Wither the Republican party in the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses? The party mandarins are aghast at the success of Huckabee, and talk radio personalities are excoriating their own listeners, on the grounds that, by supporting Huckabee, they have ceased to actually vote conservatively. While I am not predisposed to political prognostication, I believe that it would be instructive to spend a few moments analyzing the background to this apoplectic reaction to moderate doses of quite possibly toothless - as I have argued previously - populism. The issues implicated in the controversy, though superficially insubstantial (Huckabee appears to be a compassionate conservative in the mould of Bush, his deviations from GOP orthodoxy are marginal matters of emphasis in most instances, and those rhetorical tropes which have drawn criticism are too slight to merit the weight of the opprobrium they have elicited.), have precipitated a tipping of hands on the part of the custodians of Republican orthodoxy.
Consider the following contributions to National Review's Symposium on the Iowa Caucuses:
According to the Club for Growth, Huckabee takes “profoundly anti-growth positions on taxes, spending, and government regulation.” For Huckabee to succeed where Robertson and Buchanan failed, one of two things must happen. Either he must mislead GOP voters into thinking that he is an economic conservative, or those voters must stop caring. Either way, a Huckabee victory would be very bad news for conservatism as we know it. (John J. Pitney, Jr.)
Huckabee is a fringe Republican, and does not represent the conservative movement on economic policy, domestic programs, law and order, and foreign policy. It is hard to imagine a candidate so out of step with most in the conservative movement assuming the stage in Minnesota in eight months as its leader. (Pat Toomey, of the Club for Growth)
I'm uninterested in dwelling on the relative strengths and degrees of influence of the various factions which collectively comprise the GOP; we all know that the social conservatives are the base of the party and that the Wall Street types provide the bulk of the financing. There's nothing either novel or earth-shattering about such an observation. Rather, it is the philosophical presuppositions of these judgments that hold all of the interest; there's no sense in gesticulating towards a social formation unless one is willing, subsequently, to determine what that formation means, as a discourse. And the discourse of the GOP establishment is profoundly confused, and mistakes its mystifications for enlightenment.
Indeed, that establishment labours under the burden of a tripartite confusion, a confusion that only deepens as the layers are peeled away. The first confusion arises from the fact that the party establishment still operates on the presupposition of a quite simplistic dualism of state and private sector; at times, this dualism, useful in certain respects, can assume manichean overtones. This dualism is a legacy of the Postwar conservative movement itself, conditioned by the "long, twilight struggle" against collectivism at home and abroad; specifically, it is a legacy of the fusionism which dominated - and still dominates, one supposes - movement conservatism, a marriage of convenience between a sort of libertarian economics and social/moral traditionalism, the slogan of which was always, "Libertarian means to traditionalist ends." The alliance was always fraught with peril, from the perspective of traditionalism, though it was not without a certain salience, for does not the expansion of the state, domestically, subvert community and family? Is this not manifest in the separation of families that Social Security, for example, has made possible? Did not the Great Society facilitate a rapid dissolution of familial structures in American urban areas? Examples could be multiplied, and yet the point would remain, unaltered: statism, socialism - whatever one wishes to call it - subverts the traditional orders upon which society itself is predicated. The fusionist claim, therefore, has been that a negative liberty - a freedom from certain types of government action - is a prerequisite of the flourishing of substantive human goods and virtues.
This is not a confusion; in fact, it is simply a truism, though, as in all such matters, contextualization and the details of implementation are crucial. No, the confusion here is that it is one thing to propose the liberation of American industriousness from certain constraints and regulations, to dismantle or constrain the growth of an American welfare state, and quite another to advocate the liberation of multinational corporations, which have no loyalty to the American people or the American nation of and for themselves, but manifest loyalty solely to various utilitarian measures of progress, from regulations and legal structures that might actually redound to the common good of Americans qua Americans. That is, it is one thing to propose the elimination of legislation which is itself injurious of substantive goods, and quite another to propose the elimination of legislation or regulation which might impede processes injurious to the common good.
