Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Getting It Right And Wrong On Conservatism I

Via this essay by Digby at the Campaign for America's Future, I have come across this 3-year-old essay by Philip Agre on Conservative political thought. While there is quite a bit that is correct - especially on the relationship between conservative political thought and social hierarchy - the article is deeply flawed in many respects as well. There are things wrong with traditional conservative political thought. At the same time, there are elements to conservative political thought - a distrust of social innovation for its own sake; a preference for the social and political status quo over and against the wild ideas of reformers and revolutionaries; the idea that society is a web not only of relationships, but that these relationships entail obligation among society's many parts - that are not only attractive, but I believe necessary for a proper understanding of the way societies operate and should operate. Indeed, I think there is a deeply conservative element in much of contemporary American left-leaning political ideology, especially in its distrust of unfettered capitalism and its desire for a thorough-going ecological policy (the goal, after all, is conserving the environment).

Anyway, here is a tidbit from the beginning of Agre's piece that has a howler right at the get-go:
The tactics of conservatism vary widely by place and time. But the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use "social issues" as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats. More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them. Of course this notion sounds bizarre to modern ears, but it is perfectly overt in the writings of leading conservative theorists such as Burke. Democracy, for them, is not about the mechanisms of voting and office-holding. In fact conservatives hold a wide variety of opinions about such secondary formal matters. For conservatives, rather, democracy is a psychological condition. People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy. This has been true for thousands of years.(emphasis added)

Burkean conservatism, for all its flaws, was not proscriptive, but descriptive. British conservatism was successful precisely because it was the way British society operated. Unlike France, Prussia, and Russia, which all held variants of Monarchical Absolutism as their reigning political thought, the British prided themselves as successfully avoiding the pitfalls of tyranny through the assertion of the inherent rights of aristocrats, embodied in the British Constitution and Parliament, with the House of Lords, at the time, as the pinnacle of anti-monarchical Institutionalization. The reason France, and later Russia, went through such bloody revolutions was that there was no social infrastructure in place which could serve as a check on authoritarianism. The calling of the Estates General in France, and the creation of the Russian Duma in response to the 1905 Revolution were the last attempts by monarchs to hold on to absolute power, rather than concessions to a growing democratic spirit. In both cases, the weak occupiers of the thrones in the respective countries thought they could manipulate the proceedings to their advantages; both rulers and families paid with their lives for their enormous miscalculations.

What Burke described was the actual reality in Britain. This made his description enormously successful there, and almost impossible to export, even to us here in America. In his history of contemporary American conservatism, Turning the World Right Side Up, journalist Godfrey Hodgson describes Burkes biggest fan and publicist in post-WWII America, Russell Kirk, discovering Burke in the wee hours of his time in the Army. Like many who read Ayn Rand and saw themselves as the embodiment of Rand's heroic individual whose greatness was denied by a society bent on unnatural egalitarianism, Kirk saw himself as a rose among weeds. His discovery of Burke led him to dismiss his comrades in arms, and to loathe his time in the military (which sounds ironic, but in fact points up the democratizing influence of the American military, a subject for another post). Kirk thought that America's experiment with political democracy and social equality was flawed because it ignored Burke's assertion that hierarchy was not only natural, but was in need of no defense. The American experiment was, in its own way, as unnatural and deadly to the way the world works as was the French Revolution.

We have another howler ready:
The defenders of aristocracy represent aristocracy as a natural phenomenon, but in reality it is the most artificial thing on earth. Although one of the goals of every aristocracy is to make its preferred social order seem permanent and timeless, in reality conservatism must be reinvented in every generation. This is true for many reasons, including internal conflicts among the aristocrats; institutional shifts due to climate, markets, or warfare; and ideological gains and losses in the perpetual struggle against democracy. In some societies the aristocracy is rigid, closed, and stratified, while in others it is more of an aspiration among various fluid and factionalized groups. The situation in the United States right now is toward the latter end of the spectrum. A main goal in life of all aristocrats, however, is to pass on their positions of privilege to their children, and many of the aspiring aristocrats of the United States are appointing their children to positions in government and in the archipelago of think tanks that promote conservative theories.

Conservatism in every place and time is founded on deception. The deceptions of conservatism today are especially sophisticated, simply because culture today is sufficiently democratic that the myths of earlier times will no longer suffice.(emphasis added)

See, Agre agrees to the extent that he says that hierarchy is presented as "natural". His argument that it is not natural ignores the fact that, for the most part, social stratification has been the rule. Every society imagines that then-current social arrangements are not only the most natural thing in the world, but are the sine qua non for all societies at all times. Contemporary American democrats and egalitarians are no different (as evidenced by Agre's dismissal of conservative appeals to aristocracy). The deception, of course, is the naturalness of aristocracy. Except it is only deceptive to the extent that it might be possible for a person to have the kind of angelic position necessary to see the relativity and limitations of one's own social order.

Please note well that I am not arguing that I have such a position. I am a thoroughgoing egalitarian and small-"d" democrat. I think that the world would be a much better place if most of the countries in the world operated on social and political lines as America does. On the other hand, American social egalitarianism and political democracy are helped by social and civil institutions and practices deeply embedded in our history, institutions and practices, habits and ideas that take time to grow, be nurtured, and embed themselves within a society. More than anything else, this is the flaw at the heart of exporting democracy. Having an election or two does not make a society democratic; there needs to be all sorts of institutions and habits ingrained in a society in order for democracy to work properly. Again, the argument here is a conservative one - there is something organic, rather than artificial (of the nature of a "social contract"), about what a society is. It, and the political superstructure it erects, cannot be changed willy-nilly.

This is turning in to a long post. I shall continue tomorrow.

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