ISSN 2327-3666

August 21, 2009

What's Wrong With the Right?

The Revolutionary's Library via / Tikkun 1 (1987): 23-29) | by Christopher Lasch

In order to understand what’s wrong with the right, we must first understand the basis of its appeal. The conservative revival cannot be dismissed as a “simple political reaction,” as Michael Miles wrote some time ago, “whose point is to suppress a radical movement which by its nature poses a threat to the status quo distribution of power and wealth.” Contemporary conservatism has a strong populist flavor, having identified itself with the aspirations of ordinary Americans and appropriated many of the symbols of popular democracy. It is because conservatives have managed to occupy so much of the ground formerly claimed by the left that they have made themselves an important force in American politics. They say with considerable justification that they speak for the great American middle class: hard working men and women eager to better themselves, who reject government handouts and ask only a fair chance to prove themselves. Conservatism owes its growing strength to its unembarrassed defense of patriotism, ambition, competition, arid common sense, long ridiculed by cosmopolitan sophisticates, and to its demand for a return to basics: to “principles that once proved sound and methods that once shepherded the nation through earlier troubled times,” as Burton Pines puts it in his “traditionalist” manifesto, Back to Basics.

Far from defending the existing distribution of power, many conservatives, especially those who stress so-called social issues, deplore the excessive influence allegedly exercised by educated elites and see themselves as embattled defenders of values that run counter to the dominant values. They attribute most of the country’s ills to the rise of a .’highly educated, relatively affluent group which benefits more from America’s riches than its less educated fellow countrymen” yet condemns the “values and institutions responsible for producing these riches.” Members of this new class, according to Jeanne Kirkpatrick, “shape debate, determine agendas, define standards, and propose and evaluate policies.’. It is they who allegedly advocate unlimited abortion, attack religion and the family, criticize capitalism, destroy general education in the name of unlimited freedom of choice, replace basic subjects in the lower schools with sex education and values clarification, and promote a new ethic of hedonism and self-exploration. From a conservative point of view, a return to basics demands a democratic movement against entrenched interests, in the course of which traditionalists will have to master techniques of sustained activism formerly monopolized by the left.

Even if it could be shown that conservatives misunderstand American society, exaggerate the power of the so-called new class, underestimate the power of the business class, and ignore the undemocratic implications of their own positions, it would still be important to understand how they can see themselves as underdogs in the struggle for the American future. The left, which until recently has regarded itself as the voice of the .’forgotten man,” has lost the common touch. Failing to create a popular consensus in favor of its policies, the left has relied on the courts, the federal bureaucracy, and the media to achieve its goals of racial integration, affirmative action, and economic equality. Ever since World War II, it has used essentially undemocratic means to achieve democratic ends, and it has paid the price for this evasive strategy in the loss of public confidence and support. Increasingly isolated from popular opinion, liberals and social democrats attempt to explain away opposition to economic equality as “working class authoritarianism,” status anxiety, resentment, “white racism,” male chauvinism, and proto-fascism. The left sees nothing but bigotry and superstition in the popular defense of the family or in popular attitudes regarding abortion, crime, busing, and the school curriculum. The left no longer stands for common sense, as it did in the days of Tom Paine. It has come to regard common sense—the traditional wisdom and folkways of the community—as an obstacle to progress and enlightenment. Because it equates tradition with prejudice, it finds itself increasingly unable to converse with ordinary people in their common language. Increasingly it speaks its own jargon, the therapeutic jargon of social science and the service professions that seems to serve mostly to deny what everybody knows.

