Much as I enjoyed the fellowship of the past weekend in Charlottesville, there was a persistent and palpable animosity toward politics and government generally held by many of the participants. For all the talk of community, it was a community bereft of the idea that communities require more than just good feeling, but laws and institutions as well as the willingness on the part of citizens to work publically toward the formation and enactment of the public good and the recognition that such work will result in conflict. There was something of a gauzy sentimentality and even anarchic libertarianism that pervaded the sessions. As much as I admire Wendell Berry, his work does not sufficiently attend to the needs for, and demands of, politics. Indeed, I was struck by the similarity between two camps that otherwise might be thought to be polar opposites - agrarian communitarians and libertarians. Both are wildly optimistic about human nature and the ability of humans to “do their own thing” without the “interference” of politics and government. ~Prof. Patrick Deneen
I heard Prof. Deneen’s talk in Charlottesville, and I was pretty sure there was nothing really troubling in it, but I went back through it again today and made sure. Since I, anarchopaleo-retroneotradcon populist agrarian Bolingbrokean reactionary that I am, still haven’t found anything all that objectionable in it, and I didn’t notice the “gauzy sentimentality” in the attendees that Prof. Deneen noticed, I assume I am either missing something tremendously important or there has been an unfortunate misunderstanding somewhere. Yes, there was much talk about Wendell Berry, such that it became the running joke of the conference, but it was not just aimless gushing about the grand old Kentuckian; the references and citations were all, for the most part, part of the defense of rooted, limited and human-scale living.
The talk itself should have made any neo-Schumpeterian and neo-Schuhmacherian’s heart fill with joy and gladness, and the conference attendees should have reassured everyone that a room could erupt in applause at the mention of Ron Paul’s impending presidential victory and believe in and try to live rooted traditional community life at the same time and that they cheered for Ron Paul because they believed and lived in this way. (Am I just imposing my own perspective on all the attendees? I don’t know, but I don’t think so.) The people who were there despise what the political class calls “politics” because I think they understand that this “politics” has nothing good or positive to do with the immediate political communities to which they belong. They loathe “government” generally not because they think any and all government is undesirable, but because they believe this kind of government that we have today is significantly and dangerously corrupted. Prof. Deneen may find in the enthusiasm for Ron Paul an example of precisely the sort of disengagement and lack of realism about politics that he thinks is the problem, but I would suggest that any expression of enthusiasm for a presidential candidate, even an extreme long-shot such as Rep. Paul, demonstrates a strong sense of engagement and perhaps almost undue preoccupation with politics as conventionally defined.
There is a sense in which D.C. is less of a monstrosity as a city than Las Vegas or Phoenix, engaged in perpetual war with nature as those cities are, but there is also a very real sense in which those places could not thrive without the policies and priorities set in Washington. Washington is not at war with nature, but it is at war with our America, and so it is not terribly surprising that people who consider themselves patriots regard it with special loathing. For my part, in my visits to the Georgetown campus and the rest of the metro area, I have found some things to enjoy in the District and its environs, but on the whole I take Kekaumenos’ advice about going to the capital: don’t do it unless you absolutely have to, and leave as quickly as possible.
Were there libertarians at the conference who had an unfortunately optimistic view of human nature? Probably. Did they make up the bulk of the speakers and attendees? I am doubtful about that. Are there some romantics who pine for settled communities simply because they like to have things to pine for? Probably. But that is not what anyone I met was talking about. Maybe I didn’t meet enough of the people at the conference. I would like to suggest, however, that the hostility to politics and government (which I suppose can hardly satisfy a professor of government) that Prof. Deneen encountered there was very far from a desire to live in a world beyond politics. The ISI folks, as I understand them, view attempts to escape the inevitable realities of politics as fairly insane. As Chantal Delsol’s book would have it, it is the attempt to eliminate the structures of power (among other things) all together that constitutes one of the grave mistakes of modern Western man. The existence of power and the existence of disparities of power will be constants in human experience, and so there is the ultimate choice of attempting to constrain and limit the corruption that comes from concentrated power (according to the finest Anglo-American traditions of Bolingbroke, the Country party, the Anti-Federalists, who are the very same people who embody what Prof. Deneen calls the alternative tradition) or acquiescing to various degrees in the monstrosity of the Robinarchy on the grounds that there has to be a government somewhere. To be against the Robinarchy does not mean that you reject authority or government, much less that you have an optimistic assessment of human nature, but that you would like to see government rightly ordered according to principles of legitimacy, lawfulness and justice.
Over the past year it has been interesting to see reactions to the conservatism of virtue and place (this seems to be the most succinct name for what we are trying to describe) that has been on display at different points. When traditional conservatism was advanced during the debates over “crunchy conservatism,” all of the talk of virtue and the criticism of megacorporations immediately aroused the suspicions of the enforcers of acceptable fusionism that some sort of lefty statist coup was in the works. Citing John Lukacs saying negative things about paving over green fields was taken as proof that we wanted to collectivise the farms, or something like that. Libertarian terror at the prospect of actually living your life in accordance with nature was palpable. It was the foes of the traditionalists, paleos and “crunchy cons” who wanted to talk about a “partial philosophy of life” and who advanced the idea that politics somehow stops at the voting booth and the government office. The anarcho-traditionalists, if we want to call them that, were the ones saying that political life is first and foremost concerned with the affairs of the institutions of your local political community and the needs of your family, and these are what ought to take priority. They were proposing practicing politics as if the Permanent Things (i.e., virtues, among other things) really existed and actually mattered, and you could see the unmitigated horror this induced in every “mainstream conservative.”
There was an equally harsh reaction in the other direction when the exact same people begin speaking favourably about “front-porch anarchism” and Wendell Berry and Dorothy Day in a slightly different context. All of a sudden the same people who were a few months earlier supposedly attempting to regulate every aspect of your daily life with supposedly fascist dreams of transcendence were dangerously oblivious to the need for order and stability! This would be the “gauzy sentimentality” objection Prof. Deneen voiced earlier. However, I think I can explain how people keep having this mistaken impression.
The “front-porch anarchist” folks were talking about ”anarchism” with the understanding that this means a rejection of consolidation, concentration and centralisation, a repudiation of war, the extraction of wealth by the state and the exploitation of the land and the people by corporate masters together with a rejection of the trashy culture, the degradation of the human person and the general ugliness of the age. It is difficult to discern this at first, because the label anarchist is immediately off-putting to most conservatives (as it should be in its normal meaning of bomb-throwing assassins), but what needs to be understood is that these “front-porch anarchists” are irrevocably opposed to the kind of anarchist who believes that destruction is creative, since they are adamantly opposed to the kind of “creative destruction” that requires the destruction of all they love to create the bland, homogenous, dead world that they hate. From everything I heard in Prof. Deneen’s talk, it seems to me that he and they are in more or less perfect agreement. What have I missed that I think this?