I'm going to interactively debug this old essay by Phil Agre called
What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?
Philip E. Agre
Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century. In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it? As it happens, the answers to these questions are also simple:
Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.
Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.
If you can accept this fundamental misrepresentation of Conservatism, then you are finished rather in the way logicians understand that assertion of the truth of a falsehood implies a universe of illogic. This is apparently Agre's religion, and so I reject his premises. That's remarkably simple, but maybe he finds other truths that make his mistated case more compelling. Let's see. BTW, this is about all that I read to convince me this is worth writing. I have no idea what lies ahead...
These ideas are not new. Indeed they were common sense until recently. Nowadays, though, most of the people who call themselves "conservatives" have little notion of what conservatism even is. They have been deceived by one of the great public relations campaigns of human history. Only by analyzing this deception will it become possible to revive democracy in the United States.
If people don't know what they are, then they cannot be considered properly. If I tell you that I am a Martian but am not from Mars, you cannot judge real Martians based on my shortcomings. So Agre may be shadowboxing.
//1 The Main Arguments of Conservatism
From the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the self-regarding thugs of ancient Rome to the glorified warlords of medieval and absolutist Europe, in nearly every urbanized society throughout human history, there have been people who have tried to constitute themselves as an aristocracy. These people and their allies are the conservatives.
Shaky. People are leaders who can lead. Aristocracies are about ability. Not direction. The faculty at Brown University is an aristocracy. The architects of the Bauhaus are an aristocracy. It doesn't make them evil because they lead. It doesn't make them right or wrong. It only makes them leaders.
The tactics of conservatism vary widely by place and time. But the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use "social issues" as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats. More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them. Of course this notion sounds bizarre to modern ears, but it is perfectly overt in the writings of leading conservative theorists such as Burke. Democracy, for them, is not about the mechanisms of voting and office-holding. In fact conservatives hold a wide variety of opinions about such secondary formal matters. For conservatives, rather, democracy is a psychological condition. People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy. This has been true for thousands of years.
Conservatism has not existed for thousands of years, but human leadership has. We are to ask ourselves whether or not any regime of leadership is just, honorable, effective, righteous. This is the study of history. We study history in order to learn, and we make judgments. But let us ask a simple question about democracy. Is it representative? Is the purpose of elections, vote-getting and office-holding self-serving or in service to society? If a Conservative or any candidate for democratic election campaigns to serve for the benefit of society, it is a simple task to measure whether or not that promise is fulfilled.
The defenders of aristocracy represent aristocracy as a natural phenomenon, but in reality it is the most artificial thing on earth. Although one of the goals of every aristocracy is to make its preferred social order seem permanent and timeless, in reality conservatism must be reinvented in every generation. This is true for many reasons, including internal conflicts among the aristocrats; institutional shifts due to climate, markets, or warfare; and ideological gains and losses in the perpetual struggle against democracy. In some societies the aristocracy is rigid, closed, and stratified, while in others it is more of an aspiration among various fluid and factionalized groups. The situation in the United States right now is toward the latter end of the spectrum. A main goal in life of all aristocrats, however, is to pass on their positions of privilege to their children, and many of the aspiring aristocrats of the United States are appointing their children to positions in government and in the archipelago of think tanks that promote conservative theories.
Nepotism is the proper word here, not conservatism. How many Republicans from Chicago are named Daley? How many Republicans from Massachusetts are named Kennedy? How many named Clinton? But beyond that, let me take this opportunity to assert something in parallel to Mr. Agre's claims about aristocracy. I will quote Thomas Jefferson whom I understand to be quoting Plato, in that his goal for American government is to establish an 'aristocracy of merit'. So let us see whether Agre is against aristocracy or against bad aristocracy.
Conservatism in every place and time is founded on deception. The deceptions of conservatism today are especially sophisticated, simply because culture today is sufficiently democratic that the myths of earlier times will no longer suffice.
Before analyzing current-day conservatism's machinery of deception, let us outline the main arguments of conservatism. Although these arguments have changed little through history, they might seem unfamiliar to many people today, indeed even to people who claim to be conservatives. That unfamiliarity is a very recent phenomenon. Yet it is only through the classical arguments and their fallacies that we can begin to analyze how conservatism operates now.
According to the first type of argument, found for example in Burke, social institutions are a kind of capital. A properly ordered society will be blessed with large quantities of this capital. This capital has very particular properties. It is a sprawling tangle of social arrangements and patterns of thought, passed down through generations as part of the culture. It is generally tacit in nature and cannot be rationally analyzed. It is fragile and must be conserved, because a society that lacks it will collapse into anarchy and tyranny. Innovation is bad, therefore, and prejudice is good. Although the institutions can tolerate incremental reforms around the edges, systematic questioning is a threat to social order. In particular, rational thought is evil. Nothing can be worse for the conservative than rational thought, because people who think rationally might decide to try replacing inherited institutions with new ones, something that a conservative regards as impossible. This is where the word "conservative" comes from: the supposed importance of conserving established institutions.
Well this is a tangle. Perhaps Agre doesn't want to deal with examples. Again, let us consider Brown University and the Bauhaus school of architecture. Are such social institutions anti-rational? Is the Red Cross anti-rational?
This argument is not wholly false. Institutions are in fact sprawling tangles of social arrangements and patterns of thought, passed down through generations as part of the culture. And people who think they can reengineer the whole of human society overnight are generally mistaken. The people of ancien regime France were oppressed by the conservative order of their time, but indeed their revolution did not work, and would probably not have worked even if conservatives from elsewhere were not militarily attacking them. After all, the conservative order had gone to insane lengths to deprive them of the education, practical experience, and patterns of thought that would be required to operate a democracy. They could not invent those things overnight.
Even so, the argument about conserving institutions is mostly untrue. Most institutions are less fragile and more dynamic than conservatives claim. Large amounts of institutional innovation happen in every generation. If people lack a rational analysis of institutions, that is mostly a product of conservatism rather than an argument for it. And although conservatism has historically claimed to conserve institutions, history makes clear that conservatism is only interested in conserving particular kinds of institutions: the institutions that reinforce conservative power. Conservatism rarely tries to conserve institutions such as Social Security and welfare that decrease the common people's dependency on the aristocracy and the social authorities that serve it. To the contrary, they represent those institutions in various twisted ways as dangerous to to the social order generally or to their beneficiaries in particular.
I take it as axiomatic that any ideology rarely tries to conserve institutions that are antithetical to their premises. Clearly the Jacobins didn't seek to conserve the Ancien Regime. Revolutions *are* the active destruction of particular institutions. The Barbarians didn't seek to conserve Rome. So as things change, for rational or irrational reasons what is conserved or enhanced has a particular flavor. Elementary. Agre's phrasing is odd "institutions such as Social Security and welfare that decrease the common people's dependency on the aristocracy and the social authorities that serve it." Social security and welfare he appears to claim *decrease* the common people's dependency on the aristocracy. Really? I wonder if he'll spell that out.
