[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Recently, Tablet Magazine published a lengthy essay by Eric Kaufmann, heralding the revival of “left-conservative” thinking, which the author defined as “a conservative view on cultural questions like national identity and immigration with left-wing positions on economic issues like public services.” Leaving aside for the moment whether this “intellectual force” is, in fact, emerging (and how we would know it if it were), the genealogy and analysis of this constellation of opinions provided by Kaufmann is interesting. Most politically informed Americans would, I suspect, look at the above definition and think “oh yes, that’s what conservative Democrats believe; I’m sure there must be a couple of them still around here somewhere.” But Kaufmann is trying to distinguish something rather different than that, I think, something similar to what long-time Front Porch Republic readers might remember from the “Red Tory” boomlet of a decade ago. I don’t believe he’s successful in making his claim, because—to give away the end of the essay—I think his conception of liberal nationhood gets in the way of his explanation of what left conservatism is or could be in the first place. Still, it provides some intellectual history worth surveying, at the least.
Kaufmann builds his argument primarily around the intellectual journey of two important mid-century Jewish thinkers, Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer, both of whom came of age—like many other intellectuals in their cohort—during an era and in an environment of leftist radicalism, and went on to be influential academics whose Cold War, anti-communist sensibilities were deeply disturbed (though, I think, in importantly different ways) by the unrest of the 1960s. Kaufmann quotes Glazer as saying: “When I came to Berkeley in 1963, I still thought of myself as a man of the left, and for the first few months of the free speech issue, I was on the side of the free speech people….The key issue that labelled me a conservative, labelled a number of us as conservative, were the student unrest issues post-1964.” What changed? Years of student challenges to, in Glazer’s view, “free speech, free research and free teaching.” As Kaufmann sums it up, the problem for Glazer, and many of his fellow former radicals, was that their preferred “social democratic approach was married to political liberalism,” and that meant “standing up for bourgeois liberal democracy.” Which is, of course, an obvious course for philosophical liberals to take! But if the ideas Kaufmann traces in this article are rooted in liberalism, in what sense is the “conservatism” they might invoke actually “left.”
Ideological terminology and labeling never has been and never will be consistent, so it’s a fool’s errand to ever claim to definitively identify that one set of beliefs are, or only ever could be, “liberal” as opposed to “left” (to say nothing of “conservative”). Still, attempts to do so are instructive, because if nothing else they can provide landmarks for intellectual wanderers. Most “left” intellectual landmarks that have been articulated ever since the French Revolution—which is when this particular phrasing first arose—have involved one of form or another of liberation from cultural, economic, and social forms and traditions which impose hierarchies and distinctions. In other words, the one thing that can probably almost always be said with confidence about the “left” is that it is egalitarian. Aren’t liberals egalitarians too? Obviously much contemporary liberalism, as opposed to classical liberalism, has certainly turned its long-standing valorization of the God-created individual as a rights-bearing being in the direction of thorough-going egalitarianism. But the fact that libertarian thinkers, making use of the same philosophical convictions about natural rights and individual dignity as liberals, can coherently advance decidedly non-egalitarian claims, suggests that leftist egalitarianism must have different roots.
Norman Mailer’s self-description as a “left conservative” can be instructive here. When Mailer called himself a left conservative in his strange and magnificent The Armies of the Night, he said that he aimed to “think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke.” One possible way of articulating this vision (which Mailer himself admitted was an oxymoron which he had to redefine every day) is to say that modernity is different from what came before it (whether you want to date that to the French Revolution or the Declaration of Independence or any other landmark). The traditions and communities which Burke defended simply cannot exercise the authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self. Technology, social fluidity, democracy: all genies let out of the bottle. Which all, of course, rings as conservative in the fullest sense. As I once argued in an attempt to make sense of left conservatism more than 15 years ago, conservatives value tradition and community in part because they are the only things that cannot (at least cannot easily) be turned into abstractions which in turn can be taxed away from you or turned against you; to the extent that the modern world sees profits, procreation, wars, borders, religions, holidays, families, markets, marriages, and more as institutions and events best understood, conducted, and transformed in light of some abstract principle—whether that be individual rights or personal conscience or democratic harmony or economic progress—then one could argue that the modern world has gone wrong, gotten away from the instinctual truths and embedded necessities of human existence.