Progressive rhetoric has the effect of concealing social crisis and moral breakdown by presenting them “dialectically” as the birth pangs of a new order. The left dismisses talk about the collapse of family life and talks instead about the emergence of “alternative life-styles” and the growing new diversity of family types. Betty Friedan expresses the enlightened consensus when she says that Americans have to reject the “obsolete image of the family;’ to “acknowledge the diversity of the families people live in now;’ and to understand that a family, after all, in the words of the American Home Economics Association, consists simply of “two or more persons Who share values and goals, and have commitments to one another over time.” This anemic, euphemistic definition of the family reminds us of the validity of George Orwell’s contention that it is a sure sign of trouble when things can no longer be called by their right names and described in plain, forthright speech. The plain fact of the matter—and this is borne out by the very statistics cited to prove the expanding array of “lifestyles” from which people can now choose—is that most of these alternative arrangements, so-called, arise out of the ruins of marriages, not as an improvement of old fashioned marriage. “Blended” or “reconstituted” families result from divorce, as do “single-parent families:’ As for the other “alternative” forms of the family, so highly touted by liberals—single “families,” gay “marriages,” and soon-it makes no sense to consider them as families and would still make no sense if they were important statistically, as they are not. They may be perfectly legitimate living arrangements, but they are arrangements chosen by people who prefer not to live in families at all, with all the unavoidable constraints that families place on individual freedom. The attempt to redefine the family as a purely voluntary arrangement (one among many “alter-native” living arrangements) grows out of the modern delusion that people can keep all their options open all the time, avoiding any constraints or demands as long as they don’t make any demands of their own or “impose their own values” on others. The left’s redefinition of the family encourages the illusion that it is possible to avoid the “trap” of involuntary association and to enjoy its advantages at the same time.

The question of the family, which now divides our society So deeply that the opposing sides cannot even agree on a definition of the institution they are arguing about, illustrates and supports the contention that the left has lost touch with popular opinion, thereby making it possible for the right to present itself as the party of common sense. The presumption behind the older definition of the family is that ties of kinship and even of marriage and adoption are likely to be more demanding than ties of friendship and proximity. This is precisely 1Ihy many people continue to value them. For most Americans, even for those who are disenchanted 1Iith their own marriages, family life continues to represent a stabilizing influence and a source of personal discipline in a world where personal disintegration remains always an imminent danger.  A growing awareness of the depth of popular attachment to the family has led some liberals, rather belatedly, to concede that “‘family’ is not just a buzz word for reaction,” as Betty Friedan puts it.  But since these same liberals subscribe to the new flexible, pluralistic definition of the family, their defense of families carries no conviction.  They ask people to believe, moreover, that there is no conflict between feminism and the family.  Most women, according to Friedan, want both feminism and the family and reject categorization as pro-family or anti-family, pro-feminist or anti-feminist.  Most women are pragmatists, in other words, who have allowed “extremists” on the left and right to manipulate the family issue for their own purposes and to create a “political polarization between feminism and the family.” Her suspicion of ideology and her belief that it is possible to have things both ways—even in a crippled economy—place Friedan’s argument squarely in the liberal tradition, the very tradition that needs to be rethought and outgrown.

But if the family issue illustrates characteristic weaknesses of American liberalism, which have been effectively exploited by the right, it also illustrates why the right-wing defense of “traditional values” proves equally unsatisfactory.  Consider Rita Kramer’s book, In Defense of the Family. Although this book contains much good sense about childrearing, its explanation of the plight of the family is completely inadequate. Kramer blames the plight of the family on interfering experts, on liberal intellectuals pushing their own permissive morality as scientific truth, on the mass media, and on the bureaucratic welfare state. She exonerates industrial capitalism, “which gets a bum rap on this issue,” and she becomes absolutely lyrical whenever she touches on the subject of industrial technology.  She speaks scornfully of those who want to “throw out all the machines and go back to pre-industrial ways of arranging our lives.”  She insists that we can resist the “numbing and all-pervasive media” and still enjoy the “undeniable blessings of technology.” Her position seems to be that the nuclear family is so far superior to any other form of childrearing that its persistence can be taken for granted—if only the experts would go away and leave it alone.

(Conservatives) unwittingly side with the social forces that contribute to the destruction of ‘traditional values.’

