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A Tale of Two Reactions

1.

What do we mean by the term “reaction”? Dictionaries tell us that the word first entered the vocabulary of modern political thought in eighteenth-century France, where it was taken over from the scientific treatises of Isaac Newton. In his Principia of 1687 Newton had conjectured that every action in nature provokes an equal and opposite reaction. He did not think to apply this principle to politics, but his French disciples, notably Montesquieu, did. The Spirit of the Laws sets forth the “generating principles” of a body politic, which are nothing less than the laws of motion determining its political actions and reactions. This treatise established a mechanistic conception of politics in which movement and change are constant but not arbitrary, and where reaction is a predictable force.

A very different concept of reaction developed out of the French Revolution, which changed our understanding of what revolution is and what it means to oppose one. Classical and early modern thinkers, including Montesquieu, took revolution to be a simple upsetting and reordering of society on new principles. But the French Revolution was taken by its partisans and critics alike to have revealed a principle of historical unfolding, and not necessarily a progressive one. While it is true that some of the Revolution’s early supporters held to a progressive conception of history, it is probably more accurate to say that most held an eschatological view of the Revolution’s place in history, as did its critics. The Revolution represented a rip in the fabric of time, the fulfillment of a historical promise for some, an apocalypse for others. On this score there was perfect eschatological agreement between the revolutionaries, who set the calendars back to the Year 1, and their reactionary opponent Joseph de Maistre, who thought a restoration of the ancien régime too tame, and called instead for a new dispensation, “the contrary of the Revolution.”

By the early nineteenth century “reactionary” had become a term of abuse leveled by prorevolutionary forces against their opponents, whom they accused of standing on the wrong side of history. But however polemical its intent, the concept also described something quite real, since the reactionaries, no less than the revolutionary party, had placed themselves in the judgment seat of history and had abandoned the field of common political deliberation. This is why reactionary rhetoric so often seems an inversion of revolutionary rhetoric; it is also why both kinds of rhetoric have been employed on right and left over the past two centuries, depending on the winds of fortune. When thinkers on the right see themselves trapped on the wrong side of a historical abyss they speak of the death of God, secularization, the last man, the waves of modernity, or the forgetting of Being. When those on the left feel abandoned by Minerva’s owl there is talk of the disenchantment of the world, the dialectic of Enlightenment, the occult workings of power and language, or, more prosaically, the machinations of global capitalism, the military-industrial complex, and media conglomerates.

As we know from modern history, the rhetoric of revolution and reaction can have a disastrous effect on a nation’s political discourse. To take only the most prominent example, political life in nineteenth-century France was so divided by eschatological struggles over the legitimacy of the Revolution that neither side could brook compromise with its satanic opponent. Dreams of a genuine (not bourgeois) restoration, or of a final solution to the issue of clerical privileges, lasted until the Third Republic, at great cost to the nation. This rhetoric also stifled the development of liberal-democratic thought and habits of mind, as can be felt in French intellectual life even today.

There was, of course, a small stream of liberal thought that we associate with the names Constant, Staël, Guizot, and, most profoundly, Tocqueville. Although these figures had little influence on nineteenth-century French political life, they still have much to teach us about how to think and live in a post-revolutionary age. Their position was based on a dispassionate analysis of the causes and nature of the Revolution, to which they responded subtly. With the revolutionaries, they agreed that the Revolution was a fait accompli that had established once and for all the principle of “modern liberty” against “ancient liberty,” as Constant put it. But with the reactionaries, the liberals agreed that the Revolution would bring its own cruelties and disasters if revolutionary enthusiasm was not moderated and channeled into reasonable public deliberation. What marked this beleaguered liberal tradition was its lucidity in the face of the modern and antimodern political passions arising out of revolution, and its commitment to meliorist politics in a less than ideal age. It is this lucidity and commitment that have disappeared from American political discourse, rendering ours an age of reaction. American society never experienced a revolution of the French sort, and consequently never bred a similar tradition of thoroughgoing reaction. But if we think of reaction more generally as a mode of political discourse defining itself not by the aims it wishes to pursue but in relation to a real or imagined revolution in social affairs, then there is no doubt that we live in a reactionary age. Over the past four decades, America—and not just America—has experienced two smaller revolutions which have bred their own distinct forms of reaction, and which together have brought serious political reflection down to absolute zero. The two events to which I refer are the cultural revolution that we call “the Sixties” and the shift in political and economic attitudes that, for lack of a better word, can be termed “the Reagan revolution.” These revolutions are quite real, but to the extent that they have become symbols that excite or dull the political imagination they are also imaginary. The cultural revolution has become the predominant imaginative symbol on the American right, fueling a form of cultural reaction; the Reagan revolution has become the corresponding symbol on the left, generating a political-economic form of reaction.

