Digested Read: Talking To My Daughter About The Economy, by Yanis Varoufakis

This is a “Midrash“, gloss, or “digested read” of Varoufakis’s book, not a critical analysis or a review. As such it presents the author’s arguments as he makes them, and does not attempt an evaluation. I do provide review the book over on my blog, however.

1 Why So Much Inequality?

The book begins with a simple, childish question, one that any daughter could ask of her father: why is there so much inequality in the world? Some babies are given special status-projecting clothes purchased from a boutique baby store, while a vast many others are wrapped in rags—how is this so? To answer this question, Varoufakis has to describe to his daughter how capitalism works, how it differs from all other economic systems before it, and this requires him to (schematically, as this is a very short, non-scholarly, but still very intelligent book) first discuss how and from where capitalism evolved. Capitalism has a history, then—one never broached in my economics class, and I’d wager, absent from many university economics departments as well.

The first historical moment that Varoufakis visits is 12,000 years ago, when humanity was first compelled by relative scarcity to first cultivate land(in locations where “farming took hold where humans would have perished otherwise” (18), —and to thereby produce its first economic “surpluses”, which cannot exist without a society built upon agriculture. Surpluses are those “extra bit[s] that allow for accumulation and future use – for example, wheat saved for a ‘rainy day’.” This innovation, along with that of writing, invented in Mesopotamia so that farmers possessed records of how much of their own grain was stored in the common granary (19), allowed for the first accounting records to be kept involving debts incurred between producers and the state, which in turn gave rise to the first forms of currency(20), and thus to the first markets.

2 The Birth of the Market Society

The author is at pains, however, to distinguish between “societies with markets” and “market society”(36), between, pre-capitalist economic formations, in other words, and the capitalist variety. Market societies (such as our own) are marked by “the commodification of everything”(31), by the absolute necessity of gaining one’s subsistence from market activity. This is to mark it starkly off from the feudal societies which preceded our own, in which peasants had direct access to the land in order to maintain themselves (in economic terms, to “reproduce” themselves, and to “reproduce the means of production”, to sustain themselves so that they might live to farm another day, in other words). Feudal lords took taxes from them, but no one paid these peasants wages for working. Varoufakis’s illustrative story for this kind of society is that of the ancient Greek world of the Iliad and the Odyssey, in which the word oikonomia (from which we derive the word “economy”) means only the rules or “laws of running, or managing, a household”, the oikos (32). In such a world, the market (the agora) surely exists, and people obviously exchange goods in them, but they do not permeate all of society: there is no “agoranomy” or rules by which markets are run (34). Rather, in the world of Achilles and Agamemnon, of Ajax and Odysseus, non-economic (or supra-economic) values were the those that guided individual and civic life. Honour and glory reigned supreme, as evidenced in Ajax’s suicide when Odysseus was chosen to wear the fallen Achilles’ armour, whose worth was not measured in gold coins but in merit on the battlefield. Of course, matters of the accumulation of material wealth guided all of these soldiers, but the author’s metaphorical point here is that the market in pre-capitalist societies was not the sole determiner of value. That would arrive with “market society”, in the “Great Transformation” (a term borrowed from Karl Polanyi) that brought us capitalism.

Several ingredients combined in the early renaissance/late middle ages to provide the base or roux from which the capitalist stew could be brought to a boil (OK, out of metaphorical steam here). Improved shipbuilding technologies allowed the birth of the first truly global arbitrage (buying low in one location and selling dear in another), with a trade in wool between English, Dutch and Italian seafarers with merchants in China, Japan and India (for silk, arms and then spices, respectively)(37). This then allowed the wealth of the merchant class to threaten the supremacy of the English landed aristocracy, some of which responded by becoming merchants themselves, enclosing their agricultural lands and kicking the peasants off of them so that more sheep could be raised to sell on the global market. Add to this the vast profits returning to Europe from slave sugar cane colonies in the Caribbean, and you have a hearty stew simmering indeed….

What happened next (in rural south-eastern England) would change history forever: evicted serfs became the first wage labourers selling their bodies on the open market in order to survive. Land also gained a market value for the first time, based upon its agricultural capacity. Landowners, in competition with each other to sell wool to the seafaring merchants, themselves put pressure on their tenants, on former peasants who now rented land from the nobles and who had to make the land more and more productive or risk losing their tenancy. Profit was becoming not merely the desired outcome of economic activity, but the driving force behind it: not even the aristocratic landlords could exist outside of its imperatives. And the drive profit necessarily involves debt in a curious way, and this brings us to Varoufakis’s next literary metaphor: Faust’s contract with Mephistopheles in Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus.

3 The Marriage of Debt and Profit

“People,” writes Varoufakis,

have always created debts. When one neighbour helps another out in a moment of need, the latter expresses his thanks, saying, ‘I owe you one.’ Without having to sign a contract, both of them recognize that in due course the good deed will be reciprocated, settling their moral debt. But this kind of solidarity is different from debt as we understand it today in two ways: first, because of the contract, and second, because of something called interest. A contract turns an informal agreement such as ‘Lend me a hand today, and I’ll lend you a hand tomorrow’ into a legal obligation with specific terms that take the form of exchange values, often but not always expressed in money. Within that contract, known as a loan agreement, it is most often the case that whoever receives the loan (the debtor) will eventually pay the person giving the loan (the creditor) something extra in addition to repayment of the loan itself, usually more money.(45)

The Faust/Mephistopheles story is so illustrative because of the nature of contracts: in economic theory, each actor freely chooses to enter the contract, which is legally enforced by the state. In Faustus, Marlowe’s 16C devil, tired of dragging reluctant sinners to hell, desires

to snare a far greater prize: a good person who freely chooses their eternal torment. He does so by and fair agreement. As the clock marches second by second to midnight at the end of Faustus’ twenty-four years of bliss, the doctor naturally sinks deeper and deeper into despair and regret at the contract he had signed, realizing the terrible ‘interest’ he must pay.(46)

This reflects the very real anxiety Marlowe’s audience was feeling as traditional bonds gave way to market society in the 16C, when tenant farmers, those reluctant first businessmen

needed some money to begin with – to pay wages, get seeds and of course pay their rent to the lord – before they had produced any goods. As the former peasant turned entrepreneur never had enough money to pay for all this before his wool crop was sold, he had to borrow. Who lent him the money? Very often it was the lord himself, or local loan sharks, who then charged him interest. At any rate, debt came first. (48)

Debt came first, and drives the entrepreneur who has struck his Faustian bargain with his creditors—and with the future profits his future self may or may not accrue from his efforts.

This process, of borrowing from the future to meet the needs of today, is what really brought about the great changes of the industrial revolution: the need to compete drove investment in new technologies such as James Watt’s steam engine, and not the other way around:

Whoever could sell at the lowest price would attract the most clients. Whoever paid their hired workers the least would stand to gain the most. And whoever could increase the productivity of their labour fastest would win both races at the same time. New technology could and entrepreneurs had every incentive to take it up. This is more or less how inventions like James Watt’s steam engine, which transformed workshops into factories, first came to be used. Of course, the technology came at a price. To buy it, very often more money had to be borrowed. With additional debt came greater potential for profit but also a faster route to ruin should things go wrong. As the entrepreneurs’ debts, profits and angst grew and grew, the competition between them became fiercer and fiercer. They had to pay their workers as little as possible, lest they end up bankrupt. Incredible new wealth thus grew side by side with burgeoning debt and deepening poverty. While the rich got richer, the bankrupt were ushered into the hell of the workhouse, and masses of workers faced ever harsher working conditions. (50)

4 The Black Magic of Banking

Varoufakis deploys John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath to explain a key component of a “healthy” capitalism: the need to “recycle” of surpluses back into the economy. Wages must be spent and profits must be reinvested in the production of goods, must be kept moving through the economy to keep it turning over, to continue to generate both wages for workers and profits for capitalists. If either workers cannot afford to buy, or capitalists cannot afford to invest in new and more competitive ways of producing things, the economy stalls. And when this happens, it is the poor and not the wealthy who suffer, which is why Varoufakis uses Steinbeck’s novel as an illustrative example of what the wealthy, those most insulated from capitalism’s periodic and violent mood swings, would prefer not to think too closely about:

In the novel’s twenty-fifth chapter Steinbeck tells the story of how, while millions were hungry, tons of potatoes were thrown into a river and crates of oranges were sprayed with kerosene in order to make them inedible. Instead of recycling, there was wanton destruction. It is at this point in the book that the author famously laments that, despite our ability to bring food from the earth, we are incapable of creating a system in which the hungry can be fed. This failure ‘hangs over the State like a great sorrow’, Steinbeck writes, while the anger of those who lack food grows like grapes on the vine: ‘In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.’ How could any of this happen? The answer lies in the way that market societies can very suddenly lose their capacity to recycle. And at the heart of that recycling failure, you will, if you look closely, recognize a familiar figure: the banker.(54)

For the banker is he who has, under capitalism, normalized the once-sinful practice of usury, of charging interest for advancing loans to clients. In making such loans, bankers are in effect borrowing from the future: by advancing credit to a business (by allowing businesses to go into debt to him), a banker creates money that really does not exist in the present. They create liabilities for their borrowers based upon nothing more than a new entry in the “credit” column of their ledger, and make their profits when the borrower pays them back in actually-existing money, plus interest. The more times they repeat this process, the more money they make, leveraging the money that depositors have entrusted to them to make loans at many multiples of what their vaults actually have on hand. The only thing they have to worry about is a conjunction of two fairly rare but real possibilities: that, simultaneously, many of their borrowers cannot pay them, and many of their depositors want to take their money out of the bank. When everyone’s beliefs about the future change from positive to negative, the economy crashes, and the spells by which the bankers conjured up money out of thin air no longer work their “black magic” (58). For if “there can be no profit without debt” and “without profit there is no surplus”, there can also be no cycle of increasing wealth and profit that is not accompanied by “crashes and crises” (59). Crisis is backed into the logic of capitalism, and the “dizzying doom spiral” that his leads to can only be ended by state intervention (60). State central banks end crises by creating money in very much the same way that commercial banks do, “out of thin air” (61). They do this not to make profits themselves, but to rescue troubled banks so that they can themselves lubricate the seized financial machinery of the profit-making wider economy—and to also generate trust in the wider public by guaranteeing the value of their deposits with the bankers (62). And while this dual role, of lender of last resort and guarantor of civilian assets, might in theory give the central bank incredible power over bankers, to in theory reign in their excessive lending practices, in reality, commercial bankers have always proven to be one step ahead of central bankers, politicians and regulators: the vast wealth of private bankers means that their influence over government policy, and over the candidacies of elected officials themselves, also becomes outsized (63). They then literally become “too big to fail”, and they take on incredibly outsized risks knowing that the government will always come to their rescue in their time of need, so as to not put the entire economy at even greater risk.

What governments do to keep the gravity-defying actions of private bankers is issue public debt to pay for it all: they sell government bonds to investors, who will always buy them except in times of deep and wide-spread financial panic, as governments can almost always be counted upon to pay interest on the bonds, unlike private borrowers. So governments rescue troubled bankers by printing money to lend to those bankers so that the bankers can by the bonds issued by the government! Public debt is thus what makes the capitalist economy even seemingly viable (and thus, in this world of abracadabra, this means actually viable!), and yet government debt gets a bad rep in the media and thus with the wider public:

Yet, watching television, listening to politicians worry themselves sick over the size of the national debt, making all sorts of promises to rein it in, you might be fooled into thinking that government debt – or public debt, as it is known – is an awful thing, something like the smallpox virus, in need of permanent eradication. The argument made by those who consider the state an obstacle to private business is that a government that spends beyond its means and can’t balance its books is heading for disaster. Don’t fall for that nonsense. While it is true that too much public debt can cause major headaches, too little is also a problem. (69)

This is because it is long-term public debt/investment in infrastructure, in paying for essential services, but most of all in providing stable investments for all of those bankers’ profits, that keeps the whole recycling system going (70). But all of this black magic reveals a deeper mystery: why do we continue to rely upon a sorcery that is based upon nothing really substantial, nothing really real? To answer that question, the author must consider the relation of labour to that other mysterious talisman, money. And to unveil that mystery he brings in two fables: first, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s tale of the stag and the hares, and second, the metaphorical myth of Oedipus, he who was fated to both kill his father and marry his mother.

5 Two Oedipal Markets

A.  Labour: The Stag and the Hares

Rousseau’s allegory of the stag and the hares concerns both the power of collective action as well as the power of human beliefs to either make such collective action work, or to scupper it entirely. Consider a group of hunters, who know that if they work as a team, can together bring down a stag and thereby eat for days. But they also know that if anything goes wrong in the group hunt, if not everyone pulls together, they will end up with nothing. So each of them is tempted to give up on the group and just hunt for small hares instead, as that way at least he will have something to bring home to his family in the short run (74). If they could count on group solidarity, they would rather hunt the stag, as this would bring about the best possible outcome for all, but they cannot be sure. Their decisions are ruled over by various levels of faith in each other, as well as by their fears of each other’s faith, or lack of it, in the group. Optimism and pessimism are thus shown to be “self-fulfilling”, as “if a goal can only be achieved collectively, success depends not just on each individual pulling together but primarily on each individual believing that every other individual will do so”(76).

This, fable says Varoufakis, neatly illustrates how the labour market functions, and shows how the market for labour is not the same kind of thing as the market for goods: hiring someone to work in your factory, buying his labour, is a different kind of exchange than purchasing a car or a house form him, and here’s why: whenever you buy a good, its exchange value is ultimately tied to some kind of experiential value: a car can not only gets you places, it can give you a sense of freedom, of possibility. Similarly, a house not only provides you with physical shelter, it also allows you to make a “home” for your family. You want both of these things, a good car and a nice home, at least partially for their own sake, because you value them. But no one values labour for its own sake: the boss doesn’t hire me because he values me as me; he hires me because I can help him make a profit, and he will “let me go” when I can no longer do so, or when wider economic conditions render my contributions to the firm’s productivity moot when they can no longer sell whatever I help to produce (78).

Furthermore, if the price of a car falls, more people will buy them, but if the cost of labour falls, some businesses will hire more, but other, sharper business-people will think twice: this is because a fall in the cost of labour will mean that the worker will be able to consume less (to “recycle” fewer of what the economy produces), which, this savvy businessperson might believe, would lead to a future economic downturn:

Just like Rousseau’s hunters, entrepreneurs struggling to remain profitable in a market society are playthings of their collective expectations. When the group is optimistic, their optimism is self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating. And when it’s pessimistic, their pessimism is also self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating. The fact that they know this to be the case only makes it all the more certain hares even though they would rather not. This is why the unemployment deniers are wrong: because the labour market is based not just on the exchange value of labour but on people’s optimism or pessimism about the economy as a whole, and so across-the-board wage cuts may well result in no new hirings or even lay-offs.(79)

B.  Labour and Money: King Oedipus

Money is another thing which is neither bought nor sold like a traditional good. Just as businesses do not “buy” labour from workers but rather “lease” it, so too is money not really a saleable commodity but rather something which is leased by borrowers, and out rented out by lenders, for interest (or “rent”). And the process by which borrowers and lenders decide to make their transactions is similarly beset by irrational hopes and fears, by optimism and pessimism that may well turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecies: I felt I couldn’t trust the other hunters to work with me, and lo and behold, wasn’t I right! They felt they couldn’t trust me either, and the whole hunting party fell apart!

In the Oedipus myth, everything that the hero Oedipus does, all of his decisions are made so as to avoid making the prophecies that he has heard about himself come true. His father, wishing to avoid being murdered by his son, orders the infant Oedipus killed, though a compassionate servant merely abandons him to die, and Oedipus is rescued, adopted and raised in an a neighbouring country. In order to avoid marrying his mother he flees what he imagines is the country of his birth, and on his travels engages in a dispute with another traveler and kills him. This man turns out to have been his real father. In the capital city of this new country (that of Oedipus’s birth), he lifts a curse on the city by solving the riddle of the sphinx, and the people make him King, and marry him, according to custom, to the dead king’s widow, Oedipus’s mother. Oedipus employed his faulty and partial knowledge of his situation to the best of his abilities, but tragically, he thereby only succeeded and making the prophecies about him come true (82).

This, says Varoufakis, is exactly how labour and money markets tragically function. When

entrepreneurs see wages and interest rates falling or low, they prophesy that economic activity will go down or remain slow and so avoid borrowing money and hiring workers, thus ensuring that wages and interest rates stay low or fall further and fulfilling their own prophecies. Instead of recovering, the economy falls victim to their pessimism, which only perpetuates itself and intensifies […] You may now be wondering whether something might be done to tame and control these demons. Is there no way to break the cycles of self-fulfilling prophecy and self-perpetuating pessimism? The answer is: it ain’t going to be easy. The demons that turn the labour and money markets into market society’s scourges are an expression of some of the very things that make us human: our ability to reflect on our own and others’ behaviour, to inhabit others’ minds and predict their actions, and to know that for all our cleverness and wisdom we and others rarely resist the short-term impulse for self-preservation, however self-defeating it may ultimately prove to be. To reconcile the messy, contradictory, irrational and perverse behaviour of humans with the smooth functioning of an idealized economic machine would require a rethink and a reorganization of society every bit as radical as [that which] took place in eighteenth-century Britain. (83)

That transformation is now underway, whether we like it or not, for automation and machine learning are doing to our labour markets what factories did to the guilds of craftsmen during the industrial revolution: it will make the majority of jobs completely disappear.

