June 11, 2008


Out of Place (Corey Robin, June 23, 2008, The Nation)

Reformers and radicals must convince the subordinated and disenfranchised that they have rights and power. Conservatives are different. They are aggrieved and entitled--aggrieved because entitled--and already convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the inevitability of its triumph. They can play victim and victor with a conviction and dexterity the subaltern can only imagine, making them formidable claimants on our allegiance and affection. Whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between, the conservative is, as Hugo Young said of Maggie Thatcher, one of us.

But how do they convince us that we are one of them? By making privilege democratic and democracy aristocratic. Every man, John Adams claimed, longs "to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired." To be praised, one must be seen, and the best way to be seen is to elevate oneself above one's circle. Even the American democrat, Adams reasoned, would rather rule over an inferior than dispossess a superior. His passion is for supremacy, not equality, and so long as he is assured an audience of lessers, he will be content with his lowly status:

Not only the poorest mechanic, but the man who lives upon common charity, nay the common beggars in the streets...court a set of admirers, and plume themselves on that superiority which they have, or fancy they have, over some others.... When a wretch could no longer attract the notice of a man, woman or child, he must be respectable in the eyes of his dog. "Who will love me then?" was the pathetic reply of one, who starved himself to feed his mastiff, to a charitable passenger who advised him to kill or sell the animal.

It took the American slaveholder to grasp the power of this insight. The best way to protect their class, the masters realized, was to democratize it. Make every man, or at least every white man, a master, and so invested would he be in his mastery that he'd work to keep all others in their place. The genius of the slaveholding class was that it was "not an exclusive aristocracy," wrote Daniel Hundley in Social Relations in Our Southern States (1860). "Every free white man in the whole Union has just as much right to become an Oligarch." To that end, Southern politicians attempted to pass legislation and provide tax breaks to ensure that every white man owned at least one slave.

Set aside for the moment the comparison of conservatives to Southern slaveowners--particularly ironic given the respective roles of the GOP and the Democrats as regards abolition--and there's an actual insight here. The Third Way/Ownership Society does in fact seek to create a universal aristocracy, or at least universalize independence and wealth. A system that afforded every American with an HSA, O'Neill account, education vouchers, private unemployment insurance, private SS account, etc., would render a society where most would be masters and none a slave. The Left, naturally, finds this prospect threatening because statism requires a vast constituency of dependents. One of the classic definitions of an aristocrat was someone who wielded political power for more than just himself--for his tenants, slaves, whatever--which is the sense in which aristocracy can be antidemocratic. Making people dependent on the state for their livelihood, so that you essentially control their vote, is the modern version of this antidemocratic problem.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 11, 2008 11:40 AM

"Reformers and radicals must convince the subordinated and disenfranchised that they have rights and power. Conservatives are different. They are aggrieved and entitled--aggrieved because entitled--and already convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the inevitability of its triumph."

These lines are so divorced from the reality of our universe that it's legitimately difficult to grasp what must be going on in the mind of someone who could write them. Taken in isolation, that third sentence perfectly describes leftism ("radicals and reformers" as he calls them in the first) for the last 220 years. And yet he's writing it about conservatism. Truly bizarre.

The "subordinated and disenfranchised" know quite well "that they have rights and power" and always have. However, they place the source & legitimacy of these rights in a place that leftists cannot tolerate. The rejection of leftist philosophy all across Europe by the poor unwashed masses led inevitably to the totalitarian nature of Marxism, and indeed all modern leftism.

Posted by: b at June 11, 2008 12:45 PM

Conservatives try to make every man a master, at least to his own self. Liberals/ progressives try to make every man a slave to the state. The state through which they, the progressives, are masters.

Posted by: ic at June 11, 2008 1:51 PM

Wow. That certainly was written in an annoying style.

Posted by: Benny at June 11, 2008 3:54 PM

Why would anyone want to own a slave? They're expensive, you are responsible for all upkeep, you got to watch out for rebellions and hire a lot of armed overseers, etc.

A hired servant is better; they will do what you ask to keep their place; if good you can promote him; if bad you can fire him. A willing follower is better on all points.

You find slavery promoted where work is considered beneath dignity or there was a severe labor shortage. Promote the dignity of all labor and you will not have slavery.

Posted by: Mikey at June 11, 2008 5:37 PM

The point of slavery was to integrate conquered peoples into your society rather than just killing them. Chattel slavery was stupid as well as evil.

Posted by: oj at June 11, 2008 8:48 PM

The integration didn't take very well.

Posted by: Mikey at June 12, 2008 7:31 AM

To the contrary, it worked extraordinarily well, as witness the easy spread of the Roman Empire and Islam.

Posted by: oj at June 12, 2008 8:56 AM