There are possible reactionary responses to this, whether a jihad-like revolt against modernity or a St. Benedict-like retreat from it. But neither of those were Mailer’s response. As the above-linked essay explains, Mailer “hoped to subvert most traditions that governed American life,” no doubt in part because so many of those traditions were products of “corporate power and its influence on American culture.” So his response, instead, was to imagine a Marxist response, carried out on behalf of Burkean communities and traditions. Marxism was and is, obviously, deeply implicated in grand theories of historical determinism and revolution, which Mailer himself condemned (“I become uneasy when I find people drawing up solutions, which is, of course, the great vice of the left, to solve difficult problems, because I think they cut out too many of the nuances”). But you can still make use of Marx’s central—and, yes, illiberal—insights regarding alienation, commodification, imperialism, and so forth, without all the historical materialist baggage. Why attempt to do so? Because (as I’ve suggested before) Marx recognized the anthropological truth of the Burkean (though for him it was really more Hegelian, and therefore Rousseauian) insight into the human connection between personal subjectivity and communal, historical, material reality. Repairing the human consciousness does not mean an eternal project of subjective liberation, world without end, which can never do more, I think, than aim to make the burdens of modernity privately manageable (with that emphasis on the private perhaps explaining the tendency many liberal thinkers have for assuming that the liberation of identities will go hand-in-hand with socio-economic equality). Instead, the true leftist must address the issues of power and production which make the transformations of modernity into alienating, divisive, and dependency-inducing burdens in the first place—and that means taking seriously the communal and traditional spaces where those transformations take place.
(An aside: did I just put Rousseau and Burke into the same sentence? Yes. But the only reason that sounds strange, I think, is that the deep Burkean tradition has evolved into a position which basically accepts the collapse of the modern project: with the end of the authority of tradition comes the impossibility of community, a banal emotivist future, and the likely decline (or violent overthrow) of the West. In short, to borrow a point from Michael Walzer, such Burkeans are the sort of communitarians who think that we are at the point, or nearly at the point, where our communal nature is irredeemably broken up. The problem with this argument, however, is that—given that the human race, even in the decadent liberal West is, well, still here—it implies that community and tradition must not have been part of our “deep structure” after all. Whereas the Rousseauian perspective says, fine, okay, our original nature has been lost, we’re in chains. The liberal response is to deny the chains, or insist they aren’t relevant to individual life anyway; the conservative response, especially in its more religious iterations, is to say something like, yes, the chains are real, it’s a catastrophe, but in a sense the chains have been there since the fall of Adam, so let’s just make the best of it until the eschaton. Rousseau’s response preserves true conservative seriousness, but rejects the identification of specific social and economic and cultural problems with original sin. Instead, it respects the need for embeddedness and connection by suggesting that we remake our chains. Why can we do that? Because within and through modernity the deep structure abides; we’re just having difficulties actualizing it, because we’ve been so intent in fighting internecine battles within liberalism that we’ve ignored all the other ways in which we could be responding to the world.)
Kaufmann never mentions Mailer in his piece, which is unfortunate, because the way Mailer expressed his attachment to what he considered a proper conservative sensibility—one which, among other things, made him very sensitive to the need to fight centralizing abstractions and systems, and insist upon the value of realizing equality in terms of empowerment—would have been a helpful correction to Kaufmann’s own articulation of the “left conservatism.” Kaufmann’s historical arguments about the capture of the “adversary culture” by America’s corporate class over the past half-century, and the alignment of those increasingly-elite (and therefore no longer entirely “adversary”) conceptions with technological and educational shifts in America’s economy over the past 30 years, thus contributing to a deepening of class divides along urban and rural lines—all of those are, I think, both true and worthy of serious thought. But Kaufmann’s notion of that which the left conservatives he is imagining want to conserve is rarely actually a matter of local communities or traditions. Rather, the focus is on national stability, particularly ethnic national stability. That high levels of immigration can be a serious challenge for local norms is a truism that no serious person should deny. But to build a model of the conservative sensibility around the nation state, connecting Robert Putnam’s important work on social capital to “collective tradition, memory, and nationhood,” and posing the proper conservative goal as “a nation-state with a common culture,” is to, frankly, ignore the best that conservatism has to offer: a respect for (though not, of course, an unthinking obeisance to) local spaces, and the communal and traditional patterns which emerge there.
