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Against Authoritarianism, Rightly Understood

Damon Linker at TNR attacks [1] Andrew Bacevich’s recent response [2] to Sam Tanenhaus’s essay on the demise of conservatism, and more broadly various iterations of what he calls “paleo-conservatism” (including, I’m somewhat honored to note, a link to my site “What I Saw in America” [3] as well as to the writings of Rod Dreher and Daniel Larison). In particular, he seeks to warn of the dangers of authoritarianism that he detects lurking at the heart of this radical philosophy.

Linker engages in no little amount of misdirection and sleight of hand by attempting to link arguments by Bacevich – including his critique of American irreponsibility in the realms of personal morality, finance, and militarism – exclusively with aspects of Catholicism that, for him, represents the end station on the road the “paleos” propose we travel. The attempt to forge this link is so strained that it really doesn’t deserve much further comment. That he thinks a critique of moral, financial and military irresponsibility – aimed at conservatives and liberals alike – can be dismissed by attempting to paint on it the facade of Church scandal reveals most deeply Linker’s fears that he can’t really argue with the substance of Bacevich’s points.

Still, there is an important point in Linker’s argument that does bear consideration – namely, that “paleo” conservatism (a term I don’t at all like, in large part because it suggests something that was large, lumbering, is now extinct, and had small brains to boot) has at its base an authoritarian dimension. It is peculiar to be painted with this brush, particularly given the widely shared mistrust toward centralization and “bigness” that pervades the thought of the arguments that Linker points to. Critiques by Bacevich, Larison, and others against the pervasive military mobilization and imperial ambitions of America hardly seem an endorsement of authoritarianism. Arguments for fiscal responsibility, for thrift and living within one’s means may strike some as “authoritarian,” but I think most would conclude that it would be preferable to our current financial situation. Linker’s fears of authoritarianism would seem to boil down to his fears that someone will seek to restrain him from exercising personal moral (and, based on his examples, specifically sexual) license. This is an argument always certain to rally liberal forces, as certain as demands to rein in “judicial tyranny” are sure to energize conservatives. But it really, really misses the point.

The three examples – not exhaustive – offered by Bacevich are deeply connected. Each of them speak to the modern American inability to govern appetite. They rest not on a call for the imposition of authority – how could one demand authority to suppress the imperial impulse? – but seek the encouragement of self-government and self-control. Such arguments rest on a fundamentally different conception of liberty than that assumed by Linker: not the absence of restraint, but self-government resulting in freedom from the self-destructive slavery to appetite.

What Linker further misses is the extent to which the three are connected. The personal liberties we seek to enjoy rest upon, and are made extensively possible by, a growth economy. The success of the financial system as currently ordered rests extensively upon the expansion of the State, and thus, its military capabilities. This was an argument made long ago by Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy, the book that fundamentally redefined the concept of “republicanism” away from its ancient Aristotelian and Ciceronian forms – with a stress upon res publica, or “public things” – to one in which the polity is ordered in a manner to guarantee sufficient power and stability for its populace to attain the things it wants – that is, private liberty. Machiavelli understood that ancient republics could not achieve the conditions necessary for private liberty, being neither rich nor powerful enough to afford the stability or prosperity that made widespread private liberty possible. Rather, he argued on behalf of a new form of republicanism – modern republicanism – that was premised upon expansion and dominion. It rested on the two pillars of dominion – the mastery of nature and the exercise of power over a wide expanse of territory, a trajectory of expansion that, in fact, could know no natural limits. The project of expansion was the only option for modern republicanism, for not to expand was to become subject to the expansionist designs of other regimes. Expand, or die. Expand, and be free.

The irony of this argument – one that underlies the thought of aspects of our own Constitutional system – is that the very achievement of private liberty is premised upon the expansion of public power. We do not necessarily experience this form of public power as “authority” in the traditional sense, but surely it orders our lives in innumerable ways, and infiltrates our daily existence in ways that may be more extensive than any old-fashioned monarch could have dreamed of. The power that is now wielded by central governments in the modern industrialized world goes far beyond anything that has ever existed before, and we come daily to rely more and more upon its increase of power in order to sustain our pursuits of private liberty. We are, of course, seeing this with renewed clarity in the daily increase of government power and authority in the realms of military and financial activity, resulting in ever-greater concentration of power for the sake of our capacity to live as thoroughly as possible lives defined by private liberty. The State will demand ever more power to sustain this self-centered aim, and in our incapacity to conceive of a different form of liberty – based in self-government – we assent to its continued concentration and expansion. What awaits us at the end of this road is too horrific to contemplate.

