Cult of Conservatism Part II

I must admit that it has been a contradictory experience watching, in frustration and amusement, the Washington, D.C. punditocracy scramble from one week to the next making doomsday predictions about the “inevitable” collapse of Donald Trump and the return to “normal” American politics. The very fact that the D.C. press believes the last several decades of American politics can pass for “normal” should be indication enough of just how delusional so many people in this country are when it comes to comprehending the reality of American political life. The press is in such a state of denial that one wonders just what could possibly wake them from it. They have spent the entirety of the last several decades ignoring, dispelling, equivocating, eschewing, and covering up one atrocity after another committed by the Cult of Conservatism. From the Southern Strategy, to undermining peace talks in Vietnam, to undermining hostage negotiations with Iran, and then selling arms to said country’s hostage-taking government, to stealing elections, to illegally suppressing and purging voters, to fabricating evidence to start a war, to sabotaging the economy for political gain; there is no crime this horde of cultists, kooks, paranoiacs, bigots, and religious fundamentalists will not support as long as it is done in maintaining the traditional American white male supremacist power structure, and their control over it.

Since the time of Richard Nixon these people have been slowly bred, through the use of right wing talk radio, Fox News, and now online conservative media, into a swarm of unthinking zombies. Any time the kingpins of right wing media point their fingers at a target, the horde immediately, and with a zeal akin only to the zombie impulse to cannibalize human brains, engulfs and consumes them. The Conservative Cult has been deliberately molded over decades into an unrestrained Id. And now there is no way to stop it, for the moment any so called “conservative” figure, no matter how genuine their practice within the cult, will be immediately labeled a traitor to the cause and exiled like a “suppressive person” in Scientology, cut off from any future influence in the cult. The result of this dynamic is for the cult to become increasingly inward thinking whereby the only way to get noticed inside the cult is to espouse ever more radically reactionary and extremist viewpoints. Such a cycle of inward thinking inevitably produces a logical self-reinforcement of the cult’s ideas, for when their ideas seep out into the mainstream, unfiltered by public relations and marketing gimmicks, the confused and disturbed reaction by people unfamiliar with the  cult’s tautology only acts to further reinforce the validity of the belief.

The Washington press is so utterly unaware of this entire process that each time conservatives explode with rage in response to the confusion, disbelief, or questioning of the media, the pundit, rather than investigate the truth of the cult’s claims, and then discredit and disassociate the cult members from access to public platforms wherein they would be further able to indoctrinate, obfuscate and misinform an unsuspecting audience, either offers no opinion on the matter or explains it away by fabricating, or wildly exaggerating, a corresponding example on the liberal side of the political spectrum. So ingrained is this mechanism of denial that every time a pundit on television, radio, or in print is forced by circumstances to chastise some conservative for whatever atrocity they recently committed they immediately, and reflexively, point to some imaginary liberal crime to provide balance. They are like a family member of an abuser who, while admitting to themselves that one of the abuser’s victims should certainly not have been beaten with a tire iron, believes the victim of the physical abuse shares in the culpability because dinner was late or their homework unfinished. They spend all their energy trying to mollify the abuser and convince the victim of the need for them to further compromise to the abuser demands, all the while ignoring the myriad ways in which they are also subject to abuse.

The Democratic Party, many journalists, political scientists, authors, thinkers, etc., clearly all of whom are victims, along with the press and the populace, has failed to make the case to the public, and to the wider media establishment, the nature of this dysfunctional dynamic. In fact, any time a long established member of the Washington elite comes around to the views expressed in this post, and then communicates it to the rest of the Washington elite, they suddenly find themselves ostracized, unable to find outlets for their previously heralded and widely published work. Honestly, I do not know how to break this cycle. When it occurs within the context of a family the cycle can be broken, for example, by escaping the situation. But how does one do that when such a cycle plays out on a national level? Some argue that we must destroy the Republican Party, an idea I do support, while others argue for targeting the enablers within the media establishment who provide platforms to serial liars, another strategy  I support. Unfortunately, it does not seem like these views ever make it to there intended audience. Donald Trump has repeatedly outlasted the apocalyptic professions of the mainstream pundit class. And yet, each time he does so, the pundits never re-examine their basic assumptions about the underlying conditions within conservatism.

