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Tag: edmund burke

Albert O. Hirschman: The Rhetoric of Reaction

Albert Hirschman was an amazing writer and his three slim books written for a general readership make their points with incredible efficiency. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is incisive about the individual’s relationship and loyalty to a provider or employer. The Passions and the Interests is an excellent history of why capitalism seemed like such a savior when Adam Smith and others were promoting it, and how those arguments have persisted and mutated.

The Rhetoric of Reaction is a bit more diffuse and abstract than those books. It is at its best when most concrete. Hirschman, an admitted progressive, examines reactionary and conservative arguments of three types:

  • According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.
  • The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.”
  • Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.

(These do map uncannily onto my own Three Versions of Conservatism. The mapping is Elitist Conservative : futility :: Sentimental Conservative : jeopardy :: Cynical Conservative : perversity.)

I think the three theses do not in fact cleave as cleanly as Hirschman wants them to. Futility is something of a lesser version of the other two, as any action that is useless can then easily be portrayed as wasteful or dangerous. Futility often exists as a fallback position: “Well, if welfare won’t make people more poor, and if it isn’t in fact a huge waste of money…it still won’t do any good!” Hirschman points out that switching rhetorical strategies, no matter how incoherent, is extremely common.

Hirschman pronounces the Perversity thesis “the single most popular and effective weapon in the annals of reactionary rhetoric.” I agree, and it dominates the book as well. I think Hirschman misses one significant reason why it is more successful than jeopardy. (Futility is less hyperbolic and scary than the other two and so easily loses out.) Jeopardy is multidimensional, while perversity is monodimensional. Jeopardy requires one to think about trade-offs between two or more separate but interdependent axes of goods and values, while perversity simply argues that we will go the wrong way along a single axis.

Perversity’s simplicity is its strength. Far more efficient to argue that welfare will make people poor, that affirmative action will disenfranchise minorities, that antitrust will destroy competition. Simple, elegant, and utterly specious.

Consequently, the Jeopardy thesis is more intellectually interesting, even if it’s been less ubiquitous. Hirschman has some great quotes from the 19th and 18th centuries arguing that giving people the right to vote would endanger people’s liberty. The same neocons who tell us how we should be aping Athenian democracy today are reversing the same pattern used by Fustel de Coulanges in 1864, who said that the democracy of Athens was only possible through a complete absence of what we call liberty.  Now, according to Kagan and Smith and Hanson, democracy is only possible through an increasing absence of liberty. For Fustel, Greece was a scary bogeyman; now it’s an unreachable ideal. Same rhetoric.

And through this handy chart that Hirschman gives, we see that some of the neocons and racial “scientists” of today are the same people who were arguing against welfare decades ago, using the same rhetoric:

Hirschman also critiques progressive rhetoric for having too sunny a view, but despite his claims of even-handedness, he seems to be a lot harder on the reactionaries. Maybe this is just my own bias: optimism about bringing liberty, suffrage, and welfare to those lacking it seems far less offensive than attempts to prevent those efforts.

Still, while Hirschman treats Tocqueville and Scheler with some respect, the others come in for well-deserved contempt. It is always good to be reminded of what a horrible person Pareto was (Mussolini supporter, anti-democratic, draconian Social Darwinist); isn’t Pareto-optimality just another statement of the Jeopardy thesis?

Hirschman seems to agree, but he does point out the danger of the progressive/radical “desperate predicament” strategy, which rhetorically argues that things are so bad that any cost is justifiable as long as it brings about change. The more conservatives argue the danger, the more they argue that there are never legitimate grounds for change, the more it pushes radicals to say that the danger is necessary and justified.

Hirschman concludes that Burkean arguments actually radicalized progressives in the 19th century, inducing them to portray current conditions as more hopeless and more desperate than they would have otherwise. I don’t know if the link is quite so direct. I think that the French Revolution itself did force progressives to look at the potential costs of revolution more closely, and that itself may have helped to radicalize the rhetoric.

Yet ultimately it is the bad faith of the reactionaries that dominates, and Hirschman quotes Charles de Rémusat’s devastating critique of Burke’s blind worship of tradition to show just how empty such rhetoric is:

If the events, in their fatality, have been such that a people does not find, or does not know how to find, its own entitlements in its annals, if no epoch of its history has left behind a good national memory, then all the morals and all the archeology one can mobilize will not be able to endow that people with the faith it lacks nor with the attitudes this faith might have forged . . . If to be free a people must have been so in the past, if it must have had a good government to be able to aspire to one today or if at least it must be able to imagine having had these two things, then such a people is immobilized by its own past, its future is foreclosed; and there are nations that are condemned to dwell forever in despair.

Three Versions of Conservatism

Reductionistic Framework Alert!

