Knowledge and Power on the Right: Pomo Conservatism Rightly Understood

At the American Conservative, Austin Bramwell files a merciless brief against Liberal Fascism. I knew Jonah Goldberg was in trouble when Bramwell leveled a charge at him that I reserve for cultural libertarians: trivial pursuit. But Bramwell’s idea of a worthless time isn’t the crunchy version of simple pleasures — the feel you get in the fresh air of dawn, running your fingers through the dampness of the granola, etc. Rather, he accuses Goldberg of being a postmodern conservative in the most damning sense: dabbling in patched-up, willfully biased narrative creation, the better to win fame and fortune through the literary equivalent of smearing poop on bad polaroids of your enemies’ faces and holding a seemingly very in-crowd-only gallery show which by no accident becomes the world’s most temporarily gripping publicity stunt.

Confronted with such a manipulation of knowledge and power, an actual postmodern conservative should set a few things straight.

Consider this snip from Bramwell:

Goldberg does at times display a blush of shame. He qualifies his conclusions to the point of taking them all back, insisting that he does not actually mean to say that liberals are dangerous totalitarians. He grants that some of his points are trivial and others may appear outrageous, so that nothing he says should be taken as both true and interesting at the same time. He claims that movement conservatives also suffer from the totalitarian temptation, so that we are “all” fascists now. Why then link liberalism in particular with fascism? Here Goldberg is surprisingly candid: because, he argues, liberals do it to conservatives all the time.

This is rich coming from someone who claims that liberals “do not just engage in identity politics, but are ushering in ‘a Nietzschean world where power decides important questions rather than reason.’” The impression one gets from reading Bramwell’s review, and the impression I got instantly upon seeing and reading the cover of Liberal Fascism, is that Goldberg wants to practice what we ‘real’ pomos term representational force — I, not liking you and wanting to change your identity and behavior, rhetorically present you to yourself and the world as whatever it is I think might best cause you and everyone else to agree that in fact you really are what I’d rather you be. The rhetorical frame in which ‘movement conservatives’ seek to socially construct liberals as limp-wristed statists became a commonplace long before Goldberg, Bramwell, or I started talking about it.

But indeed, Liberal Limp-Wristed Statism is not a title that moves units, and it is not lurid or profitable or powerfully violent enough a charge for Goldberg. Indeed, the whole prospect of ‘movement conservatism’ has been devoted to the notion that knowledge is worthless without at least a little power, and power is at least a little important because, without it, the liberals will ruin America. Whether or not you agree with such a stark calculus, it at least has logical plausibility going for it. During the Cold War that logic had some extra oomph, and it’s no surprise that conservatism as a movement succeeded decisively on its anticommunist terms. Yet even the Manichean formulation of High Reaganism was rooted unalterably in the conviction that not all knowledge was simply power, or about power. In danger of dropping out of the conversation that Goldberg would draw Bramwell and the rest of us into is the inheritance without which conservatism is not conservatism — the wisdom that the that the content of the universe is not exhausted by knowledge and power, science and politics, ‘facts’ and ‘values’, method and madness.

I haven’t read Liberal Fascism, but the point of this post is to take issue with the very existence of a book on the subject imagined by the title. In that spirit, it is worrying to think how right Bramwell could be that Goldberg seems to have no compunction deploying knowledge as simply one particularly effective tool in the only game in the cosmos — intersubjective power relations. I dare to insinuate this charge without reading the book not because of Goldberg himself but because the ‘totalitarian temptation’ he pins on liberals is instantly recognizable to me as simply the desire to get and keep power by whatever means, and to not be ashamed of it, that has cursed human beings since their creation and cursed the dynastic regimes of both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ political parties in latter-day America. This problem is particularly galling on the right, where movement students were supposed to have avoided the relativism, infantilism, and nihilism that arrested the youth left in the 1960s.

Without any concept in popular conservatism of authority properly understood, nothing in the universe ever will exist beside knowledge and power. I’d argue that a true postmodern conservatism, acknowledging Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault, and the rest, has no illusions about the way that intersubjective power relations can corrupt and distort social and political life, yet retains the precious inheritance of authority properly understood — the understanding, deeper than knowledge, of what is not to be done though we are capable of doing anything to one another and ourselves. That a person could get famous by putting a bullwhip up his butt and taking a picture does not mean that either should have transpired. On a more trivial level, but without dilution, the same conservative principle applies to the fact that a person can get famous by defacing easy targets with as attention-grabbing a ‘style’ as possible — the intellectual equivalent, say, of scribbling a Hitler ‘stache on a smiley face. Indeed, if you want to get serious about it, transgressive violence against the image of identity is one of the centerpieces of fascism:

…Hitler’s famous instruction to his followers, in a Munich speech, on the eve of becoming Reichschancellor: “If anyone should ask you: ‘What is your program?,’ you answer: ‘Our program is against you.’” (Rieff, Charisma, 232)

This is not hate speech so much as what we should call ‘shit speech’, as in ‘you are not a ‘you’, you’re a piece of shit,’ which is how Jews were labeled (as ‘pieces’) in the deathcamps. All the wild varieties, all the nine hundred names with which to describe someone’s shittiness, reduce down to that simple act and symbol of representational violence. ‘You are a not-you. You are what you are not.’ That claim is violent because it is profane — it wills contradiction so as to cause destruction. It is the opposite of the authority rightly understood in the opposite representation ‘I am that I am.’

Such serious business may seem a long way away from a political book written by a well-meaning anti-statist for a popular but educated audience. But that it stands in closer relationship than perhaps we would want to admit doesn’t forgive us for not doing so.