Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Glenn Beck and Anarchism

So all the talk this week is on the burning question, “just who the heck is Glenn Beck?” I dunno. I’ve never seen a minute of his talk show, so I am not really in a position to offer an educated opinion. Frank Rich thinks he is a descendent of conspiratorial populists like Father Coughlin in the 1930s, though of course the populist critics of FDR, like Coughlin and Huey Long, wanted more government, not less. (If Coughlin was around today, he would be denouncing Obama’s efforts to reform the banking industry as "half measures that coddle Jewish financiers.”) Conservatives seem to think that Beck is not a true conservative, which amounts to that he is consistent enough to sometimes attack American military adventures overseas as a symptom of “big government.” (The great worry of the conservative movement is that their followers would get the consistency to read paleocon websites like “antiwar”—which I heartily recommend—with regularity.) And it is certainly interesting to learn that Beck is a Mormon who follows some conservative Mormon thinker whom even the John Birch society thought was sort of kooky. ( I have nothing against Mormons or Mormonism, but it is a religion that has conspiratorial thinking woven into the warp of its theology.)

But enough about Glenn Beck. I want to speak instead of the left-wing alternative to conservative agrarian populism, anarchism. It is an ideology that has become increasingly fashionable on the left as of late, and I have often found myself with the stray anarchist urge. It is nowhere near as tainted as communism, is less wonky than socialism, and is a way to stand utterly outside the system while not necessarily calling for its immediate overthrow. And anarchism has the immense advantage that every generation, since, 1890, has reinvented in its own image.

These anarchist thoughts are inspired by a recent volume of essays by a young historian which I heartily recommend, John H. Summer’s Every Fury on Earth. He finds anarchism everywhere, in the work of C. Wright Mills, on whom he is completing a much needed biography, in the works of James Agee, in Noam Chomsky. Summer is trenchant is his excoriation of the “need to be connected” through information technology, which is creating a world that is ever more interconnected to nothing, and equally devastating in his account of Marxist orthodoxies. His skewering of British acolytes of C. Wright Mills in the late 1960s—notably the sesquipedalian Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn—who transformed Mills’s free-style radicalism into a jargonish anti-bourgeois hash is hilarious. There is a lot of interesting media criticism in the volume, especially an essay that my colleague Rob would like on the interesting question of why, after a century of sex scandals in the popular press, journalists from the time of Wilson through Kennedy eschewed through-the-keyhole reportage. “High standards,” and a disinclination to stimulate the masses seem to be the reason. And like all good anarchists, he brings his theories down to the personal and practical level, and provides withering accounts of his efforts to make it as a university teacher, and concludes that being a true historian is somehow incompatible with being part of the higher education knowledge machine. I’m not sure that I agree, but it provides an aura of principle to what has been my own inadvertent path to being an independent, untethered historian.

For me the biggest difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives believe that human nature is basically malign and evil, and needs to be constrained in various ways to prevent it from destroying us. (This was emphasized in the obits over the last week for the Neoconservative poobah, Irving Kristol. ) Liberals believe that human nature is basically good, that we were born without sin, and that whatever Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden stayed in the Garden of Eden. Anarchism merely takes the belief in human goodness to its logical conclusion, that the ends of human life should be, in the words of Summers, “voluntary associations vitalized by spontaneous effusions and organized around the latent potentialities of cooperation.” Now, I love the state, and its often over-ardent embrace, and I love paying taxes, and I think “bureaucrat” is one of the loveliest words in the English language, like violet or amethyst. So I am not an anarchist, but I often wish I was one.

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