Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Conservatarians and "Political Religion"

This is a followup to my earlier post this week, We Are All Liberals Now. I've been calling out American "movement conservatives" as basically equivalent to our Leninists for a while now, and this post stirred up some comment. Before I get into responding to those comments, let me first provide some background.

From the Wikipedia page on Leninism:
In his book "What is to be Done?" (1903), Lenin argued that the proletariat can only achieve a successful revolution consciousness through the efforts of a Communist party that assumes the role of "revolutionary vanguard." Lenin further believed that such a party could only achieve its aims through a form of disciplined organization known as "democratic centralism," where Communist Party officials are elected democratically, but once they are elected and other decisions are made through voting, all party members must follow those decisions.
Does that sound like the way any political parties in America are operating these days? Sure does to me.

In the comments to my earlier post, TheRobb (who blogs here) says, well— he says a lot of things I would say are nonsense, but he does say this:
But the basic thrust of your argument, at least as I see it, is that, as you said "I'm saying it's a political religion."

Pehaps you and I see "religion" in different ways.

For me, "political religion" would confer the status of diety upon Congressional leadership.

Sorry, but unless those people can prove that they created heaven and earth and that they did indeed die upon a cross for me (not to mention raise themselves from the dead), then I am afraid that they don't qualify.

That's what I am seeing when you use the words "political religion". And that's why I view your argument as collapsing under its own weight.
As it happens, I don't particularly like this phrase, and I tend to avoid using it for precisely the reason that it confuses people like TheRobb in the obvious way that he so clearly demonstrates above. Nevertheless, Political Religion is a term of art in sociology that has its own Wikipedia page:
...a political religion is a political ideology with cultural and political power equivalent to those of a religion, and often having many sociological and ideological similarities with religion. Quintessential examples are Marxism and Nazism, but totalitarianism is not a requirement (for example neo-liberalism can be analysed as a political religion).
The term is sometimes treated as synonymous with civil religion, but although some scholars use the terms as equivalent, others see a useful distinction, using "civil religion" as something weaker, which functions more as a socially unifying and essentially conservative force, where a political religion is radically transformational, even apocalyptic.
Both David Neiwert and Glenn Greenwald explicitly referenced this page, and I think it was pretty clear that I was using the term in the way this page describes, so I'd say it's pretty disingenuous of TheRobb to pretend I have staked out a claim I took obvious steps to avoid. (Of course, this isn't the first time I've said that of him.)

However, I wanted to elevate this discussion to the front page, because I think it's worth unpacking something. "For me, 'political religion' would confer the status of diety upon Congressional leadership," he said. I've shown that he's mistaken about that, but let's look at what I'm actually saying his political religion is doing. American "movement conservatarians" are really not trying to deify their political leaders, but they are trying to invest them with the divine right of kings. (It would be nice if the word "reify" worked here, because it rhymes with "deify," but regretably, its root is res not rex, and its meaning doesn't fit quite right.)

TheRobb may not feel comfortable admitting this outside friendly turf, but the President routinely talks like he owes his rule to the will of God, not to the will of the People or any other competing authority. He does it because he knows his base— people like TheRobb, let me make it clear— eat that shit with a spoon. The sentence in Wikipedia about this that ought to make your blood run cold: This doctrine continued with the claim that any attempt to depose a monarch or to restrict his powers ran contrary to the will of God. In other words, while I'm not saying that American conservatarians are confering the status of deity upon their political leaders, I am saying they are happily adopting the radically regressive doctrine that their leaders owe their rule to the will of God, and not to the will of the People.

If you've been paying attention, you probably noticed that I'm now making two seemingly contradictory arguments. On the one hand, I've been calling them Leninists, for their adoption of Communist-like party discipline around the principle of "democratic centralism," i.e. they elect Party officials and take their marching orders from them unquestioningly, even when those orders seem to contradict the political theory that supposedly serves as the foundation of the Party. On the other hand, I'm now saying that they're investing their leaders, particularly the President, with the divine right of kings. If you really think about it— and, no, I'm not holding out much hope that TheRobb will think about this very hard— you'll see how they're really complementary ideas, not contradictory.

The movement conservatives have adopted a "radically transformational" political ideology. They want nothing less than the marriage of economic corporatism, political authoritarianism, and a philosophy of postmodern fundamentalism. (Drieux, there's your PP&E, for you.) That's the "political religion" part. The parallel with Leninism comes when you examine their strategy and tactics. Instead of trying to create the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, the American Leninists are trying to create the revolutionary dictatorship of the conservatarian cultural identity. The ends are different, but the means and methods are identical.

To close out, I'd like to review something TheDrieux reminded me about over lunch today.

On several occasions, both he and I have encountered evangelical Christians who like to say to atheists (and people with similar beliefs, like me) things like this: "My faith in God is what keeps me from being a mass murderer." Sometimes, they make the implication explicit: that when atheists reject the proposition that God exists, they necessarily must accept the proposition that there is no moral imperative to live virtuously. It's an utterly ridiculous notion, but we keep encountering people who really do believe it, deep in their heart of hearts.

There is a similar mental dysfunction you tend to find among right-wing authoritarians who subscribe to the doctrine of the divine right of kings. They think things like this: "My loyalty to the King (the President, the Chairman, Dear Leader, etc.) is what keeps me from becoming a war criminal." This is a ridiculous notion in precisely the same way, but it's exactly how guys like Donald Rumsfeld rock themselves to sleep at night after presiding over the torture and abuse scandals at the Pentagon. They think to themselves: when liberals reject the proposition that the leader of the nation owes his rule to the will of God, they necessarily must accept the proposition that there is no moral imperative to remain loyal, make a sacrifice, or otherwise loyally serve. It's all basically the same mechanism. The end result is that the Leader has God's blessing to do whatever he deems necessary, and his subjects are either loyal servants or they're enemies of the will of God. There can be no "loyal opposition" where there is the divine right of kings.

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