Because the causes of reaction are both real and imaginary it is a difficult phenomenon to grapple with. One must not only examine its genuine sources of dissatisfaction; one must also try to understand how reactionaries subjectively view the revolutions they reject. Here it is very important to let the reactionaries speak for themselves, rather than imputing motives to them or relying on one’s own interpretation of affairs. Two series of articles recently published in the conservative review The New Criterion and in the progressive weekly The Nation offer an excellent opportunity to do just that. The New Criterion series, called “Notes on a Cultural Revolution,” which began in September 1997, has been written entirely by the magazine’s managing editor, Roger Kimball. The Nation series, called “First Principles,” which has been running since April 1997, is a forward-looking collection by various authors who set out to define a program for a “progressive majority.” Taken together these articles permit us to consider the reactionary rhetoric of our time from two opposed vantage points and to see what they have in common.

Roger Kimball’s well-written essays return again and again to “the Sixties.” I put this term in quotation marks, not to mock it, but in recognition of the fact that although we know something happened then, we still don’t know what it was or even when it began. Was the Berkeley free speech movement the beginning of the end? Columbia ‘68? Woodstock? Or was it, as Larkin mused, the sexual revolution of 1963, between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP? The conservative use of the term “the Sixties” is imprecise, but there is probably no precise way to mark a cultural revolution—no tennis court oath, no storming of the Bastille, no beheading, no Thermidor. Still, we all recognize a before and an after, and we are all still groping for the meaning of what happened in between.

Conservatives today do not speak much about the strictly political consequences of the Sixties, perhaps because these have proven ephemeral and few. Congress and the courts have become stronger, the presidency weaker, and every public person must now resign himself to living under the omnipresent klieg lights of the media. Otherwise the American political system today does not look markedly different from the system thirty years ago. But if the conservatives are to be believed, this institutional stability masks more fundamental and threatening transformations in American life. When speaking of the Sixties, as Roger Kimball does in his series, they focus on three transformations: in public authority, the family, and individual morality.

As the conservatives see things, the past thirty years have brought a delegitimization of public authority in virtually every aspect of social life, from policing to the civil service, the schools, the universities, some would even say the armed forces. In some respects these institutions have become more democratic and have been constrained by law; mainly they have been rendered less capable of exercising their important functions in a democracy. When drug pushers and vagrants are permitted to set the tone in public parks, it is not the police who lose. It is poor urban families who lose their backyards. When children are coddled and undisciplined in the schools, they are the first to suffer, their families next. When universities cater to the whimsical tastes of their students and the aggressive demands of political interests, they cease to be retreats for serious cultivation of the self. When pornography is readily available on cable TV or the World Wide Web, the sleaze merchants profit and we are all demeaned. This litany could be extended, but the point is clear: by delegitimizing the exercise of public authority in the name of freedom, the Sixties sanctioned the pollution of public life and the weakening of democratic institutions.

Conservatives see the general decline in social authority and responsibility most clearly in the American family, which they consider a fragile institution. Birthrates are down, illegitimacy is up, and divorce is quickly becoming the rule rather than the exception. The sexual revolution made promiscuity a fashionable ideal (however rarely practiced), thus encouraging young people to postpone marriage and sanctioning its dissolution in the name of self-fulfillment. Parents today are less willing and able to discipline their children, partly because feminism cast a shadow of suspicion on any hierarchy within the family. Children are encouraged in public to have self-esteem but receive no guidance from their parents in private on what behavior is estimable. Given their freedom by the Sixties, they now seem sadder and lonelier without the cocoon of love and authority that stable traditional families used to provide.

