Saturday, March 1, 2014

Why I am not a Conservative, or Why Conservatism makes no sense in America today.

There's been some discussion recently on The Archdruid Report about politics, including the oft-misused distinctions of liberal and conservative, and how they've strayed from their original meanings. Here's JMG on what conservatism traditionally meant:
The Anglo-American tradition of conservatism—continental Europe has its own somewhat different form—has its roots in the writings of Edmund Burke, whose "Reflections on the Revolution in France" became a lightning rod for generations of thinkers who found the hubris of the radical Enlightenment too much to swallow. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex tradition, conservatism was based on the recognition that human beings aren’t as smart as they like to think. As a result, when intellectuals convince themselves that they know how to make a perfect human society, they’re wrong, and the consequences of trying to enact their fantasies in the real world normally range from the humiliating to the horrific.

To the conservative mind, the existing order of society has one great advantage that the arbitrary inventions of would-be world-reformers can’t match: it has actually been shown to work in practice. Conservatives thus used to insist that changes to the existing order of society ought to be made only when there was very good reason to think the changes will turn out to be improvements. The besetting vice of old-fashioned conservatism, as generations of radicals loved to point out, was thus that it tended to defend and excuse traditional injustices; among its great virtues was that it defended traditional liberties against the not always covert authoritarianism of would-be reformers. 
And I found this reader comment to be particularly enlightening:
To my mind, the defining feature of conservatism, from Burke to today, is that we cannot escape human nature. The general structure of society that we see, even under various political systems, is an inevitable outcome of human nature writ large. Progressivism, on the other hand, is the idea that human nature is malleable, and that we could potentially become something other than we've been. They think that man a century from now could be a different creature than man a century ago.
To the progressive, the potential for utopia is high, but utopia isn't an easy thing to come by.

Naturally, many of them tend toward totalitarianism as a simple matter of ideological consistency; you can't re-form man without changing every element of his environment. Gramsci was big on that idea and I think was simply articulating the general sense held by progressives.

To a conservative, of course, the potential to create a utopia is precisely zero, and so any new method (especially those that tend toward totalitarianism) presents nothing but a danger. Any traditional Christian is conservative almost by definition. The doctrine of original sin and concupiscence means that every society will have poor and rich, power-hungry politicians, thieves, murderers, and so on. The state can never be dismantled like the Communists hoped, and history bore that out.

I would agree that Fascism is not a conservative movement whatsoever, but rather a progressive one. If anything, the far-conservative boogeyman ought to be monarchy, or even borderline-theocracy. And for many decades both the Republicans and Democrats have been progressive parties.
There's a lot of wisdom in this. As something of a misanthrope myself, I have an inherently dark view of human nature. I do believe that one of the major mistakes of past revolutions, and a weakness of revolutions in general, was the idea that human nature was a blank slate and would somehow change when society changed - that the Enlightenment would make people rational once they lived in a rationally-oriented society (people aren't rational - they rationalize based on emotion), or that people would no longer be greedy once Communism eliminated class distinctions (selfishness and hierarchy are with us to stay, unfortunately). Existing institutions are based on human nature, for better or worse.

But I would argue that you cannot be a Burkean conservative in a modern society. Why? Well, in a nutshell, our society is inherently anti-conservative! Conservatism only makes sense if we limit it to the political sphere, and disregard all other simultaneous spheres of human endeavor, something I think we do at our own peril.  So if you're a "conservative" in a society like ours, I would argue that you're kind of a tool, in every sense of the word.

The problem comes in with simply viewing society in terms of politics, and nothing else. To cling to existing institutions in a society that is constantly changing and being upended makes no sense. In fact, it cannot be done! This is an illusion. To be a conservative today requires the need to inculcate a willful, stubborn blindness to the world around us as it actually is, something that the media does its best to reinforce by convenient omission of unpleasant facts.

To make my point, consider this: In the last hundred years, literally tens of thousands of new artificial chemicals have been released into our immediate environment. As Salon Magazine reports:
A hidden epidemic is poisoning America.  The toxins are in the air we breathe and the water we drink, in the walls of our homes and the furniture within them.  We can’t escape it in our cars.  It’s in cities and suburbs.  It afflicts rich and poor, young and old.  And there’s a reason why you’ve never read about it in the newspaper or seen a report on the nightly news: it has no name — and no antidote.

