Interview conducted by Philip Pilkington, a journalist and writer based in Dublin, Ireland.
PP: Okay, let’s move on. One of the chapters in the book deals with Ayn Rand. I’m going to quote from it directly as I don’t think there is a better way to sum it up.
“Saint Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladamir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin, and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both.”
I really don’t think I’ve seen a better quote summing up the phenomenon that is Ayn Rand. This is not political jousting either – in the book you’re generally quite respectful of conservative theorists. But Ayn Rand is unusual in that… well… she really was a hack. There is no way she was on par with the other theorists discussed in the book. Her work was just cartoonish, amateurish; almost a self-parody. She had no real philosophical influences and this shone through in the innumerable cracks in what she referred to as her ‘philosophy’. So, how on earth do you account for her popularity today? Is her mediocrity part of what makes her so appealing?
CR: This is one of the questions I really struggled with in writing about Rand, and I don’t think I ever fully resolved it. Because you’re right about her mediocrity, and I’m certain that’s part of her appeal, but what makes that strange is that she is a writer who claims to speak for excellence. And that’s what’s so odd to me: I don’t know that I can think of a single less talented writer who has ever pressed the claims of superiority – that there are superior beings out there, that she is one of them, that her readers are among them too – with such unwarranted self-confidence. It’s that marriage of total arrogance and total confidence that I find so mystifying.
Some people think that that is in a way her appeal: she gives not very talented people a sense that they are part of an Olympian guard. I’m not really persuaded of that. I think her appeal lies elsewhere: she has a vision of transcendence, of self-overcoming, which is central to conservatism, but it’s a vision that is ultimately flat and cartoonish.
It’s the purest form of kitsch: it preys upon an idea of high culture, of cultural greatness, but it doesn’t make the demands of that culture, except in a cheesy and romantic way. It allows people to imagine themselves living these exalted lives, without having to actually live those lives. It’s pure movie magic.
PP: Yes, I agree that the explanation that she lends greatness to mediocrity is not sufficient – all celebrity culture does that to an extent. It’s something beyond that; something that taps deep into a massive vein of narcissism at the heart of our age, a narcissism that resides particularly in a certain type of reader. Although Rand is a particularly vulgar proponent of this, I think I see something similar in many of the conservative ideas discussed in the book. They all revolve, in some way or another, around the figure of the ‘great man’. Do you think this is the case? And does this not contradict the vision of a humble, reasonable return to simpler values as put forward by, say, a figure like Pat Buchanen?
In fact, in answering those questions perhaps you could say something about the paleoconservative movement. I noted that it was absent from the book.
CR: You’ve hit on what I think is a really central tenet of conservatism: the great man. And yes it sits somewhat uneasily with the populism and the simple/humble man that sometimes gets presented in conservatism (though it’s interesting; I never really associated that with Buchanan.) But as for the great man, there is a notion in conservatism that there are men – and it’s almost always men – who are simply more excellent than the general run of humanity. They’re more talented, more visionary, more skilled, more something. And while that in itself is not that remarkable a notion, what makes it significant in conservatism is how central that notion is to their vision of the good society. The good society is one that is unequal – in their idea, inequality and progress go hand in hand (the slaveholders are particularly interesting on this question, as is Nietzsche, though he of course eschewed any notion of progress; he saw inequality and excellence going hand in hand) – and where the best men rule.
Now how this gets reconciled with the populism/humility of the right is tricky, but I think it goes something like this: The excellent man is extraordinary. He doesn’t require credentials or training; his excellence is like a gift from God. Often, the most extraordinary person will arise from fairly obscure or humble background. So in de Maistre (and a fair number of other French conservatives) there is a real obsession with Joan of Arc — yes, not a man, obviously, but her peasant origins make her rise seem that much more miraculous.
I know this will sound like a stretch, but I often have thought that the ejaculations on the right over Sarah Palin were quite similar to this. Here’s someone with very limited education, very limited experience, no international knowledge to speak of, not much awareness of the burning political issues of our time, and yet there she is, a serious contender – at least she was up until recently – for the nomination of the Republican Party (not to mention the fact that she was a vice-presidential candidate in 2008).
On the face of it, it’s absolutely crazy. But I suspect that for the conservative, her very inexperience and total lack of credentials, made her seem that much more desirable and destined for greatness.
