Friday, December 07, 2007

Getting It Right And Wrong On Conservatism IV

It's been a long slog, and I doubt anyone's paid close attention, but we're at the end. Finally.

We're at the end of our critical examination of Philip Agre's article on conservatism. It's been an adventure in intellectual dishonesty, historical inaccuracy, and generally muddled thinking. We now turn to the final part of Agre's article:
//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.

This is the first mention of pharaohs, and to my knowledge, limited as it may be, Egyptians weren't conservatives. Since Agre has been arguing that conservatives rely upon an aristocracy, and that such an aristocracy gave us the Constitutions, his claim that "the gentry" is no longer "among us" is a bit of a factual contradiction. Or perhaps a mere rhetorical one, since his argument seems to be that conservatives want to create an aristocracy, although, he also argues aristocrats who already existed relied upon conservative political thought to give them legitimacy.

In all honesty . . . I'm not sure what in the world this paragraph means.

The first "prescription" should be obvious. Sadly, Agre makes a muddle of the obvious:
* Rebut conservative arguments

This is my most important prescription. Liberals win political victories through rational debate. But after a victory is won, liberals tend to drop the issue and move along. As a result, whole generations have grown up without ever hearing the arguments in favor of, for example, Social Security. Instead they have heard massive numbers of conservative arguments against liberalism, and these arguments have generally gone unrebutted. In order to save civilization, liberals need a new language, one in which it is easy to express rebuttals to the particular crop of conservative arguments of the last few decades. And the way to invent that language is just to start rebutting the arguments, all of them. This means literally dozens of new arguments each day.

What does Social Security have to do with this?

* Benchmark the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal's opinion page is the most important conservative publication, and it is often described as a bulletin board for the conservatism. A better metaphor, however, would be a war room. Day by day, the Wall Street Journal's editors detect liberal arguments coming over the horizon, and immediately they gather up and distribute the arguments that conservatives will need to rebut them. Since the retirement of its late editor Robert Bartley, the Journal's opinion page has become more sophisticated. The crude lies and belligerent irrationality of the Bartley era have not disappeared, but they have certainly been attenuated. Daniel Henninger in particular does something interesting with clouds of associations that are subrational but not quite fallacious.

Liberals should not imitate the antireason of the Journal or other distribution channels of conservative opinion. Instead, as part of the hard work of inventing democracy, it will be necessary to tell the difference between methods that liberals ought to be applying in their own work, such as the day-to-day rebuttal of arguments, and methods that liberals need to analyze and place in the same category as the priesthood of Egypt.

Here we have Egypt again, only this time it's Egyptian priests, not the pharaohs.

I'm almost ready to concede defeat here. This is just awful stuff.

Much of what follows, from "build a better pundit" (where are the catalogs with the order forms?), through teaching logic (since logic is a tool that can be used for good or ill, I'm not sure what this has to do with anything at all), to building up the Democratic Party are also pretty standard stuff. Two items, however, catch the eye:
* Ditch Marx

Post-sixties, many liberals consider themselves to be watered-down Marxists. They subscribe to a left-to-right spectrum model of politics in which they, as democrats, are located in some hard-to-identify place sort-of-somewhat-to-the-left-of-center, whereas the Marxists have the high ground of a clear and definite location at the end of the spectrum. These liberals would be further out on the left if they could find a politically viable way to do it. Conservative rhetors concur with this model, and indiscriminately calling liberals communists is back in style. This is all nonsense. Marxism is not located anywhere on a spectrum. It is just mistaken. It fails to describe the real world. Attempts to implement it simply created an ugly and shallow imitation of conservatism at its worst. Democracy is the right way to live, and conservatism is the wrong way.

Marx was a brilliant analyst for his time. His analysis of technology's role in the economy was wholly original. He was the first to analyze the structural dynamism of a capitalist economy. But his theory of modern society was superficial. It overgeneralized from the situation of its time: the recent discovery of economies of scale, crude market institutions, no modern separation of ownership and control, and a small middle class. Marx followed the political economy of his day in analyzing markets as essentially independent of the state. But this is not remotely the case.

