Nietzsche for Conservatives
Back when the world was young — August 3rd, 2012, to be exact — I published an essay at American Thinker entitled “Conservatives Have a Secret,” in which I explained the inevitability of America’s collapse into progressive chaos, but argued that this inevitability itself could be turned into a weapon of mass renewal, if serious conservatives played their cards right. Things haven’t gone so well for those happy few of late — assuming, as I do, that Trump is not the answer to their prayers — but this in itself is no evidence of ultimate failure. Civilizational arcs are marathons, not sprints, and the point of my 2012 essay, which I stand by today, is that “going back to better days” was never an option anyway. The goal, on the contrary, and given the nature and extent of current decay, must be something less like home renovation and more like controlled demolition.
I found support for this view in, of all places, Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, specifically in a famous short section titled, “Whispered in the ear of the conservative.”
I reproduce that 2012 article below, and leave it to the reader to decide whether its theme and thrust hold up today, during this post-Obama stage of America’s devolution.
Conservatives Have a Secret
(Originally published August 3, 2012)
Can conservatives be revolutionaries? Given the level of crisis into which civilization has fallen, and that the unfolding disaster is the result of what is now called “liberalism,” it behoves us to ask whether the only serious countervailing force, “conservatism,” is up to the task of radical change.
At face value, conservatism would seem to be a position of reserve, caution, and resistance to change. How, then, can conservatives — anti-radicals by nature — turn back the tide of political and moral devolution that has led the once-free world to the brink of economic collapse and tyranny?
I believe that the answer, paradoxically, is that they can turn it back by failing to turn it back. To see how this makes sense, a little context is necessary.
Despite all of Barack Obama’s hoopla about “fundamentally transforming” America, the truth of the matter is even scarier than Obama’s threatening promise: the fundamental transformation has, to a large extent, already happened. Contemporary society has been gradually undermined, in the strict sense of having had its terrain booby-trapped with moral explosives, over many decades. Obama’s promised transformation is merely the paperwork, writing into law what has already been accomplished in culture.
In short, Western society has essentially ceased to be the glorious crown of humanity that it once was. The wellspring of ethical individualism has regressed into a fear-addled horde of collectivists.
The philosophical birthplace of the individuated soul with its higher callings — philosophy, art, faith — has devolved into an orgy of mindless pleasure pursued at the expense of any concern for, or belief in, the difference between scratching an itch and contemplating the divine.
And the civilization that, through its dual focus on human reason and the individual soul, planted the seed of that political liberty which is literally inconceivable in any other historical context has allowed itself to recede into an increasingly unvarnished mob of angry, frightened children clamoring for their “fair share,” for what they are “entitled to” — for a ruler to take care of them, freedom be damned.
The West’s economic insolvency is merely a practical manifestation of moral bankruptcy. America’s irreversible prison sentence of debt stretching for generations into the future is only a foreshadowing of the more explicit form of bondage that takes hold of societies after they disintegrate into practical despair and irrationality.
No doubt some readers, at this point, are thinking, “That may be the path some people are on, but there are millions of us who will refuse to let it happen.” And it is quite true that conservative resistance to the scenario I have described is substantial, and has been so for decades. That is precisely the point: the resistance has always been there, and yet the devolution continues, slowed but ultimately unabated.
It is true that there has always, particularly in America, been a strong conservative minority to say “no” to each new infringement on reason, decency, and liberty. Nevertheless, the “yes” side usually wins, eventually if not immediately. In boxing terms, you cannot win going backwards. Even the most talented defender must finally step forward and throw punches. But in politics and culture, “forward,” as we know, is the method and slogan of the left, and not the natural instinct of conservatives.
Thus, the traditional question becomes more pressing every day: what are conservatives trying to “conserve” at this point? In other words, hasn’t mere resistance proven futile?
Painfully disappointing, yes — but futile, no. The difference between the way America and the rest of the West have reached their respective tipping points gives us a clue to the long-term value of short term failure.
