Standing athwart themselves

I suspect that only in America would, and do, well-educated and mostly sober gentlemen urge the  “dismemberment” of the existing political-administrative state; demand the total disruption of the lives of their fellow citizens; contemplate an irrevocable departure from the course of world history hitherto; require the re-orientation of existing relations with and among all other nations and peoples of the world; and, in short, conceive the destruction of settled customs, practices, beliefs, and livelihoods at every level of social life, all for the sake of notions and ideals abstracted from the works of long-dead philosophers, and call themselves and their ideas “conservative.”

Such radically un-conservative conservatives, even the ones aware of the contradictions undermining their stance, show little resistance to the apocalyptic tone of nominally conservative American discourse at least since William F Buckley Jr’s famous “Mission Statement” of 1955, in which he described the magazine he was founding, The National Review, as “stand[ing] athwart history yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” Nearly 60 years later, the so-called conservatives among Buckley’s heirs continue to adopt the posture, and will regularly assert, as they have asserted ever since, that the flame of the true faith is just about to be extinguished, never to be lit again. From them it seems we always learn, sooner or later, that the American regime is an “evil regime.” The only good regime is a regime that never was and it seems can never be, and there is no history or life at all except as the perversion and betrayal of what could have been if not for the moral failings, so one comes to suspect, of people just like oneself. In other words, it turns out that our most conservatively conservative conservatives cannot express themselves except in the language of anarchists, demagogues, and street-corner prophets of doom – standing athwart pedestrian traffic (or nowadays internet traffic), and yelling at it.

Even the somewhat calmer and corrective voices among contemporary American very conservative conservatives will begin and end with obligatory concessions as to the extremity of our circumstances: “We are,” says commenter David Naas, “desperately in need of exploration of possibilities for correcting our current problems of mis-government.” Are “we” really “desperately in need,” or is it more accurate to say that some small number of “us” happen to feel that way, as ever and always? I put that question to Mr. Naas in discussion of James Madison’s alleged “nonsense coup” against Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755), specifically in regard to the latter’s thoughts on the size and scope of the ideal republic, a matter of concern to political thinkers since ancient times, taken as highly problematic for proponents of our modern mass societies.1 The Founders and Framers were exceedingly well aware of the theory and its many proofs, but, along with a sufficient number of their fellow citizens, both the later Federalists as well as their Democratic-Republican opponents, were far from immune to the material as well as spiritual satisfactions that participation not just in any modern mass society, but in an American one, seemed to hold out to them. The parallel results at each critical moment in the nation’s history reinforce the sense that the national-imperial and statist victory during the Founding period did not come about by chance or even by force of argument, but, to use the Hegelian phrase, by historical necessity. In this context, why should we assume that in the year 2013 an authentically and viably conservative, rather than radical if not morbidly ideological, point of view would be the one that seeks some true Montesquieuvian faith?

As I have repeatedly argued, and as in fact seems rather obvious to me, nothing less than a comprehensive system crisis would allow for a re-ordering of the American state as we know it (or think we do), necessarily in the form of world-spanning or world-historical events that would take place, if ever prior to the End of Days, only at the point that the despite-itself global potential of that state has finally played itself out.2 Nothing prevents those with a conservative outlook or temperament from remaining aware of dire and whole wide world-encompassing possibilities, even the possibility or perhaps the certainty of their own, or their community’s, or nation’s, or culture’s, or civilization’s eventual impossibilization, but any sensibly conservative conservatism, or any conservative understanding of the idea of a conservative understanding, does or ought to prevent its  advocacy, with or without the yelling.


