One of the sponsors on Glenn Beck’s radio show (a show filled with fascinating, idiosyncratic sponsors) is in the “food insurance” business. You can imagine what that is, and you can also grasp the absurdity of it—if we get to a point where food is not readily available through supermarkets, delis, diners, etc., where will the people insuring us against such an eventuality be getting their food? It’s akin to an attempt to sell “social collapse” insurance, or “money insurance,” as if the insurance company will survive the social collapse that leaves us all reliant on it, or the dollars with which our money insurer indemnifies us will not have suffered the same fate as the now worthless dollars we have in the bank. Nothing could be more human than to grasp at such absurdities, where we hope for a restoration in the imagination that is really just a way of figuring what we fear to lose in a manageable way. From where else could we stock our imaginations other than from our memories (in whatever composite and revised form), and what prompts our imagination more urgently than the present’s repudiation of those memories?
I suspect that most, if not all, of the political hopes of the present are not all that different than attempts to sell or buy “food insurance.” There is some part of the social order that one likes, and there are other parts one doesn’t like. The parts one likes are authentic, or progressive, grounded in something natural or in some law of history; the parts one doesn’t like are parasitic grafts on the whole implanted by some special interest at odds with the general interest. It’s not always or even, necessarily, often, wrong to speak in these terms: we can certainly distinguish between the core and peripheral, the healthy and the sick, in our institutions. What is almost always wrong is to assume the evils, the parasitic, the sick, can be excised in such a way as to leave the original body intact and restored to its natural form. Ultimately, parasites prey on some weakness in the host. I think the originary hypothesis is in agreement with the foundational deconstructive argument that what we designate as marginal, unnatural, evil, and so on is constitutive—or, rather, the act of designation itself is constitutive—of the center, the natural and the good. Imagining a restoration of the social order is always an attempt to forget the event of founding.
What are we citizens of the Western world made of these days? We really don’t know, and we can’t know—part of the structure of a civilized order is to occlude such knowledge. Part of the morbid fascination with exceptional regimes, in particular authoritarian and totalitarian ones, or even everyday emergencies, is that we find out who people “really are” behind the “façade”—which really isn’t a façade until it proves inadequate to circumstances. Ultimately what we want is some kind of fit between our signs and the world, but signs never quite fit the world so a primary moral decision is whether to expose the misfit and appear as an attempt to approximate fittingness, or to participate in illusions of an a priori fit. It is those who attempt the latter who are most severely disabled when signs can no longer be stuck on the world. So, let’s say the government of the US spends and inflates itself out of its currency, and the Medicare, social security and other entitlement checks stop coming; nor can infusions of cash created ex nihilo prop up the downwardly spiraling economy. Some people, I am certain, would apply themselves to the task of creating alternate economies, new systems of security, new commensurations between discipline and reward, and communities to go along with them. But how many? Your answer to that question will also be an answer to the question opening this paragraph.
Friedrich Hayek’s assertion of the superiority of free, open, decentered market societies when it comes to producing knowledge of social needs is, I think, irrefutable. And representative democracies, far less effectively, but perhaps more effectively than autocracies, provide knowledge of the range and relative power of social resentments. But economies bring needs and capabilities into alignment, while information provided by vote totals bears no similar relationship to political capabilities. Someone will ultimately get around to selling what lots of people want to buy, but there’s no reason to assume that some president will come along and “make America great again” no matter how many people want that. There’s not even any reason to assume that far more modest accomplishments will result from displays of majority, or even super-majority, public desires. And while buying a product can lead to unpleasant surprises, for the most part you get what you pay for; in politics, nobody really has any idea of whether getting what they now want will satisfy them when they actually get it. The unintended consequences are simply too consequential and diffuse. The discrepancies become wider as the democratic system is swallowed up by a new form of administrative state, run along victimocratic and therapeutic lines. How many people today really expect the policies they have voted for to be implemented? The more savvy work through the courts and bureaucracy. The Roman Senate remained until the end, didn’t it? So will our Congress, and the state governments.
