The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude On the Twilight of Conservative Elite Pundits

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude On the Twilight of Conservative Elites

Previous posts in this series:

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 2: Antisemitism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on the Tea Party

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 3: Superfluous Capital and Superfluous People

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons (published at Naked Capitalism; discusses privatization using Rosa Luxemburg theory)

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on Right-Wing Authoritarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 5: Artistic and Intellectual Elites and the Rise of Fascism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude Defining Elites

After defining the term elites (see previous post), Arendt says that the elites did not actively oppose the rise of fascism in Germany and Austria, and in some respects were supportive. One problem I have (and I have several) is the lack of a direct explanation for the failure of the elites to confront the rise of fascism. The text raises one possibility. I suspect that immediately after WWI, most of the elites were sympathetic to the ideas of the Marxist left, and that many were actively interested. Then they saw that the Social Democrats directed the right-wing violence that killed and imprisoned the revolutionaries. That was enough to keep the fellow-travelers and the sympathizers away from left activism. They retreated to their writing rooms and their ateliers, and left the space of massive change to the right wing. They wanted “to see the ruin of this whole world of fake security, fake culture, and fake life.” (P. 328) The elites weren’t going to do anything about it, they just pointed and laughed as the mob solidified into the fascist movement.

Among the sins of these elites was their refusal to attack crackpot ideas.

To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots, must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination in the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition. P. 333

That’s uncomfortably close to Karl Rove’s “we create new reality”.

At the same time the elites were disengaging from the political world, they were pursuing their own esoteric ideas, ideas which further distanced them from the mob. This ended badly for the intellectual elites. Some were driven out, some fled, and the rest found a way to accommodate themselves to the fascist states.

As I wrote in my previous post, the US has plenty of elites who are conservative, but if we limit ourselves to writers and philosophers, there has never been a serious conservative intellectual class in this country. There have been a few intellectual conservatives, although none spring to mind who would pass Hofstadter’s test, including specifically William Buckley. If you disagree, perhaps you could read down Richard Posner’s list of 600f or so public intellectuals and identify all the US people listed, living or dead. It is astonishing to think that the likes of Ann Coulter and Erik Erikson are included on Posner’s list. And I confess I’ve never understood why bookstores shelve Ayn Rand among the philosophy books. There is certainly a class of highly conservative economists, but to me they lack any pretense of being intellectuals in Hofstadter’s sense. Further, they do not self-criticize, they do not change their minds in the face of contrary evidence. This means they are ideologues, not intellectuals.

Using my definition from the previous post, Buckley and a number of writers and pundits and economists would certainly qualify as a member of the conservative elite. Let’s focus on the pundits. Does anyone take them seriously? When was the last time any serious thinker took up an political issue raised by David Brooks in his NYT column, or the conventional nonsense he spouts on PBS? Just take a look, if you can, at this absurd column. It begins with a paean to the US system of capitalism and social welfare, and, of course, our crony capitalism: “nurturing disruptive dynamos like Bell Labs, Walmart, Whole Foods, Google and Apple”. Then this:

It’s amazing that a large part of the millennial generation has rejected this consensus. In supporting Bernie Sanders they are not just supporting a guy who is mad at Wall Street. They are supporting a guy who fundamentally wants to reshape the American economic system, and thus reshape American culture and values. As he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, he wants to make us more like northern Europe.

Why those Millenials are just downright unreasonable in questioning a system that promises that their lives will be much worse than their parents. They should all start businesses and get rich, just like Brooks did, and just like their parents did, or something. Brooks says nothing about the lived reality of Millenials. He refuses to face the fact that his favored Republican policies, tax-cutting, deregulating, war-mongering, and refusal to govern, have saddled them with massive personal debts and a stagnating economy that shipped all the decent jobs out to other countries. In his latest, Brooks has clearly lost it. It’s an explainer of this op-ed in the New York Times from two years ago offering three views of marriage. And here I though glorifying marriage was Ross Douthat’s job description.