One difficulty with Marx, which is the topic of a vast literature, is that his theory requires a periodization of history that does not correspond to historical reality. Capitalism, for example, is supposed to be a discrete totality, but claimed starting dates for this totality range across a good four hundred years. His economistic analysis of society, though indisputably productive in the way that many powerfully wrong ideas are, makes history seem more discontinuous than it is. In fact, the relationship between conservatism and democracy is more or less constant throughout thousands of years of history. One evidence of this, for example, is Orlando Patterson's stunning discovery that Western notions of freedom were invented by former slaves in the ancient world and have remained more or less constant ever since.

In economic terms, Marx's theory is mistaken because he did not analyze the role the capitalist plays as entrepreneur. The entrepreneur does an important and distinctive type of work in inventing new ways to bring together diverse factors of production. Now in fact the nature of this work has remained largely hidden throughout history for a wide variety of reasons. Because Marx had no notion of it, the capitalist's profit seemed to him simple theft. It does not follow, though, that entrepreneurs earn all of their money. The theories of mainstream economics notwithstanding, serious how-to manuals for entrepreneurs are quite clear that the entrepreneur is trying to identify a market failure, because market failures are how you make money. The relationship between entrepreneurship and the state is much more complicated than economics has even tried to theorize. Capitalists, moreover, are not a class. Particular networks of capitalists and other well-off or otherwise connected personages may well try to constitute themselves as an aristocracy, but this is a phenomenon with several more dimensions than just economics.

Nor is Marxism of any use as politics. All that Marx offered to people who worked in deadening factory jobs was that they could take over the factory. While unions and collective bargaining exist in many contexts for good economic reasons, they are an essentially medieval system of negotiations among orders and classes. They presuppose a generally static economy and society. They are irrelevant to knowledge-intensive forms of work. Nor do they provide any kind of foundation for democratic politics. People want their kids to be professionals, not factory workers, and democracy helps people to knit themselves into the complicated set of institutions that enable people to build unique and productive lives.

It seems Agre hasn't actually read St. Karl, so perhaps for him it is easy to ditch him. There is still much analytical power, however, even if not prophetic or prescriptive power, in Marx. A tool is a tool is a tool, Marx, along with Chomsky, Derrida, Rorty, Foucault, Melville, Twain, Philip Roth - the whole panoply of modernist and post-modernist writers and thinkers are necessary to understand the way the world, and America, really is rather than what we want it to be. Since Agre exposes that he really doesn't understand Marx, I guess we could have skipped this one, but I think it is important to note that someone so woefully ignorant should dismiss out of hand - by buying in to right-wing talking points on the ubiquity of Marxist thought in the American left - an important tool for figuring out our world.

The other point is this:
* Tipper Gore is right

Snoop Dogg's music really is garbage. Some liberals, however, argue that racists hate rap and so therefore any disapproval of rap abets racism. This is bad logic and stupid politics. If racists hate rap then the logical, rational, politically efficacious thing to do is to say that some rap is good and some rap is bad, and that good rap is an art form like any other, and that the bad rap exists because the people who rap it are bad people.

Do not be afraid of losing contact with young people. If all you know about youth culture is Snoop Dogg, then I suppose it is time for some focus groups. Use the focus groups to identify language that Martin Luther King would approve of. Besides, there is plenty of good politics in mass culture, as cultural studies professors have explained at length.

Nor should you be afraid of losing campaign contributions from the entertainment industry. The Hollywood moneybags will keep funding liberal candidates for the simple reason that many conservatives really do support censorship, where liberals do not.

That said, there is certainly a disconnect between some liberal entertainers and the liberals who win elections. Some entertainers are willing to get up on stage and embarrass John Kerry. Scorn them.

All one can do is sigh, shake one's head, and move on. The aesthetic value of Snoop Dog's art is a matter of contention, and ultimately personal preference; yet Tipper Gore was more concerned about Prince singing about a woman masturbating in a hotel lobby, rather than Snoop Dog singing about "Gin and Juice".

The reason I have taken the time to criticize this piece is simple - intellectual shallowness, ignorance, and dishonesty are to be fought regardless of political persuasion. One of the best arguments the Left has going for it is, for the most part, it has greater intellectual integrity than the right. A piece such as this undermines that claim, especially when it is cited and used by influential writers, such as Digby at Hulabaloo.

It is all well and good to oppose conservative political thought. It is much better to use actual facts, and have a familiarity with the terms one is using, their history, and the relationships among ideas and political acts than to just make stuff up as one goes, writing in the heat of anger.

We can do better. We should do better.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More