Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Demise of Authentic Conservatism

The true conservative is among the damned, not just for what we find objectionable in their beliefs, but perhaps more so, those aspects that ring true. No progressive person wants to read or hear paeans to inequality and authoritarianism, but even less so, do present day self-styled conservatives wish to hear criticism of their tin god capitalism. So the authentic conservative is double-damned – by the left who sees only the vicious aspects and by their self-styled adherents.

Conservatism, let me remind you, grew out of a reaction against many of the ideas and practices of the 18th Century Enlightenment and the subsequent development of liberal capitalism. Some of these views were reactionary; a fear of democracy and the masses, of 'too much freedom'. But their critique could not be reduced to just reaction. The conservatives could see the destructiveness of capitalism and the ideological dogmatism and coarse inhumanity of its proponents. They railed against a society that was only concerned with money and was destructive of community and traditions. George Grant, a Canadian conservative philosopher, laid out the conservatives dilemma and a possible solution;

The truth of conservatism is the truth of order and limit, both in social and personal life. But conservatism by itself will not do. For it can say nothing about the overcoming of evil... Yet to express conservatism in Canada means de facto to justify the... right of the greedy... Their economic policy has been the denial of order and form... they stand condemned for their denial of the law. Thus it is almost impossible to express the truth of conservatism in our society without seeming to justify capitalism. To avoid this, a careful theory is needed in which the idea of limit includes within itself a doctrine of history as the sphere for the overcoming of evil” pps, 108,109, George Grant, Philosophy in A Mass Age, Copp Clark, 1959

Critique of Rationalism

A central element of the conservative outlook is the skeptical denial that a political philosophy of that universal and rationalist sort can be anything other than an illusion. p. 47, John Gray, Beyond the New Right, Routledge, 1993 The Rationalist is obsessed with technique because of a desire for certainty. p. 111, Rationalism effects politics more than any area. Its politics seeks uniformity and is highly ideological (the politics of the book) p. 112. But its incompetence increases as it destroys the only knowledge which could save it – practical knowledge. p. 113, Paul Franco, The Political Philosophy of Micheal Oakshott, Yale, 1990

For Oakshott, there are two types of knowledge. One is technical knowledge gleaned from books, the other is practical or traditional knowledge which exists only in use and is not formulated in rules. This knowledge is similar to Polyani's 'tacit knowledge'. Oakshott says that Rationalism denies the validity of practical knowledge. p. 110, Paul Franco, The Political Philosophy of Micheal Oakshott, Yale, 1990

The remaking of the world by a simplistic doctrine derived from political economy and an ethics based upon utilitarian and nationalist principles is the outcome of capitalist rationalism. This doctrine sweeps away the wisdom of the past and with it “ a sense of man's limitations... is the necessary correlative against megalomaniac efforts to remake the world by force.” The late 19th Century “ethical revolution replaced both individual and universal ethics with national ethics.” The misuse of Darwin gave this ruthlessness a scientific gloss. p. 80, 82, Peter Viereck, Shame and Glory of The Intellectuals, Beacon Press, 1953

The liberal rationalist concept of society is an aggregate of individuals, or as an infamous anti-conservative female British Prime Minster once snorted, “There is no such thing as society!” The essential conservative view is that society is a kind of organism in which everyone plays a role. Let's see what Edmund Burke said; “A nation is not... a momentary aggregation, but it is an idea of continuity... a deliberate election of the ages and generations... made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil and social habits of the people...” Edmund Burke, p. 30, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976 As Raymond Williams points out on the same page, Burke “established the idea of what has been called an 'organic society' , where the emphasis is on the interrelation and continuity of human activities rather than on separation...” Enlightenment critic, and otherwise thorough-going reactionary, Joseph DeMaistre rejected its individualism. For him society was not a collection of individuals united by a social contract, but part of an organic unity. Pps 3, 4, Copelston, History of Philosophy, Vol IX

Modern conservative Roger Scruton, “A society or a nation is a kind of organism [my italics, LG] (and also very much more than an organism.)” p. 21, The individual exists and acts not in isolation, but “only because he can first identify himself as something greater, as a member of society...” p. 34, “Conservatism arises directly from the sense that one belongs to some continuing, and pre-existing social order, and that this fact is all important in determining what to do. The 'order' may be a club, class, community, society, community, church... In so far as people love life, they will love what has given them life...” p. 21, Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, MacMillan, 1984