6 Haunted Machines

In this chapter Varoufakis refers to Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein, the TV show Star Trek, and the films Blade Runner and The Matrix to discuss the power of technology to do away with labour (Note: other authors have viewed her work as a metaphor for the working class (Franco Moretti’s highly influential “The Dialectic of Fear”) and market society generally (David McNally’s excellent Monsters of the Market).

Star Trek represents the utopian vision of a future without labour (87), [just as Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World might be seen as the obverse of this, as a consumerist dystopia]. In which the inequality and relative scarcity endemic to capitalism is imagined to have disappeared, and the machine is responsible for catering to all of our desires. In reality, however, our deployment of machines in place of labour has so far

have not eradicated poverty, hunger, inequality, chores or the anxiety about our future basic needs. Might they yet do so? In some senses, the opposite seems to be happening. Machines work away, producing astonishing products in vast quantities, but instead of this making our lives easier, we’ve become more stressed than ever. We may no longer chain children to factory looms, but just as every employer is forced by competition to adopt the latest innovation, so most of us feel chained to our technology, increasingly harassed by the need to keep pace with its demands.(88)

In this light Shelley’s Frankenstein is a prescient romantic reaction to social problems created by the early industrial revolution, problems which have not gone away over time. Just as Dr. Frankenstein becomes enslaved by his desire to meddle with nature and artificially create life,

instead of serving humanity technology would create monsters to enslave us, terrorize us, possibly even destroy us; that these creations born of human ingenuity – like the life that Doctor Frankenstein managed to conjure from bits of corpses – would turn against their creators with tragic results.

A modern metaphor for the nightmare that advanced capitalism has created may be seen in The Matrix, wherein the processes of commodification, automation and enslavement have become so complete, “so successful, that we are no longer even aware of it, made oblivious to our reality by the very technologies that rule us.” (90). Our immersion in the ideology of consumer capitalism has become so complete, The Matrix says, that we can no longer recognise it as ideology [just, as Aldous Huxley once put it, like fish who cannot recognise that they are swimming in water]. Varoufakis then brings in Marx, who also felt that the commodification process was quite nearly a “‘force we must bow to'”, except for the tendency for market societies to create periodic crises, which for Marx was a potential sign of hope that the logic of the market might one day be thwarted.

Like Icarus, markets aspire to dizzying heights, and while at first new innovations in automation reduce labour costs and produce great profits for those first to innovate, eventually such innovations become common practice for those firms’ competitors, which causes the price of those innovations, and thereby the rate of profit that those innovations engender, to fall. Soon there is a glut of production in the once relatively rare product that the innovation spawned, and companies go bankrupt as prices tumble toward bottom. Soon many entrepreneurs who have “borrowed value from the future in order to invest in the latest machines” cannot pay their bankers, who themselves are forced into crisis, and the whole system grinds to a halt, often causing civil unrest and producing opportunities for labour to make some gains once more, even if that happens in the context of the increasing machine-like efficiencies expected of human labour, as in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, in which Chaplin’s character becomes, in his movements in the factory like a living extension of the machine(91-2), [due to the “Taylorist” efficiencies extracted from labour by businesses which conduct time-and-motion studies to break human movements into the simplest and most efficient possible].

Theoretically, automation and mechanization would free our creative energies, so that we might spend our lives on personally and socially enriching and beautifying tasks. But this would require a democratic ownership of the fruits produced the automated processes of manufacture. When they remain in the hands of very, very few individuals, inequality is bound to be worse, not better than before automation:

If I am right in this, our market societies will not evolve naturally into the good, Star-Trek -like society that the giant technology corporations insist they are bringing about. I fear that something more like The Matrix awaits us, controlled not by machines but by the fantastically wealthy and powerful heads of those companies. If so, it is not just a matter of waiting patiently until the Googles, the Apples, the Teslas, the Amazons and the Microsofts of today and tomorrow deliver a brave, new, wonderful world to us on a silver platter. So what should we do instead? (95)

Varoufakis proposes that we look to the film Blade Runner for a clue as to what an answer to that question might look like. In the Ridley Scott film, Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckard, is supposed to hunt down and kill disobedient, uppity “replicants” or cyborgs, machines who think they are and can pass for humans. Deckard falls in love with one of them, and ultimately must question what it is about his humanity that grants him his supposed superior status (96). Falling in love causes that inexpressible something in him to rise up and disobey the logic of the society which runs like an apparently efficient, but actually out-of-control machine, a machine that does not serve us but which calls upon us to be its servants. We too have that something in us to resist our much less fantastical but still quite real enslavement to the production of exchange rather than experiential value, if we so choose to (100). Each new global crisis, such as the most recent spectacularly violent one in 2008, provides us with an opportunity to organize the economy around more democratic principles—say, providing each and every citizen an economic stake, a financial share in, the profits flowing from our great increasingly-automated economy. Such a move would result in fewer billions for the billionaires, but would go a long way toward ensuring that the products to the economy can be consumed (“recycled”), thereby saving capitalism from its own worst enemy: itself, its tendency to concentrate wealth and power in ever-fewer hands.

Only the political power of the tiny few stop us from doing this essential redistributive maneuver (102). Over the final two chapters, focusing on the political choices we face as regards both money and the environment, Varoufakis will show how this must be done if we are going to survive as a species.

7 The Dangerous Fantasy of Apolitical Money

To illustrate the necessary, socially useful but artificial nature of money, Varoufakis describes what happened in a prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, in which Allied prisoners began bartering parts of Red Cross care packages that they did not want (say, tea) for those they did (say, coffee). Eventually, someone hit upon the idea of using cigarettes as a common exchange mechanism, and they quickly became the currency of the prison camp, making exchange far less onerous than barter. Prices for tea in terms of another commodity would eventually settle at an “equilibrium” and middle men, who took profits by buying tea from coffee lovers at a low price and selling it at a higher price to coffee lovers, were squeezed as the common currency cigarettes made it much easier for regular prisoners to trade with each other: so long as the supply of cigarettes remains farely stable, I can be sure that their worth does too, and buy tea from you with, say, three of them, and you can use two of those three cigarettes to buy, say, some chocolate. Cigarettes become the “natural”-seeming common exchange mechanism: like any currency, they are convenient, reasonably popular, divisible into portions, and universally (at the time) desirable (107), and their use “lubricates transactions no end, helping the economy move more commodities more quickly” (108) But they are, like our own money supply, hardly apolitical and certainly not natural: though you can accumulate them (and thereby “value”) , a sudden increase in their supply devalues their worth, or a delay in Red Cross shipments will make them more scarce and increase their value greatly: inflation and deflation are thereby introduced into this little economy by external factors which are not subject to the prisoners’ control. Thus, faith or belief in the future value of the currency (will the war end sooner, or later? For example, would affect your decision to lend me 10 cigarettes at interest, as if it is over in six months, those cigarettes will be worth much less when I need to repay you) (109-111):

From this it is clear that a monetized economy cannot be sustained if everyone knows its end is nigh. Everything relies on trust in its longevity as the very anticipation of collapse is enough, in an Oedipal fashion, to cause collapse. This is true of all economies, from the one in Radford’s POW camp to our own today.(111)

But while the Red Cross, which had no political or economic skin in this game, was in control of the camp’s “money” supply, our own functions quite differently in this important respect: politicians have always been tempted to dilute the value of their currency (and their debts to their bankers) by printing more of it, which induces skepticism in the wider public over the currency’s potential future value, causing inflation in the price of goods relative to the devalued currency (112-113). And because getting money from the rich via taxes, is never easy, central banks have often been instructed to print more currency to pay for the public expenditures that keep modern economies functioning (114). And when you add to this the private bankers’ ability to create money by loaning out 10, 20 or even 30 dollars for every dollar held in their vaults, in practice “the volume of money massively exceeds the quantity of coins and paper notes in circulation” (115).

This expansionary threat often gives rise to calls for a tighter control on the money supply, and for its removal from the sphere of politics. However,

if money were to be depoliticized, if its supply were to be separated from the world of politics, then we can now see that all of the following decisions would have to be made independently of politics: how much government spends and on what; how much tax the state collects and from whom; what bankers should be allowed to get away with; how to deal with bankers when they go bankrupt. To the extent that these decisions are the very definition of politics, then they can be undemocratic if they are taken by the oligarchy, but they can never be apolitical. (117)

In practice, central banks that are formally de-coupled from legislatures and given “independence” from politics always serve the interests of the powerful and wealthy elite (i.e., they continue to be very political); they just become the servants of “the oligarchy and the bankers”, because “money is inextricably bound up with the institutional management of debt (public and private) and taxation”, and the policies of central banks everywhere represent the interests of the lenders of those debts: the private banks.

Bitcoin, which emerged out of the financial crisis of 2008, is one attempt to, if not completely depoliticise money, at least take it out of the hands of governments and anarchically place it into the wider market, to make it beholden to no nation state or to any central bank policy. It is a digital “gold standard” which places a finite number of mathematically derived, secure bitcoins in circulation (118). The technology behind it, blockchain, makes all participants the keepers of the ledgers of all transactions in bitcoin, and since “everyone would observe everyone else’s transactions, [this would] ensur[e] their validity, while at the same time no one would know whose transactions they were observing, safeguarding privacy” (119).

In practice, hacking showed the weakness of the safeguards, and showed that currencies that lacked the imprimatur of the nation-state were prone to much worse crises of confidence (120). Also, the fixed supply of bitcoins poses another problem: deflation:

Let’s first see why the fixed quantity of Bitcoins makes a crisis more likely: its so-called deflationary effect. As businesses create more products, each Bitcoin will become relatively scarcer and so be worth more and more. Which means that the price, measured in Bitcoins, of each car or gadget falls even faster than the pace dictated by automation. And this will happen across the board: price deflation. This is not a problem in and of itself but becomes a huge one if wages fall faster than prices, meaning workers can only afford to buy fewer of the multiplying products. This fall in sales due to Bitcoin’s deflationary effect adds a destabilizing factor to the bankers’ standard overexuberance and sparks a crash more readily.(121)

And when the crash does occur, the gold standard approach taken by Bitcoin prevents the government from inflating the money supply to rescue the economy (122), [producing the effect that austerity minded governments in the UK, Canada and the US unintentionally caused in the 1930s: an exacerbated, lengthened depression, as the worse the economy did, the greater the temptation to tighten the money supply still further].

8 Stupid Viruses?
There is something deranged about what an economy solely focued upon exchange value does to the environment. Only someone wilfully blind could deny how much damage we, whom Agent Smith in The Matrix dubs “a virus […] a disease, a cancer of this planet” (123) have done and continue to do to our collective home. But the fact that we have imagined characters like Agent Smith to warn us of the worst parts of our nature means that we possess a better part as well, a “self-critical […] reflect[ive]” capacity (124), one that can call us out on our most absurd traits, such as allowing financial incentives to profit from environmental and social disasters (125).

This is because we pay no attention to those aspects of nature to which we have not attached exchange value: the air we breathe and the water we drink are largely, in economic terms, worthless, as are rain forests that have not been yet burned down so that cows may graze upon them (thereby giving the land exchange value) (126). And common resources that, if intelligently managed, would provide an endless source of value to us (e.g. fish stocks), in reality get squandered because, in our addiction to competition and short-term profits, fishermen have all the incentive to drive fish species toward extinction (127). This Varoufakis links to the Hellenic concept of the idiot:

In ancient Greece a person who refused to think in terms of the common good was called an idiotis – a privateer, a person who minded his own business. ‘In moderation as a poietis [poet], immoderately as an idiotis ,’ the ancient Athenian saying went. In the eighteenth century British scholars with a passion for ancient Greek texts gave the word idiotis its current English meaning – a fool. In both these senses our market societies have turned us into idiots. (128)

Only by ceasing to be idiots (ceasing to value exchange value and only that) can we have a hope of rescuing ourselves from the perils of climate change and mass extinction (129).

Collective ownership of vital resources might seem the logical way to begin going about trying to save our planet and thereby ourselves, but the prevailing [neo-liberal] solution suggests that we proceed in the opposite direction: by expanding exchange value to cover those aspects of the environment that previously lacked exchange value, we would have the financial incentive to become its wise stewards, this argument says: we need more markets, not fewer, and only when water, forests etc. are all privatised, owned by individuals and corporations for the sake of pursuing profit, can we begin to conserve them (130).

This smacks of a new feudalism, though, as control of the vast majority of the earth’s surface would fall into very few hands (131). One proposed solution to this would be to divide rivers, lakes, etc. into very small “shares” and distribute them widely, creating a competitive market for them (132)! The “Cap & Trade” system beloved of neoliberal governments does exactly this, as each company is entitled to a share of a certain amount of pollution, which if unused can be sold on the open market to those companies which pollute more.

But pay attention to the irony: the only reason to adopt a market solution such as this is because government can’t be trusted, and yet this solution depends entirely on the government for it to work. Who decides what the original quota of pollution will be? Who monitors each farmer, fisherman, factory, train or car’s emissions? Who fines them if they exceed their quotas? The government of course. Only the state has the ability to create this artificial market because only the state has the power to regulate each and every company. The reason the rich and powerful, along with their intellectual and ideological supporters, recommend the complete privatization of our environment is not that they are interventions that undermine their property rights and threaten to democratize processes that they now control. And if, in the process, they get to own Planet Earth, that’s OK by them too! (132-133)

Would it not make more sense to truly democratize the economy, so that we might collectively manage both it and the environment, since we all have a life-and-death stake in it? Rather than heed the command made by powerful elites to “commodify everything!”, so that they might benefit even more than they already do, why not try “Democratize everything!” instead? We must, Varoufakis claims, because

Commodification will never work. Markets do a great job when it comes to managing the supply of coffee shops in a city and, more generally, the distribution of goods among buyers with different tastes, just as we saw in Radford’s POW camp. But as I have attempted to show over the course of this book, they are terrible at managing money, labour and robots. As for the environment, the market solution combines the worst of the market with the drawbacks of state intervention.(134)

Democracies grant each person-one vote. Similarly, markets allow us to vote, in a way, as well. The difference is that in markets, each vote does not carry equal weight: wealthier citizens have much more say in the ‘one dollar = one vote’ system, and these wealthier citizens may actually have incentives to profit from increased environmental degradation, or at best may be indifferent, living in the mountains, to the flooding of coastal areas (135). Democracies, while imperfect and often corrupt, are never as corrupt as markets can be when gamed’ to favour the very few and very powerful elites.


Varoufakis closes with a thought experiment called HALPEVAM (“Heuristic ALgorithmic Pleasure & Experiential VAlue Maximizer”), which is designed to make those critics who might say “But I personally don’t care about any of this” change their minds. In HALPEVAM, you are given the opposite of the Matrix:

a virtual life that is by your own standards the best of all possible lives, and while in it, you have no clue that it is virtual. Above all, its primary directive is never to change our desires or motives to suit its virtual world but to create a virtual reality in perfect harmony with your own desires, sensitivities, aspirations and principles, just as they are.(137)

The catch is that a life centred on intense personal pleasure comes with the proviso that you cannot return to the old world of the “chores, pains and sorrows of normal life”, a life that, because it is difficult, also contains the seeds for meeting deeper needs than personal satisfaction and pleasure (138). In effect, HALPEVAM is consumer capitalism as it currently performs in our globalised economy, a capitalism which is incapable of anything beyond sating our momentary desires, and which has nothing to offer in terms of providing “authentic happiness”(139).

To correct this gross exaggeration of human nature (in which our fullest expression of self comes through shopping at a mall (140), Varoufakis proposes an economy run along a different principle: the ancient Greek concept of Eudaimonia, which means “flourishing”—not just “happiness” but a fully alive life, one which “constantly evolve[s]” towards its own self-expression [the way an acorn grows into a mighty oak tree].

