The objective of any social critic - a category encompassing all those writing about the intellectual life of a nation - must be, ought to be, to do justice to the thought of his subjects, while simultaneously situating them in their intellectual environs; the critic must convey the unique contributions and tenor of his subjects' work, but must also locate them in broader conversations, controversies, and discourses. The critic should also mediate between worlds, which is to say that he should translate discourses, often highly specialized, into the language of the generalist, thereby diffusing knowledge. With that in mind, one of the finest works of the genre is assuredly George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For?. To be certain, Scialabba is a man of the left, and certain of his analyses and arguments might infuriate conservatives; but the portrayals are almost always deft, judicious, penetrating, and delivered in fine prose, and conservatives should be willing to grapple with the works of the left, because actually-existing American conservatism labours under its own tensions, which tensions are often best perceived by outsiders. To eschew the hard criticisms is to wallow in the darkness of the cave, mistaking the shadow-play of political conflict for the deeper truths of the age - or the movement.
The significance of conservatism Scialabba proposes to explore in an essay on W.F. Buckley, on the occasion of John Judis' biography, published in 2001. About the biography, I cannot offer comment, as I have not read it; I will thus confine myself to Scialabba, on Buckley and conservatism. Here is how the essay commences:
A specter is haunting conservatism, and always has. "All we can do," wrote Burke, "and that human wisdom can do, is to provide that change shall proceed by insensible degrees," In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk expounded Burke's deepest fear: "Men's appetites are voracious and sanguinary, Burke knew; they are restrained by this collective and immemorial wisdom we call prejudice, tradition, customary morality.... Whenever the crust of prejudice and prescription is perforated at any point, flames shoot up from beneath, and terrible danger impends that the crack may widen, even to the annihilation of civilization. If men are discharged of reverence for ancient usage, they will treat this world, almost certainly, as if it were their private property, to be consumed for their sensual gratification; and thus they will destroy in their lust for enjoyment the property of future generations, and indeed their very own."
In the generations after Burke's the "crust of prejudice" was shattered, a process described in The Communist Manifesto in language whose rhetorical power equals - and whose tropes strikingly parallel - Burke's own. That capitalism is subversive of "prejudice, tradition, customary morality" is something thoughtful conservatives have generally understood and honest conservatives generally admitted. William F. Buckley has done neither, a failure that is at the center of gravity of his career and an important part of John Judis's new biography.
It is perpetuation of privilege that Scialabba perceives at the core of actually-existing American conservatism. Let us, bearing in mind Scialabba's opening paragraphs, consider how Buckley received the philosophy of Oakeshott:
... Buckley praised Oakeshott's writings as "trenchant... exhilerating... sublime... the finest distillate I know of traditional conservatism" and endorsed his argument that "the discovery of the individual was the pre-eminent fact of modern European history" and "conservatism... is the politics of the individual."
It's remarkable that Buckley failed to notice the implications of Oakeshott's argument. According to Oakeshott, European individuality began to emerge in the fourteenth century "as a consequence of the collapse of a closely integrated manner of living." For the first time, "men examined themselves and were not dismayed by their own lack of perfection." Gradually but inexorably, "the old certainties of belief, of occupation, and of status were being dissolved." By the middle of the sixteenth century, "not all of the severity of the Calvinist regime in Geneva was sufficient to quell the impulse to think and behave as an independent individual. The disposition to regard a high degree of individuality in conduct and belief as the condition proper to mankind and as the main ingredient of human 'happiness' had established itself: a "moral revolution" that appears in retrospect as "the event of supreme and seminal importance in modern European history."
Buckley's fervent and wholly orthodox Catholicism is his deepest commitment, his essential identity, as he has often made clear. Did he really not understand that Oakeshott is describing the decline of religious orthodoxy as a precondition for the emergence of individuality? In its terms and stages, Oakeshott's account virtually is the classical liberal account of modernity: emancipation from communal faith and customary morality, defiance of temporal and spiritual authority, the desacralization or "disenchantment" of the world. What could Buckley have supposed was meant by "the old certainties of belief" that were being "dissolved", or by Oakeshott's reference to the new individualism's "conflict with [sixteenth century] moral sentiment, still fixed in its loyalty to the morality of communal ties?