Working within this reigning paradigm, all obstacles to the achievement of private liberty represent unnatural and undesired restrictions upon one’s liberty. All restraints are considered to be repressive authority – even, were it possible to conceive, if it were exercised by oneself. The paradigm only can operate along a spectrum of “unrestrained” or “oppressed,” wholly oblivious to the alternative capacity of self-rule. Again, the irony is that self-rule is the means of preventing and thwarting the expansion of the military-industrial State. It is, in fact, the greatest avenue of preventing the likelihood of an all-encompassing Leviathan. Such an alternative conception of liberty is deeply premised upon the very anthropology that Linker claims it to be uncognizant of – our propensity to “depravity,” including self-deception, pride, greed, self-aggrandizement and a willingness to reduce good to those things reducible to the monadic body. A culture that would seek to reign in our propensity to depravity would not rest either on private liberation nor “authoritarianism,” but the inculcation of the faculties and abilities of self-government. Only one who seeks private liberty in all respects would regard such cultivation of self-government as oppressive, and would ultimately have to face the reality that such thoroughgoing private liberty is purchased by means of the expansion of public power and a truly frightening prospect of authoritarianism. Already we can see that much of the American public would be willing to sacrifice liberties in the name of sustaining a growth economy that encourages near-infinite, but never fulfilled, personal satiation. This, however, is not liberty.

It is time to think differently and beyond this reigning paradigm: to think of liberty in terms of self-government; to consider that freedom is best preserved when institutions are smaller and less concentrated with destructive power; to live within the means that nature affords, without seeking its pillage or mutilation; to act with stewardship and responsibility in the world and toward our neighbors and future generations. There is one part of Linker’s argument that I hope is right: that arguments such as these “may gather force over the coming years.” That’s change I can believe in.

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#1 Comment By WRW On February 11, 2009 @ 10:49 am

Mr. Deenan,
Yours is a well-written and methodical response to Linker’s piece. What is it about liberals that they conceive of liberty as sex? Are they so unimaginative and uncreative?

Certainly, trotting out the tired old bugaboo of authoritarianism reflects an exhausted intellectual liberalism (stretched to the point of citing to the Mexican priest who founded a Catholic religious order–if only Franco were still alive to be kicked around!) Indeed, from the intellectual standpoint, where is there any vibrancy in either movement liberalism or movement conservatism? Liberals only crow because they’ve won an election. But what do they have other than a pile of policy proposals? (Most of which have the stale whiff of the familiar, as if pulled out of the House hopper where Delay had consigned them.)

As you rightly point out, Prof Bacevich focused his critique on the indulgence of appetite and whim. And the Professor is correct that to oppose such culture cannot occur in the corridors of power. (Witness the silly rationalizations that movement conservatives and their politicos make for profligate spending, tax cuts and consumerism.)

Frum’s latest “journalistic” endeavor (now that he’s taken a break from hagiography and propagandizing of Bush II) is simply to try and put the wheels back on the broken “conservative” bus so that he and his ilk can get back into power. The “conservative movement” is simply a cynical political manipulation by men (like Gingrich, Delay and Bush II) who are unworthy of the support of the ordinary people who vote for them. Using the manipulations of social issues to gain votes and political power that is then used to advance the “Conservative” elite and their corporatist sponsors.

I say, *raspberries* for the lot of the “Movement.”

#2 Comment By Patrick J. Deneen On February 11, 2009 @ 11:41 am

There is amazing vibrancy among people of conservative temperament and disposition, but those people are not necessarily carrying water for the “movement.” Indeed, I would argue that Linker’s concerns about the potential for a vigorous version of what he calls “paleo-conservatism” is well-placed. Emphasizing the vibrancy of local culture, its strengthening by the reversal of destructive policies that have placed localities at a disadvantage to ‘global forces,’ responsible stewardship of nature and the revival of a culture of responsibility, thrift, and fidelity, a powerful combination of elements of the contemporary Left and Right could make for a powerful and true counter-argument to the prevailing tired debate over the best way to expand the American empire of credit and militarism, whether through tax-and-spend or tax-cut-and-spend. I’m very heartened to see just such nervousness by people on the “Right” such as Linker and, similarly, many on the liberal Left. Nothing reveals their deep complicity more evidently than their mutual antagonism to a true and viable alternative.

#3 Comment By WRW On February 11, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

“Nothing reveals their deep complicity more evidently than their mutual antagonism to a true and viable alternative.”

