[This review was published in the Summer 1999 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 252-256.]
Revolution from the Middle
Middle American Press, 1997
This book is a selection of articles by columnist Samuel Francis that appeared between 1989 and 1996. The result is that instead of understanding his thought in fragments, we are able to grasp it as a whole. Even those who have read his work over the years will benefit from this volume.
Francis’s is one of the more uncompromising voices of American cultural conservatism. As such, he is widely read by those who feel concern at what they perceive as a rapid erosion of the social, demographic and political foundations of the traditional American way of life, but who see little comprehension of or desire to repel that erosion either within the elite or the population in general. At the same time, the “radicalism” he calls for is not that of the “right-wing militias,” since “as long as legal and democratic procedures for political and social change remain available, there is no reason” to resort to other means. This is an important qualification, since violence on behalf of cultural conservatism would almost certainly result in monstrous consequences far removed from what conservatives such as Francis desire. As forlorn as the chances may be, there is no alternative for American conservatives but to struggle to gain peoples’ loyalties through a competition of ideas.
Francis’s doctorate from the
in Universityof North Carolina Chapel Hillwas in modern history, and it is socio-demographic analysis that Francis brings to bear rather than primarily an explanation of economic or political theory.
He breaks American history into three phases: The First Republic that existed before the Civil War; the
that prevailed between the Civil War and the New Deal; and the current phase. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the core issue in American life has been whether to preserve to any significant degree the classical republicanism that typified the Second Republic . The slide away from that republicanism has been a long one: the bourgeois elite that predominated after the Civil War lost its economic independence, and with it its place as the defining core of American society, when large-scale organizations began to “swallow the independent businesses and farms.” The middle class since World War II has amounted, in fact, to an “affluent proletariat” highly dependent upon the national government. “Alienated from the nation’s past by its size and rootlessness, it retains only a fragmented memory of and identity with the historic national experience.” First Republic
The leading role in American society, according to Francis, has been assumed by a “managerial elite,” which in the context of today’s global market is now becoming a transnational elite. Its members, we are told, constitute “the real rulers, invisible and immoveable, [who] never even flutter their eyelids when the body politic twitches in the quadrennial presidential election.” Many of the voters this elite requires for political success come from its alliance with “an unassimilated underclass.” It is this alliance that governs a confused, uncommitted and largely oblivious mainstream of Americans whose primary value—in their self-absorption, shallowness and materialism—has become having fun. These observations are particularly important because they help answer the crucial question, which is why the great bulk of ordinary Americans are so inert and acquiescent.
This elite sweeps all before it in its “politically correct” consensus that includes several elements: the aspiration for a “New World Order” that will provide a global version of the welfare-state therapeutics that has long-since become the basis for American domestic policy; an internationalism that seeks an homogenization of the world population and the ultimate extinction of the nation-state, most especially including any distinct identity for the United States and its people; free-trade ideology; a preoccupation with economics at the expense of other values; and, though the elite operates through the democratic institutions that Americans have inherited from the past, the allowance of no genuine dissent.
In the face of this, the American “conservative movement” no longer exists in any meaningful sense. Jerry Woodruff, editor of the Middle American News, says in his Preface that it has been supplanted by an “obsequious Right with its embarrassing corporate sycophancy.” “The management of [both] parties,” Woodruff writes, “remains safe in the hands of those who share a common globalist outlook in pursuit of free trade, open immigration, and the dismantling of the West’s distinct cultural identity.” Francis seconds this when he points out that “the differences between the parties are far outweighed by their similarities.” Many “conservatives” embrace “policy-wonk” economic and political reforms that ignore the cultural conflict.
And yet, conservative columnist Francis isn’t without hope. He sees the potential for what he calls a “middle American revolution” that can arise from among those who bear the brunt of the elite-underclass alliance. He sees this as a populist movement made up of such elements as lower middle class white ethnics, the Reagan Democrats, and “the Bubba vote”—in broad terms, all those who understand today’s government as “favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously.” Francis adopts sociologist Donald I. Warren’s category a few years ago of “Middle American Radicals.” Their issues will be much broader than simply those of the “religious Right.” An interesting aspect is that they are culturally conservative while at the same time they support “economically liberal policies such as Medicare, Social Security, unemployment benefits, and economic nationalism and protectionism.”
With all of this and more, the book is a clarion call to those who see American culture as under attack and want to preserve its main features. Here are some observations that can be made by way of addition and critique:
1. Francis’s historical, sociological understanding of American history would be greatly enriched if he were more distinctly conscious of the existence within
Europeand the since the early nineteenth century of a phenomenon commonly called “the alienation of the intellectual.” Virtually since it emerged from the Ancien Regime, bourgeois society has been “without a head,” except for such leadership as a grossly outnumbered cadre of classical liberal thinkers has been able to give it. The artistic and literary culture has for almost two centuries excoriated the main society, and has sought successive alliances with a variety of unassimilated or disaffected elements. There has been no more fateful fact about modern civilization. The American “managerial elite” that Francis sees as central has imbibed most of its ethos from that intellectual culture, which in turn has become a leading segment of the U.S. elite. United States
A full comprehension of that intellectual history wouldn’t contradict Francis’s exposition, but would add considerably to it. It would show that the plight of the commercial middle class—the “bourgeoisie”—is of long standing, going back even so far as to the Greeks and the Romans. Other than certain exceptions such as during the Renaissance, the “bourgeoisie” has at virtually no time or place enjoyed or engendered the support of an intellectual class. Such support, when present, would ideally understand a commercial civilization’s merits and simultaneously seek to elevate its spiritual and ideational life. When Francis says the Middle American Revolution will need to “construct its own head,” he seems not fully aware that he is calling for something unique in history.
2. This observation merges into the next one. Francis’s analysis points to no underlying dynamic that offers any hope that a Middle American resurgence will actually occur. He implores it to happen, and as with most thinkers yearns to have his ideas taken seriously by enough people to spur them to action. Although this reviewer isn’t accustomed to citing Karl Marx as an authority, it is worth recalling Marx’s criticism of all socialist theories other than his own on the ground that they had no theory of history that would explain just how it was that society would come to embrace their views.
If it were simply a matter of imploring Americans to “wake up and see the crisis confronting them,” there would be little ground for hope by cultural conservatives. The average middle class American seems to lack an informed interest in broader issues and is currently too prosperous and too absorbed in his daily preoccupations for that.
There is, however, much prospect that a self-satisfied world is going to be turned upon its head by the ravages of down-sizing brought on by low-cost global competition and even more by near-workerless technology. As life becomes dramatically riskier and scarier, perhaps people may begin to think. Therein lies the opening for any thoughtful paradigm that can address the problems constructively. Francis’s ideas certainly speak to the needs. An important next step will be to fit them into the coming crisis of the wage system, so that people will see more immediately what their relevancy will be.
3. A part of this must necessarily be to spell out in some detail an attractive economic, social, cultural and political paradigm for the coming age. Francis gives this little attention himself, appearing to presuppose a body of theory that is in writing elsewhere. But it requires a lot of work and of working-out, since American institutions and policies of “classical republicanism” from the “
”—however desirable conservatives see them to be—just won’t suffice, at least not as taken right out of the package. First Republic
Right now, writings such as those by Francis seem to be “on the fringe” of the contemporary scene. But this is an illusion. They will be vastly important in the enormous ferment of ideas that is bound to occur within the next few years. They will be important to people of all ideological persuasions who seek seriously to weigh the alternatives or even to know what others are thinking.
Dwight D. Murphey