Appetite for Power
That’s all that unites the various factions of the new illiberalism.
Dear Reader (excluding those of you who predicted that the Biden family would be shipped to Gitmo),
Some of you may recall one of my favorite anecdotes about Albert Jay Nock.
When Nock was the editor of the first incarnation of The Freeman, a young writer came looking for work. He asked Nock if The Freeman had any inviolable “sacred cows.” “Yes,” Nock recalls in his memoirs, “we had three of them, as untouchable and sacred as the Ark of the Covenant.”
“‘The first one,’ I said, ‘is that you must have a point. Second, you must make it out. The third one is that you must make it out in eighteen-carat, impeccable, idiomatic English.’
“‘But is that all?’ the young man countered.
“‘Isn’t it enough for you?’
“‘Why, yes, I suppose so, but I mean, is that all the editorial policy you have?’ the young man asked incredulously.
“‘As far as I know, it is,’ I said, rising. ‘Now you run along home and write us a nice piece on the irremissibility of post-baptismal sin, and if you can put it over those three jumps, you will see it in print. Or if you would rather do something on a national policy of strangling all the girl-babies at birth, you might do that — glad to have it.’”
Now, assuming the story is true (Nock was not immune to embellishment), I should again note that I don’t actually think all magazines should be run like this. I think it would be silly for Gourmet magazine to run pieces about the Bolshevik’s New Economic Policy of 1921 or the role syphilis played in the 19th century French literary scene—no matter how pellucid or persuasive the prose. Magazines are like Churchill’s Platonic pudding—they have themes.
But every writer—particularly quirky, iconoclastic, or otherwise rebellious ones—wants to find editors like this (my own writing career was inaugurated when a generous Wall Street Journal editor took a flier on my case for expanding the House of Representative to 6,000 members). And every good editor I’ve ever known genuflects in their heart to this Nockian trinity, even if they have to say, “This is not for us.” The Dispatch will not be running any pieces—no matter how well written—that sincerely argue for strangling girl babies at birth. I think most curious, intellectually serious readers want to read the best arguments for even bad ideas. If you don’t think you can learn from people who are wrong, you’ll have a hard time understanding why other people are right.
Just to demonstrate what I mean, I recently reviewed for The Dispatch, The Reactionary Mind: Why “Conservative” Isn't Enough by Michael Warren Davis. And I loved it. It satisfies all three of Nock’s sacred cows. It has a point, it makes it, and it makes it in highly enjoyable, clear prose. It’s also, I think, fantastically wrong. I have exactly no envy for 12th century serfs and I see no discernable reason to reorient our political system or culture in any way that draws on such envy. But I learned a lot from the book and, just as important, I gained a better understanding of the people who make such arguments.
We live in an age when too many people are scared of even hearing arguments they disagree with. Among college students—at least college students of a certain ilk—there’s a belief that hearing unpleasant things literally puts them in physical danger. At the University of Virginia—founded by Thomas Jefferson to be a citadel of free inquiry and expression—the school newspaper recently editorialized that Mike Pence must not be allowed to speak on campus because his speech would “threaten the lives” of UVA students. If they meant that students might be bored to death, I’d have more sympathy.
So as disappointing as it may be for the founders of Compact—a new publication that features both Sohrab Ahmari and Glenn Greenwald on the masthead—I’m not mad that it exists. I say that because making people angry seems to be a major motivation for its founding.
More on that in a moment. But first let me also say, I’ve liked some of what I’ve read so far. Again, liking something and agreeing with it are very different things. But I think Nina Power’s brief essay on patriarchy was interesting and made some fine points. Christopher Caldwell is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and I invariably learn something from reading him, even when it’s only to discover where his head is at these days, which is always an interesting topic. David Rieff’s essay, “Only the Economic Left Can Beat the Woke,” offers any number of trenchant and important insights, even if I have grave objections to what I think he wants readers to take from them. The foreign policy stuff I’ve looked at is less compelling, but given the context of the moment—and my own views—that’s not surprising.
All in all, Ahmari, Matthew Schmitz, and Edwin Aponte should be congratulated on a number of fronts. It’s a good-looking, readable journal with a lot of obviously intentionally provocative fare. Moreover, it’s neither the ultramontane Catholic pamphlet nor the extended exercise in Twitter-style trollery that some might have expected. Apparently, that was at least in part a negotiated decision. Aponte, a self-described “Marxist populist,” told the New York Times that he would enlist in the effort only on “the condition that more than half the articles focused on material concerns.” (Aponte, amusingly for those familiar with the integralists’ deranged obsession with David French, also has no problem with Drag Queen Story Hours.)
