Thursday, May 27, 2021

Zek Your Privilege

Gulag prisoners, via.They didn't suffer in vain! They suffered so that David Frum could feel good about himself!

John Holbo
 (2003) on David Frum (1994):

... if it is good for the poor and middle-class to suffer and toil, surely it would do the well-to-do some good as well. We could stiffen upper-classes spines quick by raising the top tax bracket to, say, 95%, while firing all the cops, letting all the criminals out of jail, giving them guns, and busing them to the richest neighborhoods before letting them go. Not a good idea, obviously, but a lot of rich people would learn a lot of important, genuinely meaningful life lessons..

It's from a rant (via Brad DeLong's substack) on Frum's book, Dead Right, in the phase of his life when he was an ordinary Canadian opinionator/thinktank twit, before his bizarre irruption into "public service" as a Bush speechwriter, on the subject of how Frum can't possibly believe the things he believes he believes, as a representative conservative, like the way the Dostoevskian idea of how we can be ennobled by suffering, like the cannibal heroes of the Donner Party or the zeks of the Stalin-era gulag, gets transmuted into the idea that the function of the state is to ennoble people by making welfare payments too small for people to live on.

Frum can't possibly believe that that Stalinism is good, right? Because it's responsible for the ennoblement of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his fellow political prisoners? But when Frum wishes liberal government would be more austere because that would be morally good for the beneficiaries

The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won’t try to vault across the big top. Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do not.

what else is he saying? The only  possible answer, Holbo explains, is that he DOESN'T ACTUALLY MEAN IT. What he really means is "these kids today have it so soft, grump grump get off my lawn, why when I was a kid Russian prisoners had to eat ten-thousand-year-old salamanders they found in the ice" (if that doesn't make you click the link I don't know what I'm going to do with you), although of course Frum was 34 when this was published and Khrushchev dissolved the gulag system a few months before he was born and he himself, in Toronto, had a completely nice and comfortable upper-middle-class upbringing without being made conspicuously ignoble as far as we know. 

According to Wikipedia, though, 14-year-old Frum was a volunteer in 1975 for an NDP candidate, with a copy of, wouldn't you know it, The Gulag Archipelago which he read on the commute to and from the West Toronto campaign headquarters, and formally dates his conservatism from then, when his "colleagues", instead of being impressed by the book, "jeered" at it. Thus you might say he felt he was ennobled by reading it, while his leftist fellow campaign workers weren't interested in ennoblement, and in this way he feels he didn't need to be raised in single-parent poverty. He could be ennobled vicariously by the sufferings of others, thanks to Solzhenitsyn, without having to eat any salamanders himself.

But he doesn't recognize this as a privilege. He just concludes that if you don't get the opportunity to ennoble yourself on the train with a good paperback then you'd better put up with government ennobling you with an insufficient welfare check. Or, putting it Holbo's way, that what matters in the planning of economic policy isn't actually economics so much as aesthetics:

more interesting, actually, is the matter of feeling – not thinking, to be sure – that good social and cultural aesthetics will produce good economics. Just get the right sort of people – i.e. the people that appeal to conservative sensibilities – and somehow the economy will be fine. If you like it, call it natural. After all, if it wasn't natural, why would you like it? As Empson says: ‘while he is like this he is Natural and that will induce Nature to make us prosperous.’ 

DeLong comments, not without affection, that Holbo is wrong to claim that conservatism lacks a "political philosophy":

I disagree with part of John Holbo’s thesis here: “tax cuts for the rich!” and “what we have, we will hold!” together do make up a political philosophy. It is not, however, a political philosophy that can win many elections if openly avowed, however. So it must turn into “the Negroes and the Rootless Cosmopolites are coming to steal your stuff!”

I think that's still not getting it quite right, in line with the current debate on the relationship between conservatism and democracy: conservatism is in the first place an emotion: Even "what we have, we will hold", to day nothing of  "tax cuts for the rich", isn't a principle.

The principle of conservatism is opposition to democracy̦—the fear that more political voices will take my stuff away—or if you prefer opposition to majority rule as the prospect of majority rule htat loomed at the end of the 18th century by during the American and French revolutions. And it is, as in the realization over which Holbo hovered, an emotion—which isn't what's wrong with it—what's wrong with it is that it isn't anything more. It's an emotion in search of a theory, and that's what's wrong with it; that it picks up whatever theoretical-looking garbage attaches itself to it to sustain itself, but at bottom it's nothing but useless fear.

Not an idea of what government ought to do, but an idea of what government ought to be afraid of: listening to too many voices. Which is just dumb wrong. 

No comments:

Post a Comment