The Liberal Mood
The Futilitarian Society.
By William J. Newman.
George Braziller. 412 pp. $6.00.
Shortly after the 1952 Presidential election, a reporter asked Senator Robert Taft if he had read Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Taft answered snappishly that he was too busy steering Republican legislative proposals through Congress to have time to read such books. Today Senator Barry Goldwater, widely regarded as Taft’s successor as leader of the right wing of the Republican party, not only reads books by Kirk and other ideologues of conservatism but writes similar books himself. A few pages are even devoted to Goldwater’s statements of conservative principle in William J. Newman’s lengthy attack on the ideas of the conservative writers of the past decade.
Is the difference between Taft and Gold-water a sign of the increasing strength of conservatism in America? Taft, in spite or perhaps because of his refusal to read ideological tomes, clearly stood for something, for an existing order, a status quo—the world of the comfortable and cautious Anglo-Saxon bourgeoisie which founded and molded in its image the great inland commercial and industrial cities of the mid-continent. Taft seemed to represent this order in his very person—his rootedness in the family tradition, his precise dull manner, his politically damaging inability to suppress a condescending air toward voters, his prim bespectacled look and style of dress. But what does Goldwater represent other than his ideas and those interests which find them useful as political merchandise? Goldwater comes from the highly untraditional state of Arizona, capitalizes on glamor and good looks, looms larger on the hustings than in the work of the Senate, is an Episcopalian of Jewish descent, and, as his admirers never fail to tell us, a licensed jet pilot. Is there not something faintly absurd in such a man emerging as the apostle of militant conservatism in the land?
Although Professor Newman often tries (without always succeeding) to be funny at the expense of the assortment of publicists and thinkers he examines, he tells us repeatedly that they are not a joke, that they must be taken seriously, that they even constitute a menace for America. His repetitiveness suggests an inability entirely to suppress doubts as to whether it was really worth devoting so much effort to a point-by-point grappling with the views of Kirk, Peter Viereck, William Henry Chamberlin, James Burnham, Felix Morley, Clinton Rossiter, and the rest. Occasionally, he is content merely to insist that these men exist and are vocal, that there is a conservative ideology in America to be found in their books, and of this he utterly convinces us. Elsewhere he argues that it is a mistake frequently made by liberals to fail to see that these ideologists of conservatism “have considerable importance for the understanding of our political and social thought in general and of conservatism in particular.” This modest claim may be granted, but then one wonders if these thinkers, with two or three notable exceptions, are really so intellectually formidable as to deserve Newman’s almost exclusive concentration on their ideas and arguments, as distinct from their biographies and social loyalties. The rough handling he subjects them to indicates that he hardly believes so himself, that he is far from seeing them as the worthy and able conservative opponents whom John Stuart Mill argued that liberals and radicals should always desire in order to preserve their own integrity and maintain their reasoning powers in constant fighting trim.
Indeed one wonders if Newman would agree with Mill, for sometimes his main complaint seems to be no more than that his subjects are conservatives. He argues that they are important because “what they say is what a conservative should say,” and he charges Clinton Rossiter with failure in his effort “to ‘modernize’ the conservative attitude toward change, because if he did he would cease to be a conservative.” Newman frequently ridicules his antagonists for liking tradition, venerating the past, favoring order over the expansion of freedom, and viewing change and political innovation (often treated as identical by Newman) with suspicion. But surely these preferences are the very minimum one expects of anyone who lays claim to the conservative label; an examination of conservative ideas, even from an unsympathetic point of view, requires a more discriminating assessment of their comparative worth.
Actually, Newman succeeds in showing that most of his subjects fall back on some conception of fixed, eternal principles, established by God or the Founding Fathers or grounded in “natural right.” Although he is sometimes unfair to the arguments of the men he considers, he effectively demonstrates that much, if not most, of contemporary American conservative thought ends in such a cul de sac. But are there no other possible intellectual foundations for a conservative ideology? Newman suggests none. He seems to regard any conservative outlook as necessarily intellectually contemptible and, unlike Mill and such intelligent conservatives as Rossiter, he is blind to the value of rigorous theoretical debate between liberals and conservatives, each respecting the other’s right to exist and reflecting the dialectic between stability and innovation that constitutes the very process of peaceful social change.
