opened and cleansed. It needs stitches and salves. It needs regular care until it is healed. And, if the injuries turn out to be deeper still, bones may need to be set or invasive surgery may be necessary.

* * * *

An Arsenal of Metaphors

We need to use every metaphor in our arsenal. Metaphors are how we make the abstract concrete, make the unconsidered real.

I particularly like the bodily metaphors of disease, of wounds and trauma, and of health and healing. We often use these metaphors to describe the experiences and behaviors of individuals. We speak of otherwise healthy veterans and rape victims as having been traumatized. No physical trauma may literally be detected, but it is as if there is an unhealed injury and a process of healing that can be assisted or thwarted. One of the greatest leaps of insight comes from seeing how this applies on the larger scales of entire communities and societies.

This has become clear to me in studying history. There is a reason we collectively are obsessed with past wars and conflicts. It is because they aren’t merely in the past. We keep reliving them as someone suffering post-traumatic stress disorder keeps reliving the original trauma. Some describe this as a victimization cycle, but that doesn’t do justice to the lived reality. It’s not just a cycle, a pattern repeating. It’s as if the suffering of the dead still haunt us. Borders aren’t mere lines on a map. They are still tender wounds, not just in the minds of individuals, but in the societies on both sides.

Like the welfare state, borders aren’t there for the good of the common people. They exist for the purposes of power, of enforcing social order. But the powerful are as afflicted as the rest of us. It is a psychological complex of fear, around which all sorts of rationalizations accrue. The desire for power and control is most often driven by fear. This isn’t to say that fear is never warranted, but it is to say we too often perpetuate the conditions of fear like a battered woman returning to her abusive spouse or else marrying another man who is just as abusive.

Once we realize the metaphors we are living, we are in a position to consider different metaphors and with them new understandings, new possibilities, new choices.

* * * *

Unnatural Boundaries

International aid relates as well. It is a globalized welfare system. It serves to numb the worst pain caused by the wounds of borders.

Modern nation-states are largely the result of colonialism. The borders in many parts of the world were created by the former colonizers who had very little concern for the native populations. They divied up land based on geographical conveniences, natural resources, and historical claims of power. It didn’t matter if such imagined boundaries divided tribes and ethnic groups or if they mixed together tribes and ethnic groups that were in conflict. These boundaries weren’t natural, are never natural.

The former colonizers have supported oppressive regimes for their own purposes. It is still the master’s house, even when the master isn’t living there for the time being. Local tyrants may sleep in the master’s bed while he is away, but such tyrants only maintain their position as long as they serve the master, as long as they act as caretakers in his absence.

Before modern nation-states with their borders, people traveled and migrated rather freely compared today. It is hard for us to understand that. Borders used to be much more vague and malleable human realities. They had more to do with cultural differences than political power and military force. In the past, before modern militaries, a border that was anything besides cultural didn’t tend to last very long.

A border isn’t a physical thing, permanently etched upon the landscape. It is at best a temporary truce among people who often don’t even remember what created it in the first place. It is simply where two violent forces stopped fighting, until eventually conflict breaks out once again. This is why borders throughout history have constantly shifted, each new designated border being a new wounding, scar tissue upon scar tissue forming in the shared soul of a people.

* * * *

The House of the Nation; Or a Mansion of Many Rooms

Welfare, minimum wage, international aid, borders, etc. All these are forms of social control. This what is found in the master’s toolbox.

These are various ways of mollifying the masses and dividing them into manageable chunks. When transnational corporations are wealthier and more powerful than many small countries, how can local workers even begin to unite across these boundaries that instead pit workers against one another. Foreigners and immigrants get scapegoated for taking ‘our’ jobs. Meanwhile, people in other countries scapegoat us in return for the problems they also face.

These problems aren’t national problems. They are international problems, shared problems. But the systems of control don’t let us see that. And our language doesn’t allow us to understand it.