Over the course of further exchanges, Timothy Gordon, the author of the Madison/Montesquieu post, declared his failure despite much effort to make sense of my statements along the above lines. He further asserted that the conservatism he deemed truly conservative or conservative enough for his purposes was the conservatism that seeks to “conserve” (his capitalization): “NATURAL LAW.” At the risk of repeating myself, but perhaps to the purpose of being better understood, I’ll paste my (incidentally edited) reply here:

I don’t think natural law, or NATURAL LAW, requires your or my efforts to be “conserved.” Peculiar notions about applications of natural law or of understandings of natural law might be another matter. We may be asking whether such notions as articulated by certain 18th Century thinkers are applicable to our political life at all, and, if so, how. My own answer would be: possibly, but very likely not as ideology fit for everyday polemics, or as in the writings of contemporary self-identified Natural Law proponents.

As to your mystification regarding two sentences that struck me when I wrote them as quite clear and to the point, I’ll try again: To me, and I would argue under any sensible approach to usages, attaching the word “conservative” to advocacy of the total re-configuration, indeed destruction, of an existing and long-settled way of life, on behalf of another regime that seems to exist only as an imaginary ideal, ought to be taken as ridiculous or insane. It ought to be impossible. It verges on the comical. I would call it bizarre, except that it’s a normal and influential feature of American politics: The existence of a gnostical political cult standing athwart pedestrian traffic and doing a lot of nonsensical yelling about an evil regime that appears to equate with all existing social, political, and economic relations.

The efforts have been rewarded with the fulfillment of Humpty-Dumpty’s wishes about the meaning of words, though in another sense the results are in keeping with contradictions embedded within the American idea at its inception and re-expressed throughout the nation’s history. I won’t say it’s all to the bad. For one thing, I would not consider saying so to be a reasonably conservative way to discuss it.


  1. To review, Aristotle defined polity via the polis: Anything larger than the area a man could take in with a single view or over the course of an afternoon stroll was to be deemed unsuitable to authentic politics, and would qualify implicitly, for all involved in one way or another, as some form of subjection or tyranny. []
  2. Francis Fukuyama has just laid out a detailed political-historical brief on this question of system crisis. He is especially persuasive in regard to the often-observed vicious circle of American anti-statism, its production of a culture-state disfigured by its own ethos in such a way as to reinforce that ethos – cutting off its governance to spite its state. []

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16 comments on “Standing athwart themselves

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  1. the redirect on that link is broken, it leads one to the main page, I’m surprised there was no reference to De Tocqueville,

    • “Today’s world seems to be coming apart at the seams, even here in America. Old political solutions appear increasingly inadequate to correct our problems. Besides growing threats from abroad — radical Islamism, Iran’s pursuit of the bomb, hegemonic activism from China — America herself is reeling from a spate of scandals which have revealed a government alarmingly out of control. Anti-Semitism is rising dramatically in Europe, but incidents of it are on the rise in the United States as well. Attacks on Christians are also increasing around the globe, and freedom of religion is under attack even in America — as are freedom of thought and economic freedom.”

    • So you kind of get that that would be an example, or parody, of the rhetoric I’m describing – right? Or do you? As my High School English teacher once said – or more accurately, as appeared on a mimeographed sheet of writing tips – “If schools are prisons, what are prisons?” If you want to argue that we live in the equivalent of a science fantasy dystopia, you can try it. I’ll just refrain from treating that mode of discourse as a “conservative” mode of discourse. Conservative, to me, will tend to look a lot like “moderate” except under rare circumstances. Otherwise, if all moments are extreme moments, then there are no extremes. It’s just immature reactionaries crying “wolf!” – producing a howling din of exceptionally extreme emergency without end and signifying nothing.

  2. Actually no, where is the exaggeration, Islamism is on the rise in Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, less so in Egypt, the most significant domestic program in a generation, is a manifest failure, in it’s execution,

    • Setting aside the opinions you present as facts, your statement qualifies as “exaggeration” as long as my beautiful blue Southern Californian December sky is beautiful and blue, not “scorched,” and to whatever extent we can proceed as though you are not a body in a vat being tapped for bio-energy by a vast machine intelligence.

  3. I was using a metaphor, as with the Landru example, there is no cult of minions, who believe their leaders every word and deny reality, you might ask Camille Sweeney about that.

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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