Although it’s fairly obvious that the varieties of right-wing punditry and congresspeeps likely couldn’t tell a questioner what socialism was, is, I would also suggest that it might be hard for the same to tell what conservatism itself was, is.
Of all the photos I’ve seen of members of the not-at-all silent minority, each one expressing on t-shirt and sign sentiments ranging from forthright trepidation to depraved paranoia, this photo is the one that, for me, says it all. Harkening back to previous discussion about how sentiments, (and world views and framings and the sort,) may be an aspect of allowing sensibility to be programmed–thus etched, thus unmovable–the dichotomy in the idea of hard workers/everybody else, puts the object relations in relief.
This goes back a very long way, to the 19th century in America. The following cartoons are from the collection at The Southern Labor Archives, Georgia State University.
Both cartoons are from the 1880’s.
Then there’s the resurgent idea about the salutary effects of resistance.
Plucked from Jefferson’s letter to William Smith in 1787:
“Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts? And can history produce an instance of a rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it’s motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. And what country can preserve its liberties, if it’s rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
I suspect advocates of this salutary resistance wouldn’t be able to tell you much about the so-called second American Revolution–Jefferson’s presidency–or the sweep of events leading to Jackson, then to Lincoln and the Civil War, and, soon enough to the first iteration of contemporary themes in the last four decades of the 19th century.
In our national discussion, the terminology from the right has obtained a marvelous level of conflation. What can a student of political philosophy and political economy and history say in response to Republicans musing over calling their opponents ‘socialist democrats,’ this coming on the heels of their stringing together, liberals-socialists-marxists-fascists?
However, given the demographic Waterloo the Republicans now face, rallying a few more badly educated yahoos to the rump party’s cause won’t do the trick. The Daily Show and Jon Stewart nail the actual state of the bruised Republican psyche: they’re struggling with having to cope after having lost the presidency after controlling the executive branch for 28 out of 40 years. Like it was in the era of McKinley, the country was not guided by populists, let alone Jeffersonians.
Not for nothing do some protest in knowing ways: “But, we’re not a democracy–we’re a Republic!”
The several core contradictions are delicious. I’ll gloss the context and explain why I suspect the Republican idealogues have lost their purchase on the vaunted principles of conservatism. Three features jump out above all. One, is their appeal to righteousness based in a Manichean struggle for the soul of an idealized America. Two, and related to this, is their retreaded appeal to a silent majority. And, third, is how all of this is inflected by a kind of post-modern Calvinism, and, a version of Christian ethics, removed almost completely from the communitarian Christologcal ethic, from the ethic, (so-to-speak,) of the beatitudes.
So: there is the formation of identity based in appropriation of a backward cast idealization of a monolithic golden primal age, itself–this glorious and singular past–produced by the severe Christianity of the sainted Founders. Then, it is incumbent upon the knowing patriots to–always–resist the forces of “liberal-fascist” traitors.
It goes something like this, I feel.
It is true, on the other hand, that the golden age of founding patriotism was not funded by a severe Christianity, was not in any way monolithic, (witness the gulf between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; between Alexander Hamilton and james Madison, etc.,) and would not come to a bloody clash of divergent patriotism and between patriots, until the Civil War.
(That the extremist tea party brethren reject Christian brotherhood in favor of personal responsibility-fueled social darwinism is remarkable too.)
What ideas brought this about?
Although it could be said to be time-honored that ancient conceptions of conservatism do pose a struggle between truth and falsehood, between the superior and the inferior, between the wise and the foolish, a Manichean struggle to a finish over these points of contention is frozen out in the structuring of our Republican form of governance. Say what you will about the foundational value of olden tradition, founding American values, especially the ones about the people governing themselves–these values stand against the severities implicit in rule by a backward-facing, absolute truth knowing, prudent, wise, superior statist elite of the left, or the right. Ha! All things in moderation: ‘in the middle,’ via negotiation and compromise and sacrifice on both sides.
Yet, the powerful programming of ideas into and in the varieties of factional psyche is evident, and generates powerful effects. This is easily seen on both sides, when “principle” is employed to sucker ideological fundamentalists into supporting populist agendas, be the agenda conservative or liberal. Then, once the legislative majority is obtained, out go the principles and the populism. The principles can’t be finally and forever sorted out, but a populist agenda may be sorted out–as long as one is willing to vote the con men out of office. This doesn’t happen much anymore.
