Three Attitudes Toward Government

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Mencius Moldbug wrote a letter to a liberal friend who had sent him a link to J.M. Bernstein’s NY Times opinion piece on the very angry tea party:

If I had to describe it in a sentence, I would say that the rage is easily explained, but not easily explained in the terms of those who feel it. They are clearly angry about something, but the actual words that come out of their mouths are often nonsensical and contradictory. This is why it is so hard for so many to get a handle on. It is simply inarticulate demotic discontent.

Basically, you will see this in any hieratic system of government which the peasants do not really understand. They feel, somehow, that they are getting jobbed. They are (in my opinion) getting jobbed. But how they are getting jobbed is infinitely more complicated than their simple peasant mind can understand. (Also, the idea that they are in some way jobbing the peasants is the farthest possible concept from the collective mind of the gentlemen.)

Therefore, the peasants open their mouths and out comes rage and nonsense. As a gentleman, you are fascinated and repelled by this extraordinary wave of rage and nonsense. Do I have this reaction right? You may of course feel free to disregard the crude metaphor of medieval class conflict, which is no more than a metaphor. Still, I feel it is a good way to ground the conversation in history.

One easy reaction is to blame Fox News. It is true: for the first time in a long time, the peasants have an exclusively peasant-themed mass propaganda channel. However, the objective observer notes quickly that Fox News is not so much telling its audience what to think, as telling them they are allowed to think what they already think. Since they are peasants, lacking any semblance of an aristocratic culture that can accumulate and transmit collective wisdom across generations, what they think is generally nonsense.

Fox News aggregates and retransmits this nonsense, but does not really direct it much in Goebbels style. In some ways it even moderates it — for instance, Fox, and neocons in general, are not much less aggressive in purging racism than establishment journalists.
But, although they do not reason openly and explicitly in this existential manner, the tea partiers feel emotionally that their entire system of government has lost, over the course of decades, their confidence, and needs to be replaced by something entirely different. The basic problem with their rhetoric is that in place of “something entirely different,” they insert two-dimensional cliches of historical American nationalism, dimly remembered at a folk level from the 1920s. It was no less nonsense then, but at least it had an aristocratic leadership caste, which was actually capable of governing a country. In short, it had Calvin Coolidge. Sarah Palin is no Calvin Coolidge.

There are three basic attitudes toward government in America today:

There are people who believe government is there to serve them; there are people who believe government is there to serve others; there are people who believe government is there to subsidize them. In our medieval metaphor, these correspond to peasants, gentlemen, and varlets respectively. The last is the caste Marx called the “lumpenproletariat” — and he was no fan of this group, or of political movements that exploited it. Respectable people say “underclass.”

When gentlemen look at progressivism, they see a movement whose purpose is to help the underclass, those whose plight is no fault of their own. When peasants look at progressivism, they see a movement whose purpose is to employ gentlemen in the business of public policy, by using the peasants’ money to buy votes from varlets. Who, in the peasants’ perception, abuse the patience and generosity of both peasants and gentlemen in almost every imaginable way, and are constantly caressed by every imaginable authority for doing so.

Among gentlemen, the idea that government could be there to serve us is almost socially taboo.
Peasants see a patron-client relationship between the gentlemen and the varlets — a relationship not at all unlike the late Roman relationship of clientela, where a patrician measured his social status by the vast army of plebeians that battened on his trenches. Again, what to the gentleman appears as a noble act of charity, compassion, etc, to the coarse and cynical peasant reveals itself as a purchase of political power, with his tax dollars if not his physical safety. Therefore a vision of the gallows arises in his hindbrain.

Can both be correct? Of course they can. Every case, in every detail, is different, and every case can be viewed from both perspectives. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

And again — are the tea partiers thinking this story? No such elaborate historio-political fantasy has ever come anywhere close to their heads. But it is, I would argue, the reality of history in our time. Truth, even if not realized in totum, glints off every surface. Therefore, it is an emotional subtext that spawns a continuous stream of inchoate, inarticulate and inexplicable rage. Precisely as your New School prof observes!

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