If these systems of control were ended, it would suddenly force us all to deal with our shared problems. No longer could costs be externalized onto particular groups of people while not affecting those who do the externalizing. If people weren’t limited and oppressed by borders and governments, if people could freely choose to live where and associate with whom they wanted, we could no longer ignore the glaring problems and injustices we face. Besides, whether we like it or not, externalized costs and and projected problems always blow back, whether as illegal immigration or terrorism or worse.

The process of uniting people has happened within nations. What historically were seen as regional populations with regional problems have come to be correctly understood in a larger understanding of cross-regional challenges. The English, Welsh, Scottish, and many Irish are now all Britains (along with many British citizens from present and former British colonies). The First Nations tribes, French Accadians, and British are now all Canadians. The same process has happened in Mexico and the US. To extend this past pattern into the future, it is more than likely that one day there will be a single socio-political identify of “North Americans”.

This is what we now face with national borders all over the world. Borders, as they relate to geography, are one type of metaphor used for social identity and one of the most powerful metaphors at that for they are so easily conflated with concrete reality. That metaphor is what inspired early Americans to imperial aspirations. They saw themselves as a people of a continent, not a mere island as was the case with the English. They identified themselves with all of North America. And if they had had the power to do it, they might have gladly taken over all of Canada and Mexico. But their metaphorical imagination outran their military force. We the citizens of the US still call ourselves Americans despite our political boundaries only occupying a small part of the Americas, our imagined continental aspirations remaining unfulfilled, a minor detail that makes nervous other people in the Americas.

The problems within and between the US and Mexico have never been and never will be merely national problems. Most of the US once was part of the Spanish Empire and after that part of Mexico. There are populations of Hispanics who descend from families that have been in the US longer than when English colonizers first set foot here. There are parts of the US that have always been Hispanic majority with a majority of Spanish speakers. These people have family members living on both sides of the border. The border cuts through a historical population like a knife, divides a people and their communities, creates a culture of fear and conflict.

Yet still the borders aren’t secure and never will be. Metaphors, although powerful, remain as fictions and so can only be enforced imperfectly. They aren’t real and can’t be made real, however real they are treated. Only the violence that enforces them is real and it is only real as long as it continues, but even the most violent of societies eventually tire of pointless bloodshed and oppression or else runs out of money to support it. As human lives bleed, so does the wealth of a people. Lives are destroyed, communities are crippled, and social capital is lost.

The drug problem in the US is partly caused by the drug problem in Mexico; and, in turn, the drug problem in Mexico has grown because of the US War on Drugs which simply made it an even more profitable business by driving it into the black market. Likewise, the gun problem in Mexico is almost entirely caused by the gun problem in the US. Americans complain about the violence coming from Mexico or the ‘illegal’ immigrants. But why do so few ask what caused these problems in the first place?

NAFTA hasn’t helped small farmers in Mexico. The long history of the US government and business leaders undermining democracy in Mexico hasn’t helped the average Mexican.

After all that, do we really want to scapegoat the terrified Mexicans fleeing the horror we have helped inflict upon them, upon their families and communities, upon their entire society? We should be better than that and we could better than that, if we only were able to comprehend our own failings, the harm we mindlessly cause onto others, the endless cycle of violence and victimization. Empathy requires awareness and understanding.

* * * *

Change, the Only Inevitability

Like it or not, as Le Guin points out, “Societies change with and without violence.” Change can be beneficial for all or not so much, but change will happen. Progress, whether through reform or revolution, will likely continue to happen, however imperfectly and unequally, that is until society collapses. With a sense of hope, she reminds us that, “Reinvention is possible. Building is possible. What tools have we to build with except hammers, nails, saws—education, learning to think, learning skills?”

Le Guin then poses a set of questions, “Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful? Along with the priesthood and phallocracy, must we throw away science and democracy? Will we be left trying to build without any tools but our bare hands?”

In speaking of the master’s house and the master’s tools, she acknowledges that, “The metaphor is rich and dangerous. I can’t answer the questions it raises.” As with many other metaphors, this one is dangerous because it is powerful in how it forces us to think differently. It’s power isn’t in offering simple solutions, but in opening the mind to new ways of thinking, new possibilities. Societies are built. Nations are built. Governments are built. Borders are built. Once we become aware that we are building, we can begin to ask what we are building and why. And we can look more carefully at the tools we are using.

