You are here

Is Social Conservatism Necessary?

Takimag has published a piece I wrote on social conservatism. Unfortunately, they no longer allow comments, which was always half the fun of publishing there.

Share/Save

Comments

They don’t allow comments, but they do give a URL for us to track you down in your lair.

Describing liberalism, you wrote,

…distinctions related to family, culture, religion, and inherited community must be suppressed. They have at least as much effect as formal education on what we are and do, but they’re bad because they offer an alternative method of social organization and so threaten liberalism. That is why those who make distinctions based on sex, marital status, or community and cultural background must be squashed.

That strikes me as a good characterization of liberalism circa 1965. The salient feature of today’s liberalism is the emphasis on some (not all) of these distinctions. Affirmative action is the most obvious example.

Conservatives who buy your characterization of liberalism, or Lawrence Auster’s similar characterization in terms of “the principle of nondiscrimination,” call such liberal discrimination in favor of blacks, women, homosexuals, etc. “hypocritical” or “reverse racism/sexism” or a “double standard.” But calling it that is superficial and misleading. Liberalism is not about erasing inherited distinctions that are an impediment to a rationalist technocracy. Liberal ideologies are not all constructed to further the interests of the New Class, though they’re all constrained by those interests. If liberalism were all about rational class interests, then it would be meritocratic, as it was until a few decades ago.

Liberal distinctions on race, gender, etc. for the purpose of “inclusion” and “diversity” are not accidental. Liberalism does “squash” certain distinctions by certain groups (whites, Christians), as you say, at the same time valorizing distinctions by others. This metadistinction—whose distinctions get valorized, whose get squashed—is essential to contemporary liberalism. In political ideologies there is no such thing as a double standard, only a single standard which someone has misunderstood.

I agree that in political ideologies there is no (or at least only rarely) such a thing as a double standard. Accordingly, I never call liberal treatment of blacks, women, homosexuals, etc. “hypocritical” or “reverse racism/sexism” or a “double standard.” I view those expressions as superficial and misleading.

The effect of liberal identity politics is to disconnect natural and traditional aspects of identity—sex, race, religion, cultural and historical heritage and loyalties—from any social function. Hispanics aren’t encouraged to emphasize Hispanic identity in order to carry on their lives in an independent Hispanic setting based on Hispanic culture, heritage, and loyalties. They are encouraged to emphasize it so they can appeal to lawyers, bureaucrats and judges to keep whites from relying on their own culture, heritage, and loyalties. Emphasis on the identity of non-white non-straight non-Christian non-males means all social institutions have to become multicultural, which means a-cultural, which means money and neutral expert bureaucracy become the sole possible principles of social order.

Liberalism thus makes the New Class the only possible ruling class. It is therefore about suppressing the effect of inherited distinctions that are an impediment to a rationalist technocracy. Since it’s about rational class interests, it can’t be altogether meritocratic. Power is never fanatically principled. Instead, it emphasizes destruction of competing principles of social order over consistent implementation of the meritocratic principles that provide the ostensible justification for its own rule. No surprise there.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Thanks, that was a very good reply. I disagree with you slightly about meritocracy—I just meant 1965-style meritocracy, not some absolute ideal—but that’s a minor point.

Your points about minorities such as Hispanics in the US are well taken. I agree that liberals use “multiculturalism” as a weapon against traditional (“racist,” “sexist”) culture. Maybe one has to look at Europe, where things are in higher contrast, to see what I meant. For just one example, there was the Archbishop of Canterbury saying nice things about sharia in Britain. Liberals in Europe (I mean “liberal” in the current American sense) really do support minority cultural and political autonomy. They’re OK with moving towards something like the millet system in the Ottoman Empire.

Growing an alien, antiliberal, traditionalist, sharia-ruled minority might be consistent with the perceived interests of the technocrats, but I don’t see that it furthers their real interests. Some people say that they’re creating a mess so that they’ll be the only ones who can manage it, but that seems a little far-fetched. Liberals are not “the only possible ruling class” in this multicultural (as opposed to a-cultural) situation. The Ottomans weren’t liberal.

Anyway, that’s Europe. Since the ideology and rhetoric seem pretty much the same on both sides of the Atlantic, I think the only reason American liberals haven’t gone as far is simply that American minorities, unlike European Muslims, don’t demand autonomy. So that’s my answer: look to Europe.

I don’t see why allowing some degree of local Sharia rule would be a problem from the liberal view. Establishing Sharia in a Western country is like terrorism. It disrupts established social understandings in a basic way. If you think history is on your side shaking things up makes sense. It accelerates historical change, and liberals think “change” simply as such is a strongly positive term.

Liberalism is progressive and reformist, which means it proceeds step by step. Once the overall legal and social order is disconnected from all particular traditions it will be possible to deal in a rational and uniform way with whatever traditions some people continue to cling to.

From their point of view it’s not “creating a mess so that they’ll be the only ones who can manage it.” It’s more like clearing the ground by eliminating the privileges of any one particularism. Why shouldn’t Sharia have the same status as Anglicanism? The Archbishop is quite right from his point of view as a liberal Christian.

I don’t think it’s likely to lead to a millet system since the state is so much larger now and does so much more, and we have the mass consumer society with pervasive broadband electronic entertainment. Liberals think that welfare state bribes, pop culture dissipations, and careerist and consumerist self-interest will be enough to make minority particularisms nonfunctional. That’s not a crazy point of view.

The Ottoman comparison is an interesting one. The Ottomans like us had a de-particularized meritocratic ruling class, with dynastic rule at the top. We have multiple competing dynasties rather than just one but there’s some similarity in that regard too. It’s true the ultimate justifying theory was Islam rather than liberalism but the latter was institutionally impossible at the time.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.