And finally there is private morality, about which conservatives feel alone in addressing without shame or euphemism. It is not that anyone thinks that incivility, promiscuity, drug use, and irresponsibility are good things. But we have become embarrassed to criticize them unless we can couch our objections in the legalistic terms of rights, the therapeutic language of self-realization, or the economic jargon of efficiency. The moral condition of the urban poor, romanticized in pop music and advertising, shames us but we dare not say a word. Our new explicitness about sex in television and film, and growing indifference to what we euphemistically call “sexual preference,” scares the wits out of responsible parents, who see sexual confusion and fear in their children’s eyes. But ever since the Sixties they risk ridicule for raising objections that earlier would have seemed perfectly obvious to everyone.

These are commonplaces in conservative cultural literature today, and many are repeated in Roger Kimball’s New Criterion series. But even if one takes them (as I take them) to be largely correct, they raise an obvious question which Kimball and other conservatives evade: Why did such a profound revolution take place in America when it did? Let us call this the Tocqueville question. In the aftermath of the social earthquake that was the French Revolution, Tocqueville was careful not to associate himself with the reactionaries and exiles who passed the time rending their garments and tearing their hair. The Revolution piqued his curiosity and led him to seek its causes deep in the French past, and to imagine its future by looking to the American present. Tocqueville was a thinker and a practical man of politics, not a public moralist, and so he sought social-historical principles that would explain the events and help to master their consequences. These he thought he found in “equality” and “individualism,” principles which in their radical form helped to fuel the Terror, but which, he believed, might be reinterpreted institutionally to secure a modern liberal-democratic order.

How do American conservatives understand the causes of our cultural revolution? To judge by the essays of Roger Kimball and other conservatives, the cause of the Sixties was quite simply…the Sixties. They just happened, as a kind of miracle, or anti-miracle. Europeans tend to see their own Sixties experiences—which were more political, certainly more violent, but culturally less destructive than ours—in the light of the traumas and affluence of the postwar decades. But the American postwar years were not traumatic, and since conservatives romanticize the affluent Fifties they are reticent to seek the causes of the cultural revolution there. And for all their invocations of Tocqueville, they do not look where he sought the causes of all modern revolutions, in the very principles of democratic society. When it comes to the cultural revolution, the conservatives will point to moral weakness, self-indulgence, cowardice, “liberal capitulation,” as Kimball calls it; they will even blame the subterranean influence of Continental nihilism. What they refuse to consider is the darker side of our own American creed. Their unspoken motto is: “Blame America last.”

Twenty years ago conservative writers had a partial explanation of the cultural revolution. Then they maintained that an alien “new class” of intellectuals, teachers, reporters, and civil servants had sprung up on American soil and captured our leading institutions, and they awaited the day when this Putsch would be reversed, thanks to the sound moral instincts of “ordinary Americans.” But now that the moral views of “ordinary Americans” are approaching those of this so-called new class, conservatives are stumped. They no longer try to explain the cultural revolution; they are content with endlessly recounting its horrors, inspiring the faithful, and putting themselves at the service of whatever questionable political forces might hold back the tide.

There is even an element of monasticism in conservative intellectual rhetoric today, as if the only option for those wishing to protect themselves from the rot was to establish a bunker within the Washington beltway (of all places) among like-minded friends and institutions, waiting for the apocalypse or—who knows—the lost messiah. In late 1996 a controversy was set off among conservatives when the religious magazine edited by Richard John Neuhaus, First Things, published a symposium on “the end of democracy” in which contributors (among them Robert Bork) openly questioned the legitimacy of the American system today, now that, as the editors put it, “law, as it is presently made by the judiciary, has declared its independence from morality.” Some neoconservatives distanced themselves from this view and from the magazine, but in fact these so-called paleoconservatives had a point. If the cultural revolution was as bad as conservatives have been claiming, and if it represents an alien distortion of the American tradition, rather than its plausible metamorphosis, then withdrawal and Old Testament curses are very much in order.

2.