In order to change, we must recognise the dominant ideology of our times as just that: an ideology, not a natural inevitability (142). This ideology poses as our new religion, and has its own priests, technocrats, who tell us to leave the complex metaphysics (economics) to them. But Varoufakis wants to democratise this, too, and hopes that this book will encourage his daughter and those like her to take up the challenge and stand up to the priests and to profane their temples, to doubt their theology (143-144). For

Unlike physics, in which nature is the impartial judge of all predictions, economics can never be subjected to impartial tests. It would be not just hard but impossible to create a laboratory in which economic circumstances can be sufficiently controlled and replicated for any scientific experiment to have validity […] When economists insist that they too are scientists because they use mathematics, they are no different from astrologists protesting that they are just as scientific as astronomers complicated charts. (144-145)

At best, economists are “worldly philosophers”, not scientists, and would greatly benefit from the humility that such an appellation afforded them. At any rate, as citizens (and daughters) of the world, our choice is to either “adapt your behaviour to suit market society’s needs, or become obstinate enough to want to adapt society to [our] own ideas about what society should be like instead” (146), confident that, if we apply ourselves with enough collective will, we can make good use of another ancient Greek idea, the principle of Archimedes: “that, given enough distance, nothing is impossible. ‘Give me somewhere to stand, and a lever long enough, and I shall lift the Earth,’ he said”.

Digested Read: The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin

This post functions more as a midrash or a gloss upon the second edition of Corey Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump. As such, this probably won’t work for you if you are looking for a critical analysis or a review ( my much shorter review of the book can be read here. This article, by contrast, will attempt to restate in some detail Robin’s understanding of how we got to Trump from Burke, of what has changed over time in conservative thought, and what has stayed the same.

Part of what has changed is that the conservatives have largely won: throughout the industrialized west/north there is no longer any viable left to oppose them. This, as we shall see, is more of a cause for worry in conservative circles than for celebration, for conservative movements do best when cast as the underdogs, in opposition to some devilish political innovation that must be resisted—be that extension of the voting franchise, a broadening of civil liberties, or socio economic justice/social programs of one kind or another. By the time we get to Trump in chapter 11 (one wonders if the pun on Bankruptcy law was intended), we shall see that the current President of the free world is more of a symptom than a cause of the drift of conservative movement into malaise and disarray. But first we must see how far it has come—and that is a long way indeed.

I A Primer on Reaction

1.  The Private Life of Power

The first section of the book attempts to teach us of just what a “reaction-ary” is made. What is the political “right” reacting against? In a word, “emancipatory movements of the left”(xvi), movements that yearn for ever-increasing freedom for the oppressed. What does the right desire to protect? What Robin calls “the private life of power”—which shall be explained in full below, but the following passage shall illustrate some of its features:

Despite the very real differences between them, workers in a factory are like secretaries in an office, peasants on a manor, slaves on a plantation—even wives in a marriage—in that they live and labor in conditions of unequal power. They submit and obey, heeding the demands of their managers and masters, husbands and lords. They are disciplined and punished. They do much and receive little. Sometimes their lot is freely chosen—workers contract with their employers, wives with their husbands—but its entailments seldom are […] Employment and marriage contracts have been interpreted by judges, themselves friendly to the interests of employers and husbands, to contain all sorts of unwritten and unwanted provisions of servitude to which wives and workers tacitly consent [….] (4).

Our tacit but not always knowing consent to such inequalities keeps the system together. Those in power have, in effect, have the liberty to ensure that we are constrained to obey, and conservative thought has long sought maintain that inequality:

What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom. “We are all agreed as to our own liberty,” declared Samuel Johnson. “But we are not agreed as to the liberty of others: for in proportion as we take, others must lose. I believe we hardly wish that the mob should have liberty to govern us.”

Thus the conservative fears above all the desire of the masses for “equality”, which the right sees, correctly, as “a rotation in the seat of power”. We can see in domestic relations (power’s “private life” an illustrative microcosm of this larger sphere at work: what the actions of the patriarchal husband and the slave-owner both show us is that power has an intimate side. Patriarchs and Masters live everyday with their own patriarchy and mastery, and come to see it as a part of the natural, divinely inspired order of things (after all, subordination is the key to how the cosmos is constructed, if you believe in the medieval Great Chain of Being), on which the feudal relations of husband and wife, Master and Slave, and boss and worker are modeled. Here is Edmund Burke railing against the threateningly artificial innovation that was the French Revolution:

“The real object” of the French Revolution, Burke told Parliament in 1790, is “to break all those connexions, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination; to raise soldiers against their officers; servants against their masters; tradesmen against their customers; artificers against their employ; tenants against their landlords; curates against their bishops; and children against their parents.(13)

If Burke’s worries were ultimately vindicated, if the vote was extended to property owners, then to working men, to women and to racial minorities, the right has been concerned with keeping those feudal relations “in the family, the factory and the field” ever since (15). If formal political hierarchy has been relinquished (I mean, all jerrymandering and “voter fraud” initiatives aside, no one could imagine restricting the vote to white male property owners anymore, right?!) economic inequality, economic hierarchies must remain in place:

Conservatism, then, is not a commitment to limited government and liberty—or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the by-products of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and ever-changing modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force—the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. Such a view might seem miles away from the libertarian defense of the free market, with its celebration of the atomistic and autonomous individual. But it is not. When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.(16)

Indeed, Milton Friedman famously maintained that “the ultimate operative unit in our society is the family, not the individual”(277), and we all know about the second half of Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” quip….

The conservative believes that if we abandon hierarchy for equality, the resultant society will be “ugly, brutish, base and dull”. Nobility of rank and nobility of spirit are two nice feudal concepts fused into one archaic, ambiguous word, after all. Those who are noble are “naturally” suited to rule over the unwashed rest of us, as “some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others” (18).

That excellence/fitness is not necessarily to be found in the egghead, however, as conservative thought is marked by a celebration of the anti-intellectual: they play to the masses by posing as “the untutored and the unlettered”. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, “Republicans “often call themselves the ‘stupid party.’” But this is far from the case. What they do consciously lack, however, is a “blueprint” for the future(19), but arises literally out of reaction against the relative novelty of the program of the left, against anything that subverts “what conservatives at the time [deem] worth cherishing, defending, and perhaps dying for”(21). They speak in such stark terms, because the choice is between the status quo and the utter annihilation of a way of life:

Take Michael Oakeshott’s famous definition in his essay “On Being Conservative”: “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” One cannot, it seems, enjoy fact and mystery, near and distant, laughter and bliss. One must choose. Far from affirming a simple hierarchy of preferences, Oakeshott’s either/or signals that we are on existential ground, where the choice is not between something and its opposite but between something and its negation. The conservative would enjoy familiar things in the absence of forces seeking their destruction, Oakeshott concedes, but his enjoyment “will be strongest when” it “is combined with evident risk of loss.”

As we shall see, the need to struggle, the desire for it even, runs throughout the history conservative thought. The conservative lives an agonistic life—it is what affirms his fitness to rule, his nobility, and it is what separates the winners from the losers.

The conservative thus struggles not to be one of history’s losers, which means that he struggles in the context of an newly ascendant ideology, that of emancipation: the conservative frames his identity with a narrative of (possible) loss and recovery through struggle of a potentially vanishing way of life (23). He feels he has been “pushed” into political action almost against his will, but survival demands the utmost wiliness and cunning, even to the point of changing the very regime he feels driven to defend:

Because there is so much confusion about conservatism’s opposition to the left, it is important that we be clear about what the conservative is and is not opposing in the left. It is not change in the abstract. No conservative opposes change as such or defends order as such. The conservative defends particular orders—hierarchical, often private regimes of rule—on the assumption, in part, that hierarchy is order. “Order cannot be had,” declared Johnson, “but by subordination.” For Burke, it was axiomatic that “when the multitude are not under this discipline” of “the wiser, the more expert, and the more opulent,” “they can scarcely be said to be in civil society.” In defending such orders, moreover, the conservative invariably launches himself on a program of reaction and counterrevolution, often requiring an overhaul of the very regime he is defending. “If we want things to stay as they are,” in Lampedusa’s classic formulation, “things will have to change.” (24-25)

What changes, in defence of the Ancien Regime is the static nature of that regime itself: the reactionary counterrevolution is “agonistic and dynamic” and casts aside the ideal of social harmony found in feudal narrative (34). In the future reactionary utopia,

Unlike the feudal past, where power was presumed and privilege inherited, the conservative future envisions a world where power is demonstrated and privilege earned: not in the antiseptic and anodyne halls of the meritocracy, where admission is readily secured—“the road to eminence and power, from obscure condition, ought not to be made too easy, nor a thing too much of course”101—but in the arduous struggle for supremacy. In that struggle, nothing matters: not inheritance, social connections, or economic resources, but rather one’s native intelligence and innate strength. Genuine excellence is revealed and rewarded; true nobility is secured. “ ‘Nitor in adversum’ [I strive against adversity] is the motto for a man like me,” declares Burke, after dismissing a to-the-manor-born politician who was “swaddled, and rocked, and dandled into a legislator.”

If you are thinking that this counterrevolution has as much Whiggery about it as Tory, I’d agree!

In the modern world, the agonistic battlefield where men prove themselves to be men will become the economy: a capitalist is a happy warrior, “not a Midas of riches but a ruler of men. A title to property is a license to dispose, and if a man has the title to another’s labor, he has a license to dispose of it—to dispose, that is, of the body in motion—as he sees fit”(36). Few are called by nature to be so, however: As William Graham Sumner notes, “the possession of the requisite ability is a natural monopoly”(37)—or so the happy warrior must say each morning to the mirror. Leadership is not merely concerned with “the shabbiness and shallowness of making money”; there must be something higher for the reactionary to aim for, some loftiness that perhaps even the old regime has lost sight of, but which can be regained through struggle, through critique and reform of the old guard—through counterrevolution.

2.  On Counterrevolution

Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, writing after the French Revolution, find much to criticize in the old regime. Burke, who celebrated the sublime, saw the roots of decline in the old order’s cultivation of beauty, and thus of decadence:

Beauty, for Burke, is never a sign of power’s vitality; it is always a sign of decadence. Beauty arouses pleasure, which gives way to indifference or leads to a total dissolution of the self. “Beauty acts,” Burke writes, “by relaxing the solids of the whole system.” It is this relaxation and dissolution of bodies—physical, social, political bodies—that makes beauty such a potent symbol and agent of degeneration and death. “Our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut.”

The sublime, by contrast (in which we encounter the vastness that is nature, and the smallness that is man by comparison, which is ultimately a mystery to us not to be fathomed but to be submitted to, and which prompts us not to idle pleasures but to health-affirming struggle, virtuous activity), would give us “vigor, clarity and purpose”(42). The ruler must never allow himself to sink into stasis, becoming “lazy, fat, and complacent so roundly enjoying the privileges of his position that he cannot see the coming catastrophe”(43-44). That catastrophe is the Revolution, which stirs the truly noble into action, on pain of two deaths: the literal one, of the nobleman, and the metaphorical one, of a great but vanishing culture.

Burke actually views the revolution with admiration, for it is sublime, while the old regime is beautiful. The counterrevolution must appropriate the revolution’s power, learn from the “idioms of the left”(49), learn how to appeal to the masses, to gain their backing, in service of traditional hierarchy, to engage the people without ever sharing power with them (52). Thus the Tea Party and Trump hearken back to Burke, to conservatism’s birth. One of the tactics used both then and now is to brand the conservative as the “outsider”, as a victim (55). Burke portrayed Marie Antoinette in that light, and Trump too rails against, the “elites”, and thereby brings Joe Six-pack into his movement. For Joe, like Marie share something in common: loss.

Conservatism has not only depended upon outsiders; it also has seen itself as the voice of the outsider. From Burke’s cry that “the gallery is in the place of the house” to Buckley’s complaint that the modern conservative is “out of place,” the conservative has served as a tribune for the displaced, his movement a conveyance of their grievances […] People who aren’t conservative often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be a loss of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small. Even so, it is a loss, and nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess.(56)

3. The Soul Of Violence

Robin writes that “violence is an activity that makes life, well, lively”(60), and you’d be hard pressed to find a conservative who did not agree. “War is life, peace is death”(61). But how could this be so? Don’t we all value life and peace, not war and death? This cannot be, sir!

For Burke “pain and danger” are salutary experiences, curiosity and pleasure less so. Curiosity seeks out novelty, which becomes less and less satisfying (or novel!) as time goes on. The world is too much with us. So too with pleasure, which leads to “complacency” and “indolence”, and eventually to “loathing and weariness” (It’s August first, mom, and I’m bored! I wish I was back in that school that I hate and that makes us work so hard!): Your Scottish Calvinist grandma was right: Too much laughing leads to crying! (It all ends in “melancholy, dejection, despair and self-murder”(62)).

The answer to this doom and gloom is the sublime, and it is worth quoting Robin quoting and discussing Burke on this at some length:

What most arouses this heightened state of being is the confrontation with non-being. Life and health are pleasurable and enjoyable, and that is what is wrong with them: “they make no such impression” on the self because “we were not made to acquiesce in life and health.” Pain and danger, by contrast, are “emissaries” of death, the “king of terrors.” They are sources of the sublime, “the strongest”—most powerful, most affecting—“emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Pain and danger, in other words, are generative experiences of the self.

That is so because pain and danger have the contradictory effect of minimizing and maximizing our sense of self. When sensing pain or danger, our mind “is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” The “motions” of our soul “are suspended,” as harm and the fears it arouses “rush in upon the mind.” In the face of these fears, “the mind is hurried out of itself.” When we experience the sublime, we feel ourselves evacuated, overwhelmed by an external object of tremendous power and threat. Everything that gave us a sense of internal being and vitality ceases to exist. The external is all, we are nothing. God is a good example, and the ultimate expression, of the sublime: As Burke wrote, “Whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him.”
Paradoxically, we also feel our existence to an extent we never have felt it before. Seized by terror, our “attention” is roused and our “faculties” are “driven forward, as it were, on their guard.” We are pulled out of ourselves. (65)

What all of this terror imparts to the self, it gives in equal measure to history as well: history is sublime because its unceasing flux always threatens to fragment what we make coherent. Forcing us to struggle against anarchy and meaninglessness, we discover “freedom, depth, majesty, grandeur, awe—’an awful gravity'”(70) to sustain our toils. We rulers must thus always have a foe to struggle against, lest our position become weak through our own atrophy. We must continually exercise our will to power, or risk losing it (71).

Robin finds also echoes of this sentiment in a number of thinkers, first with Joseph de Maistre, for whom the French Old Regime was “impoten[t]”, “foppish and foolish”, the clergy “corrupted by wealth and luxury” and the monarchy lacking in “the will to punish”. A century later, Georges Sorel rails against the ruling bourgeoisie belle époque in a similar manner, who, because they are by this point “almost as stupid as the nobility of the 18C”(72), are almost in need of revolutionary activity by the workers to wake them out of their torpor:

Can the violence of the general strike “give back to the bourgeoisie an ardour which is extinguished?” Certainly the vigor of the proletariat might reawaken the bourgeoisie to its own interests and the threats its withdrawal from politics has posed to those interests. More tantalizing to Sorel, however, is the possibility that the violence of workers will “restore to [the bourgeoisie] the warlike qualities it formerly possessed,” forcing the “capitalist class to remain ardent in the industrial struggle.” Through the struggle against the proletariat, in other words, the bourgeoisie may recover its ferocity and ardor. And ardor is everything. From ardor alone, from that splendid indifference to reason and self-interest, an entire civilization, drowning in materialism and complacency, will be reawakened. A ruling class, threatened by violence from the ruled, roused to its own taste for violence—that is the promise of the civil war in France. (77)

This contempt for weak rulers found a fellow traveller in a number of others, including Carl Schmitt: “Interest, freedom, profit, rights, property, individualism, and other such words had created one of the most self-absorbed ruling classes in history, a class that enjoyed privilege but did not feel itself obliged to defend that privilege”(73). Teddy Roosevelt felt much the same way, and opposed the “glory of the flag” to mere “money-making” (74). Alexis de Tocqueville, “a closet romantic”(77), saluted the display of passion in combat in the revolution and in Napoleon’s career (78). But by the 1848 Paris Commune, he changed his mind—not about the violence, but about the side he was taking. He welcomed the state repression of the radicals the way the bored student (see above) welcomes a violent summer storm(79). Finally, in recent years Francis Fukuyama ‘s End Of History argues in favour of “Thymotic Man”, who “risks his life in favour of some impossible principle” as opposed to mere “Economic Man”, “‘the true bourgeois'”, whose life of “rational consumption” is dead, deadening and deadly (a phrase I learned from the great Richard Godden!)

If we spend too much time shopping, what are we? This is a conundrum for all conservatives who also want to promote the virtues of the free market. For a while 9/11 seemed to promise to inject some of the old sublimity into American discourse (and provide a new enemy to struggle against), but that was a chimera, of course, as Black Friday looms larger on the calendar with each passing year.

