Review – Gottfried, “After Liberalism”

Paul Gottfried, “After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State” (2001) – I am, once again, behind on reviews. I finished this a while ago. Paul Gottfried got my attention, and that of other antifascists, when journalists pointed to him as a substantial influence on Richard Spencer and the altright, including, possibly, coming up with the term “alternative right,” as in alternative to the neoconservative ascendancy that was just about to reach its peak around the time this book came out. It’s murky, how much Gottfried actually knew Spencer, but they traveled in similar paleoconservative circles before Spencer became briefly prominent. Gottfried has gone on record abjuring the altright, saying their project is not his.

Unlike most of these distancing maneuvers, this one comes off as reasonably legitimate. There are two main reasons for this. One is that Paul Gottfried is a Jew. There’s no shortage of right-wing Jews out there, and I’ll talk about the antisemitic cast of Gottfried’s main argument, but I don’t think Gottfried is the particular kind of craven that would cause a Jew to make common cause with Nazis, and he’s not the sort of Jew Nazis would necessarily let in (Spencer might, but he’s a fancylad with a following he can count on the fingers of his hands, at this point). The other, more substantive, reason is that Gottfried seems to come from the branch of paleoconservative that is deeply and sincerely opposed to the sort of mass political mobilization and rapid sweeping political changes that help distinguish fascism from more normative conservatism. 

Among other things, Gottfried sticks to something more closely resembling the historical and the empirical in this book than is common on the contemporary right (or, for that matter, among ideologues across the spectrum). As far as Gottfried is concerned, by the turn of the twenty-first century, the verdict was in, and the more pessimistic predictions of the founding fathers and assorted classical liberal figures were correct: let the mass of people participate in politics, and they will just vote rich people’s money into their pockets. Race enters into it less than one might think, except as something to potentially break the spell of welfarist lassitude- more anon. This is just democracy, Gottfried sighs, it’s the role of the statesman to see his way forward despite it. 

So, unlike fascists, Gottfried doesn’t really believe in the volk. There’s a little bit of that thing you see in right-wing writers ranging from Nock to Kirk to Rothbard, a certain nostalgia for simple folk and their (supposedly) unquestioned hierarchy, but like those three, that nostalgia is also a nostalgia for the (again, supposed) quietude of that past. But at the same time, Gottfried speaks well of populism. This is where Gottfried does, in fact, link up with fascism, and why Spencer et al would have found his work useful to them. 

What’s his motivation, you might wonder- if the volk aren’t noble, and in any event the damage is done, what is Gottfried bothering with? It’s because he hates the managerial elite who supposedly brought this state of affairs about. He spends almost half of the book trying to definitively delink the liberalism of most twentieth century figures from “classical liberalism,” and I tend to think that he did this less because it mattered so much — he resignedly calls the likes of John Dewey, Herbert Croly et al “liberals” in spite of all — but because it lets him obsessively pore over the rhetoric of the progressive movement, the new dealers, the great society types, and social liberals of his own time, and the awfulness and strangeness of their creed(s). The managerial elite overthrew the old capitalist elite, and with it the latter’s (notionally) purer liberalism. They bribe the volk with welfare and sap their values and vitality, in the name of their odd cosmopolitan value set, somewhere between antinomianism and Gnosticism. We know this story. 

What little hope Gottfried sees — and where he links up with fascism, where he really did influence or at least prefigure how the altright and numerous other far right formations today understand and pursue their project — is in hitting the managerial class where it is, supposedly, weak: culture. The cultural rules of the managerial elite become more important and more flagrantly arbitrary as their power grows, Gottfried argues. The real nature, the kind of Fabian/gnostic elitism of our educated credentialed elites, comes to the fore, and as Pat Buchanan showed, you could rally the good salt of the earth folks to object to…

