“In dirt and darkness hundreds stink content.”
Despite the hype that welcomed this book—gushing praise in the Wall Street Journal and National Review and a bash hosted by the Kristols for the Bradley Foundation—Myron Magnet’s study of American political culture is surprisingly sound. The reasons the neoconservatives showcased this work are obvious: namely, their shared background with the author and his talk about “values,” something neocons have made lucrative public careers in pushing. For most of these people, all questions concerning the best possible government have been resolved in favor of a federally centralized welfare state through which they and their progeny can enrich themselves. What remain unresolved from this perspective are exactly what teachings the democratic welfare state should be instilling in the course of managing our lives and incomes. Of course, even this politicized question of “values” no longer really matters, since the managerial welfare state that has overtaken America encourages habits of servility and brooks no obstacles to its control of a captive public. It cannot become the instrument of republican virtue or of individual responsibility without abandoning its identity and, ultimately, its power.
While this demoralizing rule has sometimes been likened to that of Hobbes’s “mortal god” Leviathan, Magnet does not make the unfortunate mistake of conflating them. The current American government, he reminds us, has nothing in common with the Hobbesian state. That sovereign mechanism, conceived to maintain public order, did not glorify antisocial and deviant behavior: it was intended primarily to prevent people from devouring each other. Magnet recognizes the ancient and medieval roots of Leviathan, particularly its link to the godly magistrate chastising sinful violence. It was a concept of political authority based on recognition of man’s natural depravity that Hobbes integrated into his “science of politics.” The trick for Hobbes was to expound the political implications of original sin while appealing to a materialist anthropology dressed in geometric argumentation; this was in fact the fateful compromise from which was born in postmedieval Europe a still ambivalent form of modernism. That political modernity typified by Hobbes, Machiavelli, and, more recently, James Burnham was not purely secularist, but rather a series of “scientific” adaptations of the Christian view of a fallen human nature.
It was the radical Whig pamphleteer and philosophical empiricist John Locke who separated this materialist anthropology from its traditionalist hinges. By declaring that everyone was equally the bearer of a cognitive blank slate at birth, and by linking human conduct to acquisitiveness rather than to violent passion for self-aggrandizement, Locke prepared the way for the reduction of political life to economic transactions. He also expounded social views that ignored the intractability of human evil. Despite Locke’s occasional defenses of property as a natural right, both the socialist John Rawls and the neoconservative Nathan Tarcov are justified when they refer to him as “our philosopher.” As Richard Ashcraft has shown, Locke appealed to English Levelers and to established property-holders, and he can be and has been read as both a majoritarian democrat and an advocate of acquisitive individualism. In any case, the preference displayed by social democrats of all kinds for Locke over Hobbes may be due to Locke’s optimistic, as well as antagonistic, materialism. Lockean man engages in what Leo Strauss called “the joyless pursuit of joy,” and this purely economic and remarkably docile being is depicted as already striving after material fortune in Locke’s mythical state of nature.
Magnet is intuitively correct when he looks to Hobbes’s more qualified modernism for political guidance. He is equally right in finding intimations of such modernism among the Founding Fathers, despite their condemnation of what they thought of as Hobbesian absolutism. The federal government as understood by the Founders exists to curb violence and to ensure limited commercial and military cooperation among the previously feuding states. Political authority in general was believed to be necessary because man is “neither beast nor angel,” in the words of James Madison. Men need sufficient government to maintain order, but not enough to destroy their social institutions. Still and all, as Magnet notes, Americans were taught to revere their magistrates, not as the extensions of a utilitarian state but as those who stood between them and chaos. Until recently, Americans regarded policemen, judges, and other public servants with deference. Whatever limits were imposed on their powers, such presumed protectors of our liberties and public order enjoyed the deep respect Hobbes associated with his mortal god.
