Understanding Conservatism in 2017

In the current historical moment, in which far right movements are on the rise throughout the post-industrial world, from Trump to UKIP and the looming threat of a Marine Le Pen presidency in France, it behooves us to attempt to understand conservatism as an ideology and political philosophy. While these far right movements bear little resemblance to the typical orientation and comportment of mainstream conservative parties, they are related and are in competition with one another for ascendency on the “right” side of the political spectrum. In what follows I want to make the argument that there is no single unified conservative ideology, but rather that conservatism is best understood when it is broken up into two dominant strands. The first I refer to as dispositional conservatism and the other is ideological conservatism. Modern conservative parties are typically an amalgam of these two strands. Furthermore, I will argue that the relative disappearance of the dispositional strand from mainstream conservative politics is very dangerous for the health of post-industrial democracies.

Dispositional Conservatism

First, we should distinguish between the dispositional and ideological strands of conservatism. The dispositional strand of conservatism can be identified with the intellectual tradition of Burke, Oakeshott and Scruton, among others and the politics of Disraeli and Diefenbaker. This strand of conservatism is very suspicious of radically altering society based on abstract notions of freedom and justice, and wants to preserve what is valuable in existing social and economic institutions. It is an avowedly anti-revolutionary creed which sees the existing society as imperfect, but believes that significantly changing the society is likely to lead to more bad than good. This tradition was formed in reaction to the horrific things done in the name of equality, freedom and brotherhood during the French Revolution and is deeply sceptical of the power of reason to allow us to create a perfect or near perfect society. As a result it favours maintaining the status quo and minor gradual changes to deep restructuring.

This form of conservatism is peculiar because it has no inherent policy prescriptions. This is part of the reason why Anglo-American conservatism differs so fundamentally from conservatism in countries with a stronger Catholic heritage. In the former what needs to be preserved is a welfare statist liberal market society founded upon individual right and the rule of law as this constitutes the existing status quo. Whereas in countries where Catholicism is a stronger force, like France, Germany and Italy what is preserved includes support for individual rights and the rule of law, but also a corporatist order founded on the obligations of classes to one another and noblesse oblige.

As a result, from a dispositional conservative perspective, the demand for privatization and the assault on the welfare state is not conservative. Its aim is to radically alter society to bring it in line with free markets. Conservatives whose primary allegiance is to free markets as opposed to preserving the existing order are not part of the dispositional strand of conservatism. This partially explains the irony that the first modern welfare states did not come to fruition under the rule of liberals or socialists, but under the corporatist-conservative state of Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck saw welfare policy as a way of ensuring the loyalty of citizens to the German community in the face of the individualizing and deracinating forces of capitalism that erase the bonds of local community.

Consequently, at its core, dispositional conservatism is about preserving valuable aspects of a society and its related practises and governing institutions. I call it dispositional conservatism because it reflects an attitude towards change and the public good rather than a formal set of propositions.

Ideological Conservatism

Ideological conservatism on the other hand is support for policies that are typically associated with the right side of the political spectrum. These policies include support for free enterprise, a relatively non-intrusive state, non-governmental communal associations as the locus of social assistance (churches, families and other voluntary/philanthropic associations), encouragement of the dominance of the existing morality and religion within the society, as well as an overarching concern for maintaining security and order. These policies prescriptions are not held by all conservatives as ideological conservatism is a broad church. Neoconservatives, Paleoconservatives, Red Tories and Liberal Conservatives tend to disagree on policy specifics. But the policy prescriptions outlined above do suggest a variety of policy issues that are central to conservative politics in post-industrial societies.

In this light, ideological conservatism is defined more by support for a specific set of policy prescriptions than a fundamental attitude towards social change.

As a result ideological conservatives are not necessarily dispositional conservatives and vice versa. For example, some ideological conservatives wage war on government as a mere nuisance that should be made as small as possible in societies in which the modern bureaucratic state has been fundamental to the way of life of the society since the early 20th century. Their concern here is not preserving what is of value within existing societal practises and institutions but fidelity to the principal that government is a necessary evil and should be as minimal as possible. Where agencies are acting for conservative causes but doing so not preserve, but to remake, they are not reflecting a dispositional conservative, but an ideological conservative ethos.