Indeed, well said. The other interesting element of the potential “movement” you identify, is its potential to splinter the Left, as its elements which favor localism and individualism (in its real sense) come to recognize greater dissonance with their collectivist brethren than with “conservative” bugbear used to unify the Left.

#4 Comment By SM On February 11, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

“What is it about liberals that they conceive of liberty as sex? Are they so unimaginative and uncreative?”

Personally, I think I have a pretty broad conception of liberty. Perhaps we of a libertarian or liberal bent appear to spend a lot of time talking about sex because many conservatives insist on a conception of liberty that disincludes sexuality.

#5 Comment By Scott Lahti On February 11, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

Deneen: “The three examples – not exhaustive – offered by Bacevich are deeply connected. Each of them speak to the modern American inability to govern appetite. They rest not on a call for the imposition of authority – how could one demand authority to suppress the imperial impulse? – but seek the encouragement of self-government and self-control. Such arguments rest on a fundamentally different conception of liberty than that assumed by Linker: not the absence of restraint, but self-government resulting in freedom from the self-destructive slavery to appetite.”

In The Foundations of Morality, Henry Hazlitt quotes at length a few famous passages from the essay “Joseph Conrad” by Bertrand Russell (reprinted in [4]). They bear on Deneen’s points quite nicely; I have added to them further bits from the essay:

“Of all that he had written I admired most the terrible story
called The Heart of Darkness, in which a rather weak idealist is driven mad by horror of the tropical forest and loneliness
among savages. This story expresses, I think, most completely
his philosophy of life. I felt, though I do not know whether
he would have accepted such an image, that he thought of
civilized and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous
walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any mo-
ment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.
He was very conscious of the various forms of passionate
madness to which men are prone, and it was this that gave
him such a profound belief in the importance of discipline.
His point of view, one might perhaps say, was the antithesis
of Rousseau’s: ‘Man is born in chains, but he can become
free.’ He becomes free, so I believe Conrad would have said,
not by letting loose his impulses, not by being casual and un-
controlled, but by subduing wayward impulse to a dominant

“Except for love of England and hatred of Russia, politics
did not much concern him. What interested him was the individual human soul faced with the indifference of nature, and often with the hostility of man, and subject to inner struggles with passions both good and bad that led toward destruction…

“Conrad’s point of view was far from modern. In the mod-
ern world there are two philosophies: the one, which stems
from Rousseau, and sweeps aside discipline as unnecessary;
the other, which finds its fullest expression in totalitarianism,
which thinks of discipline as essentially imposed from with-
out. Conrad adhered to the older tradition, that discipline
should come from within. He despised indiscipline, and hated
discipline that was merely external.

“In all this I found myself closely in agreement with him…

“I had some charming letters from him, especially one about my book on China…

‘…after reading your extremely interesting view of the Chinese Problem I take a gloomy view of the future of their country.’ He went on to say that my views of the future of China ‘strike a chill into one’s soul,’ the more so, he said, as I pinned my hopes on international socialism.

‘The sort of thing,’ he commented, ‘to which I cannot at-
tach any sort of definite meaning. I have never been able to
find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything convincing
enough to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated
sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.’ He
went on to say that although man has taken to flying, ‘He
doesn’t fly like an eagle, he flies like a beetle. And you must
have noticed how ugly, ridiculous and fatuous is the flight of
a beetle.’ In these pessimistic remarks, I felt that he was
showing a deeper wisdom than I had shown in my somewhat
artificial hopes for a happy issue in China. It must be said that
so far events have proved him right…

“Conrad, I suppose, is in process of being forgotten. But his intense and passionate nobility shines in my memory like a star seen from the bottom of a well. I wish I could make his light shine for others as it shone for me.”

See also the book [5] by Kieron O’Hara:

“This book argues that the novelist Joseph Conrad’s work speaks directly to us in a way that none of his contemporaries can. Conrad’s scepticism, pessimism, emphasis on the importance and fragility of community, and the difficulties of escaping our history are important tools for understanding the political world in which we live. He is prepared to face a future where progress is not inevitable, where actions have unintended consequences, and where we cannot know the contexts in which we act. Heart of Darkness uncovers the rotten core of the Eurocentric myth of imperialism as a way of bringing enlightenment to native peoples lessons which are relevant once more as the Iraq debacle has undermined the claims of liberal democracy to universal significance. The result can hardly be called a political programme, but Conrad’s work is clearly suggestive of a sceptical conservatism of the sort described by the author in his 2005 book After Blair: Conservatism Beyond Thatcher. The difficult part of a Conradian philosophy is the profundity of his pessimism far greater than Oakeshott, with whom Conrad does share some similarities (though closer to a conservative politician like Salisbury). Conrad s work poses the question of how far we as a society are prepared to face the consequences of our ignorance.”