Another modern conservative, John Gray; “Among conservatives... market exchange and rational argument are... necessary conditions of their way of life. They are not the whole of that way of life that they inherit, and they cannot hope to flourish or survive, if the common culture of liberty and responsibility is eroded... p. 53, “Liberal individualism... with society as a contract among strangers is a one generation philosophy... we are au fond social and historical creatures...” p. 136 John Gray, Beyond the New Right, Routledge, 1993
The morality of Rationalists is one of “moral ideals.” But these ideals are not independent and self-contained, but rooted in a religious or social tradition. By destroying these, the Rationalists have “destroyed the only living root of moral behaviour.” p. 114, Paul Franco, The Political Philosophy of Micheal Oakshott, Yale, 1990 A good point is made here, ethics do grow from, and are maintained by, society and when you try to impose a different ethic from outside, you have conflict. (think of Prohibition) The destruction of community by Rationalist capitalism has certainly undermined ethics, as people have no higher calling than to shop. The problem is Oakshott's use of the singular. There is not 'tradition' but traditions.

Capitalist rationalism has had a very detrimental effect upon education. As opposed to the Utilitarian concept of education which involved training to carry out a task, S. T. Coleridge and Matthew Arnold saw; “the harmonious development of those qualities and faculties that characterize our humanity.” p. 121, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976 Coleridge's critique - “Against mechanism, the amassing of fortunes and... utility as the source of value, it offered a different and superior social ideal... the harmonious development of those qualities and faculties that characterize our humanity.” p. 77, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976 By rejecting the broad humanistic culture proposed by these critics we have, in the 21st Century ended up with a host of technically well trained barbarians. (No wonder Trump!)

Suspicion of Ideology

Conservatives in their distrust of capitalist rationalism, very naturally looked askance at ideology. What agitated them was doctrinalism, abstraction (one size fits all) and again the complete rejection of methods and ideas rooted in history and communities. “Violent indignation with the past, abstract systems of renovation applied wholesale, a new doctrine drawn up in black and white for elaborating down to the smallest details a rational society of the future – these are the ways of Jacobinism.” Matthew Arnold, p. 128, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976

But ideology was not to be rejected in total. It is useful in “giving sharpness of outline.” but not enough for conducting activities, for this you need tradition. With ideology, society and its aspects appear like bits of machinery to be moved around at will. p. 131, Paul Franco, The Political Philosophy of Micheal Oakshott, Yale, 1990 “Conservatism does not normally exhibit itself as a 'position' or system of ideas, but remains implicit, unarticulated, relying on various understandings and intuitions upon which an actual civilization is based...” p. 26, Jeffery Hart, The American Dissent, Doubleday, 1966.

Taken to its logical extreme ideology, leads to terrorist regimes. “From the idea of possessing the ultimate truth there follows eventually not only the idea of justification, but the necessity of self-deceit and of persecution and terror in order to make the idea finally prevail” Karl Dietrich Brachter, in Bruce Lawrence, Defenders of God, p. 72

Natural Law

The conservative sees ethics and practices rooted in Natural Law. Depending on whether the given conservative is a theist or not, this law will come either from God or Nature. We have seen in the earlier chapter dealing with ethics, that the ethical grows out of existence. Ethics do not come from outside existence, nor do we create them in some Utilitarian or Social Contract fashion. Hence we can give credence to the concept of Natural Law.

The assumption [behind natural law] is that the universe is a cosmos and not a chaos.” p. 29, “In natural law theory, it is clear that man is not finally responsible for what happens in the world.” p. 39, George Grant, Philosophy in A Mass Age, Copp Clark, 1959“The theory of natural law is the assertion that there is an order in the universe and that right action... consists in attuning ourselves to that order. It is the most influential theory of morality in the history of the human race... only in the last two hundred years has it ceased to be the generally assumed theory from which moral judgment proceeds. It is popular to speak of a crisis in our standards and values. This... arises above all from the fact that the doctrine of natural law no longer hold the minds of modern men, and no alternative theory has its universal power. George Grant, Philosophy in A Mass Age, Copp Clark, 1959 “A law is only a law when it is a just law, mirroring the divine law of justice.” 34, George Grant, Philosophy in A Mass Age, Copp Clark, 1959

What Grant says is very true. In the 20th century Natural Law was replaced by the Law of Power or statute law. Any group could cobble together a majority in Parliament and force its prejudices or misguided ideas of reform upon the populace. Practices deemed innocuous, or at worst minor sins, such as the consumption of alcohol or smoking cannabis, got the full force of the Law of Power. Political groups like the socialists, left alone in the 19th Century, were persecuted using statute law in the 20th. And just try building a house on your own and ignoring the plethora of bylaws, none of which existed 100 years ago. The flaw in the conservative view of Natural Law, is of course, deciding what is 'natural.” The argument from nature (“unnatural practices) was long used to oppress women and gay people.