The culprit behind this silent killer is lead.  And vinyl.  And formaldehyde.  And asbestos.  And Bisphenol A.  And polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).  And thousands more innovations brought to us by the industries that once promised “better living through chemistry,” but instead produced a toxic stew that has made every American a guinea pig and has turned the United States into one grand unnatural experiment.

Today, we are all unwitting subjects in the largest set of drug trials ever. Without our knowledge or consent, we are testing thousands of suspected toxic chemicals and compounds, as well as new substances whose safety is largely unproven and whose effects on human beings are all but unknown. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) itself has begun monitoring our bodies for 151 potentially dangerous chemicals, detailing the variety of pollutants we store in our bones, muscle, blood, and fat.  None of the companies introducing these new chemicals has even bothered to tell us we’re part of their experiment.  None of them has asked us to sign consent forms or explained that they have little idea what the long-term side effects of the chemicals they’ve put in our environment — and so our bodies — could be.  Nor do they have any clue as to what the synergistic effects of combining so many novel chemicals inside a human body in unknown quantities might produce.
Salon also points out that even the food we now eat is no longer "conservative":  500 foods contain a synthetic chemical used in yoga mats - "The list covers 130 brands of breads, buns, snacks, pastries and pre-made sandwiches, from America’s Choice to Wonder Bread. As EWG explains, it’s commonly used as a “dough conditioner” to make bread both puffier and more able to withstand shipping and storage".

I don't remember being consulted about that, do you? I don't remember being asked whether that is okay. I don't even recall being informed of it! And then there's the dumping of tons of sugar, salt, and God knows what else into everything we eat in order to get us to buy more of it.  It kind of puts a damper on my ability to be be "conservative" when even the food I eat is constantly being altered without my knowledge or consent by its producers. Corporations are constantly introducing new technologies year in and year out--for example the entire nuclear industry has only come about since the Second World War, and the fracking industry has only been exploding in the first decade of the current century. Fracking poisons the groundwater and causes earthquakes, and nuclear waste is toxic for literally thousands of years. What does it mean to be "conservative" in the face of that? Perhaps some self-described "conservatives" can enlighten me.

Let's take another example. I've argued that in addition to being chemical guinea pigs, we're also psychological guinea pigs. The average American is exposed to somewhere between 250-600 advertisements every day. This means we're all unwitting subjects in a massive, ongoing psychological experiment, without any sort of oversight, permissions or controls. If this were done to university students in a laboratory setting, it would be declared unethical, yet it's done to all of us every single day.  In fact, if you want to ban advertising anywhere, or even introduce moderate controls, you are told that you are "against freedom" (especially by conservatives). Advertising is specifically designed to manipulate your emotions - to make you feel ashamed of your body, dissatisfied with what you have, jealous of others, and covetous for more stuff, all in order so that corporations can sell you more. To avoid synthetic chemicals or advertising in modern-day America is simply not possible for any but a tiny subset of all 315 million of us, and would be a full-time job unto itself requiring almost superhuman vigilance and monk-like self control. It is nigh unto impossible, even a society supposedly entirely based on "free choice." This arrangement does not benefit the average person in any way - it is exclusively designed for the benefit of corporations, as are so many things in American society. So, then, what does it mean to be a "conservative" in a society like ours?

That''s why Burkean conservatism makes no sense to me. It does make sense describing a political situation in the world in which he wrote, but in a world where corporations can manipulate the underlying structure of society at will for their own benefit, poison the air that we breathe and the water that we drink, and even potentially wipe out the human race (Bhopal, Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, Fukushima, etc.) what sense does it make? Isn't it just self-delusion? Alvin Toffler coined the phrase "future shock" to describe a world changing so rapidly that people can't adjust to it. Recent writers have gone one better, citing "present shock"--not only is the world changing so fast that we can't get a handle on the future, we can't even get a handle on the present! Again, what does it mean to be a "conservative" in a society like this?

