We have long been in the habit of classifying political views as “left” or “right,” “conservative” or “liberal.” However, These classifications conceal more than they reveal. The names too easily become “brands” that lose any real content, to become easily manipulated symbols to be filled in by marketing experts attempting to appeal to a given demographic. Of course, everyone is familiar with the strange spectacle of the Cheney-Bush “deficits don't matter,” interventionist (and war-mongering) foreign policy, statist, imperial presidency somehow being called “conservative.” We used to think that they could lay claim to the title based on their formal (if not material) opposition to abortion and support for the right of citizens to own guns. But now we are reliably informed by Pat Robertson that these are optional features of conservatism and that a thrice-divorced, gay-rights, pro-abortion, cross-dresser is a suitable object of conservative and fundamentalist adulation.
It's hard to say when this corruption of political terms began. Possibly with Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, who dressed-up the radical Enlightenment idols of Liberalism in the borrowed finery of conservatism just by adding a few nods to “family values.” Hayek at least had the honesty to admit that he was not a conservative, a group he excoriated in an essay (“Why I am not a Conservative”) that is a classic of the ad hominem argument. Never mind; “conservatives” forgave him all. More recently, (and more troubling) we see the latest issue of Chronicles, a fine paleo-conservative journal, which ought to be suspicious of the industrialization of the biosphere, labeling those concerned with global warming as “enemies of the planet,” after discovering that some of them may not be (gasp!) Southern Agrarians and others might even be “Wiccans.” Here it is not the lapse from intellectual rigor than pains me so much as the lack of charity. When people discover the limits of a rationalistic technology, the editors of Chronicles ought to welcome them rather than administer purity tests. In any case, I would prefer an honest paganism to an earnest Modernism, and Thomas Fleming, on his better days, would agree with this.
The left as well has its problems on this score. Naomi Klein notes how easy it was for corporate capitalists to co-opt liberal “identity” politics of feminism and whatnot with a few well-placed ads and sponsorships. Indeed, buying off these liberals proved to be cheaper than buying off the conservatives. For as it turns out, “identity liberalism” easily morphed into “identity capitalism”; the self-absorption of the liberals was easily absorbed into the consumer culture of “brand corporatism,” where corporate logos came to represent not so much products as “life styles.” This process is detailed in Naomi Klein's book, No Logo. The theme of No Logo is very simple:
The astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multi-national corporations of the last fifteen years can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid-1980s: That successful corporations must primarily produce brands as opposed to products.
Products are messy things. They are real, and they need to be produced by real people. And both real things and real people can be both expensive and problematic; better to dispense with both. But if we don't manufacture a product or perform a service, what do we have to sell? The answer is, “a logo.” The perfect example of this is the Nike Swoosh. You may think that Nike as a maker of athletic shoes and the like. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nike makes the swoosh, and the swoosh blesses what ever it touches. The real product is the virtual product. True, it often needs to be placed on a “real” product like sneakers, but such real products can be made by virtual slaves in tax-free, union-free, law-free economic zones in the so-called “third-world.” Of course, these are not Nike factories; owning a real factory would be crass and vulgar. And not all that profitable. No, the factories are owned by contractors who take all the risks and are forced to bid against each other, with the one who can deliver the most misery for their employees will likely be the one to win. But the real winner will be Nike, who has little at risk and great profit. They commit to little more than a contract for a few production runs, and can sell a product made for $5 direct labor for $130 or more retail. Not a bad business.
Well, yes it is a bad business. Bad spiritually, bad morally, and bad economically. All social bonds are broken, and only thin contractual links remain, contracts in which one party has all the power, and which can be easily abrogated by the business needs or personal whims of the major party. Manufacturing is destroyed in the United States and real development stunted in the no-longer developing world. What they leave behind are ruined lives, ruined economies, ruined nations, and a ruined planet. And when the social bonds are broken, the economic bonds will quickly follow. For an economy of fair exchange presupposes that both sides get an equal value from the exchange; if one side gets wealth and the other subsistence—or less—then the whole structure is in constant danger of tottering, which is what we may in fact be witnessing at this very moment.
But as bad as it is, the process of branding fits perfectly in a culture of consumerism, where you are what you buy; your identity is equal to your brands, your being is equal to what you have. It is a demonstration of how post-modern nihilism is so easily converted into hyper-modern consumerism; lacking a real identity (which always has a religious root), one purchases an identity at Starbucks and Nike, at Benetton and Banana Republic, and at a hundred other mall outlets.
You may read about the process, in sad and excruciating detail, in Ms. Klein's book. My point here is not so much about the details of the process, but about the failure to properly fight it. Battling the Swoostika takes more than purity tests, even if they could be administered by the really pure. For the truth is that Ms. Klein has discovered the failures of her own liberalism in examining the success of post-modern capitalism. And to that extent, she is an ally and should be welcomed as such. Indeed, some of the best work in discovering the real values of work and community now come from the so-called left, while some of the “best” defenses paleo-liberalism come from modern conservatives. In fighting any battle, it is important to know who your real friends and your real enemies are. Perhaps at one time we could conveniently rely on convenient labels; that time is past. And anyway, the labels really applied to ideologies—not to real ideas—and you don't really battle a bad ideology with a good ideology, but with a good idea, with a truth. The editors of Chronicles tend towards Agrarianism, a tendency I support. But agrarianism is not about moving to the farm, but about restoring the proper relationship between town and country. As such, it is not an ideology, but a universal; it embraces the industrialist no less than the farmer; it includes the whole world, with the possible exception of the dreary suburb. An ideology seeks to find fault in its rivals, because all it has is rivals, but a universal seeks the connections that must bind us all, because all it has is truth.
I could pick any number of quarrels with men of the left, but I choose not to pick such quarrels when they themselves are discovering the problems of the left. I hope that I would speak the truth when I must, but will speak a word of encouragement when I can. There is a real battle for the earth. The presence of Russian subs claiming mining rights in the now open Arctic Sea, and the opening of the Northwest Passage to shipping settle the argument beyond all reasonable debate. One might debate whether the cause is “natural” or man-made. I am not competent to say. But this I can say: The burden of proof must remain on those who would, who have, dumped innumerable tons of toxins, mostly compounds unknown to nature, into the natural world; it is for them to first prove that they do no harm, rather than for the world to wait for the effects to prove it for them. For the whole history of the world in these matters is given by two sentences: “What harm could it do?” followed by, “Ooops, who knew?” Well, we don't know, and since we don't, we wait until we do.
Thomas Fleming and Thomas Landess, my old professor, have too much respect for the world, and too much contempt for mere ideology, to turn their agrarianism into a mere ideology, and it pains me to see them attack what they should defend, and find fault where they should offer encouragement.