Is it enough that the master let’s us live in his house? Should we grovel out of fear that we might be evicted out among the masses who live in shacks and on the streets? Should we build more walls and reinforce them in order to keep people out? Or should we build a larger house to hold all people? What tools would be required? Do we have those tools? How would go about building better tools in order to build a better society?

Anything we build for the master to keep others out and to control the masses can and will just as easily be used against us. When a border is built and enforced, it doesn’t just keep foreigners out, but also keeps us in (something that may concern us one day). The worst borders, though, are those built in our own minds. These internal divisions create dissociation between different parts of our experience. It is because of dissociation that we go on building oppressive systems and why individuals can do horrible things in the service of those systems. Trauma lives within each of us and within our every relationship. We live through the trauma and then relive it endlessly.

We can go on doing the same thing over and over, continually rebuilding the walls of fear and oppression, continually picking at the scabs of our collective suffering and trauma. Or we can build shelters for those afflicted, places of healing and restoration. We can rebuild our communities as we rebuild society.

But first, as the metaphor suggests, we must consider the tools we are building with.

* * * *

Imagination: Storytelling and Truthtelling

Le Guin does make a suggestion. “To me,” she writes, “the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.

The tool she offers here is that of imagination, the mother lode of all metaphors. To wield imagination is to wield the power to create and destroy entire systems of thought, entire ways of understanding. And we are only as free to the extent our minds are liberated.

“The exercise of imagination,” she states a few paragraphs on, “is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.”

It isn’t just metaphors that matter, but metaphors given life through story, through fully imagined possibilities. It is the act of imagining that matters, the freedom to imagine. It is the tool of imagination that matters. That is the one tool that can help us build something genuinely new.

We should be careful of the stories we tell. Continuing in this vein, Le Guin laments that, “It is sad that so many stories that might offer a true vision settle for patriotic or religious platitude, technological miracle working, or wishful thinking, the writers not trying to imagine truth. The fashionably noir dystopia merely reverses the platitudes and uses acid instead of saccharine, while still evading engagement with human suffering and with genuine possibility. The imaginative fiction I admire presents alternatives to the status quo which not only question the ubiquity and necessity of extant institutions, but enlarge the field of social possibility and moral understanding. . . —the impulse to make change imaginable.”

She brings this line of thought to conclusion with a clear assertion of what is at stake: “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

The first radical act is to imagine, and that requires we create the conditions that make this possible. Imagination isn’t just a tool for building anew, but also a tool for creating entirely new blueprints. Even an imperfect imagined alternative has the power to open us up to possibilities yet unimagined. Imagination isn’t a destination, but a doorway.

* * * *

Revolution of the Mind

“What is a manifesto? A manifesto is a galaxy. What is man? Man is a star.”
~ Jude Edze Davids

It is hard for us to grasp the fundamental issue at hand. It goes to the heart of our sense of reality. To imagine something completely new isn’t just radical. It has the potential and power to incite revolution. Not just ideologies, but entire worlds are being contested.

This touches upon the theological. Our beliefs about reality form a hidden dogma, the bedrock of our identity and perception. The metaphorical house we reside in is our, to use a modern phrase, reality tunnel. A tunnel is yet another metaphorical structure of the mind, reminding us of the ancient metaphor of Plato’s cave and quite similar to Gnostic writings, neoplatonism having influenced (via the Alexandrian Jews) early Gnostics and Christians alike.

Religion and mythology forms the earliest reservoir of imagination, of metaphor and storytelling. It was natural for a Deist like Thomas Paine to turn to Christian language in order to express his message. He wasn’t, in doing so, promoting a Christian nation. He was simply drawing upon a shared lexicon of metaphors, stories, symbols, and imagery.

The religious language resonated with Paine’s audience. And today a metaphor such as the master’s house retains its former religious significance.