I dilate thus not because I am contrary, or perverse; nor do I drag these matters before the reader because they are currently being hashed over, as by Sam Tanenhaus, but because they have been with conservatism from its beginnings, its genesis from a welter of different narratives, traditions, and discourses. The Southern conservatives of I'll Take My Stand may have been hostile towards the New Deal state and its works and pomps, but they are unsparing in their condemnation of capitalism, and its regimentation, economism, and destruction of communal life. Eric Voegelin maintained a critical distance from political conservatism in America, not merely because we wished to retain the detachment of the political scientist, but because he saw that conservatism as merely the old liberalism, now in rebellion against new, more radical revolutionary deformations of order; his classically-based view of politics as rooted in the order of being, and his critique of Locke's theoretical account of capitalist accumulation as a release of immoderate passions, leave no doubt that Voegelin could not affirm capitalist modernity as the true order of being. The Voegelinian credo, "Don't immanentize the eschaton!" applies as much to the ideologues of capitalism as it does to the Marxism of the mid-century left. James Burnham, in The Managerial Revolution, explored the immanent development of capitalist forms of organization which at once subverted earlier notions of proprietorship, and produced a symbiosis between capitalist organizations and their superficially apparent opposites. Decentralists of the right, even today, wonder about the possibility for humane and civilized lives under the dominion of globalized capital. But it is perhaps best to advert to Whittaker Chambers, who saw most deeply the spiritual crisis of the age, how it issued in the revolutionary movement of communism, of which he had been a part, and how capitalism was no conservative counterforce:
As I have said ad nauseum, I hold capitalism to be profoundly anticonservative. I have met capitalists who thought otherwise; would, in fact, be outraged by such a statement. I have concluded that they knew their craft extremely well, but not its implications; and that what they supposed to be a Conservative Position was chiefly a rationalization rooted in worry. The result is the oddest contradiction in terms. But, then, the world is full of august contradictions.
In exploring these questions, it is just to make inquiries as to what, precisely, conservatives propose to conserve. The reflective conservative will respond, or at least should, I would hope, that conservatives propose to conserve multifarious goods, not all of which can be conserved simultaneously; that conservatism is a multi-splendored thing, sometimes multi-squalored; that conservatism, perhaps, just is this continuing conversation over the meaning of civilization. Such answers probably wouldn't satisfy Scialabba. After quoting Buckley's encomium, in Up from Liberalism, to economic freedom as the highest and most precious temporal freedom, and reproaching Buckley with the hardships imposed by industrial capitalism, which were only mitigated by the social welfare legislation most conservatives profess to despise; and after quoting Buckley's 1970 denial, from the famous Playboy interview, that the United States had ever dominated or imperialized foreign nations, to which he counterposes a list of nations subjected to American-backed or organized coups and juntas, Scialabba proposes his own answer - which I have already hinted at: '"If one disbelieves their answer - "traditional morality and individual freedoms" - the most plausible remaining answer is "privilege."' It would be easy to denounce this, toss aside Scialabba's book - or never buy it to begin with - and mutter about the incorrigibility of the left, its obduracy in error, and many other such things, some of them perhaps profane. Surely, at the least, one might qualify this judgment, allowing that this has been the unintended consequence of both intramural conservative politicking, the balance of conservative powers, and the operations of conservatism in the political arena. How can a movement so divided, so fissiparous, be said to have a common purpose, let alone this one? But Scialabba is not so ungenerous after all: "And although that is a less restrictive, and even a less discreditable, purpose than it may sound, it is unworthy of the decent, intelligent man with whom we spend time in Patron Saint of the Conservatives" (Emphasis mine.) Or, as we might elaborate, there are qualitative differences between forms or modes of privilege.