Magnet is troubled that the American federal government and state administrations, which it controls, have forfeited the veneration due to a properly functioning Leviathan. Note that he does not defend our government, or claim that it should be revered but is not. Magnet holds no brief for what the American government has become. He scolds it for rewarding the antisocial behavior of the underclass, while being increasingly indifferent to the claims of life and property. He ascribes this development to a cultural trend, the abandonment of responsible standards of social behavior by the educated and wealthy. This privileged group, disproportionately represented in government, has corrupted those below by encouraging a susceptible proletariat to practice its vices, and by leading the state to reflect its own sentimental self-indulgence.
My differences with Magnet concern problems of omission, not the core of his argument, which I accept with only a few reservations. Above all. Magnet is correct when he insists on the need for political authority without offering a defense of what presently passes for authority. I applaud his invocation of Hobbes’s Leviathan as a symbol of the transitional nature of the American Republic, suspended between Augustinian gloom and the Enlightenment’s science of politics. And the yuppie political culture is indeed as unappealing as he suggests, particularly when its projects are governmentally imposed. Magnet, however, exaggerates the degree to which the underclass has taken its vices from above. Use of heroin among the lower classes began to soar in the 20’s with the growth of organized crime, and lowerclass black and Puerto Rican males, from puberty into their 30’s, have a rate of violent crime that is not matched in the more affluent, predominantly white society. While Magnet properly blames the therapeutic state at least in part on irresponsible upper-class behavior, lowerclass vice cannot be explained entirely in terms of examples set by hippies and yuppies. Finally, Magnet goes too far in identifying culture as the cause of political and social decay. “It did not all begin in the 60’s,” is the retort by paleos to neocons lamenting the eruption of the counterculture. The moral developments deplored by Magnet and other neoconservatives are linked indissolubly to political ones. The managerial welfare state was in place by the 30’s, and had existed in rudimentary form since the Progressive Era. It was inevitable that, as it continued to grow in alliance with multinational corporations and a social-engineering intelligentsia, this bureaucratic behemoth would weaken traditional moral values and established ways of life.
Federal power has never been value neutral, and welfare states, as Max Weber pointed out, generally function to the detriment of ancestral community. In America the federal government has simply engulfed state and local governments, obtaining most of the revenues for domestic expenses; controlling the franchise; and applying the Bill of Rights against the states, for whose benefit it was originally enacted. Magnet does not deal adequately with the impact of politics on culture; in this respect he bears some resemblance to postwar traditionalists who seemed to believe that political institutions would take care of themselves once we attended to aesthetic and moral issues. Murray Rothbard got the priorities straight when he said, “No cultural discussion will get us anywhere unless this bureaucratic monster that rules over us is first smothered.” Magnet himself makes much of the fact that the political class incorporated much of the counterculture. More to the point, it did so selectively, in order to enhance its power. Thus it took from the New Left the science of victimology and theories of economic collectivization, but not ideas about communal self-government.
One does not have to be a structural determinist to recognize the obvious in this case: the American regime did not arise ab ovo, nor is it entirely derivative of changed cultural attitudes. An intrusive government has increasingly meddled in our lives throughout the 20th century and is likely to grow more intrusive yet. Largely unrestricted immigration since the 60’s has provided government agencies with new clients and foot soldiers, and these have become the pretext in the midst of cultural confusion for herding us closer to the global village; it is hard to see how a return to self-government and nontherapeutic authority can occur together with the continued influx of Third World proletarians.
Magnet may not be pessimistic enough in his appraisal of American institutions, but he has faced up to our social and political situation with more honesty than have many of his encomiasts. Unlike them, he has no illusions that American society has become more just, or that what ails it can be cured through federal programs in “values.” A scholar of English Victorian literature. Magnet has brought to the study of our troubled age both insight and concern. Longtime residency in New York City has been for him a sobering experience. One assumes that Magnet does not have a chauffeur-driven limousine, and that he descends often into the subway.
[The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass, by Myron Magnet (New York: William Morrow) 320 pp., $23.00]