I’m not sure there’s a working writer more invested in the ideology of conservatism than David Brooks. I’m not talking about the gay-bashing cross-burning Conservatives who want to return to an imagined suburb in the 50’s, Brooks and his patron saint of crawling reform, Edmund Burke, are conservative in that they want things to change very very slowly. In his column today, Brooks uses the newsworthy occasion of a PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago on the Enlightenment to reframe the classic reform-or-revolution debate as two sides of the same dull 18th-century coin. He writes of the division between the French and the British/Scottish Enlightenments, the first devoted to shaping society in accordance with universal reason, no matter the costs, while the second focused on the limits of reason and human rationality. For Brooks, there is nothing outside the Enlightenment; rationality is an Enlightenment value, but so is irrationality. His title is “Two Theories of Change” but it could have been “Only Two Theories of Change.” Toward the end of the column, Brooks remembers that he is not a philosophy professor – in case you were wondering about his credentials, he lays them out in the first sentence of the column: “When I was in college I took a course in the Enlightenment.” – and tries to piece together some lesson about contemporary American politics,
“Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems. You see polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics.”
Ah yes, the lure of false parallels. I imagine the esteemed author is here referencing Rand Paul and the Tea Party movement of which Paul has become the foot-choked mouth. On the Dem side, I can only assumer Brooks is writing at least partly about our cucumber-cool technocrat-in-chief and his administraton, but I have a hard time seeing the correspondence. President Obama is certainly a fan of reason and logic – notice how awkwardly Brooks has to structure that sentence so as not to write the absurd and revealing “faith in reason” – but he has demonstrated no desire or even any willingness to radically alter anything. Banks nationalized? Nope. Single-payer health care? Obama’s never heard of it. The president can’t even bring himself to get rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with a well-reasoned stroke of his pen, instead opting for the snail’s pace change Brooks and Burke love. I don’t think you’re allowed to refer to any group as technocrats and Jacobins in the same paragraph, even if you have a column in the Times. The part that really gets me though is the use of “abstract” as a pejorative.
Brooks uses the word “abstract” two more times in the column, modifying “reason” and “plans,” and always negatively. I would give you a concrete example of what Brooks means by abstract reason or abstract plans, but he doesn’t give any himself. In a column in which he repeatedly condemns politicians and philosophers obsessed with abstract problems of justice, Brooks gives us not one concrete example of what the Hell he’s talking about. Since Brooks won’t deign to give an example, I’ll pick on Rand Paul some more because, let’s face it, that motherfucker is asking for it. Paul has a total reverence for private rights, such that he has recently argued that the Civil Rights Act was an overreach by the government and the market should have been allowed to desegregate private firms on its own. This is certainly a tone-deaf position from an electoral standpoint, but is it any more abstract that the reverse?
The Civil Rights Act provides a number of protections for minorities in America, both in the “public” and “private” spheres. (Note the scare quotes. Perhaps the best thing to come out of Paul’s candidacy – besides the lulz – is some questioning of this division.) But policy is always abstract since it deals with collective subjects (e.g. citizens, blacks, gays) as such. In fact, there’s a name for concrete policy-making, and it’s not allowed in this country. The idea that people should be treated equally regardless of race both under the law and at the lunch counter is no less abstract in terms of its reason than Rand’s position. Hard core libertarians may be more concerned with abstract policy impacts – like the violation of sacred property rights – than the concrete suffering individual blacks faced during Jim Crow, but that’s not what Brooks condemns. The workaround Brooks is attempting to posit is a non-ideological pragmatism that handles political questions one at a time, looking for and implementing the most practical policy. Sorry Dave, no dice.
Unfortunately all my books are on their way to California at the moment, or I’d go find the lines in Gramsci’s The Modern Prince about the ideology of pragmatism. However, it’s not hard to see how pragmatism is ideological: it describes a consistent way of seeing the world and acting within it. Brooks summarizes Burke,
“If you try to re-engineer society on the basis of abstract plans, Burke argued, you’ll end up causing all sorts of fresh difficulties, because the social organism is more complicated than you can possibly know. We could never get things right from scratch.”
This is an ideological statement that forecloses possible interpretations of society and patterns of action. It is also profoundly abstract. Are all incarnations of the social too complicated to understand? Always? Without even looking at the individual situation? Pragmatism lacks the ability to be pragmatic about itself, to recognize a point at which “impractical” action is required, which makes it consistently counter-revolutionary. Brooks can only bring himself to retroactively support the American Revolution when he phrases it in terms of the maintenance of tradition.
The column’s conclusion (“The children of the British Enlightenment are in retreat. Yet there is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong. And out of that truth grows a style of change, a style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance,”) is an exercise in hackery. Brooks posits “the stubborn fact of human nature” – an abstract idea by anyone’s measure – as if it weren’t one of the central questions in political philosophy. I’m honestly surprised he didn’t bother to capitalize “truth” in the final sentence. The argument is not ultimately with ideology or abstraction, it’s with those who don’t share Brooks’s particular milquetoast understanding of the world.