The opposite of conservatism is democracy, and contempt for democracy is a constant thread in the history of conservative argument. Instead, conservatism has argued that society ought to be organized in a hierarchy of orders and classes and controlled by its uppermost hierarchical stratum, the aristocracy. Many of these arguments against egalitarianism are ancient, and most of them are routinely heard on the radio. One tends to hear the arguments in bits and pieces, for example the emphatic if vague claim that people are different. Of course, most of these arguments, if considered rationally, actually argue for meritocracy rather than for aristocracy. Meritocracy is a democratic principle. George Bush, however, was apparently scarred for life by having been one of the last students admitted to Yale under its old aristocratic admissions system, and having to attend classes with students admitted under the meritocratic system who considered themselves to be smarter than him. Although he has lately claimed to oppose the system of legacy admissions from which he benefitted, that is a tactic, part of a package deal to eliminate affirmative action, thereby allowing conservative social hierarchies to be reaffirmed in other ways.
Here Agre seeks to conflate and confuse a school of thought existing before the flowering of democracy in the West with that before. Some measure of historical specificity is required here. I'm not sure that I'm going to get it. For example, you could not examine the history of the Whigs in England, the precursors of the Republicans in America and suggest that they did not support aristocracies. But they are much fruther from Agre's conception of 'conservatives' than are the English Tories. So are they 'less' conservative or not conservative? Futhermore, what is the United States Senate but an aristocracy, in fact, what is a Republic if not a society organized of orders and classes controlled by its uppermost hierarchical stratum - where that stratum is in the American case, the Constitution and those practitioners most superior in its understanding? Is there not a Supreme Court, Superior Courts and Lower Courts? Do not the lower bow unconditionally to the higher?
American culture still being comparatively healthy, overt arguments for aristocracy (for example, that the children of aristocrats learn by osmosis the profound arts of government and thereby acquire a wisdom that mere experts cannot match) are still relatively unusual. Instead, conservatism must proceed through complicated indirection, and the next few sections of this article will explain in some detail how this works. The issue is not that rich people are bad, or that hierarchical types of organization have no place in a democracy. Nor are the descendents of aristocrats necessarily bad people if they do not try to perpetuate conservative types of domination over society. The issue is both narrow and enormous: no aristocracy should be allowed to trick the rest of society into deferring to it.
Which is why conservatives often dispute the political opinions of academics who have been granted tenure.
But isn't conservatism about freedom? Of course everyone wants freedom, and so conservatism has no choice but to promise freedom to its subjects. In reality conservatism has meant complicated things by "freedom", and the reality of conservatism in practice has scarcely corresponded even to the contorted definitions in conservative texts.
To start with, conservatism constantly shifts in its degree of authoritarianism. Conservative rhetors, in the Wall Street Journal for example, have no difficulty claiming to be the party of freedom in one breath and attacking civil liberties in the next.
The real situation with conservatism and freedom is best understood in historical context. Conservatism constantly changes, always adapting itself to provide the minimum amount of freedom that is required to hold together a dominant coalition in the society. In Burke's day, for example, this meant an alliance between traditional social authorities and the rising business class. Although the business class has always defined its agenda in terms of something it calls "freedom", in reality conservatism from the 18th century onward has simply implied a shift from one kind of government intervention in the economy to another, quite different kind, together with a continuation of medieval models of cultural domination.
This is a central conservative argument: freedom is impossible unless the common people internalize aristocratic domination. Indeed, many conservative theorists to the present day have argued that freedom is not possible at all. Without the internalized domination of conservatism, it is argued, social order would require the external domination of state terror. In a sense this argument is correct: historically conservatives have routinely resorted to terror when internalized domination has not worked. What is unthinkable by design here is the possibility that people might organize their lives in a democratic fashion.
This is foolish, fallacious and wrong. Conservatives understand and believe that freedom is an inherent God given right of individuals and that it is only by social contract that any individual should be bound to give up any freedom whatsoever. That in fact, the state should take only a minimum proxy of power by consent and has in and of itself no power not derived from said God given inalienable right. Conservatives make the acknowledgement that men can and will do anything and must promise to do little of what is known to be socially destructive. Failing that promise, they must be compelled by law - and not arbitrary law, but the accumulated wisdom of law. Thus freedom under the law is Liberty and Conservatives seek to maximize Liberty. The central Conservative argument is for a politics and social order that retains the Hobbsean Leviathan of Law through the power of the state yet maximizes individual Liberty. It is this dynamic tension that energizes the work of Conservatives.
This alliance between traditional social authorities and the business class is artificial. The market continually undermines the institutions of cultural domination. It does this partly through its constant revolutionizing of institutions generally and partly by encouraging a culture of entrepreneurial initiative. As a result, the alliance must be continually reinvented, all the while pretending that its reinventions simply reinstate an eternal order.
The market does not continually undermine the institutions of cultural domination, read 'social order'. The market is an amoral force, and no amount of marketing convinces human beings that parents should not feed their children, or that the dead should remain unburied in the streets. Conservatives respect that individual liberty is undermined by the suppression of cultural traditions which are the result of human evolution and the fundamental unchanging aspects of human nature itself. It is human nature itself that is eternal and so it orders itself according to what is eternal about human desire - good and evil, loyalty and betrayal, generosity and greed, shamelessness and discretion, every virtue and vice. Conservatives are not confused about what should be and what should never be up for sale in free markets.
Conservatism promotes (and so does liberalism, misguidedly) the idea that liberalism is about activist government where conservatism is not. This is absurd. It is unrelated to the history of conservative government. Conservatism promotes activist government that acts in the interests of the aristocracy. This has been true for thousands of years. What is distinctive about liberalism is not that it promotes activist government but that it promotes government that acts in the interests of the majority. Democratic government, however, is not simply majoritarian. It is, rather, one institutional expression of a democratic type of culture that is still very much in the process of being invented.
For someone who refuses even to give a direct quote from Burke, Agre's authority on what his conservatism has been 'for thousands of years' is suspect. But what he claims of liberalism is in fact something of great concernt to Conservatives. To promote government that acts in the interests of the majority is by definition majoritarian, something quite obviously problematic to Agre. What he should know and what Chomsky has shown is that 'the majority' is a fictional, political creation. In other words, a 'majority' can be defined and such a majority can be artificially aggregated. Consent can be manufactured. This is, indeed, the work of Progressives. But as I mentioned previously, the dynamic tension between the Leviathan of Law and Individual Liberty requires work, and amidst a world full of change, such work is never complete. Conservatives seek balance. Balance is virtuous. Equilibrium should be sought.
//2 How Conservatism Works
Conservative social orders have often described themselves as civilized, and so one reads in the Wall Street Journal that "the enemies of civilization hate bow ties". But what conservatism calls civilization is little but the domination of an aristocracy. Every aspect of social life is subordinated to this goal. That is not civilization.
Agre disagrees with the Wall Street Journal, presumably its editorial board. Wish we had some examples.
The reality is quite the opposite. To impose its order on society, conservatism must destroy civilization. In particular conservatism must destroy conscience, democracy, reason, and language.
