Do We Need an “Arresting Afflatus”?
First of all, I would like to thank Dan for inviting me to join the Concurring Opinions community this month.
In a recent conversation I was reminded of this article about post-cold war conservative defections which appeared in Lingua Franca (a now-defunct magazine of ideas in which Alan Sokal revealed his hoax). In it, William F. Buckley, Jr. is asked in an interview to imagine who he would be if he were graduating from college in 2000. “What kind of politics would this youthful Buckley embrace?” He responded: “I’d be a socialist . . . [a] Mike Harrington socialist. . . . I’d even say a communist.” One reason for this rather stunning admission is that once the market ideal is entrenched as the dominant way of thinking, not only does it become “boring” as Buckley says, but it is also totalizing. One of the primary objections to old-style communism is the way that individual lives got processed in the totalizing system for the good of the class, the state, or the inevitable unfolding of historical dialectics. But is the emphasis on the market any less totalizing? Is the all-knowing and ever powerful market any less “boring” from the standpoint of human freedom than its vanquished communist counterpart? Similarly, in the market system, individual lives are constrained for the good of market efficiency. One should not complain about lost jobs or tightened credit we are told, because these are necessary to achieve overall market efficiency. After all, the constant, unthinking refrain today is that the market will solve everything. For the hypothetical young Buckley, this is a problem.
To be sure, the market-advocate will quickly point out that the “market” is an aggregate of individual decisions bubbling up from the bottom of the system, whereas the five-year plan was a bureaucratic mandate from the top down. Thus, the totalizing “market” is built on the actions of individual persons exercising individual liberty. Nonetheless, from the individual’s perspective, unable to influence either the market price of wheat or the five-year plan’s price of wheat, one totalizing impersonal system may have the same phenomenology as the other. Is $4 a gallon for gas experienced differently if one is told the market dictated the price rather than some five-year plan? Is the loss of a job any more heartening when informed that market efficiency and profit maximization dictated it? Perhaps, but only perhaps. The difference would partially depend on affective attachments one has to broader beliefs which are themselves the products of the totalizing system. If one is committed to the idea that market forces are fair and just, one may experience the impersonality of the $4 price differently. But of course, for most people, the idea that market forces are fair and just are themselves products of the market system itself (if one belonged to a different system, one would have different beliefs).
Buckley’s conservative heresy focuses attention on the political ramifications of this problem. How does one’s frustration with often intangible, impersonal, yet all-powerful institutions or systems like the market manifest itself in creative political thinking? It is easier to coordinate one’s politics against the communist menace than against the fragmented set of concerns represented by national security, energy policy, healthcare, social security, global warming, global poverty, HIV/AIDS, etc. Regarding this sort of list, Buckley commented that the difficulty would be “conjoining all of that into an arresting afflatus.” It is always much easier to coordinate one’s politics around a clearly defined enemy.
Corey Robin’s article in which Buckley’s statements appear also features an interview with Irving Kristol in which he claimed that the collapse of communism “deprived us of an enemy.” The existence of a supposed conservative malaise (the article was published in February 2001) hinged on the idea that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ascendancy of the market, conservatives had lost their political raison d’etre. Without communism, the end of history was declared, and the West no longer had an enemy. As if history were staging a play, Act III ended with the Twentieth Century and history’s apparent end, and Act IV opened with history’s reemergence on September 11, 2001, giving the supposed flagging conservative cause a new enemy. This new enemy allows for an organizing politics, even if on a strained metaphor to the cold war. Mushroom cloud talk from Condaleeza Rice and others aside, the metaphor is pernicious because terrorist organizations are not a competing empire with thousands of ICBMs trained on U.S. cities. (One wonders how far the “necessity” talk from John Yoo and others would extend for unconstrained executive authority if the Soviet Union had not collapsed; it has gone quite far in the last seven years in the absence of anything like an analogous threat).
We have lived for a time, and may live some more, with terrorism playing that organizing role for our politics. Or, we may be able to think politically again about the ways our lives are substantially structured by a totalizing market system, and to seek creative solutions to address the public and its problems using what John Dewey called our creative intelligence. More than anything, Buckley’s provocative statement that he would be a socialist today suggests that rebellion against received ideas can be an important motivating value in politics. Whereas entrenched New Deal thinking was prevailing orthodoxy in his youth, the domination of a market mentality is in ours. The challenge Buckley identified is in creating the necessary “arresting afflatus” to provide an overall vision for a new politics. I find it interesting to observe the current Presidential campaign with this thought in mind.