Politics Without Policy
The Unadjusted Man
By Peter Vie-Reck
Beacon. 339 pp. $5.00.
Under various pseudonyms, the Unadjusted Man has of late become a familiar figure. He is part David Reisman’s Autonomous Man, part the hero of George Orwell’s 1984, part Colin Wilson’s Outsider. Each of these types has, of course, its distinctive characteristics, and the mark of Peter Viereck’s Unadjusted Man is his conscious, indeed self-conscious, conservatism. The Unadjusted Man voices the New Conservative indictment of modern American democratic-nationalist-mass-industrial society.
The terms of the indictment are not new. It was, after all, the “democratic liberal” John Stuart Mill who warned nearly a century ago that “at present individuals are lost in the crowd,” and who insisted “emphatically on the importance of genius, and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both in thought and in practice.” The Unadjusted Man stands forth against the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, whether under Communist or capitalist auspices; against the pressure toward intellectual conformity, whether exerted by the nationalist right, by stereotyped, “over-adjusted” liberals, or by New Critics; against the invasion of private rights in the name of majority rule; against the commercialized culture dictated by mass taste. In taking this stand, the Unadjusted Man allies himself with all those, from Burckhardt to Julien Benda, who have opposed the basic tendencies of contemporary industrial society.
The attitudes and values of the Unadjusted Man are shared by liberals and conservatives alike, for they are essentially the values of the humanist. The real test of Viereck’s work, therefore, lies not in the nature of the values he espouses—humanism has had many able defenders—but in his ability to translate these values into conservative policy. And it is precisely here that he is weakest. In the end he despairs of finding a way out of the dilemmas of modern life, and the Unadjusted Man must be content with “available burrows,” with those interstices of society where the creative imagination can blossom undisturbed. Viereck, in other words, disclaims responsibility for adumbrating the political and economic framework in which the values for the New Conservative can flourish. His position illustrates the very failings he alleges against his opponents. For to defend values without showing how these values are expressed as social realities is to adopt that rationalistic view of society which conservatives have always condemned as a liberal delusion.
In part, this failure stems from Viereck’s understanding of conservatism itself. He insists that American conservatism operates only on “cultural, ethical, or religious levels.” In so saying, he denies the legitimacy of conservatism as a guide to political action. Not only does Viereck thereby repudiate the example of his own heroes, men like Adams, Hamilton, and Calhoun—all able and willing to implement their values in policy and action—but more important, he virtually concedes the irrelevance of conservatism in dealing with contemporary social and economic problems. His views on the relation between government and the economy are a case in point. Conservatives may insist that efficient centralized government represents a threat to liberty, but the economic forces generated by industrialism can only be regulated by political institutions wielding great powers on a national scale. Viereck’s vindication of “an inefficient, mellow corruption in government” is eloquent, but it avoids the question of what happens when such a government comes to contend with large concentrations of economic power.
Viereck’s failings, then, are no mere matter of definition. Ultimately, he fails because he is unable to show the relevance of his conservative strictures to current realities. The New Conservatives, Viereck included, have recognized that the traditional American conservative position is no longer tenable. That tradition was compounded of two main elements: emphasis on Constitutionalism and concern with the requirements of a competitive society. The fusion of the Constitutionalist argument with the dogmas of economic individualism in the late 19th century marked the high point of conservative doctrine. The Supreme Court protecting a free-market economy: this was the finest hour of American conservatism. But conservatives, and especially conservative students of foreign affairs, have come to see that security for their interests and values cannot be obtained simply by limiting the powers of government. A new appreciation of the positive uses of political power marks a significant departure in recent conservative thinking, although one to which Viereck is oblivious.
That inherent weakness of the Supreme Court as an instrument of government which made it the conservative institution par excellence in the 19th century renders it impotent to conserve capitalist institutions whose legitimacy is under attack in the 20th century. Indeed, it can be argued, as Clinton Rossiter implies, in his The American Presidency, that the Executive, not the Judiciary, has emerged as the principal conservative institution. Viereck, however, is still bound by reverence for the Senate and the Supreme Court as the twin supports of liberty. He has no occasion, therefore, to consider any of the really vital issues which conservatives must now resolve: the implicit conflict between the requirements of Constitutionalism and the unavoidable need for broad executive discretion; the opposition between emphasis on individual freedom and the acknowledged right of our democracy to guard itself against a totalitarian enemy; the apparent contradiction between maintenance of private rights and the irresistible demand for social justice. Viereck’s conservative commonwealth resembles nothing so much as 19th-century England before the enfranchisement of the working classes. It is a pleasant enough place, but not one which present-day Americans can be expected to recognize.
The traditional emphasis on a competitive society has been even more decisively repudiated. Conservatives now assert that the entire laissez-faire period was only an interlude, a “transitional phase of our development,” as Francis Wilson calls it. The significance of this repudiation of laissez-faire lies, however, not in its historic justification, but in its suggestion that the policies derived from the postulates of economic individualism no longer serve the needs of American conservatism. Unfortunately, alternative conservative policies based on a re-definition of the place of business and property in the political and social order of the mid-20th century have not been forthcoming. Viereck reflects the inability of the New Conservatives to deal with this issue. His most positive contribution is a disquisition on “The Dream-Nexus” as the foundation of our economic system: “the practical world of all our economic materialists,” he tells us, “is held together by the unintended, subsurface poet in their own souls.” Here the anti-rationalism incipient in the New Conservative revival comes to the fore. Economics as poetry: what need is there for mundane inquiries into the effect of the distribution of property on political behavior, or the rate of mobility as a factor in social stability, or governmental planning as the condition of prosperity?