Odd that. Surely then conservatism must be able to recognize such things in order to be able to destroy them, and if they were to destroy them, surely they would not miss them. Thus a perfect conservative society would have no conscience, democracy, reason or language. To us he ascribes God-like powers, he must then think us devils.
* The Destruction of Conscience
Liberalism is a movement of conscience. Liberals speak endlessly of conscience. Yet conservative rhetors have taken to acting as if they owned the language of conscience. They even routinely assert that liberals disparage conscience. The magnitude of the falsehood here is so great that decent people have been set back on their heels.
Conservatism continually twists the language of conscience into its opposite. It has no choice: conservatism is unjust, and cannot survive except by pretending to be the opposite of what it is.
Conservative arguments are often arbitrary in nature. Consider, for example, the controversy over Elian Gonzalez. Conservatism claims that the universe is ordered by absolutes. This would certainly make life easier if it was true. The difficulty is that the absolutes constantly conflict with one another. When the absolutes do not conflict, there is rarely any controversy. But when absolutes do conflict, conservatism is forced into sophistry. In the case of Elian Gonzalez, two absolutes conflicted: keeping families together and not making people return to tyrannies. In a democratic society, the decision would be made through rational debate. Conservatism, however, required picking one of the two absolutes arbitrarily (based perhaps on tactical politics in Florida) and simply accusing anyone who disagreed of flouting absolutes and thereby nihilistically denying the fundamental order of the universe. This happens every day. Arbitrariness replaces reason with authority. When arbitrariness becomes established in the culture, democracy decays and it becomes possible for aristocracies to dominate people's minds.
Does Physics claim the universe is ordered by absolutes? Just curious. Is Planck's constant actually constant? The mass of a gram? The wavelengths of visible light? The size of an electron?
Elian Gonzales' fate is something trivial enough to be determined by the wisdom of one ordinary mid-level judge. Conservatives have no fundamental issue with the judiciary. The example of one child is hardly enough to overturn the legitimacy of a poltical ideology, that is unless one is so beseiged by 'conscience' that one can handily ignore the reality of capital crimes in America.
Another example of conservative twisting of the language of conscience is the argument, in the context of the attacks of 9/11 and the war in Iraq, that holding our side to things like the Geneva Convention implies an equivalence between ourselves and our enemies. This is a logical fallacy. The fallacy is something like: they kill so they are bad, but we are good so it is okay for us to kill. The argument that everything we do is okay so long as it is not as bad as the most extreme evil in the world is a rejection of nearly all of civilization. It is precisely the destruction of conscience.
Evidently Agre had most of his arguments with college freshmen.
Or take the notion of "political correctness". It is true that movements of conscience have piled demands onto people faster than the culture can absorb them. That is an unfortunate side-effect of social progress. Conservatism, however, twists language to make the inconvenience of conscience sound like a kind of oppression. The campaign against political correctness is thus a search-and-destroy campaign against all vestiges of conscience in society. The flamboyant nastiness of rhetors such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter represents the destruction of conscience as a type of liberation. They are like cultists, continually egging on their audiences to destroy their own minds by punching through one layer after another of their consciences.
I should like to substitute the words 'revolutions' for 'movements of conscience' and 'eugenic evolution' for 'social progress'. Now reread Agre's sentences above. The campaign against political correctness was not a search and destroy mission against all vestiges of conscience, it was a successful injection of common sense into an over-production of perverse dissatisfaction with all that is settled in society. It was leaven against the adolescent instinct. But note how Agre presumes that which is 'conservative' by his defintion must be devoid of reason, language, and conscience. It must be impossible for conservatives to serve humanity by this definition, and in order for humanity to even *be* humanity, Agre's view of social progress *must* be fulfilled. This is the imperative of revolution. It always has been.
Once I wrote on the Internet that bears in zoos are miserable and should be let go. In response to this, I received an e-mail viciously mocking me as an animal rights wacko. This is an example of the destruction of conscience. Any human being with a halfways functioning conscience will be capable of rationally debating the notion that unhappy bears in zoos should be let go. Of course, rational people might have other opinions. They might claim that the bears are not actually miserable, or that they would be just as miserable in the forest. Conservatism, though, has stereotyped concern for animals by associating it with its most extreme fringe. This sort of mockery of conscience has become systematic and commonplace.
One is either for or against the establishment and defense of civil rights for animals. It's all any Conservative should care about.
* The Destruction of Democracy
For thousands of years, conservatism was universally understood as being in opposition to democracy. Having lost much of its ability to attack democracy openly, conservatism has tried in recent years to redefine the word "democracy" while engaging in deception to make the substance of democracy unthinkable.
It is no wonder this man's head must have exploded at seeing the vote of the Shia in Iraq.
Conservative rhetors, for example, have been using the word "government" in a way that does not distinguish between legitimate democracy and totalitarianism.
Then there is the notion that politicians who offer health care reforms, for example, are claiming to be better people than the rest of us. This is a particularly toxic distortion. Offering reforms is a basic part of democracy, something that every citizen can do.
Even more toxic is the notion that those who criticize the president are claiming to be better people than he is. This is authoritarianism.
By what authority must reforms always be engaged? What rational man demands permanent revolution?
Some conservative rhetors have taken to literally demonizing the very notion of a democratic opposition. Rush Limbaugh has argued at length that Tom Daschle resembles Satan simply because he opposes George Bush's policies. Ever since then, Limbaugh has regularly identified Daschle as "el diablo". This is the emotional heart of conservatism: the notion that the conservative order is ordained by God and that anyone and anything that opposes the conservative order is infinitely evil.
Yes of course. Destroy the Republican party and the ideology it seeks to represent because of the idiot words of someone who is not even elected into its leadership. I think we have proven that Agre was shadowboxing.
* The Destruction of Reason
Conservatism has opposed rational thought for thousands of years. What most people know nowadays as conservatism is basically a public relations campaign aimed at persuading them to lay down their capacity for rational thought.
Conservatism frequently attempts to destroy rational thought, for example, by using language in ways that stand just out of reach of rational debate or rebuttal.
Conservatism has used a wide variety of methods to destroy reason throughout history. Fortunately, many of these methods, such as the suppression of popular literacy, are incompatible with a modern economy. Once the common people started becoming educated, more sophisticated methods of domination were required. Thus the invention of public relations, which is a kind of rationalized irrationality. The great innovation of conservatism in recent decades has been the systematic reinvention of politics using the technology of public relations.
The main idea of public relations is the distinction between "messages" and "facts". Messages are the things you want people to believe. A message should be vague enough that it is difficult to refute by rational means. (People in politics refer to messages as "strategies" and people who devise strategies as "strategists". The Democrats have strategists too, and it is not at all clear that they should, but they scarcely compare with the vast public relations machinery of the right.) It is useful to think of each message as a kind of pipeline: a steady stream of facts is selected (or twisted, or fabricated) to fit the message. Contrary facts are of course ignored. The goal is what the professionals call "message repetition". This provides activists with something to do: come up with new facts to fit the conservative authorities' chosen messages. Having become established in this way, messages must also be continually intertwined with one another. This is one job of pundits.
