Sunday, May 05, 2019

Conservatism Dead as a Dodo, Part 2, Where Did Conservative Values Go?

Conservatism in its authentic sense, grew as a reaction to the Enlightenment. Theirs was an authoritarian and hierarchical worldview. Liberalism was seen as dangerous to the natural order. Republicanism, democracy, the separation of church and state, were rejected vociferously. This is the aspect common to all the rightwing, conservative, neoliberal and fascist – the preservation of class domination and inequality. However, conservatism cannot simply be reduced to only these negative aspects. They plainly saw the weaknesses and contradictions in liberalism, especially as capitalism and its attendant ideology emerged,.

What did the conservatives see as the weaknesses of the liberal new order and what did they pose as alternatives? They rejected individualism, realizing that humans were rooted in, and existed through, society. Society was relational, but nonetheless real and was virtually an organism. Unlike ultra-free marketers and later social Darwinists, conservatives never rejected the concept of the "common good." Squire or agricultural labourer, everyone had their place, no one was to be denied their existence because they were incapable of enduring the "survival of the fittest." There was a notion of social obligation as well as the rights trumpeted by the liberals, "nobless oblige" and all that. (Of course, the conservatives tended to be more magnanimous in word than deed, but that is a common failing, and not limited to them.) Society was built on custom, tradition and tacit arrangements, more than regulation, plans and statute law. The traditional ways of being, the yeoman farmers, the craftsperson, the village architecture that seemed to grow right out of the earth, all these were revered as was localism and regionalism.

The organic view of society tended to contrast natural development rooted in past ways that had proven valid, with liberal utopianism. The idea that the whole of the past could be tossed to one side and a new order created out of the minds of a few ideologues was an anathema to conservatives. They detested narrow or extreme ideologies, especially the notion of "homo economicus" that underlay the liberal world view. The conservatives saw themselves more engaged in a "way of being", rather than promoting a well-structured dogma. As mass production churned out a host of shoddy goods from workers living in wretched conditions, the fear was that "quality was being replaced by quantity" This lead to a suspicion of capitalism and a loathing of its attended centralization and the cult of "the bigger the better." They scoffed at the notion of progress with a capital "P" .

So what happened to all those conservative values which were not necessarily predicated on upholding hierarchy and inequality? Hold on to your hats contemporary right wingers, they ended up being adopted by the Left. It may come as a shock, but the socialist and labour movements, in spite of dogmatic sects and social democratic philistines, engage in a constant internal criticism. Yes, there are always Orwell's "smelly orthodoxies" and party or trade union bureaucrats only too happy to stifle new thinking, but nevertheless the dialectic unfolds. Just one historical example, in 1900 Social Democracy held sway and the German Social Democratic Party was the model to follow. But the syndicalists, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Anton Pannakoek among others, began to discover the flaws in parliamentary socialism. Out of these critiques came Leninism, council communism and anarcho-syndicalism. And, in turn, the clash among these three new ideologies gave rise to both refined and dogmatic versions of each.

The idol of Progress was the first to fall and with it a number of other liberal suppositions. Progress with a capital "P" was hard to maintain given the horrors of capitalism and a genocidal imperialism. The final blow would come with Auschwitz and the bombing of Hiroshima. Global warming and its attendant looming destruction have only added to this sentiment. Socialists discovered that tradition and custom were double edged, many traditions were certainly upheld authority, but throughout history there were also those which were liberatory or were attempted alternatives to capitalism and the state. Involvement with Aboriginal people gave the realization that traditional knowledge was highly valuable. The centralization and "bigger is better" imposed by both corporate capitalism and Stalinism, proved inhuman and alienating, giving rise to a decentralist impulse.

In 1900 revolutionaries thought that socialism was around the corner, and its imposition would be rather easy, in a kind of socialistic Big Bang, resulting from (chose your tactic) getting elected to parliament, a general strike or a mass insurrection. Such naive utopianism has no takers today. We would be happy if humanity manages to survive. In the last decade of the 20th Century, extreme sectarian doctrines began to fade and have largely been replaced by common fronts, horizontalism and consensus. The left's critique of consumerism focuses on how consumer society destroys the quality of life. It was the left that returned to crafts, organic gardening, farmers markets and such. It is the left that seeks to preserve the forests, the streams, the wild salmon, the old buildings, the neighborhoods, the local school, and it is the right that seeks to thrust them into the ever-greedy corporate grinder.
This is the dialect in action. The left has taken the rational core within conservatism , synthesized it within its own liberatory and egalitarian nexus, to form a higher, more developed, more encompassing concept.

Of course, I have simplified this story to make for clarity. In actual fact, there were always sections of the left that never entirely swallowed liberal ideology. Most of all the anarchists, but also early socialists like Fourier and John Ruskin, heterodox Marxists like William Morris – (indeed, at times even old Marx himself) As well in the 1960s, many old-style conservatives fled to the left when they realized their ideology had become nothing more than a mouthpiece for the corporate technostructure and the war machine. (Indeed one of them, the philosopher George Grant became a mentor to the Canadian New Left)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

Blogging Change
BCBloggers Code: Progressive Bloggers Site Meter