Home > Current Affairs, Politics > Cliven Bundy and the Conservative Rejection of the Social Contract

Cliven Bundy and the Conservative Rejection of the Social Contract

If you’re not familiar with the conflict between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the American government (specifically, the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM), allow me to catch you up on it before making a few points about its broader applicability to modern conservative views of society.

As is summed up nicely by Andrew Prokop in a series of posts on Vox, Bundy has let his cattle graze on government-owned land adjacent to his ranch for 20 years. He has refused to pay the proper legally-mandated fees to do this, claiming that he owes the federal government nothing and will not abide by any of their laws. Finally, the BLM sent armed agents to confiscate the cattle from the federal lands. Soon, armed throngs of Bundy’s like-minded supporters (many of them with ties to militias) assembled and stood down the federal officials, who eventually backed down, returned the cattle to Bundy, and left the area.

Cliven Bundy: an anti-government conservative in his natural habitat

Bundy has long had a low-level buzz of support from Tea Party organizations and other social conservatives, who admit that his stance has no legal basis (you can wish that government doesn’t own and maintain land you want to use as your own, but that wish and a couple of bucks will get you little more than a cup of coffee). Still, his stubborn, principled stand in the face of government intrusion against his symbolically-charged rancher way of life is highly romantic to conservatives, so grounded is it in American conservative identity with the hardy, masculine-coded, self-reliant individualism that is imagined to be the platonic ideal of the Right. To many a conservative, he’s a genuine cowboy hero, standing up to a federal government that even moderate conservatives consider to be a disease that is hollowing out the cherished American soul.

If utilizing an armed mob to disobey governmental authority did not give his right-wing supporters pause, then Bundy’s candid and stunning (but perhaps not surprising) racist remarks about how “the negro” is worse off for no longer picking cotton for white slavemasters sent them scurrying away like rats fleeing a sinking ship. That bigotry against minorities, who have often required the government’s protection against the unchecked “individualism” (read: selfish appropriation) of icons of self-reliance like Bundy in the past, coexists with the man’s anti-government belligerence should also not surprise us. Racial prejudice remains a cancer on the American Right that at least partly prevents their government-shrinking policy platform from being taken seriously as anything other than re-entrenchment of institutionalized discrimination.

As Matthew Yglesias points out in another Vox article, ranchers like Bundy who claim to be discriminated against and who bemoan lazy moochers are themselves suckling on the government teat rather shamelessly. Bundy has gotten off scot-free for using government-owned land to feed his livestock for years; the big, mean government has literally subsidized this supposedly independent trailblazer for decades. Bundy is precisely the sort of parasite on public funds that Paul Ryan Republicans like to accuse, say, poverty-level recipients of social welfare of being. But he’s a crusty white man with a cowboy hat, so the same rules don’t apply to him.

The discernable theme of the Bundy stand-off is the erosion of the respect for the basic concept of the social contract among conservatives. Conservatism in the American (and Canadian, and Western European) context has long held a dim view of the Enlightenment understanding of the social contract as involving a trade-off of personal liberty for collective security. Thomas Hobbes’ genesis of the concept overemphasized the centralized absolutist power of authority, but of course his starting point in the early modern period was the endemic social violence that medieval feudalism was ineffective in curbing, not so far after all from his “brutish and short” natural state.

In our modern age, especially in capital-absorbed America, it is not physical security so much as economic security that is paramount in the minds of many; the former, indeed, is often understood sociologically to proceed from the latter. The social contract, in its broadest and most ideal form but also to a lesser extent in its troubled but vital applied form, should guarantee this security (I speak only of the domestic political sphere; international affairs is a whole other beast, linked inextricably with the national security state, the military-industrial complex, and the realpolitik balance of contrasting state interests). This proceeds from the classic liberal view that the unchecked desire for self-satisfaction pursued by the individual can only be diverted from anti-social infringement on the civil and property rights of other citizens by the collective agreements represented by the rule of law and legislation crafted by an elected government. For the record, I feel that liberal (as well as conservative) governments are far too integrated with corporate players for any clearly-demarcated opposition of this sort to be considered true any longer, but that is the classic formulation anyway.

The conservative view, on the other hand, is that government is an overbearing parent, forever proscribing the freedoms of the individuals that are its symbolic offspring (be they ranchers, regular Republican voters, or multinational corporations). Hobbes’ dark warnings about the natural state are disregarded; on the Right, the natural state of unmitigated pursuit of happiness can have only beneficial effects, and the government’s insistence on controlling the capital that results from it and diverting some (ever smaller) percentage of it to prevent inequality from becoming endemic is ultimately dishonest, harmful, inhuman.

In a sector of political discourse where a figure like Cliven Bundy can become a hero, the basic assumptions of the social contract must necessarily have been banished entirely. Law and order, and the social structure that they are apparently preserving, are rejected as tyranny wherever and whenever they do not re-enshrine the hegemonic privilege of a conservatively-minded white male elite. Collective interests shrink from a wider national project of communal improvement to narrow parochial conceptions of subcultural or tribal allegiances. Cleavages form between communities. Your fellow citizens is no longer your fellow but your enemy; collaborators become antagonists. Economic liberty trumps economic security.

The irony of Bundy, reliant as his herds are on government resources, holding such views is rich indeed. But it is also the active contradiction at the heart of the conservative movement’s ideological tenets, forever exposing the basic disingenuousness of their libertarian fantasizing. Until the social contract is wholly eliminated and economic competition reverts to the dangerous, ideal natural state that they seem to crave, their exhortations to liberty and individualism will continue to be compromised by actual conditions. With total elimination likely being impossible, eternal compromise is assured.

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Categories: Current Affairs, Politics
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