The second layer of confusion implicit in all of this rhetoric is a sort of fallacy, the fallacy of 'anti-interventionism' or neutralism, according to which legislation, regulation, or even moral lectures delivered by statesmen, constitutes by definition interference in processes at once natural, autonomous, and self-regulating/sustaining. This notion is, in reality, both theoretically and historically, a product of a phase of Western history during which the dominant discourse involved attempts to discover and explicate the laws according to which various domains functioned in a sort of Newtonian, clockwork fashion. This was as much the history of political economy, with its Laws of Rent and the marginalist revolution, as it was the history of science. The application of this methodology to any particular domain was merely the invocation of the Western world's hegemonic mythos; any field of inquiry or human endeavour could be comprehended scientifically, positively, reduced to the outworking of a few simple laws, which could then be understood as operating autonomously - apart from any intervention, whether ongoing Divine intervention in physics, or ongoing human intervention in economic and political affairs.
Whatever the merits of such a methodology in the physical sciences, it is wholly inapplicable to the human realm, to the realm of reason, deliberation, choice, and action. Our very rational natures, despite our partial subjection to the operation of such subrational processes, elevate us above gross determination. In the case of political economy, the specific form assumed by the economic structures of any nation is, substantially, though never entirely, a product of the positive law. The natural law does not stipulate in exhaustive and tedious detail all of the facets and features of political economy as we experience it, and debate it; that is not the nature of the natural law. Rather, any determinate economic form is a product of the confluence of historical inheritance, positive deliberation, and, yes, chance. The intricate structures of law pertaining to contracts, corporate structure and governance, employment, and so forth, are contingent, not necessary, bare undifferentiated transcriptions of some eternal law; one does not derive such elaborate structures save by the mediation of history and reasoned deliberation. Economy is never, therefore, autonomous, but intrinsically political; the entirety of the system, its very integrity, is ultimately established, undergirded, and enforced by law, by action or abstention. It is incoherent to speak of banishing the government from some sphere of economic endeavour; the question always concerns the nature of government involvement, and thus, the relative balance of public and private powers by which we are governed, and by which or communities are ordered.
The notion that forbidding companies to outsource, for example, or merely scolding them for so doing, constitutes illicit interference on its face is not only incoherent, and does not merely beg countless questions of substantive valuation, but is an attempt to obfuscate, and thus to foreclose on entire realms of legitimate public discourse concerning the common good. And this leads to the third layer of confusion.
The language frequently employed to characterize and censure the 'populism' or 'protectionism' of candidates such as Huckabee is essentially that of an orthodoxy, an enforced norm of 'right-thinking'. However, it is not simply as a matter of discourse that such an orthodoxy constrains, as though it were a small matter of the bounds of the public conversation, of the deliberate sense of the people set at bounds; the orthodoxy also gradually constrains the observance of the forms and rituals of self-government. With so many aspects of our common lives now removed from the sphere of permissible discourse, the inexorable logic of globalization, advanced capitalism, is towards a convergence of economic norms, the legal norms which undergird them, and beyond that, well, the European Union stands as a cautionary illustration of the final cause of such seemingly modest harmonizations.
It is, however, insufficient to stop at this stage of an investigation. No social order obtains but that which is a reflection of the order or disorder of the soul of a people. And thus the peril of the present tendencies of our political economy is not simply that we shall witness the evanescence of our national sovereignty, though this is a fearful and terrible thing for any self-governing people, but that, in virtue of this constriction, the fundamental goods of human flourishing, the goods requisite to our common good, are increasingly determined, not by the deliberation of concerned parties through communal and other representative institutions, but by seemingly impersonal economic forces. These forces only appear impersonal on account of the innumerable mystifications, ranging from economic laws falsely so-called to doctrines of inevitability, within which the subject has been shrouded; in reality, the entirety of the system is a product of conscious deliberation, albeit in multiple, overlapping centers, often in tension with one another. The processes in question are doubly unrepresentative; sociologically and politically, by virtue of the constriction of the bounds of public discourse and the harmonization of norms; existentially, spiritually, we might say, by virtue of the very nature of the institutions which increasingly determine the ordering of our societies, institutions which are not, and cannot be, representative. At a minimum, they are incapable of re-presenting in the relevant senses.
