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Nationalism, True & False


William Kristol, guardian of neo-conservatism.

2,353 words

Ruling classes exercise power through combinations of coercion and manipulation — what Machiavelli called force and fraud, or the habits of the lion and the fox that he recommended to princes who wish to stay in power. Like most princes, most ruling classes tend to be better at one than the other, and depending on their talents, interests, and psychologies, they will habitually rely on one style of domination more than on its complement. In the twentieth century, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes have rested their power on the use of force — to the point of what the Germans came to call Schrecklichkeit, or Terror pure and simple — but they did not fail to attend to the arts of manipulation as well. Communist brainwashing and the high science of propaganda that Joseph Goebbels perfected were perhaps as useful to their respective regimes and the ruling classes they served as the Cheka and the Gestapo.

Unlike European totalitarians, their American counterpart in this century has tended to rely on manipulation, which involves not only massive and constant indoctrination through the mass media but also the whole battery of techniques by which the population is managed to think and act the way the managerial ruling class wants it to think and act. Those techniques include the bread and circuses of mass consumerism and the entertainment industry as well as the blunter ideological disciplining delivered every night on television and in most Hollywood films. Of the two styles of power, reliance on manipulation is probably more effective, and certainly more economical than reliance on force. Every shepherd knows it’s more expedient to train a sheep dog to keep the sheep in line than to run after every beast that strays from the fold himself, and every ruler or ruling class understands that the means of force are always finite while the means of manipulation are virtually inexhaustible. You might sooner or later run out of bullets, but there is no bottom to the pit of delusion to which a populace eager to be enslaved will consign itself.

The reliance of the American managerial class on manipulation rather than force explains why dissidents are not simply rounded up and imprisoned or shot as they were in the sister regimes in Europe, as well as why the victory of the new elite in the middle of the century was so peaceful and virtually invisible to all but keen observers like James Burnham, C. Wright Mills, Garrett Garet, and a few others. Instead of being repressed, opponents of the revolution were either ignored and marginalized or in some cases rewarded and thereby digested within the belly of the beast. Even the hare-brained bomb-throwers of the New Left were not for the most part seriously subjected to coercive repression, except perhaps by local and state police agencies that had not yet been “sensitized” by the regime’s federal law enforcement apparatus, but rather were coddled, rebuked, and generally ignored until they grew up. Within a decade of their prediction of the storm of revolution that was about to descend on the ruling class, most of the more grotesque spokesmen of the Weather Underground had become dentists, insurance salesmen, and big-city lawyers, and the intelligence, security, and law enforcement branches of the regime never paid as much attention to the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, or the various Maoists, Guevarists, Trotskyites, and anarchists of the period as they are today paying to perfectly law-abiding and patriotic militias and grassroots activists of the Right.

Today, the regime is paying as much attention to the militant Right as it is for a simple reason — the means of manipulation is beginning to crumble as the official ideology of the regime is discredited and rejected, and as alternative means of communication become available that the ruling class is unable to control. Computers, faxes, the Internet, and other technologies allow dissident groups to flourish and communicate with each other in ways that were not available to dissidents of an earlier day, and all of these technologies are (so far) virtually independent of both the police power and the manipulative reach of the regime. Hence, incidents like Waco, Ruby Ridge, and similar acts of coercive repression become necessary to discipline the opposition, our very own form of Schrecklichkeit, and the emerging federal police state, with the help of semi-private intelligence-gathering arms like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, can be expected to offer at least as thorough use of coercion as the secret police of the European dictators.

Nevertheless, the ruling class is not stupid, and it knows very well that it cannot sit on bayonets forever. Therefore, it is rather clumsily trying to patch together new means of manipulation before the whole society spins out of its control. President Clinton and the “New Democrats” are the left side of this effort, while on the Right what is generally known (at least among paleo-conservatives) as “neo-conservatism” is its right side. Both are essential to preserve the illusion of political and ideological alternatives and the shadow of freedom, but any close examination will show that there is about as much real difference between them as there was between the Dole-Kemp ticket last year and its rival.

The Clintonian effort at keeping the sheep of the Left within the herd seems to have been successful, at least for now, but on the Right there are problems. Unlike the Left, the Right has actually produced a real and politically significant alternative to neo-conservatism in the Buchanan movement and in paleo-conservatism, or what may be called the “Hard Right” in general — ranging from this magazine to groups like the John Randolph Club and a variety of grassroots activists over to the militias and their constituencies. The problem for neo-conservatism is that most Americans on the Right don’t buy what it’s selling, don’t look to it for political or ideological leadership, and won’t swallow the managerial conservatism that it has formulated and made the dominant expression of the Right over the last twenty years or so.

Well, what is to be done? If at first you don’t succeed, try again. In the last few months, the current crop of neo-conservatives has been trying to sprout a new ideological line, one that might reasonably be expected to capture the Populist Right, assimilate it within the digestive tract of the regime, and thereby ensure that it does not eventually produce a movement or a leader that can seriously challenge its power.

The new form into which neo-conservatism is trying to cast itself is “nationalism,” and its guiding spirit is William Kristol of the Weekly Standard. Nationalism, of course, also happens to be the theme of most of the Populist Right, whether it is directed against immigration, which threatens to extinguish the actual people of the nation, or free trade and globalism, which threaten both the economic interests and sovereignty of the nation, or the multiculturalism and multiracialism that neither the mainstream (i.e., dominant) Left and Right now question seriously. Hence, it makes sense that the high priests of the dominant Right would seek to reinvent nationalism and redefine it in terms that will offer no serious challenge to the anti-national forces they really represent.