To the public relations mind, the public sphere is a game in which the opposition tries to knock you off your message. Take the example of one successful message, "Gore's lies". The purpose of the game was to return any interaction to the message, namely that Gore lies. So if it is noted that the supposed examples of Gore lying (e.g., his perfectly true claim to have done onerous farm chores) were themselves untrue, common responses would include, "that doesn't matter, what matters is Gore's lies", or "the reasons people believe them is because of Gore's lies", or "yes perhaps, but there are so many other examples of Gore's lies", or "you're just trying to change the subject away from Gore's lies", and so on.
Many of these messages have become institutions. Whole organizations exist to provide a pipeline of "facts" that underwrite the message of "liberal media bias". These "facts" fall into numerous categories and exemplify a wide range of fallacies. Some are just factually untrue, e.g., claims that the New York Times has failed to cover an event that it actually covered in detail. Other claimed examples of bias are non sequiturs, e.g., quotations from liberal columns that appear on the opinion pages, or quotations from liberals in news articles that also provided balancing quotes from conservatives. Others are illogical, e.g., media that report news events that represent bad news for the president. The methods of identifying "bias" are thus highly elastic. In practice, everything in the media on political topics that diverges from conservative public relations messages is contended to be an example of "liberal bias". The goal, clearly, is to purge the media of everything except conservatism.
The word "inaccurate" has become something of a technical term in the political use of public relations. It means "differs from our message".
Public relations aims to break down reason and replace it with mental associations. One tries to associate "us" with good things and "them" with bad things. Thus, for example, the famous memo from Newt Gingrich's (then) organization GOPAC entitled "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control". It advised Republican candidates to associate themselves with words like "building", "dream", "freedom", "learn", "light", "preserve", "success", and "truth" while associating opponents with words like "bizarre", "decay", "ideological", "lie", "machine", "pathetic", and "traitors". The issue here is not whether these words are used at all; of course there do exist individual liberals that could be described using any of these words. The issue, rather, is a kind of cognitive surgery: systematically creating and destroying mental associations with little regard for truth. Note, in fact, that "truth" is one of the words that Gingrich advised appropriating in this fashion. Someone who thinks this way cannot even conceptualize truth.
Conservative strategists construct their messages in a variety of more or less stereotyped ways. One of the most important patterns of conservative message-making is projection. Projection is a psychological notion; it roughly means attacking someone by falsely claiming that they are attacking you. Conservative strategists engage in projection constantly. A commonplace example would be taking something from someone by claiming that they are in fact taking it from you. Or, having heard a careful and detailed refutation of something he has said, the projector might snap, "you should not dismiss what I have said so quickly!". It is a false claim -- what he said was not dismissed -- that is an example of itself -- he is dismissing what his opponent has said.
Projection was an important part of the Florida election controversy, for example when Republicans tried to get illegal ballots counted and prevent legal ballots from being counted, while claiming that Democrats were trying to steal the election.
Mr Agre describes the entire difficulty with the popular vote as understood by the Founders in casting American system as a Constitutional Republic with three branches of government. What is literacy when it comes to the popular vote? It is what the politicians define it to be.
* The Destruction of Language
Reason occurs mostly through the medium of language, and so the destruction of reason requires the destruction of language. An underlying notion of conservative politics is that words and phrases of language are like territory in warfare: owned and controlled by one side or the other. One of the central goals of conservatism, as for example with Newt Gingrich's lists of words, is to take control of every word and phrase in the English language.
George Bush, likewise, owes his election in great measure to a new language that his people engineered for him. His favorite word, for example, is "heart". This type of linguistic engineering is highly evolved in the business milieu from which conservative public relations derives, and it is the day-to-day work of countless conservative think tanks. Bush's people, and the concentric circles of punditry around them, are worlds away from John Kerry deciding on a moment's notice that he is going to start the word "values". They do not use a word unless they have an integrated communications strategy for taking control of that word throughout the whole of society.
Bush's personal vocabulary is only a small part of conservative language warfare as a whole. Since around 1990, conservative rhetors have been systematically turning language into a weapon against liberals. Words are used in twisted and exaggerated ways, or with the opposite of their customary meanings. This affects the whole of the language. The goal of this distorted language is not simply to defeat an enemy but to destroy the minds of the people who believe themselves to be conservatives and who constantly challenge themselves to ever greater extremity in using it.
A simple example of turning language into a weapon might be the word "predictable", which has become a synonym for "liberal". There is no rational argument in this usage. Every such use of "predictable" can be refuted simply by substituting the word "consistent". It is simply invective.
More importantly, conservative rhetors have been systematically mapping the language that has historically been used to describe the aristocracy and the traditional authorities that serve it, and have twisted those words into terms for liberals. This tactic has the dual advantage of both attacking the aristocracies' opponents and depriving them of the words that they have used to attack aristocracy.
A simple example is the term "race-baiting". In the Nexis database, uses of "race-baiting" undergo a sudden switch in the early 1990's. Before then, "race-baiting" referred to racists. Afterward, it referred in twisted way to people who oppose racism. What happened is simple: conservative rhetors, tired of the political advantage that liberals had been getting from their use of that word, took it away from them.
A more complicated example is the word "racist". Conservative rhetors have tried to take this word away as well by constantly coming up with new ways to stick the word onto liberals and their policies. For example they have referred to affirmative action as "racist". This is false; it is an attempt to destroy language. Racism is the notion that one race is intrinsically better than another. Affirmative action is arguably discriminatory, as a means of partially offsetting discrimination in other places and times, but it is not racist. Many conservative rhetors have even stuck the word "racist" on people just because they oppose racism. The notion seems to be that these people addressed themselves to the topic of race, and the word "racist" is sort of an adjective relating somehow to race. In any event this too is an attack on language.
A recent example is the word "hate". The civil rights movement had used the word "hate" to refer to terrorism and stereotyping against black people, and during the 1990's some in the press had identified as "Clinton-haters" people who had made vast numbers of bizarre claims that the Clintons had participated in murder and drug-dealing. Beginning around 2003, conservative rhetors took control of this word as well by labeling a variety of perfectly ordinary types of democratic opposition to George Bush as "hate". In addition, they have constructed a large number of messages of the form "liberals hate X" (e.g., X=America) and established within their media apparatus a sophistical pipeline of "facts" to support each one. This is also an example of the systematic breaking of associations.
The word "partisan" entered into its current political circulation in the early 1990's when some liberals identified people like Newt Gingrich as "partisan" for doing things like the memo on language that I mentioned earlier. To the conservative way of politics, there is nothing either true or false about the liberal claim. It is simply that liberals had taken control of some rhetorical territory: the word "partisan". Conservative rhetors then set about taking control of the word themselves. They did this in a way that has become mechanical. They first claimed, falsely, that liberals were identifying as "partisan" any views other than their own. They thus inflated the word while projecting this inflation onto the liberals and disconnecting the word from the particular facts that the liberals had associated with it. Next, they started using the word "partisan" in the inflated, dishonest way that they had ascribed to their opponents. This is, very importantly, a way of attacking people simply for having a different opinion. In twisting language this way, conservatives tell themselves that they are simply turning liberal unfairness back against the liberals. This too is projection.
