Thursday, September 24, 2009

Movement Conservatism: the Good vs the Many

You can't understand the incoherence of the modern American conservative movement without understanding the contradiction at its core. Burkean Conservatism has as its goal the preservation of the interests of the Good as against the demands of the Many. In eighteenth century Britain this fell right in line with the existing political, economic, and social structures, everyone understood who was High, Middle, and Low and the gradations within those categories. In politics the interest of the High was protected by the House of Lords and the interests of the Middle at least somewhat protected by the House of Commons (because not all the Middle was represented and the High had much influence). But the Low had no representation at all and in the ethos of the time that was a good thing.

In eighteenth century Britain democracy was equated to revolution and specifically the the French Revolution with its radical levelling principles that led to regicide and the breaking of the power of the Established Church. The French Revolution was not just a political, social, and economic convulsion, it seemed in its totality to be a breakdown in cosmic order, a World Turned Upside Down.

The American Revolution started 13 years before the French and so while many of the Founders were sympathetic with the ideas that would drive the later Revolution they were able to implement them in a very different situation, the King not residing right in the midst of them but instead being on the other side of the ocean. Still the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and the relatively wide franchise were from the perspective of the newly emerging Burkean Conservatism thoroughly radical rejection of the natural order. For Conservatives pure democracy was a threat.

Which puts us where we are. Modern American Conservatism has inherited its foundations from Burkean Conservatism but is constrained by the American political system from proposing them openly. In America you can't openly assert that society is by nature hierarchical and moreover pyramid shaped and that that societal order is best maintained by the control of the 'Good' people in the middle to upper levels of the hierarchy who are by that same nature not only allowed but encouraged to maximize their own 'Deserving' interests against those of the 'Undeserving' 'Many'. That the end result is by definition anti-Democratic is a feature and not a bug.

But in the United States the path to public power comes through obtaining electoral majorities, meaning that the natural representatives of the 'Good' still have to draw the votes of enough of the 'Many' to be first past the post. Which in practice means convincing enough of the 'Many' that they are really among the 'Good' even as they lack the natural economic and social status to actually take their place among the latter. Which has led modern Movement Conservatism to exploit every fissure among the Many, including race, national origin, and religion. For Conservatism 'Good' meant free, white, male and being either wealthy or living in small towns and rural areas and mostly still does. Which makes it an uneasy fit with a country that is increasingly diverse and largely urbanized.

How do you sell Conservative concepts of hierarchy and natural inequality in a system built on the credo that holds that "All Men are Created Equal" is a central tenet of society? Well with great difficulty.


Jack said...

Bruce, I thought that the note that I had sent to you earlier might fit well as an opening comment to this topic. It starts off with what you said about the effect of the redundancy and persistence of some commentators on social and political issues.

" is less fun shooting them down." Bruce

The problem is that no matter how effectively you crush an argument
it resurfaces unscathed as though it had some inherent validity impervious to
facts. Often those that would obfuscate an issue will use an
unending series of links with long citations from those links in order to provide a smoke screen that becomes so overwhelming
that there is no reasonable way to check each for interpretation, never mind facts.
That is the intention. Kill the truth with repetition of the antithesis. The Good, as you describe them, play this game even when unaware that they are part and parcel of a scripted scenario.
The media is the venue and the elite are the progenitors. There is an obscure quote from
Robespierre that I mentioned on AB in the not distant past concerning
the effect of the transmitted word and its ill effect when used by those who seek to invent an alternate reality. It has to do with those whom he refers to as "treacherous tongue and pens" and how they mislead the Many. The many cannot be educated due to the
constancy of those treacherous tongues and pens. It does seem like an impossible fight to get the truth out and to have the Many
understand that truth for what it is. In my work I have always been
chagrined at how the average
person, educated as they may be, prefers the lie because it is often
what they want to be the truth.

Blissex said...

«How do you sell Conservative concepts of hierarchy and natural inequality in a system built on the credo that holds that "All Men are Created Equal" is a central tenet of society? Well with great difficulty.»

Very easily! By persuading many that they will *become* good. It is called "politics of aspiration". It is one of the most wonderful examples of marketing. And in America optimism is obligatory.

And optimism did work for a while for enough people, as the lower layers of society were always filled by newcomers and victims, immigrants and natives or forced immigrants.

As these sources of real value have been used up, american culture has descended ever more into imagined value and simple propaganda.

Bruce Webb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Webb said...

Thanks Blissex, I fully agree about the method they use and its relative success. So "sell" was probably the wrong word.

What I meant is "Is there an intellectually honest way of presenting Burkean Conservatism that, ones own perceived interest aside, is consistent with that credo. I don't think so. Because that brand pays only lip service to the idea of meritocracy and would never back off the question of inherited property and position.

Blissex said...

«intellectually honest way [ ... ] hierarchy and natural inequality in a system built on the credo that holds that "All Men are Created Equal" [ ... ] would never back off the question of inherited property and position»

To some extent that is a bit of an abstract question.

I think that there are two answers:

* Prevarication: depends on how you define "men", "created" and "equal". It is perfectly possible to create plausible sounding argument in which whatever is defined as "men" are "created" as "equal" in some sense, and then they end up in unequal hierarchies because they deserve it.