Where are we now and why does this matter?

While, the policy prescriptions of recent far right movements that we have seen come to prominence are not identical with typical ideological conservatives, they certainly share a family resemblance with a couple of qualifications. For the sake of simplicity I refer to these emergent far right movements as right wing neopopulists. These qualifications are that right wing neopopulists are far more overtly xenophobic and relatedly are uncomfortable with a globalized economy.   They certainly support free enterprise and markets, but within the borders of the national state, not across the globe. In this sense, the recent emergence of right wing neopopulism has pushed the ideological right in a more xenophobic and nationalistic direction, but outside of this significant shift, there have not been huge qualitative shifts within other areas of policy. Donald Trump is very different from Ronald Reagan on immigration and the role of trade, but the two share general support for capitalism, the primacy of order and security, the dominance of existing form of Christianity and morality and the deregulation of the economy. Thus, there is a significant degree of continuity from an ideological perspective between of mainstream conservatism and right wing neopopulism.

However, right wing neopopulism in all of its guises is radically opposed to dispositional conservatism. A fundamental aspect of the right wing neopopulist point of view is not to preserve what we have, but to get back the jobs and greatness that we have lost. Right wing neopopulism necessarily sees the existing society as something of a wasteland that needs to be redeemed; it is not just that the existing social institutions in danger, but that they work against the people and must be radically restructured. In this regard, right wing neopopulists do not reflect the dispositional conservative attitude.

At this point someone might object that right wing neopopulists are concerned with preservation as they want to preserve their countries against the influx of the problematic customs of particular types of foreigners. There is a certain sense in which it is true that right wing neopopulists do oppose the change of the customs of their society, but it is important that they do not want to preserve the existing customs, but return to an imagined period of glory and excellence. For example, a period when America was great. In this regard they are not preservationists but restorationists. They want to restore the nation to the way of life that made it great rather than preserving valuable social institutions. This is why in a very basic sense right wing neopopulists are reactionaries as opposed conservatives. Their aim is constructed in reaction and opposition to the status quo, rather than in preservation of the valuable elements of the status quo.

In light of the preceding, the distinction between ideological and dispositional conservatism helps us to understand right wing neopopulism as a phenomena that shares certain features with typical conservatism, but radically departs from the dispositional aspect of conservatism. This understanding is helpful because it provides us with an understanding of what is lost when the political right moves towards right wing neopopulism beyond the obvious fact that we are seeing a more crass political discourse, which is more thoroughly invaded by misogyny, and racism.

What is lost is the attitude of the dispositionally conservative citizen; instead it is replaced with the attitude of the right wing zealot. The right wing zealot merely wants to remake society in their desired image; they do not operate with a thought of what is best for this specific political order given its history, mores and demography. Instead they want to create a pure society that matches their intuitions and desires.

We need dispositionally conservative citizens as an integral part of the political order as they provide the caution that tempers the hubris that suggests to us that is easy to correct social ills, and we just have to think and act rationally to do so. The pull to make our society more just, equal or free, needs to be tempered by the ability to preserve the social order as a whole. If it is not we are not caring for our society and the concrete beings that live in it, but showing adherence to abstract principles whether such adherence causes more harm than good.

Dispositional conservatives may overstate what is required to preserve social order, but by pointing us to the question of care for an existing set of social institutions they point us to a very important issue. The dispositional conservative attitude is an important safeguard against the sway of adherence to doctrinal purity and abstract ideology. As a result the fact that right wing neopopulism erodes the dispositional aspect of conservatism makes it extraordinarily dangerous for post-industrial democracies.

As most readers of this blog know I am far from a conservative, but I have genuine sympathies with dispositional conservatism, because I too see the social order as a fragile thing to be preserved even when it is imperfect. It is in this light that I am horrified by the rise of right wing neopopulism. Post-industrial societies are socially unjust and problematic in many respects, but their support for individual freedom, equality and material well being make them something that must be preserved against the vilification of right wing neopopulism.