Not on Scialabba's account, then, but because it is privilege he identifies as the core of actually-existing conservatism, should we take up these questions. The subject of privilege bears a resemblance to a perennial conservative concern, for hierarchy and excellence, without which civilization perishes; but it is too much to identify it as the object of conservatism, not least as the specific form of privilege Scialabba condemns, and not out of the welter of divergent conservatisms. A clue as to where he goes astray may be found towards the conclusion of the essay, where he ties together the threads, working towards that quasi-indictment; we have already referenced the passage. In responding to Buckley's declaration, in the Playboy interview, that he couldn't think of any country the US had dominated, Scialabba writes:
By 1970, the United States bore substantial responsibility for large-scale massacres in Indonesia, Guatemala, and El Salvador; for intense repression, often accompanied by torture, in Iran, Paraguay, Nicaragua, and Brazil; and for horrifying poverty in Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the Philippines. Buckley's apparent assumption is that preventing a government not hospitable to American economic penetration (the operative definition of Third World "communism") justifies any quantity of suffering inflicted on a country's population. (1)
Scialabba has made his judgment as to what lay behind these foreign policy misadventures, even crimes. It would be nearer the truth to state that American foreign policy is complicated in its motivations, blind to complexity abroad, and thus tragic; in other words, Scialabba is not really entitled to categorical reductionisms of this sort, especially when he has stumbled over one complicating factor, namely, communism.
I don't want to belabour this point, so suffice it to state that anticommunism was perhaps the single unifying force on the American right during the period in question, as well as the principal - though not sole - rubric for American foreign policy generally. All manner of ideas, causes, and ambitions, both on the right more narrowly, and throughout the nation more broadly, were yoked to, associated with, fitted around anticommunism; this process, as one would expect, was accompanied by varying admixtures of sincerity and opportunism. If, however, anticommunism was the pre-eminent right-wing cause of the epoch - which it was - might it not be that that cause coloured judgments of foreign policy on the right; that the self-understanding of conservatives with regard to particular interventions was not of protecting economic interests, but of standing as a bulwark against communism? - whatever the actual complexities of the policies in operation? This is perhaps the least we could say. Even were we to adopt the harshest posture of condemnation, along with Scialabba, does not the factor of communism place the policy of this era in a better light than that in which the democratization fetish of recent decades basks? I should think so. The opposition to communism was sincere, and warranted, even if it was not the only thing present in the minds of its architects.
Nevertheless, that complexity remains; the letters of history are false, lest they be written in blood. It does us nothing good to portray the era in too stark a manichean fashion; even just causes contain discrete injustices. Let's look at one instance of such complexity: Guatemala, 1954:
In 1954, Arévalo's freely elected Guatemalan successor, Jacobo Arbenz, was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état. He considered himself a socialist. After his land reform, the CIA intervened because it feared that a socialist government would become a Soviet beachhead in the Western Hemisphere. Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was installed as president in 1954 and ruled until he was assassinated by a member of his personal guard in 1957. Substantial evidence points to the role of the American United Fruit Company as instrumental in this coup, as the land reforms of Jacobo Arbenz were threatening the company's interests in Guatemala and it had several direct ties to the White House and the CIA. (2)
Manifestly, the struggle against global communism was the context for this American intervention; moreover, it is impossible to gainsay the presence of economic considerations, given the connection of the intervention to land reform in Guatemala - it would torture credulity and logic to imagine that American policymakers were concerned about the implications of the reforms, but not the reforms themselves. It is also worth observing that the intervention was pre-emptive.
That prompts the further questions: was the policy communist?; and was Arbenz a communist?
Let's address the latter question first. A perusal of the Wikipedia entry for Arbenz discloses a wealth of unflattering details, even incriminating ones, such as his penchant for Marxist literature, the presence of communists in his political circles, sojourns in Moscow and Castroite Cuba, and so forth. Surely suggestive, at least, in the case of those details knowable prior to the coup, and confirmatory, in the case of those revealed subsequently. However, they do not seem quite dispositive. We must address the former question, concerning the reform itself:
Árbenz continued Arévalo's reform agenda and, in June 1952, his government enacted an agrarian reform program. The agrarian reform law (decree 900) gave the government power to expropriate only uncultivated portions of large plantations. Estates of up to 670 acres (2.7 km2) were exempted if at least two thirds of the land was cultivated; also exempt were lands that had a slope of more than 30 degrees (a significant exemption in mountainous Guatemala). The land was then allocated to individual families. Owners of expropriated land were compensated according to the worth of the land claimed in May 1952 tax assessments. Land was paid for in twenty-five year bonds with a 3 percent interest rate. Arbenz himself, a landowner through his wife, gave up 1,700 acres (7 km2) of his own land in the land reform program.
