Ideology Analysis | Norman Mailer’s deep conservatism
The writer’s chaotic life belied a conservative world outlook.
Hurricane Mailer carried all before it in thousand page tomes and truculent dialogues.
Mailer was as much an event as a person.
There are, I understand, parts of New York still recovering from Mailer.
He was a first-rate novelist and essayist.
He was also a sometime politician.
Mailer ran for mayor of New York under the slogan: “Throw the rascals in!” He called himself a ‘left conservative’. This appellation brings him within kissing distance of fascism, which is a movement best described as ‘revolutionary conservatism’.
A left conservative, as we shall see, is sceptical about capitalism while valuing the hierarchical and spiritual dimension in life. The picture is complicated because Mailer took political tutelage from the Marxist thinker Jean Malaquais. He adored Malaquais so much that he likened experiencing the Frenchman’s mind to being a small boy running around a great cathedral.
Mailer makes frequent reference to Capital throughout his essays. Marx and Malaquais provided Mailer with his anti-captitalist analysis, but unlike Marx he was acutely aware that man does not live by bread alone.
It is Mailer’s recognition of the importance of the spiritual, inegalitarian, and hierarchical aspects of life – along with his scepticism towards technology – that makes him a deep conservative.
It seems contradictory that a Jewish man who fought against the Axis powers in his youth should be sympathetic to a deep conservatism with fascist undertones.
But we must remember that anti-Semitism was a touchstone of German Nazism rather than the wider fascist movement and deep conservative movement. Jewish people were involved in Italian fascism up to the point where Mussolini threw his lot in with Hitler and passed anti-Semitic laws.
The Revisionist Zionist movement, founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, took inspiration from reactionary and deep conservative politics over the more socialist and internationalist thought found in wider Zionist movement.
In doing so, he laid the foundations for the contemporary Likud party in Israel. There is an honourable tradition of reactionary or deep conservative Jewish thought.
Mailer’s deep conservatism did not draw on Revisionist Zionism for inspiration. He combined Marxism with elements of American deep conservatism and his own antic reactionary outlook. This means that his political story crisscrosses the boundaries between deep conservatism, reactionary thought, Marxism, and fascism.
Mailer’s politics were antic, idiosyncratic, and expansive.
Mailer was aware – along with his long-standing sparring partner the novelist Gore Vidal – that the 20th century had largely eliminated the quaint American republic along with the old liberal virtues that were installed after the American Revolution.
The Civil War gutted a large element of the republic, Teddy Roosevelt’s imperialism sliced away more, and FDR finished it off. Vidal stood for the values of the now long-vanished old American republic, which he gave corporeal form in his affection for his grandfather, the senator Thomas Gore.
This was a man who embodied the values of the republic, so said Vidal. This was a republic conceived as a parochial nation concerned only with its Latin American neighbourhood.
It valued the small farmer, the division between Church and state, the Bible, the free press, and kept itself to itself. This deep conservatism – known as Jeffersonianism after its most able proponent, Thomas Jefferson – held that the land owning yeoman is the backbone of the representative republic.
The man who owns land is suspicious of central government, and guards his individual liberties jealously because he depends on no one but himself.
This was the belief system that animated the original America First movement in the 1930s that tried to keep the US from further entanglements in European affairs.
The contrary movement, the movement that has predominated in the US since the election of FDR, sought international engagement and aimed to displace the British Empire as the world’s preeminent power.
This movement saw that the state combined with corporate power had the potential to reshape the world. This goal was achieved at the cost of the old republic. The US has, since that time, become a global empire. The values of the old republic have withered away.
The parochial American republicanism embodied by Vidal is naturally suspicious of the post-war organisations, such as the CIA, that have been created to sustain the American empire. Mailer shared Vidal’s suspicion in regards to what Vidal called the national security state.
Mailer could not fully accept the Jeffersonian vision because his critique of capitalism was rooted in Marxism rather than the ideal of the yeoman farmer and small craftsman.
Further, the Jeffersonian vision for the US is suggests a blood-tie to the land that would exclude Jewish people from the American vision – or at least make their situation precarious.
It would exclude, in fact, all but the now vanishing white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males. It would also, above all, exclude the reviled Roman Catholics. America, like her motherland, despises Catholicism above all.
Jeffersonian anti-corporatism and its preference for small enterprise links it with the conspiratorial view of the world that associates large scale capitalist finance with the Jewish people.
The roll call of Jeffersonian writers confirms this suspicion: Ezra Pound, HP Lovecraft, and TS Eliot. These are American men of the deep and fascist right, with Pound in particular expressing open anti-Semitism.
Vidal avoided slipping into anti-Semitism, possibly because, as a homosexual, he was a slight outsider within the Jeffersonian framework, and also because his closest and longest lover was Jewish.