Advertisements

On the Ideologue

It seems to me that one of the most troubling elements of the politics of post-industrial societies is the centrality of the ideologue. In this entry I want to discuss what makes the ideologue distinctive, highlight one reason why they seem to be central to the politics of post-industrial societies and show why the centrality of the ideologue is problematic. In addition it seems that while there are things that can be done to diminish the centrality of the ideologue, these actions may threaten other important goods that we deeply value.

What does it mean to be an ideologue? At a superficial level it seems to simply be someone who follows a particular ideology, but being an ideologue is far more than this. The ideologue not only has strong commitments and systematic beliefs, rather they view their beliefs as somehow sacred and inviolable. Consequently, anyone who denies a facet of their beliefs is deemed impure and unworthy of dialogue. The ideologue does not wish to discuss with those who oppose them. They wish to negate this opponent as the ideologue’s set of beliefs represent a higher truth. For example, many activists of all political stripes have this kind of attitude. Many activists’ concern is not with hearing out those who have opposing beliefs to see if they have any valid concerns, but with tactically ensuring that those who oppose them have no influence on society.

The ideologue seems to be a central figure within politics of post-industrial societies. Within these societies political parties are ideologically oriented and other features of political life including the media, lobbying and activism all seem to reflect ideological divides. Our political life is not one in which equal citizens confront each other to figure out what is in the interest of all, but instead is one in which people enter the sphere as bearers of ideology who must fight and negate those who oppose them.

The preceding raises the questions of why the ideologue is so central to our political life. There are numerous factors that affect this including capitalism and technological development but I want to highlight one other factor, and that factor is desire for societal purity.

Within post-industrial societies people must live together who have very different understandings of what matters; Christians, Secularists, Wiccans all must live together according to the same rules. In these societies the overall societal structure is not meant to reflect the commitments or beliefs of any particular group, but rather be something that is mutually agreeable to all of the groups within society. For example, the formal structure of the state of the United States or Canada is not supposed to reflect the beliefs of Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus, but rather supposed to reflect a form of government that any reasonable person could agree to.  The tendency for citizens to become ideologues in this environment is intense as people have deep commitments and beliefs and see elements of society that offend against, or violate these beliefs. In reaction to these elements of society that offend against their beliefs many in post-industrial societies will come to desire to see society reflect their image of the good so that the society they live in more accurately corresponds with their most fundamental beliefs and values. Underlying this push to have society reflect one’s deepest commitments is the desire for societal purity. In itself there is nothing wrong with this desire as it is the very same desire that draws us closer to the good, and commands us to try to make our society more just, humane and fair, as part of the reason that we want to do these things to ensure that we build a more pure and consequently better society. But this desire can also direct us to merely wish to transform without due consideration of whether we have the right to make society in the image of our understanding of the good, and if we have something to learn from others about the nature of the good. Consequently, the desire for societal purity seems to form a significant part of the reason for the centrality of the ideologue within the political life of post-industrial societies.

One reason why the centrality of the ideologue to politics in post-industrial societies is deeply problematic is because it prevents the political community from becoming or maintaining its status as a community of respect. A community of respect is one in which people see others as participants in a project to create a just community. These others must be worked with, rather than being defeated and must be seen as being worth listening to. Or to put this slightly differently, the form of respect that is central to a community of respect extends beyond the respect required for someone to refrain from coercing, or manipulating another, but rather requires a more positive affirmation of the other as a collaborative participant who one can possibly learn from.

The ideologue as a central element of political life negates this community of respect because when we see those who oppose our beliefs as merely enemies to be overcome then we will not try to hear them out and consequently not fully respect them. In such a situation, those with opposing views merely become impediments to our will that must be combatted with. We may not want to physically harm these interlocutors or opponents, but nonetheless we do not see them as contributive members of a collaborative project. Consequently, the ideologue is a problem for post-industrial societies as their influence makes it that much more difficult for societies to transform themselves into communities of respect.

It seems to me that the problem with the ideologue is a matter of character, more than of particular beliefs. The ideologue is arrogant and self-satisfied. They are arrogant and self-satisfied in that they think they hold the fundamental truth, and do not even think it is possible that people with opposing beliefs could be right. It is these qualities of arrogance and self-satisfaction that drives the ideologue to deal with opposing perspectives in the way that they do. If you are arrogant and self-satisfied than it becomes nearly impossible to see those who oppose you as contributing participants in a common project who must be collaborated with and listened to as you clearly know the truth and what needs to be done.

