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The Uncivil Servant: Exploring Political Reaction

Mitchell Abidor
October 19, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction by Mark Lilla, New York Review Books, 2016

THAT WE ARE LIVING in a reactionary moment is hardly a revelation. From the U.S. to France to the UK to Germany to Austria to Hungary to Poland to the Arab world to Israel, the revolutionary dreams of fifty years ago have all been discarded, indeed buried, and the reactionary right has the upper hand. For the most part, the reactionary movement, in the form of the Tea Party and Trumpism here, UKIP in the United Kingdom, and the Front National in France, is more an attitude than an ideology or a philosophy. Motivated by a ressentiment that Nietzsche once saw at the heart of socialism, joined to racism and xenophobia, it everywhere attacks the same enemy: the outsider among us (usually non-white) and the ideas that survived the 196’s, the decade during which, according to the right, the West went bad.

Mark Lilla, in his fascinating study The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, perfectly describes the myth the right has built upon here in the U.S.: “Today’s American conservatives have perfected a popular myth of how the nation emerged from World War II strong and virtuous, only to become a licentious society governed by a menacing secular state after the Nakba of the sixties.” Mutatis mutandis, this can apply to much of the world. Revanchisme in the Balkans, anti-immigrant movements, all can be explained by the fight against change and the desire to return to the halcyon days of yore. There is a chasm between the past and the present, and while “some recognize their loss and turn to the future . . . [others] are obsessed with taking revenge on whatever demiurge caused it to open up. Their nostalgia is revolutionary. Since the continuity of time has already been broken, they begin to dream of making a second break and escaping from the present.” As Lilla says, “We are only too aware that the most powerful revolutionary slogans of our age begin: Once upon a time . . .”

The desire to return to the mythical Golden Age explains the rise of reactionary Islam. In radical Islam, there is a strict periodicity to history: from the ignorance that preceded Muhammed, through the rise of the Arab world during Islam’s youth, to its degeneration as it passed into the hands of unworthy heirs of the Prophet. “When believers remained faithful to the Quran there was some semblance of justice and virtue,” is how Lilla recites the storyline, “and there were a few centuries when the arts and science progressed. But succeeds always brought luxury, and luxury breeds vice and stagnation.” Colonialism completed the destruction, “by converting them away from religion altogether and imposing on them an immoral secular order.”

Again, this schema can just as will be used to fit the West, for “there is little that is uniquely Muslim in this myth.” Indeed, the words Lilla uses to describe radical Islam can be applied just as well to what we know of the right: “One almost blushes to think of the historical ignorance, the misplaced piety, the outsize sense of honor, the impotent adolescent posturing, the blindness to reality, and fear of it, that lay behind the monstrous fever.” A month from our own elections, this shoe fits our reactionary right’s foot all too well.

THE SHIPWRECKED Mind, however, is not strictly an analysis of the events of the day. Lilla analyses reactionary philosophy, ground he considers insufficiently mined: “The mind of the modern revolutionary has been the subject of great literature. But the reactionary has yet to find his Dostoevsky or Conrad.”

Lilla examines the works of several exemplary reactionary thinkers, making it clear that “[r]eactionaries are not conservatives. They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings.” Of the thinkers examined in the first section -- Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Voeglin, and Leo Strauss -- Rosenzweig is the most uncomfortable fit. There is little if anything political about him, his contribution to thought being primarily religious, and even this is of so high and murky a level that few succeed in penetrating its meaning.

Eric Voeglin, born in Austria in 1901, spent a large chunk of his career in the U.S. but “never acquired a wide public readership in his lifetime. There are academic Voegelians in North America and Europe, but Voeglin himself was too solitary and idiosyncratic a thinker to leave behind a proper school. For Voegelin, writes Lilla, “what happened in modern Western history after the Enlightenment . . . was that human beings began to conceive in sacred terms their own activities, in particular their creation of new political orders free from traditional sources of authority . . . Once this is understood the true nature of the mass ideological movements of the twentieth century. . . become evident: they were all ‘political religions,’ complete with prophets, priests, and temple sacrifices. When you abandon the Lord, it is only a matter of time before you start worshipping a Führer.” For Voegelin, then, secularism, the abandonment of religion as a basis for the polity, leads to Hitler and Stalin.

