Postmodern Conservatism – guest post by Lorenzo

By skepticlawyer

[SL: there was a time, not so long ago, when conservatives and libertarians could afford to be smug about the intellectual miasma in which left-liberals and progressives had lost themselves. It is unfortunate–and does us little credit–that when a decent number of left-liberals reacted in horror to the colonisation of their political tradition by postmodernism and social constructivism, conservatives and libertarians stood on the side and giggled, forgetting that poisonous memes, once they kick off, have a nasty habit of spreading.

In this essay, medievalist and regular commenter Lorenzo (his bloggy home is here) charts the transmission of this peculiar ‘Humpty-Dumpty-words-mean-whatever-I-want-them-to-mean’ contagion to conservatism, particularly in the US, along with providing some fascinating historical detail on the intellectual origins of conservatism. If you are a conservative (even of the ‘small-c’ variety) it is a depressing story. Not only does it represent the hollowing out of a great tradition, but means that politics on both sides of the aisle is now infected with the belief that truth is up for grabs, that everything depends on ‘perspective’ and ‘authenticity’.

By contrast, if you are a libertarian/classical liberal, then it’s time to abandon ‘me-libertarianism‘ and take up the intellectual cudgels on behalf of the Enlightenment, remembering all the while that–unlike conservatism and progressivism, both of which have roots that go back to antiquity–your tradition couldn’t exist without the Enlightenment.

I will say that I think Conservatism in the UK is in much better health than that across the Atlantic, but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. As I say, memes can spread, and the last thing we need in burning Britain right now is for Conservatives to join Labour in forgetting what they represent.

Lorenzo’s essay is over the fold.]


What do we mean by ‘conservative’? If it is to be more than just a ‘boo’ word, then surely it means people who are in favour of conserving things. This makes it more a sentiment than an ideology. One sceptical of change, with an attachment and loyalty to already existing social patterns and structures. The intensity of scepticism, and of the attachment and loyalty, may vary but the general contours of conservatism are clear enough.

Which means conservatism is very much a matter of context. There is a huge difference between being a Soviet conservative c.1990, a conservative Muslim or an Anglosphere conservative; let alone the difference between being a continental European conservative in 1750, 1850 or 1950. A contemporary American conservative would be a raging (even radical) liberal across many contemporary societies, let alone past ones.

A conservative traditionally defends and resists. Defends what exists and resists attempts seriously to change it. Which leads to Hayek’s famous criticism of conservatism: that it lacks a vision of the future, that conservatives are doomed to being pulled along in an overall direction set by others.

But this is a peculiarly Western and modern criticism: the notion that society has a dynamic, a direction of change, is not one that would have occurred to most people in most times. It points to the fundamental dilemma of Western conservatism: that Western civilisation is, by far, the most dynamic of human civilisations. So, what does it mean to be a conservative in a civilisation whose most defining characteristic is its dynamism? What is it seeking to conserve, what is one being conservative about?

The squabbling alliance
The dynamism of Western civilisation has deep roots. What became Western civilisation began in the squabbling alliance of Church and (mostly Germanic) warlords after the ruin of the Western Roman Empire. It rests on the triad of the preserved or rediscovered leavings of Graeco-Roman civilisation—the Classical heritage with which Western civilisation constantly re-engages; most dramatically in the Carolingian Renaissance, the Renaissance of the C12th, “The” Renaissance, and the Enlightenment—the Judaeo-Christian tradition of monotheist revelation and Germanic cultural notions, ultimately derived from the steppe origins of the Indo-Europeans, of contractual individualism (arising out of such cultural patterns as oath-bound warriors, patrons and clients bound in protection-and-service relations, binding rituals, common sagas, display and hospitality feasts, and guest-host connections).

Trying to make do in the ruins of a collapsed Empire and fading civilisation, Church and warlords experimented and adapted, creating a very new institutional framework. Latin Christendom was not a particularly inventive civilisation, in the technological sense. Genuine European inventions prior to c.1500 may well be restricted to the Archimedean screw, distilling, concrete and the camshaft/gearshaft. But they were highly adaptive; adopting and adapting any vaguely useful technique or technology that came their way.

Where they shone was creating and re-creating institutions: modern Western societies have far more institutional heritage from the medieval period than from the classical. To take a simple example, bonds are an invention of Latin Christendom—specifically, the Serene Republic of Venice in 1171. The notion that the thousand years of medieval Europe was all a stagnant “Dark Age” is a profound nonsense: that one can look at the frozen, soaring motion of the cathedrals—the tallest human structures between the Great Pyramid and modern skyscrapers—and imagine this was a stagnant society is a case of not seeing what is in front of you.