Douthat is a deeply silly man, mooning on about conservative values and governance in the face of the actual behavior of the Republicans in government. Here he explains how similar Donald Trump and Pope Francis are. Apparently if you want to change something Douthat likes, you are either a vulgar materialist or an intellectual ascetic. I’m waiting for Douthat to explain how Donald Trump has a classy marriage this time, and is therefore fit to be President.

The bizarre Thomas Friedman is shocked that Bernie Sanders said that the business model of Wall Street is fraud, which became obvious after those scumballs wrecked the economy and destroyed our retirement plans. Since the downturn also cost his wife’s family a staggeringly large amount of wealth, he might have wondered how that happened.

Not one conservative pundit has called out the crackpot stupidity of national politicians on climate denial, denial of evolution, tearing down the separation of church and state, denial of pretty much any fact or lesson from science, or their truly insane theory of government, that if you ruin it things will be great. Instead, they embrace every stupid idea, or simply keep quiet. They cannot tell fact from chain emails. Why do these conservative pundits, and by extension the rest of the conservative elites, think this will turn out better for them in the long run than it did for the German elites of the 1920s?

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

10 replies
  1. Alan says:

    I wouldn’t call William Buckley or any of the other people you mention conservative intellectuals. Pundits. Leo Strauss? Hayek is also there but he seemed to be mostly good at mangling the ideas of others.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Actual tweet:

      Ross Douthat
      @DouthatNYT
      The Sanders kids care about Citizens United, but in the end it’s the sexual revolution that must be defended at all costs …

      1:35pm · 24 Feb 2016 · Twitter Web Client

  2. Bay State Librul says:

    What about the “close-knit fraternity of elite legal practitioners”?

    It is not clear when Scalia and Foster became friends. Legal specialists said the trip Scalia and Foster took to the Texas ranch raised no ethical concerns, calling it common for judges to socialize with lawyers in the close-knit fraternity of elite legal practitioners. Only if Foster had a pending case before the Supreme Court, they said, would there have been an issue – Boston Globe

    • martin says:

      quote”It is not clear when Scalia and Foster became friends.”unquote

      Omg. You beat me to the punch. I just read the whole article, albeit in the Washington Post, about these elite scum bags. Notwithstanding the other guests, who were also gathered to honor gods little flying creatures by obliterating them with shotguns by virtue of belonging to a four century old fraternity of moronic old men wearing “green robes emblazoned with crosses and Latin words translated as “Honoring God by Honoring his Creatures(excuse me while I puke), just knowing one of our esteemed elite rulers exercises his 2nd Amendment rights by fraternizing with the same members of a class that destroyed my life makes my fucking blood boil. I’d spit on his grave if I could.

      However, while I don’t pretend I’m versed or educated in the subjects at hand, that doesn’t mean I’m blind to things I’ve witnessed over time that have changed the nation I was born in, and pledged allegiance to for 12 stinking yrs. One of those things is my growing awareness of the direction this country has taken towards fascism. But the thing that has really awoken my interest, is how National Security is at the heart of everything relating to the elite of this country and their hand in shaping it’s path. It was only after reading something that Jim Garrison said in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1967s, that things started to make sense to me. One of his last statements especially.
      He said: “Huey Long once said, ‘Fascism will come to America in the name of anti-fascism.’ I’m afraid, based on my own experience, that fascism will come to America in the name of national security.” – Jim Garrison

      Ok, that’s all I have to contribute to this dialog here. Carry on.

  3. wayoutwest says:

    Karl Rove’s statement of fact shows the clear separation of two different classes, Elites who create reality and Intellectuals who speak and write mostly about what the Elites are doing, right or wrong, there is some crossover but not much.

    Intellectuals don’t make decisions, direct industry or national policies but the conservative intellectuals, though small in number, seem to be the most effective at influencing those Elites who do, whether they are labeled D or R. The plethora of Liberal Intellectuals churning out their ideas that are mostly ignored by the Elites might be better described as Ineffectuals.

