Looking for an American Myth
The Fevered Hunt for Basic Symbols
One reflection of the political and social crisis in the country is the on-going battle of over myths of national origin and purpose. We can see this taking place now in the furious reaction to “Critical Race Theory,” now resulting in book banning and censorship. We can also see it in the intense anger and controversy generated by the 1619 Project, which displaced what George Carey and Wilmoore Kendall one of the “basic symbols” of the American tradition: the 1620 Mayflower Compact, with another founding before the founding. We can see it in the birth of strange millenarian fantasies like QAnon, which is now drawing on the boomer fantasia of a Kennedy restoration. And we can see it in the rather plaintive calls by some liberals for a restored progressive form of patriotism, like in Ben Rhodes’s recent Atlantic essay. While conflicts over the nature of the country are not in any way new, they seem to have reached a fevered intensity in the last few years. What people seem to be looking for, to quote Antonio Gramsci, is a “Sorelian myth—i.e. a political ideology expressed neither in the form of cold utopia nor as learned theorizing, but rather by a creation of a concrete phantasy which acts on a dispersed and shattered people to arouse and organize its collective will.”
The Right is perhaps a little more self-aware than the Left about attempting to formulate such a myth. Writing in the American Conservative this week, Matthew Schmitz invokes Sam Francis as a guide to the contemporary American Right. Arguing against my friend Sam Adler-Bell’s New Republic piece, he proposes that a new crop radical right intellectuals has a genuine and organic constituency in the historic core of the conservative movement:
It has a deep and abiding base of popular support in what Sam Francis called the “post-bourgeois proletariat,” people who live in, but are not fully part of, our managerial regime. Their outlook—described by Francis as “working-class anti-liberalism”—chimes with new right themes.
Post-bourgeois proletarians hate political correctness, not because they are principled defenders of free speech but because they resent the managerial class that creates and creates and enforces the current speech codes. They resent the HR manager’s faith. They do not reject all pieties.
Like all classes, this one has characteristic habits and beliefs. A regime that reflects its preferences will enforce definite orthodoxies. (Centrist commentators who present “right-wing political correctness,” as a threat equal and opposite to “left-wing political correctness” understand this perfectly.) Post-bourgeois proletarians prefer shows of force to subtle forms of manipulation. They are Jacksonians on foreign policy and law-and-order voters on crime. They probably do not read the Bible or consult the Catechism, but they honor flag, faith, and family.
Francis described the beliefs of the post-bourgeois proletariat in ways that will seem familiar to any follower of abstruse debates over postliberalism, integralism, and the like. They show “little attraction to bourgeois conservatism and its emphasis on laissez-faire economics, the rights of property, [and] the minimal state.” These ideas supported and were supported by a bourgeois order that the rise of large organizations—the so-called managerial revolution—has displaced.
Let’s set aside just how “post-bourgeois” or “proletarian” this class really is, or if it even constitutes a class, I happen to think Schmitz is right in a certain way: Sam Francis is really the clearest and most-honest guide to the present disposition of the Right. This is why he’s a major figure in the book I’m writing. Francis was the most brilliant of the “paleocons,” the hard right faction of the right intelligentsia whose ideas in the 80s and 90s pre-figured Trumpian politics. Here’s Francis writing in 1992:
Democrats and liberals have spent the last year whining that Duke represents the logical culmination of the conservative resurgence of Ronald Reagan, and, conservatives, for the most part, have spent an equal amount of time denying it. The Democrats and liberals are, for once, dead right, though as usual they miss the point. Reagan conservatism, in its innermost meaning, had little to do with supply-side economics and spreading democracy. It had to do with the awakening of a people who face political, cultural, and economic dispossession, who are slowly beginning to glimpse the fact of dispossession and what dispossession will mean for them and their descendants, and who also are starting to think about reversing the processes and powers responsible for their dispossession.
As you can probably tell, Francis understood this “dispossessed people” in racial terms, and became increasingly explicit about it. Francis developed his notion in a of a “post-bourgeois” Right in a 1985 Chronicles essay entitled “Revolution on the Right: The End of Bourgeois Conservatism?” The subject was an ’80s spate of right-wing terror and vigilanteism, ranging from Bernie Goetz’s subway shooting to the neo-Nazi cell “Silent Brotherhood,” which had recently assassinated the Jewish radio talk show host Alan Berg. In their appearance, Francis saw a possible hopeful development for the Right:
It is because they are postbourgeois and antibourgeois, because they have so little attraction to the prosaic ambitions of bourgeois civilization and so much scorn for the baubles of the managerial regime, that the new militants or their successors may be able to achieve what no other force on the American right has ever been able to do, to formulate a myth of the right around which it would be possible to mobilize a massive popular challenge to the myth of the left that has animated Western politics for the last two centuries and which has now even insinuated itself into contemporary conservatism.
Francis here was borrowing from Georges Sorel, a name whom readers of Unpopular Front will recognize. Sorel believed that political movements required animating myths, which were not rational programs or explicitly articulated ideologies, but expressions of the group’s inner convictions. Here is Francis in another essay:
The main task now for the would-be leaders of the Middle American Revolution is therefore to formulate a comprehensive myth able to express the alienation that prevails among the culturally immiserated and economically threatened Middle American proletariat and hammer it into an effective sword. The kind of myth that is needed today must raise this proletariat from a passive state of disgruntlement to being an active force of social and political power.
Perhaps it’s something like this Schmitz has in mind when he defends the “fantastical” components of New Right ideologies:
Whether one supports or opposes the various ideas on offer the new right—and it is impossible to support them all, for their internal divisions are real and deep—it would be foolish to dismiss them out of hand. Theories like integralism and post-liberalism may at times take on fantastical form, but they track the movements of real bodies. Like shadows in a film noir, they are distillations and exaggerations, expressing in stark terms truths that otherwise go unseen.
I’d argue that the Right already has just such a myth in the stolen election conspiracy theory. It is not subject to refutation with facts and it is primarily the story of dispossession of “the true nation” at the hands of an alien Other, whether it’s imagined as an explicitly racial or more of an ideological enemy. As we’ve seen from January 6, it already in an “expression of the will to act.” As Republican politicians have already assessed much quicker than movement intellectuals, this is the real myth of the Right, not fantasies of some Catholic integralist order lead by a would-be post-liberal clerisy in stripped ties. Francis at least realized that the notions of his group was probably were not appropriate to the emerging reality: “Given the fragmentation of the old order, much paleoconservatism is today not the language of movement but of antiquarianism.” People like Schmitz are just trailing and attempting to ride what Francis, channeling Yeats, called “the rough beast that moves among the fragments of our heritage.” It may well bite them one day.