Western civilisation is the transformational civilisation. Latin Christendom transformed the world twice over. It created global history by, for the first time, connecting all the continents to each other so that (albeit erratically and slowly) all parts of the globe became aware of each other. In the words of Adam Smith:

The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.

The profound cognitive shocks involved to Latin Christendom from what its adventurers, explorers, merchants and missionaries discovered helped spark the Scientific Revolution and turn Latin Christendom into Western Civilisation. It then transformed the world again, with the Industrial Revolution. It is not only a profoundly dynamic civilisation, it is one of increasing dynamism. So, then, what does Western conservatism rest on?

The conservative dilemma
This history of dynamism means that the Western conservative dilemma is pervasive. For example, conservatives are typically concerned about protecting family life. But Western civilisation—due to the strong formal rights and obligations of the Classical heritage (as evidenced in Roman law); Germanic notions of oath and other relations which can equal (or even trump) kin connections; and the Church’s highly restrictive consanguinity rules (at one stage, people could not marry anyone they shared great, great, great, great grandparents with: this made so many marriages notionally incestuous that the Lateran Council reduced it to sharing great, grandparents in Canon 50)—is the least family-and-kin oriented, the most formal-connection upholding, of civilisations; a major factor in its dynamism.

That Edmund Burke has become a conservative icon expresses nicely this dilemma of dynamism. For Burke was not a Tory, he was a Whig. Indeed, it is not clear in what sense he is a conservative. He (albeit somewhat reluctantly) supported the American Revolution; his impeachment of Warren Hastings was a manifested critique of exploitive imperialism; as a Whig, his was the politics of consent and social contract, not the Tory politics of tradition and order. Adam Smith commented that Edmund Burke was:

the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.

Adam Smith is very much a figure in the classical liberal tradition.

What Burke was, was a prudential liberal. His notion of society as a contract between and across generations anchored change in continuity and provided a framework for conservatives and conservatism in a dynamic civilisation. So, the American Revolution was regrettable but acceptable, because it was founded in established principles (expressed in the slogan “no taxation without representation”). It is conspicuous that American Revolutionaries, in their speeches, evoke and extol what they characterise as traditional rights and constitutional principles.

The American Revolution was also a reaction to the British Crown’s insistence on keeping its treaties with the Amerindians (much to the frustration of land-hungry settlers). While Somersett’s Case—declaring slavery to be unrecognised by common law—was another sharp reminder that Americans had no say in British decisions. As the rambunctious Tory Samuel Johnson cynically enquired:

How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

That neither issue was resolved by the American secessions of 1776 was demonstrated by them being central to the subsequent Southern secession of 1860-1. Some equivocation from Burke in supporting the American Revolution was understandable, but his fears of what a successful suppression of the American colonists would do to liberty in Britain dovetailed with his acceptance of the rebellious colonies’ constitutional arguments.

Conversely, the French Revolution was not acceptable, because it was too radical a break; anchored not in established rights and liberties, but imagined future virtue (as the speeches of the French Revolutionaries make clear). Now, that British institutions were very different in crucial respects than Ancien Regime ones pointed to a serious weakness in Burke’s prescriptions. (That, however, he accurately predicted the course of the Revolution gave his analysis great credibility.) Still, Burke provided a notion of acceptable and unacceptable change that gave Anglosphere Western conservatism much to work with in orienting itself within a dynamic civilisation.

The rise of socialism and modernism aggravated the dilemmas of conservatism. Modernism—the doctrine (indeed, delusion) that the new (or at least the ‘approved new’) is always better—gave no place for conservatism except as malignant reaction. This outlook strips ‘conservatism’ and ‘conservative’ of any normative meaning other than as ‘boo’ words attached to scepticism about ‘progressive’ change.

Revolutionary socialism threatened and—when in power—practised a level of social transformation such as to eliminate all that conservatives might seek to conserve and be loyal to. Indeed, there was nothing that ordinary Western folk were likely to be attached to—not life, liberty, property, family, religion or culture—that was not threatened by a Leninist takeover: hence the breadth and intensity of anti-communist feeling. Indeed, if a Leninist takeover came to seem an imminent possibility, then large sections of society could be panicked into endorsing extreme counter-politics: both Mussolini and Hitler owed their success to being able to harness such (far from irrational) fears.