II Europe's Old regimes

4. Hobbes, The First Counterrevolutionary

Thomas Hobbes, in writing leviathan alienated everyone, revolutionaries and royalists alike, as his book celebrated neither the King’s nor the people’s power, but the sovereign, in whom the people has invested power by surrendering their own. To the royalists this smacked of too much democracy, to the followers of Cromwell’s Commonwealth it had a taint of royalism about it., but Robin argues that it cleverly “absorbs and transforms” the revolutionary argument:

From its deepest categories and idioms he derived an uncompromising defense of the most hidebound form of rule. He sensed the centrifugal forces of early modern Europe—the priesthood of all believers; the democratic armies massing under the banner of ancient republican ideals; science and skepticism—and sought to channel them to a single center: a sovereign so terrible and benign as to make any challenge to such authority seem immoral and irrational. Not unlike the Italian Futurists, Hobbes put dissolution in the service of resolution. He was the first and, along with Nietzsche, the greatest philosopher of counterrevolution, a blender avant la lettre of cultural modernism and political reaction who understood that to defeat a revolution, you must become the revolution.(92)

Hobbes set his sights on the foundation of the democrats’ argument, that of “liberty, their republican notion that individual freedom entailed men collectively governing themselves. Hobbes sought to unfasten the republican link between personal freedom and the possession of political power. He set out to argue that men could be free in an absolute monarchy—or at least no less free than they were in a republic or a democracy”(94).

To square this circle, and thus “to defend an old regime that has been or is being destroyed”, is no mean task, because the man who does so is swimming against the tide of history, and finds that either few will agree with him or else “mutate into arguments for revolution”(95). Thus he can no longer use the old argument for the maintenance of the status quo, which puts him in trouble with the powers that be as well.

Those earlier arguments were two-fold: one, the Divine Right of Kings of James I (father of the unfortunately stubborn Charles I), in which God, the heavenly monarch, selects and guarantees the sovereignty of the earthly king, who is accountable to Him alone. But the modern world was dawning, and people believed less and less in “a teleology [the ‘Great Chain of Being’] of human ends that mirrored the natural hierarchy of the universe” (95). This theory was one of “political theatre” in which God and King were the only actors, “each performing for the other”(96). The people weren’t even allowed into the cheap seats, but were absent altogether—a dangerous image, Hobbes realised.

The second argument was the “constitutional royalist” one (97), in which “England was a free society because royal power was limited by the common law or shared with Parliament. That combination of the rule of law and shared sovereignty, claimed Sir Walter Raleigh, was what distinguished the free subjects of the king from the benighted slaves of despots in the East.”

This got Hobbes to thinking about the nature of liberty, which had much to do with “acting for the sake of reason and acting at the behest of passion. The first is a free act; the second is not.” The radicals claimed something about the nature of liberty and slavery that even the royalists agreed with however: that

To be subject to a will that is mine—the laws of a republic or democracy—is to be free; to be subject to a will that is not mine—the edicts of a king or foreign country—is to be a slave. In making these claims, the radicals were aided by a peculiar, though popular, understanding of slavery. What made someone a slave, in the eyes of many, was not that he was in chains or that his owner impeded or compelled his movements. It was that he lived and moved under a net, the ever-changing, arbitrary will of his master, which might fall upon him at any moment. Even if that net never fell—the master never told him what to do or never punished him for not doing it, or he never desired to do something different from what the master told him—the slave was still enslaved. (99)

Hobbes’s innovation was to attack the rational foundations for this notion of “will”, and to come up with a materialist account of that faculty. “The will, he says, is not a decision resulting from our reasoned deliberation about our desires and aversions; it is simply the last appetite or aversion we feel before we act, which then prompts the act”(100). When we waver over what to do, we are uncertain, but when we act, we display our will—there is nothing necessarily rational about it, but it is indeed our choice, for we have acted voluntarily.

Thus “all voluntary action is an expression of the will” (101). And liberty is no more than “;the absence of…externall Impediments of motion” (what today we would call “negative liberty”), and a free man is thus someone who is not hindered in doing what his will bids him to do. A prison or an unjust law may hinder us, cause us to be less free, but if we lack the willpower to do something, that does not mean we are unfree (102). Personal liberty is thus different from our political situation:

Freedom is dependent on the presence of government but not on the form government takes; whether we live under a king, a republic, or a democracy does not change the quantity or quality of the freedom we enjoy. The separation between personal and political liberty had the dramatic effect of making freedom seem both less present and more present under a king than Hobbes’s republican and royalist antagonists had allowed.

Even our fear of the king punishing us is something we own, and if we act from that fear we employ our personal freedom, and display our will! (103) Indeed, we are quite free, apparently, in a monarchy:

These freedoms, Hobbes explains in Leviathan, include “the Liberty to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own aboad, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fit; & the like.”27 To whatever degree the sovereign can guarantee the freedom of movement, the ability to go about our business without the hindrance of other men, we are free. Submission to his power, in other words, augments our freedom. The more absolute our submission, the more powerful he is and the freer we are. Subjugation is emancipation.

5. Burke’s Market Value

In his later years (ca 1790s), Burke returned repeatedly to the thorny matter of the notion of value, especially of the economic kind (106), a symptom of the contradiction inherent in his championing of both “capitalist markets and […] aristocratic traditionalism”. On the one hand, he finds the political notion of “equality” too abstract a thing to reflect the variety of human beings on the planet, on the other hand he is quite happy with that abstraction called a unit of “labour”, which can be performed by any faceless worker.

The wage market was an unregulated one, and wartime and bad harvests in the mid-1790s caused food riots which prompted Burke to reflect (in three works: Thoughts on Scarcity, Letters on a Regicide Peace, and A Letter to a Noble Lord on the source of value, especially as he saw that “the days of the [old] regime were numbered”(107). He desired to lay a “foundation […]for a system of rule in which the market might replicate the manor (108), a foundation that inspired the Austrian school of economists to stand atop Burke’s shoulders,

creating an understanding of the economy in which the demiurges of capital would step forth as the modern equivalent of the feudal aristocracy. As Joseph Schumpeter was to write of these men of capital, “What may be attained by industrial and commercial success is still the nearest approach to medieval lordship possible to modern man.”

Burke found himself in these works in the position of having to defend state expenditures on a costly war with France, as well as his right to a state pension for services rendered to the Crown. The war was worth it, and he was too. They had both contributed value to public life. All of this in the context of a destruction of all that he held dear. Revolutionaries want above all, he said in a speech to the army in 1790,

“to break all those connexions, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination; to raise soldiers against their officers; servants against their masters; tradesmen against their customers; artificers against their employers; tenants against their landlords; curates against their bishops; and children against parents.”
With so many traditional orders of rule under siege, it’s not surprising that the systems of value that undergirded them would be subject to the most ruthless criticism as well. As Nietzsche would later argue, all systems of value are predicated upon a hierarchy of judgment and status, taste and place.(112-113)

While Burke had merited his reward by the state, the layabouts who were seeking to deny him his small pension lived on inherited wealth, and contributed nothing to society. It was unfair, as Burke had created value, not inherited it, something which in light of the Revolution seemed “accidental and arbitrary”(114).

“Making” value was the talk of the age , with Adam Smith (and his celebrated pin factory analogy) locating its source in labour (115). Burke countered this with a novel approach: value is located in exchange, not labour: something is worth what the buyer will pay. As for labour, well, the businessman buys that from the worker, and thereby establishes its value, as with any other commodity (labour being an abstraction he can abide, remember). When you and I enter the labour market, we haglle, and compromise and ultimately arrive at mutual agreement: our transaction creates my labour’s value (116). The market is efficient in modern neo-liberal terms, smarter than any of us individually, “creating harmony out of dissonance, settlement from conflict.”

But later in Thoughts on Scarcity Burke privileges the “man of money as the decider” rather than the market (117): the “man of capital” rules, whether buying or selling”, and it matters not a whit if the price established is capable of sustaining the worker’s life or not. What matters is the man taking the risk:

“The monied men have a right to look to advantage in the investment of their property. To advance their money, they risk it; and the risk is to be included in the price. If they were to incur a loss, that would amount to a tax on that peculiar species of property. In effect, it would be the most unjust and impolitick of all things, unequal taxation.”
The needs, risks, and concerns of labor do not register.
“I premise that labour is, as I have already intimated, a commodity, and as such, an article of trade. . . When any commodity is carried to market, it is not the necessity of the vender, but the necessity of the purchaser that raises the price. . . If the goods at market are beyond the demand, they fall in their value; if below it, they rise. The impossibility of the subsistence of a man, who carries his labour to a market, is totally beside the question in this way of viewing it. The only question is, what is it worth to the buyer?” (118)

Adam Smith had applied the same criterion (something’s value is determined by “the toil and trouble of acquiring it”, the “Labour commanded by” [one’s desire to acquire] a commodity (120-21)) to both capital and labour, but Burke is interested in capital alone. Wages, too, for Smith cannot fall below the necessities of life, whereas for Burke, as seen above, they are of small concern. Smith also sees how employers can rig the labour market, as they can combine together, being few, and they have influence over government law, as they come from the same circles as legislators (122). Smith is at pains to point out that the relations between labour and capital must be kept in a real balance for capitalism to thrive. Yet

Where Smith sees capital using its economic and legal power to extract the most damaging contracts from labor, Burke sees the free market at work […] Burke insists that “the moment that Government appears at market, all the principles of market will be subverted,” while remaining silent about all the ways in which the government already appears at market on behalf of capital.54 And where Smith sees labor as the driving agent of the world, Burke sees capital contributing “all the mind that actuates the whole machine.” (124)

Only the capitalist knows, because, unlike in Smith, we share no common humanity, we are all disparate individuals, and there is no common measure of values: value is subjective, located in the mind of nature’s aristocrats, the man of capital.(125) For capital is like the mind as labour is like the body: Labour is “homogenous”, can be “quantified and abstracted”, and is “a tool that speaks” (126-27), while capital “is the ‘thinking and presiding principle to the labourer'”, “‘the cool, steady, deliberate principle'”, and “cannot be abstracted or quantified” (127). Because of this, society stratified itself into “an objective order of ranks and rewards, in which the better man occupied the superior rank, while the worse man occupied the lower one” (128). This will return in the philosophy that guides modern conservatives like late Chief Justice Antonin Scalia (Chapter 10) and Donald Trump (Chapter 11).

Finally, Burke cannot resolve the contradictions of men of low worth occupying stations of high standing in real life, however, while he, a giant among men, is almost driven to debtors’ prison. But this in turn was complicated still more by rise of the working man:

In that context, it might prove the better part of prudence to embrace the market as the proving ground of a new ruling class. As I said, Burke couldn’t go there. He flirted with the idea but in the end had to pull back from it. He distrusted new money as much as he distrusted new power. That he himself was a creature of both sorts of novelty—his political and financial rewards were founded on a system of value closer to that of the coming society he rejected than they were to that of the dissolving society he mourned—was but one of the many contradictions he could never quite resolve. It would fall to later theorists, most notably the Austrian economists, to take up those contradictions and work out their kinks and implications.

6. In Nietzsche’s Margins (Schumpeter, Hayek et al)

In one of the most important passages in this book, Robin sums up the indebtedness that modern understanding of capitalism has to Nietzsche:

The Nobel Prize–winning economist Friedrich Hayek is the leading theoretician of this movement, which is often called neoliberalism but can also be understood as the most genuinely political theory of capitalism the right has managed to produce. The theory does not imagine a shift from government to the individual, as is often claimed by conservatives; nor does it imagine a shift from the state to the market or from society to the atomized individual, as is often claimed by the left. Instead, the theory recasts our understanding of politics and where it might be found. It takes what Nietzsche called grosse Politik—a conception of political life as the embodiment of ancient ideals of aristocratic action, aesthetic notions of artistic creation, and a rarefied vision of the warrior—and locates that vision not in high affairs of state but in the operations and personnel of a capitalist economy. The result is an agonistic romance of the market, where economic activity is understood as exciting rather than efficient, as the expression of aristocratic virtues, aesthetic values, and warlike action rather than a repository of bourgeois conceits. (133)

These changes were sown in the fifty years spanning the “marginal revolution” (economists who focused not on production but consumption) and the end of the Austrian empire with the close of the First World War (134).

Nietzsche, who despised capitalists, nevertheless diagnosed a crisis in value that would come to revolutionize capitalism. That the old ruling class was gone was undisputable, as was the threat that labour posed to the new rulers, the bourgeoisie (witness the “intolerable” threat of the 1871 Paris Commune, which he tried to volunteer to fight against (136)). Nietzsche’s anxieties about all this surfaced in his 1872 essay, “The Greek State”, which questions modern day palaver over workers rights and the dignity of labour (137). For ancient Greeks, though, labour was a “‘disgrace'”, to be performed by slaves, while life is “redeemed only by art” (though even art bore the stain of the labour required to produce the leisure which ensured the conditions for its creation: “For that reason the Greeks properly kept labor and the laborer hidden from view”(138)! The sight of the “barbaric slaves” of the First International descending on Basel drove him crazy, and he wrote in 1888, “’The cause of every stupidity today. . . lies in the existence of a labour question at all. About certain things one does not ask questions.’” And again: ““Even if it were true that the Greeks were ruined because they kept slaves, the opposite is even more certain, that we will be destroyed because we fail to keep slaves.” […] “Slavery belongs to the essence of a culture”.

“War and high politics” (139) join slavery as a prerequisite to a self-respecting culture: “Healthy states were built on the repression and release of [bloody] impulses. The arena for conflict created by that regimen gave ‘society time to germinate and turn green everywhere’ and allowed ‘blossoms of genius’ periodically to ‘sprout forth’”. But bourgeois states are dedicated not to art but to soul-crushing market exchange. We are faced with either the revolt of the slaves or the victory of paper pushers and coupon clippers (140). Nietzsche can counter this dilemma with nothing but vague dreams of Great Men revivifying culture for us—for later generations that would mean fascism on the one hand and men of capital on the other.

At this time the Marginal Revolution also took place in the work of three economists in particular: Carl Menger, Stanley Jevons, and Léon Walras, for all of whom

the protagonist was not the landowner or the laborer, working his way through the farm, the factory or the firm; it was the universal man of the market, whose signature act was to consume things. That’s how market man increased his utility: by consuming something until he reached the point where consuming one more increment of it gave him so little additional utility that he was better off consuming something else. Of such microscopic calculations at the periphery of our estate was the economy made. (140-41)

These men moved Political Economy from the humanist moral sciences into the social sciences, where it detached itself from the political and became just plain old economics, focused on personal choice alone and free from messy social concerns.

Hayek, Mises and Schumpeter were their students (141), and from them they learned to question the “central postulate of economics shared by everyone from Adam Smith to the socialist left: the notion that labor is a—if not the—source of value”(142). Displacing labor did help combat the rise of socialism (with which Jevons in particular was exercised)(143), but it raised a new problem, one anticipated by Nietzsche: the possible disappearance of value, when there is no reliable foundation for it. Nietzsche feared the inversion of values in socialism (as in Christianity, slave morality being raised above its natural, aristocratic Master morality of power), or the flattening of them in utilitarianism. They could also, like God, just die off, leaving only nihilism in the vacuum created by their absence (144). So value must be made, fabricated:

Value was indeed a human creation, Nietzsche acknowledged, and as such could just as easily be conceived as a gift, an honorific bestowed by one man upon another. “Through esteeming alone is there value,” Nietzsche has Zarathustra declare; “to esteem is to create.” Value was not made with coarse and clumsy hands; it was enacted with an appraising gaze, a nod of the head signifying the matchless abundance of an exquisite sense of taste. It was, in short, aristocratic. (145)

The rationale for this was that labour belonged to valueless nature, while the artist alone could grant value (146). So too did the marginalist Menger write that value did not inhere in goods, but in the mind of the consumer of goods. Jevons agreed!(147)

This was different, though, from Benthamite quantification of happiness (remember hedon-units, kids?!), as the mind is not understandable, not even to itself—it cannot be mapped unlike in Bentham’s schema:

“What we want or don’t want is merely a representation, a snapshot of the motions of our will—that black box of preference and partiality that so fascinated Nietzsche precisely because it seemed so groundless and yet so generative […] “The will is our pendulum,” declared Jevons, a representation of forces that cannot be seen but whose effects are nevertheless felt, “and its oscillations are minutely registered in all the price lists of the markets.”

Value is completely subjective, and measured only by the market.

Subjective value is connected to “need”, which in turn derive from “our wills and our habits”, which are unique to the individual and “arbitrary” (148). Becoming aware of them, we also become aware of “how the need might be fulfilled by a particular good”, and we look out at the world at calculate what opportunity cost we are prepared to undergo to satisfy that need—what would we give up to get it? Value finally enters the picture when becoming aware of “‘the importance we attribute to the satisfaction of our needs.’ Value is thus ‘a judgment’ that ‘economizing men make about the importance of the goods at their disposal for the maintenance of their lives and well-being.’ It ‘does not exist outside the consciousness of men.'”

But what if many individuals value something like socialism?! As Nietzsche had complained, the slaves had seemed to have “cornered the market on morality”. This led him to question the very idea of morality, while Mises and Hayek solved the problem by making the market the very expression of morality”(149) No longer were markets neutral, as our wallets spoke of what was most valued by us:

Any economic situation confronts us with the necessity of choice, of having to deploy our limited resources—whether time, money, or effort—on behalf of some end. In making that choice, we reveal which of our ends matters most to us, which is higher, which is lower. “Every man who, in the course of economic activity, chooses between the satisfaction of two needs, only one of which can be satisfied, makes judgments of value,” says Mises. (150)

This is true because time and resources are finite, and press us to choose. Our real values are betrayed through our economic decisions, not through the expressions of our consciences in high-sounding words!

