Reflections on American conservatism
Is ideological realignment possible?
There is an anti-war dimension to conservatism in the United States, especially paleoconservatism (old conservatism). Paleoconservatism is different from neoconservatism, a distinction that emerged during the Vietnam War, differentiating conservatives who advocated intervention in Vietnam from those who adhered to traditional conservative isolationism. In the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s, neoconservatives formulated an aggressive imperialist interventionism, with the intention of consolidating a unipolar world-system under U.S. direction. In contrast, paleoconservatives tend to oppose to military interventions, favoring instead protectionist policies and economic nationalism in defense of U.S. interests, which consequently includes opposition to the free trade policies and neoliberalism of the neoconservatives.
The American Conservative was founded in 2002 as an anti-war publication. Writing in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the twin towers and the launching of the Afghanistan War and during the buildup to the Iraq War, it declared, “not all conservatives do agree that the United States should engage — for reasons that hardly touch America’s own vital interests — in an open-ended war against much of the Arab and Muslim world.” Its opening editorial lamented that “the major conservative magazines now compete over which can bray loudest for the widest war, the most ambitious expansion of an American military imperium.”
In its fifteenth anniversary editorial, The American Conservative defended the necessity of the two-state solution and the necessity of a Palestinian homeland, a position that is repeatedly taken by the Arab states, Cuba, China, and the progressive governments and movements of the world. It declared that the Iraq War had damaged relations with Arab states, and that the war was much more than a mistake and an intelligence failure; it was a long-term ideological project pushed by neoconservative think tanks and publications, formulated with the aim of destroying various Arab nation states that were seen as threats by Israel.
In “The Corners of the Multipolar World Order,” published in The American Conservative on July 19, 2022, Adrial Kasonta writes that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, the debate in the United States erroneously focused on the war on terrorism and the invasion of Afghanistan. Falsely assuming the inevitability of a U.S.-led unipolar world order, public discussion paid little attention to the rise of China and BRICS. American intellectuals, Kasonta maintains, have not seen that the world-system is moving toward a “Post-American World” or a “Post-Western World;” and that BRICS is seeking to “promote a shift from the Western-led global governance system to a more inclusive paradigm of multipolarity that could serve as an alternative to the U.S.-hegemonic unipolar model.” Here is a conservative thinker who sees the validity of what socialist and progressive governments of the Third World plus China proclaim, while many leftist intellectuals do not.
The need for systematic anti-imperialist theory
Although paleoconservatives are right in opposing the endless wars in the Middle East and in understanding that the United States cannot impose its version of democracy as the universal standard for humanity, they nevertheless fall short of formulating a systematic anti-imperialist theory.
The starting point of anti-imperialist theory is consciousness of the fundamental historical fact that the modern world-system has been constructed on a foundation of colonialism, and its essential structures have been maintained through persistent imperialist policies, specifically designed to provide U.S. access to raw materials, cheap labor, and markets for surplus goods. (See various commentaries in the section on “U.S. imperialism and anti-imperialist resistance” in the Thematic Index).
It cannot reasonably be denied that the USA has persistently pursued imperialist policies. In Latin America, imperialism has been the essence of U.S. policy, with notable and infamous interventions in Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Brazil, El Salvador, and Chile. To this legacy of shame must be added the U.S. War in Vietnam, the neoliberal economic war against the poor, the endless wars in the Middle East, the current imposition of economic sanctions on more than forty countries comprising one-third of the world’s population, and the recent NATO expansionism toward Russia.
Nor can the purpose of these interventions be reasonably denied. They have sought control of raw materials and markets in order to benefit the U.S. economy. Indeed, it can be said that the golden age of American capitalism during the 1950s was made possible by its advantageous access to the labor, raw materials, and markets of the world, based on an unequal exchange that was disadvantageous to the nations and peoples that were on the other end of the bargain.
Nor can it be reasonably denied that such superexploitation of the world is no longer a sustainable policy. In part, because the world-system has overextended and overreached its geographical and ecological limits, a situation that calls for global cooperation in order to address common problems. And in part, because the colonized nations and peoples, rejecting imperialist policies, for the last six decades have been calling for different arrangements based on cooperation and mutual respect; and for the last two decades, have been gradually putting their alternative vision into practice. The neocolonized peoples have demonstrated that the more aggressive the United States becomes in its imperialist policies, the more persistent and determined they become to construct an alternative world order. (See “The Construction of a Pluripolar World: The neocolonized peoples seek cooperation and mutually beneficial trade,” December 9, 2022).
Therefore, if the United States is to arrive to a peaceful, stable, and beneficial relationship with the world, it must abandon the historical practice of imperialism and to reorient its policy toward cooperation. This is not merely my opinion. It is the collective commitment of humanity, repeatedly declared in official documents and public forums. And it is a commitment that conservative intellectuals have not engaged.