Beware the idealization of principles, and, beware of the fantasy supposing our form of government is about vanquishing ideological enemies once and for all. Against righteous ‘classically conservative’ foundationalism and traditionalism stand the contra-principles of our founding value set and, among many such principles, stands its radical principle of equality. This single principles gives the boot to any superior principle able to fuel a Manichean zero-sum battle. So it is: George Washington didn’t get crowned; whatever the flux of Judeo-Christian principles might be, no theocracy is to emerge; and, founding principles are subject to later pragmatic modification-this granted by the possibility that the major people may change their major minds.
Trusting in the wisdom of any mob is anathema to the precedents of classical conservatism. American conservatism has always wrestled with the inhering contradictions that come along with how uneasily classical conservatism rests with the funding radically liberal wisdom of the “winning” founders. Something is embraced, but it’s not the wisdom of the ancients. Sorry, but John Dewey is ideationally much closer to Jefferson, than is Aristotle.
Certainly Christological values are talked up. Not walked, but talked. It’s hard to see those ethics as centering conservative values. Jesus himself was somewhat the radical liberal liberator. Still, Christological values do not put on offer, for example: the ownership society, an avarice fueled meritocracy or aristocracy, social darwinism, and doing to others what surely one would not want done to themselves. Ironically, personal responsibility is crucial to Christian ethics, but it’s embedded in a communitarian movement, (that eventually was defused by decadent Popery and the self-serving neo-traditionalism of Christian orthodoxies.) I point this out because the value-laden collectivism made explicit in the social gospel is–how shall I say?–rather ‘socialistic.’
If not on traditionalism, and, if not on communal Christianity, then where might conservative values hang their hat?
What possibly could be attractive about philosophical pessimism morphed into plain meanness? I heard a radio commentator say a few years ago something along the lines of: “Life is hard. Any sensible person will plan for the worst. All attempts to protect the bankrupt, the persons without insurance, the unemployed, work against people being responsible for their life.”
Oh yeah, personal responsibility. Work ethic. In the second half of the 19th century the battle lines were drawn. Literally: “shut up and do your job!” Like Ivan Illich, I would suggest that allegiance to work ethic alone is contra-liberty.
Nostalgia? McKinley was Karl Rove’s favorite President, so we know about that. Reagan-some might draw him into this consideration. But he was every bit the post-modernist and post-conservative. He was: a spend and borrower on a gigantic scale; a son of Hollywood with his own post-nuclear family; a militarist and death dealer; not pious or a traditionalist; badly educated; a social engineer; a corporatist and corporate welfarist; and, to frost everything, he was an extreme anti-constitutionalist. To his credit, when caught running an illegal shadow military op, he did say, ‘The buck stops with me.’
It is not configured in any way to be wisely deployed in a Republic or democracy. In fact, modern democracy of our American kind is stood up against all varieties of precisely this, ‘Cheneyesque,’ pretention to any assertion of monarch-like, kingly, power. Any such attempts on the part of persons who self-select to the grown-up mantle, next require compliance and next require their work to be done in secret, is more fit to the rule of. . .say a place like Saudi Arabia. To borrow from Colonel Pat Lang, there’s a Jacobin streak in Cheney–rule by secret committee–and I’d like to add a bit of a Wahhabi streak in Cheney too!
I’m just following the descent. You come quickly to the crazed inanities spilt from some endless reservoir of stupid by the likes of Michelle Bachman, james Imhofe and Jim DeMint. yes, possible to be dishonest to a heavy fault. But mendacity as a marketing tactic? Are the kids really to be marched to re-education camps?
Eventually this crosses into the wickedly conspiratorial Paultardery, and conspiracy mongering, and then percolates back up to provide fumes for the Manichean meme to run on. A death match with the remnants, (apologies to Albert Jay Nock,) of the hippie era? The brew is conspiratorial paranoia.
I’m speaking here of, in our day, the already arid post-conservatism. It seems that good ol’ conservatism never reached any historical hyperion of virtue and prudence against which a measure of contemporary decadence could be quantified. Alas, post-conservatism isn’t even decadent. It’s desiccated, hysteric, paranoid, and, ultimately, buried deep in its collective psyche, is its lonely soul. Personified by Glenn Beck–the one who brings all the incoherent strands together.
This is too bad. Russell Kirk must be spinning in his grave.
Ten Conservative Principles by Russell Kirk Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata. So far as it is possible to determine what conservatives believe, the first principles of the conservative persuasion are derived from what leading conservative writers and public men have professed during the past two centuries. After some introductory remarks on this general theme, I will proceed to list ten such conservative principles.
Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use this word “conservative” as an adjective chiefly. For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order. The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.
In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night. (Yet conservatives know, with Burke, that healthy “change is the means of our preservation.”) A people’s historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers. But of course there is more to the conservative persuasion than this general attitude.
