Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Golden Age vs Utopia Part 1A: Restoration vs Progress

The following is a comment I posted on Digby basically recasting the argument of Part 1. At some point I will try to provide a synthesis.
Conservatives don't believe in Progress with a capital P. I am not being flip, I have recently been examining Conservatism in its larger historical and cultural context and have convinced myself that the difference between Conservatives and non-Conservatives is not defined by capitalism, or authoritarianism, or even by religion as conventionally defined. Instead I see Conservatism as a continuum from pre-Christian European thought.

If you examine any of the mythic traditions of Europeans or better Indo-Europeans you see a clear pattern of devolution: in the beginning was the Golden Age of the gods, followed by the Silver Age of the heroes, finally terminating in the Bronze Age of mortal men. And even within the world of men there is thought to be a devolution, our grandfathers being more morally strong than us, and our remote ancestors even more so. It is also striking that these traditions are largely lacking in eschatology, there is very little sense of their being any kind of collective end times, and where you do see it as in Scandinavian Ragnorak it is seemingly imported from Christianity.

In this worldview everything good and true about the world is transmitted from the past to the present, and it is the paramount duty of man to conserve that transmitted truth and where practice has departed from tradition to restore it.

In contrast to conservatism is the Enlightenment. Some time during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries people almost abandoned the idea that all truth was to be found in Classicism on the one hand (Renaissance meaning literally re-birth) and folk knowledge and traditional law and ritual on the other (the Ancient Constitution) but that with Newton we could see farther because we were standing on the shoulders of giants. And with this came the idea of Progress and Utopianism that place the Golden Age in the future.

Utopianism is a mortal danger to Golden Age Conservatism, Change means abandoning the old and so tried and true, for the new which is inherently risky. From this perspective Conservatives are not worshipers of authoritarianism as such, only of that kind of authoritarianism that maintains the old order, which historically has manifested itself in the form of 'King and Church!'. Certainly they reject the kind of Utopian Authoritarianism manifested in Communism. Nor are Conservatives inherently selfish, within traditional structures they can be generous enough, it is just that their whole world view rejects the idea of progress towards Utopia via societal transformation. Which also explains their ambivalent relation to Christianity, it provides strength to traditional structure "Honor thy father and thy mother" while at the same time the Teachings of Jesus both challenge those structures directly AND point to an ideal future and/or end times in direct contrast to Conservative belief in a Golden Age in both the medium and long term past.

A lot of what seems like Conservative Evil to Progressives is simply a rejection of the whole concept of Progress to start with. Progressives look at the world and see it in dangerous need of improvement, Conservatives look at the world, see it as degraded and want to restore it to its past glories. Think of it as two people standing back to back each wondering why the other just can't see what they see so clearly. It is because Progressives are looking forward to a Bright Future and Conservatives are looking back at a Glowing Golden Past.

I am going to be developing this idea on my own blog, but I think it explains a lot about a whole range of Conservative thought from its strong attachment to partriarchy and traditional gender roles, to its acceptance of all types of traditional authority, to its resistance to the idea of drastic action on global warming. It is not just that they reject the slogan "Change we can believe in!", they don't believe in 'Change' to start with.

They are after all Conserve-atives.


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bio said...

Take away “moral progress” and there is nothing to prevent you from thinking that if men could slaughter and enslave men then, they could do the same today. The past was not only religion and the king. It was aristocracy and the masses suppressed in various forms. And conservatives aren't ignorant of this.