#6 Comment By WRW On February 11, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

“Personally, I think I have a pretty broad conception of liberty. Perhaps we of a libertarian or liberal bent appear to spend a lot of time talking about sex because many conservatives insist on a conception of liberty that disincludes sexuality.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps it is because the pursuit of appetite underlies both liberalism and libertarianism. In any event, Bacevich made no special mention of sex, including a reference among several others. Yet his critic framed the question of “authoritarianism” (after first falsely conceiving it) in terms of sexual peccadilloes.

And, once again, Bacevich’s point is that our culture has abandoned restraint and the gov’t has encouraged that abandonment (most notably in fostering a consumerist economy.) “Conservatism” as expressed by the GOP (while perhaps presenting itself as favoring restrain in sexual matters) certainly fostered profligacy in numerous other areas.

#7 Comment By TomB On February 11, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

It’s very hard to keep track of all the arguments here between what Tanenhaus said and as opposed to what Bacevich said as opposed to what Deneen said Linker said and etc. and so forth. So maybe people ought to just focus on whether “conservatism” is indeed in trouble and if so why.

Seems to me the state of the union as left by Bush alone clearly shows that it is in trouble, which judgment has now been overwhelmingly seconded by the public in the last election.

Of course one can say that Bush wasn’t really a conservative, but at some point it seems to me one has to concede that this argument reached the point of being not even of much academic interest anymore: After all what *difference* does it make if one can validly say that Bush’s policies deviate from the ideas of Burke? Who even cares anymore? If all of Bush’s policies concerning international and military affairs, the economy, civil rights and liberties, immigration and so forth could be so easily accepted by the Party that calls itself “conservative,” and probably 99.999% of the public indeed unshakably considers that Party to *be* “conservative,” well then good luck trying to change that perspective. For all practical intents and purposes, those policies *were* “conservative.”

And indeed even on that academic plane one can look to the past and say that there *were* antecedents and etc. that gave Bush and Co. the plausible idea that they were being “conservative.” Iraq? “A robust national defense/conserving America’s position as leader of the world!” The assault on privacy and civil rights? “Since when have conservatives been liberal bleeding hearts?” Throwing open the doors to immigration? “Conserving America’s historically open and welcoming arms to immigrants and conservatism’s unbounded belief in providing opportunities” and blah blah blah. Spending money like a drunken Kennedy? “Necessary to fund our historic leadership position in the world, and besides Reagan showed that boundless unregulated opportunity in the economy can easily pay it off!”

I.e., as a practical matter what *can’t* be plausibly be described as “conservative” anymore? Indeed, what *hasn’t* been, by the Republican Party itself, just in the past eight years? It’s like entering into a debate with a drunk, taking the position that no, the drunk isn’t really a drunk, with the drunk gleefully admitting they are a drunk. A pretty tough argument to win in the public’s eye.

I think we’ve reached the point where the Republican Party and indeed the label “conservatism” ought to be regarded for what they manifestly are: No friends whatsoever anymore to those who really embrace the central, important tenets that this country was established upon and/or that have been shown to be smart. Thus I for one would be much happier seeing this magazine, for instance, rename itself “The American Libertarian,” or “The National Libertarian” since I think a thoughtful, moderate nationalistic libertarianism can indeed provide not only the right answers to so many of the issues today, but answers that are instinctively *attractive* to the American public too.

E.g., libertarians don’t go around the globe searching for monsters to destroy. Nor do *national* libertarians go about going to war for other countries’s interests nor indeed lightly forming *any* alliances and blocs and etc. Nor do they lightly go about infringing on people’s privacy such eavesdropping on them (esp. without court orders), nor do they believe in lightly taking money out of one set of people’s pockets to pay for the enthusiasms of another set. And, lastly, being both nationalists and libertarians, they see libertarianism as being beneficial for their *own* fellow countrymen and *not* the rest of the world so commanding them to throw open the borders to whomever has the shoe-power to jump over same.

Are there intellectual problems with a libertarian party? You bet, not least in that self-identifying itself as a party of a certain ideology you are always going to be fighting the Jacobins arguing purity purity purity. And even a moderate, reasonable libertarianism may well require one to swallow the kind of “licence” for others to engage in things you abhor. But at least it gives one the rock to stand upon to argue against anyone forcing *you* to do things you abhor.

