03 February 2017

Tyrannies of past, present and future

Conservatism practiced in moderation looks to the past for practical lessons and examples to emulate, but when taken to excess the tyranny of the past presumes that all questions about humanity and society have long been settled and can't be improved upon, either by wiser men than we'll ever see again, or by divine revelation. Conservatism in excess distrusts innovation and experimentation, albeit in some realms more than others, and regards the future with fear so long as it fails to conform to the timeline of the prophets. In effect, it enslaves people to the past.

Progressivism practiced in moderation aspires to a steady improvement in the quality of human life, beginning as soon as possible and continuing indefinitely into the future. When taken to excess the tyranny of the future sacrifices the present to distant visions and wages war on the past. Totalitarians presume that no no one really knew anything before they came along and see nothing the past can offer except unwelcome contradiction. Since their future is a kind of perpetual becoming, always better than what came before or what exists now, the people here and now often seem less real, less meaningful, less worthy of consideration or compassion to them. In effect, they enslave people to the future.

Liberalism practiced in moderation combines critical awareness of the past's lessons, when they're still relevant, and an awareness of the future as an extension of the here-and-now. Taken to excess, liberalism becomes the tyranny of the present, spurning all appeals to past wisdom while stubbornly prioritizing the here-and-now over the future. While conservatism in excess is often skeptical toward innovation and progressivism in excess is often skeptical toward immediate human needs, liberalism in excess is skeptical toward sacrifice, doubting the worth of future goals for the people here-and-now who'll never see long-term goals realized. As the undisputed champions of the here-and-now over both past and future, liberalism in excess -- you might call it anarchy, hedonism, individualism, secular humanism --  doesn't see itself enslaving anybody, but are they right?

The first two kinds of tyrannies have been the subject of theory and critique for ages now, but the idea that liberalism in excess is a kind of tyranny, or at least a form of oppression -- though not the "liberal fascism" of sophomoric Republican rhetoric -- is less often considered, if only because most people doing the thinking and critiquing in the world are liberals. American liberalism is arguably a special kind of excess with specific historical sources that now seems incapable of addressing challenges from the many forms of 21st century extremism. Whether that means liberalism has reached its historical limit of usefulness, or whether American liberalism is uniquely handicapped, requires further consideration of the subject, which I hope to return to every so often when President Trump and his enemies aren't making so much news.


Anonymous said...

Ideology of any sort is stupid. It assumes "we have the one-size fits all answer for all time." Ideologies are rarely adaptive, so speaking in terms of cultural evolution, are NOT "survival" traits.

Anonymous said...

The reason I always think of myself as more to the left is that conservatism seems to have this idea that, at some time in the past, everything was "golden" and that is where we should stay. Unfortunately, the way of the universe is ever changing. Even if everyone wanted to stay, say, in the 1950s, it simply is not possible. Other nations don't stay there and we have to deal with other nations. But even if we could somehow wall ourselves off from all other forces, we still cannot simply stop time.

I suppose I should think of myself more as "progressive" than "liberal" in that sense.

Samuel Wilson said...

Most liberals probably don't think they have an ideology, or assume that liberalism is the opposite of ideology understood to mean "My way or else!" But if ideology means something more like "We can never do x; under no circumstances can x be allowed to happen," then liberalism obviously is as rigid an ideology as any other.

Another threefold distinction might go this way: conservatism assumes that we have all the answers; progressivism assumes we don't have them all now but will get the rest eventually; liberalism doubts that we can ever have all the answers and should curb our pretensions accordingly.

Anonymous said...

"...assume that liberalism is the opposite of ideology understood to mean "My way or else!""

Well someone needs to explain that to the leftists who refuse to debate, but rather demand their "safe spaces" wherein they don't have to be exposed to ideas they don't like.

Samuel Wilson said...

Those people have abandoned liberalism in the classical sense of the world. They tend to call themselves "progressive," but I'd understand if you disagree with that. They probably imagine themselves in a constant process of personal evolution, but they react in populist fashion -- that is, they get reactionary -- if someone from a different vantage point dares suggest that they need to change.