Saturday, October 4, 2008

conservative teleology

There is a blunt notion that exists about the feelings towards the past and the future, and how they are ideologically situated.

The conservative, we imagine, fetishizes the past. He makes nostalgia the default stance of American political life. He casts his mind back to an unreal history where conservative principles were the unconscious reality of civic life. The social conservative looks back and sees universal Christianity, stable families, the respect of norms and mores, every American a "real American". The fiscal conservative looks back and sees a time of unfettered free markets, limitless growth, low or no taxes, the great capitalist machine. The cultural conservative looks back and sees respect for institutions, wide agreement on individual rights, a minimal government, and the profound American value of leaving other people alone.

These notions of conservatism are like many generalizations. They are in some senses correct, but reductive, limiting. I do meet people who think that, if we could just return to the way it was in the idealized '50s, but keep the racial equality/gender equality stuff, the world would be perfect. So keep the civil rights act, but jettison affimative action; keep non-discrimination laws, but no thanks to the ERA. Keep the cultural conformity, jettison the racial, ethnic and religious conformity. This is as naive as it is historically ignorant. The philosophical conformity that was necessary to maintain this way of life was as dependant on gay-hating and Jew-suspicion as it was on notions of manliness, civility and responsibility. Women didn't rebel from this straightjacket because they lost respect for values; they rebelled because they were in kitchen, and it's boring and demoralizing in there. You can't expand the franchise of the '50s and maintain what the traditionalist loves about the '50s. Nor should we want to, as it is precisely the cultural rejection of those values that matters. (Of course, the left falls into this trap too, as it tokenizes racial diversity and gender diversity and sexual diversity at the expense of what matters, intellectual diversity.)

But I don't think that this sense in which conservatism is backward looking is endemic, and I actually think one of the major turns in the conservative revolution was the ability of conservative leaders to turn this fetish for the past into a focus on the future. And, in fact, I believe that there is a strain of conservatism that is at once too focused on the past and yet too reliant on a vision of our economic future. It's this bifurcated conservatism that makes an enemy of the now and paralyzes our ability to focus the social duty of government on the people who need it now. The past is the time of historical greatness, the future the time when the project of limited government will bestow abundance on all our people, and it's only the distasteful now that has to be muddled through and dealt with.

(I find this derision for the now to be most prevalent and palpable in times of crisis. Both 9/11 and the financial crisis have created an almost-desire for these times of emergency; we imagine the period of the Great Depression, or just following Pearl Harbor, to be times when men carried seriousness and dignity around in their pockets, assured that they were living in great times. The problem with this yen for times of emergency is that, even while people think that we have arrived at one of these eras of profound meaning, it never seems like that time has actually come. It's always just ahead of us or just behind us. Call it the banality of the now.)

But let me explain.

The greatest enemies of productivity and happiness in my own personal life are nostalgia and regret. They sap my strength, steal my attention, leave me in a place where I privilege my control over thoughts and feelings, because I can no longer control my actions in the past. As I've said, a similar yearning for the past is often believed to afflict conservatism. But it is really teleology which colors our ability to cogently realize the ur-issue of American domestic politics, need-poverty-suffering.

The teleologist looks at the poor and is constantly disappointed. He expects to find the washer woman from 1984, robust, red-cheeked, head held high, and singing. He instead is greeted by all the petty vagaries that desperation can inflict on people, and that they can inflict on themselves. He sees the ugliness of criminality and amorality, even while he can briefly see the strange dignity of the trampled, and the human beating beating heart of rebirth. The liberal teleologist therefore banishes the negative from the poor; he crafts an intricate story where every suffering person is an exemplar of the struggle. He makes the poor into mere objects in the world; he believes their failures and mistakes and sins are the product of their environment, while their successes and triumphs are all their own. The poor become for him clockwork men and women, mechanistic and predetermined. He elevates the absence of individual agency to the realm of virtue. He waits for the hand of government to elevate the poor out of their condition. For him, the realization of true human suffering by all people is inevitable. Thus the obsession by many on the left with "consciousness". They imagine that if only the notional understanding of human poverty could really enter the mind of everyone, there would be agreement-- consensus!-- about the necessity and wisdom of ending this poverty.

The conservative teleologist meanwhile excises from the concept "the poor" every actual poor person, creating in his mind the real red-blooded working class which he vainly tries to find among the annoying reality of the human. Like the Marxist, he imagines a real proletariat and the lumpen proletariat. He looks for concept "poor person" and casts out the pimps and drug-dealers and welfare queens from his vision, and quiets his conscience by not looking too closely at all the real people he casts out of the narrative. He chafes at the notion that he has anger or contempt at the poor, because he regards the poor-as-concept with such respect. The poor-as-concept are the boot-strappers, the self-motivators, who have not yet quite put the pieces together. Like the fetus, the poor man is a conservative aspirational object. He exists only in the sense in which he is casting off the conditions that have defined him as such. (Like Spivak's woman, his current definition is really only the lack of definition. For the conservative the poor do not exist as fully-formed beings; they are in the process of becoming something else.)

There is a strain of libertarianism which holds that the capitalist project is perfect but as yet unrealized. He holds that, when the arc of history is allowed to work its work, abundance and security will flow out of our ramshackle economy and bestow on everyone the realization of their American dream. He weeps for the poor who suffer now-- I believe he does, he genuinely does-- while denying them the resource of the wheels of government. It is the sad work of the people of the now to walk forward into this brave new world, and they suffer in the righteous way that many of us quietly hope to. His vision of conservatism, to his credit, is not based on the denial of suffering. It is instead based on something far crueler. It asks the poor to be vessels of outsider visions of human dignity.

This is a point of view that makes philosophical constructs of real people, asks the poor to work to build a future they'll never see, one which makes from human material a bridge to tomorrow. This libertarian teleologist asks the poor to shoulder the load for the future benefit of the greater good. He imagines the poor trading the benefit of the slow, laborious machine of government welfare for the crucial commodity of human dignity, and who, we wonders, wouldn't take that deal? Growth, the small government messiah, makes the poor's suffering seem to him ephemeral and temporary. And, as a purely theoretical vision of the world, there is no referrent, no appeal to reality that can constrain his vision. He can keep looking towards tomorrow, and every question about the wisdom or efficacy of his policy can be answered by widening the scope of his vision even farther into the future. For the libertarian teleologist there is no necessary rhetorical vehicle other than patience. We demand and cajole and argue; he waits.

Convinced that tomorrow will grant the poor all of the great abundance of his American vision, the libertarian teleologist has no concern for the banal reality of the poor-of-the-now's hunger, or their suffering. He waits on the delicate unfolding of the inevitability of capitalist utopia, and makes the poor his image of heroic striving, granting them decency but no agency, imagining them to say "we few, we happy few...."

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