By imposing this drama of choice, the economy becomes a theater of self-disclosure, the stage upon which we discover and reveal our ultimate ends. It is not in the casual chatter of a seminar or the cloistered pews of a church that we determine our values; it is in the duress—the ordeal—of our lived lives, those moments when we are not only free to choose but forced to choose. “Freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us,” Hayek wrote, “is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created.”(151)

Every man is thus a moralist, as all make economic choices, each of which “compel[s] [us] to answer the questions: What do I believe? What do I want in this world? From this life?”(152).

Nietzsche himself valorized such constraints, which forced us to overcome them or adapt ourselves to them: either way, in so doing, we create value.

Nietzsche’s point was primarily aesthetic. Contrary to the romantic notion of art being produced by a process of “letting go,” Nietzsche insisted that the artist “strictly and subtly. . . obeys thousandfold laws.” The language of invention—whether poetry, music, or speech itself—is bound by “the metrical compulsion of rhyme and rhythm.”54 Such laws are capricious in their origin and tyrannical in their effect. That is the point: from that unforgiving soil of power and whimsy grows the most miraculous increase. Not just in the arts—Goethe, say, or Beethoven—but in politics and ethics as well: Napoleon, Caesar, Nietzsche himself (“Genuine philosophers. . . are commanders and legislators: they say, ‘thus it shall be!’ ”

This smacks of fascism, and indeed, that is one channel down which these ideas would later sail. Carl Schmitt, for example, wrote of how the superior man, when faced with social and political obstacles, overcomes them through the power of his will and by fiat founds a new order of things (the New Order, perhaps!) (153).

But the Austrian economists went in a different direction—that of the market:

Money in a capitalist economy, Hayek came to realize, could be best understood and defended in Nietzschean terms: as “the medium through which a force”—the self’s “desire for power to achieve unspecified ends”—“makes itself felt.”

There remained the problem about the locus of value, however: if in Nietzsche’s system value was essentially aristocratic, in Austrian marginalism the masses of consumers assigned value through their purchases (154). There were two ways of coming at this problem, the first being Schumpeter’s, the second being Hayek’s.

For Schumpeter, the “entrepreneur” is central to his understanding of the market. This man lacks any of Nietzsche’s noble, romantic grandeur, and “his instincts and impulses are confined to the office and the counting table”. But in that domain he is a creature of “force and will”, and the “fanatic[al]” energy to obsess over putting an idea into practice that would make lesser men give up. He is also a man of “originality” in that he has his antennae up, knows which way the wind is blowing, is an “opportunist” who has “‘receptivity to new facts'” (155). In the economic arena, not in politics, he attempts to live a dramatic life, one Schumpeter describes in military terms, of conquest and “command”. If successful, he becomes a “Machiavellian prince”, a “founder” of a “‘private kingdom'” that might turn out to be a “‘dynasty'”, and “emerges as a legislator of values and new ways of being” (Steve Jobs, perhaps?!)(156).

The rise of the modern corporation, however, threatened the very existence of this “‘medieval lordship”, as the public company “‘socializes the bourgeois mind'” and minimized the need for “‘individual leadership'”(157). So Hayek came up with a second way of tackling the problem of this levelling of values: worker/consumer choices are irrational, and can be shaped by capitalists, by “an avant-garde of taste”, who would dictate “the deepest beliefs and aspirations of a people”(158). His thinking about this goes as follows:

Modern civilized life and progress depend upon experts having knowledge, and users having know-how (consumers can’t make computers, but can use them well enough). The experts liberate us to do other things with their innovations. But:

We can never know what serendipity of knowledge and know-how will produce the best results, which union of genius and ignoramus will yield the greatest advance. For that reason, individuals—all individuals—must be free to pursue their ends, to exploit the wisdom of others for their own purposes. Allowing for the uncertainties of progress is the greatest guarantor of progress. Hayek’s argument for freedom rests less on what we know or want to know than on what we don’t know, less on what we are morally entitled to as individuals than on the beneficial consequences of individual freedom to society as a whole.

So the freedom we should be most concerned about is that of the inventor, he who benefits society. “The freedom of some is worth more than the freedom of others”(159). In fact, Hayek states that “‘such liberty may be neither possible nor desirable for the great majority'”. The only way to ensure that the unknown future inventor arises, however, is to give us all freedom as a starting point, even though most of us will never do anything with our lives, never break free of custom and habit (160). This makes collective action almost impossible, and almost never desirable. Workers are best at “submitting to the workplace regime” and “‘fitting […] into a given framework'”, not in changing to a new one. It is to the avant-garde that we must look for progress: from their height and with their power they can see “new horizons”, and help get us there (161). Even if they have inherited their wealth and power, this still helps the little guy, in a trickle-down kind of way:

Often, says Hayek, it is only the very rich who can afford new products or tastes. Lavishing money on these boutique items, they give producers the opportunity to experiment with better designs and more efficient methods of production. Thanks to their patronage, producers will find cheaper ways of making and delivering these products—cheap enough, that is, for the majority to enjoy them. What was before a luxury of the idle rich—stockings, automobiles, piano lessons, the university—is now an item of mass consumption.

Ayn Rand’s manly architect enacts his unique vision, and…voila! we get: Ikea!

Not only that, but the idle rich have time for non-material ends (162). They become our all-too-acknowledged “cultural legislators”, shaping our opinions and beliefs (oh, that’s what Rupert Murdoch does, gee!). A good thing too, cos us workers? Our imaginations are stunted by all that work we have to do!

“There is something seriously lacking in a society in which all the intellectual, moral, and artistic leaders belong to the employed classes. . . . Yet we are moving everywhere toward such a position.” When labor becomes the norm, in both senses of the term, culture does not stand a chance. (163)

This is what Hayek means by the title of his book, The Road To Serfdom. The democratization of value impoverishes all of us. We poorer folk need the rich in ways we cannot really fathom:

Current events seemed to supply Hayek with an endless parade of candidates. A year after its publication in 1961, he sent The Constitution of Liberty to Portuguese strongman António Salazar, with a covering note professing his hope that it might assist the dictator “in his endeavour to design a constitution which is proof against the abuses of democracy.” Pinochet’s constitution of 1980 is named after the 1961 text. (164)

III American Vistas

7. Metaphysics and Chewing Gum (Ayn Rand)

(Then as Farce, Incorporated:)

Rand, is also someone who imagines a stark dichotomy between the great individual and the slavish mass. But her novels always deal with an interesting variation upon this (170). The “demigod-creator” is beset not by the masses themselves, but by the cogs in the machine, the “intellectuals, bureaucrats and middlemen” who come between these two. It’s aesthetic “kitsch”, and quasi political “fascism”, her vision, says Robin (171). Do the two go together?

She was a self-absorbed child (going to the movies while her family went without food), a narcissistic adult, a case of “arrested development” (172). Her tastes were “middlebrow and conventional”, favoring melodrama and grandiosity in the arts, considered herself nearly sui generis in philosophy (though nods to Aristotle, whom she misinterpreted). But her real source of inspiration was not other writers, not her experience of Communism in Russia, but her sojourn in Hollywood upon coming to America in 1926, says Robin (173). There she learned the value of “a good yarn” (174), and the cheap, hollow melodramatic soul of America, the larger than life heroes and villains of the “dream factory”.

As for Aristotle, she liked to think that his law of noncontradiction, that A = A, and that both A and -A cannot both be true, were supportive of her idea of the virtue of selfishness (175). She was unaware that logical relations cannot be used to deduce claims regarding facts, according to Robert Nozick, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics (happiness (eudaimonia as a kind of practical flourishing by adopting virtuous habits, thereby living well the way an acorn becomes a mighty oak) had little to do with her celebration of selfishness and attacks on altruism. No, for her the great individual struggles to overcome difficult obstacles, while the wicked prosper at the expense of our hero:

What makes the path treacherous—not for the hero, who seems to have been born fully outfitted for it, but for the rest of us—are the obstacles along the way. Doing the right thing brings hardship, penury, and exile, while doing the wrong thing brings wealth, status, and acclaim. Because he refuses to submit to architectural conventions, Roark winds up splitting rocks in a quarry. Peter Keating, Roark’s doppelgänger, betrays everyone, including himself, and is the toast of the town. Ultimately, of course, the distribution of rewards and punishments will reverse: Roark is happy, Keating miserable. But ultimately is always and inevitably a long way off.(177)

Again we return to the question of value: for Rand, life has value because it will one day end. Life is not given, but is “a conditional, a choice we must make, not once but again and again…Death, in short, makes life dramatic. It makes our choices […] matter…It’s high noon all the time”(178).

This smacks not of Aristotle or even Sartrean existentialism, says Robin, but fascism:

The notion of life as a struggle against and unto death, of every moment laden with destruction, every choice pregnant with destiny, every action weighed upon by annihilation, its lethal pressure generating moral meaning—these are the watchwords of the European night. In his Berlin Sportpalast speech of February 1943, Goebbels declared, “Whatever serves it and its struggle for existence is good and must be sustained and nurtured. Whatever is injurious to it and its struggle for existence is evil and must be removed and eliminated.”(179)

The “it” here, the fascist German nation, runs parallel here to the Randian individual. And “like Hitler, Rand finds in nature, in man’s struggle for survival, a “logical foundation” for capitalism”(180).

Hitler believed that it was the strong individual that determined the destiny of the German “race and nation”, and Rand says much the same in Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal”:

“The exceptional men, the innovators, the intellectual giants. . . . It is the members of this exceptional minority who lift the whole of a free society to the level of their own achievements, while rising further and ever further.”
If the first half of Hitler’s economic views celebrates the romantic genius of the individual industrialist, the second spells out the inegalitarian implications of the first. Once we recognize “the outstanding achievements of individuals,” Hitler says in Düsseldorf, we must conclude that “people are not of equal value or of equal importance.” Private property “can be morally and ethically justified only if [we] admit that men’s achievements are different.” An understanding of nature fosters a respect for the heroic individual, which fosters an appreciation of inequality in its most vicious guise. “The creative and decomposing forces in a people always fight against one another.”(181)

So in Rand’s universe you are either a heroic creator (on the side of life), or a “parasite” or “moocher” (on the side of death). Rand and the Nazis in this way share a “vulgar Nietzscheism” (remember, Nietzsche’s noble Artist bears little resemblance to the philistine capitalist of either Rand or Schumpeter) that we feel down to this day. Indeed, as a young woman she idolized the writer, and, a lifelong atheist, was especially taken by his excoriation of Christianity, “which she called the ‘best kindergarten of communism possible'”(183).

This is not heresy in conservative circles, but central to a particular subset of them. De Maistre worried about Protestants reading the bible themselves “paved the way for century upon century of regicide and revolt originating in the lower classes”. Nietzsche himself called Christians and Jews as purveyors of “a slave morality” which negated the strength of the pagan noble class, and which finds its most modern expression in socialist movements:

Before there was religion or even morality, there was the sense and sensibility of the master class. The master looked upon his body—its strength and beauty, its demonstrated excellence and reserves of power—and saw and said that it was good. As an afterthought he looked upon the slave, and saw and said that it was bad. The slave never looked upon himself: he was consumed by envy of and resentment toward his master. Too weak to act upon his rage and take revenge, he launched a quiet but lethal revolt of the mind. He called all the master’s attributes—power, indifference to suffering, thoughtless cruelty—evil. He spoke of his own attributes—meekness, humility, forbearance—as good. He devised a religion that made selfishness and self-concern a sin, and compassion and concern for others the path to salvation. He envisioned a universal brotherhood of believers, equal before God, and damned the master’s order of unevenly distributed excellence.

Rand, like Nietzsche before her, sees religion “not as a remedy to, but as a helpmate of, the left”, and like Nietzsche the real remedy is to go back to pagan antiquity to find a “master-class morality” (185).

But her second-hand, third-rate reworkings and misinterpretations are incredibly popular today, and it is tempting to see her in this as a con artist, but Robin claims that con men are quite clear-eyed about what they do, and prefers to view Rand as “an idealist of the most primitive sort”. She believed the dreams her dream factory was peddling.(187)

8. The Prince as Pariah (Barry Goldwater)

It is commonplace for the conservative to envision himself as an underdog or exile in his own country (189), as a victim who is besieged on all sides(190). They are aggrieved and entitled, and if we pity them or if they otherwise claim “our allegiance and affection) that makes them one of us, even if we are poor and they are rich (191):

But how do they convince us that we are one of them? By making privilege democratic and democracy aristocratic. The conservative does not defend the Old Regime; he speaks on behalf of old regimes—in the family, the factory, the field. There, ordinary men, and sometimes women, get to play the part of little lords and ladies, supervising their underlings as if they all belong to a feudal estate. Long before Huey Long cried, “Every man a king,” a more ambiguous species of democrat spoke virtually the same words, though to different effect: the promise of democracy is to govern another human being as completely as a monarch governs his subjects. The task of conservatism becomes clear: surround these old regimes with fences and gates, protect them from meddlesome intruders like the state or a social movement, and descant on mobility and innovation, freedom and the future.

Barry Goldwater’s take on this ceaseless conservative quest was to cast conservatism as independent of wealth and privilege (192), as possessing a “conscience” if not really a “heart” (compassion being something wishy-washy that he excoriated Eisenhower and Nixon for adopting). In this he echoes Burke, who noted that “Possessing vast “resources,” Burke concluded, “may be among impediments” in the struggle against revolution.”

If New dealers countered Gilded age barons’ lie that workers were free to negotiate with powerful employers with arguments about economic power, Goldwater agreed with this premise but added that taxation robbed workers of that economic power (193). Liberals, says Goldwater “romantic[ally]”, don’t consider “‘the whole man”‘, but concern themselves only with “‘the material side of man’s nature'” . Goldwater wanted the state to nobly lift man up to a plane above the economic, though he hardly “reject[ed] the affluent society” either: rather, amassing wealth was how man “distinguish[ed] himself from the ‘undifferentiated mass'”—to become, as we have seen before, a feudal lord.

So when conservatives speak of freedom/liberty, they are being disingenuous, as they have always privileged the idea of subordination, of hierarchy, of “submission”(194). Freedom is merely a “proxy for inequality”, allowed the “initiative and ambition of uncommon men” to rise to the fore. It is a means to an unfree end. According to Karl Mannheim, conservatives

often champion the group—races or nations—rather than the individual. Races and nations have unique identities, which must, in the name of freedom, be preserved. They are the modern equivalents of feudal estates. They have distinctive, and unequal, characters and functions; they enjoy different, and unequal, privileges. Freedom is the protection of those privileges, which are the outward expression of the group’s unique inner genius.

Goldwater parsed this traditional conservative union of nationalism and racism, favouring the former but not, in theory, the latter, though his championing of states rights in effect argued for white racism in the south by default (195).

When he lost the 1964 landslide, he gave conservatism the impetus to broaden its tent, not by changing its racism or nationalism, but by including Christians, women, and adapting language used by the left. Christian evangelicals were an especially appropriate group to include, as they were heavily affected by desegregation (196). Couching their cause as a defence of religious minorities rather than white supremacy made “the heirs of slaveholders bec[o]me the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect”.

After Nixon, conservatives added anti-feminism to their arsenal, further “galvaniz[ing]” the Christian right, who in spokeswoman Phyllis Schlafly had a unique “defender” of a woman’s right to attack the ERA and be a “wife in the home”(197). She and Billy Graham thereby appropriated the language of the women’s movement for the forces of reaction, as did Nixonian-era corporate interests in “sell[ing] capitalism as the fulfillment of sixties-style liberation, participation, and authenticity” (198), as campus small business institutes multiplied and Milton Friedman developed a PBS show to promote libertarian thought—both portraying government and left academics as bullies and business as victims (199). Even Nixon himself got in on some of this, particularly using civil rights discourse to coopt white ethics like Poles etc. into the movement as oppressed victims: this “new vocabulary of white ethnicity helped create “a romanticized past of hard work, discipline, well-defined gender roles, and tight-knit families,” providing a new language for a new age—and a very old regime”(200).

9. “Superpowers don’t do Windows”: Remembrance of Empires Past (The Neocons)

For William Buckley and Irving Kristol, winning the cold war came with one big drawback: a globalized capitalism “did not provide the passion and élan” conservatives of their pedigree demanded, nor the “gravitas and authority” of an America bestride the globe (201-02). Self-interest had to be subordinate to the national interest, but how could this be accomplished in a nation of shopkeepers and shoppers? Buckley found it “boring” to live without access to the sublime, while Kristoll found that business lacked the left’s trump card: a “political imagination”. America, he said was “‘not Athens. It’s not Rome. It’s not anything'”(203).

