One of the most amazing and alarming features of the managerial system in the United States is its capacity to alter the meaning of things without changing their external appearance. This property is essentially what the Old Right political analyst Garet Garrett observed in his insight about “revolution within the form,” a concept he drew from Aristotle, whom he quoted to the effect that in some kinds of revolutions, “one thing takes the place of another, so that the ancient laws will remain, while the power will be in the hands of those who have brought about revolution in the state.”
The technique of “revolution within the form,” of course, is not confined to the present managerial system. Thucydides discussed how, in the chaos of the Peloponnesian War and the revolutions it provoked in the ancient Greek city-states, words came to change their meanings and to express the exact opposite of what their forms intended. It operated in ancient Rome as well, where, as historian Ronald Syme noted about the Augustan revolution that transformed a decadent republic into a monarchy, “Despotism, enthroned at Rome, was arrayed in robes torn from the corpse of the Republic.” Augustus, as the new Roman monarch, was careful not to do away with the forms and trinkets of republican government which the Romans loved so much and which he used to mask his own dictatorship, knowing that most men, as Machiavelli remarked a millennium and a half later, “are often even more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”
In a broader sense, “revolution within the form” is merely a definition of what used to be called “subversion,” which the ex-Trotskyist sociologist Philip Selznick described as “the manipulation of social institutions for alien ends, this manipulation being conducted covertly in the name of the institution’s own values.” In our own time, just as the managerial system was locking itself into place in the 1950’s, a cinematic exploration of the theme of “revolution within the form” appeared in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. For four decades film critics have quibbled about the real meaning of the Jack Finney story on which Siegel’s film is based, whether the outer-space creatures who have the ability to replicate human bodies and take over their minds and personalities are really communists or McCarthyites. The larger point of Finney’s novelette and Siegel’s film, which both groups of critics manage to miss entirely, is that the story represents a primal human fear, the simple recognition that things are not necessarily what they seem, that things, including people, can be identical in shape, looks, intelligence, and behavior but vet not be what they appear to be.
When “revolution within the form” occurs, the appropriate vehicle for the revolutionary party is a pseudo-conservatism that preserves the form even as it subverts the meaning of the form, and in the case of the present managerial system, the system and its architects purport to be “conservative” in the same way that Augustus purported to be a republican, thereby acquiring the legitimacy that traditional forms impart. Thus, Franklin Roosevelt supposedly “saved capitalism” while in fact he engineered revolutionary changes in the relationship of the national state to private property and enterprise that helped subvert traditional capitalism, and Earl Warren and his comrades on the Supreme Court inserted revolutionary meanings into the words and concepts of the U.S. Constitution without ever altering a single letter of its textual form. In the 1950’s, as the managerial system that Roosevelt imposed settled into place, there appeared such heirs to his throne as Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson who actually called themselves “conservatives,” while propagandists like Clinton Rossiter and Peter Viereck set to work to show in their writings how characters like Roosevelt, Stevenson, Eisenhower, and Warren were the philosophical descendants of Burke, John Adams, and Metternich. If the revolution takes place within the form, then the revolutionaries have to array themselves in the robes of the kind of conservatism that preserves the form while making sure that the substance of power flows into their own hands.
Hence, genuine conservatives like Garrett and most of his Old Right colleagues, whom Justin Raimondo discusses in his recent Reclaiming the American Right, had to be vilified by the revolutionaries of the new regime and their pack of pseudoconservative hounds. The story of how this occurred is familiar to Mr. Raimondo’s readers, but today the same process of vilification, coupled with further adjustments in the meaning of “conservatism,” continues. As evidence of it, consider the recent “Conservative Summit” sponsored by the National Review Institute in Washington in March.