Even democratic socialism of the welfarist variety presaged an apparently endless expansion of state power. Welfarism was, and could, be used for conservative ends: still, if all the state did was grow in size and scope, what would conservatism be left with? This is the context in which Hayek made his critique.

Embracing dynamism
With the end of the postwar boom, the collapse of productivity growth, and the ‘stagflation decade’ of 1973-1983, the ever-expanding state seemed not merely threatening, but a failure as well. If, however, socialism and dirigisme meant stagnation, then conservatism could revitalise itself by endorsing dynamism. It could gain a vision of the future, a direction to push society; one grounded in the strengths of Western civilisation. This was the politics of Thatcher, of Reagan, of Howard.

In fact, many of the liberalising economic reforms during and after the stagflation decade were actually pushed by social democratic politicians: the growth of the welfare state had increased the policy premium for economic efficiency. If the welfare state was to be saved, then it had to be compatible with economic vitality. The Lange-Douglas Government in New Zealand; the Hawke-Keating Government in Australia; that de-regulation began in the US under the Carter Administration: all expressed this dynamic, one that had long been part of Scandinavian social democracy.

But economic liberalisation rested on a “policy coalition”, and pro-dynamism conservatives were a key element in that coalition. As, however, economic vitality revived, and reform energies began to come up against the most-entrenched elements of the welfare state, the tensions between conservatism and dynamism began to open up again. What were conservatives “conserving”? Were they not, in fact, presiding over yet more social transformation? What made them conservative, and not pro-market social democrats? (Of course, the same answer was being asked in reverse of pro-market social democrats—how were they different from pro-market conservatives?)

Attitude uber alles
One answer for conservatives was being socially conservative: but that proved to have some difficulties, particularly in alienating the youth vote. There was an alternative answer available: simply turn ‘conservative’ into a ‘hurrah’ word where attitude is everything.

There was even a model for this: for it is exactly what the collapse of the socialist ideal had led progressivist politics to. That is, post-modernism: where attitude is everything, for truth is a dispensable convention and concern for consequences passé as it got in the way of displaying one’s virtue. (Stephen Hicks’ analysis traces the origins and patterns of post-modernism.)

Enter, stage right, the PoMo conservatives: mindless, obsessive and should-know-better opponents of inflation and tellers of economic history (fiction?) seeking to (or actually) sabotaging intelligent monetary policies (some of which is tangled up in macro-economics’ lack of a common analytical language); law-and-order conservatives endorsing torture (relabelled, in true PoMo style, as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’) thereby rejecting one of the deepest traditions of the common law; business-and-growth spruikers ignoring issues of ethics, transparency and consequences in the systematic destruction of prudence. People without any sense of the heritage they are allegedly in favour of conserving reducing ‘conservatism’ to a set of attitudes, departure from which is heresy and whose consequences undermine a heritage of which they clearly have no understanding.

The failures of PoMo conservatism extend beyond the hypocrisy of philanderers and multiply-divorced politicians proclaiming their commitment to ‘family values’ or closeted homosexuals opposing equal protection of the law for fellow queers: such hypocrisy is an old story. Though such hypocrisy sits easily with PoMo conservatism’s attitude uber alles. There is, however, a difference between failing to live as you proclaim and showing little or no understanding of the heritage you are supposed to be defending.

Of course, not much in contemporary education would give them such understanding. It is clear enough that PoMo conservatives learnt these patterns from the progressivist hegemony over education: they have just reversed various marker-of-virtue attitudes (likely, in part, to give the finger to self-righteous superior-virtue parading by their teachers). Which is analytically interesting, but not morally justifying: a reason, not an excuse. If you are going to be a politically active conservative, you should put yourself to the effort of trying to understand the heritage you are supposed to be attached to, to have loyalty towards.

Post-modernism is an intellectual blight, and a moral one. For, as Norman Geras has pointed out, if there is no truth, there is no justice. If there is no truth, there is also no heritage. Creating, in reaction to progressivist post-modernism, PoMo conservatives who are so unaware of the heritage they are supposed to be preserving that they actively undermine it. PoMo conservatism is another manifestation of the destructive intellectual and moral emptiness postmodernism’s attack on truth creates. A conservatism that is not founded in some strong sense of truth, heritage and consequence—but is mere attitude—is not merely pointless, it is vicious and destructive.