Market institutions, at their finest, are essential to the continuation of human existence, the maintenance of human flourishing, since, under the conditions of finitude and scarcity, our lives would be miserable, beggarly, and short in the absence of mechanisms of cooperative exchange. Nonetheless, market institutions thus correspond to the animal in man, to his lower nature; they are transcribers of desire, mirrors of the acquisitive, appetitive, irrational aspects of the human constitution. To be governed by such faculties is, in the phraseology of St. Paul, to be governed by one's belly. To properly rule oneself, both individually and communally, is to employ one's rational faculties, not instrumentally, according to the dictates of modern philosophical anthropology, which would have it that this is the only real employment of reason, to discern and then propitiate autonomous desire, but to master the irrational, to discipline and chasten it, sublimating it towards higher, nobler ends. It is not that the lower and irrational have no place in the rightly ordered soul; they are manifestly necessary to the maintenance of our bodies, and they are rightly called good, when kept within licit measures; so also are the institutions and practices of the market, or exchange and commerce. Hence, the idea is not to denigrate them, but to discriminate between their licit employment and their illicit, excessive indulgence.
It is in this sense that, contrary to all of the marketologists so brilliantly lampooned by Thomas Frank in his One Market Under God, economic institutions cannot be truly representative because they do not re-present the highest rational faculties of man, either discursive or ethical, but merely image man's dependency and irrationality, as opposed to the rational and spiritual faculties by which, in Christian thought as in Platonic, he becomes what he is by nature, thus transcending the purely immanent requirements and passions of the physical. It is by reason that the world is founded and ordered, both above and below, and not by passion, simply, or mere brute will. For it to be the case, therefore, that our lives, individually and communally, are increasingly determined by institutions and practices which at best image the lower aspects of human nature, we must at some level abdicate our rationality, which is to say, our capacity for self-government.
At their worst, market institutions actively create, stimulate, and then exploit new desires, playing upon the irrational, passional aspect of man in order to sustain an illusion of a finite infinity, a limitless expansion of material plenitude and prosperity. Such a societal order is one in which things are in the saddle, and bridle and ride men; this, because such a society is merely a reflection of the disordered souls of men, an exemplification of the restless, ceaseless pursuit of an infinite satisfaction in a succession of temporal things. At worst, such a society abdicates responsibility to the technocrats and functionaries who administer the system, now beyond the comprehension of mere mortals; we are then governed by those who mediate our desires to us, in politics as in economy.
The rhetorical obfuscations of the Republican establishment are doubly unconservative, quite apart from the considerable problems with Huckabee's ostensible governing philosophy. They at once constrict the sphere of self-government, both as a discourse and as a practice, by facilitating the harmonization and integration of disparate societies and peoples - and the convergence of living standards under globalization, which we have discussed previously, is but a function of this process - and, by necessary implication, invert the right relationship of the faculties of the soul, predicating social order upon the acquisitive instinct and nilhilistically confusing the lower for the higher.
The value of Huckabee's candidacy is not to be found in the thing itself, but in the fact that, as Patrick Deneen observes in a post entitled Conserving Liberalism?, it has compelled the custodians of orthodoxy to disclose their ultimate allegiances:
Goldberg is a free-marketeer, small government (i.e., let the market do as it will), big national defense (i.e., U.S. should run the world in our best interest), secular-minded "conservative": i.e., there's not an actual conservative bone in his body. In "Old Europe" he would more accurately be called a liberal. What galls in this exchange is Goldberg's apparent Burkeanism which is a thin mask on his deeper commitment to the instabilities fostered by "free" markets and the preeminence that contemporary Republicans place on individual choice and thoroughgoing mobililty. The call to "just stand there" is a "conservative" defense of liberalism (i.e., "just stand there" means "let us be as free and mobile and individualistic as ever"); the call for "change" in several cases (Huckabee in particular) points in the direction of being a "revolutionary" defense of conservatism. This is the paradox and conundrum of contemporary American politics: the true conservative appears to be the revolutionary whereas the "conservative" is a liberal in wolf's clothing. I agree that the call for "change" is an empty cipher: what matters is whether that change would actually result in more stable families and communities; whether the invocation of religious belief is a call for self-governance under God's law; whether the critique of "corporations" (such as Edwards) understands that they are providing us with things that we don't have the good sense to avoid and eschew (Edwards's version of anti-corporatism lets us all off WAY too easily); whether the call to "make the oil of Saudi Arabia as worthless as their sand" is accompanied by calls for self-sacrifice and a reduction in our mobility and wealth; whether the call for smaller government is accompanied by an understanding that the government has already fostered a world in which such reduction would only redound to the assertion of ever more private power.