It is not possible to draw up a neat catalogue of conservatives’ convictions; nevertheless, I offer you, summarily, ten general principles; it seems safe to say that most conservatives would subscribe to most of these maxims. In various editions of my book The Conservative Mind I have listed certain canons of conservative thought—the list differing somewhat from edition to edition; in my anthology The Portable Conservative Reader I offer variations upon this theme. Now I present to you a summary of conservative assumptions differing somewhat from my canons in those two books of mine. In fine, the diversity of ways in which conservative views may find expression is itself proof that conservatism is no fixed ideology. What particular principles conservatives emphasize during any given time will vary with the circumstances and necessities of that era. The following ten articles of belief reflect the emphases of conservatives in America nowadays.
First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent. This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato taught this doctrine, but even the educated nowadays find it difficult to understand. The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics. Our twentieth-century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order. Like the atrocities and disasters of Greece in the fifth century before Christ, the ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self- interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an oldfangled moral order. It has been said by liberal intellectuals that the conservative believes all social questions, at heart, to be questions of private morality. Properly understood, this statement is quite true. A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be. Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire. It is through convention—a word much abused in our time—that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties: law at base is a body of conventions. Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation; it matters as much for society as it does for the individual; without it, life is meaningless. When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.
Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. Thus the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls. Human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically. The continuity, the life-blood, of a society must not be interrupted. Burke’s reminder of the necessity for prudent change is in the mind of the conservative. But necessary change, conservatives argue, ought to he gradual and discriminatory, never unfixing old interests at once.
Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore conservatives very often emphasize the importance of prescription—that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary. There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights to property, often. Similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part. Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste. It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis
new discoveries in morals or politics or taste. It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality. The individual is foolish, but the species is wise, Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.
Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.
Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.
Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent—or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell. Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built. The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth. Economic levelling, conservatives maintain, is not economic progress. Getting and spending are not the chief aims of human existence; but a sound economic basis for the person, the family, and the commonwealth is much to be desired.
Sir Henry Maine, in his Village Communities, puts strongly the case for private property, as distinguished from communal property: “Nobody is at liberty to attack several property and to say at the same time that he values civilization. The history of the two cannot be disentangled.” For the institution of several property—that is, private property—has been a powerful instrument for teaching men and women responsibility, for providing motives to integrity, for supporting general
teaching men and women responsibility, for providing motives to integrity, for supporting general culture, for raising mankind above the level of mere drudgery, for affording leisure to think and freedom to act. To be able to retain the fruits of one’s labor; to be able to see one’s work made permanent; to be able to bequeath one’s property to one’s posterity; to be able to rise from the natural condition of grinding poverty to the security of enduring accomplishment; to have something that is really one’s own—these are advantages difficult to deny. The conservative acknowledges that the possession of property fixes certain duties upon the possessor; he accepts those moral and legal obligations cheerfully.
Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger. Whatever is beneficent and prudent in modern democracy is made possible through cooperative volition. If, then, in the name of an abstract Democracy, the functions of community are transferred to distant political direction—why, real government by the consent of the governed gives way to a standardizing process hostile to freedom and human dignity. For a nation is no stronger than the numerous little communities of which it is composed. A central administration, or a corps of select managers and civil servants, however well intentioned and well trained, cannot confer justice and prosperity and tranquility upon a mass of men and women deprived of their old responsibilities. That experiment has been made before; and it has been disastrous. It is the performance of our duties in community that teaches us prudence and efficiency and charity.
Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. Politically speaking, power is the ability to do as one likes, regardless of the wills of one’s fellows. A state in which an individual or a small group are able to dominate the wills of their fellows without check is a despotism, whether it is called monarchical or aristocratic or democratic. When every person claims to be a power unto himself, then society falls into anarchy. Anarchy never lasts long, being intolerable for everyone, and contrary to the ineluctable fact that some persons are more strong and more clever than their neighbors. To anarchy there succeeds tyranny or oligarchy, in which power is monopolized by a very few.
The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. In every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage. It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands. In the name of liberty, the French and Russian revolutionaries abolished the old restraints upon power; but power cannot be abolished; it always finds its way into someone’s hands. That power which the revolutionaries had thought oppressive in the hands of the old regime became many times as tyrannical in the hands of the radical new masters of the state.
Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order. A just government maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty.
Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects. The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.
Therefore the intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.
Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.
Such, then, are ten principles that have loomed large during the two centuries of modern conservative thought. Other principles of equal importance might have been discussed here: the conservative understanding of justice, for one, or the conservative view of education. But such subjects, time running on, I must leave to your private investigation.
The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.
Adapted from The Politics of Prudence (ISI Books, 1993