Unlike Voegelin, Leo Strauss (1899-1973) did not labor in obscurity. Thanks to his books and his years teaching at the University of Chicago, he left behind an important school, one that rose to great prominence during the rule of George W. Bush and whose members were the master thinkers behind the Iraq debacle. Some critics even see Strauss’ direct hand in the fiasco. Lilla writes that “the connection between the Straussians and the American right is quite real. Rock-ribbed conservatives could only welcome a thinker who felt that ‘[w]ithout authoritative assumptions regarding morality and mortality, which religion can provide, no society can hold itself together.’” Strauss also saw a privileged place for thinkers in the world: “From reading Strauss, his disciples learn that although philosophers should not try to realize their ideal cities, they do bear responsibility for the cities in which they find themselves . . . They are also encouraged to think that America has been slipping into nihilism since the 1960s and that however vulgar, right-wing populism and religious fundamentalism contribute to the nation’s recovering its basic sense of right and wrong.” In fact, the Straussians did try to “realize their ideal city,” and it is called Baghdad.

A case can be made that just as the Soviet Union destroyed Marxism, Iraq totally discredited Leo Strauss’ ideas. Never has an elitist and esoteric school flown so low. But academic intellectuals and reality do not always inhabit the same plane, and Marxists and Straussians can still be found, both denying that their fundamental ideas were ever given a chance.

INTERESTINGLY, missing from these reactionary thinkers is what had been a constant of reactionary thought throughout the last few centuries: Jew-hatred. Though there remain some writers on the extreme right who hold Jews guilty of the sins of modernity, the anti-Semitism and/or racism that was at the heart of the reactionary thinkers of the past — men like Charles Maurras and Count Gobineau — figure nowhere here (though as Nazi Party members, Carl Schmitt and Heidegger, who are both discussed by Lilla, can’t escape accusations of open or tacit support for anti-Semitism). Indeed, it is often Jews, like Strauss and Rosenzweig, who are presented as advocates of reaction.

When I asked Lilla about this, he said that it was “une question mal posée,” a poorly posed question, for it assumes that Jews are essentially of the left and so their presence on the right requires explanation. He is right -- for if radical Islam is a product of a conjuncture, so is Jewish leftism. The name Benjamin Netanyahu and many of the acts of the “Jewish state” prove there is no necessary connection between leftism and Jews.

The unanswered question in Lilla’s writings is that of the tie between thinkers and actual mass activity. The enraged white people shouting “Lock her up” at Trump rallies know nothing of the legal ideas of Carl Schmitt or the religious ideas of Franz Rosenzweig. One comes away from the individually brilliant essays in The Shipwrecked Mind wondering, “Do these men matter?”

If their ideas didn’t come from Lilla’s intellectuals, from where do the ideas of the populist right come ? This too, I think, is a poorly posed question, for the rage motivating our own reactionaries, as well as those in Europe, has little to do with ideas. They’ve not read thinkers of the caliber Lilla discusses, and would in all likelihood scorn them as elitists. Leo Strauss, so important a figure on the intellectual right, who distinguished between ideas fit for the masses and a philosophers’ real thoughts (which should be kept from the vulgar herd), would have accepted such scorn as natural.

The influence of Lilla’s subjects is restricted to a rarified stratum of intellectuals, though in the case of Strauss it would have catastrophic real-life consequences. It is not ideas but attitudes and imagination that dominate the reactionary right. The lost “once-upon-a-time” that Lilla warns us is so dangerous is what motivates popular reaction: a mythologized and mythological America that was safely white, where kids came home from school and Mom served them milk and cookies and blacks were tucked away in their corner. “Make America great again” is a cry to return us to a country one finds on cable TV, on TVLand, that ideal country where father knows best, where you can leave it to Beaver, and I married Joan. It was a fantasy of a country where authority could be trusted because it was wielded by a benign Andy Griffit, or even a menacing Jack Webb (who only threatened the bad guys). Reaction today is the chase after a domestic chimera that was once dangled before our eyes on TV screens in our living rooms.

Those infinitely reproduced and reproducible images of a country in which even African Americans, when they finally appeared, were successful strivers, mock today’s reality. Lacking tools for (or interest in) analysis, those on the reactionary right denigrate and attack all those who embody that mockery. Stymie of the Little Rascals is no more, Jimmie Walker is no longer Dy-No-Mite, both replaced by the faces of Black Lives Matter.

Nostalgia can be deadly.

There is, however, one reactionary thinker whose ideas have spread to the masses, but unlike the thinkers Mark Lilla examines, he was not a European academic. It was Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), the ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood, who established the basis for reactionary political Islam, converting the idea of jihad from an internal spiritual battle to a deadly one between Muslims and nonbelievers -- and between Muslims he considered of the purest sort and Muslims lacking in his idea of firmness. Qutb, the paradigm of the committed intellectual, was hung for his part in a plot to kill Nasser. He fulfilled the great role assigned thinkers in Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” Far more than Heidegger or Rosenzweig, or Strauss, Qutb showed just how potent and deadly reactionary ideas can be.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the author of many volumes of translation. His translations of the poet Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems, published by New York Review Books.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.