Sunday, May 7, 2017

Thoughts On Andrew Sullivan's Essay On "Reactionism"


A too long exchange between a friend and me on Andrew Sullivan's long essay taking apart what he calls ultra right "reactionism," which he contrasts with conservatism:


....Alright, it got better after the first couple of paragraphs. I still found it annoyingly condescending, but, as I said, he's at least focused on the more interesting and important phenomenon, and, after all, there's his New Yorkish audience to appease. 

So, first, his definition of "reactionism" and its distinction from conservatism is flawed -- note that all of its putative features are really characteristics of revolutionists, and each of his historical examples is only a response to an initial radical effort exhibiting each of those traits: apocalyptic style, contempt for elites and institutions, revolutionary yearning. Indeed, with the appropriate definition of "elites" and "institutions", you're far more likely to find those traits among the "progressive" anti-Trump left today than among Trump or Brexit supporters.

And then there's the problem with his notion of the "modern world". It has its discontents, certainly, but those were a problem long before the recent wave of populist elite-rejection, and have almost nothing to do with globalization as such, or porous borders, or identity politics and its enforcement -- or automation or robots. See Arnold's "Dover Beach" for a contrasting idea. Sullivan's "modern world", however, is just the above litany of more or less recent developments that are being contested -- he implies it's some sort of inevitability, to which resistance is futile, but that's a fond delusion. Once upon a time fascism seemed like the "modern world" to many similarly deluded, and communism seemed like "the future" -- it's a convenient and oft-used rhetorical trope, but it's really just a way of begging the question.

He does at least collect three interesting figures, as representative "reactionaries", and gives them fair treatment. I couldn't find anything as coherent as an "ideology" that linked them, however, and his concluding attempt to modify that into a unifying "mood" seemed more about Sullivan himself than current politics. He's on the right track in talking about  culture, finally, and the natural reaction of all human groups if or when that culture is disrupted or threatened, but then quickly falls back on tired characterizations of the response, like "retreat into the past", reaching "backward for a more primeval and instinctual group identity" , which are really just a sop to left-liberal anxieties and if anything a projection of their own desires.

In the end, he himself puts together proposals along the lines of what he regards as "reactionary", but just toned down. He seems to think this differs from the mind-set of those he wants to call reactionaries, but in that he seems to repeat an error common during the campaign, as a writer insightfully put it: Trump's opponents tend to take him literally but not seriously, his supporters take him seriously but not literally. It simply means, in general, that one should look deeper than the remarks that are made in a rally, or a blog, or even a particular interview, and try to understand at least what the underlying sense might be....


...Not polishing apples when I say you have a better grasp of these issues than do I, but I found his distinction between "reactionism" and conservatism telling and made complicated because the two overlap. 

....Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It’s far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt. If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today’s Republican Party — from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to today’s Age of Trump — is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power...

One sign of that distinction may be the split on the right, stronger during his candidacy and abating as he appears to be edging towards being more moderate  in governing than he was campaigning, between those implacably opposed to him and those invariably supporting him. Another sign may be the apparent diminution of the importance of Bannon, who I'd argue is Exhibit A for reactionism. Doesn't he embody in varying degrees what you well list: apocalyptic style, contempt for elites and institutions , revolutionary yearning? Aren't these traits what excited Trump's base and aren't these traits what drove #nevertrump among think conservatives, like say Krauthammer, who have come to some terms with him are somewhat mollified by his moderating but are underlying all that still appalled by him? Trump's was a rhetorically incendiary campaign and Bannon came on in due course to solidify and guide the fire. The #nevertrumpers despised Bannon as much as they did Trump.  It's hard to characterize today's Trump supporters because in our fast moving times Sullivan's diagnosis as it applies to Trump himself is somewhat stale, that caused by, as I say, Trump's moderating. Another instance of the split is the recent fight over health care and dealing with Obamacare. The Freedom Caucus seems to me to be be closer to reactionism in a spectrum between it and conservatism. The difficulties the passed bill will face in the Senate where there are more moderate Republicans is a sign of that same split. Trump is trying to thread a needle between those two extremes. I I digress but do not believe the reactionists can win to it. The planting of medical care as a right with government support has taken too much hold and the pure marketeers, who are also reactionists, will flail and fail in the attempt to implement their vision.)

