The exchange over the weekend between Rex and Fuster has helped me to organize some thoughts about American conservatism. I hope to have something more hopeful or positive to say at a later time, but, in a way that I trust Rex at least will appreciate, for now I’m stuck in the tragical mode that he favors.
I think that we have a tremendous opportunity to use some of our money wisely right now in Pakistan to save some lives and salvage many more. i worry that a good start, with money and effort well spent, is going to lead to further tragedy in Pakistan as our money slows and our patience wanes and we associate ourselves with another bad bargain patch job.
The comment focuses Rex’s thought onto Pakistan, but I think that someone taking Rex’s point of view would, first, pause at that line about “our money” and “wisely”: That would be our credit, not our money, and “wisely” ceased to be available as an adverb in this context, according to Rex, by 1971 at the latest with the end of the gold standard. More significantly to me, because at a more fundamental level even than economics, the metaphor of America agonistes would apply Fuster’s concern universally: The deliverer finds himself eyeless in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Gaza, Washington DC, and Anytown, U.S.A. – wherever he might be found “at the Mill with slaves.” Destructive self-destruction becomes his only option. Nietzche’s observation that “man would rather will nothingness than not will” becomes our condition, increasingly our idea.
The mismatch between subjective ends and objective means in turn points to a deeper contradiction between two different national concepts – America as collective entity, able to do what’s right in its own eyes and carry it through to completion; and America as anti-state, its leadership and administration a semi-functional by-product or residue of merely aggregated individual self-interests that, at least until whatever catastrophe is fully upon them, can never adopt more than contingent and partial commitments. This problem was the central challenge to democracy identified by de Tocqueville, yet also its central promise:
Under its sway the grandeur is not in what the public administration does, but in what is done without it or outside of it. Democracy does not give the people the most skilful government, but it produces what the ablest governments are frequently unable to create: namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, however unfavorable circumstances may be, produce wonders.
And wonders it has produced, but even de Tocqueville’s justified optimism acknowledges uncertainty. We must now ask this: What happens to that “restless activity” when it encounters “unfavorable circumstances” that, rather than being overwhelmed by spontaneous, un-directed energy, remain impervious to it, or, even more dispiriting, absorb it without limit and, if visibly affected at all, are exacerbated by it? Understanding this question as a conceptual flaw in theories of absolute popular sovereignty, Tocqueville’s contemporary Hegel saw an incurable syndrome, and his diagnosis was eventually taken up by his witting and unwitting heirs among American progressives, liberals, and leftwing radicals. It offers an explanation for the resort, by both the right and left, to extra-constitutional or ambiguously constitutional methods to cope with emergencies – economic crisis, political instability, war – and, increasingly, merely to handle regular business amidst permanent social-political crisis.
If a solution exists for this contradiction within American political concepts, as embodied in the Constitution of 1787, it implies a self-overcoming that American conservatism, which currently believes itself to be on the rise again, promises, if unpersuasively, to fight to the end. If conservatism re-gains political power, its operatives will discover again a need to discard reflexive skepticism of the state, as they always have before, since hostility toward administration and the governmental center encumbers administration and government. Unchecked, such hostility would become total self-hostility, an all-embracing self-skepticism that, consequentially implemented, would render collective action impossible. For this reason the American right, in and out of power, turns ineluctably to nationalist and xenophobic passions. Ideological anti-statism cannot express the need for unified purpose in any other way. American conservatives rely on rejection of the other and emotional self-assertion, first to appeal to the spiritual hunger of the populace, but just as fundamentally because American conservatism forbids collective recognition of other and self in any other form.
Unquestioning and uncritical acknowledgment of a military exception to the anti-statism of so-called “Constitutional Conservatism” magnifies the dangers of American conservatism’s contradictions – and not only to whatever enemies it encounters or creates overseas. The exception separates mainstream conservatives from radicals and outcasts, but arms inchoate nationalism under the sign of self-ignorance – again the blinded deliverer. It is indicative that the critique of fascism popular among contemporary conservatives, which seeks to define fascism as a phenomenon of the left, institutes a parallel “exception” – choosing to view fascism a strictly statist infirmity, while suppressing the militarism, nationalism, racism, and glorification of violence that, for everyone else, including the fascists themselves, are definitional. Conservative ideology thus preserves the fascist option for itself: A political movement that idealizes a small state whose very incapacities are somehow expected to protect political freedom, in the shadow of an ever-expanding military-security complex and unrestrained and unchecked global economic power, is a political movement committed at its core to diversionary fantasies. The unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable underlying and objective commitment is to someone, anyone else’s power for the sake of power, power unattached to, forever immune to, un-grasped by a formal constitutional system under democracy – whose only purpose in anti-statist conservatism is auto-nullification, self-emasculation, or, perhaps more like Oedipus than Samson here, self-enucleation.
We may have in the past been capable of great achievements, even without self-consciously grasped and implemented collective intentions, but only as a kind of afterthought to or objective remainder of ever-increasing abundance. We might once have set out to turn Pakistan into a virtual 51st state, and have succeeded, hurling our sheer material productivity and “superabundant force” at desperation as we once hurled it at a continent and its prior inhabitants, at the South, at great adversaries in two or three world wars, and at a vast range of technical and cultural impediments to our economic and political advances. In an era of relatively declining political and economic power, we may still experience the vestigial reflexes to make things right where the world seems to be getting them dangerously wrong, but the material basis for doing so has slipped away, and collective purpose remains unavailable: We cannot conceive it, we lack the political forms to conceive and enact it, we see ourselves as barred from attempting even to conceive of it. We are not rich enough to go ahead and do whatever anyway while looking the other way. We are not “we” enough even to look inward. Each other eyes each other only. We are eyeless.