I used to think that the Left, in spite of its shortcomings, was more ideologically positioned to educate the people of the United States concerning the history of American imperialism and the need for a fundamental change of foreign policy direction toward cooperation. After all, the Left, at least in some of its tendencies, has more clearly seen the systematic character of American imperialism. However, the Left generally falls short of seeing the ongoing anti-imperialist construction in the Third World plus China, and as a result, it fails to project an anti-imperialist policy for the nation. This is a fatal failure. If you criticize the nation but do not offer a constructive alternative, you will be dismissed as unpatriotic or as rebellious persons who like bashing their own nation. The formulation of an anti-imperialist critique must be tied to the formulation of an alternative narrative for the nation, which must be based in respect for and commitment to its founding principles and its Constitution. An anti-imperialist projection must present itself as the fulfillment of the American promise of democracy, just as historic movements of the people formed by African Americans and women presented their reforms as fulfilling the American promise of democracy and the Constitution. And it must formulate a vision for a world in transition from a neocolonial world-system to a more just and democratic world-system. In light of this theoretical failure of the Left, and taking into account tendencies in the Left in recent years and especially in the last decade, I have arrived to believe that traditional American conservatism may be more ideologically positioned to lead the people toward the necessary road.
A state-directed economy
American conservatism never has come to terms with the difficult question of the relation between the state and the economy, and this is a shortcoming that it shares with American liberalism and radicalism. All have talked around the issue, but have never arrived to insight.
The 2002 opening editorial of The American Conservative, for example, questioned the wisdom of neoliberalism and the “global free trade economy.” Fifteen years later, reflecting back on the founding moment, founding Editor Scott McConnell wrote that “the GOP had no reservations about the increasingly visible downside to economic globalization, which was beginning to rip the guts out of many American working class communities.” These comments are in the right direction, but such reservations are merely the beginning of the quest for understanding of the issue of the relation between the state and the economy in a modern nation.
American intellectuals—paleoconservatives, neoconservatives, liberals, and radicals—have not yet solved the riddle of the relation between the state and the economy, because they have not looked at the nations that have done so, namely the socialist nations of China, Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea since the 1980s and 1990s. These nations were driven by economic necessity to depart from the conventional socialist model of reliance on state ownership of economic enterprises. Facing a situation in which they needed to increase the productivity of their economies in order to maintain the support and loyalty of their peoples, they came up with something that was different from the state ownership model of the Soviet Union as well as the two competing models of the West, namely, a limited state and Big Government. They arrived to an alternative model: a political-economic system characterized by the concentration of political power in people’s assemblies, which authorizes the state to direct the national economy in accordance with market principles and other laws of economics, directing the economy toward increasing productivity that would enable the provision of the basic needs of the people as well as satisfaction of the consumerist aspirations of the people. In other words, they came up with state-directed economies that utilize both state-owned and privately owned enterprises in the realization of comprehensive development plans approved by people’s assemblies. See “Socialist socioeconomic formations: Lessons from real socialism in the global South,” June 7, 2022; and “Big Government vs. a weak state: The option of a people’s state acting decisively in the economy,” November 1, 2022.
We in the West have not looked at what the nations constructing socialism have achieved. We have not examined the spectacular economic growth of China, Vietnam, and North Korea and the remarkable persistence of Cuba, and therefore we have not seen the economic policies that have made their achievements possible. Yet they provide important insights into the relation between the state and the economy as well as the characteristics of a democratic state and a democratic economy.
The nations constructing socialism have solved the riddle. They have arrived to insight concerning the necessary components: a state, controlled by the people and not the elite, which follows the laws of the market as it directs the economy toward national goals that have been discussed and approved by the people. If that does not sound like socialism, it is because the socialism that we know has been taught to us by elites and their representatives, who were oriented to presenting imperialist policies as defenses of democracy, rather than speaking truth. The socialism to which I refer can be known through direct observation of the real, for those who believe that truth can be attained through empirical observation of reality. See “China models a new type of socialism: The most advanced example of a new socioeconomic formation,” June 10, 2022; “The advance of socialism in Vietnam: The Doi Moi policy renovates socialist construction,” July 5, 2022; and “Realist pragmatism in socialist Cuba: Cuba’s socialist-oriented mixed economy under state direction,” July 29, 2022
American conservatives have sound premises with respect to marriage, family, sexuality, and personal discipline; and with respect to the founding principles and the Constitution of the American Republic. These are necessary premises for the construction of a society. American conservatives are oriented to affirming the healthy modern impulse to respect the personal life-style choices of persons with unconventional lifestyles, but doing so in a form that integrates traditional and modern forms of wisdom. Unlike the woke Left, they have resisted post-modernism and its decadent assumption that the true and the right cannot be discerned. And as we have seen, they possess a healthy suspicion of American interventionism in other lands, as well as a sound commitment to market principles. I enjoy reading their writings, which often display a sense of humor as well as common-sense intelligence.
But American conservatives need to reflect further on the political-economic issues. They need to transform their impulse of distrust toward American interventionism into a systematic critique of American imperialism and a corresponding appreciation of the insights of Third World anti-imperialist movements. And they need to integrate their sound appreciation for the laws of the market into an understanding of the necessary role of the state in channeling the workings of the market toward the satisfaction of the needs of the nation and the people. If they were to experience such intellectual and moral growth, they would be prepared to lead the nation out of its present confusion and despair.
On the political-economic issues, American conservatives need to listen to the voices of those who comprise the majority of humanity, learning from the insights that the colonized peoples have attained through their accumulated experience of struggle from the neocolonial situation. Is The American Conservative open to dialogue on these questions, or is it set in its ways? Does not the divisive and hostile character of debate in the USA, combined with the emergence of a consensus in the Third World plus China concerning the basic principles of a New International Economic Order, suggest the need for a reevaluation and an ideological realignment?
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