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.

Commodification and Amusement: Postman on Television and Print Media

Recently, I finished reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. While this work was published in the 1980s and focuses on analyzing the effects of the rise television as the dominant mode of communication on public discourse, it still raise many insightful points. Postman’s central argument is that the typographic age of the 18th century (the age of the printed word) was able to foster rational argument, and a healthy democratic discourse while the age of television fails in this regard as we are bombarded with incoherent mixed messages, information for information’s sake and even when television tries to be serious it fails, because even the most serious program must be entertaining. Television as a medium cannot escape from the fact that it is a vehicle for amusement or entertainment. All of these points seem to me to be more or less valid, but Postman fails markedly in describing the way that print media and television both are connected to the logic of commodification. Thus his analysis is insufficiently historical as it takes two points in history and connects them without fully establishing the relation of these historical eras to one another.

Postman does provide a historical explanation of sorts, as he points to telegraphy and photography as forerunners that began the march towards television. Telegraphy conquered space and allowed messages to be shared across far distances very quickly and easily, while photography moved the focus away from the printed word and onto the image. But unfortunately this is merely a technological explanation; it just shows that there were other technologies that arose before television that made the way for it, but it does not show why the general technological trend towards conquering space and the image themselves replaced the printed word. This would be analogous to explaining the rise of automobile merely by reference to the horsedrawn carriage, but without asking why human beings have desired to have vehicles that move them from one place to another as quickly as possible. Consequently, while he gestures towards a historical explanation he does not go into enough detail in showing the relation between the rise of print media and the rise of television.

One important factor that unites the development of print media and television that Postman does not discuss is the logic of commodification. The logic of commodification renders all things whether tangible or intangible into objects that can be bought and sold on the market. This logic seems to be built into capitalism itself as more and more objects, ideas and practises are transformed into something that can be sold at a profit. The idea of selling bodily fluids would be unheard of in the 18th century for numerous reasons while today this is a common practise in the USA. The rise of the commodification of bodily matter cannot be disconnected from the rise of print media and television as a dominant mode of communication, as both are linked to an overarching trend in which all relations must be modeled on the relationship between commodities and buyers and sellers.

One way in which Postman fails to identify the link between the logic of commodification and the emergence of television is that Postman compares the typographic medium with television as if they were polar opposites, rather than seeing that the development of the medium of print is a forerunner to the development of television in that television serves to further entrench the logic of commodification that print itself had already served to entrench.  This can be seen in the way that Postman unequivocally praises print media for its rationality while decrying all television as a mere tool for amusement; he clearly does not identify any link between the two in terms of their relation to commodification, but sees them in an almost binary fashion. However, the link between the two forms of media are quite evident as while print media in the 18th century may have had a seriousness that much television does not have, it was still a commodity. Before print, mass copies of communications could not be created and so the idea of selling communication products as a commodity to the masses made no sense. It was only after the emergence of the printing press, and written communications could be produced on a mass scale that the idea of selling communications about the events of the day as a commodity began to make sense. Before the printing press the clergy largely was occupied with maintaining knowledge through the activities of scribes and others. These groups would maintain collections, but these collections were merely a store of wisdom for the limited few with access to them, rather than a source of information to sell to people. In this sense while there are many qualitative differences between print media and television there is a deep connection between the two because they both are part of an overall development in capitalist society towards the ever growing reach of commodification.

Furthermore, if we compare television to typographic media we see the way in which television further entrenched what print media had begun to entrench. As we just noted typographic media like any other can be bought and sold, and it was bought and sold during the 18th century when it was at its peak, but because typographic media was still rooted to a particular place because of the absence of technologies like the telegraph it was not a fully mass produced commodity. In the 18th century the news in Pennsylvania covered events relating to life in that area, and in this sense information about the context of life in Pennsylvania was bought and sold, but information about life in this area was not sold to those in Copenhagen as a commodity, as there was no simple means of getting the information to Copenhagen quickly. Consequently, the sale of the information was geographically limited. Postman notes the way in which news was confined to a context of life in the typographic age, but he does not note that the decontextualization of news so that it can be sent anywhere on the world is part of the overall logic of commodification that extends from the initial step of commodifying information for sale. The movement to wider distribution of news as commodity was made possible by the telegraph, but the reason the telegraph and television caught on as an important technology for distributing news was because of the already existing historical trend towards commodification of information that the printing press had served to establish. It is somewhat doubtful that the news of the day would have become the commodity for global consumption that it has become today if print media had not already transformed information into a commodity for sale to a mass audience. Consequently, the telegraph and television merely took the logic of commodification in communications to a further limit.