The “master” theologically refers to who rules over us or what dominates our world. The demiurge is the false god who is the “god of this world”. He is the builder of our world. He doesn’t create anything ex nihilo, but builds out of what is already present. In political terms, the demiurgic forces of power represent the human archons, the rulers of our society. They simply rearrange the pieces on the board, reform the system as they find it. They have their positions in the hierarchy and so their agenda is to maintain the status quo… or, in reaction to changing times, to build a better and stronger status quo.

The metaphor of the master’s house refers to a master. But which master? An important question. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “No man can serve two masters.” The master builder, the the greatest of masons, is still just a tinkerer, a manipulator. Jesus, on the other hand, threatened to “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus was using metaphor with charismatic force.

To understand Jesus’ metaphorical temple, you must put it into context of his preaching about the “Kingdom”. This Kingdom, as both Christians and Gnostics agreed, is near you and all around you. But, the Gnostics pushed it one step further, when it was written in The Gospel of Thomas that,

Jesus said: If your leaders say to you ‘Look! The Kingdom is in the heavens!” Then the birds will be there before you are. If they say that the Kingdom is in the sea, then the fish will be there before you are. Rather, the Kingdom is within you and it is outside of you . . . is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.

To clarify this, it is declared in Acts 7:48, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands.” It does not dwell in the house of the master builder.

So, where does it dwell? What is both within and outside? I would suggest, in line with Le Guin’s view, that what is being spoken of here is imagination in its purest and most extreme form, not just imagination but visionary imagination, the territory of radical possibility. The source of real power doesn’t reside within distant heavens or governments. Rather, it resides within us, around us, among us.

* * * *

Metaphors Unleashed

How do the teachings of Jesus apply today? He was distinguishing between various kingdoms and those who rule them. The lesser kingdoms are built on brute force and false beliefs, rather than on wisdom and vision. What presently are the lesser kingdoms that attempt to rule our lives and minds?

Philip K. Dick (PKD), a friend of Le Guin, gave a speech that offered a typically unique perspective, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”. He said that, “Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener.” The artificial worlds created for us are more intrusive and pervasive than ever. They dominate in a way no lesser kingdom could have in the past. “And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.”

Taking a slightly cynical turn, PKD then argues, “So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland.” Modern American society is Disneyland, an imagined world enforced onto reality, but hardly a radical vision to offer hope, just mindless entertainment and bright colorful facades. And, as globalization proceeds, Disneyland not democracy conquers the world. It is a fake kingdom of fake things, of fake experiences.

As always, PKD pushes this notion as far as it will go:

In my writing I got so interested in fakes that I finally came up with the concept of fake fakes. For example, in Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feel when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds! And perhaps someday even real hippos and lions. Consternation. The park being cunningly transmuted from the unreal to the real, by sinister forces. For instance, suppose the Matterhorn turned into a genuine snow-covered mountain? What if the entire place, by a miracle of God’s power and wisdom, was changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye, into something incorruptible? They would have to close down.

What if the master’s house were transformed, renovated into something unexpected, made use for something not in the original plan? What if we reimagined the space we find ourselves in?

“Disneyland are never going to be the same again. . . [T]he birds and hippos and lions and deer at Disneyland will no longer be simulations, and, for the first time, a real bird will sing.”

If we were to love democracy enough, could the simulations of democracy’s rhetoric be made real like the love-worn Velveteen Rabbit hopping in the grass?

* * * *

Normally, the envisioning of radical possibility is described as thinking outside the box. But what if we were to radically think within the box? The shape of a box, like that of a square, is an ancient sacred symbol. This symbol represents the world. It contains. It can be filled, but it also can be emptied. We need to seek that state of emptiness so as, like the Zen tea cup, to receive new visions and understandings.

It’s not just what is within us, the power of mind, of imagination, of vision. It is the possibility that is within all things — to return to The Gospel of Thomas: “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” Imagination isn’t an abstraction. We exist in the world and our imagination takes shape through the world.