9/11 was supposed to shock America back into being something, into standing for something larger than commerce, and for a time, it gave them “a sense of depth and seriousness”, a “coherent national purpose” fueled by “international responsibilities” once more. Neocons saw this drive for global stability good for the US and for the rest of us, but it was a re-birth of an “imperial political culture” nonetheless, and was fueled in part by oil interests (204), though the larger part goes back to the aftermath of the collapse of communism in 1989.

The “dream of prosperity” and an end to history during the 1990s led for many conservatives, including Francis Fukuyama, to diagnose that we had become distracted by “self-indulgent behaviour” of the individual good life, the “petty affairs” of marketing consumerism (205). 9/11 “mobilized” us, made us come back to life, awakened “‘resolve, even love'” (said George Packer). We are back to the old Burkean sublime: 9/11 was really, said David Brooks, “’a cleanser, washing away a lot of the self-indulgence of the past decade.’ Revivifying fear eliminated the anxiety of prosperity, replacing a disabling emotion with a bracing passion.” Suddenly, the amoral market was no longer king, but a “moral electricity [was] now coursing through the body politic” (206). Even ex-Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens felt part of a crusade, an “‘exhilaration'” that “here was the most frightful enemy—theocratic barbarism—in plain view. . . . I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost'”(207).

The reason why America needed to find its way again stem from how it got lost, as it were, at the end of the Cold War, when America was no longer sure how and when to deploy its military might, and against whom (208). It lacked clear strategic aims, symptomatic of a wider policy confusion: “So uncertain about the national interest did political elites become that a top Clinton defense aide—and later dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School—eventually threw up his hands in defeat, declaring the national interest to be whatever ‘citizens, after proper deliberation, say it is’”(209). Taking office, Bill Clinton saw no credible threat to American hegemony other than protectionist trade policies, and set his goal as the “enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies”(209), also reflecting the growing belief in the decline in the power of the nation-state (cf. Hardt & Negri, and others)(210). “Soft power”, “Cultural Capital” became buzzwords, even Gramsci’s “hegemony”. Omnipresent American hard power was not good for globalism.

The neocons despised all of this. Robert Kaplan, for example, found the “‘healthy, well-fed'” first world consumer to be lacking in moral fibre: “‘Material possessions’, he concluded, ‘encourage docility'”(211). This was also the decade where sociologists engaged in hand-wringing over
The decline in social and political participation (cf. Bowling Alone). America was selfish, decadent, concerned with the pleasures of “‘”‘momentary satisfaction'”(Kaplan) (212):

Clinton’s free-market obsessions betrayed an unwillingness to embrace the murky world of power and violent conflict, of tragedy and rupture. His foreign policy was not just unrealistic; it was insufficiently dark and brooding. “The striking thing about the 1990s zeitgeist,” complained Brooks, “was the presumption of harmony. The era was shaped by the idea that there were no fundamental conflicts anymore.” Conservatives thrive on a world filled with mysterious evil and unfathomable hatreds, where good is always on the defensive and time is a precious commodity in the cosmic race against corruption and decline. Coping with such a world requires pagan courage and an almost barbaric virtú, qualities conservatives embrace over the more prosaic goods of peace and prosperity.

The Neocons were caught, of course, in a bit of a contradiction: they simultaneously supported the free market and loathed its effects on the body politic (214), a contradiction first noticed by Daniel Bell (The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, 1976)but which became truly evident only with the loss of the USSR as an enemy (215). The neocons had their chance to set things “right” when 9/11 gave them carte blanche to refocus American imperial might and impose US-style democracy on Iraq in 2003, experiencing almost no resistance from the Democrats at the time—though the periodic appearance of critics of Neoconservative hawks surfaces in the years since, even as the militarized state becomes ever more potent on paper, to suggest that, perhaps, “events lie beyond the empire’s control”. Witness the Israel/Palestine, just for starters, where even neocons have avoided involvement for the simple fact that they would fail in imposing order, which would give the lie to the neocon notion that America can rule by fiat, thereby exposing “the essential fragility of the imperial position” (216).

Not only that, but the neocon opposition to government spending effectively derails their ambitions to project power globally through “nation-building” [if that’s what all those wars were!] (217) For all their rhetoric to the contrary, “there is little evidence to suggest that the political and cultural renewal imagined by most commentators—the revival of the state, the return of shared sacrifice and community, the deepening of moral awareness—ever took place, even in the headiest days of the aftermath of 9/11.” Two examples of this are, first, the failure of either party to convince Americans to pay more for their cars in order to improve the environment, and second, their inability to even reach consensus on paying just compensation to 9/11 victims’ families, which were given money proportional to their income at the time rather than on the basis of equality of victimization (218). The military, too, is not driven to increase enlistment by patriotism so as appealing to the social-economic status of minorities (219), and very few white middle class families were affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: America is a country divided along class lines, not united as one.

10. Affirmative Action Baby (Chief Justice Antonin Scalia)

Scalia is another case study in how the continuities of traditional Burkean conservatism is both maintained and updated to try to suit the times. Robin says that his hero is a lawless nobleman, Jack Bauer, of the show 24, one prepared to flout the system as well as moral “absolutes” his society attempts to rein him in by in order to defeat terrorism (221). Yet Scalia, a constitutional “originalist” also seems to believe in those absolutes (222). This is a tricky knot to untie, and to do so we must understand Scalia’s relationship to language, to politics, and to…games.

The Constitution must be taken literally, he feels. Thus, in fudging the legal status of enemy combatants right to a speedy trial, the majority on the court, he felt were refusing to deal with reality: these were denied their traditional rights, but granted a strange status of being given a hearing “before some kind of tribunal”. Scalia maintained that “a government at war, even one as unconventional as the war on terror, had two, and only two, ways to hold a citizen: try him in a court of law or have Congress suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Live by the rules of due process, in other words, or suspend them. Take a stand; make a choice.”

Making a choice regardless of the consequences, especially if they are negative for all concerned, was what drove the majority to their decision, and this drove Scalia nuts, because for Scalia difficulty is not to be avoided, but embraced: it is what makes life life. Living authentically did not necessarily living so that things become “better”:

Scalia’s mission, by contrast, was to make everything come out wrong. A Scalia opinion, to borrow a phrase from New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot, is “the jurisprudential equivalent of smashing a guitar on stage.”4 Scalia may have once declared the rule of law to be the law of rules—leading some to mistake him for a stereotypical conservative—but rules and laws had a particular frisson for him. Where others look to them for stabilizing checks or reassuring supports, Scalia saw exhilarating impediments and vertiginous barriers. Where others seek security, Scalia sought sublimity. Rules and laws make life harder, and harder is everything. “Being tough and traditional is a heavy cross to bear,” he told one reporter. “Duresse oblige.”(223)

Duresse oblige. Difficulty commands, requires—that we submit, that we struggle, either, both, but it is the imperative that matters: it obliges.

Scalia came at this lively philosophy via an upbringing large, traditional Catholic family, a heritage he maintained with his own ten children. It was a “counterculture, a retreat from and rebuke to the mainstream” of society, a gesture similar in form to that of the hippies, but in the opposite direction politically (225). It is an elective affinity, his conservatism, one of “invention and choice”: uncompromising “orthodoxy and piety were, for him, the essence of dissidence and iconoclasm”(226).

All of this comes alive in his constitutional originalism—what the words in the constitution meant culturally at the time they were written (not what the actual people writing them “intended to say—a crucial distinction) marks the limits of our interpretive capacity of that guiding document (226). The text itself, not the intentions behind it:

Scalia justified his originalism on two grounds, both negative. In a constitutional democracy it is the job of elected representatives to make the law, the job of judges to interpret it. If judges are not bound by how the law, including the Constitution, was understood at the time of its enactment—if they consult their own morals or their own interpretations of the country’s morals—they are no longer judges but lawmakers, and often unelected lawmakers at that. By tying the judge to a text that does not change, originalism helps reconcile judicial review with democracy and protects us from judicial despotism.(227)

Scalia maintained that if judges failed to conduct themselves in such a manner, they ceased to be judges, and became legislators—so-called activist judges , a term favoured in the right-wing media. Thus the constitution does not evolve along with society, Scalia insists, lest we end up with a tyranny of the courts and anarchy in the interpretation of laws (228), (a situation originalists maintained was de facto reality from the 1960s-70s, during which “exotic theories of adjudication were paraded with libidinous abandon”).

Scalia did take from the hostile camp a theoretical self-consciousness, however, that other traditionalist jurists did not have before. His beliefs were “forged […] in battle against a liberal jurisprudence that was self-conscious and theoretical, and, like so many of their predecessors on the right, they have come out of it looking more like their enemies than their friends (229). This new-look conservatism, one which, as we shall see, refused the essentialism of the past in favour of a post-modern understanding of language, is best illustrated in Scalia’s minority ruling on golf, of all things: rejecting Casey Martin’s (a disabled pro golfer) argument that the PGA should allow him to use a cart when it was against the rules for able-bodied pros to do so revealed Scalia’s obsession with life as a game, one in which, unlike in “real” life, competition is king and inequality is queen (231), “a perfect marriage of the feudal and the fallible”(232) that our laws should try to imitate. The majority ruling tried to define the essence of golf, so that Martin’s situation could be included, he wrote, but golf has no essence: it is an arbitrary set of rules, much like the constitution, rules that we are not free to change yet must strive to live by—winner take all!

Thus Scalia mixes the Burkean need for strife, for agon, sublimity via unequal competition, with a post-Nietzschean, anti-essentialist understanding of values, and of language (234). Reality is what the feudal lord imposes by edict, for no other reason than he can. But if Scalia’s theology informs his passion for competition, does that not smack of a different essentialism, one that he has smuggled in to the argument?

Left unresolved, however, the contradiction reveals the twin poles of Scalia’s faith: a belief in rules as arbitrary impositions of power—reflecting nothing (not even the will or standing of their makers) but the flat surface of their locutionary meaning—to which we must nevertheless submit; and a belief in rules, zealously enforced, as the divining rod of our ineradicable inequality. Those who make it past these blank and barren gods are winners; everyone else is a loser.

Losers we may all be, for, Robin points out, Scalia’s methods (if not his politics, exactly) were triumphant: “we are all originalists now (236), in that past constitutional scholars looked to philosophy for interpretive weight, whereas today’s “look to history, to the moment when a word or passage became a part of the text”. For all that whoever, in making life a game which divides us up into winning and losing camps, and in which struggle is the lone essential good, Scalia both reflects and enhances current trends. But competition really can only take place in a larger sphere of cooperation, in which all agree to play by the same rules, and to flip the ethos of 24on its head, it is not that our liberal freedoms depend upon the evil deeds of the Jack Bauers of the world, but that they can only operate because we have created the liberal democracy that tolerates them, just as it tolerates rogue intellectuals like this crazy, driven originalist (238). “The conservatism of duresse oblige depends upon the liberalism of noblesse oblige, not the other way around.”

11. A Show About Nothing (Donald Trump)

Here Robin examines Trump’s ghostwritten The Art of the Deal (1987) closely, for clues as to how he (and we) got to where we are in the time of writing, 2017. Simply put, his inconsistency in everything is not a defect, but a feature!—a feature not only of his personal narrative, but of conservatism’s generally (239), beginning with an 18C aversion (cf. Oakeshott) to “the supposed simpleminded rationalism that was supposed to animate the left.” Conservatives had a more organic approach to truth, it was thought, e.g. for Walter Bagehot, “‘truth as a succession of perpetual oscillations, like the negative and positive signs of an alternate series, in which you were constantly more or less denying or affirming the same proposition’” (240)— a similar attitude running through the thought of de Maistre and Burke as well, who maintained that “‘a clear idea is therefore another name for a simple idea.'”

Of course Trump only approaches all of this unconsciously, but inconsistency is part of his appeal to his followers, as this “advertises the image of the non-stuffed shirt” that they want in a leader, as, supposedly, (in Trump’s own words) “you can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure.'” Thus his cocktail of ” racism, irregularity and populism”, his “nativism” unknowingly taps into an age-old conservative vein, if indeed he “weaponiz[es]” and intensifies elements of the tradition (241), for two reasons.

First, he combines two not-altogether commensurable poles in the tradition, that of the “political and economic.” The former valorizes Nietzsche’s “grosse Politik(242) (“elite action”, “high politics” on the battlefield (241)), while the other privileges economic privilege, capital accumulation. Indeed this tension between “the warrior and the businessman” predates both conservatism and capitalism itself, but in any case the political-tinged conservative puts capitalism firmly in second place, while the other stream, the economic (initiated by Hayek and Schumpeter, see above) “recast[s]” capitalism so that it looks more like the warrior conservatism, “like the agonistic political world its early defenders and critics thought capitalism might displace. The businessman ceases to be an antidote to the warrior or the aristocrat; he becomes their sublimation.” Both currents of conservative thought found their source in Burke.

The second reason that Trump’s conservatism is somewhat novel is his skillful juggling of elitist and populist ideas, “mak[ing] privilege popular” (243), arguably more than any politician before him. Traditionally, conservatism has tried to do this in one of two ways: either by “multiplying the ranks of privilege” (so that nearly everyone gets to literally lord it over someone beneath him, as in a highly stratified corporate bureaucracy), or else by simplifying them into an easy-to-imagine binary (e.g. black vs white). At other times, it has made America itself the elite, and its imperial clients into the vassals, “‘a kind of nobility among nations'” as Hannah Arendt noted. Or it has envisioned its elites as victims, “encouraging the masses to see their abjection reflected in the higher misery of those above them.” But Trump’s victory suggests a new development, that the masses are no longer willing to play any of those simpler games, those which give them “racial and imperial privileges” when economically they sink further into misery.

Most likely, it was “working-class swing voters in depressed areas of the rust belt” who gave Trump the victory, “many of whom had voted twice for Obama” (307 n.17). These are not part of Trump’s base, but mobilizing them required “a more brazen sound” than “racial dog whistles” for the base. Trump’s rhetoric, if not his policies, loudly blare economic populism:

Trump’s critique of plutocracy, defense of entitlements, and articulated sense of the market’s wounds were among the more noteworthy rhetorical innovations of his campaign—at least with respect to recent victorious strands of the electoral right (one can find precedents for Trump’s mix of racial and economic populism in the less electorally successful campaigns of Father Coughlin, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan).19 If nothing else, those rhetorical innovations signal that the sun of Reaganomics—which saw in the unfettered market the answer to the political, economic, and cultural stagflation of the 1970s—no longer warms the lower orders of the right.20 It’s not “morning in America,” Trump declared in a recent campaign book, invoking Reagan’s famous tag line from 1984; we are now “mourning for America.” (244)

Trump has co-opted terrain that traditionally belonged to the left, because forty-five years after the start of the neo-liberal agenda in 1973, there is no longer any viable left to oppose capitalism, and conservatives have always needed to be spurred into clear-thinking and decisive action by the spectre of a real and dangerous which they must fight against, and a “crisis” to solve that that enemy has caused. They need to frame their actions as a “defen[ce] [of] power and privilege in the face of a movement seeking their elimination” (245). Trump is thus “a window onto the dissolution of the conservative whole, a whole that is dissolving because its victories have been so great, a whole that can allow itself to collapse because it has achieved so much.” Trump is their indulgent moment of whimsy, their “luxury of irresponsibility”, the weak-minded, spoiled teenaged son driving his successful father’s sports car way too fast.

And it is in The Art of the Deal where we will find insight into just what kind of irresponsible luxury he is. It is emblematic of

the right’s competing visions of the market. On the one hand, it celebrates the economy as the sphere of great men, where the strong dominate the weak. On the other hand, it mounts a persistent, almost poignant, questioning of the value of capitalism, suggesting that economic pursuits are frivolous if not meaningless, that a society should be about something more than making money […] [Trump] sets out both visions so starkly, elevating neither the one nor the other but allowing both to exist side by side, each calling the other into question. (246-47)

Much of the book casts himself as the Schumpeterian capitalist warrior-prince, who values money only for keeping score of how he is competing: “money is a medium, a way of declaring something about himself”—for Trump, at least, money really is equal to free speech! Even as regards his buildings, for example, he is “less concerned about their size and scale” that with what they say about him, via the opulence and richness of their surfaces (the marble, the polished brass…)(249), all of which can be viewed as expressions of his political ideology as well. For Trumps politics are above all aesthetic in nature, “less monumental than ornamental” (251), a “rococo aesthetic” stuck in the NYC opulence of the 1980s, which was “opulent and ostentatious, loud and luxurious, vicious and vulgar”—and which mistakenly thinks that it harkens back to the pre-revolutionary French ancien regime.