This argument takes no account of the evidence that most people no longer live in nuclear families at all. It takes no account of the likelihood that women have entered the work force because they have no other choice, nor because they are besotted by feminist ideology and believe there is no other way to fulfill themselves. The last three decades have seen the collapse of the family wage system, under which American enterprise, in effect, invested in the single-income family as the best way of domesticating the working class and forestalling labor militancy. This development is one more that signals the arrival of a two-tiered society. Today it is no longer an unwritten law of American capitalism that industry will attempt to maintain wages at a level that allows a single wage to support a family. By 1976, only 40% of all jobs paid enough to support a family. This trend reflects, among other things, a radical de-skilling of the work force, the substitution of machinery for skilled labor, and a vast increase in the number of low-paying unskilled jobs, many of which, of course, are now filled by women.  These are among the “blessings of technology” not considered by Rita Kramer.  Meanwhile the consumer ethic has spread to men, as Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her study, The Hearts of Men. For thirty years, publications like Playboy have been urging men to define themselves not as breadwinners but as sybarites, lovers, connoisseurs of sex and style—in short as playboys. The idea that a man has an obligation to support a wife and family has come under attack not by feminist intellectuals or government bureaucrats but by Hugh Hefner and other promoters of a consumerist way of life.

It is the logic of consumerism that undermines the values of loyalty and permanence and promotes a different set of values that is destructive of family life—and much else besides. Kramer argues that the old bourgeois virtues should be given a long, hard look before we discard them in the name either of greater self-fulfillment or greater altruism.” But these values are being discarded precisely because t hey no longer serve the needs of a system of production based on advanced technology, unskilled labor, and mass consumption.

The therapeutic ethic, which has replaced the 19th.century utilitarian ethic, dues nut serve the “class interest” of professionals alone, as Daniel Moynihan and other critics of the “new class” have argued; it serves the needs of advanced capitalism as a whole. Moynihan points out that by emphasizing impulse rather than calculation as the determinant of human conduct, and by holding society responsible for the problems confronting individuals, a government-oriented professional class has attempted to create a demand for its own services.  Professionals, he observes, have a vested interest in discontent, because discontented people turn to professional devices for relief. But the same principle underlies modern capitalism in general, which continually tries to create new demands and new discontents that can be assuaged only by the consumption of commodities. Professional self-aggrandizement grew up side by side with the advertising industry and the whole machinery of demand-creation. The same historical development that turned the citizen into a client transformed the worker from a producer into a consumer. Thus the medical and psychiatric assault on the family as a technologically backward sector of society went hand in hand with the advertising industry’s drive to convince people that store-bought goods are superior to homemade goods.

“Conservatives sense a link between television and drugs, but they do not grasp the nature of this connection any more than they grasp the important fact about news: that it represents another form of advertising, not liberal propaganda.”

The right insists that the “new class’. controls the mass media and uses this control to wage a “class struggle’. against business, as Irving Kristol puts it. Since the mass media are financed by advertising revenues, however, it is hard to take this contention seriously. It is advertising and the logic of consumerism, not anti-capitalist ideology, that governs the depiction of reality in the mass media. Conservatives complain that television mocks ,. free enterprise” and presents businessmen as “greedy, malevolent, and corrupt,’. like ].R. Ewing. To see anti-capitalist propaganda in a program like Dallas, however, requires a suspension not merely of critical judgment but of ordinary faculties of observation. Images of luxury, romance, and excitement dominate such programs, as they dominate the advertisements that surround and engulf them. Dallas is itself an advertisement for the good life, like almost everything on television—that is, for the good life conceived as endless novelty, change, and excitement, as the titillation of the senses by every available stimulant, as unlimited possibility. “Make it new” is the message not just of modern art but of modern consumerism, of which modern art, indeed—even when it claims to side with the social revolution—is largely a mirror image. We are all revolutionaries now, addicts of change. The modern capitalist economy rests on the techniques of mass production pioneered by Henry Ford but also, no less solidly, on the principle of planned obsolescence introduced by Alfred E. Sloane when he instituted the annual model chan8e. Relentless “improvement” of the product and upgrading of consumer tastes are the heart of mass merchandising, and these imperatives are built into the mass media at every level. Even the reporting of news has to be understood not as propaganda for any particular ideology, liberal or conservative, but as propaganda for commodities, for the replacement of things by commodities, use values by exchange values, and events by images. The very concept of news celebrates newness. The value of news, like that of any other commodity, consists primarily of its novelty, only secondarily of its informational value. As Waldo Frank pointed out many years ago, the news appeals to the same jaded appetite that makes a child tire of a toy as soon as it becomes familiar and demand a new one in its place. As Frank also pointed out (in The Re-discovery of America, published in 1930), the social expectations that stimulate a child’s appetite for new toys appeal to the desire for ownership and appropriation: the appeal of toys comes to lie not in their use but in their status as possessions. “A fresh plaything renews the child’s opportunity to say: this is mine.’. A child who seldom gets a new toy, Frank says, “prizes it as part If himself: But if “toys become more frequent, value is gradually transferred from the toy to the toy’s novelty… The Arrival of the toy, not the toy itself, becomes the event.”  The news, then, has to be seen as the “plaything of a child whose hunger or toys has been stimulated shrewdly.”  We can carry this analysis one step further by pointing out hat the model of ownership, in a society organized round mass consumption, is addiction. The need for novelty and fresh stimulation become ever more intense, intervening interludes of boredom increasingly intolerable.  It is with good reason that William Burroughs refers to the modern consumer as an “image junkie.”