Kaufmann concludes with the prediction (or hope?) that soon governing power in Western democracies will be held by—or at least will be regularly and seriously contested for by—”national conservatives endors[ing] left-wing policies such as protectionism, infrastructure spending, and support for welfare programs like Social Security, alongside conservative ideas such as immigration restriction and nationalism.” But we know what that is, and it isn’t necessarily leftism; rather, it is the redistributive liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society, of America’s manufacturing unions in their heyday, of finance capitalism given freedom to expand alongside the American state, so long as appropriate levels of taxation keep schools and programs all fully funded. From an egalitarian perspective, there’s much to applaud there! That’s part of the reason why, from the 1930s to the 1970s, so many radical democratic and socialist thinkers, with intellectual roots extending back to the populist challenges of the early 20th century, found at least some degree of unifying comfort with the Democratic party. But once American capitalism went fully global, the bankruptcy of that egalitarian bargain was, slowly but surely, revealed, and those on the left (including those with whatever degree of conservative sympathies) found themselves having to either embrace or disentangle themselves from the neoliberalism that eventually become dominant. Kaufmann captures some of this, but the orientation of his argument around the likes of Bell and Glazer, two comfortably ensconced academics, members of an ethnically marginalized but nonetheless (at least within university circles) fully vouchsafed members of the American intellectual elite, perhaps inevitably makes him begin with and return to a leftist (but actually liberal) construction that can only conserve a nationalist conception which the aforementioned New Deal world created as a byproduct. Besides Mailer, he would have done better to seriously consider the historian Christopher Lasch.
Lasch—who, to my knowledge, never used the phrase “left conservative,” though the political theorist Ronald Beiner used “left-wing conservatism” to describe Lasch’s thought—does make a brief appearance in Kaufmann’s argument, serving as part of, in his term, the “Protestant Populist-Progressive” complement to the “anti-communist socialism” which, in the thinking of New York intellectuals like Bell and Glazer, he sees as the roots of left conservatism. Unfortunately, his use of Lasch’s ideas—which shouldn’t be at all unfamiliar to readers of Front Porch Republic, though unfortunately still often is—doesn’t serve the man’s overall philosophy well. He writes that Lasch “castigated America’s elites for their post-national detachment from popular national identity,” but that assumes the Lasch made any kind of argument for a genuine “popular national identity” in the first place, which many readers of the man (myself included) would firmly dispute. It’s not that Lasch denied that modern individual subjects can and often do build an identity through, and develop cultural attachments in connection with, a community as large as a nation state; he knew that he had himself (as he wrote in 1954, he recognized that he was “a part of America, whatever that means, except that the one thing it means is that wherever I go I cannot not be a part of it”). But the populism which Lasch called for—a populism that was, itself, distinctly left-conservative, at least if we hold to the idea that one can put together both an insistence upon the equal empowerment, in social and economic terms, of all communities, and an equal respect for the local norms and traditions which democratic majorities within those communities wish to live in accordance with—was never nationalist, never statist, and certainly never ethnic. It was, if anything, both cognizant of (even, in a way that many conservatives never are, respectful of) the moral opportunities which modern subjectivity and the liberation of the individual self had made possible, while insistent upon the need to never valorize such liberal possibilities as foundational. Eric Miller thoughtfully captured Lasch’s mature thought this way:
Populism, [Lasch] wrote, “stands for things most Americans still believe in and are willing to defend,” however submerged those beliefs might be beneath the glitter and gigantism of the market and the state….Against those who had argued that “populism” was merely an ideological haven for racially intolerant, ignorant provincials, Lasch began to recover and define a kind of populist cosmopolitanism….
[T]his required that he first deconstruct the self-image of those who fancied themselves the true cosmopolitans….Whereas democracy’s health required a rooted loyalty to particular places, the new elites [of America] were “international rather than regional”….Such upper-class cosmopolitanism was of course the true provincialism, a species more dangerous than the variety the despised lower-middle class might possess.