Most of Europe, for example, has drifted sleepily into socialism. The conservative resistance, such as it was, remained much smaller and milder, and, for the most part, it lacked a clear set of principles to guide its efforts. That is why Europe has made leftward “progress” far faster than America.
Each European nation undergoes brief spasms of dissatisfaction with the inefficiencies of socialism, and hence reintroduces a few carefully regulated “market elements” to stabilize its labor force, its health care system, etc. Through it all, however, sovereign nations have dissolved into an supranational socialist “union”; work — in the old-fashioned sense of productive effort you must make to support yourself — is generally regarded as gauche and distasteful, and when Europeans are surprised by a financial doomsday they never saw coming, they take to the streets — not to demand the changes needed to avert catastrophe, but to demand that doomsday be canceled because it is interrupting their lifelong state-subsidized vacation.
America, while following the same pattern of leftward drift, has done so kicking and screaming. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are simply too clear and stately to admit of being tossed into the fire. Or rather, there are many who would happily do exactly that, but the documents remain cherished fundamentals to so many Americans that progressives have been forced to try to finesse their way around founding principles that are far too clear to be fudged.
Hence, with each “forward” step, the left exposes itself further as essentially opposed to those founding principles — i.e., as essentially un-American. This reveals the precise advantage American conservatives have over their brethren in other nations. If conservatism is at its core a philosophy of resistance to change, then conservatives are lost if they cannot isolate the point from which the change they are resisting began. In other words, once again, they must have a clear understanding of what they are trying to “conserve.”
How can the conservatives of other nations define their cause? What are they seeking to preserve, or to return to? They and their position are too easily reducible to a combination of nostalgia and stodginess. They are embarrassed by the perception, promoted by liberals, that they are merely old fogeys who fear the new. This is why the supposed elected representatives of conservatism are so quick to adopt or accommodate “progressive” policy ideas. They cannot even explain to themselves why they are resisting.
American conservatives, by contrast, know exactly what they are seeking to conserve, and why. They have the special advantage of having been bequeathed a precise theoretical explanation of their nation and its system of government, one which is impervious to changing practical circumstances and speaks to the primary needs of humanity — self-preservation, freedom from coercion, and the opportunity to develop oneself through one’s own efforts.
And yet, despite the powerful constitutional shield and all the will in the world, American conservatives have thus far failed to turn back the progressive tide. They have, however, done what committed conservatives can do — namely, challenge “progress” at every turn, keep every counterargument to leftism floating through the public consciousness, and frustrate the left’s propaganda methods by exposing them to the light of common sense.
The net result, inevitably, has not been “success,” inasmuch as the authoritarian left has not been stymied outright. Conservatives have, however, by their continued resistance, forced the liberals into assuming increasingly aggressive postures in order to achieve their goals. In other words, the smooth transition into collectivist authoritarianism has not happened in America as it happened, or is currently happening, everywhere else, because conservatives have not let it happen.
The “democratic” left has had to work harder in America than anywhere else — and, consequently, has had to show its teeth more plainly in America than anywhere else. And this, I suspect, demonstrates how conservatives, if they have staying power through the very hard years ahead, can win.
Friedrich Nietzsche, in his final sane months, produced this bracing analysis of the West’s future (our present) as he saw it:
Whispered into the ear of the conservative. — What was not known formerly, what is known, or might be known today: a reversion, a return in any sense or degree is simply not possible. We physiologists know that. Yet all priests and moralists have believed the opposite — they wanted to take mankind back, to screw it back, to a former measure of virtue…. Even the politicians have aped the preachers of virtue at this point: today too there are still parties whose dream it is that all things might walk backwards like crabs. But no one is free to be a crab. Nothing avails: one must go forward — step by step further into decadence (that is my definition of modern “progress”). One can check this development and thus dam up degeneration, gather it and make it more vehement and sudden: more than this one cannot do. (Twilight of the Idols, §43, emphasis added.)
