The Tuesday: We’re All Jacobins Now

Welcome to "The Tuesday," a weekly newsletter about language, culture, politics — and treachery! To subscribe to "The Tuesday" and receive it in its unsullied email ...

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BY KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON February 02, 2021
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WITH KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON February 02, 2021
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We're All Jacobins Now

Welcome to "The Tuesday," a weekly newsletter about language, culture, politics — and treachery! To subscribe to "The Tuesday" and receive it in its unsullied email form, please follow this link. And if my email inbox is anything to judge by, I probably should add: Socialism! Socialism! Socialism! Send me your money!

Our Pre-Revolutionary Moment

American politics used to be stuck in the 1930s, with the Republicans always sure that a military buildup was necessitated by the ascendancy of some new Hitler in some distant land and the Democrats always convinced that we are on the verge — or in the midst — of a New Great Depression that can be countered only by a New New Deal. We haven't quite got out of the 1930s yet — see, e.g., the "Green New Deal" — but perhaps it is time to look around for some other points of comparison.

Conservatives used to think a great deal about the French Revolution, with Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France serving as the ur-conservative document. Comparison with 1789 remains terribly apt. I am not ready to go long on guillotine stocks just yet, but consider this passage from François Furet's Interpreting the French Revolution:

Here I am using the term ideology to designate the two sets of beliefs that, to my mind, constitute the very bedrock of revolutionary consciousness. The first is that all personal problems and all moral or intellectual matters have become political; that there is no human misfortune not amenable to political solution. The second is that, since everything can be known and changed, there is a perfect fit between action, knowledge, and morality. That is why the revolutionary militants identified their private lives with their public ones and with the defense of their ideas. It was a formidable logic, which, in laicized form, reproduced the psychological commitment that springs from religious beliefs. When politics becomes the realm of truth and falsehood, of good and evil, and when it is politics that separates the good from the wicked, we find ourselves in a historical universe whose dynamic is entirely new. As Marx realized in his early writings, the Revolution was the very incarnation of the illusion of politics: It transformed mere experience into conscious acts. It inaugurated a world that attributes every social change to known, classified, and living forces; like mythical thought, it peoples the objective universe with subjective volitions, that is, as the case may be, with responsible leaders or scapegoats. In such a world, human action no longer encounters obstacles or limits, only adversaries, preferably traitors. The recurrence of that notion is a telling feature of the moral universe in which the revolutionary explosion took place.

I have often pointed readers toward Julia Azari's very useful discussion of the paradox of strong partisanship with weak parties, published in Vox in 2016 and, as of this writing in the weest of hours, still the only interesting article Vox ever has published. What is even more remarkable is that this bitter, tribalistic partisanship has arrived on the American scene at a moment when there is a broad, deep, and bipartisan consensus in support of an array of very stupid policies. I was not the only observer in 2016 to note that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were giving substantially identical speeches in similarly honking Outer Borough accents to the cheers of very similar crowds: The similarity was remarked upon by, among others, Donald Trump, who thrilled to Senator Sanders's denunciations of purported billionaires' plots to impose open borders on the United States at the expense of the American blue-collar worker. Both men spoke bitterly of their desire to raise taxes on private-equity investors and hedge-fund operators, those great villains of our time. Senator Sanders, the socialist from Vermont from Brooklyn, has perforce got woke about immigration and has altered his rhetoric somewhat, but the fundamental assumptions supporting his thinking remain unchanged.

And why should they change? One must appreciate the fact ...   READ MORE

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