What conservatism?

We live in a liberal age. A conservative, then, is someone who resists liberalism. He wants to reverse it or at least resist its advance.

There are a variety of reasons for resisting liberalism, and they lead to different kinds of conservatism. Some are more liberal or radical than conservative, and each can be at odds with any or all of the others. Short of an extreme situation like an invasion from Mars there’s not much they would all agree on.

Anyway, here are some of the possibilities:

  1. The Simply Conservative Conservative:
    • The Antichange Agent. Liberalism demands change. Most changes are for the worse, and any change takes something away. So why not oppose change, especially if you like what you have already?

      This kind is common if not often articulate. Their emphasis on established possession often gives conservatives a bad name. That’s unfair, since the desire to keep possession is no worse than the desire to acquire it. Investment bankers risk what they have for the sake of getting more, mothers are cautious with what they have. Are the former more admirable than the latter?

      Antichange views always carry some weight, but mostly in the background. Contrary views are at least as energetic and common today. You can win the presidency by promising “Change” simply as such. People want things that are New and Improved. The desire to keep what you have is necessary and legitimate, but it can’t explain by itself why and when it should prevail. To dispute the matter you need argument as well as impulse and interest.

    • The Mini-Burkean. He’s rather like the Antichange Agent, but more philosophical. As such, he likes stability, and wants to know where he is and what’s what. He thinks things are better if they’re settled, not just for him but for pretty much everybody.

      This kind seems common in England and among older people in comfortable circumstances. Jeffrey Hart, a retired professor of eighteenth century English literature, is an example. Roger Scruton often speaks like one too.

      While the Mini-Burkean seems less focused on self-interest than the Antichange Agent, his conservatism is still too much a matter of articulating a disposition to put up serious resistance to liberal trends. More is needed.

    • The Maxi-Burkean, or Kirkian. Like his Mini cousin, he resists liberalism because he likes social and cultural stability. He differs though by emphasizing substantive goods and social functioning more than personal tastes and comforts.

      He complains that liberalism destroys the traditions, connections, and unstated agreements necessary for normal life. In particular, it disrupts institutions other than global markets and bureaucracies: family, local community, particular culture, religion, and traditional understandings of morality and personal integrity.

      In exchange for those things liberalism offers us a system that is supposedly altogether rationalized. It turns out though to be a system of irresponsible, self-deluded, and ever-more-absolute power manned by careerists and psychopaths ruling over a dysfunctional aggregation of wimps, losers, cranks, druggies, couch potatoes, obsessed shoppers, and professional victims.

      The Maxi-Burkean Kirkian makes good points, but has trouble making them effectively because they’re so much at odds with technological assumptions. In addition, the emphasis on tradition and continuity makes it hard for him to do more than oppose abuses and excesses within a basically sound system. He’s too wedded to gentility. When things get bad he starts ignoring issues and otherwise drops out of the discussion. That enables him to maintain his respectability but at the cost of relevance.

  2. The Conservative Liberals:
    • The Libertarian. He’s philosophically liberal, but notes that liberal principle devours itself when taken too far. The absolute dominance of freedom is still the tyranny of an ideology. His solution is to make private property absolute and so freeze liberalism at a particular stage of development so it can’t do too much. It’s a simple view that’s easy for present-day people to understand, but it’s too arbitrary for actual human life.
    • The Neocon. He’s a liberal who accepts the Maxi-Burkean’s point that social functioning requires traditional nonrationalized habits and loyalties. So he favors such things, but only to the extent they are needed to support liberal institutions. He wants God for the masses, Machiavelli for the classes. The approach is not likely to work, but is effective as a way of securing a seat at the table. Since he subordinates conservatism so totally to liberalism he’s the natural liberal talking partner, and will never lack for talk show gigs.
    • The Team America man. He’s a normal person who can’t get by just on abstract principle, so he needs specific ties to the world. It’s hard to work out general principles for himself, but he likes team sports, so he signs on to America as the home team. He supports whatever America supports, and doesn’t like people who don’t. As such, he’s tailor-made for Neocon manipulation. America’s a proposition, they tell him, and they know just what the proposition demands.
  3. The Radical Conservatives:
    • The Independence Buff. He rejects liberal beliefs as false, stupid, insipid and oppressive. They falsify the world and deny human agency and identity. It’s humiliating to live under them or even pay lip service to them, so it’s liberating to confront and disrupt them.

      The category is somewhat novel. G. K. Chesterton foreshadowed the type but with definite Catholic content. H. L. Mencken and Nietzsche provide purer models. The problem with the pure view, of course, is that it’s undirected. By itself it’s not going to go anywhere.

      This kind is common in America and among energetic and high-spirited young guys. To some extent they share a common impulse with libertarians. They’re not as fixed on a simple concept of reason that answers all questions, which means they’re not as nerdy, they read less science fiction, and they generally aren’t computer programmers.

    • The Fascist. He takes the Kirkian point that that social functioning requires nonrationalized habits and loyalties, the Team America point that national loyalty can make up for whatever’s missing, and the Independence Buff point that liberal beliefs are false, stupid, insipid and oppressive. His solution is to go for energetic irrationalist illiberal nationalism. The approach was never common in America, and hasn’t panned out, so it’s not found much today. Still, it’s a theoretical possibility.
    • The Ethnic Nationalist. Like Team America, but with America as a people rather than a proposition or legal structure. Sometimes very much like the Fascist.

