The Beast looks back at you, or, the Ideological Mirror: When the real right praises the actual left.
Posted by El Mono Liso
I sometimes read far right and conservative media. Call it a hang-over from the early 2000s when I was far to the right of George Bush and subscribed to Lew Rockwell’s feed and read Sobrans and the American Conservative. This reactionary period was brief and ended because I was not religious in the strict sense, so I could only stomach supposed libertarians praising Dominionists or warmed over Catholic traditionalism trying to pass itself off as real liberation movement for so long. Or, in short, I was a Buddhist conservative.
This was a brief period of my life. A phase one might say like that period of wearing fedoras after you woke up drunk in a plastic swimming pool in one during your undergraduate parties. Doug Henwood actually describes going through a similar phase in his youth. I quickly cycled through a libertarian phase, although I do proudly say that even when I was a conservative I never voted for a Republican on a federal ticket in the United States.
Lately, I was thinking about by brief three-to-four year detour into reactionary politics. I was fed up by the left which never seemed to do anyway. In the late 90s, I have traveled across the country from Georgia to Seattle to protest the G-8. Then I lived among gutter punks after being disillusion with that. I wrote about this many, many years ago at Unlikely Stories in three parts (here, here, and here) just after 9-11. My contrariness led me to reject the sort of standard left-liberal dialogue as a conservative philosophy Professor introduced me to Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. Soon I was reading J. Alfred Nock and Ludwig Von Mises as well as Leo Strauss. I thought that Bush, who I would jokingly call King George the Third, was incompetent and his cabinet was filled with Neo-conservatives who were really disciples of Max Shachtman who would revert back to their Trotskyism. While there really is a relationship to third camp Trotskyism and neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol was going to break out into the Internationale during a press conference.
Ironically, now I sincerely wish that were true. 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. Both the Utopian sociologist and the traditionalist are acting off a teleology, but with models in different directions. Indeed, Robin’s points this out in the writings of Von Hayek:
Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today… But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.
This almost could have come from a James Cannon or C.L.R. James.
But back to the story at hand. I had just come in from teaching some classes on, ironically, American Religious culture to my Korean students. A friend of mine who sort of waffles between socialism and paleo-conservatism posted something from the “more-reactionary than thou” Taki Mag.
Charles A. Coulombe has written a relatively thoughtful piece called Leftist Nostalgia on Modern Airwaves on how he feels a tickling kinship with the real left-wing on KPFK. I know the feeling in reverse. Pat Buchanan is odd and I feel like he is a broken clock who happens to be right periodically, but there are times when I wish more Republicans were that honest about what they believe.
Coulombe hits a nail on the head multiple times:
“With the partial exception of the Tea Partiers, the “progressives” who form the station’s fan base are among the very few folk in this country who approach politics with any passion—anything greater than a cynical desire for government employment or else a tribal approach to party labels. The folk who agonize over current events at KPFK really do agonize”
One of the things I have been frustrated with the liberal left is that so much of it is about making excuses for when Clinton or Obama fails. I remember in the years of the Bush administration, it was only the Paleo-conservatives and some of the hard libertarianism who didn’t make bullshit excuses for the failures of Bush. They were ideologically consistent in a way that illustrated something akin to discipline. Yet Paleo-conservatism was in decline: hemorrhaging members to the theological right or to moderate libertarians. The call against the tribal identification with G.O.P. was seen as impractical. Indeed, there movement was defined by nostalgia.
The “radical” left has been too nostalgic for too long. The members of small Marxist parties reliving the debates between Trotskyists and Maoism in the late sixties and who have rigid definitions of what it means to do anything have led even communist luminaries to ignore them. Bookchin has noticed that Primitivism has started to replace other socialist anarchists for a similar reason.
Furthemore, Coulombe hits on another crucial point:
But the station reminds me of Chesterton’s dictum that the left is right about what is wrong but wrong about what is right. To put it in medical terms, their diagnosis of the illness is often as spot-on as their prescription is lethal. Their complaints about an oligarchic power structure that has little or no care about its subjects’ welfare? True. A burgeoning underclass without hope of betterment? Absolutely. Endless wars that are waged without any relation to their stated goals? Correct. Did the antiwar movement seem to vanish as soon as Obama occupied the White House? Yes, I noticed that, too.
The frustrations, however, of those who operate on principle are similar even if our answers are diametrically opposed. Now the “moderate” would generally say, “that is because you have an ideological orientation that blinds you to reality?”
But I would appeal to both modern psychology and Althusser: You, dear moderate, do not realize your ideological orientation. As the Chinese saying goes, “A fish does not know it is in water.” Those of us with more modal values realize exactly where we deviate. In other words, the idea that things could be different and have been RADICALLY different in past. David Gaeber points this out on our idea of currency and money: even metal commodity money returning as a major commodity of exchange is relatively recent. It is the psychological of investment–or to use something that isn’t infected with the rhetoric of business–the psychology cognitive dissonance going there.
If only all my opponents were as consistent as Coulombe. I miss battles of real differences too instead of luke warm world of tribal party politics between the center-right and the more-right-center-right one has in most of the Western Europe and the U.S. now. That’s a bit of my nostalgia.
Side note: Read Corey Robin’s bit on Anton Scalia on why perhaps I should be a bit more careful with my nostalgia.