Against this faux cosmopolitanism Lasch proposed a vision of citizenship rooted in loyalty to place and kin yet also informed, enriched, and instructed, in a dialectical manner, by the fruits of high culture. “Those who welcome cultural fragmentation in the name of pluralism,” [Lasch] wrote….”have lost the sense of ‘twoness,’ as W.E.B. Du Bois called it, that formerly shaped writers attempting to navigate between the subcultures in which they had been raised and the world culture they had acquired through education”….The liberationist project of the elites, premised on the need to free “the imprisoned self,” [Lasch] noted…yield[ed] simply a “detached, formless, free-floating self—a self without prejudices, without a point of view of its own that is put at risk by others….Without a home culture, as it used to be called—a background of firmly held standards and beliefs—people will encounter the ‘other’ merely as consumers of impressions and sensations, as cultural shoppers in pursuit of the latest novelties. It is important for people to measure their own values against others and to run the risk of changing their minds; but exposure to others will do them very little good if they have no minds to risk.” [Miller, Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (Eerdmans, 2010), pp. 371-373]
While it might seem to take away from the policy focus of Kaufmann’s original argument, Lasch’s taking of his populist synthesis of a conservative or communitarian concern for place, tradition, and culture, on the one hand, and the leftist concern for equality and empowerment, on the other, in the direction of the arts is, I think, a much truer way of expressing the potential of this ideological construct than by simply endorsing strong welfare provisions and strong immigration restrictions at the same time. The latter is simply a grab-bag of policy positions that can be construed as representing the interests of some particular demographic quadrant of society, however historically important such a constellation of priorities may have appeared to Cold War American intellectuals at the time. The former, by contrast, can, when pushed, be revealed to incorporate a deep engagement with political and social theory, far more than loose talk about the consequences of the rise of immigration and the decline of unions. As a host of critics, philosophers, and scholars argued in a symposium on left conservatism over 20 years ago, long before anyone at Front Porch Republic rediscovered the term, left conservatism is a way of articulating, while still recognizing the full, degrading and dependency-creating effects of the racial, sexual, and class hierarchies of our late capitalist moment, some sometimes discomforting and not easily refuted arguments (none of which the participants in the above symposium were particularly sympathetic to, even as they recognized the challenge they posed). First, that materiality matters, which presents real limits to, or at least complications within, any project which equates equality and empowerment with the liberation of the subject. And second that attacking foundations, whatever the (often quite real and necessary) strategic value of doing so, can never on its own create a politics that truly matters to social life.
There is arguably a parallel to all this, if only Kaufmann could have seen it, in the fate of the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. In a recent column titled “The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders,” Ross Douthat made the argument that the wave of protests which have arisen in the five weeks since George Floyd’s murder, whatever their justice, represent a departure from the democratic socialist vision of Sanders, and its replacement by a leftism that fits right into the ideological movement that Bell, as Kaufmann presents it, sketched out over 40 years ago. Left agitators, according to this prediction, inevitably lose their interest in democratizing the economy so as to empower and equalize conditions for the working class, and focus instead on non-economic hierarchies whose destruction will be more acceptable to cosmopolitan-educated members of the capitalist class. The result is a liberalism which consumes the leftist emphasis upon, as Sanders constantly repeated, the deprivations of the billionaire class, thus losing any connection to the poor for the sake of maintaining influence over the educated. As Douthat claimed:
Throughout his career, Sanders has stood for the proposition that left-wing politics lost its way after the 1970s by letting what should be its central purpose—the class struggle, the rectification of economic inequality, the war against the “millionaires and billionaires”—be obscured by cultural battles and displaced by a pro-business, pro-Wall Street economic program….
Now, under these strange coronavirus conditions, we’re watching a different sort of insurgency challenge liberalism, one founded on an intersectional vision of left-wing politics that never came naturally to Sanders. Rather than Medicare for All and taxing plutocrats, the rallying cry is racial justice and defunding the police. Instead of finding its nemeses in corporate suites, the intersectional revolution finds them on antique pedestals and atop the cultural establishment….
[T]his revolution has been more unifying than Sanders’s version–uniting the Democratic establishment that once closed ranks against him, earning support from just about every major corporate and cultural institution, sending anti-racism titles skyrocketing up the best-seller list, even bringing Mitt Romney into the streets as a marcher and inducing Donald Trump to make grudging noises about police reform….All this, from one perspective, vindicates critics who said Sanders’s vision of revolution was too class-bound and race-blind all along….
