Thursday, December 06, 2007

Getting It Right And Wrong On Conservatism III

After writing the two previous posts about this piece, I wondered this morning if I should even bother. Yet, it is important to do this kind of thing because someone, somewhere, needs to note that something as influential as this particular little bit of writing is deeply flawed. Relying on flawed source material leads to problems. It is one thing to say that conservative political thought is flawed. It is another thing altogether to concoct out of whole-cloth ahistorical arguments that purport to show a vast conspiracy stretching back thousands of years of conservatives battling liberals for control of the world. We deserve better than garbage like this.

In my continuing critical review of this essay by Philip Agre on conservative political thought, we have moved from, first, flawed historical thinking to the intellectually dishonest claims that conservative political thought has a thousands-of-years history of destroying conscience, reason, democracy (that should be a given), and language. After reading this section one wonders if rescue of this particular piece is possible.

I keep giving a disclaimer, and I wonder why, because it should be obvious that I am not a political conservative. Yet, criticizing a criticism of political conservatism might lead one to assume that I am. Far from it. It should be important to political liberals, regardless of their intellectual achievements, to have a defense of political liberalism and a criticism of political conservatism be at least historically accurate and some minimal amount of intellectual integrity. Alas, this piece doesn't even come close. By distorting what conservative thought is, by implicating it in all sorts of nefarious anti-social tendencies, we miss that there are some ideas traditionally linked with Anglo-American conservative political thought that are actually of a great deal of value, and can be arguably understood to be a part of left-leaning political thought in the United States today.

Now that the disclaimer is out there (and it should be read in one of those hushed, extremely fast tones, like the legal gloss on various radio commercials), we turn to Agre's piece. Again.

We now turn to Agre's view of conservative political thought in American history.
//3 Conservatism in American History

Almost all of the early immigrants to America left behind societies that had been oppressed by conservatism. The democratic culture that Americans have built is truly one of the monuments of civilization. And American culture remains vibrant to this day despite centuries of conservative attack. Yet the history of American democracy has generally been taught in confused ways. This history might be sketched in terms of the great turning points that happened to occur around 1800 and 1900, followed by the great reaction that gathered steam in the decades leading up to 2000.

Isn't it convenient that our turning points happened at centuries' ends? Except, of course, they didn't. Now, the first (small "d") democratic revolution in America was indeed the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams for the Presidency. Yet Agre misses the equally important Jacksonian revolution of the 1820's. The whole period from the end of the Mexican War to the end of Reconstruction - with the Civil War in the middle - was also revolutionary. The biggest realigning election in American history until 1932 occurred not in 1900, but in 1896, in which the Republican Party established its new identity as the Party of Business rather than what it had been, the Party of (Northern) regional resistance to southern intransigence (immortalized in the derogatory appellation "rum, Romanism, and rebellion" attached to the Democratic Party by Republican Presidential candidate James Blaine). Finally there were the reactions to the whole Progressive Era-First World War from 1919 to 1930, and the emergence of the New Deal coalition in response to the Great Depression.

By contrast, the slowly morphing of the Republican Party from its Establishment base ("Rockefeller Republicans") to the vast right-wing conspiracy with which we live today happened over the period of Richard Nixon's election in 1968 to Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, with the final icing being complete with the 1994 mid-term switch of party control in the House of Representatives. Please note that all but one of these developments occurred in years other than those stated by Agre. Also, please note that the political realignments and reactions were the result of social changes that had been accruing for years. The political result of the social changes was usually the final signal that the changes through which the nation was moving were complete, as various groups and coalitions accepted their allegiance to one political party or label or another. Conservative political thought, as it has been traditionally understood, played no part in any of these various socio-political moments. At least, most historians do not think they did, and there is little evidence that they did.

Rather, what has been in contention has been two different strands of political liberalism. Both of these are rooted in the political thought of British theorists from John Locke to John Stuart Mill, as well as French philosophe Montesquieu. In one strand, the tendency has been to focus on the "natural" aspects of social life, and the ways in which interference in such "natural" processes is harmful. This particular strand was given a boost by the theorizing of (poorly named) Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer in the 19th century.

The other strand of political liberalism stressed the reciprocity involved in the contractual nature of American political organization, and the obligations various sectors of society owed each other. Rooted not just in philosophy, this strand also relied upon readings of the United States Constitution to uphold their arguments that American political life is not constituted of atomized individuals, but is rather an interconnected web of groups, each of which has been granted certain privileges (or had its rights recognized, in other more literal readings) in exchange for the carrying out of certain obligatory social acts.

The former reading is what most in the United States call "conservative". The latter is what is called "liberal". In fact, both are strands of traditional liberal political thought, and highlight the difficulties and contradictions inherent in liberalism, understood from a traditional point of view.

I'm really not sure what Agre is talking about here. I am only slightly mollified by the notion that he doesn't really know, either. That he moves on manfully, however, is testimony only to the bravery of ignorance, rather than to the wisdom of his insight.