Nevertheless, Vidal still produced essays that evinced hostility towards the Jewish people in line with the Jeffersonian tradition that he honoured. His most notable work in this regard wasa characteristically bitchy reply to an anti-homosexual article in the Jewish political magazine Commentary.
He was cutting in his insinuation, but his snippiness was in response to perceived bigotry.
This was bigotry against bigotry.
Mailer took from Jeffersonianism a commitment to free speech and republican values – along with intense suspicion towards the Federal Government and the national security state. In particular, he adopted the Jeffersonian suspicious towards foreign wars and adventures.
He rejected Jeffersonian rhetoric regarding the rooted and organic nature of the American nation. Instead, he said that he regarded America to be like a wife. And his relationship with her was a long, stormy marriage.
Like all marriages.
Mailer would know. He was married six times.
An engineer by training, Mailer was a systematic thinker. This gifted him a way of thinking that predisposed him to Marxist influence. The left tends to think about politics as a matter of systems and blocs. The individual role is negligible.
Mailer was an individualist, but his individualism found expression elsewhere than in economics. Vidal, by contrast, thrived on gossip. He conceived politics in terms of powerful individuals and networks. The world was run like a grand cocktail party for Vidal.
He was a man of society with a capital ‘S’.
He expected and believed that he associated with those who ‘rule the world’ – or were close to those who do. This individualistic approach to politics predisposed him to being a man of the right, although he had a patrician concern for the poor and disadvantaged in America.
Mailer’s fascination with the national security state manifested itself in his vast CIA novel Harlot’s Ghost (1991), and also in his appraisal of Lee Harvey Oswald in Oswald’s Tale (1995).
The JFK assassination is pivotal for the Jeffersonian perspective on American politics because this tendency has constructed a mythology around the president.
In this account, JFK was about to abort the national security state, pull out of Vietnam, and return to the republican values that had been lost during the Cold War.
The conspiratorial version of his assassination attributes the motive force behind Lee Harvey Oswald to be one branch of the of the national security state, whether the CIA or the FBI.
This is the account provides the motive force behind Mailer’s fascination with the assassination – aside from his intense interest in unpicking the libido of JFK, of course.
JFK was a great chance, in Mailer’s view, for the US to take a new direction.
This chance was destroyed.
It is highly unlikely Mailer and Vidal would have backed Trump for president. Vidal would probably have been unsurprised and disgusted at Trump’s rise to power.
Mailer would not have been surprised either, but he would probably have been keenly alive to Trump’s virility and sexual prowess – a facet lacking in the rather sexless Obama.
I suspect that both men would be delighted with Trump’s confrontation with the so-called Deep State. Mailer and Vidal’s politics turned on a challenging the military-industrial complex, corporate capitalism, and the security services established to fight the Cold War.
These are the forces that, according to Mailer and Vidal, continue a perpetual war for perpetual peace. When the Soviet Union fell, these forces simply invented a new enemy – radical Islamism – to support the military industrial complex.
Ask yourself: What did American special forces die for in Niger last week? Or was it Somalia? Or Yemen?
The names blur together.
These are the power complexes that Trump initially set out to confront in his administration.
This is what he means by ‘draining the swamp’. His advisor Steve Bannon represents the titanium core to this agenda. His sidelining was a victory for the national security state.
Trump and Bannon are fighting Mailer and Vidal’s enemies, although not in the way the novelists may have wished.
There is a sense in which every existing nation and supra-national form of organisation is already fascistic. The world wars made it so.
This was what Geroge Orwell observed when he described the ever competing world blocs of Eurasia and Oceania in 1984. Orwell recognised that the practicality of organisation in mass industrial societies granted power to a technocratic-ideological elite.
This was an insight that he gained from the thinker James Burnham. The methods of control do not vary greatly from country to country anymore because we live in a technological and standardised world.
The differences between communism, capitalism, fascism, Islamism, and so on exist more as ideological soap operas used by the managerial elites to sustain enthusiasm in their ever shifting populations.
The core of the modern state is already fascistic in so far as it is corporatist.
The notion of a military-industrial complex, a welfare-warfare state, a corporate-state coordinated economy, and mass mobilisation for various military and social campaigns are all fascistic in essence – even if deployed in the service of ‘liberal democracy’.
We do not call it fascism.
We, as Orwell said, twist words so that we are told that we are involved in an anti-fascist war. It is a perpetual anti-fascist war: Serbia was fascist in 1999. Iraq was fascist in 2003. The Islamist are fascists in Afghanistan.
Everyone, except us, is fascist.
At the same time, our state curtails our civil liberties further and further while our politics becomes a sclerotic exercise in cynical theatre, technocrat managerialism, and corporate corruption.