Conservatives sense a link between television and drugs, but they do not grasp the nature of this connection any more than they grasp he important fact about news: that it represents another form of advertising, not liberal propaganda.  Propaganda in the ordinary sense of the term plays a less and less important part in a consumer society, where people greet all official pronouncements with suspicion, Mass media themselves contribute to the prevailing skepticism; one of their main effects is to undermine trust in authority, devalue heroism and charismatic leadership, and reduce everything to the same dimensions.  The effect of the mass media is not to elicit belief but to maintain the apparatus of addiction.  Drugs are merely the most obvious form of addiction in our society.  It is true that drug addiction is one of the things that undermines ‘traditional values,’ but the need for drugs—that is, for commodities that alleviate boredom and satisfy the socially stimulated desire for novelty and excitement—grows out of the very nature of a consumerist economy.

The intellectual debility of contemporary conservatism is indicated by its silence on all these important matters. Neoclassical economics takes no account of the importance of advertising.  It extols the “sovereign consumer” and insists that advertising cannot force consumers to buy anything they don’t already want to buy. This argument misses the point. The point isn’t that advertising manipulates the consumer or directly influences consumer choices. The point is that it makes the consumer an addict, unable to live without increasingly sizeable loses of externally provided stimulation and excitement. Conservatives argue that television erodes the capacity for sustained attention in children. They complain that young people now expect education, for example, to be easy and exciting. This argument is correct as far as it goes. Here again, however, conservatives incorrectly attribute these artificially excited expectations to liberal propaganda—in this case, to theories of permissive childrearing and “creative pedagogy.”  They ignore the deeper source of the expectations that undermine education, destroy the child’s curiosity, and encourage passivity.  Ideologies, however appealing and powerful, cannot shape the whole structure of perceptions and conduct unless they are embedded in daily experiences that appear to confirm them. In our society, daily experience teaches the individual to want and need a never-ending supply of new toys and drugs.  A defense of “free enterprise” hardly supplies a corrective to these expectations.

Conservatives conceive the capitalist economy as it was in the time of Adam Smith, when property was still distributed fairly widely, businesses were individually owned, and commodities still retained something of the character of useful objects. Their notion of free enterprise takes no account of the forces that have transformed capitalism from within: the rise of the corporation, the bureaucratization of business, the increasing insignificance of private property, and the shift from a work ethic to a consumption ethic.  Insofar as conservatives take any note of these developments at all, they attribute them solely to government interference and regulation. They deplore bureaucracy but see only its public face, missing the prevalence of bureaucracy in the private sector. They betray no acquaintance with the rich historical scholarship which shows that the expansion of the public sector came about, in part, in response to pressure from the corporations themselves.

