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Reactionary utopia and leftist neurosis


Rick Perlstein has a brilliant essay about a number of things that you need to read right now.

One of those things is what he calls the authoritarian ratchet:

In the book I’m working on now, I’ve developed a theory to explain why that is, and how it works. I call it the “authoritarian ratchet.” Its axioms are that the basic thing conservatism promises to its adherents, a return of society to a prelapsarian state, is impossible; but that this impossible thing, in the logic of conservatism, is also imperative to achieve, lest civilization collapse, and good people suffer a kind of living death.

To understand the “imperative” part, note how conservatives talk in every generation about whatever it is they identify as the latest existential threat to civilization.

“The demand is for the abolition of all distinctions … It attacks the integrity of the family; it attacks the eternal decrees of God Almighty; it denies and repudiates the obligations of motherhood.” (That was a delegate to the California constitutional convention of 1879, speaking on a motion to give women the vote.)

“Never in the history of the world has any measure [been] so insidiously designed … to enslave workers … The lash of the dictator will be felt … [It will] pull the pillars of the temple down upon the heads of our descendants.” (That was Republican congressmen in the debate over Social Security in 1935.)

“You and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.” (That was Ronald Reagan in 1961, talking about what would happen if Congress enacted Medicare.)

“We won’t have a country anymore.” (Donald Trump, 2015–present, usually about “open borders,” but more recently, about what will happen if he loses in November.)

Lurking behind this dynamic is what I think of as the idea of a reactionary utopia, in which a lost Golden Age will be regained if only the Others who are poisoning the body politic can be stopped from continuing to do so. (This is a core fascist belief as well).

Perlstein points out that this imperative/impossible dialectic leads to ever-increasing demands for authoritarian if not fascistic final solutions to the otherwise intractable social problem that most people are not actually reactionaries, and don’t wish to return to the utopia that for people like them was anything but that. (Those familiar with Robert Paxton’s work on fascism will recognize echoes of the final radicalization phase of fascism, which to date has been fully realized only in the context of German Nazism).

Whether American conservatism, meaning an increasingly radical right to which the term “conservative” can best be thought of as a sort of short hand term of art, as opposed to a literal descriptor — Joe Biden et. al. are much more accurately described as political conservatives, since they want to conserve now nearly century-old social structures such as the basic New Deal framework, the modern administrative state etc. — will manage to fully realize its longing for total radicalization is, as Perlstein notes, an open question: one that is being answered in real time (living through history is a lot less fun than studying it).

But Perlstein is even more daunted by another specter haunting American politics at the moment: The perverse reaction of so many leftist intellectuals and activists to the present moment:

[T]he injury grinding me down is built of much smaller differences. It comes from encounters with colleagues and comrades on the left. What we disagree on, as you might have guessed, is endorsing a Democratic president who shares responsibility for the massacre of tens of thousands of innocents, in a criminal war that another country’s quite fascist leader seems to be pursuing, not merely out of fanatical bloodlust and racism but in order to stay in power and perhaps to avoid prison.

It’s happening, no surprise, on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, where I’ve been drafted as an apologist for “Genocide Joe” for arguing why the alternative is so much worse.

People who read me here won’t be particularly surprised to learn that I agree with these interlocutors that the best word the English language gives us to describe what the IDF is doing to the population trapped within Gaza is, indeed, “genocide.” And while I think the version of the argument that holds that Joe Biden himself is committing genocide is a grievous violation of reason, I still believe that, considering the tools at his disposal to stop it, Biden’s moral culpability for the slaughter is only a few notches below that.

So, saying you should vote for him anyway is a hard argument to make. Maybe I should be gentler on myself that I’ve not managed to persuade the literally thousands of people on the left raining abuse down upon me for making it. All the same, my failure is gutting me worse than anything that has happened to me before in my career.

What it comes down to, I guess, is this. If of all people can’t convince people on the left to fight right-wing authoritarians who consider them veritable Untermenschen, then what the hell have I been wasting half my life on this work for?

A very good question, that has also occurred to someone who admires Perlstein’s work enormously and considers it a model in many ways for intellectual activism (that would be me).

Perlstein’s practical response to this situation has been to get the hell off Twitter for the time being, which seems like a sound decision.

But in an election that is going to come down to the tiniest of margins in a handful of states, the frankly insane and morally imbecilic idea that you can’t vote for Joe Biden because of Gaza, when the alternative is Donald Trump, who will be much worse on Gaza than Joe Biden, not to mention every single other issue that any leftist could possibly care about, could actually end up doing some damage one fine day.

Hang in there Rick; we all need you now more than ever.

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