I didn’t attend the “Summit,” but friends did, and according to their accounts, the chief consequence of the meeting, if not the real purpose, was precisely to redefine and adapt the meaning of “conservatism” to the needs of the managerial regime in the 1990’s. Yet another purpose, by no means distinct from the first, was to reconfirm National Review itself as the main leader and voice of the American right. That goal is clear from the very title of the meeting. Only supreme leaders can convene “summits,” and only subordinate leaders show up to attend them. Given the ideological fracturing of the right that took place in the 1980’s and early 90’s, it is now necessary for its aspirant leaders to pour the wine of the right into their own bottles and to put their own labels on the product. Thus, the “Conservative Summit” ostensibly rounded up just about everybody whom the self-appointed leadership thinks is worth having in its corral, including a handful of token Old Rightists whose presence could be exploited to prove that the summit was really inclusive and whose remarks, if my sources are reliable, were strong expressions of an authentic Old Right conservatism.
The Old Rightists might have been useful as ornamental twigs in the pseudoconservative nest National Review was trying to build, but they weren’t the main attraction of the summit. The main attraction was a batch of neoconservative gurus, politicos, policy wonks, and perennial presidential wanna-bes who spent the weekend trying to erase just about every syllable ever breathed by the real Old Right. Those few Old Rightists who made the mistake of showing up at the summit soon found themselves the objects of the public scorn of the neoconservative luminaries.
When Old Rightist Llewellyn Rockwell, president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, dared to criticize Franklin Roosevelt in his public remarks, he was at once corrected by none other than the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, the Hon. Newt Gingrich himself, who happened to be a co-panelist of Mr. Rockwell. The chief Republican in the House held up the Democratic Old Rubberlegs as America’s “greatest politician,” the man who should be the model for conservatives and from whom “we” can learn how to “build coalitions” and how to “govern” (it’s interesting that Mr. C. prefers Roosevelt to Reagan in these respects). As examples of how “we” should govern, presumably, the leader of the Stupid Party in Congress proposed federal control of all law enforcement in the country and “saving” the children of the underclass by federal programs.
Mr. Rockwell had criticized “big government” and urged the adherence of the American right to the tradition of small government advocated by the Antifederalists, the Agrarians, and the Old Right of the 1930’s. He received a good deal of support from the audience, but Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, also a co-panelist, made haste to disassociate herself from the dangerous Mr. Rockwell. The American people, she proclaimed, are supportive of big government, and she at once unbosomed polling data to buttress this dubious and irrelevant claim.
Jack Kemp, the ubiquitous favorite of the Stupid Party, was also on hand, this time to deliver yet again his standard sermon on the joy of non-whiteness. He pronounced that the high black crime rate is due to the “root causes” of poverty and racism, a stale theme of 1960’s liberalism and progressivism (not to mention New Leftism), and held that the low loan rates of black businessmen are also due to white racism. Mr. Kemp then launched into a speech on What Conservatism Means To Me, which infomicd his audience that the first duty of conservatives is to battle “anti-Semitism and racism.” He offered as exemplars of this fight Elie Wiesel’s attack on Ronald Reagan for his visit to the Bitburg cemetery and William F. Buckley, Jr.’s attack on the John Birch Society. The ex-Housing Czar added that, at next year’s Conservative Summit, he wanted to see an audience “one-third black and one-half Latino.” Mr. Kemp apparently believes that the white majority of the country should have only a one-sixth representation in National Review‘s parliament of the right.
But perhaps the pièce de résistance of the summit was Judge Robert Bork, who was dragged forth from a comfortable retirement as the Stupid Party’s martyr-in-chief to declaim on one subject or another. Celebrated by the stupidos as the world’s greatest constitutional expert a few years back, Judge Bork said that while he doubted that gun control would “work,” there is no constitutional problem with it because “there is no constitutional right to bear arms.” Instead of encouraging citizens to rely on local law enforcement and their own arms for protection. Judge Bork, like Mr. Gingrich, endorsed the “federalization of all crime control functions” and said that “federalism is dead, no matter what one speaker said yesterday,” the speaker in question being the hapless Mr. Rockwell.
Just to let everyone know where he stands, when yet another stupido said (in public, no less) that Bill Kristol is the nation’s leading conservative intellectual, Judge Bork at once dissented and identified Irving Kristol (Bill’s father) as the leading conservative egghead in the country, Irving’s wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, as the second leading conservative intellectual in the country, and Bill as only the third leading conservative intellectual in the country, for which remarks Judge Bork received massive applause from the audience.