I want to quote a longish paragraph from his discussion of what Agre sees as the political revolution of 1900, because the last sentence contains a howler that needs to be addressed.
The complicated institutional and ideological events of this era can be understood in microcosm through the subsequent history of the word "liberal", which forked into two quite different meanings. The word "liberal" had originally been part of an intramural dispute within the conservative alliance between the aristocracy and the rising business class. Their compromise, as I have noted, is that the aristocracy would maintain its social control for the benefit of both groups mainly through psychological means rather than through terror, and that economic regulation would henceforth be designed to benefit the business class. And both of these conditions would perversely be called "freedom". The word "liberal" thus took its modern meaning in a struggle against the aristocracy's control of the state. Around 1900, however, the corporation emerged in a society in which democracy was relatively strong and the aristocracy was relatively weak. Antitrust and many other types of state regulation were not part of traditional aristocratic control, but were part of democracy. And this is why the word "liberal" forked. Democrats continued using the word in its original sense, to signify the struggle against aristocracy, in this case the new aristocracy of corporate power. Business interests, however, reinvented the word to signify a struggle against something conceptualized very abstractly as "government". In reality the new business meaning of the word, as worked out in detail by people like Hayek, went in an opposite direction from its original meaning: a struggle against the people, rather than against the aristocracy.(emphasis added)

Friedrich von Hayek was an economist from Europe, a refugee from Nazi tyranny, who wrote his most important and influential works in the 1940's. His popular writings involved a European perspective on European events. Indeed, he wrote an essay entitled "Why I am Not a Conservative" to point out to American audiences that he was not, in fact, a conservative, but firmly with the tradition of Enlightenment liberalism that was at the root of the American political experiment.

Somehow, I do not think he had any influence on events in 1900.

Were I a college professor and been given this paper, right here at this point I would give it an "F". Yet, Agre moves gamely on, not worrying over much about such a historical miscue as this.

Along with his (a)historical review of America, Agre has an additional historical section, entitled "The Discovery of Democracy". It starts out with a couple paragraphs so remarkably ignorant one wonders how a person could write them with a straight face:
Humanity has struggled for thousands of years to emerge from the darkness of conservatism. At every step of the way, conservatism has always had the advantage of a long historical learning curve. There have always been experts in the running of conservative society. Most of the stupid mistakes have been made and forgotten centuries ago. Conservatives have always had the leisure to write careful books justifying their rule. Democracy, by contrast, is still very much in an experimental phase. And so, for example, the 1960's were one of the great episodes of civilization in human history, and they were also a time when people did a lot of stupid things like take drugs.

The history of democracy has scarcely been written.
Of what has been written, the great majority of "democratic theory" is based on the ancient Greek model of deliberative democracy. Much has been written about the Greeks' limitation of citizenship to perhaps 10% of the population. But this is not the reason why the Greek model is inapplicable to the modern world. The real reason is that Greek democracy was emphatically predicated on a small city-state of a few thousand people, whereas modern societies have populations in the tens and hundreds of millions.

Lower-case "r" republican political theorizing was revived in Italy by Machiavelli, and moved north to such persons as Grotius and Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu - during the 16th and 17th centuries. By the time Edmund Burke was writing his musings of the French Revolution (usually considered the most concise statement of conservative political thought in the English language) and Joseph de Maistre was writing, in exile in Russia, on the necessity of hierarchy and violence as tools of social control, political liberalism had been well-established, and even given birth to the American experiment, as well as the not-quite-as-humane French Revolution and First Republic. In other words, contemporary conservative political thought is actually younger, historically speaking, than liberal political thought. Its patrimony is more distinguished and diverse; while Burke is to be admired for many reasons, de Maistre has been villified, quite rightly in my estimation, by many, including Isaiah Berlin for, among other sins, being an early theorist of what emerged in the 20th century as fascism (Berlin also thinks Burke's writings should be lumped with de Maistre's; I disagree).

There were precursors to much of what became Enlightenment political liberalism as early as the 13th century, when theologian and philosopher William Ockham, writing in exile and on the run from Papal authorities in Avignon, penned several treatises on the right of resistance to tyranny. Erasmus, the cynical interlocutor of, among others Martin Luther, is considered the father and founder of an entire strain of Catholic humanist thought that emerged through the 17th century, culminating in St. Ignatius Loyola and the founding of the Society of Jesus.

To say that, somehow, "the history of democracy has scarcely been written" is just a whopper. To say that the 1960's were a grand experiment in popular democracy that is marred only by massive drug use is equally stupid, and ignorant.

American leftists and liberals deserve better than garbage like this as a defense. Even a popular rendering of the history of conservative political thought, and a critique of it, should have some intellectual merit to it. This is the meandering musings of someone who is sitting around pulling stuff out of his ass and typing it after he wipes it off and sets it next to his keyboard.

Tomorrow (thankfully) we come to the end - Agre's prescription for doing battle with the centuries-long conspiracy of conservatism that includes The Wall Street Journal op-ed page. And, some final, concluding remarks.

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