Despite all that I have said above, I still think Postman’s book is worth a read, but I wish he would have spent more time discussing the way in which typographic media and television are part of the same historical trend, rather than fixating merely on the ways in which they are different. By taking this step he would have been better able to show the roots that underlie both developments.

Some thoughts on free speech, the public sphere, inclusion and virtue

Often, when someone is ridiculed for publicly saying something that others deem offensive, the person who made the initial statement claims that they have freedom of speech and thus are being unduly criticized for their statements. The response to this is typically that while people have freedom of speech they are not free from criticism and ridicule for what they say. This final response reflects the libertarian conception of free speech in which each is free to speak freely, but must deal with the fact that others can criticize them for their speech.

The libertarian conception of free speech is very intuitive in that it suggests that each should have equal liberty to express themselves, while allowing a similar liberty for others.  But if we think about what a public sphere looks like that operates according to this libertarian conception we will see that the public sphere will never be a space where everyone will feel free to express all of their beliefs. If I hold beliefs that I know others find offensive I will not feel free to express these publicly in a public sphere operating according to the libertarian conception of free speech for fear of offending people and any further consequences that flow from that offense such as diminished career opportunities. This means that creating a public sphere that allows each to speak their mind freely will not necessarily create a public sphere in which each feels free to express their beliefs.

Now of course this does not mean that the libertarian conception of free speech is problematic; it just means that societal inclusion will not be completely fostered by adopting a libertarian conception of free speech as some will always fear condemnation from the majority, at least as long there is diversity of belief. The result of this is that it seems impossible to create a public sphere that is free in the sense that each can speak their mind without legal condemnation and one in which people feel free to speak their minds.  But there seems to be a yearning for a space in which we feel completely free to express ourselves. If the public sphere cannot provide this what space or spaces will?

My provisional answer is that the public sphere is not meant to be a space where we feel free to express our deepest convictions, but instead friendships, romantic relationships and other smaller communities, such as book clubs, sports teams and political associations, form these spaces. Having people who we can talk to about our deepest beliefs without fear of judgment is deeply important as it allows us to open up to others and have authentic, genuine conversations where we fully connect with another. But, the public sphere cannot provide this space to people as the diversity of opinion within the public sphere means that being fully open about one’s beliefs will always be a challenge for some.

However, while the public sphere cannot offer a space where all can feel free to express themselves, fear of the judgment and censure of others can negatively affect the public sphere, and the political community as a whole. if people are deeply afraid to express their beliefs,  because they fear they will be ostracized or isolated ,they will not feel included in the society, and will consequently be marginalized to some extent.  So we cannot just pretend that the idea that the private sphere offers the space in which we can feel free to express ourselves is completely adequate, as this would mean that we would be condoning marginalization and exclusion within the public sphere. To my mind the solution to this issue is not to try to limit speech as this would destroy the very core of freedom of speech. Instead, one strategy that allows us to limit the pernicious effects of fear of condemnation, isolation, and ostracism for the things that one says is the encouragement of particular virtues and the discouragement of particular vices in the citizenry as a whole.

The main virtues that need to be encouraged to deal with this issue are free spiritedness and courage. Free spiritedness allows us to see that our beliefs do not need the approval of others to be valid or valuable, and courage allows us to face our fears of condemnation. These two virtues thus allow us to more strongly speak up for what we believe in, rather than just trying to say what we know will please others, and a public sphere full of these kind of voices is better than one in which people avoid saying anything that may offend others.

Similarly, the vice that needs to be discouraged to deal with this issue of inclusion is fanaticism.  By fanaticism I mean the tendency to see your beliefs as the only reasonable set of beliefs that a person can hold, such that you wish to eliminate the influence and ostracize all of those who disagree with you. If this vice is avoided, or at the very least its influence is limited, this will allow people to feel more at ease expressing their deepest beliefs because while they know that others may deeply disagree with them, they do not have to fear being ostracized, or seen as someone whose influence is toxic to the public sphere. Even if fanaticism is discouraged and free spiritedness and courage are encouraged in this way this will not mean that people will feel entirely free to express their beliefs as some beliefs will undoubtedly offend many, but it should help to foster inclusion while still allowing all to freely express their opinions.

The Freedom of the Public Sphere and Duck Dynasty: Social Opinion and Capitalism

In the last week or so there has been a lot of controversy over, Ducky Dynasty star, Phil Robertson’s comment to GQ that homosexuality is sinful. These comments suggested that homosexuality was similar to promiscuity and bestiality, and that homosexuality is essentially rooted in anal sexuality which is “not logical.” As a result of these comments A & E indefinitely suspended Phil Robertson. Robertson also made some remarks about the segregated south that suggested that blacks were not mistreated and were happy in this pre-welfare/pre-civil rights condition.

