Friday, February 19, 2010

The Road To Hell...

Illusion and Reality

By David Rieff

In his history of Florence, the Renaissance historican Guicciardini admonished his readers not to mourn the fact that their city was in decline: “All cities decline,” he wrote. Rather, if it was justifiable regret they were after, they should instead mourn the fact that they “had the bad fortune to be born when their city was in decline.”

I am waiting for a mainstream American conservative commentator confronted by America’s decline to show similar maturity. Instead—with the admirable exception of some of the agrarian pessimists whose work can be found on Web sites like Front Porch Republic, some serious Christian conservatives like Rod Dreher, Patrick Deneen, and Daniel Larison who seem philosophically very much in the line of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, and a few economic determinists like Niall Ferguson—as far as I can tell, the American Right remains as wedded as ever to its view that if America is in decline, it is because—in the “highbrow” version most eloquently represented in the work of Robert Kagan—of a failure of nerve on the part of the (liberal) elites; or—in the “populist” version of the Palin’s, Bachmann’s, Limbaugh’s, and Beck’s—because these elites are profoundly anti-American and are either engineering or at the very least failing to stem the country’s decline, so that they can transform the country into the collectivist polity that they have always secretly favored.

When they think of collectivism, the country that the conservative mainstream usually has in mind is France, which is not only one of the most successful capitalist countries in the world, but a country that actually is still committed to maintaining its manufacturing base—something that those seeking to maintain America’s global preponderance might have thought integral to its continuation. This is testimony not just to the provincialism, but to the outlandish magical thinking in which the American Right now is entangled, like a dolphin trapped in the tuna net of an industrial fishing vessel.

But the populism of fear, as anyone who has read their Hofstadter (or even their Perry Miller) knows full well, is hardly a new phenomenon in America. Limbaugh is contemptible, but Father Coughlin was far, far worse, and more importantly, much more dangerous since his views were sympathetically received by many of the important plutocrats of the time. And Michele Bachmann or Jim DeMint, for all their goofy fulminations, wield little power by the standards of a Senator McCarthy or Congressman Ichord.

In reality, it is not the populist Right that is the novelty, but the policy intellectuals of the right-wing elite. In their writings, they seem to have manumitted themselves from both the tragic nature of reality—something one might have thought people who identify themselves as conservatives would have had more difficulty doing—and the inevitability of decline of all civilizations. Late in his life, the writer William Saroyan said that for the longest time he thought that he wouldn’t die, that “God would somehow make an exception in my case.” Those who believe the American century can be infinitely prolonged seem to be under a similar misapprehension. It is as if they had taken Ecclesiastes 1:4 to read not, “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever”, but rather “America’s preponderance abideth forever.” But it really doesn’t work that way, does it?

This is what makes all the harping of the conservative policy intellectuals on the Obama administration’s supposed failure of will to maintain American hegemony so strangely other-worldly. The material evidence may all go the other way, but that evidence seems to carry no weight. Look at the Right’s refusal to accept the central importance of America having become a debtor nation that is dependent—for the continuation of the current financial status quo so favorable to the United States—on continued massive Chinese investment in our bond market. That is, to the same China that these same conservative policy analysts reproach the Obama administration for not confronting. But somehow it is imagined you can play a zero-sum game with your principal creditor.

It would be one thing if the hawks on the Right were pushing as hard for raising taxes as they are for the long war against jihadism, or the need for the U.S. to continue as the world’s (in their eyes benevolent) hegemon. But they do not do this. Do they honestly believe these wars pay for themselves? The answer is probably not. What seems to me more likely is that they have become idolators of the will, assuming the overweening salience of Hegel’s famous contention that “Consciousness precedes Being.” That may be a useful club to have used against the Marxists, but today it leads to illusion, not clarity. For the will is really beside the point, if, by will, you mean some utopian presumption that what you want and what you think should happen trumps reality.

Jingoism, like war itself, will always be with us. But the actual words of the Victorian music hall song that gave birth to the term, are worth quoting here:

We don't want to fight but by Jingo if we do,
We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too

Memo to our modern idolators of force, exceptionalism, and the will: Follow the money. Debtor nations do not get to be global hegemons for very long, no matter how skilled their armed forces may be.

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