OK I get it. Politicians use abstract terms for their own purposes. Here's the thing. There is nothing that in this mishmash of browbeating that would indicate to a thoughtful person that any particular govenrnment policy is in jeopardy. This is a discussion at no level of sophistication whatsoever. It's as if two old biddies on the promenade deck are fighting over the pronounciation of 'mainsail' when in fact the ship is powered by nuclear energy. There is no content and no decision of consequence that could possibly made over the resolution of the argument. Progressives are partisan, Conservatives are partisan. So what?
Another common theme of conservative strategy is that liberals are themselves an aristocracy. (For those who are really keeping score, the sophisticated version of this is called the "new class strategy", the message being that liberals are the American version of the Soviet nomenklatura.) Thus, for example, the constant pelting of liberals as "elites", sticking this word and a mass of others semantically related to it onto liberals on every possible occasion. A pipeline of "facts" has been established to underwrite this message as well. Thus, for example, constant false conservative claims that the rich vote Democratic. When Al Franken recently referred to his new radio network as "the media elite and proud of it", he demonstrated his oblivion to the workings of the conservative discourse that he claims to contest.
Because in fact there is no such thing as a Liberal elite, right? The is no discrimination of any kind on any basis for politics that are the left of center?
Further examples of this are endless. When a Republican senator referred to "the few liberals", hardly any liberals gave any sign of getting what he meant: as all conservatives got just fine, he was appropriating the phrase "the few", referring to the aristocracy as opposed to "the many", and sticking this phrase in a false and mechanical way onto liberals. Rush Limbaugh asserts that "they [liberals] think they are better than you", this of course being a phrase that had historically been applied (and applied correctly) to the aristocracy. Conservative rhetors constantly make false or exaggerated claims that liberals are engaged in stereotyping -- the criticism of stereotyping having been one of history's most important rhetorical devices of democrats. And so on. The goal here is to make it impossible to criticize aristocracy.
For an especially sorry example of this pattern, consider the word "hierarchy". Conservatism is a hierarchical social system: a system of ranked orders and classes. Yet in recent years conservatives have managed to stick this word onto liberals, the notion being that "government" (which liberals supposedly endorse and conservatives supposedly oppose) is hierarchical (whereas corporations, the military, and the church are somehow vaguely not). Liberals are losing because it does not even occur to them to refute this kind of mechanical antireason.
All human institutions are social and hierarchical. Liberals are losing arguments because they wish to deny that it is true.
It is often claimed in the media that snooty elitists on the coasts refer to states in the middle of the country as "flyover country". Yet I, who have lived in liberal areas of the coasts for most of my life, have never once heard this usage. In fact, as far as I can tell, the Nexis database does not contain a single example of anyone using the phrase "flyover country" to disparage the non-coastal areas of the United States. Instead, it contains hundreds of examples of people disparaging residents of the coasts by claiming that they use the phrase to describe the interior. The phrase is a special favorite of newspapers in Minneapolis and Denver. This is projection. Likewise, I have never heard the phrase "political correctness" used except to disparage the people who supposedly use it.
Nexis? As far as I can tell only elites have access to the Nexis database. Why on earth didn't you consult Burke's Peerage?
Conservative remapping of the language of aristocracy and democracy has been incredibly thorough. Consider, for example, the terms "entitlement" and "dependency". The term "entitlement" originally referred to aristocrats. Aristocrats had titles, and they thought that they were thereby entitled to various things, particularly the deference of the common people. Everyone else, by contrast, was dependent on the aristocrats. This is conservatism. Yet in the 1990's, conservative rhetors decided that the people who actually claim entitlement are people on welfare. They furthermore created an empirically false association between welfare and dependency. But, as I have mentioned, welfare is precisely a way of eliminating dependency on the aristocracy and the cultural authorities that serve it. I do not recall anyone ever noting this inversion of meaning.
Congress and the Press use the word 'entitlement' because that is the political term for a set of laws. The term could be replaced. The laws could be replaced. A great deal is mutable. But now that it is clear that Mr. Agre has this as an axiom of his belief let us briefly examine it. 'Welfare is precisely a way of eliminating dependency on the aristocracy and the cultural authorities that serve it'. Welfare is about feeding people who don't work. Does Mr. Agre presume that everyone works is dependent on 'the aristocracy'? From exactly which school of economics is this notion derive? It sounds vaguely Marxist to me, but not even specific enough to be that.
Conservative strategists have also been remapping the language that has historically been applied to conservative religious authorities, sticking words such as "orthodoxy", "pious", "dogma", and "sanctimonious" to liberals at every turn.
Oh how shall we bear the insult of it all?
//3 Conservatism in American History
Almost all of the early immigrants to America left behind societies that had been oppressed by conservatism. The democratic culture that Americans have built is truly one of the monuments of civilization. And American culture remains vibrant to this day despite centuries of conservative attack. Yet the history of American democracy has generally been taught in confused ways. This history might be sketched in terms of the great turning points that happened to occur around 1800 and 1900, followed by the great reaction that gathered steam in the decades leading up to 2000.
Ahh. Conservatism is thus Catholic. I can't wait to hear how it's all a popish plot.
America before the revolution was a conservative society. It lacked an entitled aristocracy, but it was dominated in very much the same way by its gentry. Americans today have little way of knowing what this meant -- the hierarchical ties of personal dependency that organized people's psychology. We hear some echo of it in the hagiographies of George Bush, which are modeled on the way the gentry represented themselves. The Founding Fathers, men like Madison, Adams, and Washington, were, in this sense, products of aristocratic society. They did not make a revolution in order to establish democracy. Quite the contrary, they wanted to be aristocrats. They did not succeed. The revolution that they helped set in motion did not simply sweep away the church and crown of England. As scholars such as Gordon Wood have noted, it also swept away the entire social system of the gentry, and it did so with a suddenness and thoroughness that surprised and amazed everyone who lived through it. So completely did Americans repudiate the conservative social system of the gentry, in fact, that they felt free to mythologize the Founding Fathers, forgetting the Founding Fathers' aristocratic ambitions and pretending that they, too, were revolutionary democrats. This ahistorical practice of projecting all good things onto the Founding Fathers continues to the present day, and it is unfortunate because (as Michael Schudson has argued) it makes us forget all of the work that Americans have subsequently done to build the democratic institutions of today. In reality, Madison, Adams, and Washington were much like Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. Like Gorbachev, they tried to reform an oppressive system without fundamentally changing it. And like Gorbachev, they were swept away by the very forces they helped set into motion.
I am really tiring of explanations that have no apparent concept of economics except the idea that everyone who works or gains wealth is in thrall to some aristocracy. It's really a primative idea that wealth cannot be created except through the actions of toadying to people who already have it. I am beginning to believe that Mr. Agre suffers from a lack of familiarity with an modern economic theory. As he makes no distinction whatsoever between Adams and Washington, suggesting their ambitions and circumstances were identical and that what they wrought was a complete surprise is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who has studied them.