Conservatives constantly promote the ideas of people like Friedrich Hayek who point out that there are limits to human knowledge. Human beings aren't as smart as we like to think.  But they only promote this when it comes to the economic/political sphere. If you apply this principle to any other area of human endeavor, you are accused of holding back "progress" by the very same people! Just try and tell a "conservative" today that you want to restrict the ability of companies to do something, anything (advertising, chemicals), and listen to their howls of protest! They are eager to embrace Hayek's ideas when it comes to politics and the economy, but it apparently doesn't apply to technology or the environment in their view. How convenient. And doesn't their version of the ideal Market assume "perfect knowledge" by individuals? How is that conservative?

Modern self-described conservatives always argue that the "conservative" response is to leave everything to the Market. But there is nothing conservative in this; In fact, it is deeply anti-conservative! Economic history shows (and Libertarians steadfastly ignore) that markets as we know them are artificial constructs created specifically by destroying traditional bonds of  barter, reciprocity, self-sufficiency,  the household economy, and communitarianism. There is nothing inherently conservative about markets as we know them today - just the opposite. What is conservative about a stock market where stocks are held for milliseconds, corporations pull up stakes and move anywhere at will taking entire economic sectors along with them, bankers create trillions of dollars with keystrokes, and literally everything has a price? Before the Industrial Revolutions, societies truly were conservative, governed by religious and social bonds, with things like sumptuary laws dictating even what people could wear and what they could consume based on their social status. It is Regulations that are conservative, not the lack of such. If you believe in removing all social regulations, as conservatives often do today, you are not conservative; in fact, that's the traditional definition of Liberal. In fact, modern conservatives often wish to tear down many existing, time-tested social institutions like minimum wages, Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, unions, health and safety regulations, and so on.

I would argue that what de facto conservatism today boils down to, is simply this: letting corporations do anything they want to the rest of us.  And I'm sorry, but by that definition, I am not a conservative.

A famous economist (Schumpeter) famously described capitalism as a process of "creative destruction."  So why is it, then, that political conservatism is so heavily promoted by uber-capitalists, who not only are not at all bothered by the ongoing destruction and recreation of modern society underneath our feet on a constant basis, but actually celebrate it? Capitalist society is inherently revolutionary. Even if you claim to be a Burkean conservative, it is simply an illusion; society is constantly transforming itself around you. Being a conservative means preventing our social institutions from catching up to  reality, a reality which is here whether you want it to be or not.

Nor do conservatives even want to preserve our existing social institutions! Actual conservative societies are conformist and resistant to change. Consider this: our society dictates that you are institutionalized almost since birth in institutions designed to mold you into a compliant worker for the capitalist class (and, please note, deeply in opposition to human nature). That women must work and that children must be raised by unrelated  strangers (ditto). That you must persistently and continuously make yourself amenable to employers on your own dime by learning new skills or face ruin and destitution. That you must uproot yourself and move to wherever the jobs are, regardless of the effects on your family, friends, social circle, or community (all which are considered irrelevant in the economic calculus). That you can be fired at any time and for any reason, with no security or stability, and unable to adequately plan for the future. That entire job categories can disappear overnight. The Industrial Revolution was inherently destructive to existing social norms and institutions: craft guilds, rural lifeways, settlement patterns, traditional family structures, etc.; it upended all of these things. You can argue whether or not this was beneficial in the long run, but it is certainly not "conservative" in any sense of the word. Yet it's not like this revolution has somehow ended. So how can one cling to existing institutions when there aren't any? As Marx movingly described market capitalism, "all that is solid melts into air." Thus the conservative position makes no sense and is inherently self-contradictory. Either you're conservative, or you're a capitalist. How can you be both?

If you wish to have "progress" it makes no sense to be a conservative. The Amish are a what a genuinely conservative society in the true sense looks like. I might be conservative if I lived in a conservative society, but I don't, and neither do you. And you know what, neither do conservatives. The resistance to change championed by conservatives today simply helps those who wish to exploit us ever more mercilessly, because, guess what, they are not at all opposed to overthrowing traditional social institutions and norms whenever it suits them! They just prefer that we not react.  Our society promotes the conservative ideal politically even as it makes a mockery of it in the economic/technological/social sphere.