But (you knew there was a “but” coming), I am skeptical of the project.
It’s not that there’s no theme to the pudding. Rather, as Emperor Joseph II reportedly said when Mozart debuted The Abduction from the Seraglio, “There are too many notes.”
Let me step back for a moment. There’s a diverse group of people flying under any number of banners these days: post-liberalism, integralism, nationalism, populism, and—among the less intellectual—“Trumpism.” (I should say I’m not suggesting that all of the people flying under the Trumpist banner are ignoramuses, but objectively, the only workable definition of Trumpism is unswerving loyalty to Trump, which is definitionally not an intellectual orientation.)
For many people outside these groups (and I suspect some inside as well), the borders between these different factions are both fuzzy and overlapping. This is in part because they often come to each other’s aid. And this can be explained by the fact that they all proclaim to have the same enemies: the “woke” left, libertarians, globalists, capitalists, classical liberals, neoconservatives, and conservatives as such terms were understood for the last 80 years or so. To critics, myself included, they can all be lumped together—to varying degrees—under the banner “illiberal.” If you think the liberalism of the Enlightenment, the Glorious Revolution, the American Founding, etc., is both intellectually corrupt and spiritually corrupting and in need of defenestration, I don’t think “illiberal” is an unfair description.
One of the most notable things about the illiberals is their systematic disregard for “American exceptionalism.” Many critics of American exceptionalism—on the left and the right—either don’t understand or deliberately distort the meaning of the term. American exceptionalism as an intellectual concept was never the jingoist slogan detractors mistake it for. The word “exceptionalism” didn’t mean “better” in the way we now mean it for “exceptional” students or cheesecake. It meant different, the exception. America was more religious, violent, individualistic, entrepreneurial, and irreverent toward authority than European countries (or even Canada).
The concept of American exceptionalism was grounded in the historical fact that America has no feudal tradition and all that supported that tradition. And therefore our understanding of class, government, the individual etc., don’t line up with the assumptions baked into European or other non-American ideologies. We’re different. And any understanding of American “nationalism” or simply American culture that does not start from that fact will run aground on the shoals of reality. As the legendary historian Louis Hartz writes at the beginning of The Liberal Tradition in America, his analysis was grounded in the “storybook truth about American history: that America was settled by men who fled from the feudal and clerical oppressions of the Old World.” As he noted elsewhere, even the nationalism of the greatest “nationalists” of the American founding era, led by Alexander Hamilton, “was legal rather than social, defending a federal government but not embracing in any Rousseauian sense—as, ironically, Jefferson’s ‘anti-nationalism’ did—the American popular community.”
To the dismay of Marxists and southern agrarians alike, anti-liberal European ideas had little purchase in America because America’s culture is fundamentally liberal, and that is what makes it exceptional.
Thus, if you read the most influential books among illiberals, Why Liberalism Failed and The Virtues of Nationalism by, respectively, Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony, you won’t find even a passing reference to the term “American exceptionalism.” (You will find it all over Rich Lowry’s The Case for Nationalism, which is understandable because Rich is a traditional conservative whose definition of nationalism is very close to my definition of patriotism.) This makes sense for Deneen because he knows there is no definition of American exceptionalism that doesn’t enlist the liberal tradition. Hazony’s failure has more sleight of hand to it. He wants to divorce his manufactured tradition of American nationalism without acknowledging its indebtedness to either liberalism or imperialism. For Hazony, nationalism is always right, and when it ceases to be right, it ceases to be nationalism.
Donald Trump and Barack Obama had a shared animosity toward the term American exceptionalism. Obama’s animosity derived from his cosmopolitanism, Trump’s from his belief that the world played America for suckers and that we should engage in foreign policy and trade as a zero-sum exercise. Trump’s America First philosophy rejected the American exceptionalism at the heart of previous isolationists. The traditional isolationism of Taft or the “no entangling alliances” version of the founding era held that America was too special to get foreign muck on our boots, at home or abroad. I don’t know if the illiberals call themselves isolationists, but they share the isolationist-realist view that America is a force for ill in the world, exporting corrupt and corrupting liberalism abroad.
