12 August 2009

Another Note on Conservatism

It was dispiriting to discover on page 159 of Patrick Allitt's The Conservatives that the first self-conscious, self-identified "conservative" movement in the U.S. only emerged in the 1950s. If that was so, what was the point of the first 158 pages? Actually, the point was to point out the precursors to the full-blown conservative movement, and in turn to show what the movement took from past thinkers, and what it changed. As a whole, Allitt has reinforced my own sense that modern conservatism had deviated from what might be called the conservative tradition in this country and in Western civ in general. There's always been an aversion to so-called "forced" equality, but older versions of conservatism at least asserted that inequality was necessary and even beneficial to society as a whole. They believed that leadership and wisdom were qualities that required leisure to learn, so that societies had to have aristocracies in order to have proper leadership. With that came a notion that those with privilege had a responsibility toward society as a whole, not just to lead it but to set good examples for it. With the American Revolution and the idea of a "natural aristocracy" came the idea that excessive concentrations of wealth were dangerous to a republic. This attitude persisted at least through the days of Teddy Roosevelt, and Allitt points out that many founding fathers of modern-day conservatism still regarded excessive entrepreneurealism with suspicion. In part this was because some still upheld farm life as the human ideal, but there was also a strong feeling that accumulating wealth was not an end in itself. Since the middle of the last century, this sensibility has been nearly drowned out by a rabid entrepreneurial individualism that goes at least as far back as William Graham Sumner and metastasized under the sensational influence of Ayn Rand. Now, it seems, the social responsibility of wealth extends, as far as too many conservatives are concerned, only to giving to charity, while there's little sense left of obligation toward the state. American conservatism is distinguished, in its decadent modern form, by a distrust of the state, apart from its capacity as a police force to control the masses, that is opposite from the conservative traditions of other lands.

Conservatism isn't something that evolves inexorably. It was true that the "liberalism" of the 19th century became the "conservatism" of the 20th century, but there's no sign yet of a similar turnover from the 20th to the 21st. Americans who want to preserve the New Deal social order, for instance, are not regarded as "conservatives," but remain "liberals" in the public mind. This is largely because conservatives, having refused with Palestinian stubbornness to concede the permanence of FDR's reforms, have kept politics on settings dating back to the 1930s. At some point, however, it must make more sense to call their agenda "radical" rather than conservative, since they want to dig at roots of our social order that reach down nearly a century into the past. Distinguishing the extreme individualism of modern Republian conservatism from the older tradition of social cohesion might clarify matters, and there are some American Conservatives trying to do this. But as long as Republicans see advantages in fearmongering and keeping people scared of reform, they'll still look like conservatives to most people, however unfair that might be to more honorable people.

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