The policy itself, frankly speaking, was not communist unless one's operative definition of communism was "anything disruptive of existing economic arrangements, even at the margins". The law exempted many properties, even those with large uncultivated portions, portions supporting no-one, and generating no economic value; it compensated, at assessed values, owners for lands subject to the reform; Arbenz himself relinquished property; and the object of the policy was not to expropriate and dispossess, as if to destroy property, but to distribute unused land to landless, miserable peasants bereft of the ability to provision themselves adequately. Functionally, it was a sort of eminent domain claim, the public purpose being the redress of a structural defect in the political economy of Guatemala. Of course there were other motivations, among them the construction of a durable political coalition. But was it obviously and incontrovertibly communist, and threatening as such? Not really. Not at all, actually. Were there reasons to suspect, or fear, that it might, at some time in the future, become threatening? Certainly. (3) That is the nature of case, as it is of all politico-economic reforms, whether they have left-wing or right-wing valences; such programmes of reform can always spin out of control, generating unintended or undesirable consequences. Was it a legitimate concern of the US government in 1954? In the context of the Soviet threat, as it was then understood, yes; to what degree it was a legitimate concern is another matter altogether: an agrarian land-reform undertaken by a socialist is a pretty thin basis for the subversion of a foreign government, and is certainly not the 'imminent peril' of the just war schema.
If the land-reform, considered in itself, was not communist, what else might be said of it? Conservatives tend towards Richard Weaver's metaphysical view of property, of property as the last metaphysical right, a sanctuary from "the Omnipotent State" and "relativists from the social sciences who wish to bring everyone under secular group control" - this, without quite being conscious of the tendency. There are solid reasons, however, for thinking Weaver's construction somewhat overstated; it captures a sense of the "thisness" of property, of the impress of the personality into a man's works; but it is also, in its reaction against the collectivist threats of the time, negative, as if to say that property is the sphere of the not-State, a domain where the State cannot tread. Weaver's formulation is intimately related to the political temper of the times, informed by the consciousness of the Soviet threat abroad, and creeping managerialism at home. Slight exaggerations are understandable in such circumstances. But the bulwark view of property, as a negative or limiting concept, is easily taken to imply something untrue, namely, that property is at once a pre-social thing, anterior to law and custom, and a plenary power for its possessor. The two notions imply one another; if property is pre-social, pre-political, then it exists outside the only spheres which might regulate its usage, thus becoming a plenary power; if it is such a power, then the social world is something posited against it, as a threat to it. In point of fact, however, property exists in a nexus of social and political relations; it always has, always does, and always will. Such relations constitute the form of property for any given society, which forms obviously vary widely; those relations are at once constituted and defended by law, and it is absurd to suppose that law defends its inability to be law with respect to property, or anything else.
Robert Preston, in an essay entitled, The Relation of Intellect and Will in the Thought of Richard Weaver, included in the new volume, Dilemmas of American Conservatism (4), contrasts Weaver's doctrine with the natural law view of Walter Lippmann:
Lippmann approaches the issue of private property from a natural law perspective. He tries to show that the natural law is the best theoretical foundation for a system of private property. First of all, private property is not a natural right: it is a legal right granted by the state to achieve the ends of society. All property belongs to humankind, not to any individual. Lippmann writes: "Because the legal owner enjoys the use of a limited necessity belonging to all men he cannot be the sovereign lord of his possessions. He is not entitled to exercise his absolute and therefore arbitrary will. He owes duties that correspond with his rights. His ownership is a grant by the laws to achieve not his private purposes but the common social purpose."
