29 January 2017

Jacksonian nationalism is not High Toryism

In Peter Viereck’s book Conservatism, he devoted a great deal of attention to both John Adams père et fils, and to John Calhoun. He did not talk a great deal about the presidency or policies of Andrew Jackson, except to intimate that Jackson’s instincts about politics were basically Rousseauian, rooted in ‘faith in an idealised a priori abstraction called “the common man”’, and that he behaved politically ‘[a]s if original sin could cease at the Alleghenies’.

Let that sink in for a moment.

For all my full-throated sympathies with the populist moment of 1896, and for all my Laschian leanings, I’ve never forgotten that populism, and its revolt against the ideology of progress, represents a flawed, ‘second-best’ alternative within the American experiment. Populism’s justification rests solely in the fact that America’s élite class is in a state of permanent revolt against nature and morality, seduced by the ideologies of mastery over man and nature. From the start drawn from the Calvinist merchant class of Yankee New England, the fickle speculators of the Tidewater and the damnable usurer-grandees of the Deep South, America’s élites have never had the deep, rooted ties to the land or the ethic of noblesse oblige that characterised the Old World élites. The hope for anything resembling a humane, human-scaled polity would therefore lie in the inertia of the common people.

Don’t get me wrong. American populism is indeed an attractive direction, for those of us Tory-inflected leftists who want to see the élite class behave with some degree of social responsibility, or – indeed – who despair of the élite class ever gaining such an awareness. Populism, in its nineteenth-century incarnation, was indeed a revolt against the ideologies of mastery of man and nature, that found some resonances with older conservative critiques. It would be historically irresponsible to ignore the close links between Upper Canadian High Toryism – what would later become Red Toryism – and the prairie populists in Alberta and Saskatchewan; those links generated a great wealth of idiosyncratic, anti-capitalist œconomic thought (including distributism, the coöperative federation and the social credit movement). And the attitudes of the populists toward money and resources tend to mirror certain strains in classical Christian, and particularly Patristic thought.

But the raw, Jacobin nationalism represented by Jackson, and its latter-day revival, present a peculiar danger to those of us who would appeal to classical forms of conservatism, or even to its half-forgotten offspring in the historical populist idea. A man who would run roughshod over the great humane inheritance of Anglo-Saxon customary law in pursuit of a propertarian régime, and in the name of the popular will, is by no means a principled friend to conservatism. And consider: the amalgamation of Manchester liberalism with ‘thought-control nationalism’ that Viereck warned us against is upon us again – though now with an invincible shell of postmodern irony and self-awareness, which not only elevates ‘narrative’ above any consideration of truth or reality, but weaponises the former against the latter. In such an environment, the common people are to be pitied and succoured where possible, but truth and goodness and beauty are not to be sought among them, any more than they are to be sought among the élite.

No comments:

Post a Comment