* More fundamentally, that brand of conservativism is not interested in such questions. I once found a summary of Burke that seemed plausible and went like this:
** What works is good.
** What does not work causes trouble.
** Don't change what works.
** If you must change something:
*** It is difficult to figure out in advance what works and what does not work.
*** It is much easier to look back on the experience of the ages and adopt what worked for them.

So the conclusion is that either one can play semantics (and it does not take a lot of difficulty), or one can conclude that since hierarchy and inequality are what we have, and they *work*, they should not be lightly dismissed, for the sake of a relatively new and not yet fully tested concept like "all men are created equal" in its pure humanist meaning.

Of course this is an "opportunist" tendency, but "opportunism" is a very widespread attitude in the USA, and not just because of the story described in that "seeds of Albion" book, but also because voters are becoming older, richer, more insecure.

And marketing trumps any "intellectually honest way" with that kind of voters.

As you probably have realized my main message in most of my comments is that even in a somewhat loose democracy, the problem is voters. If voters are vigilant, reasonable, informed, and feel part of a "tribe" or community, politics can be about issues and choices.

The problem is primarily voters, not politicians or ideologues, and grassroots voter information and education would be what matters, but not many seem to have a vested or noble interest in doing it.

And in the USA I would guess that many voters pay lip service to "All Men are Created Equal", and love "hierarchy and natural inequality" and "inherited property and position" looks like the right thing to them.

Bruce Webb said...

All excellent points. And really the reason that I reject the idea that the key to blocking Social Security 'Reform' is just to get the word out as widely as possible. You just are not going to break through 26 years of successful message marketing.

My target here is the Glibs who come to blogs thinking they can just sell what you point out is simply a marketing message as instead a serious piece of intellectual argument. Pointing out that Burkean Conservatism is fundamentally anti-Democratic may not be a message salable to the masses but it conceivably could be useful in inducing some self-important Glibertarians to take a nice healthy gulp of STFU.

This is why the two Andy's (Samwick and Biggs) kind of don't like me. I don't call them names (as some friends of mine do), instead by my own argumentation demonstrate that they better bring their best game and that just throwing around slogans like 'intergenerational equity' does not amount to a connected, logical and most importantly numeric argument.

As to your last point I don't believe that many of those voters believe that "All Men are Created Equal" is just bogus and that it is our duty to tug our forelock as we bow to the Squire. Instead they believe that they too are Squires and it is the Other that fills the Peasant role.

There is nothing more American as the boast "I am as good as any other man!" Their self-esteem is bound up in not seeing the contradiction in their stance.

Jack said...

This is a duplicate of a comment I made on another site. It seems to fit into this topic. I'd like some thoughts from others on this idea.

Michael Moore has been making his points on a national promotional tour. One of the more interesting things that he says during these promotional interviews is that the opposite of capitalism is democracy.
Each time the interviewer seems perplexed at that dichotomy, but Moore's point should be examined more closely. It takes its validity from the way in which capitalism, and communism for that matter, have been instituted in different nations during he 20th century up to the present. Both have functioned as political system hiding behind a cloak of economic deception. In the case of capitalism the people have been convinced that their governments are democratically established simply because they have an opportunity to take part in an electoral process. In communist states there has little emphasis on the democratic process, but the people in those nations have been led to believe that they are equals in an egalitarian economic system. Both have been a charade for the many and a boon for the very few. Now the two systems, capitalism and communism, are becoming even more closely allied as China and Russia have come to recognize the the very few can benefit to an even greater extent by harnessing their natural resources in a more capitalist manner.

There needs to be a re-establishment of the democratic process regardless of the economic system. The electoral process is not sufficient to define a nation as a democracy. That requires that the many begin to participate not only in the productivity of the economic system, but also the rewards of that system. The capitalists and the communists alike need to be taken out of the political system. They are ideologies that have no more right to exclusivity in a democratic system than does any specific religious ideology. If capitalists want the benefits of an economic system they have to give back to the people the determination of the democratic political system.

RMidd said...

Just stumbled here today and liked the post and comments.

Re: "The problem is the voters."
I agree somewhat but I believe that a large majority are legitimately dismayed by what they perceive to be a broken system. I think that the crazies are loud and show up every time polls open. I believe that there are many "self-disenfranchised" who would take a greater and reasonable interest in how they are governed if they felt it were really effective.

When it comes to diverting more power to the people I believe that one major reform is imperative:

** Impartial redistricting. ** I would prefer them by drawn by computer, but a diverse board might also suffice. This would drastically alter our deadlocked system.

There are other fixes which would even the playing field, like public financing, or more drastic changes which could be considered, like proportional representation, ability to easily recall legislators if you were dissatisfied, or a parliamentary-type system. But I believe that if we just started with fair, competitive districts, we'd see great changes.

In fact, I would bet that, suddenly, better voters would follow!

Bruce Webb said...

Thanks Jack and RMidd

I hope to get a regular conversation going on this topic. I am not on top of the literature on this, most of this stuff is just based on how events actually fell out over the last few centuries, first in Britain and then in the U.S. between the economic and political theory and the everyday reality..

I would certainly entertain the idea of guest posts, so if someone wanted to write something up or point to a third party piece as a starting point for discussion, bring it on.

My next post is going to muddle through some ideas about how conservatism is first and foremost about property rights and so sees 'freedom' as being 'freedom from' rather than 'freedom to'.

It is a little late in the morning so I may put up a filler piece and tackle this one for tomorrow morning.