Let's take another example that's very relevant right now--automation. Automation is dramatically changing the world around us: online shopping, self checkouts, artificial intelligence, driverless cars, you know the deal. But conservatives, while promoting full-speed-ahead automation, insist that our existing institutions must not change! That we must remain dependent upon a "job," that we must work forty hours a week for an employer, that we must "create jobs" to keep everybody working even if such jobs are pointless busywork, that we must not reduce working hours and that we must cling to the Fordist production model, and that we must keep a "nose to the grindstone" mentality in a world of abundance. Holding "conservative" ideas in a world that is changing rapidly is a recipe for disaster. In a relatively static world, as in Burke's time, it made sense, but in the world we actually live in it is counterproductive. If conservatives wish to preserve our existing social institutions, then they must also call for limits and moratoriums on technological progress and development. Yet they refuse to do so. Again, their beliefs are self-contradictory.

Progressives (and I can only speak for myself here), aren't trying to create any sort of utopia. We're not authoritarians.  We're not trying to deny human nature. rather, we are the ones who recognize human nature - specifically the desire for those on the top to ruthlessly exploit those below them, and to come up with rationalizations for this.

Progressives are not trying to overthrow the existing social order either. We are merely recognizing that the world is changing whether we want it to or not, and we had better to catch up to it, or we will face collapse. We've done it before - it's the world you're living in.  In the past, we saw that the  new economy was dominated by monopolies like railroads and oil companies. We dealt with it by trust-busting. We saw the toxic polluting power of emerging new technologies, and we regulated them. We saw the power corporations had over our food, air and water, and regulated them. We dealt with increased productivity by reducing working hours. We dealt with the reality that most people were no longer farmers, and were dependent upon wage labor in a turbulent and often indifferent industrial economy by creating social insurance. We set aside certain areas as nature preserves. We dealt with people flooding into to urban areas by building water and sanitation systems, and taxing the rich to do it. Yes, that required expanding the state, and a lot of people don't like that, but this was the only option at the time. Economic expansion and change caused the state to expand, not some sinister plot, and regulations weren't simply gambits to increase the power of sinister, cackling bureaucrats as Libertarians argue, but responses to real, pressing problems at the time. Shrinking the state will not make those problems magically disappear, it will just allow then to return and explode like a bomb. Preserving existing social institutions was never an option - the capitalist economy was changing them everywhere we turned. And when the old social order was kept in place beyond its relevance, all it produced was poverty, misery and destitution for most people. This is the true legacy of modern conservatism.

And while the appeal to human nature above is compelling, I would argue that our society is inherently antagonistic to everything we know about human nature. I would argue that to truly be a conservative means to design a society based around human nature rather than what we have now, which seems to be exclusively based around the needs of the one percent to increase and expand their wealth and power. I am not a conservative precisely because I don't believe in the malleability of human nature. I am not a conservative precisely because I don't trust those in authority. Conservatives today seem to have a blind trust in the market to deliver ideal outcomes without any sort of oversight. What could be more of a denial of human nature than that? I do not share that belief.

What I would prefer is a society that respects the traditional nature of human beings, not one that disregards them. I want a society that recognizes that all humans have a deep-seated need for things need things like family, community, stability, fellowship, useful and meaningful work, vacations, leisure time, and so on; one that restricts the power of elites to exploit the masses and requires them to act in pro-social rather than antisocial ways; and gives everyone a voice to determine the course of society rather than an elite few. But in this political environment, somehow that makes me not a conservative, but rather some kind of radical leftist! WTF!?

Conservatism does not mean opposing any and all changes. Progressivism does not mean denying human nature and trying to create a utopia. As the above paragraph stated, "Conservatives thus used to insist that changes to the existing order of society ought to be made only when there was very good reason to think the changes will turn out to be improvements." Well, when I see society failing all around me, I do have good reason to think that we need to make some changes rather than cling to a failing status quo. And the changes I like to propose are usually simple, fundamental, incremental changes that are common-sense (at least to me) that recognize the changing world we are actually living in. In fact, many of them are already in existence today (universal health care, public banking, cooperatives, reduced working hours, public transportation, Permaculture farms, etc).