Reaction on the left takes a different form today. If conservative reaction has come to focus almost exclusively on the cultural revolution of the Sixties, progressive reaction—an appropriate oxymoron—is the child of the Reagan revolution of the Eighties. One need not think that Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office matched the Sixties in social significance to recognize that his presidency capped a tectonic shift in American politics that began (significantly enough) in 1968 and, Nixon’s self-destruction apart, has been uninterrupted since. The Reagan years did not herald a cultural counterrevolution, whatever conservatives may think. It did, however, represent a revolution in the way most Americans—and not just Americans—think about political and economic matters. Thanks to Reagan, most Americans now believe (rightly or wrongly) that economic growth will do more for them than economic redistribution, and that to grow rich is good. It is taken as axiomatic that the experiments of the Great Society failed and that new experiments directed by Washington would be foolhardy. Regulation is considered dépassé, and unions are seen as self-serving, corrupt organizations that only retard economic growth. These “neoliberal” ideas, as they are called abroad, have also caught on in other industrialized nations whose social-democratic ideas were shaken by the oil shock and the failures of their own welfare states. And when the walls fell in 1989 these ideas seemed to receive historical confirmation, and now have become the creed of those international organizations controlled by the industrialized West.

To judge by the Nation series on “First Principles,” the left no longer disputes this view of Reaganism, though it thinks there is more to the story. Nearly two decades of Republican government have had a sobering effect, and the characteristic tone on the left is pragmatic today, not eschatological. Still, the explanation of Reaganism that one gets even from a sobered Nation is reactionary—that is, it is not an explanation at all.

When searching for causes of this seismic shift in American political attitudes, Nation writers appeal most frequently to a corrupt campaign finance system that gives those with money a louder voice in the electoral process. This, they say, creates the illusion of satisfaction with liberal capitalism in America, when in fact figures show that nearly everyone is becoming worse off. They then proceed to prove by statistics that the Reaganite cause is unjust: jobs are less secure, unions are toothless, families have no health insurance, wages are frozen or dropping because of foreign labor competition, and the environment continues to suffer. The real value of redistributive social spending—whether on welfare, schools, or public health—has declined while military spending has remained near the cold war peak. Meanwhile a new shameless breed of corporate executives and venture capitalists has become unimaginably rich and influential in the mindless rush toward a global economy in which only the strong will survive. Yet when this self-evident economic case is made to middle America, it is distracted by a cynical right-wing strategy appealing to people’s greed (“no new taxes”), their fears (the “race card”), their pride (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”), or nostalgia (family values). Aided by conservative policy intellectuals, in turn supported by right-wing foundations and conspiracy-obsessed millionaires, the Republican Party has a lock on America’s political imagination and has moved the Democratic Party step by step in its direction.

When asked to explain the cultural revolution of the Sixties, conservative reactionaries appeal to miracles, or antimiracles. When asked to explain the Reagan revolution of the Eighties, progressive reactionaries appeal to smoke, mirrors, and occult powers. The conservatives assume that everyone is aware of the damage caused by the cultural revolution, but that by now they have been too morally corrupt to resist it. The left believes that Americans actually don’t understand that the Reagan revolution was a disaster, since if they did, they would overturn it. Although political commentators on the left rarely adopt an apocalyptic tone when discussing politics today, they are still unable to offer a pragmatic analysis of the political revolution with which they are grappling. To put the matter in slightly Hegelian terms, they are incapable of explaining the rational core of the revolution—the deepest reasons why the Reagan revolution happened in America when it did, why it was so popular, and why it persists. To say that mistakes were made and that better packaging is required for the progressive agenda is simply not a serious response.

3.

The reactionary character of contemporary political discourse in America can be measured by a stroll through any decent bookshop. There one will find a long shelf of conservative books documenting the horrific consequences of the cultural revolution, but none that also probes the quite real sense of insecurity many Americans are feeling in the whirlwind of our new economy’s creative destruction. There is another shelf, not quite as long as it used to be, purporting to show how the corporate-media-military complex keeps the Reagan revolution going, but again no sober account from the left of the very real, very troubling side effects of the Sixties cultural revolution. And no book I know of confronts squarely what surely is the most surprising phenomenon in postwar American politics: that the cultural and Reagan revolutions took place within a single generation, and have proved to be complementary, not contradictory, events.

Paul Berman’s underappreciated essay, A Tale of Two Utopias,* comes closest to explaining the phenomenon. Berman’s hypothesis is that the uto-pian movements of the Sixties, which destroyed themselves through overreaching, violence, and illiberal anti-Americanism, were given a second life in the individualistic liberation movements of the Seventies (feminism, gay pride) and the antitotalitarian movements of Eastern Europe in the Eighties. He contends that the antibourgeois passions of the Sixties and anticommunism in the Eighties were generated by the same forces of democratic individualism that, seen in their proper light, are America’s legacy to the world. Whatever one makes of Berman’s Whitmanesque historical optimism, he is surely on to something. It is only to be regretted that, as a committed writer on the American left, he cannot bring himself to admit the logical implication of his insight: that Reaganism, too, was an extension of the same utopian vision.