Trump came to this aesthetic via his mother, who unlike his “penny-pinching bourgeois” father, loved aristocratic “pomp and circumstance” (252). But conservative capitalist princes have little time for the

staid and static traditionalism of the feudal worldview. Their conception of power is more dynamic, their notions of supremacy more agonistic. They believe in domination, but it is a domination laden with struggle: either among equals, along the lines of what Nietzsche sets out in “Homer’s Contest,” or between superiors and subordinates. Conservatives want a ruling elite, but it must be one that has been tested, that has won its place at the table through personal displays of fortitude. (253)

And Trump is no different. An admirer of Conrad Hilton (for whom “inherited wealth destroys moral character”), trust-funded Donald was nevertheless marked not by idle dilettantism but by ” a driving will to win”, which he maintains is not learned but is “‘an ability you’re born with'” (254). As with Scalia’s games above, Trump viewed “economic contests between businessmen […] as the divining rod of natural inequality.”

But after you win and keep winning, what then? If “‘it’s the deal that’s fundamental'”,. As Trump insists, what do you do after making the deal but make the next deal, and so on and so on? Robin’s answer is that

here is an unexpected sigh of emptiness, even boredom, at the end of Trump’s celebration of economic combat: “If you ask me exactly what the deals I’m about to describe all add up to in the end, I’m not sure I have a very good answer.” In fact, he has no answer at all. He says, hopefully, “I’ve had a very good time making them,” and wonders, wistfully, “If it can’t be fun, what’s the point?”46 But the quest for fun is all that he has to offer—a dispiriting narrowness that Max Weber anticipated more than a century ago when he wrote that “in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.” (255)

In effect, what Trump sees in markets (unlike Reagan, who was entranced by their seemingly infinite potential for expansion) is that they are morally empty, are more like casinos than anything Schumpeter or Rand imagined they were. Capitalist markets is about placing strategic bets, nothing more, and have no larger social purpose behind them (256):

“No man of spirit will consent to remain poor if he believes his betters to have gained their goods by lucky gambling,” Keynes warned. “The business man is only tolerable so long as his gains can be held to bear some relations to what, roughly and in some sense, his activities have contributed to Society.” Any suggestion to the contrary, any hint that one’s reward depends upon gambling, would “strike a blow at capitalism,” destroying “the psychological equilibrium which permits the perpetuance of unequal rewards.”

This is why Trump’s faux economic populism appeals to those swing voters mentioned above: they see in his “brutal honesty” the possibility of making the plutocrats pay.

But that, of course, is just a ruse. What Trump is really about is getting attention: “Bravado” and “truthful hyperbole” are his self-chosen key words, and Robin notes that they are not “a sideshow to the economy”, they are the economy (257):

“A lot of attention,” says Trump, “alone creates value.” A lot of attention—not the productivity of labor, design of the engineer, vision of the entrepreneur, risk of the investor, or genius of the advertiser—that alone creates value. At the heart of his celebration of economic combat and struggle is a dim awareness that its only justification is itself. The game is the game.

If the older economic Darwinists believed, with Trump, that the game was “glorious”, they also believed that the game’s “outcome” was, too. Trump affirms that sentiment, but also undercuts it: it is truth and lies at the same time. “It is everything; it is nothing. It shall be all; it is naught. Rand grounded her vision of capitalism in A is A; Trump grounds his in A is not A.”

Trump’s book, in the end, is a “parody of [Dante’s] journey into the hell of capitalism, but at the end of that journey nothing is revealed to us by our Virgil” “there is no secret […] It is a show about nothing” (258).

Yet he is the President of the United States, and that show has real-life consequences, some of which (says Robert Paxton) bear a resemblance, in their rhetoric of “passionate nationalism” at least, to fascism, with that “sense of grievous dishonor and shame” and the “longing for re-enchantment of the state”, that “desire for national restoration and global domination”(260). The most telling thing about that rhetoric, though, is that underneath it lies a most “economistic” political vision, one in which “Trump often sees in matters of state nothing but the transactions of the market. Money is the instrument of state power. Money is the end of state power.”. He may say that China is a “‘military threat'”, and that it is our “‘enemy'”, but in practice he is actually obsessed with trying to “‘out-negotiate the Chinese'” (261). Similarly,. His main concern over Iraq was not the political, moral or human costs, but the costs in dollar terms! “It’s that ‘we should have hammered out the repayment plan with the Iraqis. . . before we launched the war.’ The Iraq War, in other words, was a bad deal” (my italics). This is again similar to his own practices in the sphere of business, where he relished the “combat” of the courtroom, appearing as either “plaintiff or defendant in more than 4,000 lawsuits” (263).

All of this

slippage from the political to the economic, from the violent to the legal, is rooted in history. As far back as the nineteenth century, capitalism assumed a militaristic guise, with references to captains of industry, industrial titans, and the like. The businessman was often depicted as a general. […But] politics has increasingly assumed an economistic guise. As Wendy Brown has argued, neoliberalism is, among other things, the conquest of political argument by economic reason. The dominant rationale for public policy is not drawn from the idiom of political philosophy but from the literature on economics: choice, efficiency, competition, exchange. (264)

This is the true story about Trump, not the fascist one—which he does make use of, but which are more theatre than reality, for if compared to historical fascism’s actual “achievement[s]” at mobilizing a nation, Trump has so far not approached their level, and most of his actual policies have been those in line with “mainstream pro-business Republicanism” (265). Trump, moreover, bears little resemblance to Hitler, either as a skilled political operative who built a party, or as someone who commanded unswerving personal loyalty from his subordinates (266).

In the end, conservatism is left in something of a quandary, as its three-pronged approach to making an “elitist movement of the masses” has become dull on each of those prongs: “muted racism, militaristic and/or Christian nationalism, and market populism […] no longer find in the electoral majority such a wide or ready response” (268). [This last point looks at least debatable in 2018: though the rump of the Republican party is indeed shrinking demographically, nationalism has been on something of a global tear of late!].

That leaves Trump with the one resource that has proven his most reliable ally throughout his career: his mercurial personality. A quicksilver madness has been the right’s friend since Burke, who believed that to counter the left, the right would need the “generous wildness of Quixotism.” Against a revolutionary challenge, “the madness of the wise” was always “better than the sobriety of fools.” Nixon, too, subscribed to this reactionary credo of power: “Never get mad unless it’s on purpose.” But where conservatives in the past deployed rage strategically, understanding its utility as a mobilizing device against a mobilized left, the rage of Trump is undisciplined, entirely his own, arrayed against anyone and everyone who is not Trump. That is why his rage seems so personal and narcissistic […] as opposed to collective and empowering. (270)

If all this “threatens to make him and his movement marginal”, the mainstream Republican policies he implements will not nourish his base, and he will eventually come off looking less like a possessor of “that youthful spirit of daring and originality […that] gave fascism its elan and esprit de corps” (271), and more like someone tired and “dull, reading from a script” that’s been hashed and re-hashed one time too many, as the firebrand rhetoric looks to be set to be subsumed in “the Republican status quo” (272).

Daniel Green’s Beyond The Blurb: On Critics and Criticism

These days literary scholars are preoccupied with ‘what you want to make of a text’, mostly dismissing ‘what it wants to make of itself’ and ignoring ‘what it wants to make of you’.

It’s 1990 and I am in a Joyce seminar in grad school, and we students (there’s about 15 of us) are supposed to run the class: the Prof regularly chimes in, but we are collectively in charge of conducting the two-hour seminar and every other week we are expected to take on a chapter of Ulysses and teach it to the others. Usually this involves linking it up with its sources, chasing down its allusions, etc. etc., and then patiently taking the class through a “close reading” of the chapter. Our goal is to make our assigned chapter of the book come alive for the class, so that the other students leave the room having experienced it in a way that is richer than if they had just read it on their own. Most of us take the instructions to heart: we are supposed to try to crawl inside the text, be the best explicator of it that we can be (part midwife, part advocate, but always the most sensitive, most judicious and patient of readers), and to shepherd the book before the class in good faith, not because authors are gods or because the text is a timelessly perfect “well-wrought urn” or transcendent work of art, but simply because by signing up for the course we have signalled that we value what Joyce has to say, and because Ulysses is really the only thing in the room that we all have in common: after all, we have not come here to discuss Irish politics, James Joyce’s upbringing, or continental modernism.

Of course, we are expected to bring up Irish politics, Joyce’s biography or aesthetic theory IF that happens to serve the novel, if it does justice to Ulysses itself: the professor is training us to be university English teachers, and expects us to be conversant with and to be able to apply all manner of tools that will help our students understand the book that has been assigned for any given week. For the purposes of pedagogy, context is the handmaiden to the work at hand, and not the other way around.

Inevitably, however, one of our fellow apprentices ignores all of this advice and gives a 30 min talk about how Ulysses unconsciously represents something about what French philosopher Louis Althusser called the “Ideological State Apparatus”. The upshot is that we leave the room not having learned or discussed anything about that particular chapter of Ulysses. We don’t even learn all that much about the Althusser’s thinking, as our fellow student has assumed that we are as conversant with it as he is. He has written a paper on Althusser in modern culture and Ulysses was just one text among many that shows how these works of alleged “art” merely reflect the ideology of the time and place in which they are created.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with writing this kind of paper: texts signify far more than their authors intend, and it can be quite enlightening (as well as, in an academic kind of way, entertaining) to bring literary texts into collision with other discourses. In fact, today, most young grad students in English are  expected to make explicit the theoretical “lens” that they will be applying to the authors that their dissertations will be dealing with: there is no easy way to “go back” to literary narratives in isolation from psychological, sociological,  historical and political ones.

And yet this is exactly what Daniel Green’s enlightening new book, Behind The Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, has come to tell us: literary criticism needs to be rescued, both from the confines of academic criticism (where literature is increasingly seen, by its more vulgar practitioners, as tertiary to this-or-that “ism”, as an epiphenomenon of ideology), and from the book review industry (which, in the shifting of its focus to meh, to middle-of-the-road “product”—all too often the reheated, easily digested regurgitations of  bland fare that everyone else is producing, faithful followings of recipes for how to write a novel circa 1885—puts everything about the author except for his or her writing front-and-centre). Instead, it is time to bring the focus back to the literary work itself, and to the interpretive possibilities inherent in taking the formal dexterity of the text seriously for a change.

In this, Green hearkens back to what was called “The New Criticism” of the 1940s, a loose collection of critics who rejected the philological, historical-biographical and moral approaches to literature that preceded them, and whose guiding tenet was “close reading” —paying careful attention to the formal elements of the literary text (especially poetry, which made New Criticism such an appealing pedagogical tool for the secondary and undergraduate classroom), with the aim of elucidating the thematic and linguistic ambiguities that were inseparable from the work’s unique formal characteristics: style was inseparable from content, these critics felt, and it was time for historical and biographical criticism (which had relegated style to being little more than a ‘purse carrier’ for content) to be shown the door.

In this (to be clear), Green is not arguing that we merely retreat to some by-gone mode of interpretation (his PhD dissertation, after all, employed the work of post-structuralist Jacques Derrida, so he definitely knows his way around “pure theory”). He is merely suggesting that it is perhaps time for a corrective, that we read a novel for the sake of reading the novel before we hammer away at it with our pet cultural theories, and that we don’t get as quite so caught up in the biography and personality of the author as the publicity industry might have us do. If we return to consider the formal elements of the text with due seriousness, Green maintains, then perhaps we might once again treat formally experimental fiction with more respect than it currently receives from the so-called “literary” fiction world. [My own pet theory (ok, hunch) about this involves both the move towards the up-sized and relatively upscale “trade” paperback format and the industry’s increasing reliance on literary prize culture from the late 1980s onward: just look at the lists of prize-winners from the last 20 years and count how many books would qualify as stylistically “experimental”—but that’s an argument for another day.]

Green’s book is divided into three sections: one that sets out what he feels to be are the important (and perhaps underappreciated) critical issues of recent literary history, another where he focuses on individual critics who, in his eyes, largely fail (by reducing literature to some narrow confine or other) in their approaches to literature, and a final section on those critics whose work celebrates in one way or another the relative autonomy of literature.  The structure of this book seems to appropriately underline his main thesis: it is not that the literary work is wholly autonomous of all other influences, but that for various reasons criticism has come to dramatically underplay, undervalue or deny the existence of any autonomy that the novel might once have assumed that it at least partially had.

In the introduction to the book, Green makes a number of polemical points that, again, are meant to redress current critical failings:

  • Literature “is worth taking seriously for its own sake”
  • The experience of reading is hardly less important than its abstract “meaning”
  • You can’t criticize what you don’t dive deeply into
  • What you are diving into is a complex deployment of/structuring of language
  • Experimental fiction’s innovations with language constantly challenge the critic to play “catch-up”

These are important points, and Green takes pains that we understand him: he is not suggesting that we abandon scholarship, but that we understand that the critic and scholar serve different functions, and that we need to be reminded of the deep importance of the cultural function of the critic: while scholars connect our knowledge of the text to other discourses and contexts, critics discuss and analyse the text on its own terms, with the aim of explicating how it is put together and of evaluating how well it does what it is trying to do. Sometimes (as with the case of Harold Bloom) these two functions go hand-in-glove, sometimes not, but we should never forget why we read novels in the first place: because they give us an experience that only novels can give us. They are not histories or biographies or potted sociologies (though they can contain elements of all of those things). When they are done well they are, rather, tightly structured linguistic experiences that challenge our understanding of what language itself can do: it can tell a story, inquire about the nature of history, society and humanity itself, but it can do all of that while being something else again. Green does not go into detail, as it is criticism and not fiction that is the chief concern of his book, but I suspect he would agree with me in this: over the past while (20- 30-something years?), such formally innovative fiction has played an increasingly diminished role in our literary culture, and we are all the poorer for it.

The first section of the book Green is devoted to expanding upon the aforementioned points via discussions of a number of critics who have informed his own practice. Green is remarkably fair-minded in his assessment of what he perceives to be these writers’ strengths and weaknesses: practicing the kind of critical-yet-sympathetic close reading that he preaches, he is indeed the ideal pedagogue that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this review: since many of the objects of his analysis in this section (Ron Silliman, Johanna Drucker and Richard Kostelantz) were new to me, I appreciated the many nuances Green teases out their bodies of work. For example, while he does not seem to share Silliman’s Marxist view of literature (that it should ultimately be the “servant” of “social reform”), he appreciates how Silliman places language at the forefront of the literary experience, and does not reduce it to “crudely propagandistic […] polemic”.  The effect of Green’s rather gracious, judicious approach makes me want to go out and pick up Silliman’s, Drucker’s and Kostelantz’s books and read them myself—surely just the kind of thing the author intends that good criticism should always aim to do!

The second part of Beyond The Blurb delves into critics whose perspective comes up seriously short, in Green’s assessment. These include James Wood (who seeks to arrest literary experimentation and to sanction it to pursue only the mode of psychological realism), Christopher Hitchens (who reduces art to political “content”),  Morris Dickstein (who ultimately sees authors as mouthpieces of their times), Hershel Parker (who “believes that literary criticism cannot proceed  [… without] a reliable knowledge of the writer’s circumstances”), and Joseph Conte (who is an example of the kind of academic critic of postmodern fiction who reduces the work to a matter of theme). Again, what is striking about each of these chapters is how fair-minded Green is to each of the authors under his analysis: none of them are dismissed out of hand, and much in them is to be found worthy of praise.  I would like to briefly focus upon Green’s analysis of one of them in particular, however, as I share Green’s assessment that this critic has had an outsized and “particularly pernicious influence upon contemporary criticism”. That critic is James Wood.

James Wood maintains that the job of fiction is to enable the reader to “see the self”:

For Wood, the opportunity to access the “mind” of a fictional character is the primary reward of reading, the representation of a mind at work the principal goal of fiction writing. Wood’s account of “how fiction works” is prescriptive, not descriptive: he wants to convince his common readers that the way of reading he presents is the one proper way of reading and that the kind of fiction that most directly satisfies the specified readerly requirements is the only kind really worthy of our attention.

The kind of writing that is worth our attention turns out, of course, to be psychological realism: verisimilitude in the representation of the individual mind—as exemplified in the work of his idol, Henry James and his third person innovation, the “free indirect style”, in which the narrator inhabits the point of view of the main character and the reader thereby gets to “go along for the ride” in their experience of the world, to and thereby experience the feeling of empathy for the protagonist’s position. In fact, this describes much of what already passes for “literary” fiction today, and Wood would have it no other way. Wood is remarkably hostile to one form of fiction in particular: what he terms “Hysterical Realism”, and I would have liked to have seen Green make more out of this particular animosity of Wood’s. By “Hysterical Realism” Wood means any novel that attempts to grapple with larger, societal issues and which strays too far from the interior “life” of the individual. Novelists as varied as Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon are labeled derisively as “the bastard step-children of Charles Dickens”, in that they bring to the novel both a wider lens and an interest in playing with form and language as a means to get readers to think rather than feel: think not merely about the life and mind of the individual, but also about said individual’s alleged “individuality”. But Wood would prefer that the novel not examine this, nor its conventional function in society, nor how such unexamined assumptions prop up the larger structures that govern many of our experiences of the world and which, in turn, create, sustain and are sustained by concepts like “individuality”.