In a deeply flawed op-ed for the New York Times last month, Ahmari, Deneen, and Gladden Pippin wrote, “The Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony has suggested he wants to forge a new, more solidaristic and inwardly focused consensus to replace the old, broken fusion of pro-business libertarians, religious traditionalists and foreign-policy hawks. Yet even at the [Hazony-organized] 2021 national conservatism conference, the hawks were amply represented and pitched the same old belligerence, especially against China.”
We’ll get to China in a moment. But what does this have to do with Compact and the illiberal project generally? Well, if you take the view that America is just another country—or, to be more precise, that it should be like just another country, specifically one that throws off the shackles of the liberalism that constrains government from imposing “the highest good”—what are your sources of inspiration for defining the highest good? What are the ideas that would form the basis of this “more solidaristic and inwardly focused consensus?”
For Aponte, it’s apparently Marxism. Now, say what you will about Marxism (however you define it), it’s a foreign import. Moreover, it’s an explicitly supra- or transnational ideology that both conceptually and historically has problems with nations and nationhood. “Workers of the world unite!” and all that. Marxism also has a good deal to say about traditional culture and bourgeois liberal cultural alike, and very little of it is complimentary.
Meanwhile, for Ahmari and Schmitz, their inspiration seems to be Catholicism. Now, I have no problem with Catholic thought or Catholicism. I married a Catholic, worked at the historically Catholic-informed National Review, and have written a lot in defense of Catholicism. But you know what the most important and lasting globalist institution of the last 2,000 years is? The Catholic Church. Heck, forget globalism, “Catholic” implies “universal.”
Compact bills itself as a “radical American journal.” Where, exactly, is the “American” here? A key tenet of Catholicism is “subsidiarity,” which holds that decisions should be made at the most local level possible, rather than by a central authority. Think federalism, but for the church. For the church, any meaningful understanding of that term would make allowances for America’s Americanness first, and then the various dioceses, parishes, etc. all the way down. I don’t know what they think about subsidiarity in religious affairs, but in matters political and economic, they’re against it (though Deneen is not against it in his book). The Americanness of the liberal tradition is what they stand opposed to, and what they want to replace it with is a central government that does what they want it to do.
In their mission statement they write:
Compact will challenge the overclass that controls government, culture, and capital. Whoever does this is bound to be called radical. We do not shy from the label, but we insist on its proper meaning. Rightly understood, to be radical does not mean going to extremes. It means getting to the root of things. That requires talking about class as well as culture, material realities as well as ideologies.
“Rightly understood” is doing some serious legwork here. Because while radicalism may not mean “going to extremes”etymologically, historically (and, well, etymologically) it does mean pursuing total transformation from the roots up, and that is a form of extremism. Still, in fairness, what they say they are for doesn’t sound all that extreme. They declare up front: “Our editorial choices are shaped by our desire for a strong social-democratic state that defends community—local and national, familial and religious—against a libertine left and a libertarian right.” And, quibbles aside, that sounds fine by me.
The power of power.
But I remain skeptical. Let me offer a somewhat uncharitable alternative theory of what is going on. Adrian Vermeule, another titular deity of the illiberals, offered a short inaugural essay for Compact. Aside from an unfair swipe at Ryan Anderson, the most striking thing about it is a near-whiny complaint about the old right not making room for this alleged new right. He laments the failed “cordon sanitaire” erected by the old guard, “the attempt to exclude the New Right generally and common-good conservatism from media platforms, conferences, and events, often behind the scenes, with a call from a furious right-liberal donor or operator who in public preaches civility, intellectual diversity, and the marketplace of ideas.” This echoes the complaints of many of his comrades who pose as aggrieved truth-tellers frozen out by “the establishment.”
I find this amusing, and not just because Vermeule just spoke at AEI. He is, after all, a prominent professor with an endowed chair at Harvard Law School. Yes, the establishment wants nothing to do with his kind. Similarly, Ahmari is fond of attacking the elite media, notably the New York Times, but he also likes writing for it and being noticed by it. He says that “Glenn Greenwald has more guts and steelier balls than the entire NYT newsroom combined,” which may be true, but it was shrewd for him to leave out the gang that runs him on the op-ed page.
There’s an interesting line in David Rieff’s essay. “When Adolph Reed, Jr., writes that the real project of Woke is to diversify the ruling class, and little else, in a sentence he has described the essence of the new cultural system.”