Anne Norton is a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. A few years ago she wrote a brilliant book on the Straussians, and one chapter in particular really stood out for me. It was about Allan Bloom, who was a Straussian and wrote a very influential book in the 1980s called The Closing of the American Mind. Anyway, as Norton points out, Bloom was obsessed with romance novels, the Cinderella story. And in those stories, there’s often this idea of an obscure princess lurking somewhere in the weeds. All she needs is a patron to find her and pluck her out of obscurity.
That idea –that there is extraordinary greatness lurking out there, perhaps in your home, no matter how impoverished you are, and that all that’s required for you to assume your destined position is a miracle of election – I think fits in with the romantic notion of greatness and excellence that you see in someone like Rand and conservatism more generally.
As for the paleocons, I did talk about them in a bit in my chapter on Edward Luttwack, but you’re right, I never gave them that much attention, in part because they’ve been fairly insignificant politically for the last several decades. They’re interesting intellectually – very interesting in fact – but their ideas just haven’t had that much traction.
PP: Well, I always thought the Sarah Palin phenomenon was a sexual thing. She tapped into that whole MILF thing that was launched, in particular, by the Desperate Housewives television show. Husbands wanted her, housewives wanted to be her – and pornographers made films about her. It was this (rather unusual) domestic sexuality that then gave her supposed power. It was this that turned her into the ‘great woman’ – the seemingly unknowing housewife who, despite her humble appearances, actually knows ‘something’ that she’s not letting on. *Queue Sarah Palin wink*.
That might be the single crudest political analysis ever undertaken, but I think there’s more than a grain of truth there. Seriously, look at the winking video linked above; that stuff was focus grouped and orchestrated!
Anyway, leaving poor Palin aside, let’s move onto that other thing that gets the conservative juices flowing to no end: war. Broadly speaking, what is it that fascinates conservatives about war so much?
CR: I think there are two ways to think about the relationship between conservatism and war. The first is to look at conservatism’s moral psychology – that is, not the psyche of the conservative, but how the conservative views human nature. And here I take my cues from Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry Concerning the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. There, Burke lays out of a vision of human nature in which the self is always on the verge of collapse and implosion. Burke’s basic idea is that we have a set of impulses and responses – ultimately to objects and experiences of pleasure and beauty – that, while immediately gratifying, have the tendency to soften us, leaving us either indifferent or ultimately in a less vital or strong state than we were before. There’s a kind of corrosiveness to the human character: too much ease and comfort, too much pleasure and enjoyment, and we decline. Decadence, in other words, haunts the human condition.
The antidote to that tendency is the experience of sublimity, which Burke associates with death and terror. The sublime is a terrible experience – frightening, shocking, even terrifying – but unlike pleasure and beauty, it’s a strong and vitalizing experience. It leaves us in a stronger state than we were before: more alert, more alive, more wakeful and watchful of all that surrounds us. It’s a shock to the system that wakes us up from our torpor and readies us for a very powerful mode of engagement with the world.
Now Burke doesn’t talk about war in this treatise, but I think you can see a lot of his ideas in many conservative writings about warfare, whether the war is international or civil. In my book, I look at the writing on war by Joseph de Maistre, Tocqueville, Teddy Roosevelt, Carl Schmitt, and many of the neoconservatives. (You could probably add Christopher Hitchens to that list, though I don’t really talk about him in the book much.) There you really see the development of this idea about warfare, how it revitalizes the self.
The other way to think about this problem involves an idea I discussed earlier: the conservative’s consistent concern about the decadence of the ruling classes, the need to find ruling classes that are not weak, too comfortable in their privileges, and the like. And again, you find conservatives welcoming warfare as a kind of testing ground for a new ruling class, a way of establishing who is the superior man, not on the basis of inheritance or tradition, but on the basis of character, wit, physical strength, and more.
These are the two steady streams I find in the conservative tradition regarding warfare. I don’t say this in the book, but there’s definitely a left tradition regarding warfare, but it bears little resemblance to this discussion. So the point is not that conservatives have a monopoly on discussions of war and violence – they don’t – but that they have a distinctive way of talking about it.
PP: That’s very interesting. But surely the nature of warfare has changed. Whereas a conservative in Burke’s day might have had to saddle-up and lead the charge, today this hardly seems the case. War has become cold, calculated and precise – I guess the figure of Robert McNamara, the great technician of war, comes to mind. Do you think that modern day conservatives have come to terms with this or have they simply ignored it?
CR: Actually, believe it or not, what you’re talking about is prefigured in Burke’s own theory. Because Burke says that for terror and the sublime to be rejuvenating and reawakening in the way I’ve described, the object of terror has to be at some remove from the self. If it gets too close, it loses those rejuvenating capacities, and becomes simply violent and awful.