Critique of Capitalism

Conservatives see a need for a market economy, but the economy is there to serve a function. The economy should serve society and society is not there to serve the economy. Hence, conservatives have been among the harshest critics of the effects of capitalism.

Robert Southey, poet and conservative; “The immediate effect of the manufacturing to produce physical and moral evil, in proportion to the wealth it creates.... the poverty of one part of the people seems to increase in the same ratio as the riches of another.” p. 41, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976 Southey supported Robert Owen's idea of cooperative communities as a way of overcoming the destructive nature of capitalism. p. 43, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Has the national welfare... advanced with circumstantial prosperity? Is the increasing number of wealthy individuals that which ought to be understood by the wealth of nations.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, p. 72, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976 “It is not uncommon for 100,000 operatives (mark this word, for words in this sense are things.) to be out of employment at once in the cotton districts, and thrown on parochial relief, to be dependent upon hard hearted taskmasters for food. If when you say to a man... [according to Malthus] 'You must starve. You came into the world when it could not sustain you'. What would be this man's answer? 'You may disclaim all connection with me... I can then have no duties to you, and this pistol shall put me in possession of your wealth... what man who saw assured starvation before him, ever feared hanging?' Samuel Taylor Coleridge, p. 73, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976

Crotchety old Thomas Carlyle; “It is an Age of Machinery, in every outward and inner sense...Nothing is now done directly or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance...Mechanism has now struck its roots into man's most intimate, primary sources of conviction... Religion is now... grounded on mere calculation... whereby some smaller quantum of earthly enjoyment may be exchanged for a far larger quantum of celestial enjoyment. Thus religion too is Profit, a working for wages... Our... 'superior morality' is properly rather an 'inferior criminality' , produced not by a great love of virtue, but by the greater perfection of the Police, and of that far subtler and stronger Police, Public Opinion. In all senses we worship and follow after Power... no man now loves Truth...” Thomas Carlyle, pps. 86, 87, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976 “...with the cash payment as the sole nexus... and there are so many things that cash will not buy.” Thomas Carlyle, p. 89, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976 On the suffering of the working population - “ That self-cancelling Donothingism and Laissez-faire should have got so ingrained into our practice, is the source of all these miseries.” Thomas Carlyle, p. 91, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976

Carlyle approves of the popular discontent over the rule of money and the machine; “Its very unrest, its ceaseless activity, its discontent contains matter of promise. Knowledge, education are opening the eyes of the humblest... only in resolute struggling forward does our life consist...” Thomas Carlyle, p. 88, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976

Benjamin Disraeli, one of the founders of the Conservative Party, “... since the passing of the Reform Act the Altar of Mammon has blazed with triple worship. To acquire, to accumulate, to plunder each other by virtue of philosophic phrases... this has been the breathless business of enfranchised England... until we are startled from our voracious strife by the wail of intolerable serfage.” Benjamin Disraeli, from his popular novel, Sybil, or The Two Nations, p. 108, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976

There is no community in England only aggregation... In great cities men are brought together by the desire for gain. They are not in a state of cooperation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes, and for the rest they are careless of neighbors. Christianity teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves; modern society acknowledges no neighbors.” Benjamin Disraeli, p. 109, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976

Matthew Arnold on laissez faire capitalist ideology, “... one of the falsest maxims which ever pandered to human selfishness under the name of political wisdom... We stand by and let this most unequal race take its own course, forgetting that the very name of society implies that it shall not be a mere race, but that its object is to provide for the common good.” p. 124, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976

T. S. Eliot weighs in; “Was our society... assembled around anything more permanent than congeries of banks, insurance companies, and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?” T.S. Elliot, p. 225, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976 “We are being made aware that the organization of society on the principle of private profit, as well as public destruction, is leading both to the deformation of humanity by unregulated industrialism and the exhaustion of natural resources, and that a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly.” T. S. Elliot writing in 1939, p. 226, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin, 1976

For Micheal Oakshott, capitalism and the state's concentration of power was a danger to society. “The politics of the diffusion of power are the only guarantee of the most valuable and substantial freedom known to human beings.” Concentration of power anywhere is a threat. p. 144, So too the economy – the widest possible diffusion of economic power, with property widely distributed and an opposition to any monopolies. p. 147, Paul Franco, The Political Philosophy of Micheal Oakshott, Yale, 1990

