November 12, 2004

Robert Bork Contra liberalism

There is more to the newly developing conservative discourse in Australia than the Christian Bible trumping the Australian Constitution, the defence of property having priority over happiness, or the old obsession about sexual morality and homosexuality. It is hard to delineate this discourse as it is in the process of formation and there are few texts that we can turn to for a potted summary.

What we do know is that there there are a number of confusions different strands and fissures and reworkings to this discourse. We also know that a lot of the ideas of Australian conservatism in our political discourse are being imported from the conservative discourse in the US, and then reworked. So it would pay us to look at US conservatism to get our bearings.

An account of the American conservative discourse can be found in this brief account of the conservative criticism of liberalism. It is a review of Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (1996). It unpacks the content buried in the conservative populist appeal to traditional social values.

Bork's conservative thesis:

"[Writing about W.B. Yeats] He can hardly have had any conception of just how thoroughly things would fall apart as the center failed to hold in the last third of this century. He can hardly have foreseen that passionate intensity, uncoupled from morality, would shred the fabric of Western culture. The rough beast of decadence, a long time in gestation, having reached its maturity in the last three decades, now sends us slouching towards our new home, not Bethlehem but Gomorrah."

It is the conservative appropriation of Nietzsche's nihilism thesis. The discourse of these right-wing "scolds," (eg., William J. Bennett's , The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, Pat Buchanan's Death of the West) argue that the United States of America is in a state of moral collapse. Americans live in a moral sewer and a cultural wasteland.

The moral-rotters, according to this apocalyptic paleoconservatism are aided and abetted at every step by the liberal media elite. This has resulted in moral decline being almost irreparable; civil responsibility now a distant memory; pop culture sapping the little social fiber that was left; whilst the evils of feminism, homosexuality, and Hollywood were corroding the country's ability to believe in itself or defend its shores.

This 'things get progressively worse' discourse circulates through FOX News, the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Murdoch Press in Australia and a fundamentalist Christianity (including conservative Roman Catholic and Anglican) in Australia. It is signified by 'traditional social values.'

The solution to us sinners living in a moral sewer and a cultural wasteland? In Slouching Towards Gomorrah Bork makes the case for censorship (of rap albums, video games, and violent films), the rollback of reproductive rights, and the enforcement of sodomy laws etc, etc. In Australian terms that means a return to the 1950s and 1960s and the draconian censorship laws, before they were finally eased by the liberal Whitlam Government.

Bork's argument is that modern liberalism has corrupted American culture and set the country on the road to moral chaos.

Modern liberalism is linked back to classical liberalism, (John Stuart Mill, rather than Locke), as he refers to liberalism in terms of an optimistic view of human beings as "inherently self-sufficing" and autonomous.

And Bork on liberalism:

"Classical liberalism has been so thoroughly defeated by modern liberalism's statism and its coercive homogenization of cultural life that even its name has been appropriated. "Liberal" once referred to a political tradition that honored individual liberty and a cultural ethos that allowed for the best that is known and thought to emerge from the free exchange of ideas. That kind of liberalism is today judged to be a marginal counterculture, especially in elite circles. Thus classical liberals - now known as conservatives - face an uphill battle in their struggle to preserve what is best in our inheritance."

We have the standard US conflation of Lockean contract liberalism with conservatism and the liberal enemy as a statist social (welfare) liberalism. So is Bork going back to classical Locken liberlasm?>

The logic of this argument is otherwise. The argument is that the dual forces of radical egalitarianism (the equality of outcomes rather than opportunities) and radical individualism (the drastic reduction of limits to personal gratification), has undermined our culture, our intellect, and our morality. What is required is to disconnect liberty 'a doing what one desires free from constraint', and reconnecting liberty with order and virtue--giving us a Burkean conservatism. It is a small step to reintroducing authority to address the shortcomings of individualistic liberalism and making the turn to Leo Strauss.

Yet he strays down side trails. Consider this quote from conservativeforum org:

"What we sense is that something has gone very wrong with America's moral and social infrastructure. Our real problem is the cultural revolution that swept America in the '60s. That is not to say that economic issues are not important, but that the cultural and social issues are far more important to Americans. We must re-fight the [cultural] battles we lost in the '60s. The counter-march will not be easy; but if conservatism is to live, we must do it."

If conservatism is to survive, then it must make war on liberalism. But why the emphasis on culture and not on the modern liberal parliamentary state or liberal constitutionalism? Why the lack of concern with political theory and the state of liberal democracy? Isn't liberal parliamentary democracy also in a state of decay and corruption?

Now Bork does walk along this pathway. He is a leading proponent of the "original intent" movement in legal theory, which argues that judges should base their rulings solely on the intent of our founding fathers, which can be divined through a close reading of our nation's founding documents. This is counterposed to judicial activism, which has been growing and evolving in the United States since the 1960s, and involves the liberal elite, or (“New Class,”) stopping at nothing to impose its moral and legal framework on the rest of society--even using foreign courts, multinational treaties and international law to achieve it. Hence international law is seen as one more weapon in the domestic culture war.

In Coercing virtue: The worldwide rule of judges, Bork argues that democracy is deteriorating from within. The causes for this decay are: the rise of relatively unaccountable and powerful bureaucracies, the decline in belief in authoritative religions; the acceptance of a liberal ethos of extreme individual autonomy; the influence of the mass media, the explosion in size of the academic intellectual class, and, most of all, the ascendancy of activist, ambitious, imperialistic judiciaries who aid and abet the other forces by enacting an agenda of the "cultural [liberal] left."

Bork suggests several remedies to deal with disease of judicial activism: but overruling of judicial decisions by Congress (or Parliament); to appoint judges who will apply the Constitution according to an original understanding of its principles; and persuading the Court to mend its activist ways.

I think that the above insights into American conservatism help to delineate the characteristics of the newly forming conservative discourse in Australia. It gives us a rudimentary understanding.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at November 12, 2004 07:36 AM | TrackBack

Hello Gary, good to see your call for a good philosophical debate about the uses and abuses of liberalism, with some attention to the broader cultural agenda.

This will call for some reading and re-reading of the works of Popper and Hayek, and others less known such as Jacques Barzun, Rene Wellek, Ian D Suttie and Bill Hutt.

Posted by: Rafe on November 13, 2004 07:33 AM

Everyone talks about the bankruptcy of liberalism.

What about the spiritual, religious and cultural bankruptcy of much/most/all of what passes for so called "conservative" opinion etc etc.

If you strip away the "cultural" facade are they not, in effect, ALL apologists for the Pentagon death machine or the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about and that Lewis Mumford prophetically described in The Pentagon of Power. Also Jules Henry in Culture Against Man (1962).And others more recently.

The Pentagon power complex being the overwhelming (literally and metaphorically)political/cultural institutional form (FACT) on this planet.

The world wide "culture" of death literally rules.

Does anyone remember (a crack in the facade of "sanity") an incident that occurred in about 1980. A Trident nuclear attack submarine was to be christened the USS Corpus Christie. After some protests a compromise was made and it was renamed the USS City of Corpus Christie.
Imagine that a vessel capable of vapourising hundreds of millions of people being called the Body of Christ.

The same dreadfully sane "conservative" mindset that produced the above blasphemous adsurdity triumphed in the USA elections last week.

A further point. It was not long ago that we were being warned about the red (communist) menace.Well now the reds have taken over. Even the reds under the bed righteous "moral" puritans.

Scary times!!


Posted by: John on November 13, 2004 01:39 PM
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