The final sentence of this passage, overwhelming with a stroke of irony worthy of Socrates, explains the means to conservative victory. Damming up the degeneration — in this case, the century-old wave of cultural and political progressivism — is dangerous, as it serves to “gather” the force of the wave, adding to its power and “vehemence.” Yet this dangerous process of thwarting the left until it becomes outraged and angry serves a purpose worthy of the risk. We are seeing this scenario played out before us today.
The modern left has won most of the West by presenting itself as the voice of “the people,” even as it gently fastens its shackles on the ankles of mankind. This is why the rest of the world finds Americans unfathomable for resisting these restraints applied in the name of “security” and “equality.” Practical difficulties notwithstanding, Europe never doubted the left’s intentions. Thus, for sixty years, the drowning waters have flowed evenly and soothingly through the Western world — except in America.
America resisted. She refused to be ashamed of her growing isolation. The left co-opted the education system, the judicial system, the bureaucracy, the press, and the arts. And yet genuine conservatives refused to be mollified, or embarrassed into acquiescing. They have watched dam after dam get blown away by leftist encroachments. But they rebuild the dams.
The result of this resistance, increasingly apparent for decades, has become palpable: whereas the European left presents itself, and even sees itself, as a friend of Europe, the American left has been antagonized into presenting itself more and more openly as the enemy of America.
As many have noted, the declared goal of “fundamentally transforming” America clearly implies a basic distaste for America and Americans. Obama’s “You didn’t build that” is an open spit in the face to the most time-honored notion of national self-identity, the American Dream; Nancy Pelosi’s “Are you serious?” when asked where Congress gets the constitutional authority to force citizens to purchase health insurance displays an open disregard for the principle of limited government; the media’s knee-jerk search for law-abiding Tea Partiers behind every act of mass murder reveals the left’s hatred of people who care about their freedom.
These revelations — the progressives showing their true colors — are the direct result of decades of conservative resistance. The statist left, having won the day everywhere else, has become flustered and furious at its inability to seal the deal in America. Thanks to conservative dams, the progressive current has, as Nietzsche whispered, gathered strength and become more “vehement.” This strength and this vehemence have manifested themselves in angry, careless lurches, wild punches that expose progressives and their real agenda more fully than they would ever have wished to expose themselves.
And their open aggression has, as it were, awakened a sleeping giant. The Tea Party is the direct product of progressivism’s excessive “vehemence.” And the Tea Party’s effect, in turn, has been to stoke the left’s ire that much further. Even President Obama, who was intended to be the European-style kinder, gentler face of socialism, has become angry at this resistance and has dropped the veneer.
The entire Democratic Party, from the top down, now looks like Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. The hatred of America is open. The desire to undo American constitutionalism is explicit. And this exposure will only accelerate in the coming months and years, as the left realizes ever more acutely that its days as an accepted political faction are numbered, and it is forced to take increasingly drastic and sudden measures to achieve its brutal aims before the clock runs out.
The days lying ahead of America will often be treacherous and sad. They will require nerves of steel from those who would resist progressivism’s desperate last stand. It has become patently clear that the present Republican Party establishment is not up for this fight. Constitutional conservatives must do it themselves, using the GOP apparatus as just one tool. They must remain cool and workmanlike, rebuilding dams faster than the leftist waves can knock them down.
This is the means to conservative victory. One cannot merely “go back” to a better time. Societal decay cannot simply be undone. One must allow — even encourage — the progressive degeneration to play itself out, fighting it at every turn until the leftists, seething with an increasingly open hatred of America, overplay their hand and self-destruct. Finally, thanks to steadfast conservative resistance, “progressivism” will be fully exposed for the empty, anti-human power lust that it truly is.
Power-lust masked as “caring government” — the entitlement society — can still win support, unfortunately. By gradually forcing progressives out from behind the mask, however, conservatives can at last destroy the illusion that is leftism, leading not to a “reversal” or a “return,” but rather to renewal. This is conservatism’s well-kept secret — the secret hidden in its very nature: from a long series of hard-fought failures can come sudden victory.