Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Corey Robin vs. the Occupy movement

Now I'm more concerned than ever about the implications of Corey Robin's ahistorical argument that there is no meaningful distinction between conservative and Radical Right. He's attracted quite a bit of sympathetic attention among progressives for this argument, which puts the stodgy go-slow-or-even-do-nothing conservative in the same boat with the howling reactionary who wants to create a dystopia based on some imagined version of an ideal 19th century.

He makes his case at some length in his book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (2011) . As a matter of history, I think he's seriously overreaching. I can understand the argument's contemporary resonance, though, given the current state of the Republican Party in which segregationist and McCarthyist talk that would not so long ago have been publicly disowned by respectable business conservatives is now considered normal, mainstream Republican practice.

Now Robin's addressing the Occupy movement in The Conservative Reaction Chronicle of Higher Education 01/08/2012. And this piece presents an uncomfortable reminder that if a stodgy conservative who mainly wants to not rock the boat for the 1% too much is the same as a blithering Bircher or a cornpone brownshirt, then the Birchers and the brownshirts are also no more threatening or obnoxious than your standard Chamber of Commerce or Rotary Club member.

Not that Robin is endorsing the Patriot Militias in his Chronicle piece. But he certainly does seem to be advising Republicans, hey, this is the kind of hippie agitation that you need to oppose the way you do it best:

After decades of "compassionate conservatism," "a thousand points of light," and "Morning in America," dark talk of class warfare on the right can seem like a strange throwback. So accustomed are we to the sunny Reagan and the populist Tea Party that we've forgotten a basic truth about conservatism: It is a reaction to democratic movements from below, movements like Occupy Wall Street that threaten to reorder society from the bottom up, redistributing power and resources from those who have much to those who have not so much. With the roar against the ruling classes growing ever louder, the right seems to be reverting to type. It thus behooves us to take a second look at the conservative tradition, not just its current incarnation but also across time, for that tradition provides us with an understanding of why the conservative responds to Occupy Wall Street as he does. ...

Given the reactionary thruST [sic] of conservatism, Occupy Wall Street may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the right. Thoughtful conservatives have long understood the symbiotic relationship between the right's intellectual - and ultimately political - vitality and insurgencies from the left. Friedrich Hayek accurately observed that the political theory of capitalism "became stationary when it was most influential" and "progressed" only when it was "on the defensive." Frank Meyer, intellectual architect of the fusion strategy that brought together the libertarian and traditionalist wings of the Republican Party, noted that it was "ironic, though not historically unprecedented," that bursts "of creative energy" on the right "should occur simultaneously with a continuing spread of the influence of liberalism in the practical political sphere."

Conversely, conservative writers like David Frum and Andrew Sullivan have worried of late about the intellectual flabbiness of the contemporary right: A movement that once seemed the emblem of heterodoxy has succumbed to stale thinking and rote incantations. But if Occupy Wall Street turns out to be a movement rather than a moment — if it has real staying power; if it moves from public squares to private institutions; if it starts to divest the elite of their privileges and powers, not just in their offshore accounts but in their backyards and board rooms — it could provide the kind of creative provocation that once produced a Burke or a Hayek. The metaphor of occupation is threatening enough; one can only imagine what might happen were it made real. And while the mavens of the right would probably prefer four more years to four good books, they might want to rethink that. They wouldn't be in the position they're in - when, even out of power, they still govern the country - had their predecessors made the same choice. [my emphasis]
That last part is a bit unclear, though he must mean "four more years" of Obama, though it's not at all obvious which "mavens of the right would probably prefer four more years" of the Marxist-Kenyan-socialist-European-Islamunist-atheist Obama to having a Republican in the White House.

In the real world, of course we're seeing pushback from the right over the Occupy movement. And what are we supposed to make of this statement, "A movement that once seemed the emblem of heterodoxy has succumbed to stale thinking and rote incantations"? When the Republicans were prominently congratulating themselves for being the "party of ideas", those great ideas were crackpot things like supply side economics, union-busting, boosting military spending and freeing the wealthiest Americans from the oppressive burden of having to pay taxes to support their country. Pretty much the same "stale thinking and rote incantations" of these days, only marketed a bit more cleverly. Stuff like that may have made Young Republicans think of themselves as "the emblem of heterodoxy" though it more closely resembled what was once called "hardening of the arteries", i.e., old-age dementia.

But the relative lack of mildly disruptive activism like that of the Occupy movement certainly hasn't slowed the radicalization of the Christian Republican White People's Party. On the contrary, Occupy is forcing even the Republicans to give some lip service to helping working families. Even though much of it looks more like dementia than either "the emblem of heterodoxy" or "stale thinking and rote incantations". Will Bunch reports on Rick Santorum campaigning in New Hampshire (The Santorum surge isn't working Attytood 01/09/2012):

He chose to devote his entire speech to his tax and pro-manufacturing policies – completely avoiding any mention of his signature issues like abortion and family values. Instead, he made a blatant pitch for working class votes.

"Imagine, the president of the United States standing up and saying everybody should go to college in America," Santorum said of President Obama at one point "What intellectual snobbery is that?! Not every person wants or needs to go to college or should have to go to college. Hard work, getting skills, getting training, whether it’s at a trade school or whatever, is good work and important work." He then claimed that Obama instead wants to "redistribute wealth" to those who don’t get into college.
The fact that someone considered a credible if faltering Republican Presidential candidate within their Party is holding up college attendance as a sign of "intellectual snobbery" is a good example of how in the real existing Republican Party of 2012, it's hard to make a meaningful distinction between stodgy conservative and drooling reactionary.

But that's not what Robin is doing in the Chronicle article. It reads more like he's pointing to the Occupy movement and telling Republicans, you need to go after these people!

I also notice that, in the paragraphs at the end of the article, he talks about if the Occupy movement achieves such-and-so and if they achieve this other thing. But in the first paragraph quoted above, which is the second paragraph in the article, he talks about "movements like Occupy Wall Street that threaten to reorder society from the bottom up." I know that some of the activists see that as an ultimate goal. But in real time, there is no way that the Occupy movement is about to stage some massive general strike and bring on an apocalyptic change that would "reorder society from the bottom up". Any politician or police chief - or anti-terrorism official - who sees the Occupy movement that way at this moment is likely smoking some of that Ron Paul Bircher weed.

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