Weaponized debate

“They believe in small government… until it comes time to control women’s bodies!” Zing! I’m really tired of the liberal habit of pointing out these kinds of superficial contradictions. It’s true that conservative ideology doesn’t make sense if we look at its stated rationales, which are different for different topics. The stated rationales, in fact, function as a kind of weapon against liberals, who jump at the chance to engage and disprove — and will happily waste infinite amounts of time doing so. It’s like a drug for a certain type of “reasonable liberal”: they’re showing their broad-mindedness by engaging in dialogue with their ideological enemies, and they’re showing their intellectual superiority!

Yet conservatives have basically given the game away with their abuse of the fillibuster: they’ve all but explicitly declared that for them, the pretense of debate is nothing but a delay tactic and a power play. Some liberals have recognized this and ignored their stated rationales, but the alternative for them is apparently some kind of vulgar psychoanalysis: they hate women, they’re all secretely gay, they’re all racists. That is to say, they’re all irrational — once again, the intellectual superiority of the liberal position is secure.

What if, instead, we looked at stated conservative ideology as a part of a more or less consistent strategy? Not in the conspiracy-theory sense (though conservatives do explicitly plan much more than liberals tend to), but in the Foucauldian “conspiracy theory without conspirators” sense. Obviously the goal of conservatism is to reinforce and, if necessary, reassert “traditional” power structures. In the family sphere, that’s the father. In the economic sphere, that’s the boss. In the government sphere, that’s the police officer or the general (as opposed to the social worker).

The rationales for each of these sphere is different and provides tons of fodder for sarcastic tweets, but if we view it in terms of strategy, they all make perfect sense. Taken together, they serve to blame the victims, assert that the powerful are powerful for moral reasons, and then claim that the role of government is to endorse and reinforce the morally-discovered power structure rather than futilely try to disrupt it. The arguments might clash on a superficial level, but their effects are perfectly coherent and rational once the goal is granted.

Of course, since the rational response to this is to fight conservatives rather than argue with them, we’re probably doomed. Still, I can console myself with my intellectual superiority, so at least that’s something. (And of course, Corey Robin could have told you all this.)

21 thoughts on “Weaponized debate

  1. If «the goal of conservatism is to reinforce and, if necessary, reassert ‘traditional’ power structures», in a way, I almost sympathize with them, since they’re fighting against and resisting dangerously insidious forms of political oppression that exist through the ‘soft’ governmentality of the social worker.

  2. There’s a liberal strategy as much as there is a conservative strategy. As you described, it’s about reasonableness, compromise and policing the limits of political discourse. At the argumentative level, liberals are beset by an equivalent number of contradictions than conservatives.

    These things have been written about for more than a century in over a hundred different languages. Change will not come from, or for, liberals and conservatives.

  3. It’s curious the way in which the ‘traditional’ part goes pretty much unexamined in the liberal critique. What work is this term doing? What does it encompass? It’s even more problematic in liberal talk about the ‘resonance machine’ of the conservative right and the rapture-ready evangelical ‘crazies’. The good old theopolitical spectre raises its head every time; heteronomy, theocracy, the New Apostolic Reformation and their dominionist agenda…in short, their dangerous and inherently violent irrationality which must be held back (think 2 Thessalonians 2) by our superior liberal reason and reasonableness. Perhaps ‘tradition’ in the US doesn’t mean anything more that the way conservatives want to ‘conserve’ some sort of past order – but I’m not sure what is gained by calling, say, male hegemony, a ‘tradition’. Several millenia of domination without exception seems much closer to the reach of a term like ‘universal’ than the localism implied by ‘tradition’. More to my point is the generally overlooked fact that, as they make their way across the globe, both neoliberalism and evangelical/charismatic Christianity, severally and in concert, are anything but conservative of ‘traditional life-worlds’ or even world orders – viz Badiou on Marx: Capital’s “properly ontological virtue” does not lie in a return to the old forms, but rather their destruction – a desacralization. The “absolute barbarity” of this process should not blind us to the emancipatory possibilities opened up when “every effect of One” is denounced “as a simple, precarious configuration”, and the “symbolic representations in which the bond found a semblance of being” are dismissed. Badiou’s nonliberal stance on the ‘virtue’ of this process aside, it’s clear that this opens up a new field of struggle, and liberals might do well to reflect on the idea that the “vanguard” isn’t necessarily where they think it is…

  4. It’s like a drug for a certain type of “reasonable liberal”: they’re showing their broad-mindedness by engaging in dialogue with their ideological enemies, and they’re showing their intellectual superiority!

    And worse, in their efforts to bottle the Roger Ailes/Fox formula, the suits at MSNBC have figured our that making fun of conservatives makes for a decent counter-model for prime time news television. So instead of a real critical analysis of events, and of the shenanigans of both parties, we just get a thin diet of real analysis mixed with endless smug smirks and gotchas from the likes of Lawrence O’Donnell every evening. One of the best examples was a Maddow interview w/James Imhoff I saw where after a long period of tense jousting, pure stalemate, the interview ended and Maddow concluded it by lighting up with a beaming smile, saying “and thank you so much, sir, for coming on the show”. That’s when I realized that for her that really was the extent of it. The exercise was finished, just from putting on a decent show of civil debate, though no one had been convinced of anything and no ideological battles had been won. The beaming smile gave away the pleasure she took from being seen as clever, rational, and on the right side of things.