Even more important, neither the free market nor the democratic political system provides reliable knowledge of the second most important kind: the kind of knowledge that enables us to distinguish between friends and enemies. In fact, there’s good reason to believe that both systems, modernity as a whole in fact, makes such knowledge harder and harder to secure. In economics, an enemy is someone whose needs you haven’t properly framed yet; in democratic politics, the enemy is a constituency one hasn’t yet effectively reached out to. That the enemy simply doesn’t care about your flat screen TV or your jobs plan is unintelligible. The only enemies you can really imagine vividly are those who insist on telling you such things about the enemy—they are war-mongers. Which means this penultimate knowledge may not be lost after all—it can be turned inward, towards the small differences inflaming your narcissistic feeling of being in the front line of the march of history. In this way you build a system of lies to protect your belief in food insurance. You will not, for example, publicize attacks committed by migrants from barbaric societies, much less stop the migration itself, because you don’t want to give “ammunition” to the opponents of migration. So, the one who denounces or tries to stop the rape of children becomes evil—they’re the real enemy.
Knowledge of friends and enemies can only be acquired through a social order in which loyalties are constantly formed and potential defenders of the community are given space for friendly competition testing courage, endurance, leadership, teamwork and fighting skill. Creating protected, virtual, spaces for such testing, and allowing for the free invention of such spaces so that we don’t have to periodically engage in mass slaughter to know what our young men are made of, is essential to civilization. If egalitarianism were deliberately created in order to destroy such spaces, it couldn’t do so any more effectively than it has been. And if you destroy this penultimate knowledge, you drive the ultimate knowledge, of how to bring signs into an approximate, shared relation with reality, into exile.
What I have been in recent posts calling “nationalism” is simply the most likely way of restoring these forms of “natural” knowledge. Only spontaneously formed loyalties, developed through shared experience and drawing upon a shared past, and then tested through confrontations with outsiders of one kind or another, can provide for these fundamental forms of social knowledge. Of course such knowledge is in a sense tribal, and nations are in a sense tribes, but they are civilized tribes, which allow for the formation of thinkers who can turn their loyalty to the tribe into disinterested anthropological and historical inquiries into the inevitable ironies and paradoxes that will beset that nation, and thereby form its “conscience.” But the constitution of the nation itself proceeds through a series of inclusions and exclusions (school vs. school, town vs country, region vs. region, ethnic group vs. ethnic group, religion vs. religion, the hostilities swirling around certain professions, like the law and finance, various articulations of majority-minority confrontations, etc.) that are ultimately but never completely transcended by the belief that the nation constitutes a form of civilization either co-equal with or at least marginally more civilized in at least some ways than one’s neighbors. (In this sense, every nation is a “proposition nation,” motivated by the belief that it has its own special “calling.”)
One of the more interesting things about the Trump phenomenon (which has been an amazing source of information on so many topics) is that Trump’s support of a heavily managed regime of international trade and for universal health care, in both cases flouting central points of conservative doctrine, doesn’t seem to be hurting him at all (yet). It seems that people object to managed international trade in the name of transnational goals, according to international law and through arcane negotiations—in that case, “free trade” is a powerful shibboleth. When it’s a question of managing trade nationalistically so as to no longer let the Asians and Mexicans get the better of us—that’s a different matter entirely, and protests in the name of free trade are muted. Even universal health insurance, an anathema to the right for many years now, seems acceptable if it is done in the name of American community and not vague progressive imperatives (although we do still need to see about this as, of course, about Trump’s candidacy as a whole). The hunger for straightforward, unapologetic nationalism is palpable, here and in Europe. Nationalism will never quite be what it wants, but, then, it doesn’t make claims about its meaningfulness within a historical process, so it doesn’t have to. (It’s also worth noting that while nationalism implies some degree of popular political participation and feedback, other than the fact that it tends to lean more “democratic” than “liberal,” it is compatible with a spectrum of regime forms from near autocratic plebiscitary to normal representative.) Certainly Jews and other minorities have good reason to be ambivalent about these developments, but it would be wrong and foolish to resist them—rather, potentially threatened minorities should go about the business of making as many friends and as few enemies in the nation as possible (as opposed to invoking “universal” principles so that you can represent your opponents as criminals). We may be on the receiving end of some unwelcome information as (if) nationalism displaces the victimary order and administrative state (its natural enemies), and it’s better to be prepared to make use of such information than to try and pre-empt those who would bring it.