To anyone with a clear understanding of just what modern conservatism is it will be obvious that Donald Trump is going to have a great deal of support from the conservative base for the foreseeable future. His sway is so strong now that the other candidates considered by the mainstream press to be the “fringe” candidates in this election are beginning to perform better than the more establishment candidates that the mainstream press considers to be “moderate”; despite the fact of course that there is no real distinction between any of these candidates in terms of the policy implications of their ideas. Not that any of these candidates really have any concrete policy prescriptions. They just leap from one issue to another as they come up, or rather as Donald Trump happens to introduce them into the conversation by opening his mouth and emitting sounds. Then the other candidates, asked by reporters to comment on whatever problem Trump has addressed, are forced to chase the constantly changing news cycle. This is how conservatives have controlled the national dialogue in this country for years. They use their tremendous resources to force a legitimate issue weighed down with lies, or an imaginary problem they have concocted, or some other non-issue they have suddenly, and usually hypocritically, turned into a national news story.

They spent the entirety of the Clinton and Obama presidencies using their control over the legislative branch of government to investigate, sabotage, take hostage, destroy, obstruct, or otherwise subject the people of this country to their paranoid fantasies in order to obliterate their opponents and increase their control over government. They are happy to burn the country and its government to the ground in order to acquire political power.  Until these people are forbidden from engagement in civic life by a series of firewalls, enforced by every aspect of political society, then the aforementioned problems will go unsolved, and will likely get worse, as the conservative cult takes ever more drastic, and destructive, measures to ensure their hold on political power in a country where demographics are against them in the long term. God help us all.

James Harrison, Participation Trophies, and the Logic of Capitalism

Here’s Harrison’s reasoning for why he will make his children return the trophies:

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.

James Harrison is a football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers who recently made news on social media for declaring to the world his intention to force his two sons to return the participation trophies they received after completion of something athletic event. Frankly, listening to sports media pundits discuss anything more complicated than throwing touchdown passes can be a grueling experience. Expecting them to offer trenchant social and cultural analysis is sort of like expecting a fish to grow legs and walk on land. Nevertheless, while listening to various ESPN radio hosts discuss the James Harrison story, and the idea of participation trophies, a very familiar set of themes emerged that I always encounter in reactionary right wing discussions of political and social issues. Particularly the tendency to use status acquired through exploitative means as a method for demonizing egalitarianism.

Honestly, outside the context of a purely cultural critique, I am still not clear on what exactly is so wrong with providing participation trophies. Throughout my life one of the regular refrains I have heard is that just showing up is half the battle, or sometimes just showing up is the most important thing, etc. The argument being that there is something very important about coming in every day prepared to work with others toward a common goal. That is all that I have ever believed participation trophies were. A simple token of recognition for having worked hard and tried one’s best, ultimately regardless of the outcome. The argument against participation trophies strikes me as reflective of the incessant need on the part of capitalist culture to maintain a continuous measure of status. Like those in the 1% who flaunt their status through display of their “trophies”, whether cars, clothes, houses, art, or technology, the opposition to participation trophies for children is a reflection of a desire on the part of parents to instill in young children the idea that only those truly exceptional people deserve to be rewarded for their labor.

These beliefs do not come from nowhere. They are the product of a broader behavioral conditioning model that teaches us to not only expect that some people will be rewarded more for their labor, but that this is a good thing. We should therefore not expect a living wage, proper health care, old age benefits, unemployment insurance, or any other benefit of participating in a collective effort such as the maintenance of society unless we REALLY earn it. Through discussions like this all context is lost, and the social, cultural, political, and economic practices that actually determine who the winners are, who REALLY earn their reward, disappears. Instead of understanding how certain systems promote the achievement of a few at the expense of the many we are left with an understanding of social relations that argues the vast majority of people are not as valuable as those special, “chosen” few who really earn their reward.

This is clearly the logic of capitalism at work. I bring this up only because we on the Left need to learn to recognize the many forms these destructive ideas take and the ways they are quietly implanted in our mind. Sports in America is one of the most politically conservative industries and so it should come as no surprise that these reactionary ideas pervade the culture. Remember this is one of the few industries that is actually open to those deemed unnecessary by capitalism: the poor and minority communities. And like the industries of the past available to the great unwashed they are making billions of dollars off the blood and sweat of these people. Therefore it is especially important to reinforce this ideological commitment among its population for athletes who become wealthy could very well prove a liability should they come to anti-capitalist conclusions. This may seem to some a petty issue to use in order to discuss class hegemony, but we must never forget how pervasive these ideas are, and we must constantly be prepared to fight them regardless of where they are found.

History, Useless Historians, and Revolutions

Studying how historians study history can be a revealing exercise. The way they view certain events can be indicative of their political commitments, whether those commitments are conscious or unconscious. Last month was the 226 anniversary of Bastille Day, the day on which the French Revolution officially began as hundreds of demonstrators attacked the Bastille, the medieval prison that represented the thousand year hegemony of the Ancien Regime. When historians speak of the French Revolution they speak of the anarchy, mass executions, explosions of violence on the streets, and the Reign of Terror. Clearly, for these historians, this social convulsion was not a world historical revolution, but the first example of modern totalitarianism. However, when they speak of the American Revolution they speak of liberty, equality, independence, and self-governance. For them this event was a world historical revolution that expanded the march of world historical progress.