      The basic thought seems right that America should be thought of as a people rather than a proposition or legal structure, but just what is that people? Is it one and unified or complex and divided? Is it part of something bigger or an empire unto itself? The sole standard of politics or one consideration among others? Something to be accepted where it exists or something to be enhanced and pushed forward?

    • The Trans-Burkean, sometimes viewed as the Maistre Maniac. He notes that tradition points to the transcendent but is prone to error, manipulation, suppression, and occasional incoherence. The triumph of liberalism shows that social tradition can’t maintain itself without an authority that is not merely traditional. On the other hand, the fascists demonstrated that merely arbitrary authority leads to disaster. Since the civilization of the West was based on concepts of revealed truth and its authorized interpreters, why not go for it?

      Trans-Burkeans are mostly Catholic traditionalists, although various theonomists and others share some characteristics. There aren’t many of them, but liberals see Talibanic bogeymen under every bed, so there must be something to the view.

7 thoughts on “What conservatism?”

  1. But which kind are you?
    Or is

    But which kind are you?

    Or is the point that Catholics are outside of Conservatism? Or that ‘Trans-Burkeanism’ is ladder towards belief, which ends the need for an ideology?

    • More the latter
      Trans-Burkean conservatism is trans-conservative. It points beyond itself.

      Conservatism is an epistemological approach, one that emphasizes tradition as a fundamental part of how we know things that as such has its own authority.

      All that is good and true, but our ultimate concern isn’t how to justify knowledge but what reality is. Subordinating reality to knowledge is a basic modern error. Tradition matters because it’s about something, and the thing it’s about is what we really care about. So conservatism can’t be our ultimate view. It has to help get us somewhere.

      • Which Conservatism.
        But one can err as well, in subordinating reality to tradition. Conservatism is not the ultimate view, the ultimate view is reality. The essence of Conservatism is the metaphysical idea that there is a reality, and that it can be known. All else is error.

        • Our view is not the same as reality
          If an outlook doesn’t involve tradition as a means to knowledge it’s not conservatism.

          Conservatism accepts that reality is real and authoritative. It also accepts that we have a limited grasp of reality. So it’s not a question of subordinating reality to tradition but recognizing and accepting the limits and conditions of our knowledge.

          • Which Conservatism.
            Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but tradition is not a means of knowledge rather a repository of it. The old is valued insofar as it is true, not because it is old. I’m of the opinion that it is better to believe in new truths rather than old falsehoods. And by “new truths” I do not mean “truths” that are contingent with the mood of the times, rather new insights into the nature of reality itself. The problem is that some traditional beliefs are false, i.e. the inferiority of women, Blacks, etc. This is the constant danger of traditionalism; that old lies are given the merit of truth by reason of their age.

            The conservative aims at a knowledge of reality as it is. Yes, there are epistemological issues involved here, but our inability to prove unprovable truths does not invalidate the existence of these same truths.

  2. What Conservatism.
    The different variants of Conservatism that you have listed above are all movements which give the impression that they are conservative but are not. The problem with the above listed movements is that although they contain “kernels of truth” they also incorporate several intellectual errors.

    For my mind, conservatism must rest on proper metaphysics and ontology. The true conservatives metaphysical weltanshauung is predicated upon a belief in an objective reality and transcendental reality which the conservative sees “through a glass darkly”. Their action and thought is predicated on this system of belief.

    Ed Feser wrote what I consider the best bang for the buck essay on the subject, “http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=011106E” The Metaphysics of Conservatism. He nails the subject completely.

    Jim (If I may call you that) I’ve drifted back from your site after being linked to it from a European New Right essay I was reading. Now the problem with the ENR guys is while they seem to believe in religion they seem to do it for reasons of utility, not for the fact that it may be true. Comte I think, had a similar view on the matter recognising that man has a religious impulse and that it may be socially useful to feed that impulse, but he did not believe religion was true.

    Your Pagan Roman worshiped Jupiter because he believed him real, an objective fact, a reality which though he could not taste or touch, knew was a real deity whom he would one day have contact with. You’re most hillbilly Southern Baptist or Peasant Catholic has more in common with that ancient Roman than any of the New European Right guys. It’s also why the Heather McDonald types are really psuedo-Conservatives. Rationalism gets you so far, you need to have faith that there exists a reality beyond the senses. The Ancient Greeks, Romans, Founding Fathers, Burke etc would have no problem with this view. The atheists do.

    On the other hand, many in the Left have the conservative metaphysic but deny the objective reality of man. Trendy preachers believe in God but believe male and female genders are “simply social constructs”, the doctrine of original sin is denied and an ideology of the perfection of man is preached, the “vision” is preferred to the reality of man and so on. True conservatives believe in a human nature and transcendent that are real. A deficiency in either of the visions, empirical or transcendent renders one incapable of conservatism.

    Sorry, and while I’m ranting, a comment with regard to tradition. Tradition is the voice of the dead. it should be remembered that what is old was once a new and exciting thing, all traditions started off as novelties. However they were novelties which stood the test of time and were passed on by generations because men found these traditions useful or because they respected some aspect of the dead. Conservatives don’t respect tradition because it is old but because what is traditional is either useful, good or commemorative. Traditions in someway reflect some truth about ourselves which perceived first by the people that lived before us and have now passed away. Tradition is the voice of the dead amongst the living, it’s transgenerational communication. Still, I’m quite prepared to ditch tradition when I’ve found that some aspect of it is wrong. A conservative loves the truth more than he loves tradition. That’s why conservatives can be radicals.

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