01 March 2010

The Paradox of Conservatism

"Conservatism is the 'ism' that came into being to resist the existence of 'isms.' This makes for potentially insurmountable challenges," writes Patrick J. Deneen in the new American Conservative, "How to evince a political belief that avoids the rigidity of ideology? Can one take a political position without [it] becoming a political program? Can the principled stand against a politics based upon the application of universalized principle avoid becoming universalized?"

As a philosophical conservative, Deneen is pessimistic about all of the above. He argues in an extraordinary article to find in a self-styled conservative journal that the mere act of asserting a conservative philosophy almost instantly alienates that philosophy from "the unconscious practices that make up any given tradition." Because conservatism came into being in opposition to radicalism and revolution, conservatism from the beginning has been "forced...to articulate itself in ways that were distinctly unconservative." Conservatives who denounced the "theoretical" approach to politics that characterized radical reform in the Age of Reason "required theoretical articulation" themselves. Conservatism, Deneen, argues, is something different from a "conservative temperament. It "has stood less for a defense of ...custom, variety, prudence, imperfectability, community and restraint of power -- and has instead allied itself with national and even international objectives destructive to custom, variety, and community." These objectives include "the expansion of military and economic power, resource exploitation with little discussion of impace upon future generations, a globalized market [etc.]"

For Deneen, the fundamental problem of conservatism is its habit of defining itself in opposition to a radical other. Its greatest flaw is its tendency to "occupy the space abandoned by [the] leftward trajectory" of the ideological enemy." As the country has moved leftward (as Deneen sees it) over the past century, conservatism has also moved incrementally leftward, as that which was to be prevented at all costs in one generation becomes that which must be conserved against radical change in the next. In particular, modern conservatism has much in common with the Progressivism of a century ago that was bitterly opposed by the conservatives of the early 20th century. That includes a jingoistic nationalism as well as the Reaganite optimism about human potential that goes most obviously against the historic conservative grain. Conservatism's definition of itself as an anti-socialist movement has also led it to idolize the market and entrepreneurship in ways that also strike Deneen as essentially unconservative.

There's more to say about this article, as well as an intriguing 1909 treatise cited within that paradoxically links democratization with the rise of money in politics, but I'm compelled to close for the moment. I'll only add that this particular issue of The American Conservative looks rich with the kind of conservative self-criticism that's hard to find elsewhere. If neoconservatives started out as liberals who were "mugged by reality," and the word neoliberal is taken by advocates of global capitalism, what word is available for philosophical conservatives who increasingly feel mugged by the reality of Republicans and radio talkers? It might first appear in print in the pages of this remarkable monthly, if it endures.

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