In other words, though the novel can be and do many different things, Wood would have it merely do one, highly specific thing:

He doesn’t want to let fiction be fiction. Instead, he asks that it provide some combination of psychological analysis, metaphysics, and moral instruction, and assumes that novelists are in some way qualified to offer these services. He abjures them to avoid “aestheticism” (too much art) and to be instead respectful of “life”. As he puts it in his book’s conclusion: “The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional

But —to be clear— “life” in this view somehow does not include history, politics, economics, philosophy or sociology: for Wood, those lie outside the novel’s intended scope. Contrast this with Milan Kundera’s lone commandment: that the novel forge new exploratory paths into that limitless territory he calls “human nature”, which sounds analogous to Wood’s project except that Kundera leaves in “human nature” all that Wood has taken out of “life”: history, philosophy, etc. etc. For Kundera, the novel is capable of subsuming all other disciplines, but is incapable of letting itself be confined to any one mode, let alone that of psychological realism. Indeed, the novel’s lone source of immorality would be to re-tread steps that have already been taken, to attempt no new exploration.  I digress into Kundera to explicitly make a point that Green (because in this book his focus is on the critic and not so much the novelist) leaves somewhat implicit:  in boxing fiction into a narrow conception of “the real” Wood reduces its scope to, Green maintains, “the comedy of manners […] psychological depth and ‘tragicomic stoicism'”.

Green has much else to say on Wood, of course (and, typically, he also finds almost as much to praise as to criticise), but Wood’s central and most pernicious idea can be summed up in what Green calls his “assumption that fiction is valuable because it helps us understand human behaviour at its source in mental processes”: in other words, fiction is most valuable when it least calls attention to itself as fiction, when its prose gives us a sense of a transparent connection to another psyche. But prose is manifestly not a transparent conduit into the psyche of another: prose is a collection of words on the page. It isn’t merely that, of course, but the case of James Wood is emblematic of those critics and readers who wish that novels didn’t call quite so much attention to themselves, that they weren’t so…novelistic, so verbally playful, perturbed, restless and bothered. They wish that such novels weren’t so “contrived”, so patently replete with what they might call “ornament”, but which is, for the reader of experimental fiction anyway, the good stuff. Batting their eyes blankly at such an assertion, James Wood and his ilk would surely respond, as if novelistic experimentation was akin to performing the role of “that wretched, rash, intruding fool” Polonius, and, with the impatience of Queen Gertrude, chide him to provide “more matter, with less art”.

In the first essay in the final section collectively titled  “Critical Successes”, Green explores one of Susan Sontag’s concerns: “break[ing] down the opposition between style and content, as “style is the real substance of art, content its outer decoration, the enticement to the reader’s attention that allows the ‘experience’ of art that style enables.” I am not sure if Green would go so far as to agree with her wholeheartedly in this, but he is definitely sounding the need for a corrective, as “academic criticism has gone in precisely the opposite direction, dismissing form altogether” in favour of the kind of theoretical tub-thumping that is illustrated at the beginning of this essay.  In fact, Green does come pretty close to championing art-for-art’s sake in his analysis of some of Sontag’s deficiencies, as he states that “the function of a work art is to be itself. It doesn’t engage in ‘training’ for anything other than subsequent, perhaps more ‘educated’ experiences of art.” I get that:  art, if it is to escape the label of being “propaganda” cannot be “useful” in any direct way.  The novel primarily “belong[s] to the world of experience” and not to the world of utility, of ethics, or of any other master. Yet, as Joseph Brodsky once said, “art is the mother of ethics and not the other way round”: that is, while art cannot be reduced to a function (that is indeed what “philistines” want to do to it—Green hits the nail on the head there), it is an experience that can inspire ethical thinking, political thinking, etc. Art not only takes us outside of ourselves, it can (some kinds of art, anyway) take us back to the real world and re-configure it for us, sometimes. I am thinking of the aforementioned, so-called “hysterical realism”, of the novels that James Wood so decries and about which Green does not have much to say in this particular volume: when the novel itself deploys style in a way that aims at unsettling its own content (and, thereby, unsettling our received ideas, our own social/political/historical “content”), it is providing a kind of solution to the form/content problem that avoids ending up privileging one pole or the other in that binary.

In any case, Green is out to make a different kind of point: more “art-does-what-only-art-can-do” than “art-for-art’s-sake”. By this I mean that, except by paying close attention to the manifold nuances of which the artist’s form (in the present case, language) is at times capable, we are like schoolchildren stumbling around reluctantly in nature on an involuntary school hike: not knowing what to look for, we don’t take the time to look; it all seems to come across as a bit of a blur, what’s the point? The point, Green says, is ambiguity, what Sontag calls “silences”. They are “ineffable, but real” and the artist’s use of language attempts to make them temporarily, provisionally present for us in some way. Yet they are ineffable not because they are mystical or transcendent, but because we have not found a way to name them yet (or have not taken the time to, have passed by them as in a blur).  These are, in another context, what Harold Bloom calls “intricate evasions that nevertheless bud and bloom”.

The other critics discussed in this final section of the book were, again, mostly new to me.  Having come from an academic background that was somewhat deficient in formalist thought, it provides the perfect introduction to contemporary critics who provide a pragmatic path forward from the style/content impasse. One of these is novelist/critic/academic S.D. Chrostokowa, whose 2015 book critical work Matches is employs a restless, aphoristic novelistic approach to criticism that is mirror-imaged in her 2009 essayistic novel Permission, all part of a “dialectical” approach to writing that places the pairs of imagination/reason and inspiration/reflection all on the same plane —and a down-to-earth one at that, where art neither takes second place to scholarship nor is placed on some spuriously lofty pedestal above us: “now that you have lost your faith in [capital-L!!] Literature”, she writes, “[…]you can believe in writing”.

The kind of writing that we can believe in, Green teaches us, is writing that doesn’t allow us believe in it for too very long, or at least with too much fervour, complacency or chauvinism. For Green believes that (post-)modernism and its American incarnation in particular has something of value to teach the world, not in its content, but in the way that it worries over how it represents (re-presents) the world to us. It is writing that calls attention to its own processes of signification, of meaning-making, because it wants us to be as hesitant and tentative about the ultimate contingency and lack of stability of its own pronouncements as it is. If (as in his chapter on William Gass) it concerns a sense of “well-wrought” particulars contributing to a work’s collective beauty that has “stood the test of time”, beauty that asks us not to project ourselves onto it but to “immerse” ourselves in its “rhythms […] arrangements and figurations”, then with the critic David Winters the process of reading is an “infinite” one, never “fully fathomed”. This is not because the literary text is a timeless work of transcendent genius, but because there is something in its formal composition that refuses to be immediately declarative: quoting David Winter on Robert Musil, Green maintains that

theory can provide a valuable perspective on the implications and entanglements of such literature, but it can’t subsume it […] “There is something about[…] The Man Without Qualities that seems to resist conclusive criticism. Something not so much unfinished as uniquely continuous: infinite. The reason the novel is unlike anything else you’ve ever read is because it goes on reading itself when you’re finished reading it.”

This idea that great writers have the chops (the skill, technē—know-how, not inspired genius) to compose works that resist analytical reduction means that we readers and critics should learn the value of “subtracting” ourselves from our reality for a time, so that (at least while performing the act of reading) we have the opportunity to imaginatively leave ourselves behind and to have an “aesthetic experience” before we start reflecting analytically upon that experience. By this Green means not “some kind of mystical trance” but a form of “recreation” (as in re-creation) of the artist’s “conceptual and expressive moves.”  If this seems like it is getting pretty close to discerning the author’s true “intention”,  I nevertheless take Green’s point: adopting a stance of Kantian disinterestedness (whereby who we are and what we want is imaginatively set aside so that we might more fully encounter a work of art) is a valuable skill that scholars do not exercise nearly enough, as we often desire that works of art speak to our rather narrow concerns or confirm our prejudices, or else we attempt to read great books “deconstructively”, looking for hidden “aporias” or blindnesses. But if we read (say) Dickens only to discover that this conflicted, 19C bourgeois reformer could not escape his class or patriarchal positions, do we not lose something thereby, namely, any positive reason (the verbal dexterity, the caustic wit, the social concerns that are inseparable from the ability to animate a scene…) for reading Dickens in the first place?

Just in case you think that that last paragraph was a dig at academia and its often “reductive” approach to reading literature, Green makes a case for how academic criticism might more profitably (for the reader, anyway) proceed in his examination of the work of Michael Gorra, who in his book on Henry James, Portrait of a Novel follows a path of “critical eclecticism”, perspicaciously choosing the critical apparatus according to the needs of the novel in question (Portrait of a Lady) rather than according to any pre-existing philosophical, ideological or political commitments. The critic in this sense functions more like a nimble artist even if he also has to wear the hat of the exhaustively meticulous accountant: Gorra’s successful academic manoeuvre was to both definitively  “situate” the novel in its context while at the same time “doing justice to the novel’s [internal] complexity”. In the service of the novel, the eclectic critic neither places it on a transhistorical pedestal, not sweeps it into the dustbin of history, but faithfully relates how the novel speaks to and of the world (and is spoken by the world), while still, most fundamentally, speaking itself.

n.b. This is something I myself tried to do in my own academic writing on Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, whose mysterious transfiguring of late 20C capitalism tugged at my imagination for almost fifteen years before I set down to write about it. When one day I read a history of political philosophy by Ellen Meiksins Wood, I suddenly knew that I had a tool that could help me elucidate Pynchon’s literary text in an enlightening and yet faithful manner: for Wood’s thought complement’s Pynchon’s rather than subsumes it, illuminates it in a way that never exhausts it. We read and re-read great fiction, after all, because it is written in a manner that meaning is never quite circumscribed. Vineland tugs at me still, ten years on from the time when I wrote about it: no one can exhaust it!

The above is underscored, finally, in Green’s discussion of the critic Richard Poirier’s oeuvre, on whose 1966 book A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature it is well worth quoting our guide extensively :

A World Elsewhere makes it clear that American literature has long been characterized by a preoccupation with the processes of representation and specifically with the limitations of language as a medium of representation, features generally associated with postmodernism and assumed to be a phenomenon of more recent literary history. Such a view of American literary history was implicitly unsettling to the prevailing approach to the study of American literature, which emphasized literature as a reflection of American history, often embodying “themes” said to be the obsession of American writers in their encounter with history and culture. But Poirier in A World Elsewhere tells us that most of the canonical American writers distrust the very mechanisms available to poets and fiction writers that would render experience adequately, and if anything they aspire to such a way that they manage to escape history […] I took Poirier’s claims even a little farther, arguing that the self-reflexivity of metafiction, in directing the reader’s attention to the artifice of language […] ask[s] the reader to regard language not as the transparent medium for the invocation of a created “world” at all but as fiction’s primary source of interest, the irreducible substance of the reading experience.

Now as unconcerned as Green is in this book with the politics of fiction I would maintain his ideas are more than a propos for writers and critics of a political bent, and that if it remains possible for novels and novelists to concern themselves with politics and history, then Green’s claims remain nevertheless cogent—nay, essential: for the novel can add little to the worlds of politics and history themselves if the novel’s primary relationship with them is through such “transparent” representation. Politics and history can carry on quite very well without the novel if all that the novel is doing is giving clearly-rendered examples of how politics and history make an impact upon the lives of individuals. That’s what we have journalism for. No, the novel’s (even the political and historical novel’s) chief concern needs to be with its own artifice, with the problems inherent in the process of representation. In worrying about its own inherited, formal clichés, the mechanisms of artifice whereby the novel attempts to hold up the mirror to the age, as it were, the novel just might continue to be of assistance in helping us readers worry about the aspects of social and political reality (those clichés of everyday life) that our betters would rather keep hidden from view. The novel’s chief weapon in this is “troping” or figuration, “the turning of language in new or surprising ways  that allow the writer (and the reader) to avoid being trapped in established usages and forms”—and, I would add, in established, historical institutions and in political practices that custom and habit have given the gloss of the ‘natural’. The novelist’s job is to deprive us of those habits of mind and clichés of custom, and only by (with Poirier’s Emerson) fearing “‘being caught or fixed in a meaning’ or ‘state of conformity'” to language can novelists hope to provide the reader with any trustworthy avenue back to the real. Poirier calls this “linguistic skepticism”, and Green maintains that it was woven intimately of Emerson and (William) James’s all-American philosophical pragmatism:

Writers in this tradition are especially aware of the contingency of language, its unavoidable immersion in past practices and ultimately its insufficiency as a medium for establishing the final truth of things. They understand that, in Poirier’s words, the “proper activity” of all writers is “essentially a poetic one. It is to make sure that language is kept in a state of continuous troping, turning, transforming, transfiguring…” The act of writing is thus alive with the attempt to “stabilize certain feelings and attitudes,”  but the attempt itself provides the only stability, and it will be of course “turned” by subsequent attempts, the transfiguration it accomplishes achieving, in Robert Frost’s famous words, only a “momentary stay against confusion.”

That attempt is the writer’s job. The critic-reader’s job is complementary, and no less essential:

“Reading  is nothing if not personal,” [Poirier] wrote in an especially Emersonian mode in [1992’s] Poetry and Pragmatism. “It ought to get down ultimately to a struggle between what you want to make of a text and what it wants to make of itself and you.” These days literary scholars are preoccupied with “what do you want to make of the text,” mostly dismissing “what it wants wo make of you.” […] Poirier return[s] us to the significance implicit in the reading experience itself, where the reader’s struggle to make the most of the text mirror’s the writer’s struggle to allow language to make what sense it can.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the title of Daniel Green’s blog (where you will find many insightful and carefully-rendered articles similar to those found in his book) is The Reading  Experience. As I said before, one of the great things about reading Beyond The Blurb (which, if you value literature I strongly recommend that you do) is the useful overview it gives you of L20C formalist criticism: if you haven’t read a particular book that he is discussing, Green shepherds you towards knowing enough about it to make an informed decision about its merits and its deficiencies. If on the other hand you have already read it, he likewise gives you the sense that you have just paid it an appreciative, somewhat more immersive second visit, with a sensitive and self-effacing guide to point out things you might have missed the first time through. For with Green the book in question is what matters most, not its critic, which is, I feel, as it should be.


This Is Capitalism: The Vision of Ellen Meiksins Wood

The late Ellen Meiksins Wood had a long and illustrious career teaching the history of political thought at Toronto’s York University. In light of her death earlier this year, it is fitting to recount just how much she taught us about the specificity of capitalism. Her sizable body of work not only spans the entire history of western political thought, it also thereby clairifies for us just what makes capitalism so different from the economic systems of other eras, and in doing so provides an understanding of the contemporary politico-economic reality that is a useful alternative to the perhaps more influential ‘post-Fordist’ or ‘commercialization model’ theorists such as David Harvey, Immanuel Wallerstein and others.

Wood teaches us how, in order to more fully appreciate the present moment of capitalist history, it will be necessary to distinguish ‘essence’ from ‘accident’ in capitalism…

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Capitalism and its Discontents: On Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel

I have written on the intersection of capitalism and literature in the past, and I’m intrigued about Benjamin Kunkel’s project in Utopia or Bust of giving a number of leftist thinkers (some of whom are more relatively unknown than others, especially to North Americans) a public hearing. I find his style to be engaging, personable, and forthright. Note:I will be adding reflections on each chapter of the book as I get to them — as of right now Chapters 1 and 2 are complete and can be found below.

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8-Track (A Short Story)

Gerald (hungover and morose from the previous night’s compulsive overindulgence, what with, he told himself, the Leafs having fallen yet again to the Habs) was in no mood to be social. He, like his somehow still-unconscious siblings, had missed the 11:00 Mass, and was now unpardonably late for the habitual Sunday Brunch. He grabbed a coat on his way out the door, didn’t put it on, and threw it carelessly into the back seat of the car (mom and dad, obviously up to something, had gone to Church with Emma and her folks), while his other hand fumbled in his rugbypant pocket for the ignition key to his father’s brand-new “Silver Ghost Metallic” 1980 Olds Delta 98 Regency…

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Football & the Death of the Hero in “56-0” by TC Boyle

Robert Downey Junior’s character Derek Lutz (in Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School (1986)) may well have been poaching, with tongue-in-cheek, from Don DeLillo’s End Zone when he quipped that “violent ground acquisition games such as football are in fact a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war,” but TC Boyle takes Lutz’s (or Delillo’s) conceit up a notch or two in “56-0”, which I jealously think is one of the most perfectly crafted stories that I have ever read. “56-0” can be found in Boyle’s Stories, but it was previously published in his 1992 collection Without a Hero, whose title is a perfectly apt controlling metaphor for the story as a whole, since, with seemingly effortless grace, Boyle has somehow managed not only to revivify one of American culture’s most clichéd of plotlines (an underdog team’s attempted, “against all odds” heroic “comeback”), but also to bring the ossified Aristotelian unities magically back to life, such that his story gains a remarkable, athletic equipoise, in which humour is locked into a dialectical deathgrip with existential gravitas. And—somehow—Boyle manages to make writing like this appear to be the most natural thing in the world….

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