The state and the private economy are fused and symbiotic, especially in the area of arms production. Wars and other disturbances must be sustained to keep the economy busy and to satisfy the demands of the national security state.
The wars are unnecessary.
Mailer returned from his first visit to the USSR angry. He was angry because he realised that the country was poor and falling apart.
The Cold War alarmism that fuelled America’s perpetual war against the ‘Evil Empire’ was obviously phoney for anyone who saw actual conditions in the USSR.
It was another in a now the long line of forever wars invented by the military-industrial complex and sold to the American people through the media.
This fascism without fascism discards only the spiritual aspect to fascism; however, it strongly retains the economic and ideological control systems that fascism shares with managerialism.
In reaching this diagnosis Mailer was in keeping with the conclusions made by Vidal and Orwell. This analysis has recently found new force in the form of the blogger and technologist Curtis Yarvin (otherwise known as Mencius Moldbug).
His neo-reactionaries or neo-Jeffersonians appear to be on the march.
Are the ghosts of Mailer and Vidal smiling?
We shall see.
Mailer’s fascination with crime and the criminal is characteristic of fascism. Fascism is obsessed with order over chaos; it is so obsessed with order that it often disregards law.
We are so used to uttering the expression ‘law and order’ that we often forget that these are two distinct realms. We also assume that conservatives and fascists must be fanatics for law and order.
This is not so.
It is possible to have lawful chaos; it is also possible to have lawless order. Fascism creates the latter scenario. There is order in a fascistic state, but it is not lawful order. The fascist state abuses and distorts the law to create its order.
The fascist is always in need of a thug or a criminal element to enforce his order. The fascist makes announcement condemning crime and disorder, but covertly and perversely admires the extremely disordered person who will bring this about.
Humans desire lawful order.
Humans fear chaotic lawfulness.
This was achieved by Soviet communism whereby the state’s constitution granted every right a person could desire from free speech to a free house. This was a fantastic legal structure that disguised a chaotic reality.
Humans must also fear ordered lawlessness.
This is the state fascism creates where a strict order is maintained under conditions of legal chaos. Punishment is hidden in the fascist state. Fascists are usually obsessed with the occult, and this extends to ‘off the books’ measures against criminals.
The prosecution of crime itself must be hidden and done in the dark. The victims of fascist regimes are very commonly ‘disappeared’. Mailer venerates the chaotic element that dovetails with fascist sensibilities: the right criminals take on a heroic role.
The tendency to lionise the criminal manifests itself in Mailer’s work when he examines the life of serious criminals, such as the murderer Gary Gilmore, whose life was so expansively depicted in Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979).
Mailer also championed the imprisoned murderer and writer Jack Abott. Abott was released from jail, partly due to Mailer’s support, and went on to kill again. Mailer had the balls to admit partial responsibility for the subsequent murder. Crime, under this heroic conception, is a potential means for human liberation.
Mailer’s fascination with crime started relatively early in his career with an article that sympathised with imaginary young thugs who beat and rob the owner of a candy store. Mailer saw in the criminal the last free man in a mass society. The criminal is a man who is constantly confronting death.
His position is truly existential.
The demand to confront death relates to Martin Heidegger’s existential philosophy. Heidegger supported the Nazis, and there is a sense in which the Nazis were the most existential political movement because they obsessively placed their adherents (not to mention their victims) in the maw of death.
They partly wished to do this in order to escape industrialised mass society. Mailer’s existentialism, fascination with crime, and desire to escape mass society all chime neatly with fascism. In the military sphere, our technological warfare has closed the path of individual heroism.
We fight with technology and not man-to-man now. We have been this way for sometime. Technology has also eroded our traditional expressions of masculine prowess. Crime remains one arena where humans may still be fully human, so runs the Mailer thought pattern.
This probably explains how Mailer came to stab one of his wives. Mailer existed in defiance of the mass technological society. The knife and crime were one way to achieve this goal.
A further reactionary or deep conservative trait in Mailer was the way he kicked against feminism.
Feminism is a product of mass technological society. In the traditional or primal state women are invisible in the political and social realm. Women now theoretically exercise enormous power – women are always the more powerful sex – overtly thanks to feminism.
Mailer was aware of this change in power and its attendant danger. He once remarked that women should be kept in cages. But Mailer perceived that the feminists were denatured women. Technology, always a feminine force, has supplanted woman’s true role in society.
Technology allows women to enter the areas of society that were once forbidden to them. But they are, in a sense, no longer truly women. Technology has taken their place.
They have been robbed of their natural role and so have only a half-existence as pseudo-men. They try to act like men in the workplace, but this is a perversion of power relations. They cannot deny the pang of the womb, although feminism orders them to do so.