The revolution, though, proceeded quite differently in the North and South, and led to a kind of controlled experiment. The North repudiated conservatism altogether. Indeed it was the only society in modern history without an aristocracy, and as scholars such as the late Robert Wiebe have noted, its dynamic democratic culture was most extraordinary. It is unfortunate that we discuss this culture largely through the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville, an aristocrat who wanted to graft medieval notions of social order onto a democratic culture that he found alien. In the South, by contrast, the conservative order of the gentry was modified to something more resembling the oppressive latifundist systems of Latin America, relieved mainly by comparatively democratic religious institutions. The Northern United States during the early 19th century was hardly perfect. Left-over conservative hierarchies and patterns of psychology continued to damage people's minds and lives in numerous ways. But compared to the South, the North was, and has always been, a more dynamic and successful society. Southern conservatism has had to modify its strategies in recent decades, but its grip on the culture is tragically as strong as ever.
Latifundist! Good word. It is the closest Mr. Agre has come to using the word 'property' in the whole of this discussion. If Mr. Agre would get close to what the fundamental understanding of what is entailed in a Conservative definition of Liberty, then he would understand how deprivation of one's private property, of one's ability to profit from goods and services provided is one of the greatest evils we seek to combat. He would be able to say 'slavery is an example of the deprivation of a human being from his right to negotiate for his own labor'. But he evidently doesn't see that. And he clearly doesn't see how the American Constitution was designed specifically against such usurpations.
1900?, wait. No wars?
Something more complicated happened around 1900. Railroads, the telegraph, and mass production made for massive new economies of scale, whereupon the invention of the corporation gave a new generation of would-be aristocrats new ways to reinvent themselves.
The complicated institutional and ideological events of this era can be understood in microcosm through the subsequent history of the word "liberal", which forked into two quite different meanings. The word "liberal" had originally been part of an intramural dispute within the conservative alliance between the aristocracy and the rising business class. Their compromise, as I have noted, is that the aristocracy would maintain its social control for the benefit of both groups mainly through psychological means rather than through terror, and that economic regulation would henceforth be designed to benefit the business class. And both of these conditions would perversely be called "freedom". The word "liberal" thus took its modern meaning in a struggle against the aristocracy's control of the state. Around 1900, however, the corporation emerged in a society in which democracy was relatively strong and the aristocracy was relatively weak. Antitrust and many other types of state regulation were not part of traditional aristocratic control, but were part of democracy. And this is why the word "liberal" forked. Democrats continued using the word in its original sense, to signify the struggle against aristocracy, in this case the new aristocracy of corporate power. Business interests, however, reinvented the word to signify a struggle against something conceptualized very abstractly as "government". In reality the new business meaning of the word, as worked out in detail by people like Hayek, went in an opposite direction from its original meaning: a struggle against the people, rather than against the aristocracy.
The 'aristocracy' was relatively weak because it never existed. Nor did the 'business class'. Nor were 'psychological means' of social control developed. What happened is that small enterprises got larger. The population got larger. Small towns became big cities. Economic regulation happened because interstate commerce happened.
How Agre jumps from 1900 to Hayek saying he re-invented a single word (Agre's sentence is tortuous) without mentioning the Labor movement... Well, I am reading sequentially, maybe his writing coheres with real history somewhere in the paragraphs ahead.
At the same time as the corporation provided the occasion for the founding of a new aristocracy, however, a new middle class founded a large number of professions. The relationship between the professional middle class and the aristocracy has been complicated throughout the 20th century. But whereas the goal of conservatism throughout history has primarily been to suppress the mob of common people, the conservatism of the late 20th century was especially vituperative in its campaigns against the relatively autonomous democratic cultures of the professions.
One of the professions founded around 1900 was public relations. Early public relations texts were quite openly conservative, and public relations practitioners openly affirmed that their profession existed to manipulate the common people psychologically in order to ensure the domination of society by a narrow elite. Squeamishness on this matter is a recent phenomenon indeed.
It has always been presumed that writing and language itself were the providence of elites. But there has been nothing Agre has shown ('for thousands of years') of the ways in which the use of language or reason has not served individuals or how his 'conservatism' has stolen that from the people.
* the 1970's
The modern history of conservatism begins around 1975, as corporate interests began to react to the democratic culture of the sixties. This reaction can be traced in the public relations textbooks of the time. Elaborate new methods of public relations tried to prevent, coopt, and defeat democratic initiatives throughout the society. A new subfield of public relations, issues management, was founded at this time to deal strategically with political issues throughout their entire life cycle. One of the few political theories that has made note of the large-scale institutionalization of public relations is the early work of Jurgen Habermas.
Even more important was the invention of the think tank, and especially the systematic application of public relations to politics by the most important of the conservative think tanks, the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation's methods of issues management have had a fantastically corrosive effect on democracy.
What did this 'democratic culture of the sixies' create, and how did 'public relations' destroy it? Mr. Agre makes it sound as if the Nixon Administration murdered the Beatles.
* the 1980's
The great innovation of Ronald Reagan and the political strategists who worked with him was to submerge conservatism's historically overt contempt for the common people. The contrast between Reagan's language and that of conservatives even a decade or two earlier is most striking. Jacques Barzun's "The House of Intellect" (1959), for example, fairly bristles with contempt for demotic culture, the notion being that modern history is the inexorable erosion of aristocratic civilization by democracy. On a political level, Reagan's strategy was to place wedges into the many divides in that era's popular democracy, including both the avoidable divides that the counterculture had opened up and the divides that had long been inherent in conservatism's hierarchical order. Reagan created a mythical working class whose values he conflated with those of the conservative order, and he opposed this to an equally mythical professional class of liberal wreckers. Democratic culture in the sixties had something of a workable theory of conservatism -- one that has largely been lost. But it was not enough of a theory to explain to working people why they are on the same side as hippies and gays. Although crude by comparison with conservative discourse only twenty years later, Reagan's strategy identified this difficulty with some precision. People like Ella Baker had explained the psychology of conservatism -- the internalized deference that makes a conservative order possible. But the new psychology of democracy does not happen overnight, and it did not become general in the culture.
Now we come to what I think Agre finds his voice and it is from this position dealing with psychology that he projects backwards through time what he finds in the conservatism of Ronald Reagan, who 'created a mythical working class'. Agre's use of the word 'wreckers' invokes the the show trials of Stalin as if Liberal partisans suffered any greater fate than getting booted out of office by the American electorate.
And of course Agre fails to mention the economy, once again.
