The New New World (Part 3)
The problem is too big. It's too hard. And if that weren't enough, you live inside the problem. You have to struggle hard just to get a glimpse of the thing in its entirety. It's frustrating. You want something you can do now. You want a place where you can send your money. You want to send a letter off and have it be over.
Well, it doesn't work that way.
I call this "Part 3", and I suppose that's what it is, but don't be fooled into thinking I'm doing anything other than wandering around the countryside here, trying to figure out where the hell I am. If this were a book, I would be more or less obligated to have all this stuff laid out for you. Describe the problem, prove the case, provide pointers on how to proceed. This is a blog, though, and so both you and I have the opportunity to engage in some entrepreneurial thought. I've been thinking a lot about entrepreneurial thought, lately. That's because I'm a liberal, and entrepreneurial thinking is the absolute domain of liberalism. Anybody who tells you otherwise is crapping you.
Like I said, I don't really know where I'm going so in desperation I will get out the map to see if I can at least figure out where I am. In Part 1 I talked about America as the old New World (or, if you will, the new Old World), and my desire to find a way to transform it into the new New World. I talked about how we have become that which our ancestors fled. In Part 2 I talked about drunks; to wit: those Americans who have somehow become addicted to the patent medicines of conservative thought. It's tempting to find a way to try to connect those two themes -- maybe something to do with Old World peasants resorting to alcohol to wash away their misery -- but I think maybe I'll pass on that temptation. It's a tricky balance trying to formulate images in your mind to describe the problem. You want something that works, that helps you keep the problem somewhere in mind so that part of your brain can be stewing over it as you go about your day-to-day life, but you don't want anything that's too clever. Too clever gets you nowhere. You spend all your time being impressed with all the twinkly sparkle of your clever image, and almost no time on thinking about the actual problem.
So in the time between Part 2 and now, I've been reading with the intent of trying to get some sort of gelled notion of the problem of conservatism. More on what I've been reading in a minute, but first let me get down what conclusions I've reached. It's simple, really. Simple is always best.
There are Republicans and there are Democrats. There are liberals and conservatives. That's true, but you mustn't think about it in those terms. Here's how you want to think about it.
There are members of the aristocracy faction, and there are members of the democracy faction. Conservatives, despite the populist image they try to project of themselves, are members of the aristocracy faction. Liberals are members of the democracy faction. Some Republicans may be part of the democracy faction, and some Democrats may be part of the aristocracy faction. Which doesn't sound so simple, so back up again and just think about it in these terms.
There is the democracy faction, and there is the aristocracy faction. Drop all other labels.
I'd actually been thinking along these lines already -- I have a 1/4-written post on how Americans ought to come up with their old New World equivalents of the British peerage... King, Prince, Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron -- but I couldn't find a way to make it as Darkly Funny as it needed to be. Maybe later.
And ever since I read David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich -- and Cheat Everybody Else back in 2003, I've been thinking about what astonishing suckers the American people are, and what scoundrels be those politicians, both Republicans and Democrats sad to say, who play us like those plastic recorders they passed out in Third Grade. And Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America hipped me to some reasons why so many decent Americans have signed on to the aristocratic faction.
But the real help came in the form of an article recommended by respected SF author Ken MacLeod, that article being "What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?", posted in August 2004 by Philip E. Agre, Associate Professor in the Department of Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles.
Go read that article. It's longish -- I saved it in .pdf and it ran to just over twenty pages -- but it's worth-it-ish. No, not just "-ish"; it's very much worth it. You have to have the problem solid in your head, and that article helped me do that for myself. You have to have it simple and solid so your mind can work the problem while you're off making a living. The way my brain wants to think about it is as I described above: There is an aristocracy faction, and there is a democracy faction. Short and sweet. I feel better now that I've got that bit bubbling away in the old brain pan.
The aristocracy faction is not necessarily confined to the aristocracy. As Agre says:
...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.
And there are many Democrats who, in one way or another, belong to the aristocracy faction. The outrageous, permanent-aristocracy-inducing tax system described by Johnston is in place not merely by way of the evil machinations of the Republicans. The Democrats prop it up too, in the name of their corporate contributors.
And so Lesson #1 of Part 3 is this: stop thinking of the problem in terms of Republicans and Democrats. Think of it in terms of the aristocracy faction vs. the democracy faction. Read Agre's article to determine how to recognize the aristocracy faction. Our job, yours and mine, is to be relentless, fearless members of the democracy faction, and to persuade our fellow citizens to come over to us and abandon their inexplicable fealty to the aristocrats.
Why think of it in those terms rather than conservatism vs. liberalism? Because it's easier to explain to shmucks like me, work-a-day guys with bills to pay, why it is in my interest to be for rule by democracy and against rule by aristocrats. It's an old story, guys. It's as old as the Old World.
I've got way more stuff I want to talk about tonight, but this is getting a bit long so I guess I'll post this and try to get Part 4 up later tonight.
- The New New World, Part 4.