Since “conservatism” has had such bizarre associations in the United States for a long time now, I thought I’d give brief accounts of the three breeds that I most often think of in connection with the classical sense of conservative (that is, the sense that still has something to do with the meaning of the word).

1. Classic Conservatives

These types are drawn from the political literature of the last few centuries.

a. Elitist Conservative

Firm believer in the natural superiority of a small elite. Worries about the danger of the unwashed masses having too much power, surely leading to chaos and mob rule. Thinks they already have too much power. Dismissive of egalitarian doublespeak such as “rights” and “liberty.” Seeks to vest power in the hands of the enlightened, the cultured, and (of course) the rich. Almost certainly belongs to one of these groups.

Religion: None, but thinks everyone else should go to church.

Worst Fear: Jacobins.

Mascot: Alexander Hamilton. Leo Strauss.

Representative Artist: D.H. Lawrence.

 

b. Sentimental Conservative

Loves their country. Loves their country more than other countries. Sheds a tear for the flag. Embraces the beautiful traditions that make his society what it is. Insists on civility, manners, and respect for one’s betters. Thinks they contribute to the benevolence and stability of the culture. Hates to see the traditional order of things upset by multiculturalism, class mobility, etc. Uses “fireman” instead of “firefighter.” Trusts in the benevolent hand of the upper classes to take care of the lower classes. May use the phrase “white man’s burden” unironically.

Religion: The state’s.

Worst Fear: Minorities and immigrants.

Mascot: Edmund Burke.

Representative Artist: Norman Rockwell.

 

c. Cynical Conservative

Ridicules those who think society can be improved. Believes in the fundamental rottenness of humanity. Jeers at futile attempts to improve our lot. Thinks we’re lucky we have what we do. Wildly inegalitarian. Thinks stereotypes are funny because they’re true. Sees liberals as priggish, humorless idealists chasing rainbows. Certain that things will get worse.

Religion: Are you kidding?

Worst Fear: Political correctness.

Mascot: Thomas Malthus.

Representative Artist: Henry de Montherlant.

 

2. Degenerate Conservatives

Each of the three accounts above can degenerate into a less appealing form under the right circumstances. (E.g., today.) Respectively:

a. Natural-Order Conservative

Enthusiastically embraces the status quo. Believes that things are the way God (or Nature) made them: it’s not only useless to try to change them, it’s wrong and distasteful. Thinks people naturally float to wherever in the great chain of being they belong. Admires the Great Men of history. Looks forward to the slow disappearance of society’s inferiors as Social Darwinism takes hold. Failing that, enjoys the labor provided by these inferiors, especially its surplus value.

Religion: Calvinism.

Worst Fear: Not being one of the elect.

Mascot: William Graham Sumner.

Representative Artist: Thomas Carlyle.

 

b. Paranoid Conservative

Turns to law and order to save them from any and all persecutors. Believes the thin blue line needs to be as thick as possible. Fears the great unwashed, lower-class resentment, and teenagers. Looks to religion, law, and any other socially repressive organization to prevent disaster. Jumps to endorse war with other countries, but worries we aren’t at war with the right countries. Never, ever joins the armed forces. Trusts government, usually.

Religion: Any of the Good ones.

Worst Fear: Too many to mention.

Mascot: Roger Ailes.

Representative Artist: Artists are degenerates, but if you must: H.P. Lovecraft.

 

c. Fatalist Conservative

The most boring of the conservatives, liable to talk your ear off with their endless theories of history and the inevitable future of this or that society. Probably has a dim view of humanity, but this is overshadowed by crankish ideas about what humanity must be at each stage of history. Dismisses activism as attempts to fight indisputable truths. Predicts a grim future because the past was so grim and history repeats.

Religion: Their own.

Worst Fear: Other competing theories of history.

Mascot: Oswald Spengler. Arnold J. Toynbee.

Representative Artist: Artists are mere products of history.

 

Update: Non-conservatives

People say I seem to have left out certain types. Hence this appendix.

Libertarian: I assure you that the Ancien Regime really didn’t give a fig for “individual rights,” much less natural ones. Things don’t seem to have changed that much, leaving real libertarians as eccentrics whose unifying trait is that they never hold any actual power. Some of them are exploited as useful idiots, such as the good people of the Cato Institute, who were thrown to the wind by the Republicans once the Cato folks ceased to agree with them). Didn’t see that coming. See The Libertarian FAQ for further details.

Neocon: Haphazardly invading and occupying small but troublesome countries in order to spread freedom or what have you is not very conservative, and quite expensive to boot. Excusable during the cold war, but not anymore.

Objectivist/Capitalist Utopian: Elitist, yes, but the funny thing about most Objectivists is that they think the world is a meritocracy and the people at the top deserve to be there, so if they work hard enough they’ll get there too, if only the government and bureaucracy didn’t stand in their way. Suckers.

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