* the 1990's
In the 1990's, American conservatism institutionalized public relations methods of politics on a large scale, and it used these methods in a savage campaign of delegitimizing democratic institutions. In particular, a new generation of highly trained conservative strategists evolved, on the foundation of classical public relations methods, a sophisticated practice of real-time politics that integrated ideology and tactics on a year-to-year, news-cycle-to-news-cycle, and often hour-to-hour basis. This practice employs advanced models of the dynamics of political issues so as to launch waves of precisely designed communications in countless well-analyzed loci throughout the society. For contemporary conservatism, a political issue -- a war, for example -- is a consumer product to be researched and rolled out in a planned way with continuous empirical feedback from polling. So far as citizens can tell, such issues seem to materialize everywhere at once, swarming the culture with so many interrelated formulations that it becomes impossible to think, much less launch an effective rebuttal. Such a campaign is successful if it occupies precisely the ideological ground that can be occupied at a given moment, and it includes quite overt plans for holding that ground through the construction of a pipeline of facts and intertwining with other, subsequent issues. Although in one sense this machinery has a profound kinship with the priesthoods of ancient Egypt, in another sense its radicalism -- its inhuman thoroughness -- has no precedent in history. Liberals have nothing remotely comparable.
And it is upon this basis, by this inept and ahistorical interpretation of the ideology assumed to be the core of conservatism that Progressives have built their political base. Or exactly how did the discourse become so elevated in 2008?
//4 The Discovery of Democracy
Humanity has struggled for thousands of years to emerge from the darkness of conservatism. At every step of the way, conservatism has always had the advantage of a long historical learning curve. There have always been experts in the running of conservative society. Most of the stupid mistakes have been made and forgotten centuries ago. Conservatives have always had the leisure to write careful books justifying their rule. Democracy, by contrast, is still very much in an experimental phase. And so, for example, the 1960's were one of the great episodes of civilization in human history, and they were also a time when people did a lot of stupid things like take drugs.
The history of democracy has scarcely been written. Of what has been written, the great majority of "democratic theory" is based on the ancient Greek model of deliberative democracy. Much has been written about the Greeks' limitation of citizenship to perhaps 10% of the population. But this is not the reason why the Greek model is inapplicable to the modern world. The real reason is that Greek democracy was emphatically predicated on a small city-state of a few thousand people, whereas modern societies have populations in the tens and hundreds of millions.
America has scaled its republic well and millions have enjoyed its benefits across generations. The Constitution and American law and jurisprudence have been sufficient to protect those guarantees. There is no new fundamental idea of rights or property not well understood in the Conservative definition of Liberty that is required to set billions more free from tyranny, ignorance, poverty, disease and oppression.
The obvious adaptation to the difficulties of scale has been representation. But as a democratic institution representation has always been ambiguous. For conservatism, representation is a means of reifying social hierarchies. The Founding Fathers thought of themselves as innovators and modernizers, and the myth-making tradition has thoughtlessly agreed with them. But in reality the US Constitution, as much as the British system it supposedly replaced, is little more than the Aristotelian tripartite model of king, aristocracy, and gentry (supposedly representing the commons), reformed to some degree as President, Senate, and House. Many people have noted that George Bush is consolidating executive power in a kind of elective kingship, but they have done little to place the various elements of Bush's authoritarian institution-molding into historical context. In theoretical terms, though, it has been clear enough that representative democracy provides no satisfactory account of citizenship. Surely a genuine democracy would replace the Aristotelian model? Fortunately, there is little need to replace the Constitution beyond adding a right to privacy. After all, as historians have noted, Americans almost immediately started using the Constitution in a considerably different way than the Founders intended -- in a democratic fashion, simply put, and not an aristocratic one. The president who claims to be "a uniter not a divider" is hearkening back to the myth-making of a would-be aristocracy that claims to be impartial and to stand above controversy while systematically using the machinery of government to crush its opponents. But his is not the winning side.
It is becoming more clear to me why this was written in 2004, an election year. But at least he's halfway right about the Constitution aside from his desire and need to castigate the Founders as aristocrats without merit.
Not that democracy is a done deal. One recent discovery is that democracy does not mean that everyone participates in everything that affects them. Every citizen of a modern society participates in hundreds of institutions, and it is impossible to be fully informed about all of them, much less sit through endless meetings relating to all of them. There are too many issues for everyone to be an expert on everything.
Which is why human beings should live on a more human scale, less leveraged by institutions and more based upon their abilities to provide for themselves in smaller settings.
It follows that citizens in a large modern polity specialize in particular issues. In fact this kind of issue entrepreneurship is not restricted to politics. It is central to the making of careers in nearly every institution of society. Conservatism claims to own the theme of entrepreneurship, but then conservatism claims to own every theme. In reality, entrepreneurship on the part of the common people is antithetical to conservatism, and conservatism has learned and taught little about the skills of entrepreneurship, most particularly the entrepreneurial cognition that identifies opportunities for various sorts of useful careers, whether civic, intellectual, professional, or economic. Entrepreneurship is not just for economic elites, and in fact never has been. One part of democracy, contrary to much socialist teaching, is the democratization of goods and skills, entrepreneurial skills for example, that had formerly been associated with the elite. American society has diverged dramatically from that of Europe largely because of the democratization of entrepreneurship, and that trend should continue with the writing down and teaching of generalized entrepreneurial skills.
A bit of reason here. Good. Not that it could be said without knocking 'conservatism'.
The real discovery is that democracy is a particular kind of social organization of knowledge -- a sprawling landscape of overlapping knowledge spheres and a creative tension on any given issue between the experts and the laity. It is not a hierarchical divide between the knowledge-authorities in the professions and a deferential citizenry; instead it democratizes the skills of knowledge-making among a citizenry that is plugged together in ways that increasingly resemble the institutional and cognitive structures of the professions. This generalized application of entrepreneurial skills in the context of a knowledge-intensive society -- and not simply the multiplication of associations that so impressed Tocqueville -- is civil society. The tremendous fashion for civil society as a necessary complement and counterbalance to the state in a democracy, as launched in the 1980's by people like John Keane, has been one of the most hopeful aspects of recent democratic culture. Indeed, one measure of the success of the discourse of civil society has been that conservatism has felt the need to destroy it by means of distorted theories of "civil society" that place the populace under the tutelage of the aristocracy and the cultural authorities that serve it.
Oh this never happened before 1980. Agre you doofus.
Economics, unfortunately, is still dominated by the ancien regime. This consists of three schools. Neoclassical economics is founded (as Philip Mirowski has argued) on superficial, indeed incoherent analogies to the mathematics of classical mechanics whose main notion is equilibrium. Economies, it is held, are dynamic systems that are constantly moving to an optimal equilibrium, and government intervention will only move the economy to the wrong equilibrium. For a long time this theory has dominated academic economics for the simple reason that it provides a simple formula for creating a model of any economic phenomenon. Its great difficulty is that it ignores essentially all issues of information and institutions -- important topics in the context of any modern economy. Austrian economics (associated with Hayek and Mises) began in the context of debates about the practicability of central planning in socialism; as such, it is organized around an opposition between centralized economies (bad) and decentralized economies (good). Although preferable in some ways to neoclassicism in its emphasis on information and institutions, as well as its rhetorical emphasis on entrepreneurship, it is nonetheless hopelessly simplistic. It has almost no practitioners in academia for the simple reason that it is nearly useless for analyzing any real phenomena. A third school, a particular kind of game theory based on the work of John Nash, does have elaborate notions about information and at least a sketchy way of modeling institutions, and as a result has established itself as the major academic alternative to neoclassicism. Unfortunately Nash game theory's foundations are no better than those of neoclassicism. Whereas neoclassicism, though ultimately incoherent, is actually a powerful and useful way of thinking about the economy, Nash game theory is based, as Mirowski again has argued, on a disordered model of relationships between people. Fortunately it has no particular politics.