Roger Scruton, The features of Modernity which negate satisfaction - “... mechanization... the division of labour... commodity fetishism.” p. 129, “The world of commodities is a world of ephemera, whereas man's rational need is to [be] ...part of something lasting...” p. 130. “Alienation is not a condition of society, but the absence of society.” p. 132, Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, MacMillan, 1984

Scruton goes beyond critique to a demand for the regulation of the economy in the public interest. The rights of property must be limited by law. While property ownership is “central to conservatism” there is “no logical identity between conservatism and capitalism.” p. 94, “The unbridled law of the market breeds monopoly.” p. 111, “... social and political unity take precedence over the free accumulation of property...” Scruton points out that the Factory Acts, the legalization of trade unions and much social welfare were conservative innovations. p. 116, Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, MacMillan, 1984 [ For Scruton order is paramount, ultimately this order is through the state.]

John Gray fears contemporary capitalism with its fetish of cut-backs and privatization. “We do not want to walk the path of privatization if Detroit is at the end of it.” p. 60 The market is only one dimension of society, families, voluntary associations, governments etc are the others. p. 63, “The good life... necessarily presupposes embededness in communities.” p. 137, John Gray, Beyond the New Right, Routledge, 1993

Capitalism in its contemporary and highly brutal form, which has manifested in Gray's warning about Detroit, is called neoliberalism. The godfather of this ideology was Von Hayek. Oakshott sneered at his hypocrisy. [A plan to end all planning] “is of the same style of politics as that which it seeks to resist.” p. ix, John Gray, Beyond the New Right, Routledge, 1993

Decades before it became popular to speak of the environmental crisis and global warming, George Grant, writing in 1959,“Surely the twentieth century has presented us with one question above all: are there limits to history making? … whether man's domination of nature can lead to the end of human life on the planet... [or] perhaps by the slow perversion of the processes of life.” p.78, George Grant, Philosophy in A Mass Age, Copp Clark, 1959

Policies and Ultimate Goals

Conservatism is not reaction according to John Gray, - “A conservative policy... is not one which seeks to renew old traditions by deliberate contrivance... it is one which nurtures the common traditions that are currently shared.” p. 59.John Gray, Beyond the New Right, Routledge, 1993

For Gray as well, “Where change is incessant … human beings will not flourish.” p. 125, John Gray, Beyond the New Right, Routledge, 1993 This is certainly true in a system that is like a giant food processor, grinding up humans, the environment, traditions and customs, cultures into a profitable puree. Mental illness in at epidemic proportions and it is no wonder when nothing is permanent, and nothing is valued by corporate power. .

There can be no purity, no utopias. “For a conservative, political life is a perpetual choice among necessary evils.”, p. 63, John Gray, Beyond the New Right, Routledge, 1993

George Grant was sympathetic to socialism – he was after all, a mentor to the Canadian New Left – but looked beyond its humanistic ends. While it would be a good thing if socialism's goals of ending exploitation and freeing the workers was attained, once that was done, “... [one] could still ask what is the point of it all, what is the purpose of my existence...It is this truth that is not satisfied in Marxism.” p. 71, George Grant, Philosophy in A Mass Age, Copp Clark, 1959

Where liberal rationalism sees only individuals and their rights, and thus sometimes ends up enabling the enemies of society in such cases as “free speech for Nazis,” the conservative thinks about the need to protect society. “There cannot be freedom of speech... if by freedom is meant the untrammeled right to say what one wishes... Freedom should be qualified only by the possibility that someone might suffer though its exercise.” p. 17, Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, MacMillan, 1984 Scruton is opposed to hate speech, Holocaust-denial and supports the Race Relations Act.

Other than a few individuals, there is no conservatism as an organized tendency today. Conservatives are worse off than anarchists and syndicalists were in the late 1950s. The tendency is extinct and the term conservative has been taken over by people whose world view is the direct opposite of those authors quoted here. Conservatism today means rabid ideologues for whom the so-called free market and the corporation are the Alpha and Omega of existence. A sociopathic cult that has completely rejected the old conservative concept of the common good. Then there are the “social conservatives.” For these extremists, the only thing conservative about them is their desire to impose their religious intolerance, environment plundering, militarism, white supremacy, misogyny and homophobia upon the rest of us. These “conservatives” are essentially fascists in jogging suits not jack boots. There is far more real conservatism in the Communist Party than either of these pseudo-conservative tendencies. (You will soon see why below.)