  5. As someone pointed out when I shared this on FB, the “vulgar psychoanalysis” argument is not entirely fair — that tack is much closer to your end point than you give credit for. “They hate women” is more or less a sloganized form of “they are trying to reassert the primacy of the father’s power within the family structure.”

  6. Right, but the slogan fragments a social agenda — it’s not a matter of each one of them, personally, holding irrational and regressive views. As a matter of fact, each one of them might run their own household more liberally than their “official” agenda would dictate, with a genuine affection and respect for their wives, but the agenda would still be every bit as toxic.

  7. Adam, I wonder if this also ties in to the discussion that we had about the attempt to “make the unconscious conscious.” Treating an individual’s (or ideology’s) unconscious desire as though it were rationally structured in the same way as a conscious desire is futile and perhaps even counter-productive. The subject only becomes more opaque to themselves and is further removed from an encounter with the real.

  8. The problem of liberalism is that it wants the same sort of formal reality that conservatism wants, but is uncomfortable with how that reality is achieved. Conservatives want inexpensive laptops and are satisfied with the system that supplies them. Liberals are uneasy with Asian sweatshop labor, but at the same time – like conservatives – want inexpensive laptops. Liberals wants “capitalism with a human face.” There is currently no way around the contradiction between liberals’ socialist-like cultural values and the lifestyles they wish to lead, which is dependent on hierarchy, exploitation, and repression. The desires and politics of conservatives seem to be in harmony. But their is a gap between the two for liberals.

    The endless liberal fascination with engaging conservatives in a debate amounts to liberals saying “hey, we know the political content that fulfills the desires we BOTH share is pretty fucked up. Its major psychic burden is guilt and your refusal to share in that guilt is putting way too much burden on us. Its time you admitted to your fair share of it.” Also, the debate functions like a prayer wheel. As long as liberals can be seen to be discussing ‘capitalism with a human face’ they no longer have to actually have to implement it, which in any case, is materially impossible. It frees them up to enjoy their new ipad.

  9. The content of liberalism amounts to extending conservatism to excluded groups. The liberal cause of our moment – gay marriage – is obviously not an attempt to legitimate an outlawed culture, but rather to give a marginalized group the opportunity to show that it desires essentially the same social relations cherished by conservatives (others without otherness). And as anyone who has ever spent any time in Portland knows, a liberal household looks basically like a conservative household: a monogamous mom (who maybe has tattoos and plays the drums) and dad (who may do more than his fair share of dishes and diaper changing) and some kids, putting themselves first in a competition with the rest of the world. And if any of these families aren’t white, well they at least also went to college, read the same sort of books, can chat about the same shows on NPR etc. So what sort of content could liberals really put forth in opposition to conservative content?

  10. Well, as the blog monarchist, and thus somebody who would normally be accused of being conservative, or even reactionary, I’m not certain I can agree with this analysis. (I would argue, on my own behalf, that royalism isn’t necessarily conservative, whatever modern conservativism actually is).

    I might open with the following assertions:

    1. There are several plausibly rational arguments for hierarchies that are not arguments from tradition (Xenophon’s opposition to the Athenian democracy, Aristotle’s depiction of the gentleman and the family, Aquinas’ support of monarchy, Maimonides’ support of the philosopher-king, and so on).
    2. Modern American “conservatives” do not usually rely upon those arguments in claim 1, and are typically unable to even recognize those arguments as such.
    3. Modern “conservative” thinkers such as those focused on by Robin (his particular focii being Burke and de Maistre) also reject the arguments in claim 1 in favor of either an ill-defined tradition (Burke) or force (de Maistre). Others reject the arguments in claim 1 in favor of supporting the haute bourgeoisie as the rulers on the basis of claimed merit (Locke, Montesquieu). This last rejection is in dire conflict with claim 1’s definition of merit as wisdom (or secondly, merit as the virtue of the gentleman or the noble).

    So, some assertions perhaps following from the above:

    1. Tradition is a particularly weak argument and is really only advanced by the weakest thinker above (Burke).
    2. Instead, the primary support of modern American “conservativism” is a reliance on Locke’s and Montesquieu’s arguments that the haute bourgeoisie can replace the philosopher-kings or the gentlemen (the nobility) as the rulers.

  11. Sure, Adam, I noticed. I have a lot of scarequotes in my rant, too. What you might be not noticing is, if your argument were true, then democracy is likely impossible. There would be too many people who desire to believe that whatever is (i.e. whatever is powerful at the moment), is just. Democracy would really be a fairy-tale: real politics would then either be confusing the multitude about what is, or real politics would be simply force.

  12. “Democracy would really be a fairy-tale: real politics would then either be confusing the multitude about what is, or real politics would be simply force.”

    Not to put to pedantic a point on it, but democracy is about “people power”. Also, any leftist worth his salt is well aware that real politics is indeed force, mostly the force to confuse the multitude about their own force.

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