[But the] anti-racist reckoning unfolding in colleges, media organizations, corporations and public statuary, may seem more unifying than the Sanders revolution precisely because it isn’t as threatening to power. The fact that corporations are “outdistancing” even politicians…in paying fealty to anti-racism is perhaps the tell. It’s not that corporate America is suddenly deeply committed to racial equality; even for woke capital, the capitalism comes first. Rather, it’s that anti-racism as a cultural curriculum, a rhetoric of re-education, is relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism, under the tutelage of the human resources department. The idea that you need to retrain your employees so that they can work together without microaggressing isn’t Marxism, cultural or otherwise; it’s just a novel form of Fordism, with white-fragility gurus in place of efficiency experts….
Yes, serious critics of structural racism have an agenda for economic as well as cultural reform. But that agenda isn’t what’s being advanced: Chuck Schumer will take a knee in kente cloth, but he isn’t likely to pass a major reparations bill, and the white liberals buying up the works of Ibram X. Kendi probably aren’t going to abandon private schools or bus their kids to minority neighborhoods. And in five years, it’s more likely that 2020’s legacy will be a cadre of permanently empowered commissars getting people fired for unwise Twitter likes rather than any dramatic interracial wealth redistribution.
I am a cynical conservative, so you can dismiss this as the usual reactionary allergy to the fresh air of revolution. But it’s also what an old-guard leftism, of the sort that Bernie Sanders attempted to revive, would predict of a revolutionary movement that has so much of the establishment on board.
Douthat is honest enough to acknowledge a major hole in his argument: specifically, that “the demand for police reform at the heart of the current protests doesn’t fit this caricature.” Which is surely how Sanders would defend himself from this accusation, if he felt inclined to articulate his vision of society in these terms: it is the poor (which includes a proportionally greater number of historically deprived and discriminated-against persons) that have suffered so often from police forces that cannot help but be organized more around the interests and priorities of the wealthy; hence, a democratic socialist vision, or really any left vision for that matter, would have to include a challenge to the most visibly coercive of all our racial and class hierarchies.
Yet even with the column’s central weakness, Douthat has a point, a point that any properly reflective leftist would have recognize. If the focus of leftism is not simply liberal redistribution, welfare payments, and the recognition of private subjectivities, but rather the public democratization of the social and economic order as a whole, then any movement that is so readily interwoven into the therapeutic managerialism of the corporate and knowledge class, which that Lasch so effectively identified and condemned, has to give believers in real economic democracy pause. And that would include left conservatives. Not so much—as one making use of Kaufmann’s articulation of the term might think—because this kind of intersectionality challenges deeply felt ethnic, racial, or sexual hierarchies and thereby troubles our national community. That isn’t, I think, a left conservative concern that is worthy of the name. Rather, a Laschian left conservative would recognize that any kind of reform movement, much less a revolutionary one, that allows itself to get centered around emotional or psychological abstractions, as opposed to the material realities of actual social and economic inequalities, whether in education or publishing or policing or anything else, is likely to be captured by the forces of capital and channeled into disputes that, whatever their legitimate need for resolution, will once again fail to connect with the communities where people live, the material lives they live there, and the traditions they build through those lives.
It is those actually existing habits of life that make life worth living. A democratization that does nothing to address the chains and dependencies which restrict and warp the full organic development of those lives, and the attachments they are constructed out of, is only at best a liberal equalization, delivering goods to individuals without much acknowledgement of the communal and local structures they are part of. To the extent that the goods are desperately needed, even a liberal distribution of them is very much worth it, and if the mix of progressive economics and conservative politics that Kaufmann sees flowing from the insights of men like Glazer and Bell can effectively, democratically, deliver them, then more power to them. But such deliveries will do little, theoretically anyway, about the place-destroying global unfolding of capitalism; perhaps some small resistance will be made to it, but the neoliberal argument for managed expansion will remain dominant nonetheless. A philosophically consistent left conservatism, such that could be built out of the writings of Marx and Lasch, and perhaps the irascibleness of folks like Mailer and Sanders too, would, I suspect, better serve the human need for both community and equality all around.