If one examines both revolutions one discovers that they share many of the same characteristics. However, there are also a number of substantive differences. Differences that reveal much about the events and the historians who study them, for it is in how the revolutions are compared to one another that an academic’s political allegiance is revealed. The American Revolution began with mass, popular resistance to British economic policies that would weaken the colonial economy and extract significant portions of its wealth. But it did not remain a popular mass movement. Instead, the American Revolution was more of an aborted revolution, or perhaps, a counterrevolution. The only substantive change, from the pre-Revolutionary period to the post-Revolutionary period which has any bearing on the consideration of whether or not it was a revolution, is the fact that the legitimate political authority moved from London to the colonies.

After the Seven Years War the British Empire was deeply indebted. Not wanting to tax the British ruling class to pay down the war debt the British Empire initiated a series of taxes on the colonies. These actions precipitated a mass movement dedicated to acquiring political representation in the British system in order to properly represent their interests to the empire. The mass action taken against the British military and civil forces stationed in the colonies made enforcement of the taxes impossible. The formation of political organizations and the organization of meetings, parades, the burning of effigies, the erection of liberty poles, confrontations between crowds of protesters and British soldiers, as well as the destruction of property, and boycotts were the tactics used to frustrate the process.

For nine years resistance would follow a cycle of flaring up and then settling down in the face of British resignation. The colonial ruling class, fearing the dangerous possibilities that open revolution could result in the creation of a system of radical democracy that would undermine men of property and power attempted to both tamp down the most radical demands of the masses and keep pace with the overall zeitgeist. It was only after the Tea Party in Boston harbor that the British military, in finally moving to crack down on the popular resistance, that the colonial ruling class was at last forced to create a parallel power structure in opposition to British rule. The hope being to channel and control popular resistance toward their own, more conservative, aims. Ultimately, the reign of property and an oligarchical republican democracy of the north combined with an oligarchical slaveocracy of the south defeated the attempts to form a radical democracy. The true American Revolution, or perhaps the completion of the American Revolution, as Marx considered it, is the Civil War. Though that too would be partially overthrown by counter-revolutionary forces.

If not a genuine revolution, or even an aborted revolution, then the American Revolution was a counter-revolution. Proponents of this case make note of the fact that at the time the British Empire was in the process of abolishing slavery, limiting the territorial expansion of the colonies according to a framework established in treaties with the indigenous peoples, and taxing the colonial ruling class to pay for the empire’s defense of the British colonies during the Seven Years War. In order to maintain their way of life the slaveocracy that dominated the colonial economy, and would go on to dominate the political system established un the American constitution, recognized the necessity of a war for independence. Ultimately, according to this view, the American Revolution was not a progressive step forward, but a conservative step backward fought in opposition to the emergence of a new economic class, the bourgeoisie, which had begun to dominate the British Empire and the northern colonies. Ironically, from today’s point of view, a constitutional monarchy that was controlled by the bourgeoisie was slightly more progressive than a republican democracy controlled by a set of slave owning oligarchs.

The French Revolution, on the other hand, was a conflict that directly threatened the ruling classes of Europe. Just as the British economy had suffered from the military conflicts of the preceding years the French economy suffered, only worse. Bankrupt from continuous military and economic conflict with a more capitalistically advance Britain the monarchy was forced to reform itself away from feudal traditions toward an emergent capitalism. France at this time had three general classes, or estates, the nobility, the clergy, and the commons, which included practically everyone else. The nobility and the clergy did not pay taxes so the financial burden for the maintenance of the state fell upon the masses.

The King create a committee to modernize the state and its tax system which included making the previously untaxed estates pay their share. In response the ruling class rejected the idea outright and attempted to organize popular resistance among the masses to oppose the reforms. An Estates General, constituted of the three previously mentioned classes, was called to resolve the dispute. When the Third Estate, or the commons, refused to subordinate their interests and declared themselves a National Assembly, even going so far as to offer an alliance between them, the nobility and the clergy, the King closed the hall and refused them entry. They then took an oath that promised they would not disband the National Assembly until the King agreed to the creation of a constitution. The King responded by firing his most important reformist adviser and ordered 20,000 soldiers to Paris.

The storming of the Bastille was conducted in response to this attempted coup aimed at the National Assembly. The Parisian masses, comprised predominantly of working class laborers, socialized with the soldiers and won their support. In one fell swoop feudalism had been abolished, human rights had been established, and a new revolutionary National Guard was formed to back the infant civil authority. A mere three months after the revolution a royalist conspiracy being directed from the palace at Versailles was discovered and 20,000 revolutionary soldiers, led entirely by working class women, marched from Paris to the palace and arrested the king, placing him under popular surveillance back in the city.