Imagination is the one tool we can all claim. It isn’t a special talent reserved for the few. It is our natural right, our normal way of being in the world… if we have eyes to see, if we have the courage to take this tool in hand.

Conservatism & The Reactionary Mind: some thoughts

I came across an interesting book: The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin. I haven’t read or even purchased it yet, although I plan on doing so.

I was intrigued by his proposition that conservatism is reactionary in nature. This makes sense just in the basic meaning of ‘conservatism’. There is something conservatives are seeking to conserve (from being lost) or if (perceived to have been) lost to regain… not that the non-conservative would agree with this reactionary, often revisionist take on the past, the perception of the past that informs what the conservative movement seeks in the present. In an unchanging society such as  an isolated hunter-gatherer tribe, there probably would be nothing for the conservative to react against… but that isn’t the conservatism that we know now or, as Corey Robin argues, as we’ve known throughout the history of civilization. Corey Robin isn’t necessarily talking about conservatism in the psychological sense as I sometimes use it. Instead, he is referring to the political conservatism that arose, especially in the US, in response to the French Revolution. This conservatism is inherently counter-revolutionary, i.e., reactionary.

My disagreement is that Corey Robin separates the conservative mindset from the conservative movement. The conservative movement may have “always been” reactionary since its inception in post-Englightenment Western politics, but that is relatively speaking a short view of human society. With civilization, the conservative mindset was radicalized. With modernity, this radicalized conservatism became a specific reactionary conservative movement. Still, humans and human society existed before all of this. Psychological research shows there are distinctions to be made between the conservative mindset and right-wing authoritarianism, although modern politics have brought the two into close alignment within the conservative movement.

Nonetheless, for practical purposes of dealing with modern conservatism, Corey Robin’s conclusion is essentially correct. I think it’s important, though, to hold onto the understanding of a conservative mindset that can be found in many places, whether inside or outside of the conservative movement. Actually, if one really wants to find the conservative mindset rather than merely the conservative movement, one would be better off looking at the Democratic Party, the moderate centrists speaking about bipartisanship and compromise and the socially conservative religious black demographic, both Democratic groups seeking to conserve US society as it is with the gains of social rights and freedoms and with the gains of the protections against poverty and oppression.

So, maybe it is helpful to separate the conservative movement from the conservative mindset since many in the conservative movement have sought to separate themselves from the conservative mindset. Corey Robin argues that conservatism is a modern movement. In the comments section of a blog post (Bobo’s Reactionary Mind by Scott Lemieux), there was an interaction that touches upon this issue and the distinction made by Robin:

Incontinentia Buttocks says:
September 28, 2011 at 9:18 am

But is this exclusively true of modern conservatism? Doesn’t Cicero, e.g., suggest that virtuous behavior involves choosing the harder path?

Corey Robin says:
September 28, 2011 at 10:04 am

There’s definitely a precedent in Cicero and others (though I’d say that “modern conservatism” is redundant; my argument is that all conservatism is modern. But that’s a whole different kettle of fish). The difference is that they were writing within the framework of virtue ethics (and other modes of ethics). Brooks and the romantics are not: they’re writing within the framework of a concern about the self, not its virtue or flourishing or anything like that, but its very survival as a self.

Anyway, I wanted to get a better grasp of this book before I bought it. The Amazon reviews were positive, but not thorough. My web search first brought me to a review by Sheri Berman in the New York Times Book Review. Her review is negative and I sensed it wasn’t fair. I was glad to see that Corey Robin responded to the review in a way that was intellectually fair. In checking out some other web search results, I found a nice discussion that refers to this book. Here is the section where he mentions Robin’s book:

Strangely, my own brief trip through the right–the paleo-conservative and far right–has led me to be a more passionate “leftist” as I get older.   I am sure that people will psychologize my drift, but I think my personal experience agrees with Corey Robin’s conception of the reactionary mindset.  That there is a Utopian element to their thinking.

