Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Heirs of Joseph de Maistre

Mockery for Edmund Burke's support for Catholic emancipation, by James Gillray - Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

The historian Thomas Zimmer is doing some interesting (and scary!) analysis on his SubStack of what's been happening in the livelier precincts of the American right, at The Federalist and the Claremont Institute and the like, where they've decided to stop calling themselves "conservatives" because they're really revolutionaries, and they're ready to throw out the whole apparatus of representative government:

In a more recent piece entitled “Hard Truths and Radical Possibilities,” which came out in American Greatness in November, [Claremont thinker Glen] Ellmers reacted to the midterm results – by rejecting the legitimacy of elections altogether: “Elections – and therefore consent and popular sovereignty – are no longer meaningful.” Once again, his issue is not that the midterms were fraudulently stolen; it is actually much worse: “even if conducted legitimately, elections no longer reflect the will of the people.” There certainly isn’t much of a conserving spirit to be found here. Ellmers rails against the “woke oligarchy” which, based on a massive state bureaucracy that is entirely dominated by “the Left” and unresponsive to the will of the real people, has already completely destroyed the constitutional republic. There is, in this view, very little time to stand up to the “left-wing masters.”

That's a pretty weird turn. Elections are bad because they install a "woke oligarchy" in power. What kind of political process implements the "will of the people" instead? What is the will of "the" people as opposed to the will of most people?

To understand that, you should understand that most Americans aren't "authentic" Americans:

that “most people living in the United States – certainly more than half – are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” Only “authentic Americans” allowed – a clearly racialized idea of “the people,” mostly represented by “the vast numbers of heartland voters.” 

The will of the people, then, is the will of the real people, which cannot be established through elections because the inauthentic ones, people of color and city dwellers ("rootless cosmopolitans" polluting the cosmopolis), can't be prevented from voting. The only solution, quoting from John Daniel Davidson in The Federalist, is violence—

“The left will only stop when conservatives stop them, which means conservatives will have to discard outdated notions about ‘small government.’ The government will have to become, in the hands of conservatives, an instrument of renewal in American life – and in some cases, a blunt instrument indeed.”

—with no mention of how conservatives are going to get their hands on the state without winning elections, but it's pretty clear what remains: the coup d'état in the normal sense of the term or something like it, throwing up a strongman who represents the will of the people through direct, emotional identification with their grievance and resentment. Besides, you're already thinking about the figure of Donald Trump, the incarnation of American Greatness, with his purely intuitive knowledge of the will of the real people, or, if he's really played out, somebody like that.

In other words, it's standard fascism, expressed with really remarkable frankness.

I've been working for a long while, since 2015, with a particular idea of what conservatism is in the world of elections, parties, and majority rule, as a response to the shock of the French Revolution in 1789, and the threat posed to the power of the privileged by the ability of commoners to vote; that if they wanted to maintain their privilege they'd have to find some way of getting the commoners to vote for them. Thus the conservatism of Edmund Burke, with its appeal to fear of change, and even more its preference for "prejudice" over "reason":

society rests on prejudice, not reason; prejudice is not irrational, but simply unreasoning. Burke advocated educated prejudice as an antidote to its bigoted forms—arguably, not a rejection of reason, but a skepticism about its inordinate pretensions. Philosophers might speculate about why we have the duties that we do, but prejudice makes us act, without having to calculate all the consequences—or indeed to reason about ends. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

This really does resemble a Republican appeal to the "heartland". English voters, in the 1790s, were of course male householders—a total of maybe 300,000 voters in the 40 counties and 203 boroughs, in a population of 8 million—certainly overwhelmingly rural and relatively prosperous in comparison to the huge number with effectively no political rights at all. It had been a long time since the last Peasants' Revolt and was still quite a while before the Luddite and other protests of the beginning industrial age, but Burke could remind people of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780, though they weren't wholly relevant: 

Wild and savage insurrection quitted the woods, and prowled about our streets in the name of reform.... A sort of national convention ... nosed parliament in the very seat of its authority; sat with a sort of superintendence over it; and little less than dictated to it, not only laws, but the very form and essence of legislature itself.

On the other hand, anyhow, there was always an alternative to what you might well call Burke's liberal (or at least Whiggish) conservatism, which had more pull among the privileged in France (or, soon, exiled from it), the one associated with Burke's evil twin Joseph de Maistre, who absolutely rejected electoral politics and demanded the restoration of monarchy (successfully, as you know—it really took until 1871 for France to find a way to be a republic that would last any amount of time).

I think the post-conservatives Zimmer talks about aren't quite as startling as he makes them out to be. They're the same as the monarchist alt-right Ross Douthat was touting back in 2016, for one thing (of which Mencius Moldbug/Curtis Yarvin, now an object of the patronage of Peter Thiel, was an integral part). More importantly, they're the heirs of Joseph de Maistre, who have always been there, ready for kingship or emperorship of dictatorship, as opportunity allows. And they're emboldened, as we always note, by the realization that demographic realities are rapidly shrinking the window within which they can pretend to be a majority—if they don't do this fast, they never will.

It really is a dangerous moment. I don't have a lot of respect for those people, but they are there, and they do damage, and there's an awful lot of people, never a majority, but too many all the same, who don't see anything wrong with it.

I realize there's an awful lot of news going on, and I'd like to weigh in on it. Tomorrow is another day! And one with more light than we had today!

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.

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