Doubtful prophecies of a paleo peritus

Paul Gottfried says the paleo movement is dead, and calls for youth to take over in the form of a post-paleo movement based on true American conservatism, which is the constitutional liberalism once represented by Taft Republicanism. He sees signs of such a development in the Ron Paul campaign, and in the writings of some youngish right-wingers.

If such a thing happens I’m all for it, especially compared to anything else that seems likely in the near future. Still, there are some bothersome points. Gottfried’s piece seems to suggest a sort of Brownian motion theory of historical development that leads to an overemphasis on strategy and tactics at the expense of basic principle:

  • Stuff happens, and that leads to other stuff.
  • Figure out the configuration of forces, and you can guide how they play out through intelligent intervention.
  • The reason the paleos failed was that they didn’t have enough money, and the media were against them, so they couldn’t push things their way.
  • That practical problem was due to an odd combination of circumstances that can’t last forever. Maybe next time we can get more money and get things to go more our way.

If that’s the analysis, it leaves out a lot. I’d say that the paleos failed, at the pragmatic level, because they were on the weaker side of a battle between the imperialism of bureaucratic and market institutions, and the resistance of the informal, local and traditional institutions they correctly believe necessary to a tolerable way of life. Money, media, managers and other mainstream authorities support the former side for excellent and enduring reasons. They are the ruling class, so why not squash all competitors? And if their side is stronger, for basic reasons, why shouldn’t it just keep on winning?

What follows to my mind is that staring at the existing configuration of power might suggest some tactics or strategies of secondary importance but isn’t going to get us out of the hole we’re in. To do more than try to stave off catastrophe we need to be able to say what we want, why we want it, and why we should get it: at a minimum, to be able to explain to other people why we’re right. And right-wingers aren’t able to do that just now. How else could left-wingers win in court on claims that traditionally-minded legislation has “no rational basis”? The failure of conservatism has not been just institutional. It has also been—as all agree—intellectual.

More specifically, we need to offer an explanation why markets and expert regulation aren’t uniquely rational principles of social organization. To do that, though, we have to be able to say why neutral scientific expertise is not the whole of knowledge, why maximum equal satisfaction of preferences is not the human good, and if those things lack something just what it is, as a practical matter, that can supply what they lack.

In other words, we have to go rather deep—so far as I can tell, to something rather like the Catholicism of which Gottfried complains. America may be basically Protestant, and originally Calvinist, but both those tendencies have their origins within Catholicism. They are Catholic factions that believed—falsely, it now appears—that they could go it alone. That being so, why wouldn’t it be smart for them to return to their origins when they’ve evidently ended up in such a hole?

Dealing with the most basic issues is not of course a sure-fire recipe for victory. At present, though, it seems necessary for getting anywhere at all.

4 thoughts on “Doubtful prophecies of a paleo peritus”

  1. Catastrophe?
    Despite Paul Gottfried’s delusions, the death of “paleoconservatism” was quite some time ago. Although they referred to themselves as true liberals, the paleos were both isolationist and constitutionally strictly constructionist and as an effective political force it died when Robert Taft lost the 1952 Republican nomination to Dwight Eisenhower. The rise of the managerial technological state via the historical/industrial forces that brought on the World Wars has been well described by George Orwell, Milovan Djilas, James Burnham, Marshall McLuhan etc. The militaristic, interventionist, big government conservatism of Buckley, Goldwater, Reagan, and the Bushes is “neoconservatism.” Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, however enthusiastic their supporters might be, have not succeeded in reviving the paleo corpse.

    That we are in a hole I’ll grant you but what exactly is the catastrophe that you think we are headed towards? Do you refer to a military and/or economic disaster or do you mean to imply a spiritual/moral one? In a literary sense are we headed towards 1984 or Brave New World?

    • Dodging bullets as a political program
      The “stave off catatatrophe” comment had to do with something like Richard Spencer’s vision of a rejuvenated paleoconservatism based on opposition to things like “comprehensive immigration reform”—that is, to the final abolition of the American people as a people and therefore America as a nation rather than a business enterprise or political movement or abstract legal order. I suppose another example would be opposition to “gay marriage,” which is opposition to the final abolition in concept of marriage and the family as natural institutions fundamental to society and prior to the political order.

      On the larger question you suggest, how things are going to end up in general, I really don’t know although it’s an interesting topic for speculation. Maybe we’ll have theoretical despotism mitigated by practical corruption and a return of crude ways of getting things done based on family connections and the like. Maybe a neo-Levantine society that claims to be a sort of universalized Sweden.

      • A “people”
        Any conception of the American people as a people at any point in its history must by necessity include its “business enterprise(s) or political movement(s) or abstract legal order” as integral to its constitution. While particular communities of Americans have indeed reflected other values or concerns than these they have all included elements of those values at their centers.

        I can think of none that haven’t relied on abstract aspects of the legal order although for Americans it usually has a very concrete manifestation. We are always and forever querulously standing on our “rights.”

        I’m not sure that we have ever deviated from the application of practical corruption. Perhaps in limited timkes and places for a few decades during the Progressive era. The business of America has always been business and state legislatures and congress is where a lot of wheeling and dealing has been bought and paid for. A lot of “paleoconservatism” is a yearning to return to an America that never was in the first place.

        • Thought requires distinctions
          To say that a people is always a somewhat artificial construction is not to say that it can always be reduced totally to a legal definition or organizational setup. And to say there is always corruption is not to say that there is never anything valuable. Corruption is not always the bright spot in the picture.


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