What I take from this insight of his is there is an element of anti-climax in almost all conservative visions of warfare. I talk about this explicitly in my chapter ‘Easy to Be Hard’, but basically the argument goes like this: while conservatives can wax rhapsodic over warfare in the abstract – e.g., when it remains a possibility rather than a reality, when they don’t have to fight it, etc. – as soon as it confronts them in its immediacy, it loses all that romance. In the last half-century, as warfare becomes more and more bureaucratized, that romance really disappears, as you point out. One of the most interesting instances of this, in fact, is the war on terror, particularly the use of torture. When conservatives talk about torture, they ascribe to it all these hallowed attributes: transgressive, boundary-pushing, proving one’s mettle, going to ‘the dark side’, in Cheney’s famous words. But as Jane Mayer shows in her book of that title – The Dark Side – torture is not the realm of romantic warriors or transgressive types; it’s actually something that’s run by the lawyers. They’re the ones who devise, in excruciating detail, all the do’s and don’t's of the torture session: a slap on the face, a threat to the head, etc. In fact, Mayer cites George Tenet, former head of the CIA: describing the capture, interrogation, and torture of Al Qaeda logistics chief Abu Zubayda, Tenet says, “Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, in situations like this, you don’t call in the tough guys; you call in the lawyers.” Mayer compares torture sessions to a game of “Mother, May I?” the torturer asks the lawyer/bureaucrat, Can do I x, Can I do x+1, and so on. Nothing romantic or transgressive about it; it’s as rule-bound and bureaucratic as things can get.
So the upshot is: the romance can’t live up to the reality. Certainly not in this age of bureaucratic warfare – the Pentagon is not exactly a non-bureaucratic institution – and probably not ever. And, what’s more, that anti-climax is built into the theory, at least as it was adumbrated by Burke.
PP: Although it seems a rather silly question I think it still worth asking: where do you see conservativism going? What strains are the most potent in the movement? Is the libertarian tradition on the rise – as we see from Ron Paul’s recent popularity – or is neoconservatism still the order of the day – as we see from the discourse surrounding Iran’s nuclear program?
CR: I don’t think the question is whether any one tradition is on the rise or fall; the mere fact that we are increasingly talking about these different factions as if they were separate entities suggests the overall fraying of the movement itself. When a movement is at its apex, it’s able to finesse these internal divisions. The contrast with the enemy – the left, in the case of the right – is so great that internal divisions will seem small. The fact that these internal factions are now starting to look at each other as the great enemy suggests what I’ve long suspected (at least since Bush declared the war on terror): that the administration of George W. Bush was the high point of the development of modern conservatism, and that everything since then will be downhill. That doesn’t mean there won’t be victories along the way – in the same the election of a fairly left-wing Congress in 1974 was a victory for the Democrats and progressivism. Yet, as we all know, the trajectory of the left from 1968 to 1980 was essentially a downward one, from the apex of the liberal regime under Lyndon Johnson to the utter repudiation of that regime with Ronald Reagan. Likewise, George W. Bush was the summit; what comes next – and it could take a long long time – is essentially one long trip downhill.
There’s a reason for this dynamic both general and specific. The general reason is that any political movement or coalition, when it achieves the utmost of power, will start exercising that power in a way that frays that coalition. In the case of LBJ, he used his massive reelection in 1964 to extend the promise of the New Deal to blacks, and in the process, destroyed the New Deal coalition, which had been uneasily dependent on the votes of racist white Southerners and racist white Northerners. In the case of George W. Bush, he used the warrants of 9/11 to pursue major wars of empire, satisfying his neocon supporters, and cutting taxes, satisfying the Grover Norquists of his party. That combination is not sustainable, as we’re now seeing with the debt crisis. And it will ultimately prove the undoing of the GOP. But again it could take a long time for that to happen.
The more specific reason is peculiar to the right: the right, as I’ve argued, is a praxis of opposition to the emancipatory claims of the left. To a very large degree, the right has defeated the left. On economic questions, on civil rights, and on feminism as well. And where it hasn’t defeated the left, it’s forced a stop to its forward motion. But that success poses a problem for the right: what is there for it to do? One of the reasons why I think you see such loony rhetoric from today’s right – where they call a neoliberal manager of the American imperium like Barack Obama a Kenyan Muslim socialist and so forth – is that it is trying to re-fight the battles that brought it to victory in 1980. And while it can get some traction from that re-run, it can’t get much. So again, I think the long-term indicators are negative.
At least that’s what I’m telling myself…