07 February 2013

A slumgullion to savour

Dr Andrew Bacevich of Boston University has an excellent opinion piece up on The American Conservative. It isn’t a grand manifesto, but something manifestly more calm, measured and... well, realistic. But it is a brilliant read all the same. Here is a true gem of an excerpt:

The conservative tradition I have in mind may not satisfy purists. It doesn’t rise to the level of qualifying as anything so grandiose as a coherent philosophy. It’s more of a stew produced by combining sundry ingredients. The result, to use a word that ought warm the cockles of any conservative’s heart, is a sort of an intellectual slumgullion.

Here’s the basic recipe. As that stew’s principal ingredients, start with generous portions of John Quincy Adams and his grandson Henry. Fold in ample amounts of Randolph Bourne, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Christopher Lasch. For seasoning, throw in some Flannery O’Connor and Wendell Berry—don’t skimp. If you’re in a daring mood, add a dash of William Appleman Williams. To finish, sprinkle with Frank Capra—use a light hand: too sweet and the concoction’s ruined. Cook slowly. (Microwave not allowed.) What you get is a dish that is as nutritious as it is tasty.

What Dr Bacevich gets at is a conservative vision that focusses on the small and achievable rather than the grandiose and utopian. In so doing, he aims at several things which the misbegotten intellectual offspring of Max Shachtman and the Fountainhead fundamentalists have long ago misplaced; a value beyond the monetary and not amenable to cost-benefit analysis, set upon: received wisdom over fads, family over the consumer, the long-term common good over the private quarterly bottom line. He evinces with clarity the classical conviction that human beings are by nature ‘inherently ornery and perverse’. Further, he refuses to place state, market or military on idols’ pedestals, and evinces the classical position of Christian radicalism which looks askance at all concentrations of wealth and power.

More (and I love this part), he recognises that conservatives have to be smart about where they sign on, and with whom. (This is one point I make rather often regarding the Lost Causers. Not only is the alliance between certain libertarians and certain palaeoconservatives hailing treason in defence of slavery morally repugnant, it’s really just plain dumb.) He doesn’t stop there, though! Conservatives ‘need to recognize that the political left includes people of goodwill whose views on some (by no means all) matters coincide with our own’.

Please do read the whole thing. It seems everything I read from Dr Bacevich since The Limits of Power manages to heighten my respect for him; this is no exception!


  1. Bacevich is great, although I find his deficit hawk position to be wrongheaded given that I sense he makes the mistake of equating private debt with sovereign debt. American profligacy is a private problem that has its origins in the stagnation of real wages. The private credit boom occurred after wages stopped rising with productivity and people took on private debt to maintain their middle-class lifestyle.

    A better way to combat consumerism would be to curb the excesses of advertising (should pharmaceutical companies really be allowed to try to convince Americans that they should be on powerful drugs?) and curbing the rentier sector (for example, giving real teeth to anti-usury laws).

  2. Hi John! Thanks for the comment!

    Dr Bacevich, being a professor of international relations, I think may be prone to view things from the macro standpoint first. This is very well and good precisely for issues between sovereign states, but I agree with you that this is not particularly useful when looking at finical relationships within a state - and the most convincing corrective to this weak point I have so far seen comes out of the old-school Marxist critique of credit (that is, as a means of temporarily overcoming the contradiction between the need for consumers with some wealth on their hands to purchase products, and the impulse to pay workers starvation wages to produce them).

    And yes, I absolutely agree we need to bring back the pre-Reagan restrictions on advertising content (as well as things like the fairness doctrine in broadcast media), and that we need to put some real effort into enforcing anti-usury and anti-trust laws. And not just for combatting rampant consumer debt, of course!