Conservatives assume that deregulation and a return to the free market will solve everything, promoting a revival of the work ethic and a resurgence of ‘traditional values.’  Not only do they provide an inadequate explanation of the destruction of those values but they unwittingly side with the social forces that have contributed to their destruction, for example in their advocacy of unlimited growth. The poverty of contemporary conservatism reveals itself most fully in this championship of economic growth the underlying premise of the consumer culture the by products of which conservatives deplore.  A vital conservatism would identify itself with the demand for limits not only on economic growth but on the conquest of space, the technological conquest of the environment, and the human ambition to acquire godlike powers over nature. A vital conservatism would see in the environmental movement the quintessential conservative cause, since environmentalism opposes reckless innovation and makes conservation the central order of business.  Instead of taking environmentalism away from the left, however, conservatives condemn it as a counsel of doom.  “Free enterprisers,” says Pines, “insist that the economy can indeed expand and as it does so, all society’s members can increase their wealth.”  One of the cardinal tenets of liberalism, the limitlessness of economic growth, now undergirds the so-called conservatism that presents itself as a corrective and alternative to liberalism.

Not only do conservatives have no understanding of modern capitalism, they have a distorted understanding of the “traditional values” they claim to defend. The virtues they want to revive are the pioneer virtues: rugged individualism, boosterism, rapacity, a sentimental deference to women, and a willingness to resort to force. These values are “traditional” only in the sense that they are celebrated in the traditional myth of the Wild West and embodied in the Western hero, the prototypical American lurking in the background, often in the very foreground, of conservative ideology. In their implications and inner meaning, these individualist values are themselves profoundly anti-traditional. They are the values of the man on the make, in flight from his ancestors, from the family claim, from everything that ties him down and limits his freedom of movement.  What is traditional about the rejection of tradition, continuity, and rootedness?  A conservatism that sides with the forces of restless mobility is a false conservatism.  So is the conservatism false that puts on a smiling face, denounces “doom sayers,” and refuses to worry about the future. Conservatism appeals to a pervasive and legitimate desire in contemporary society for order, continuity, responsibility, and discipline; but it contains nothing with which to satisfy these desires, It pays lip service to “traditional values,” but the policies with which it is associated promise more change more innovation more growth, more technology, more weapons, more addictive drugs.  Instead of confronting the forces in modern life that make for disorder, it proposes merely to make Americans feel good about themselves.  Ostensibly rigorous and realistic, contemporary conservatism is an ideology of denial.  Its slogan is the slogan of Alfred E. Neumann: “What? Me worry?” Its symbol is a smile button: that empty round face devoid of features except for two tiny eyes, eyes too small to see anything clearly, and a big smile: the smile of someone who is determined to keep smiling through thick and thin.

Conservatives stress the importance of religion, but their religion is the familiar American blend of flag waving and personal morality. It centers on the trivial issues of swearing, neatness, gambling, sportsmanship, sexual hygiene, and school prayers.  Adherents of the new religious right correctly reject the separation of politics and religion, but they bring no spiritual insights to politics. They campaign for political reforms designed to discourage homosexuality and pornography, say, but they have nothing to tell us about the connection between pornography and the larger consumerist structure of addiction maintenance. Their idea of the proper relation between politics and religion is to invoke religious sanctions for specific political positions, as when they declaim that budget deficits, progressive taxation, and the presence of women in the armed forces are “anti-biblical.” As in their economic views, conservatives advance views of religion and of the political implications of religion that derive from the tradition of liberal individualism.  Liberalism, as a Lutheran critic of the religious right points out, “means straining scripture to mandate specific positions on social justice issues, . . . bending the word of God to fit your political ideas.”  The religiosity of the American right is self-righteous and idolatrous.  It perceives no virtue in its opponents and magnifies its own.  In the words of a pamphlet published by the United Methodist Church, “The ‘New Religious Right’ has. … made the same mistake committed by the social gospeler earlier in the century.  They exaggerate the sins of their opponent and negate any original sin of their own.  They have become victims of what Reinhold Niebuhr called ‘easy conscience,’ or what the New Testament describes as the self-righteousness of the Pharisees.” The most offensive and dangerous form of this self-righteousness is the attempt to invoke divine sanction for the national self-aggrandizement of the United States in its global struggle against “godless communism,” as if American imperialism were any less godless than Soviet imperialism.  In the words of Paul Simmons, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “Identifying the Judeo-Christian posture with American nationalism is to lose the transcendent and absolute nature of the Christian faith.  For Christians and Jews, loyalty to God must transcend any earthly loyalties.”