There has been outrage among Christian Conservatives suggesting that Phil Robertson is being unfairly punished for simply expressing his authentic Christian beliefs. On the other side of the political spectrum many on the left have suggested that there is nothing wrong with the suspension of Phil Robertson as he expressed hatred towards gays and therefore, while he has freedom of speech, he has to deal with the fallout that has arisen because of his comments.

I am gay and I want to firstly say that I find Robertson’s comments problematic, but not because they express hatred, but because the reveal an ill-thought out perspective on homosexuality. I am not sure if Robertson is genuinely hateful, as I have no view into his inner thoughts, but I am confident that his comments on race and homosexuality are moronic. That said, the controversy over this issue reveal a couple of problems within North American culture. The first problem is the way in which disagreements are cast in terms of hatred. The second problem which is related to, but bigger than the first, is the way that capitalism is eroding a genuine public sphere in which alternative perspectives can be engaged dialogically, rather than silenced.

In this controversy people have tried to silence Phil Robertson because he has made comments that were deemed to be hateful. The tricky issue with this is that to label someone as expressing hatred is to mark them as not worthy to be reasoned with. The person who expresses hatred can be simply silenced; they are not simply offering an alternative perspective. Rather, they are merely denigrating a group and inciting mistreatment of that group. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to know what the difference between hatred and objection is. If someone says homosexuality is sinful to my mind this may express hatred, but it could simply express the belief that homosexual desire is an affliction, just like other forms of sinful desire. And this does not necessarily mean that person hates homosexuality or wants to encourage mistreatment of homosexuals. On the other hand if someone says gays are a cancer spreading disease, they are quite clearly expressing hatred, rather than objection. Robertson’s comments fell somewhere between an objection to homosexuality and hatred of homosexuality.

So in this case it does strike me as somewhat problematic that people are saying that he has expressed hatred and on that ground he can fairly be punished with a suspension. Robertson has expressed hatred towards gays in the past, but in this case his comments while mind numbingly ignorant were not necessarily hateful. The problem with labelling people who express unpopular attitudes as haters or as “unpatriotic” as the right often does, is that it symbolically marks the person expressing the belief as someone who does not have to be argued with, and part of having a public culture that is invigorated with a love of freedom is that we confront those we disagree with, with dialogue and debate, rather than trying to silence them. There is something very unfree and authoritarian about a culture that silences those who express unpopular attitudes. Mill referred to such a culture as a tyranny of social opinion, and noted that it stifled individuality and self-development as people conformed to the dominant social opinion for conformity’s sake, rather than because they found the dominant social opinion compelling and accurate. If we silence those we disagree with, rather than confronting them with dialogue and debate we risk moving towards a tyranny of social opinion in which it is only acceptable to publicly disclose a particular set of attitudes and any other contrary attitudes are silenced. This is clearly an undesirable prospect as it would mean losing an element of our freedom. As part of what makes a society free is that disagreement is engaged with, rather than silenced.

The second problem concerns the way in which capitalism stifles free debate within the public sphere. From A&E’s perspective as a business it surely made sense to suspend Phil Robertson as they would have faced severe backlash from advertisers and others who market themselves as gay friendly. Consequently, had they not suspended Robertson they would have likely seen a drop in their revenue. The issue here is that when the public sphere is dominated by corporations and other kinds of business, these businesses often act in way that are detrimental to free debate in the public sphere, but are in the economic best interests of the company. For example, if actors know that they cannot express their beliefs in public they will either choose to pay lip service to the dominant opinion, or not express their beliefs in public and this does not help support free debate within a society. While the adoration of celebrity is problematic in certain ways, when celebrities voice their opinions freely they help to support a more vital and free debate across the public sphere, than if actors do not speak freely because they feel that their career prospects will be jeopardized by speaking freely. Likewise, due to the fact that controversy and spectacle sells much better than mundane debate, media institutions often choose to cover stories in such a way that free public debate is not supported. For example, by covering elections as if they were sporting competitions the media certainly gains revenue by making their coverage more exciting, but they fail to support free public debate by failing to look in detail at the differences between candidates and what is at stake within an election.

The value of a free public sphere that is characterized by vigorous dialogue is extraordinarily fragile. It can be eroded both by the common desire of citizens to silence those who disagree with them, and by the encroachment of capitalism into the public sphere. The current controversy over Phil Robertson’s comments help to reveal the way in which North American society is failing to address both of these problems, as Robertson has not been debated with, but rather labelled and silenced, and A&E took actions that while economically rational did a disservice to the value of a free public sphere. If we fail to address these problems the remnants of a free public sphere that we have today could be further marginalized.