Again, I found the references to confusion and distress at the modern world telling. My understanding of this is superficially broad and sketchy but I see globalism as I understand it and capitalism as irresistible forces that politics can't do much about and with the edge going to those able best to harness their abilities to what is changing and what will be vocationally be in demand. In the U.S. and Canada too unemployment seems to be going down (putting aside the stats on those who've stopped looking for work) but wages remain stagnant if not declining. Globalization and advancing technology are feeding and expanding the underside, the losers, in our "coming apart," to use Murray's phrase, in this round of "creative destruction. That underside is part of what Trump referred to as "American carnage," what he promised to resolve but likely can't, in bringing back manufacturing jobs now made *generally*  obsolete in America by both  automation and cheaper labour abroad. The underside is bewildered and enraged by what it has lost. Not to blame it, politics is bewildered by it too. The underside is marked socially by dysfunction, alienation, drug use, anti social behaviour, other modes of dysfunction that Murray traces in Coming Apart. The extreme economic nationalism of a Bannon carrying with it the dream of restoring an idealized American economic past, "MAGA," in my understanding seems to me a species of reactionism that Sullivan briefly describes well.

Finally, it may be that what you see in Sullivan's proposals as warmed over and toned down reactionism is a function of the overlap between conservatism and reactionsim as Sullivan has them and despite the differences between them he traces. He says he's sympathetic to some of what animates reactionism and to some of its ideas. Please forgive the long quote from his essay:

....Beyond all that, neo-reactionaries have a glaring problem, which is that their proposed solutions are so radical they have no chance whatsoever of coming into existence — and would be deeply reckless to attempt. Their rage eclipses their argument. The notion that public opinion could be marshaled to effect a total reset of American government in favor of a new form of monarchy, as Yarvin suggests, is, to be blunt, bonkers. And is America seriously going to remain a white-majority country? How, exactly? Can the U.S. economy suddenly unwind global manufacturing patterns? Can America simply abandon its global role and its long-standing commitments to allies?

Of course not. And the Trump administration is, day by day, proving this. An isolationist foreign policy collapsed at the first gust of reality. A thinly veiled Muslim immigration ban would have accomplished nothing — most Islamist terrorism is homegrown — and went nowhere. The communities that once thrived off manufacturing or coal mining are not coming back. Even the most draconian mass deportation of undocumented immigrants will not change the demographics of America — or suddenly raise wages for the working class. Global trade has become too entrenched to be reversed. The dismantling of Obamacare dismantled itself — not because of an elite plot but because, when confronted with its being taken away, a majority of Americans balked.

There is, perhaps, a way to use reactionary insights and still construct a feasible center-right agenda. Such a program would junk Reaganite economics as outdated but keep revenue-neutral tax reform, it could even favor redistribution to counter the deep risk to democracy that soaring inequality fosters, and it could fix Obamacare’s technical problems. You could add to this mix stronger border control, a reduction in legal immigration, a pause in free-trade expansion, a technological overhaul of the government bureaucracy, and a reassertion of Americanism over multiculturalism. This is not an impossible direction for the Republican Party to go — though it would have to abandon its know-nothing narcissist of a leader and its brain-dead congressional leaders. The left, for its part, must, it seems to me, escape its own bubble and confront the accelerating extremism of its identity politics and its disdain for millions of “deplorable” white Americans. You will not arrest the reactionary momentum by ignoring it or dismissing it entirely as a function of bigotry or stupidity. You’ll only defuse it by appreciating its insights and co-opting its appeal.

Reaction can be clarifying if it helps us better understand the huge challenges we now face. But reaction by itself cannot help us manage the world we live in today — which is the only place that matters. You start with where you are, not where you were or where you want to be. There are no utopias in the future or Gardens of Eden in our past. There is just now — in all its incoherent, groaning, volatile messiness. Our job, like everyone before us, is to keep our nerve and make the best of it....

To stick to my earlier example, it may be that the difference between reactionism and conservatism lies in the difference between a Steve Bannon and a Gary Cohn....


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