If the problem with the ideologue is a matter of character this creates a quite troubling problem for post-industrial societies. On one hand it means that the answer to the problem of the ideologue is to ensure that citizens do not become arrogant or self-satisfied. But the question is how does the state do this without infringing on the ability of individuals to be self-determining? Using state policies to encourage certain traits and discourage other traits may be justifiable, but it also concentrates power in the hands of the state and seems to limit individuals of their ability to develop themselves according to their own vision of the good. Can such limitations of individual development be justified because these limitations are necessary for the creation of a community of respect? While I lean towards saying yes to this question, as I think there are forms of policy that can help to discourage self-satisfaction and arrogance without significantly limiting individual development (ie compulsory civil service, participation in juries), there is a danger with any such attempt to have the state inculcate certain traits of endangering the freedom of individuals to develop themselves.

Please feel free to respond with your own answers to any, or all of, the following questions.

  • How do you understand the ideologue?
  • Why do you think the ideologue is a central element of post industrial societies? Is this problematic? Why?
  • Are the ideologue’s beliefs or character what drives his or her problematic actions?
  • How would you deal with the problem of the ideologue? Is it a problem that should be addressed through governmental policy?

 

Some Thoughts on Political Idealism and Prudence

There is a tendency for activists and ideologues to try to apply their political ideal to every society, no matter what conditions that society finds itself in. I will claim that it is problematic to apply a political ideal to a society through political action without confirming that this change is sustainable for the society given its culture, customs and the dispositions of its citizens. That this seems to be the case can be accounted for both by an examination of history, as well as through a theoretical examination. From a historical perspective one tends to see that when a political ideal is applied without recourse to the actual conditions of a society the consequences tend to be poor. In the case of the French Revolution the Jacobins tried to apply a political ideal based on popular sovereignty onto a society of peasants who had little experience with political activity and being viewed as a singular collective body that ruled itself. The people recognized that they were in some sense sovereign, but what that sovereignty meant in institutional terms was not clear. The results of the French Revolution (The Terror and the Rise of Napoleon) were terrible in part because revolutionaries had tried to apply a political ideal that was quite unrelated to the experiences, culture, and dispositions of the French state at the time. Thus, this example seems to suggest that there is something problematic about applying a political ideal to a society without ensuring that this society has the resources (culture, virtues and customs) to support this change.  Furthermore, examples of this sort are manifest throughout history.

On a more theoretical level one can see how problematic it is to apply a political ideal to a society without recourse to thinking about the actual conditions of the society by referencing the assumptions underlying this activity. In order for it to be a prudent course of action to apply a political ideal to a society without referencing that society’s ability to make that ideal sustainable all societies would need to be able to support all forms of politics, and all societies would need to be obligated to practise the same form of politics. Or political activity would need to have the capacity to make any political ideal sustainable society within any form of society. The first option seems implausible as differing sets of civic dispositions are necessary to support differing forms of constitutions. A commercial, liberal democracy requires civility, industriousness, and compassion while a martial aristocracy like Sparta required courage and harshness. Trying to make Spartans out of Canadians would certainly be ill-conceived. We might try to encourage Canadians to be more courageous by learning about the courage of the Spartans, but to try to apply the Spartan ideal to Canada would be dangerous and imprudent. The second option seems implausible because it exemplifies a perverse form of hubris. Man is not completely under the sway of fate or providence, but to suggest that any ideal can be applied and sustained in any society seems to put too much faith in the human ability to control nature and society.  

None of this suggests that ideals are bad. We are moved by them, and they give us something by which we can critique the present. But it displays a great lack of mindfulness to apply them without asking if a society can support that ideal and make it sustainable. This lack of mindfulness may be accompanied by a pure heart, but this pure heart does not make the lack of mindfulness any more excusable or legitimate. We certainly should devote our energy to improving society, but this should always be done in a way that tries to ask what future is sustainable for this political community at this particular point in history.