[lbo-talk] Barrington Moore on Catonism

Dissenting Wren dissentingwren at yahoo.com
Thu Apr 21 13:12:24 PDT 2011

>From time to time I've wondered why Barrington Moore's term, "Catonism" never caught on as an epithet for certain kinds of antiliberalism.  "Fascist!" or "Nazi!" are epithets that fall prey to Godwin's Law or to historical imprecision.  Catonism, however, as a complex of symptoms, highlights certain increasingly prominent features of American political life. So, a few questions for anyone interested: do you find Moore's surview of Catonism plausible and/or enlightening? why does the complex seem to travel outside its origins in aristocratic precapitalist agriculture (or does it)? is it worth trying to create a meme out of this term?

Excerpts from Moore on Catonism:

            “A key element in this complex of symptoms is the appearance of a great deal of talk about the need for a thoroughgoing moral regeneration, talk that covers the absence of a realistic analysis of prevailing social conditions which would threaten the vested interests behind Catonism.  Probably it is a good working rule to be suspicious about political and intellectual leaders who talk mainly about moral virtues; many poor devils are liable to be badly hurt. It is not quite correct to assert that the morality lacks content; Catonism seeks a specific kind of regeneration, though it is easier to specify what Catonism is against than what it is for.  An aura of moral earnestness suffuses Catonist arguments.  This morality is not instrumental; that is, policies are not advocated in order to make humanity happier (happiness and progress are contemptuously dismissed as decadent bourgeois illusions) and certainly not in order to make people richer.  They are important because they are supposed to contribute to a way of life that has somehow proved its validity in the past.  That Catonist views of the past are romantic distortions goes without saying.               “This way of life is supposed to be an organic whole and, of course, being connected with the soil is essential to making it organic.  Indeed, ‘organic’ and ‘whole’ are favorite cloudy terms in Catonism. The organic life of the countryside is supposedly superior to the atomised and disintegrating world of modern science and modern urban civilization.  The peasant’s alleged attachment to the soil becomes the subject of much praise and little action.  Traditional religious piety with archaizing overtones becomes fashionable.  Actually, as in the case of Japanese Shinto, the tradition is to a substantial degree cooked to order, though not entirely.  Obedience, hierarchy, often with overtones of race or at least biological metaphors about society, become the watchword.  But the hierarchy is not supposed to take on the character of modern impersonal bureaucracy.  Indeed, there is much talk of comradeship, human warmth.  Gemeinschaft, Genossenschaft, Heimat, words that carry emotional overtones far stronger than their English counterparts, community, association, home, are likely to steam the atmosphere and not merely in the German tongue.               “Indeed, the emphasis on human warmth seems to be as decisive an element as the notion of moral regeneration. The combination leads, in the context of the whole ideology, to contradictory attitudes toward sex. As part of the generally anti-intellectual and anti-industrial outlook of Catonism, modern urban civilization is seen as somehow devaluing sex, as making human relationships cold and impersonal. Hence the preoccupation with frigidity and impotence, the glorification of sex, as for example in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. On the other hand, there is an air of guilty prurience about all this because sex has to be the basis of the home, the family, the state.  The contradiction appears again between the orgies of the SS in Nazi Germany, the minor efforts to encourage illegitimate children by SS heroes, and the more general policy of trying to revive a ‘healthy’ domestic environment of Kinder, Kirche, Küche for women. The political manifestations are of course ‘think with the blood,’ the rejection of rational analysis as something ‘cold’ or ‘mechanical’ that inhibits action. Action, on the other hand, is ‘hot,’ usually in the sense of combat.  The effort to surround death and destruction with erotic overtones is also quite noticeable, especially in the Japanese version. Ultimately life is sacrificed for death, Mars absorbs Venus.  Dulce et decorum est . . . . For all the rhetoric of warmth Catonism expresses a deep fear of human affection as a form of softness.               “There are other curious contradictions and ambivalences here as well.  Catonism includes a horror of ‘unhealthy’ preoccupation with death and decomposition, in the manner of Baudelaire. This preoccupation Catonism identifies with the foreigner, with ‘decadent cosmopolitanism.’ Art must be ‘healthy,’ traditional, and above all easily comprehensible. Catonist artistic notions center around folk and provincial art, an effort on the part of educated urban classes to revive peasant costumes, dances, and celebrations. Once sharing power, it seems that the Catonist outlook on art merges with a general tendency noticeable in all regimes concerned with maintaining social cohesion, to promote traditional and academic art forms. There is, as has often been noted, a striking similarity between Nazi and Stalinist art. Both were equally strong in condemning Kunstbolschewismus and ‘rootless cosmopolitanism.’ Similar trends may be observed in Augustan Rome.               “In sketching what finds approval under Catonist notions, it has already been necessary to mention what Catonist theories oppose.  Concretely they are hostile to traders, usurers, big money, cosmopolitanism, intellectuals.  In America Catonism has taken the form of resentment against the city slicker and more generally any form of reasoning that goes beyond the most primitive folk wisdom. In Japan it manifested itself as violent antiplutocratic sentiment. The city appears as a cancerous sore full of invisible conspirators out to cheat and demoralize honest peasants. There is of course a realistic basis for these sentiments in the actual day-to-day experiences of peasants and small farmers who are at a serious disadvantage in a market economy."

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list