This formulation, as well, has its infelicities. We might better state that the earth and its fullness are given to mankind for the provisioning of their needs and the flourishing of their faculties; that is, for the attainment of the goods proper to man. Before property is an individual right, it is a common good, one not necessarily held collectively, but existing for the benefit of the whole; any historically contingent system of property relations mediates this common good and is conditioned by it, such that property is not an absolute, but exists relative to the good. Property exists for man's flourishing, and not man for property's sovereign claims; it is the servant of man, and not his master. Still less is arbitrary will, working through property, to be the master of other men. This is scarcely to state that the claims of property are weak, by the nature of the case; while those claims cannot be unconditioned, they are nonetheless indispensible, for while the forms of property vary, any such form mediates good to those who live under it, and is the precondition of human flourishing. Thus, while the specific form of property in any society is a matter of prudential judgment, of adequating a system of property to the cultural norms of a people, and securing human goods (partially by ensuring broad participation in the forms of property) as a people understand them, it is a fearful thing to modify these forms, for these very reasons. An unwise or imprudent alteration can unravel at least part of a whole scheme of goods, threatening evils greater than those the alteration was intended to rectify - even when those anterior evils were evil indeed.
So, what does this mean for the Guatemalan land-reform of the early 1950s? Nothing more, and nothing less, than that it, like any such reform, might or might not have been justifiable and prudent. It cannot be categorically forbidden, because genuine human goods can be obscured or destroyed by inequitable social systems; neither can it become an unquestioned imperative, even where genuine evils obtain, owing to the complexity of circumstances, and tenuousness of so much that is good in civilized order. We glimpse here, not the terrible simplification of communism, but the fearful burden of statesmanship, and the inescapable necessity of judgment.
Where, then, does this leave us? How will we answer the questions thus brought forward, not least the one at the head of this exploration? First, we must conclude that Scialabba's judgment on conservatism is too severe; he endeavoured to get at the essence of the thing by examining Buckley, but omitted the factor of anticommunism, which was a more vital and creditable thing than mere defense of privilege. Second, anticommunism was not untainted by error, even injustice in its policies; it sometimes conflated reformism with revolution, truckled with repulsive juntas, and mingled with dishonourable motives. It was a just cause, but a human one; its proponents made their mistakes, and perhaps were bound to make them, being human.
Finally - conservatism, of the actually-existing American variety. Human errors are not unmediated issues from the nature of the species, but products of a wealth of contingencies, which make possible the errors of any epoch. Here, we must observe a sequence of beginnings. Conservatism, prior to the national traumas of the Great Depression, and the momentous years of the New Deal, when the power of business was supplanted, to some degree, by the power of the political, was - excerpting repulsive apologies for Social Darwinism and plutocrats, such as those of William Sumner - an elite, literary phenomenon, primarily articulated in opposition to the emerging mass culture. Strands of conservatism also deplored the centralizing tendencies of industrialism, and argued for the preservation of agrarian, human-scale societies. The New Deal, however, catalyzed a political revolution of sorts, and not just in Washington, but among rightists, who feared that transition from "the business of America being business" to the centrality of the political, and who likened that transition to unpleasant and sanguinary ideologies. That catalyst was insufficient, though, to establish a movement, at least not a movement capable of attaining and holding power, employing it to reshape the politico-economic order. And it is with this that, following the Second World War, and the emergence of the Soviet threat, we pick up the story of modern conservatism, to which Buckley was so integral. That conservatism fused the traditionalist strand hostile to mass culture, the strand skeptical of, or hostile towards the post-New Deal order, and anticommunism; operationally, the unifying passion was anticommunism, but much of the funding came from the second faction. This very fusion - fusionism? - led to an ideologization of conservatism, and a reshaping of the American ideology; the long, twilight struggle against communism saw conservatism slowly slouching into ideological modes of thought and definition, and witnessed the American order itself assuming some of the vices, of reductionism, dogmatism, and regimentation, of the Soviet system. Capitalism became an ideology, and more absurdly, an ideology supposed to be conservative, whereas capitalism is merely a different form, a more bearable form - of the Revolution. And then, communism imploded, from its own internal contradictions, its inherent impossibility, external pressures, and, I should say, because of the sanctity and courage of a Polish Pope; and with this implosion, the unifying passion of conservatism vanished. Conservatives, more so now than at any time in the past, cannot define what it is that they propose to conserve; what, that is to say, makes them conservative. As of this writing, what defines them is the fact of opposition.
What is American conservatism? Conservatives are still wrangling over that very question, engaging their political adversaries without a clear answer, and coasting on the legacy of their past, ever drifting.