alien & sedition.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
  Our Gramscian Conservatives

Above: A theorist of modern conservatism

I'm increasingly convinced that, to understand modern American conservatism, you shouldn't just be reading Schmitt, but Gramsci. In fact, I've started to suspect that many in the conservative movement, if they haven't actually been reading the old Italian Marxist, have at least been sleeping with his books under their pillows.

The latest in a long line of exhibits: an article at Conservative Battleline Online by Joseph Farah, the WorldNetDaily honcho. The title is "Radicalizing Conservatism," and it begins by asserting that "Conservatism is dead."

According to Farah, conservatism as a political program only really lived during the Reagan era. Why? Because as a philosophy it is essentially defensive, geared toward "conserving" the social and political modes of the past, not towards aggressively seeking change. The defensiveness of the philosophy undermines the political effort. But Reagan was a radical: he was constantly "on offense."

The curious transformation of conservatism into a radical force is the phenomenon that first made me want to start writing about it. And that transformation, as Farah observes (likewise, from the left, Gary Kamiya), has been made possible by the right's culture war. To Farah, without victory in the culture war, the conservative political project is futile:
Conservatism is also hopelessly inadequate as an agenda because of its near total reliance on "politics" as the battle ground. The real battle for the hearts and minds of the people doesn't take place in election cycles. It takes place every day when they watch television, when they read their newspapers, when they go to church, when they go the movies, when they send their children to school, when they listen to music, when they go to college.

Those are all battlegrounds where core values are shaped. Those cultural institutions are almost totally out of the control of conservatives. They will not be won back because of any election victories. At the same time, election victories become tougher and tougher for conservatives because of the power their adversaries have over the culture.
This, of course, is precisely what Gramsci meant by the 'war of position' (summary here). Gramsci was addressing the question of why, during times of economic crisis, socialists were failing to lead successful revolutions against capitalist states. Comparing the class struggle to the first world war, Gramsci argued that victory was determined not by individual battles - which might be enough only to seize an outer trench or two - but by the "overall relation of the forces in conflict."
A war of position is not, in reality, constituted simply by the actual trenches, but by the whole organizational and industrial system of the territory which lies to the rear of the army in the field. It is imposed notably by the rapid fire-power of cannons, machine-guns and rifles, by the armed strength which can be concentrated at a particular spot, as well as by the abundance of supplies which make possible the swift replacement of material lost after an enemy breakthrough or a retreat. A further factor is the great mass of men under arms; they are of very unequal calibre, and are precisely only able to operate as a mass force.
The 'war of manoeuvre,' in turn, "must be considered as reduced to more of a tactical than a strategic function ... it must be considered as occupying the same position as siege warfare used to occupy previously in relation to it." To Gramsci, the lesson for socialists was that
the same reduction must take place in the art and science of politics, at least in the case of the most advanced states, where ‘civil society’ has become a very complex structure and one which is resistant to the catastrophic ‘incursions’ of the immediate economic element (crises, depressions, etc.). The superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern warfare.
Gramsci argued for a war of position in capitalist society, to challenge capitalist ideological domination of culture and media, and to achieve cultural hegemony. He argued, in short, for a culture war.

Farah is only reiterating a theme that has run - implicitly and explicitly - throughout American conservative discourse for decades. And, unsurprisingly, he frames it in the same victim mentality we've come to expect from cultural conservatives - as though, during the era of Fox news and right-wing talk radio and total conservative domination of the national government, it's the right that has been oppressed. But that feeling of oppression is an essential part of modern American conservatism, and it's precisely what has pushed the movement to view itself as engaged in a fight for cultural hegemony (thus, again, David Frum laments the inability of the Half Hour News Hour to counter the "clever cultural sabotage" of the Daily Show).

Alan Wolfe was correct to cite Carl Schmitt's friend/enemy distinction as a key tool for analyzing the right. They do make that distinction. But they go beyond the political, carrying the fight to the culture, just as Antonio Gramsci would have recommended they should. And if their political fortunes should continue to suffer in the next few years, we should expect them to redouble their efforts in the war of position.

We may be about to see a new intensification of the culture wars, if Farah and Gramsci are any guide.

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So the calls that Republicans weren't conservative enough in the last election, therefore they lost power, have some theoretical underpinnings?
Well, looking at this way, it would seem that America wasn't conservative enough. Thus, the culture war, to combat liberal "control" of the culture.

So in a way I think it actually contradicts the idea that the Republicans weren't conservative enough.
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Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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