Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism, by Samuel Francis, Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 237 pages, $37.50
"American conservatism is a failure," writes Samuel Francis in this book's title essay. "Virtually every cause to which conservatives have attached themselves for the past three generations has been lost, and the tide of political and cultural battle is not likely to turn anytime soon."
This blunt assessment seems curious coming from Francis, a columnist for The Washington Times and Chronicles, both conservative publications. It seems especially defeatist in a book that presents an agenda for a counterrevolution of values generally identified as "conservative" in American political discourse. Francis stands for "a thunderous defense of moral and social traditionalism…a domestic ethic that centers on the family, the neighborhood and local community, the church and the nation as the basic framework of values." He is averse to "immediate gratification, indulgence, and consumption."
As an intellectual rather than activist movement, Francis's revanchism is best known as "paleoconservatism," a term he thinks clumsy and rejects. Pat Buchanan is its political figurehead and most famous exponent, but he is held back by his too-public role in the Washington insider axis as Court Right-Winger for CNN. Though these days Buchanan's columns and Francis's are almost indistinguishable in stance, Francis's tone tends to be sharper, less jolly, more vicious. In this sense he is truer to his principles than Buchanan. How can one be a cheerful warrior when the cause one must fight to the death for is lost? No wonder a chapter of this book is devoted respectfully to that glum crusader in defense of a decadent and defeated West, Whittaker Chambers.
The paleoconservatism that Francis represents has attracted considerable attention in recent years. Buchanan's failed presidential bid in 1992 under a largely paleocon banner brought him a disquieting level of support from libertarians and a wing of the Republican Party that is generally strongly anti-statist. As Francis's book shows, paleocons share with free marketeers and libertarians an aversion to the modern state, but the core of their anti-statism and the direction in which they want to move are far different.
Francis's main thesis is derived from his intellectual hero James Burnham: the notion that modern America is the victim of a successful "managerial revolution." As the institutions of American society--government, corporations, unions, cultural media--hypertrophied in the early 20th century, a new intellectual elite expert in running huge, technocratic bureaucracies arose to displace the old bourgeois elite.
"Traditionalist and bourgeois ideologies, centering on the individual as moral agent, citizen, and economic actor, could not provide justifications for the managerial economy and the managerial state," Francis writes. "The bourgeois ideal… was replaced by a managerial political ideal that involved a bureaucratic, social engineering state actively intervening in and altering by design the economic, social, and even intellectual and moral relationships of its subjects….The new ideology of the managerial regime thus involved a cosmopolitan, universalist, and egalitarian myth that challenged the localized and traditionalist loyalties and moral values of bourgeois society."
Francis associates his favored values with "middle America," meaning mostly small-town small businessmen and farmers and people otherwise unbeholden to the modern welfare/warfare state. He calls his imagined army agitating for the triumph of those values "Middle American Radicals" (MARs). They bear a close resemblance to what was known, in the late '70s and early '80s, as "the New Right."
He insists, though, that "conserving" middle-American values is quixotic; they've been roundly defeated by the huge, impersonal managerial/liberal social structures of 20th-century America. The dominant strands of modern conservatism, the Old Right and the neoconservatives, have failed to halt this usurping of American government and culture.
The Old Right failed because it was dedicated to supporting bourgeois values when the bourgeoisie as a social power was being supplanted by the new managerial elite. As Francis puts it, "ideas… that attach themselves to declining social and political forces have the least consequences of all." The neocons failed because they represent a mere counter-twitch on the right to protect the hegemony of the formerly radical managerial revolutionaries from the leftists who are threatening to make it collapse under its own weight by taking its egalitarian, universalist philosophy to its farthest reaches.
"In the neoconservative view of America," Francis writes, "there was nothing seriously wrong with the society and government that had developed between the New Deal and the Great Society, and it was [their] goal…to communicate the soundness of the managerial system to the adversary intellectuals of the Left and to co-opt the militant activists of the New Right."
Francis makes for an odd sort of knight errant, going off to tilt at an enemy that he knows in his heart has already won. He reminds one of the old Groucho Marx quip, "We must fight for this lady's honor, which is more than she ever did." In fact, Francis is positively Marxist (Groucho, that is) in his view of America, but filled with despair instead of absurdist good humor. "The Old Republic cannot be restored today," Francis glumly admits, "because few Americans even remember it, let alone want it back, and even a realistic description of it would frighten and alienate most citizens." But he attempts to keep alive a smoldering flame of hope that his men of MARs can make a Gramscian end run around the cultural and social institutions of the modern Leviathan, not through national political action but by working in the little platoons of "schools, churches, clubs, women's groups, youth organizations, civic and professional associations, local government, the military and police forces, and even in the much-dreaded labor unions."
Francis's main enemy is the same as a libertarian's: the modem megastate, in its regulatory, welfare, and warfare functions. But it's obvious that some victories that might seem important to libertarians--say, a deregulatory revolution in telecommunications--aren't apt to impress Francis. He and the paleocons are anti-statist, to be sure, but theirs is not an anti-statism based on classically liberal principles of free markets, free minds, and a dynamic culture characterized by the free play and competition of mutually peaceful values and mores. Francis does not appear to be a lover of liberty, except for the freedom of his MARs to make rules that benefit and please them.
Francis once wrote in his Washington Times column about a Supreme Court case involving Hialeah, Florida's ban on animal sacrifices necessary to the Santeria religious practices of the Church of Lukemi Babalu Aye. He concluded that Hialeah's excuses for the law on sanitary and health grounds were sad signs of the weak, decadent Weimar culture America has become: "When a culture and its leaders…falls for the delusion that it can permit barbarians alien to its norms to enjoy the same protections the culture and its members respect, it has a problem."
Francis admits that if and when the MARs take over, liberty will not top their agenda: "A MAR elite would make use of the state for its own interests as willingly as the present managerial elite does" through protectionism, subsidization of favored industries, "international activism (and even expansionism)," and "morally based legislation and policies."
"Survival," he notes grimly, "depends ultimately on power itself," and "in this world…one must be the hammer or the anvil." These are not the minced words of a Washington policy-debate insider. Francis knows that the fight he envisions will change almost everything about America as it is governed and as its citizens live.
There are reasons to oppose the current government other than the fact that you or your cronies aren't running it, but Francis does not bother to discuss them. In any case, it is doubtful that his ideas, as championed by the political figurehead Buchanan, will find life enough in MARs to make them a powerful cultural/political force. I suspect that Francis himself is too much of an intellectual to get through to the audience he champions. The book is often overly staid; far too many sentences contain the abstractions "economic, political, cultural, and social" all in a row or in some combination. Although his beliefs are rooted in the specific and individual, Francis's writing is oddly tainted by the stench of the sociologist.
Francis hates the modern state with an inspiring and radical passion. Would that this passion were rooted in a love for liberty instead of a hatred for the values of the people in charge.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "War with MARs".