While conservatives (and many left liberals) have called Libertarian-ism the Marxism of the right.  Yet even traditionalism itself has a kinship to utopian socialist thought.  They want a different society and they see the structural elements that keep the status quo going as a negation of a past. In fact, I have accused conservative ideology, or more specifically, paleo-conservative ideology as being utopian in reverse.   It involves an invented past to which they long to return.

I wrote a comment which I posted there and thought I would post here as well (although my following thoughts are only indirectly related to the book in question):

– – –

A very interesting analysis. Your transition over the years has given you useful perspective.

I’ve never had such a transition. I’ve never had any allegiances and so have never switched them. The Republican Party these days seems morally repugnant and the Democratic Party seems weak sauce. There is lots of rhetoric in the two party system, but none of it means much to me. The radical right too often seems to have become disconnected from reasonable debate, not to mention factual reality. The radical left has become almost irrelevant, ignored by both parties in power.

I’ve always clearly been a ‘liberal’, although my liberalism is more of an attitude than an ideology: open-minded, intellectually curious, prone to relativism and occasionally utopian longings, critical of theocrats, desiring to believe in the goodness of people and the potential of collective humanity, hyper-individualism and mindless group-think neither make sense to me, etc. So, I’m liberal-minded, liberal in the psychological sense. Neither conservatives/right-wingers nor mainstream democrats understand the fundamental impulse of liberalism.

I do have some radical leanings, but I’m not a radical in the reactionary sense. I prefer reason and the endless conflict of partisan politics is like nails on a chalkboard. It’s not as if we lack historical examples to guide ourselves by or lack plenty of data to make informed decisions, but none of that seems to matter. It’s all about winning at any cost. No matter who wins, those with wealth and power maintain their influence. Even though I’m not a reactionary radical, neither am I a ‘moderate’ in how it is normally used. I know what I value and believe. Maybe I’m a person who would like to be a moderate if we lived in moderate times, but in this world as it is I find myself drawn to the ignored radical visions. The radical ideologies that get attention are those with money and power backing them, but few people in the mainstream remember the true radicalism of someone like Thomas Paine when he wrote ‘Agrarian Justice’.

My radical leanings do make me often agree with Derrick Jensen in his analysis of what is wrong, but I don’t seem to be able to follow him where he wants to go. I really don’t have much desire for revolution unless it becomes unavoidable. Derrick Jensen does have more than a small amount of nostalgia in his anarcho-primitivism. I must admit it resonates with some part of me, although in the end nostalgia seems like empty calories. If the civilization ends, so be it… but If so I will be sad to see it go.

I live in a liberal college town. I voted for Nader and I dislike Obama only slightly less than I dislike Bush. I participated in the anti-war protests during Bush’s administration. I’ve even been to a Marxist meeting once. On the other hand, I have conservative parents and my dad is of the more intellectual bent. I find that I often can agree about certain things with my parents or come to a middleground of understanding. Unlike right-wing pundits and reactionaries, my parents are capable of reasonable thought and discussion. They don’t let their principles get in the way of caring about actual people. That is all I ask for.

As a Gen-Xer, I grew up with the culture wars. It’s all I’ve known. I came of age in the 90s just when the right-wing militants were on the rise and the culture war was in its second phase of anti-abortion protests including the assassination of doctors and of course the various bombings in protest. I was born into a world of social conflict and national decline. I’m tired of the culture wars, the identity politics, the partisan tribalism, the politicized religion, the war on drugs, the war on the poor, the war on terrorism, the war on illegal aliens, war on everything, and on and on. I’m tired of all the bullshit. Sadly, I see my generation produce the worst examples of all this that just egg it over the edge, the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks. On the bright side, my generation also has produced Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Comedians all of them, a generation of clowns.

Even though I didn’t swing from one side to the other as you have done, I still feel that sense of not having a clear sense of where I belong in American politics..I’m definitely not in the middle. I feel like I’m somewhere to the side of the typical left/right spectrum. However, when I look at polls of public opinion, I find I often agree (or at least don’t strongly disagree) with the average American on many issues. Obviously, mainstream media and politics is disconnected from much of the rest of the population. I don’t know where this leaves me.