Mr. Kristol’s main formulation of neo-con nationalism appeared in an article [2] in the Wall Street Journal (September 15), of which he and his colleague at the Weekly Standard, David Brooks, were the co-authors, and Mr. Brooks himself has busily been pounding the pseudo-nationalist drum for some time. In the last few months he has published articles in the Standard praising Teddy Roosevelt as a hero for conservatives and the architecture of the Library of Congress as the expression of what he takes to be high nationalism. One can quibble with either or both, but the kind of nationalism he and Mr. Kristol are trying to sell would have little appeal to Roosevelt, and seems not to have penetrated very far into any library at all.

Their proposed models for the new neo-con nationalism include not only TR but also Hamilton and Henry Clay. “American nationalism,” Kristol and Brooks write, “– the nationalism of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay and Teddy Roosevelt — has never been European blood-and-soil nationalism. It’s true that in the absence of a real appeal to national greatness, some conservatives are tempted à la Pat Buchanan, to turn to this European tradition. But this can’t and shouldn’t work in America. Our nationalism is that of an exceptional nation founded on a universal principle, on what Lincoln called ‘an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.'” It is no accident that these also happen to be among the very figures that Pat Buchanan has cited as exponents of the economic nationalism that has been the norm throughout most of American history.

This pretty much tells us all we need to know about the Kristol-Brooks school of nationalism. It’s a nationalism that takes the main advocates of a centralized state as its heroes but leaves out of its picture of “national greatness” any reference to the real nation — its people (blood), its land (soil), its interests, or its contemporary manifestations (in Buchanan and his following, which happens to be rather larger than that of the Weekly Standard). What is objectively wrong with the Kristol-Brooks version of nationalism is what I argued some years ago was wrong with the Hamilton-Clay-Lincoln version of it. Designed essentially to represent the material interests of a particular section (the commercial and industrial Northeast), it always remained merely an instrumental nationalism, designed simply as an instrument or tool to unify the real nation under the dominance of that section and its interests by masking them as “nationalism.” It failed — neither Hamilton nor Clay was able to make it prevail, and Lincoln and his party succeeded only because of the power vacuum generated by the Civil War — because it ignored the interests of the real nation. It is one thing to endorse the economic and trade policies of these leaders, as Buchanan does (and which Kristol and Brookes don’t), but those policies can be and are justified apart from the general vision of the state and nation that Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, and Roosevelt I entertained.

The content of the phony nationalism formulated by Kristol and Brooks is enough to tell us how it differs from the kind of organic nationalism that is actually emerging in the Populist Right, the kind they seek to smother in its cradle. “Our pride in settling the frontier, welcoming immigrants and advancing the cause of freedom around the world is related to our dedication to our principles” — the universalist nationalism of Lincoln.

That’s why American nationalism isn’t narrow or parochial. It doesn’t believe in closing our borders or fearing the global economy. It does believe in resisting group rights and multiculturalism and other tendencies that weaken our attachment to our common principles. It embraces a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of national strength and moral assertiveness abroad. It would use federal power to preserve and enhance our national patrimony — the parks, buildings, and monuments that are the physical manifestations of our common heritage. And it insists that while government should be limited, it should also be energetic.

So, neo-con universalist nationalism is to support continued swallowing of the real nation through mass immigration and continued extinction of the national economic interest through immersion into the “global economy” and to reject multiculturalism, not because it threatens the destruction of the cultural nucleus of the real nation, but because it weakens attachment to “our common principles” — i.e., multiculturalism asserts the particular cultural identities of the groups that espouse it against the universalist principle that informs neo-con nationalism. Like the Hamiltonian instrumental nationalism, it also envisions an “energetic” national state (so does any nationalism that ignores the real nation; since it refuses to affirm the real people or the nation and their real interests, it has no other base of support than the state), at least to become a kind of super-janitor for public buildings and public parks. What is conspicuous by its absence in the Kristol-Brooks vision of nationalism is any reference whatsoever to the Constitution as both the limiting and energizing framework of the national state.

Nor is it an accident that only a few weeks before the Kristol-Brooks discovery of the strong-state nationalism of Hamilton and his heirs, George Will also dropped a column [3] in which he told us, “The challenge is for conservatism to find a place in its pantheon for three great nationalists — Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt.” For Mr. Soulcraft, the invocation of these three as heroes is not surprising, though the occasion and the timing of his column are of interest. The occasion was the Weekly Standard‘s symposium in August on the “Conservative Crack-Up,” and both the Will column and the subsequent Kristol-Brooks piece in the Journal were first shots in the new effort to formulate an ideology for the Right that can manipulate, seize control of, and eventually castrate the radical nationalism of the Populist Right today and at the same time preserve the managerial state constructed in this century by claiming that it is the natural legacy of the pseudo-nationalism of Hamilton, Clay, and the first Roosevelt.

It’s doubtful that the nationalist Right will be deluded by the Kristol-Brooks-Will counterfeit. Populist nationalism, if not quite of the blood-and-soil variety, at least proceeds from a more authentic grasp of the organic life and people of the real nation than theirs, and most of the more serious exponents of the nationalism of the Populist Right have long since come to reject the unmitigated statism and globalism that lie at the heart of the neo-conservative agenda. The Right wing of the managerial class will have to come up with a means of ideological manipulation that is a bit more subtle and a lot more persuasive than either the defunct neo-conservatism of their parents or the stillborn neo-nationalism that the Weekly Standard has invented. Until it does the regime on which the American ruling class rests will continue to crumble.

This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in December 1997.