Here Agre shows his lack of understanding between customers and providers in any industry. I think it is a blind side of academics. Consumer behavior alone is complex enough to defy these assertions. Agre makes the common mistake the Left does in pretending that all of the power of the market lies in the supply side and that corporate power is a one way street. He fully neglects the human aspect of commerce. Next he's going to tell us that voting is more human than shopping.
The state of economics is unfortunate for democracy. Conservatism runs on ideologies that bear only a tangential relationship to reality, but democracy requires universal access to accurate theories about a large number of nontrivial institutions. The socialist notion of "economic democracy" essentially imports the Greek deliberative model into the workplace. As such it is probably useful as a counter to conservative psychologies of internalized deference that crush people's minds and prevent useful work from being done. It is, however, not remotely adequate to the reality of an interconnected modern economy, in which the workplace is hardly a natural unit. A better starting place is with analysis of the practical work of producing goods in social systems of actual finite human beings -- that is, with analysis of information and institutions, as for example in the singular work of Thorstein Veblen, John Commons, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Polanyi, John von Neumann, Mark Casson, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul David, Bruno Latour, and Michel Callon.
This work emphasizes knowledge and the very general social conditions that are required to produce and use it. Simply put, knowledge is best produced in a liberal culture. This is why the most prosperous and innovative regions of the United States are also the most politically liberal, and why the most conservative regions of the country are also the greatest beneficiaries of transfer payments. Liberals create wealth and government redistributes it to conservatives. This is, of course, the opposite of the received conservative opinion in the media, and indeed in most of academia. But it is true.
Oh. This is the old North is smart and liberal, South is dumb and conservative idea. Note how it contradicts the denial of liberal elitism. The American South is a vibrant economy by any standard - ever wonder where Detroit gets its oil? New Yorkers get their shrimp from where? I've lived both places, grocery shopping is always better in the South.
Another connection between democracy and a modern economy is the democratic nature of entrepreneurialism. People who reflexively defer to their social betters will never learn the social skills that are needed to found new types of social relationships. This was clear enough in the interregnum in the 19th century between the fall of the American gentry and the rise of the modern corporation. An economy of generalized entrepreneurialism, moreover, requires an elaborate institutional matrix that is part public and part private. As scholars such as Linda Weiss have argued, the conservative spectre of a conflict between government and entrepreneurial activity is unrelated to the reality of entrepreneurship. To be sure, much has been learned about the kinds of government policies that do and do not lay the foundation for economic dynamism. It is quite correct, for example, that direct price controls in competitive commodity markets rarely accomplish anything. (Labor markets are a much more complicated case, in very much the ways that neoclassical economics exists to ignore.) Free trade would also be a good thing if it existed; in practice trade is distorted by subsidies and by uneven regulation of externalities such as pollution, and "free trade" negotiations are a kind of power politics that differs little from the gunboat diplomacy that opened markets in a one-sided way in former times. The point is scarcely that markets are inherently democratic. The economic properties of infrastructure and knowledge create economies of scale that both produce cheap goods (a democratic effect) and concentrate power (an anti-democratic effect). Conservatives employ the democratic rhetoric of entrepreneurialism to promote the opposite values of corporate centralization. But the 19th century's opinions about the political and economic necessity of antitrust are still true. More importantly, a wide range of public policies is required to facilitate a democratic economy and the more general democratic values on which it depends.
This is a lot of blather about some myth that conservatives want corporate centralization. Conservatives hate monopoly, we hate institutions that are 'too big to fail', we want robust markets with reasonable regulation and a minimum of subsidies. That is not to say that Republican politicians vote against such conservative values for their own selfish purposes.
Lastly, an important innovation of democracy during the sixties was the rights revolution. Rights are democratic because they are limits to arbitrary authority, and people who believe they have rights cannot be subjected to conservatism. Conservative rhetors have attacked the rights revolution in numerous ways as a kind of demotic chatter that contradicts the eternal wisdom of the conservative order. For conservatism, not accepting one's settled place in the traditional hierarchy of orders and classes is a kind of arrogance, and conservative vocabulary is full of phrases such as "self-important". Institutions, for conservatism, are more important than people. For democracy, by contrast, things are more complicated. The rights revolution is hardly perfect. But the main difficulty with it is just that it is not enough. A society is not founded on rights alone. Democracy requires that people learn and practice a range of nontrivial social skills. But then people are not likely to learn or practice those skills so long as they have internalized a conservative psychology of deference. The rights revolution breaks this cycle. For the civil rights movement, for example, learning to read was not simply a means of registering to vote, but was also a means of liberation from the psychology of conservatism. Democratic institutions, as opposed to the inherited mysteries of conservative institutions, are made of the everyday exercise of advanced social skills by people who are liberated in this sense.
Again, Agre depends on his theory of Conservatism being a form of psychological oppression. What he cannot explain is the reality of Mexican immigrants who join the Republican Party, which is a more real phenomenon than his fantasies about the sixties.
The rest of Agre's piece, I will reduce to its bullet points. I have no need to judge the usefulness of his prescription because I've already dealt with his faulty diagnosis. But it is useful to see that he still likes to compare American Conservatives to an aristocracy of blood and says that we are as anti-democratic as the pharoahs of Egypt. He should actually be speaking to Egyptians, not Americans.
//5 How to Defeat Conservatism
Conservatism is almost gone. People no longer worship the pharaohs. If the gentry were among us today we would have no notion of what they were talking about. For thousands of years, countless people have worked for the values of democracy in ways large and small. The industrialized vituperations of conservative propaganda measure their success. To defeat conservatism today, the main thing we have to do is to explain what it is and what is wrong with it. This is easy enough.
* Rebut conservative arguments (we expect it)
* Benchmark the Wall Street Journal (go ahead)
* Build a better pundit (that hasn't happened)
* Say something new (that hasn't happened)
* Teach logic (and cut off your nose)
* Conservatism is the problem (duh)
* Critically analyze leftover conservative theories (attack the pharoahs!)
* Ditch Marx (agree)
* Talk American (agree)
* Stop surrendering powerful words (populist dumbing down)
* Tipper Gore is right (we knew that)
* Assess the sixties (agree)
* Teach nonviolence (because conservatives are inherently violent)
* Tell the taxpayers what they are getting for their money (agree)
* Make government work better for small business (agree)
* Clone George Soros (because billionaire expatriates are what America needs)
* Build the Democratic Party (with bubblegum, spit, duct tape and chicken wire)