So, Ross Douthat, current holder of the “junior conservative columnist” sinecure at the New York Times, had one of his typical pieces lamenting the decline of family values and all that in this Sunday’s paper. This column, “A World Without Work,” sees Douthat wringing his hands over the existence of “a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job.”
Now, one inclined to think about things from a structural perspective might think that this trend has much to do with the fact that employers have increasingly eliminated benefits and any notion of stability in working-class jobs. We live in a world where many of the options available are short-term and part-time, often with hours changing on a weekly basis. So people who need the money to survive managed to cobble something together. Peter Frase has a much better explanation of the politics of a post-work economy and what Douthat gets wrong than I could possibly write. Also, on the same theme is Freddie deBoer.
Go read those to for more on post-work economies. I’m more interested in a different angle. Just to be clever, I’ll segue with this quote from Freddie’s piece:
I imagine other people are out there writing blog posts and Tweets and Facebook comments and assorted about Douthat’s post, and will receive no money for doing so. To the ones who are expressing skepticism: why are you participating in that labor if it accrues no material benefit to you?
Well, Freddie, my purpose here is use the article to discuss Corey Robin’s theory of conservatism, as his book on the subject, The Reactionary Mind, is now available in paperback for those put off by the price when I’ve plugged it before. Briefly put, Robin’s thesis is that throughout history, conservatism is “a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” I have to agree with Mike Konczal that “after reading it, it is hard for me to view conservatives without using its terms, models and ideas.” Ross Douthat is just today’s example. This will simply concern the book’s introductory chapter, much of which is reproduced, with some more topical material, as this essay. So you can follow along.
Douthat writes of the prospect of people exercising their “right not to have a boss”:
[S]hould it really trouble us…?
The answer is yes — but mostly because the decline of work carries social costs as well as an economic price tag. Even a grinding job tends to be an important source of social capital, providing everyday structure for people who live alone, a place to meet friends and kindle romances for people who lack other forms of community, a path away from crime and prison for young men, an example to children and a source of self-respect for parents.
This really gets at the heart of the entire synthesis of free-market ideology and social conservatism that makes up today’s Republican Party, and that many liberals have difficulty understanding. Robin’s book makes sense of the alliance between the two. Referencing Milton Friedman, he writes that “when the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.” It is these groups, and the hierarchical nature thereof, that Douthat seeks to defend from a society where the proletariat aren’t tied to their employers.
The Douthat article is especially interesting in its fusion of somewhat more libertarian-oriented beliefs in workplace hierarchy and communitarian values (with a side helping of disappointment in those of us not fucking the way the Pope would like). That might be relatively rare today, but Robin quotes Edmund Burke fretting similarly about the French Revolution:
The real object [is] to break all those connexions, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination; to raise soldiers against their officers; servants against their masters; tradesmen against their customers; artificers against their employers; tenants against their landlords; curates against their bishops; and children against their parents.”
The concept here is something Robin refers to as “the private life of power.” He writes of the historical trend:
Historically, the conservative has sought to forestall the march of democracy in both the public and the private spheres, on the assumption that advances in the one necessarily spur advances in the other. Still, the more profound and prophetic stance on the right has been to cede the field of the public, if he must, but stand fast in the private. Allow men and women to become democratic citizens of the state; make sure they remain feudal subjects in the family, the factory, and the field. The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power—even at the cost of the strength and integrity of the state.
At the close of his article, Douthat warns that what is really in danger from “the slow decline of work” is nothing short of “human flourishing.” I it takes a special kind of asshole to sit at his well-paid keyboard job pronouncing from the pages of the nation’s paper of record that it is our bosses that enable us to flourish by working for them at whatever shitty job we may have. But that’s the essence of conservative philosophy. To justify as necessary and essential and proper, what are basically feudal relationships.
When done well, there is a a certain appeal to conservative arguments. Duothat’s column isn’t really a case of that. It could easily be said that he’s simply a hack (and I’ll say it, he is), but an essential element of Robin’s thesis explains why this seems unusually muddled, intellectually speaking:
Conservatism is about power besieged and power protected. It is an activist doctrine for an activist time. It waxes in response to movements from below and wanes in response to their disappearance, as Hayek and other conservatives admit.
Here in 2013, after a long, steady decline in the power of the working class within our workplaces, the prospect of a few people falling out the bottom of the workforce is hardly “power besieged.” Conservatism as an intellectual force has been on the wane as conservatism as a political force has been on a winning streak. Perhaps the logic we see here is well out in the vanguard of a future reaction, or perhaps it shall find itself on the ash heap of history before the paper it’s written on makes it to the landfill.