But the dialectic grinds on and has produced its own miracle baby. The socialist movement was born in large measure out Enlightenment Rationalism, and for a long time maintained some of the more odious practices and beliefs of its parent.
One of these was the myth of Progress. Everything from the past was worth chucking out. Pre-capitalist and Aboriginal peoples had nothing to teach us. Imperialism, though regrettable, was needed to industrialize the “backward” areas. Micro-businesses, artisans and small farmers ought to disappear, to be replaced by mechanized latifundia and socialist department stores. (And if need be, like Stalin we will MAKE them disappear) Then there was the cult of centralization and the mega project. Oh, yes, and everything could be planned from the top down.

Anarchists, guild socialists and most syndicalists NEVER bought into this, as did some important socialists like William Morris, Edward Carpenter, Jose Carlos Mariategui and George Orwell. Nor mostly, did Marx. It has to be stressed that the anarchists and socialists who rejected this 'liberal socialism' did not get their ideas from the conservatives, but came to this position independently, by simply observing what was occurring in the society around them. In the English speaking countries, Disraeli and Carlyle were popular writers who had a considerable working class readership. (Marx took the phrase 'cash nexus' from Carlyle) Figures such as John Ruskin and William Cobbett, who in some ways, had a foot in both camps, the conservative and the socialist, were also widely read. There was some influence, but it must not be overstated. Better to regard this as a parallel development of some similar critiques of capitalism and rationalism without forming any strong linkage between conservatism and what was essentially libertarian socialism.

The worst perpetrators of this liberal or rationalist socialism were the Fabians and the Stalinists. The Fabians were a major influence upon social democracy, but even then their hold was never total – The Danish Social Democrats invented both the housing coop and cohousing. The French Socialists encouraged the growth of mutual aid societies. There was always a minority tendency within social democracy that did not glorify centralization and the mega project.

This liberal socialism certainly raised living standards for the poorest levels of the population and introduced a number of important social reforms like public health care. But beyond that, it was not inspiring, an ever growing list of questions began to be asked, and the many people once ignored, such as Aboriginal people, environmentalists and feminists began to be listened to by radicalized youth. The New Left and the resulting counter-culture was the negation of the older socialism.

Youth supported the struggles of the so-called Third World peoples against imperialism and began to see their ways of being – rooted in peasant traditions combined with Marxism - as valuable, as struggles to learn from. The forms of socialism suppressed by the dominant tendencies like anarchism and syndicalism which never accepted the ideas of Progress and centralization found new adherents. The degradation of the environment by both corporate and state capitalism gave rise to the environmental movement with its appreciation of the small and the local. Fifteen thousand year old cultures were now being learned from rather than scorned as 'primitive'. Women discovered that patriarchy had not been the only way, that other cultures were more egalitarian both in the past and Aboriginal cultures. The critique of 'instrumental reason' put forth by the Frankfurt school, the exploration of the subconscious and repression, by Reich, Fromm and Marcuse undermined the faith in liberal Rationalism. Young socialists eagerly reading Kropotkin, Morris, Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson discovered the long traditions of opposition to domination, the ancient striving for mutual aid and cooperation. Tradition was no longer a dirty word. Neither was the past.

And thus, the negation of the negation. But once again, note that this was a parallel development. Other than George Grant in Canada, conservative thinkers had no input into the new movement. Essentially, the synthesis had been made generations previously with the anarchists and the libertarian socialist minority. It was just now that 'their time had come.'

Contemporary leftists – with the exception of Blairite social democrats – who are really neoliberal corporatists anyway – have all been influenced to one degree or another by this development. For the left today, “small is beautiful”, we strive for the local, we love our farmers markets, push for millennia -old “horizontalism” and consensus democracy. We work hard to restore community though our associations, our housing coops, cohousing projects and eco-villages. We protect the old buildings, the forests and the waters against the depredations of capitalism. We are suspicious of fanaticism and dogmatism. (Though sectarians are still with us, unfortunately) We work for 'better' in the here and now and refuse to sacrifice generations for some distant utopia that never arrives. We ally with the Aboriginal peoples struggling to maintain their languages, cultures and traditions. We fight to to maintain the memory of the working class struggles and the traditions of the class. We maintain or revive the ancient traditions of mutual aid and solidarity. To go forward, we must also go back. We are the conservers. We are the ones with the long view.


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