The exercise, that is to say, demonstrates that, in fact, something is the matter with Kansas, insofar as Kansas, metaphorically, continues to acquiesce in what's wrong with Manhattan and Washington, and a thousand other places. What is the matter with Kansas - or Iowa, for that matter - has nothing to do with the indictment leveled by a peevish Quin Hillyer:
One other thing: It also shows that the American people have no idea how good their lives are. The strong response to economic grievance-mongering shows that people who are incredibly wealthy by every historical standard are somehow convinced they are barely making ends meet -- barely making ends meet while their families have two cars, three TVs, four cell phones, and untold numbers of other gadgets in homes they themselves own. There is a word for this: spoiled. Huckabee and Obama are smart enough to appeal to the spoiled Americans who have no idea what real hardship is.
For those Americans who respond to the rhetoric of a Huckabee, or an Edwards, or, in the 1990s, a Perot or Buchanan, this is not a matter of mere stuff, of the things that could easily be discarded were survival at stake, but of the instabilities, the ceaseless 'churn' created by globalization, economically, demographically, and politically, which threatens the very stabilities without which human beings cannot truly flourish. Such supercilious "let them sacrifice their mobile phones and microwaves" sentiments miss, and that utterly and without compensatory merit, the point of populist sentiments, which at their best do not concern the quantities of stuff that we may own, but rather the quality and character of such lives, of the virtues by which they are lived, and the stability within which things can be possessed and used. People respond to such rhetoric not so much because they have material things in mind, but because their communities, ways of life, and the circumstances upon which their families depend are threatened, remorselessly, by globalization in all of its facets; they may witness the disappearance of their employments, the alteration, beyond all recognition, of the character of their communities, under the combined forces of 'economic progress' and demography (read: immigration).
To return to the first layer of confusion, that of a simplistic reductionism of statism and private enterprise and the fusionism of orthodox conservatism, what American conservatism seeks to conserve, as Deneen observes, is merely liberalism, which itself entails restlessness, mobility, the decentering of authorities; in fine, deracination. In mistaking liberalism for the right ordering of the soul and society, if only implicitly, too much of American conservatism has, in fact, presupposed of the substantive goods of flourishing - family, community, morality, etc. - what it presupposes of political economy, namely, that they are autonomous and self-sustaining, and can obtain regardless of the social environment within which they must be practiced and cultivated. In reality, however, the negative liberty sought by fusionism, inspired by its libertarian precedents, as a continuation and celebration of the liberal heritage, has only served to further destabilize those substantive goods, and the positive liberties that they instantiate. Globalization and its discontents are merely the manifestations of liberalism's transcendence of certain specific historical and cultural forms; the apotheosis of liberalism, now that the antiquated carapace of nation and community can be cast aside safely. However, this confusion concerning the determinants of positive liberties, and the creation of the fusionist conservatism - liberalism, essentially - that Jonah Goldberg now strives to defend with weak admonitions to 'do nothing', never would have come into existence absent the mismeasurement of man, the neglect of his rational and moral nature, and the inversion of the right ordering of his faculties. Some may raise no objections to a conservatism that defends the notion of a society predicated upon pleonexia, more-having-ness; but a populism which, however haltingly and inadequately, suggests that something momentous is amiss in such a society - as Christopher Lasch and Wendell Berry have sought to remind us - will raise objections, and indeed must.