To my mind, any analysis of contemporary American politics hoping to escape the rhetoric of reaction would have to confront three uncomfortable facts about our postrevolutionary situation.

  1. The revolution is over. One reason conservative political discourse is so apocalyptic today is that conservatives have finally come to believe, rightly in my view, that the cultural revolution is complete, successful, and that there will be no restoration of the moral ancien régime. Hence their withdrawal to within the beltway and the dark talk of America as Gomorrah (Robert Bork). Hope springs eternal on the left, as we see in the Nation symposium, where there is still much talk of new grassroots coalitions, reviving the unions, and restructuring the corporation through aggressive public policies to make it more democratic and “responsible.” There is not the slightest chance that of any of this will come to pass. The forces at work in shaping the economy and politics—not just in the US, but in the whole developed world—are simply too deep to permit such idle dreaming. And the same is true of the cultural revolution, which through American popular culture is affecting culture wherever televisions, VCRs, and CD players are to be found on the globe.

  2. The revolution is one and indivi-sible. Two decades ago Daniel Bell argued that we were experiencing cultural contradictions caused by the disharmony between the Protestant ethic of capitalism and the hedonistic culture it spawned. Yet Professor Bell himself would probably agree today that any social “contradiction” lasting one generation is not a contradiction, it is a social fact. And the facts are these: the Sixties happened, Reagan happened, and for the foreseeable future they will together define our political horizon. As anyone who deals with young people today knows, Americans find no difficulty in reconciling the two in their daily lives. They see no contradiction in holding down day jobs in the unfettered global marketplace—the Reaganite dream, the left nightmare—and spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties. They work hard, probably too hard, though no longer to amortize their divine debt or to secure an economic dynasty; they work for ephemeral pleasures and for status and esteem, understood as part of the ethos of democratic individualism. Psychologically at least, the expectations of cultural contradiction have not been borne out, and today we face a question for which neither Tocqueville, nor Marx, nor Weber has prepared us: What principle in the American creed has simultaneously made possible these seemingly contradictory revolutions? How have our notions of equality and individualism been transformed to support a morally lax yet economically successful capitalist society?

  3. The politics of fusion. If this thesis turns out to be correct—that the cultural and Reagan revolutions are fundamentally harmonious—several corollaries can be drawn from it. One is that some political figure or force in this country will eventually try to exploit that harmony. This already may have begun with Bill Clinton, whose Sixties morals and Eighties politics do not seem particularly contradictory to the majority of the American public that supports him. His presidency has also taught us why a political agenda making its peace with one revolution while rejecting the other will be doomed to failure. This does not mean that Clintonism is our destiny, since it would also be plausible for a politician or political movement consistently to reject both the cultural and political-economic revolutions of our time. That is what I take Pat Buchanan to be up to in his simultaneous attacks on cultural radicalism and economic free trade. But it seems almost certain that a mixed strategy accepting the culture of the Sixties while rejecting the politics of the Eighties (neo-McGovernism), or one that rejects the contemporary culture while applauding the political-economic status quo (neo-Bushism), will collapse under its own incoherence.

The politics of fusion is not particularly appealing, at least to me. A perceptible distinction between right and left is a necessary condition of healthy democratic politics, which depends on clear choices and alternating party government. There is every reason to expect that such a distinction will naturally reappear once political factions develop that bear some relation to social reality, but today they do not. The political discourse of reaction is too pervasive, the habits of mind formed by an earlier cultural and political situation simply too ingrained. Yet facts are facts, and eventually they will out: the revolution is over, and the revolution is one. The challenge for those genuinely concerned about our liberal-democratic future is the same as in Tocqueville’s day: to study dispassionately the forces at work in the revolution of our time, to see if anything decent can be made of it.

Letters

Reactions June 25, 1998

  1. *

    Norton, 1996. Reviewed in these pages by Alan Ryan, October 17, 1996.

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