The book’s central weaknesses result from Newman’s blurring of the difference between ideas and ideologies and his consequent failure to distinguish clearly the content of conservative ideas from their function in relation to the realities of political conflict and social change in contemporary America. The very title of the book reveals this confusion: the “futilitarian society” is intended to describe both the ideal fixed society of the conservative thinker and contemporary America, which is characterized as “a grubby society playing with shoddy goods, the meaningless images, the disorderly activities, and the endless boredom of the mass society and Madison Avenue.” Distrusting political innovation, the conservative ideologist in effect helps to perpetuate this society and contributes nothing to the solution of its problems. But, as Newman himself shows us, none of his conservative writers—not even the soured 19th-century liberals he calls “Old Conservatives”—offers an intellectual defense or justification of the mid-century status quo. It is as distasteful to them as to Newman himself. And in this lies their fundamental irrelevance to the complex—of jockeying interest groups, festering social problems, and unwieldy bureaucracies created to implement policies that have lost their relevance—that constitutes American reality in the 1960’s. Rather than providing a reasoned defense of an existing order seen as incarnating irreplaceable values, most of Newman’s subjects look backward to an idealized past. They are reactionary Utopians rather than conservatives and, the speeches of Barry Goldwater to the contrary notwithstanding, have little to do with the actual forces of political and social conservatism in the United States today.
Because conservatism—resistance to change, dedication to routines, the defense of established interests—is undeniably important in contemporary America and, for that matter, everywhere else, Newman attributes equal importance to his selected philosophers of conservatism. A liberal, depressed by the Eisenhower years and anxious to see a creative political effort to deal with the problems of civil rights, urban overcrowding, and the dislocations of technological change, he charges his conservatives with encouraging apathy—with, as he puns, “burking the issue.” He responds to their praise of order and stability by insisting on the historical reality of change, innovation, and conflict in human society. These are indeed the primary realities to the liberal and radical, and their ubiquity exposes conservative fixation on a particular, forever sanctified order as arbitrary, parochial, and self-indulgent. But continuity with the past, attachment to an existing way of life, and a fear of change which has often enough been vindicated by events—these too are historical realities. If one rejects conservative theories of society by pointing to the facts of social change and conflict, one’s own liberal or radical theories must also be prepared to take into account the facts of stability and loyalty to the historically given. On the level of theory, as distinct from that of political ideology and action, the liberal and radical cannot afford to “burk” these facts.
Liberals often accuse conservatives of holding that “whatever is, is right,” and jeer at the stupidity and lack of imagination suggested by this standard. Professor Newman’s ideological conservatives are not, as we have seen, guilty of such simplicity; yet there is a sense in which it is a truer and sounder basis for conservatism than their desperate search for absolute verities. The phrase should be expanded to read “whatever is, is right because it is” in order to express the genuine conservative’s deep attachment to the realities which have shaped his life and the lives of his fellows: the kind of attachment possessed to some degree by all men—even by rebels—that leads prisoners to love their bars, the oppressed their oppressors, and all of us the people and places of our childhood, however unhappy it may have been. This is the existential root of conservatism, just as the sense of freedom to choose and create is the existential root of liberalism and radicalism. But the liberal or radical must have a plan, a “project” in Sartre’s sense, to transcend the existent; the conservative needs none. Thus the liberal or radical is inescapably an ideologist, while the wisest conservatives have been sincerely anti-ideological. Epigoni, however, attempt to construct an ideology out of the latter’s insights, which, as Professor Newman points out with reference to his chosen group of thinkers, invariably assumes the appearance of a synthetic counter-ideology, a derivative and belated response to the challenge of the liberal-radical outlook.
In concentrating on the insufficient rationale for his attack on conservative ideology, I have neglected some other features of Professor Newman’s book. He also discusses three non-conservatives, Daniel Boorstin, Louis Hartz, and Daniel Bell, whom he finds guilty of purveying a “conservative mood.” The chapter on Bell makes a number of valuable criticisms of Bell’s rather special use of the term “ideology” when he proclaims the “end of ideology,” which stands in contrast to his acute demonstration elsewhere of the necessarily ideological character of politics in a democracy. Newman also levels a conventional and curiously abstract assault on suburbia, relying heavily on Crestwood Heights, a study which, although the authors are evasive on this point, actually deals not with a new postwar middle-class suburb but with a somewhat older and distinctly upper-income residential area, located, it so happens, in this reviewer’s native city of Toronto, Canada. Newman closes with a brilliant expose of the emptiness of the prevalent keening about America’s lack of “national purpose.”
Many of the chapters of The Futilitarian Society read best as high-level polemical articles or reviews, which is what some of them originally were. Unfortunately, their tone and style become monotonous after several hundred pages in the absence of a fuller statement of the author’s intent and his own credo.