The funny part is, the thing that impelled Gottfried to write this was the defeat of Bob Dole at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1996. Talk about distinctions with little difference! I guess Clinton was “more PMC,” to be reductive, a baby boomer, a philanderer, an erstwhile protester with an ambitious wife. What were the good right-populist folk supposed to be objecting to, then? What were the secretly radical managerial elite foisting on them? Meaningful advances even in bourgeois assimilationist gay rights, like marriage equality, were years away from being on the table, and the black freedom movement was an increasingly bitter (and bowdlerized) memory. The late nineties were not a time for the coddling of criminals, so we don’t get the kind of panic around that reactionaries made use of before and after. Gottfried grumbles some about how “government” never shrinks, employs too many people even as Clinton is gutting social services, but you can tell his heart is barely in it, compared to undoing the social and cultural power of the managerial elite.

No, it’s the usual peccadilloes that make it impossible to fully respect paleocons, even when they make a positive contrast with neocons in some areas. Gottfried is offended by the idea of civil rights, and raises the specter of hate crime laws. Beyond being wrong (and wrong-headed- “law and order” types should beg for hate crime legislation, especially if they’re also traditionalist conservatives ie people who want to legislate affect and feeling, but we know why they don’t), it’s honestly just kind of lame. What kind of pathos are we expected to take from business owners no longer being able to legally visit police and/or personal and/or mob violence on customers for being the wrong race? Why is that a “freedom” we should give a damn about, even in the most abstract way? 

Well, bigotry is certainly a part of it. I don’t know how personally bigoted Gottfried was or is (I believe he is still among the living). He doesn’t go on as much about the behavior of black people, sexual minorities, immigrants etc as you might expect. Bigotry, and the enforcement of a world defined by personal and sectarian ascriptions, was part of the power displaced by the professional managerial elite that serves as Gottfried’s great bugbear. The lord of the manor, or the planter, or the ward heeler, or whoever, should be allowed to enforce his bigotries and make use of the bigotries of his underlings to enforce his rule. Take that off the table, and you get the rationalism of the H.R. manager (which most often serves to sweep subtler, but ubiquitous and powerful, bigotries under the rug). The way to break the power of these managers is to mobilize these bigotries — often channeled against the openings that liberal managerial hypocrisy leaves wide open and unguarded — which are held to be the true feelings of “the people.” People power, if you will.

And this is where the antisemitism that Gottfried doesn’t deploy, but which is endemic to the far right and which his epigone Spencer has put so many chips on, comes in. You need to have a super-group to explain why the “naturally” superior, however defined — the aryans, the aristocracy, the landowner/industrialist/capitalist elite that the likes of Gottfried and Nock seemed to prefer — ever lost power. For most of them, it can’t be the real agency of the subordinate classes, otherwise they’d have to admit that the subordinate are powerful, capable of making their own decisions, and therefore do not deserve to be subordinate. There has to be some counter-elite. Because they are, in some sense, white, and because of longstanding prejudices and myths, Jews fit that role almost uniquely. Eric Voegelin, and a small school that follows him, puts Gnosticism in that same role. Gottfried comes close to that, not exactly summoning Basilides the False but basically making contemporary liberalism a sort of semi-esoteric cult, working in secret. But that’s usually several degrees too complex for people, especially because even a madman like Voegelin couldn’t bring himself to say that progressives were literally gnostics, with a lineage going back all the way. So, Jews it is, and even if it starts out targeting someone else, the Jews invariably get dragged in.

The version of this Trump, numerous right-populists the world over, and the altright has been pursuing is generally less well thought out than Gottfried’s version. You have to figure the old fucker probably furrowed a brow to see that one of the earlier instantiations of this dynamic involved a fight about video games and how many boyfriends a lady game designer had or did not have. But for all Gottfried’s erudition and delves into the history of liberal ideology, the whole edifice was always in the service of things just as stupid and small — petty bigotry, the personal domination of small-scale tyrants, silly grudges, pedantic rules-lawyering, the martinet’s dread of liberation — as “ethics in video game journalism.” As above, so below, or something. ***’

Review – Gottfried, “After Liberalism”

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