At last Irving the Magnificent himself made his appearance, but only after Jeane Kirkpatrick had praised and endorsed the “liberal welfare state” and “national health care” and Elliott Abrams had rung the rafters with praise of global interventionism and global free trade on the lines of NAFTA and GATT, as did probably most of the speakers at the summit. As for Don Irving, he seems to have reported that, yes, indeed, civilization is in decline, but there’s not much anyone can do about it, so not to worry. Why is everyone talking about economics all the time, he pondered; national health insurance didn’t wreck Great Britain and it won’t wreck us, so what’s to worry? What we should really worry about is the rising white illegitimacy rate (this remark may induce Mr. Kemp to forbid Mr. Kristol to come to next year’s summit), but then there’s nothing we can do about that either, so why worry? A woman in the audience asked the nation’s leading conservative intellectual how his remarks about the decline of civilization could be consistent with a recent article he published in the Wall Street Journal, which argued that the next 100 years would be the “conservative century.” Mr. Kristol replied that he couldn’t remember the article but that he was sure there was no contradiction and that if he had it in front of him he could no doubt prove it, so not to worry.
Among the dinner speakers at the summit there was also one Ed Koch, formerly liberal Democratic Mayor of New York City and now trotted out as a conservative, who took the opportunity to endorse a two-year National Service program for everyone and a mandatory government-run after-school program for children from the age of seven onwards. By all accounts Mayor Koch was farther to the right, on most issues, than the conservatives.
To be sure, informants report, there were serious, hard-line, and eloquent speeches from some of those present at the Conservative Summit—not only from Mr. Rockwell himself but also from Bay Buchanan of the American Cause Foundation on protectionism and an America First foreign policy, from Peter Brimelow of Forbes on immigration, and from National Review editor John O’Sullivan—but on the whole, the ideological rating of the Conservative Summit seems to have been well to the left of Lyndon Johnson’s administration.
As Greek civil society decomposed during the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides tells us, “Words, too, had to change their meanings,” so that the word no longer meant what it had previously meant but rather whatever those who used it wanted it to mean. Essentially the same thing happened at the Conservative Summit, the more or less formal adoption by the self-appointed leadership of the American right of a new meaning of conservatism. The new meaning is one that, while it retains the form of the old word, suits the purposes and needs of the managerial class in the United States in a way that Old Right conservatism does not and cannot.
In place of Old Right adherence to small government limited by the rights of states and individuals and by self-governing and independent social institutions, it champions Big Government and celebrates the heroes and icons of Big Government in American history—Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Franklin Roosevelt. In place of a strict constructionist, original-intent school of constitutionalism that defends small, limited government and opposes a big, active, and centralized state, it champions a Borkian version of constitutionalism that is blind to such inconveniences of the constitutional text as the Second and Tenth Amendments and enumerated powers and that is actively hostile to real federalism and anyone who espouses it. Instead of a foreign policy that defends the interests and rights of the nation and a trade policy that protects the national economic interest and the interests of American workers and businesses, it champions “free trade” as measured by the One-World bureaucratic titans erected by NAFTA, GATT, and their grim globalist sisters. Instead of a defense of the traditional cultural and social institutions of American civilization and the people who created them, it wallows in guilt about race, bubbles a sappy egalitarian universalism, and promotes the dispossession of the demographic and ethnic core of the nation. In place of the long roll call of Americans and Europeans who have defined and defended the Old Right tradition for centuries and the several hundred scholars and writers living today who continue it, it chooses as its hero a self-serving mediocrity who can’t even remember what he wrote in his own newspaper column. Through this redefinition of the right, the managerial system succeeds in coloring both ends of the ideological-political spectrum in the United States the same hue, so that American “democracy” reduces to a phony choice between two largely identical persuasions and becomes essentially a one-party state masked by the form of two parties with indistinguishable ideologies.
Let us have no more illusions about the imposition of the new meaning of conservatism. If there’s anyone on the right who doesn’t share the agenda and values of the new managerial conservatism, he needs to look beneath the body the managerial conservatives have snatched and understand exactly what new meaning and whose power the form conceals. With a right like the one unveiled at the Conservative Summit, who needs a left?