I have a lot of sympathy for that analysis, but I think it applies more to the illiberals than they would like to admit. Every generation, some group of activists and intellectuals claim to be the “new right” (or the new left). And each time, their complaints boil down to “get out of the way, it’s our turn.” Populist Republicans and Democrats who rail against the “elite” are also members of the elite (do I have to read Ted Cruz’s or Elizabeth Warren’s resumes to you?). Young conservative firebrands (and progressive ones, too) in every generation want the fogeys on the higher rungs of the ladder to get out of the way. And most often when they wave the bloody shirt of “anti-elitism,” it’s not as a means to do away with the elite, but to claw their way into it—or replace it (this is the Rosetta Stone of Michael Anton’s Trump-era oeuvre). There were many different cars on the Trump train, but the surest ticket for passage was a willingness to prioritize subservience to power).
Saying they’re a bunch of ambitious people looking to make it, in itself is not that much of an indictment, because this happens in every generation. And there’s nothing wrong with ambition. What’s different about this alleged new right is the arguments they employ to make their move. Partly inspired by Trump’s amoral power worship and the damage he did to the credibility of conservatism, they elevate power qua power as a moral good. Vermeule and Ahmari recently praised a grotesque essay that lionized Chinese totalitarian state power and utterly memory-holed the tens of millions the Chinese Communist Party killed in the exercise of that power. In a since deleted tweet, Ahmari proclaimed, “I’m at peace with Chinese-led 21st century. Late liberal America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower. Chinese civilization, especially if it recovers more of its Confucian roots, will possess a great deal of natural virtue.” The illiberals’ constitution just so happens to be one that empowers the powerful to do what they want on the utterly bizarre strategic assumption that they’ll be the illiberals who get to wield that power. The now-shattered pro-Putin oikophobia on some parts of the illiberal right has abated somewhat given the headlines of late. But Orbaniphilia is still all the rage.
Bertrand Russell, in his brilliant evisceration of philosophical pragmatism, argued that absent any standards of truth other than success, “ironclads and Maxim guns must be the ultimate arbiters of metaphysical truth.” The illiberals aren’t pragmatists and they do talk a good deal about metaphysical truth, but as a political project they seem acutely attracted to “success.” Strip away the controversies of the moment, and all that seems left is appetite for power.
Any leader or group, foreign or domestic, that succeeds in attaining or wielding power—monarchs, dictators, tyrannical party systems—have something going for them compared to the decadent West, mired in procedural liberalism, pluralism, and the free market. Likewise, ideas that might be ridden like a horse into the corridors of fame and power have undue appeal. Wokism can only be beaten by left-wing economics, you say? I disagree, but even if true, why should that make me change my position on left-wing economics? Similarly, if making people angry—and getting attention as a result—is your measure of success, you’re destined for victories galore. Drink deep your mead of liberal tears.
But don’t get too drunk. If I had to guess, I’d say there have been hundreds of radical magazines dedicated to taking on the “overclass” over the last two centuries. Some have been successful on their own terms. And many others have made valuable contributions, as this one probably will. But none have succeeded in persuading Americans not to be Americans, at least not many and not for long. Our supposedly decadent and spent country has more resilience and vitality in it than its detractors—in any generation—think. Swimming against the current can be admirable, but it never leads to reversing the current.
American exceptionalism is the river we’re on. It may take us places we don’t like from time to time, but I love the river and I have every confidence that it will survive the latest efforts by illiberals in all parties to make it something it cannot be.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: This week marked National Puppy Day, so as a special treat, here is the first video ever recorded of “Hand vs. Dingo” (which has since become a national—or at least Goldberg household—pastime). The big drama this week was technically canine related, but not with my canines. One night we heard a very loud cat shrieking. Very. Loud. We immediately checked to see if Gracie was in the house, and she was. I looked outside and saw a fox barking—strange chirpy barks—at Chester, our neighbor’s cat and the Moriarity to Gracie’s Sherlock. I ran down and scared the fox away. We checked out Chessie and he was okay. And despite repeated efforts at interrogation, we could not get an answer to the perennial question, what does the fox say? (Sorry for the earworm.) Otherwise, all is good with the Goldberg animals, though Zoë is weirdly very high energy these days, while Pippa is a bit mellower than usual (though Zoë can definitely rock the 4:20 mellow look). I was a bit disappointed that upon the return from my birthday dinner, the girls still gave the Fair Jessica the lion’s share of the welcoming committee.
And now, the weird stuff