And those problems are exactly why some body of thinkers are needed for any sort of “national libertarian” movement. Much more so than people (like us here?) who are already and anyway already oriented along nationalistic and libertarian lines sallying forth to argue the beyond-lost cause that Republicanism /”conservatism” has been hijacked and laboriously fighting issue by issue to try to show that’s true, against people who *are* Republicans and who people *do* regard as true “conservatives. (I.e., those “drunks” I mentioned above.)

And for anyone not convinced, here’s a question: Accepting that for all practical purposes the Republican Party not only is presently identified as the “conservative” one but likely will be for at least the next decade, do you *really* believe that in that time it is going to reform itself to truly get back to what you regard as “true” conservative principles? That if by some miracle it gets into power again in that time instead of just miming those principles (like Bush did, like McCain did), it will *really* fight for same?

If so, all I can say is good luck. Because it seems to me all that means is that you’re willing to see at least another decade wasted.

#8 Comment By Red Phillips On February 11, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

Linker is a twit. There is no worse kind of convert than the convert who then turns around and starts sniping at his ex-friends. Where is David Brock these days? He and Linker should hang out.

Doesn’t common decency dictate that you keep your mouth shut and not run down your ex-friends? At the least you should have the decency to wait a sufficient period of time before taking shots.

There will always be authority. It is in the very nature of things. The question is from where does authority properly arise and reside. The paleocons answer this the way the ancients answered it. From religion, family, community, etc.

By delegitimizing and downgrading those things, liberals like Linker vest all the authority in the State. So maybe he gets to fornicate without consequence, but he is helpless against an all powerful state that is no longer countered by competing cultural institutions.

So who is really the authoritarian?

#9 Comment By ehmoran On February 11, 2009 @ 9:05 pm



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#10 Comment By WRW On February 12, 2009 @ 11:14 am

TomB’s point re: Bush certainly seems correct. I think it was Jeffrey Hart who wrote that whether conservatives like it or not, Bush is identified as conservative and has ruined the name, perhaps for decades to come.

But that’s a political question. I think the point made Bacevich and others is that conservatives ought not restrict themselves to a political expression of conservatism.

#11 Pingback By The Bacevich/Linker Debate and the Need for Political Liberalism and Cultural Conservatism « Mose Gontar On February 13, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

[…] and conservatism, this poses no threat politically liberal movement. As Patrick Deneen points out a society based on unlimited expansion and a lack of “self-goverment,” is a threat to […]

#12 Pingback By The Discovered Country » On The Way To Anarchism On February 15, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

[…] Patrick J. Deneen SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “On The Way To Anarchism”, url: “http://www.davetrowbridge.com/blog/2009/02/15/on-the-way-to-anarchism/” }); […]

#13 Comment By Doug On February 16, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

I’m having a hard time seeing what Deneen’s clarification of pale-conservatism (or whatever he would prefer to call it) has to do with politics. According to the standard liberal view, the call for restraint, discipline, and government of appetite is fine if we’re only talking about yourself as the source of control. The liberal worry kicks in when the state is called on to force that restraint (Linker’s remarks on hierarchical religious authority are in that spirit, though it’d be better to stick with the echt-liberal’s focus on the state). If Bacevich, Deneen, et. al. want to limit their prescriptions of cultural change to the realm of advocacy, education, and other non-coercive methods, the liberal should be content to let them have a rip.

#14 Comment By Yo On December 5, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

Control over one’s body and sexuality is not liberty? Absolutely absurd.

Deneen is an ontological authoritarian. What he calls appetite and whim, others see as what makes life meaningful. He wants all human beings to submit to one model of human nature, one paradigm of self government. But why? Because he has a particular philosophical principle, the teleological belief in a God who fixed human nature in a frozen image. True liberty is recognizing the inessentiality of such universalist claims about human nature, which completely ignore evolution and potential, nurture and the role of ethos. We need not submit to the judgment of “God,” a character in an ancient text, or his modern servitors. “Self-government” can be understood in a variety of ways – for example, Michel Foucault’s understanding of governmentality as the care of the self.

Oh, but wait, Foucault was gay and into S+M, so he’s a defective, a deviant who didn’t understand how to properly control his appetites for pleasure, love and fulfillment. He deserved to die of AIDS, right? Just God’s punishment against the wicked, I guess.