05 September 2012

The best case I have yet seen for Obama

Comes, oddly enough, from a self-described ‘conservative’ who attacks him as a feudalist. The article is not quite in the grand sloganeering style of Mao Zedong and the anti-rightist campaigns of the Cultural Revolution, of course, but the sentiment is the same (even if it is lacking in pithy iterations of ‘to rebel is justified’ and ‘Criticise Lin, Criticise Confucius’ - or is that ‘Criticise Obama, Criticise Burke’?), and it does even mimic to some extent the resentment present in L’Internationale towards the Old World, and its derision toward saviours, deities and emperors. The primary difference, of course, is that the cultural revolution desired here is an explicitly inegalitarian one, for the benefit of the capitalist class rather than for the peasantry they claim to champion. In short, though it appears on a blog called The Imaginative Conservative, it is an article about current American politics whose argument is, in essence, about as far from proper conservatism as one is likely to find.

Casting Obama in the role of a feudalist is, whilst flattering to him from a traditional conservative point of view, perhaps more than a bit of a stretch. Insofar as feudalism was a decentralised ‘system’, as distinguished distributist economist John Médaille describes it in the comments, ‘of mutual rights and obligations’, and insofar as President Obama plays up the communitarian angle in his speeches about how healthy human experience is neither dependent nor independent, but rather interdependent, he is reflecting a healthy form of conservatism which recognises right and obligation as equally important. Likewise insofar as he espouses a civic-minded noblesse oblige which demands as a point of honour that the wealthy give back more to the society rather than less, and insofar as he notes the role of government as a guarantor of justice beyond legal minimalism. That would be feudalism at its best. Unfortunately, there has been little indication so far that our President has any interest in following through on this philosophy (of interdependence rather than dependence) in any meaningful way, particularly in the realms of foreign policy and of the role of religion in the public sphere. If one were to vote for him, it would be on the hope that the left-conservative ideas he espouses in his speeches might be taken seriously in the public discourse, particularly amongst his supporters, in decades to come.


  1. But Matthew, you are forgetting how privileged most people are to have the freedom to own no productive property, save their own labor power, which they must sell to capitalists to survive! Anything else would be feudalism/socialism!

    Remember, the people cheered for the enclosures so that they may be free from the communism of the commons!

    More seriously, I wish more conservatives would drop the term and follow the libertarians in calling themselves classical liberals, as it fits their ideology much better.

  2. Had to LOL at that one, John!

    As for your wish, I do think that sea-change is already occurring. The vernacular of American politics demands that Romney and Ryan continue referring to themselves as 'conservatives', but it is increasingly clear that what they wish to 'conserve' is (as reflected in the article) an abstract ideal of 18th- and 19th-century Enlightenment liberal values. Also, as the American worldview becomes more cosmopolitan, the definitions of 'liberal' and 'conservative' in the popular consciousness may change accordingly.