When the peasantry heard the news hundreds of thousands of them marched to the homes of their landlords to destroy the deeds establishing their control over countryside. In one fell swoop feudalism had been abolished, human rights had been established, and a new revolutionary National Guard was formed to back the infant civil authority. Over the subsequent two decades time and again the masses would rise in acts of popular resistance against the reactionary forces working to roll back the revolution. For just like the American Revolution the French Revolution began with mass action that originated at the bottom of society. The constitutional monarchy created by the National Assembly in the wake of this popular resistance would only be the first example of this tendency.

Constituted mostly of men from the middle class the political representatives of the National Assembly was a conservative body. It established a constitution that restricted the right to vote with a property qualification and gave the king the power the delay enacting laws for two years. Stunted by conservatism and counter-revolutionary tendencies from within and targeted by the armies of the European ruling classes from without the French Revolution were saved again by popular resistance as the masses led a victorious insurrection against the constitutional monarchy and the invading armies resulting in the creation of the French Republic based on universal male suffrage.

But once again the new government, led primarily by men of property, tried to put the brakes on the revolution. This gave the counter-revolutionary forces internal and external to revolutionary Paris the opportunity to rebound necessitating another popular revolt that elected a new government dominated by the Jacobins and purged of the problematic republicans. It was here that the Committee of Public Safety was created, establishing a military draft, the nationalization of industry, and progressive taxation. The wealthy were forced to borrow money from the government, the Catholic Church had its land confiscated and redistributed to the people, price controls were initiated, speculation in the economy was made an offense punishable by execution, and the Reign of Terror began in order to prevent any further counter-revolutionary action.

What most historians ignore about this period of the revolution is the context provided above. Enemies both foreign and domestic beset the revolutionaries on all sides by its enemies. Rarely do we hear academics weep for the untold masses killed in the thousand-year reign of the French monarchy. Nor do they mention the repeated massacres of thousands of supporters of the revolution in towns conquered by reactionary forces outside Paris, like Lyons, Marseilles, and Toulon. Instead they weep for the executions of criminals who are given the appearance of nobility, justice, and legitimate authority through their control over the exploitative relations of a class society. Or they focus with grim fascination and lurid delight over the internecine use of the terror by the revolutionaries on other revolutionaries, culminating in that now infamous phrase, “every revolution eats its children”. The implication being that we are living in the age of the end of history and this is as good as it gets.

Like the American Revolution the French Revolution was left unfinished, aborted, and overwhelmed by counter-revolutionary forces. However, regardless of the features they share there is a great deal of difference between them, and it is in this sense that one is more progressive than the other. As mentioned briefly earlier the French Revolution was immediately recognized by the ruling classes of Europe as a direct threat to their interests. In a small way the war became a proxy war between France and Britain, with the primary beneficiary ultimately being the colonial ruling class. For it was after this that the French empire collapsed and the British never again had control in the colonies.

Let us also recognize that the American Revolution was economically regressive while the French Revolution was economically progressive. The former wished to sustain a slave mode of production that would soon become obsolete in the face of industrial wage labor production, giving way to the true American Revolution in the Civil War, the conflict exemplified by the contradiction between these two competing economic models. The French Revolution, on the other hand, tore down the remaining feudal anachronisms that were acting as a drag on the French economy as it tried to keep up imperially and economically with the more capitalistic Britain.

The French Revolution was unlike the American in that the popular resistance of the masses was routinely called upon to rescue the revolution from conservative and counter-revolutionary forces. The American Revolution was merely initiated through popular resistance before it was eventually subsumed by the more retrograde of the ruling class interests. And hence the need for the Civil War not even a century later to finish the industrial development of the society. Also, one must not overlook the socially reactionary and racist character that persisted. The French Revolution, however, was heavily influenced by the first slave revolution, which took place in Haiti, and came to support them while the American revolutionaries, such as Thomas Jefferson who was president at the time, opposed them and used their military might in an attempt to aid in Napoleon’s re-conquest of the island.

Despite the failures of the French Revolution its historical impact affected Europe for the next two centuries, advancing the development of capitalism and socialism for the next two centuries. It should therefore be no surprise to anyone that a revolutionary period such as that existed during the French Revolution when it seemed possible that a new world could be created that benefitted the masses. Therefore it becomes necessary to stamp out any memory of those moments when popular resistance constructed and routinely rescued society from the grasp of wealthy plutocrats.

1. A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium:The French Revolution
2. A Marxist History of the World: From Neanderthals to Neoliberals: The Second Wave of Bourgeois Revolutions 1775-1815