P.S. If you're still reading at this point, I'd like to add this which I left out from the commenter above:
"But I disagree that Communism is also wrongly ascribed to the far left. It is the most extreme form of progressivism, the belief that progress to utopia is not only possible but inevitable. They depart from the Fabianists by believing that violent revolution is necessary, believe the Dictatorship of the Proletariat must rule the entire world, and essentially advocate totalitarian slavery for generations in order to create paradise. It really is the furthest you can take the progressive ideology. Of course, that doesn't mean that there are any large number of Communists in the US, but it's properly ascribed to the left/progressivists."
Rather, I think this type of thinking is conspicuously present under Neoliberal corporate Capitalism rather than Communism, specifically the underlined parts. You see this "ends justify the means argument" constantly deployed by apologists for Neoliberal capitalism, specifically the idea that it's okay and necessary for generations to suffer under brutal slave-labor conditions in factories because 1.) it's better than farming, and 2.) future generations will enjoy the bounty, because that's what's happened in developed capitalist economies. Look for example at any defense of labor conditions at Foxconn or other Chinese factories. Once they suffer enough to expand their economy, the story goes, their children will be middle class, and another poorer nation will get the privilege of having their society torn apart and their peasants uprooted and sent to the factories to make iPods and sneakers. To ascribe this Utopian thinking strictly to communism is a deliberate misrepresentation.


  1. Thank you for a great post.

    I"m a fan of JMG, and always read his posts, and often deep into the comment stream.

    But this latest series left me with a great unease. On the one hand, I too favor something that might be construed as Burkean conservativism: the Permaculture principle that Holmgren calls "Use Small and Slow Solutions". But the keys are the baseline, as you point out in this essay, and the target.
    If the baseline is a stable, traditional society, than small and careful interventions are appropriate. If you're talking about a tribe in the Amazon, or deep in New Guinea, any social changes that an innovator would introduce should be small and limited. But if you're talking about the fragmented "nuclear family" society of the modern West, or even the radical/rigid societies of patriarchal monotheism (and I'd include the Amish here, though the poster-boy societies would be the brutal sexist cultures of Islam), then the damage has already been done, and conservativism just supports continued harm. The problem is even more obvious, as you point out, in the commercial and physical realm.

    The second consideration is the target of change. JMG glosses over this completely, but there's a significant difference between changing society - either radically and quickly or slowly and gently - to achieve increased radical fragmentation, or doing so to achieve a more balanced and healthy interdependence. It's easy to dismiss the failures of the hippie counterculture movement, or the ineffectiveness of Transition Towns, but today some of the best ideas are coming from the descendents of the earlier movement. Including, ironically, JMG himself.

    1. Yes, that's the point I was trying to make. There's a lot of wisdom in the conservative approach to human nature, but for that to make sense, you need to apply it to all areas of society. What people seem to forget is that we live in a world with technical capabilities that are just dumped on society in a kind of grand experiment with all of us as unwitting participants. That needs to be integrated into those views. To be a conservative in that traditional sense is to stand still in a moving society. Of course, conservatism isn't monolithic as the commenter below points out, so I'm critiquing what I think is the dominant form in America today.

  2. The entire argument is predicated on two major flaws:
    First, the actual definition of the word conservative is ignored, describing it as "rigid" instead of "reserved" which is not the same thing...

    Secondly, the assumption that the expressed concerns of all conservatives are the expressed concerns of every conservative. I'm conservative, but I am about as opposed to current state of publicly traded corporations as anyone could possibly be...

    My favorite bit of this was the statement "Progressives (and I can only speak for myself here), aren't trying to create any sort of utopia", while being perfectly willing to speak for all conservatives.

    Conservatives... like liberals, Muslims, Christians... do not necessarily live up to their own beliefs.

    Being conservative and being a capitalist are different things, they often share the same goals, but that is not universal. In a primarily two faction system, this does tend to be the case in that polarization pulls the focus away from individual bullet points and on to collective agreements (two individual goals, increased personal responsibility and increased corporate revenue are wildly different, whereas they both benefit from the reduction of support to the NEA {this a wildly simplified and unfair example, not an argument}). Admittedly that is acknowledged at the end, but that false logic is applied throughout. It was hard to continue after such statements as "Modern self-described conservatives always argue that the 'conservative' response is to leave everything to the Market."