The result is pathogenic for society.
The unused female energy has unexpected and painful effects. Meanwhile, men find themselves emasculated and – ultimately – unsatisfying to women under these conditions.
Women don’t like their men wet.
But mass technological society and feminism make men a complete push over.
“Every woman adores a Fascist. The boot in the face, the brute.”
So wrote Sylvia Plath.
She knew of what she spoke.
She was attracted to a fellow poet, Ted Hughes, whose shamanic work appealed to a primal England. He was not a fascist, but he was earthy, rooted, and gamey. His deep conservatism is implicit in his work.
Mailer echoed Plath’s poem in a short, inferior, composition of his own that commemorated the stabbing of his wife:
“So long / as / you / use / a knife, / there’s / some / love / left.”
Violence – or the suggestion of violence – is necessary for the sexes.
Hunter S Thompson remarked on how women, although apparently horrified by rape, were conscious nonetheless of a ‘tingle in the womb’ when they heard that the barbaric, unwashed, and supposedly rape-mad Hell’s Angels were in town.
This a point in support of Mailer’s resistance to feminism.
All is fair in love and war, you know.
And it turns out love is war.
Mailer countered this general perceived male degeneration with a regime that included boxing and other typically macho activities. He admired the strong men of the left, such as Fidel Castro, who embodied quasi-fascist politics.
Castro might have been a communist, but he was a nationalist first.
It was the nationalist component to his revolution that saved his regime when the USSR went under. Mailer did his best to stem the tide of feminism: He sired many children.
I cannot help but admire his potency.
He was like an Old Testament patriarch.
I hope to emulate Mailer soon in this regard.
And in many others.
Mailer was also suspicious with regards to the impact of communication technology on our ability to be fully human. He suspected that television and radio mass communication interfered with a form of telepathic communication that links all human beings.
Deodorant disturbed him.
Mailer reckoned that it was possible to sniff out a person’s true nature and morality. We have, he maintained, lost something valuable in our overly clean bodies.
We cannot smell out wickedness.
These beliefs mirror the fascist preoccupation with the paranormal and the idea that our true spiritual world – a world of blood and emotion – has been concealed by mass technological society.
Shortly before he died, Mailer expressed his pessimism regarding the fate of liberal democracy on the grounds that fascism represents the natural order of things.
Mailer explained that liberal democracy – by which he meant Jeffersonian republican values that survive in a denuded form – is both precious and fleeting.
He was almost an anti-fascist fascist.
In truth, what Mailer represented was a stream of organic or reactionary conservatism that has become taboo due to the way its ideas overlap with Nazism and fascism.
And also because its idea contradict the hegemonic liberal technocratic state.
This deep conservatism was not Nazism; it rejected Nazism as a technology-driven, thuggish, and philistine mob movement. The memory of this deep conservatism – a conservatism that venerates hierarchy, nature, and spirituality while opposing technological society – remains obscure in contemporary societies.
This is why figures such as Mailer can appear very ambiguous and confusing in their politics. Mailer was an artist. The artist has a duty to be expansive in their perceptions. Artists are disturbing because they are prepared to perceive the evil and good in humans without moralising.
Mailer was probably also able to get away with his deep conservatism because he was Jewish. He was above suspicion in regards to an appreciation for Nazism or fascism.
His work on Hitler, The Castle in the Forest (2007), exposed the mighty dictator as an incestuous creature under tutelage by the Devil’s servants – a spiritual form that Mailer came to believe existed.
Hitler as presented by Mailer, dank with urine and ordure, is an evil that you could literally smell coming.
There were those who did smell him coming.
Mailer related how a relative – reading a newspaper about Hitler in the 1930s – immediately predicted that he would massacre the Jewish people in Germany.
Not everyone was so blind in the 1930s as we are sometimes led to believe.
All his condemnations of Nazism and fascism could not save Mailer from the feminists.
But they also had sex with him like mad.
This is often the way with women.
Mailer’s prediction regarding the rise of fascism came over a decade ago; it seems more prescient by the day.
Our mass societies are in profound crisis. There is vast nihilism abroad in the world and a resurgent, militant spirit in the form of Islamism in the West.
Our technology, particularly our communications technology, seems to have made a fibreglass cage for our souls. We are no longer sure as regards our sex, race, religion, nationality or family commitments.
We believe we can change these with the click of a button. We appear to be dematerialising as human beings. This is a time to reflect on Mailer.
He was right in diagnosing the heady blood beat that animates us at the unconscious level. It cannot be negated or repressed.
How can we channel this energy productively?
How can we avoid the darkness of Nazism and fascism while also reclaiming a sense of spirituality and humanness in the mass society?
Reach for your knives and confront death, gentlemen.