Monday, January 15, 2018

Is Conservatism a Thing?

Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, 1877, by Robert Antoine Muller, via

A lengthy comment from Jordan:
Maybe I'm in a contrary mood but despite the tremendous intelligence and accuracy of what both you and Jim are saying, I must emphatically disagree.
There is conservatism that's real. It's coherent and clear doctrine, and it's useful to ask and answer the question. Whenever I'm talking to conservatives -- just like when, say, talking to Evangelical Christians or Nazis or predatory capitalists or anarchists -- whether they're smart or dumb, erudite or ignorant, old or young, they all are saying the same thing.
What's happening in this thread is totally legitimate: you, Jim and I all disagree with Conservatism because we can see what's wrong with it; we know how it doesn't work, how it works by means of false or contradictory assumptions, how it falls apart when applied to reality...we can win the argument (which I've done, many times, just, presumably, as have you).
But you have to start with both positions on the playing field before one of them defeats the other. You have to let both attorneys make their cases -- you can't just object throughout the defense attorney's opening statement because the guy is guilty and why are we wasting our time with this sophistry.
Let them build the house and then, only then, let us tear it down. Let them say that all of their ideas of fairness and distribution of wealth and aid and education are based on meritocracy, as opposed to ours (because they do, they really do, whether they're truck drivers or billionaire donors), and, once we all agree that this is their position, we tear them down by showing how it doesn't work; how Brooks (say) reveals its self-contradiction...just like a really smart atheist can make a fundamentalist question his faith.
OK, so you're making me trot out old Marx again, and the base and superstructure story.

At its heart, conservatism at any time is not a set of "ideas" on the best way to organize a society. It is an anxiety on the part of a dominant class, a fear that its position is threatened, especially (starting in Western Europe in the era of the Enlightenment) when it is threatened not by military force (or military force alone) but by ideas, public opinion, and eventually elections.

The intellectual project of conservatism—ideology—is a "superstructure" built to hide this unappealing raw determination to hold on to power from the people who are being shut out: the production of "false consciousness" in the public, to persuade it to vote against its own interests. From Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre through Russell Kirk and Ayn Rand to Bannon and Frum, it's always been impossible for them to come up with a coherent singular account of what's the best way to organize a society, because that's not their actual aim. They're obliged to pretend it's their aim in their writing, but they're truly not interested in the finding the best way, but preserving and concentrating their power in the suboptimal way that already exists. Which is changing all the time anyway.

Thus, to take a really obvious example, black chattel slavery in the American South was a threatened element in the base in the 1840s and 1850s, and conservatives of the time came up with all sorts of "ideological" explanations for why it should be maintained: that it was mandated in the Bible, that racial inferiority made the enslaved unfit for freedom, that enslavement provided a better life than they would have had in Africa, even that it's just good for the economy (as Thornton points out in comments), the way 21st-century conservatives speak of cutting rich people's taxes. After the war and Emancipation, this already incoherent system of rationalizations became more or less irrelevant and various conservative accounts of the new situation arose: another economistic one (focusing on maintaining the "efficiencies" of the old plantation system in the new sharecropping system), a sentimental one (focusing on the mythology of nobility in the Confederacy and unifying the old aristocracy with poor whites who had their own conservative anxiety from the threat of black people asserting equality), a Republican one after the end of Reconstruction (claiming that opposition to slavery was the "real" conservative stance). All these things are still floating around, like bits of conservative DNA, ready to be picked up and deployed, but they don't add up to anything but contradiction.

Even ideas that seem to conflict with the most sacred assumptions can come into play. Benjamin Disraeli decided on an end run around the Liberals' left when he proposed the 1867 Reform Act that gave the vote to working class male householders for the first time, which seemed like a miscalculation, since the Conservatives were overwhelmingly defeated in the 1868 general election. It was a truly big deal: only a million men were able to vote in the election that brought a Conservative government to power in 1866; almost two and a half million voted in the 1868 election that threw them out. And it led to a split in the Liberal party and the Conservatives holding power for something like 46 of the 55 years from 1874 to 1929.

Similarly, Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru demand higher taxes on the wealthy and talk about a universal basic income, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a wider range of Republicans taking these up in the near future as they regroup from the collapse of the Trumpery. But it will be in the hope of halting wider social change, some kind of actual land reform for instance in favor of affordable housing, expansions of social insurance, and defense of voting rights.

What unites them—what gives you the impression that conservatives are "saying the same thing"—is not what they support, but what they oppose, which is whatever change or progress, or broader distribution of power and wealth, can be averted at any given historical moment. Standing athwart history screaming, etc., or living in the hope of pissing liberals off, as Steve likes to say.

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