The proper reply to right wing religiosity is not to insist that “politics and religion don’t mix.”  This is the stock response of the left, which has been caught off guard by the right and remains baffled by the revival of religious concerns and by the insistence—by no means confined to the religious right—that a politics without religion is no proper politics at all.  Bewildered by the sudden interest in “social issues,” the left would like either to get them off the political agenda or failing that, to redefine them as economic issues.  When liberals finally grasped the strength of popular feeling about the family, they cried to appropriate the rhetoric and symbolism of “family values” for their own purposes, while arguing that the only way to strengthen the family is to make it economically viable. There is truth in this contention, of course, but the economic dimension of the family issue can’t be separated so easily from the cultural dimension. Nor can bigger welfare budgets make the family economically viable. The economic basis of the family—the family wage—has been eroded by the same developments that have promoted consumerism as a way of life. The family is threatened not only by economic pressures but by an ideology that devalues motherhood, equates personal development with participation in the labor market, and defines freedom as individual freedom of choice, freedom from binding commitments.

The problem isn’t how to keep religion out of politics but how to subject political life to spiritual criticism without losing sight of the tension between the political and the spiritual realm. Because politics rests on an irreducible measure of coercion it can never become a perfect realm of perfect love and justice.  But neither can it be dismissed as the work of the devil (as Jacques Ellul maintains in his recent writings). A complete separation of religion and politics, whether it arises out of religious indifference or out of its opposite, the religious passion of Ellul, condemns the political realm to “perpetual warfare,” as Niebuhr argued in Moral Man and Immoral Society) “If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is impossible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice is impossible without the use of further coercion are we not ill all endless cycle of social conflict? . . . If power is needed to destroy power, uneasy balance of power would seem to become the highest goal to which society could aspire.” The only way to break the cycle is to subject oneself and one’s political friends to the same rigorous moral standards to which one subjects one’s opponents and to invoke spiritual standards, moreover, not merely to condemn one’s opponents but also to understand and forgive them.  An uneasy balance of power now enshrined as the highest form of politics in the theory of interest—group liberalism—can be ended only by a politics of “angerless wisdom,” a politics of nonviolent coercion that seeks to resolve the endless argument about means and ends by making nonviolent means, openness, and truth-telling political ends in their own right.

Needless to say, this is not a task either for the new right, for interest group liberals, or for those on the left who still cling to the messianic hope of social revolution. Faced with the unexpected growth of the new right, the left has asked itself how it can recover its former strength and momentum.  Some call for a vigorous counterattack, a reassertion of the left-wing gospel in all its purity and messianic fervor.  Others wait passively for another turn of the political cycle, another age of reform.  More thoughtful people on the left have begun, however reluctantly, to acknowledge the legitimacy of some of the concerns that underlie the growth of contemporary conservatism.  But even this last response is inadequate if it issues simply in a call For the left to appropriate conservative issues and then to give them a liberal twist. The hope of a new politics does not lie in formulating a left-wing reply to the right, It lies in rejecting conventional political categories and redefining the terms of political debate.  The idea of a “left” has outlived its historical time and needs to be decently buried, along with the false conservatism that merely clothes an older liberal tradition in conservative rhetoric. The old labels have no meaning anymore. They can only confuse debate instead of clarifying it. They are products of an earlier era, the age of steam and steel, and are wholly inadequate to the age of electronics, totalitarianism, and mass culture.  Let us say good-bye to these old friends, fondly but firmly, and look elsewhere for guidance and moral support.

Also see: A Feminist Response to Lasch by Lillian Rubin