    To claim that an ideal or philosophy is wrong bad because one can site examples of people doing it wrong is myopic at best. Sadly it is not at all surprising, generally this is exactly I would expect of an academic dismantling of a group or class of people. This has been the way that approach has been executed since humans first collected themselves together into intellectual cabals, and hasn't changed enough to even be called "conservative".

    A progressive response to a conflict of opinion might be to dismantle your own philosophy, (as well as the named philosophy one claims to belong to), as thoroughly as possible, to attempt to identify why others might feel a contrary opinion is necessary. Sadly, that sort of Progressivism is rarely seen in anyone with a strong and contrasting opinion. I find that when someone does, they find that their chosen "team" doesn't represent them well enough, and they take to calling themselves "independent" or "moderate" or trying to cluster themselves into something less defined, but identifiable "socially permissive, fiscally conservative, arts & education support who believes in stiff corporate regulations" know... an Individual.

    1. Probably no two people on earth have the exact same political opinions about anything, so the problem is that any discussion of belief groups would be not only meaningless but impossible. So, about that which we cannot speak we must remain silent?

      I would say the points I'm trying to make remain valid, viz.,that those who adhere to a traditional view of Burkean conservtism have major blind spots when it comes to the technological/industrial nature of our society today; and that there is not a lot of utopianism or denial of human nature in current strains of Progressive thought (in constrast to say, past versions of Utopian socialism or some strands of communism and anarchism), just a realization that our systems need reforming due to our technological capabilities, political realities, resource constraints, and so forth.

      Is that valid for everyone? No, of course not. By definition I need to target one strain of thought, but it's the strain I believe to be predominant in America today.

  3. I explored the contradictions between Burkean conservatism and the modern use of the word in Food Fight! Thoughts on liberalism and conservatism inspired by the Preface to Food, Inc. Burkean conservatism, which Pournelle describes as "irrationality"--remember, Pournelle is a conservative, so he doesn't think this is a bad thing--fails in helping to understand a lot of differences in the behavior of modern liberals and conservatives. Instead, It's more helpful to think of liberalism as increasing participation in politics and society and improving the economic lot of the "common citizen" or average person, while conservatism protects the status quo by maintaining, if not increasing, restrictions on political and social participation, and works to the benefit of the already wealthy and against the interests of the poor. If one can improve the lot of the average person by resisting "progress," then that will be a liberal thing to do, while imposing "progress" that makes the rich richer would be a conservative thing to do.

    1. That's a very good working definition of the difference between the two stains of thought. Thus, tearing society apart is a good thing if it enhances the power of the elites, but any sort of revolution that helps the poor and middle class is a bad thing. Intersting to note that some conservatives today are openly calling for an end to representative democracy and a return to monarchy (but not an end to corporate capitalism). also intersting to note the tensions between conservatives on national sovreignity versus "free traders."

      That's why Christian conservatives are in such a bizarre spot. On the one hand, they are the most socially conservative Americans, but on the other, they are the staunchest defenders of corporate power, including the ability to manipuate us at will (sex, violence, etc.). I was told a story once about an architect who lost a commisiion for a church because he didn't like to eat at McDonalds (which the conservative Christian clients deemed unamerican and subversive).

  4. Interesting post. Will have to reread it when I have time.
    However, you are very right that modern "conservatives" in general don't advocate policies that actually "conserve" anything, and that the system they might want to conserve - modern industrial capitalism - is probably not worth preserving.
    However, the European New Right have a very different take on this old-debate: they are very much against unfettered capitalism.

    A different way of defining conservatism a la Burke might be the view that society is an organic being, that needs to be tended, guided, and helped along. In many ways, Burkean conservatives and some progressives could be great allies.

    I think your essay got some things wrong, however, because it doesn't account for the fact that different conservatives can choose different baselines: many conservatives, especially in Europe, take the pre-industrial capitalism state to be the baseline.

    Without defining what the baseline is, the critique of Burkean or European conservatism becomes silly.

    1. That's true - European conservatives have some different ideas, probably because their civilizations were around long before modern industrial capitalism, unlike the U.S. which was overwhelmed by it fairly early in our history. I agree that progressives and Burkean conservatives could learn a lot from each other, and that was a neglected point I was trying to make, espcially towards the end.


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