    Trying to connect our Conservative Elites with Nazi Germany may have some validity but the Liberal Elites are goose-stepping to the same martial music as the daily reports about the Obama regime illustrate, here at EW. I hope people are not so easily fooled as to believe that our Liberal Elites have real solutions to Global Warming beyond the moneymaking hype of Big Green and a Nuke power plant in every town.

  4. bevin says:

    None of these people is conservative. The society which they are consciously attempting to construct, and whose foundations they have already built, is unlike any other in human history. It is certainly like any in American history.

    Just as the answer to Scalia’s claims of originalism was to challenge his curious notion of the Founders and the politics of their era, so we ought to ask Conservatives what it is that they wish to conserve?

    The answer would be very short: they wish to conserve the unchallengeable power of those with power. And to do this they are ready to change everything.

    They have changed the power of Congress to make war. They currently challenge the President’s right to nominate judges. They have trashed the Fourth Amendment. They have done the same to most of the Bill of Rights- habeas corpus, jury trials, confronting one’s accuser, cruel and unusual punishment. Everyone here knows the list better than I do. Everyone can fill in the blanks-space being the only problem, apart from time, that will arise.

    Do they hark back to the ’50s? Is that the era that they seek to conserve?
    Hardly half the population was in Unions, the tax system was progressive and graduated, College Tuition (at State institutions of which Oxbridge was envious) was either low or waived. There was much wrong with the era- Jim Crow, though challenged, was in rude health and a third of the country was segregated (cue nostalgic sighs from ‘conservatives’) but the era of two police lynchings a day had yet to arrive. As had the era of mass incarceration. Nor were prisons privatised.

    Do they hark back to the ’20s? Or the Gilded Age?

    The reality is that what conservatives are trying to do is to build a dystopia in which popular movements will be easily controlled and constantly spied upon; in which Trade Unions will exist only on sufferance. There will be no strikes. All protests will be kettled into “Free speech” zones. Anyone involved will be listed and constantly monitored. Blacklists will abound, anyone tainted with the suspicion of radicalism will find employment difficult if not impossible.

    These ‘conservatives’ spend much of their time gerrymandering districts and suppressing votes- they are trying not to conserve but to destroy democracy, not to cherish and promote civil rights but to eradicate them, to reduce them to empty labels without content or meaning.

    Free Speech? For corporations certainly but for nobody else. Access to the law? For the rich only. Influence over lawmaking? Not for the poor, not for the mere citizenry. As to Corporations they will become monopolies or oligopolies. There will be no competition. They will speak with one voice. No dissent will be allowed.

    Real Conservatives do two important things: they respect the achievements of past generations. And they resist change until it can be justified ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Conservatives would fight to prevent potentially dangerous experiments, such as nuclear power and genetic modification of organisms, with much more energy than they would fight abortion or gay rights (both of which have long existed without destroying society).

    Conservatives would confront warmongers in the same frame of mind. Instead of changing regimes around the world, interfering in societies of which few have more than a superficial understanding and mowing down populations on the basis of rumours and lies, conservatives would resist the diversion of resources, the disrespect for human life and the interference in the lives of others, that the scoundrels who call themselves conservatives today nod through in a way that makes Nero at the Games appear sober and restrained.

    Anyway you get the drift…these people aren’t Conservatives they are radical enemies of civilisation. And constitute in their daily behaviour the only reasonable argument for mass incarceration, perhaps torture, certainly solitary confinement that there is.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Lovely quote from Brooks. That Mr. Brooks claims to find it incomprehensible that so many Americans would want fundamentally to change America’s economic priorities – arrestingly low taxes for the rich, drastic cuts in education and public services, all out war on unions, offshoring of viable jobs, permanent war – displays the mindset he wants to mirror and to create in his readers. Since his 2000 magnum opus, Bobos in Paradise, Mr. Brooks has demonstrated that he knows nothing about what Main Street Americans want or need. But he does know what his well-heeled patrons want and need, and what they don’t want Main Streeters to know, to want or to need.

    Propagandist and ideologue, not public intellectual, is exactly right.

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I’m waiting for Mr. Douthat to go through puberty before bothering to read his views on sexuality and family life in America.

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