Tortured corruption
Two issues bring this out particularly clearly. One is torture. A 2005 House of Lords decision rejecting any truck with torture had a clear subtext of ‘this issue was resolved in the C17th, why is it even before us?’ Yet it is easy enough to see why torture (under the euphemism of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’) has re-surfaced. Western democracies now face the same dilemma as Tudor and Stuart England did after the break with Rome: how does one tell the loyal Catholics or Muslims from the violently hostile Catholics or Muslims? Given that Catholics then, and Muslims now, can cite religious authorities for rejecting the existing political order. These include the 1570 papal bull Regnans in Excelsis absolving Catholics of any oaths or loyalty to Elizabeth I and centuries of Muslim jurisprudence insisting that only rule by believers according to Sharia is truly legitimate.

But a reason is not an excuse. Torture corrupts, and it corrupts profoundly: it is punishment prior to conviction establishing a relationship of power and terror by officials over their designated targets deeply inimical to due process, fair trial and personal liberty. Such overweening executive power and presumptive guilt is profoundly against basic common law traditions. If one does not understand what an assault torture is on common law traditions, you do not understand the heritage you are supposedly so keen to protect. Indeed, you do not merely fail to understand it, you are attacking some of its most basic principles. Accepting its use does not show you to be ‘tough-minded’, it shows you to be reckless and ignorant. But PoMo conservatism’s attitude uber alles buries consequences, principles and heritage under a self-satisfied, entitled, tub-thumping.

Inflation is not the only monetary evil
The second case is less vicious but more pervasively destructive. This is the obsession with inflation in circumstances where rolling economic disaster is being caused by monetary policy being far too tight.

Recent economic history is dominated by two periods and a searing event: the surging spending period (1963-1979), the ‘great moderation’ (1986-2006) and the nominal spending crash (2008-9), graphed nicely for the US here and the OECD here. The first period became one of significant goods and services inflation, as goods and services output could not keep up with the increase in spending, so prices rose continually. The second period was one of low goods and services inflation, as increased goods and services output (particularly from China and India “coming online” in the global economy) was easily able to keep up with spending. (There is a whole other argument about asset inflation: we can leave that aside.)

So, when spending has its biggest crash since the 1930s and fails to return to trend, how much of an issue is inflation? If you answered “between not much and bugger-all” go to the top of the class. And a big enough divergence from trend can persist for some time: can you pick the 1930s in this graph? (Both the graphs linked in this paragraph are “real” GDP—i.e. GDP measured in goods and services—but the point still applies since it means the gap between activity and capacity can still be filled by considerable increased output before prices start rising significantly.)

2009 saw the first fall in US CPI since 1955. The CPI was 219.964 in July 2008 and 225.722 in June 2011, a growth of 2.6% in three years: when consumer inflation is not even averaging single digits, inflation is not the problem. A massive overshooting in price expectations had a great deal to do with the downturn (Matt Yglesias is quite correct to label it ‘a huge failure of central banking’).

People point to surging money holdings in banks and similar and worry about what will happen if folk spend all that money suddenly. They fail to ask why folk are holding so much money: clearly not because they think its value is going to be inflated away. (If they did, they might start spending it: which, given all that unused capacity, would be a good thing.)

Those worrying about money holdings also fail to take seriously the consequences of folk holding onto such sums: fewer transactions and so a lot of ‘unused capacity’. Such ‘unused capacity’ includes human capacity, as in surging and entrenched unemployment.

That very similar debates occurred during the 1930s is just sad. It also means folk have no excuse. Obsessing over inflation is so ‘fighting the last war’ in monetary policy. Yet, in much of conservative US thinking (reaching all the way to the Fed), showing how much of an ‘inflation hawk’ you are has become the path of righteousness. Even without considering the human cost, sabotaging economic growth is not the path to confidence in markets or social stability. But attitude uber alles not merely blinds one to consequences, it renders them irrelevant to the framings people are operating under and justify themselves by.

Creationism redux
Attitude uber alles can also give old ideas a renewed lease of life. By electorally conquering the South, the Republican Party has also taken over the heartland of the-Bible-trumping-science. The classic case of this was the Scopes trial, where the advocate against teaching evolution was triple liberal-Democrat Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. There are some complexities here, as philosopher Mary Midgely reminds us:

The project of treating the time scale of the Genesis story literally, as a piece of history, is an amazing one, which serious biblical scholars at least as far back as Origen (AD 200) have seen to be unworkable and unnecessary. The reason why people turn to it now seems to be that the only obvious alternative story – evolution – has become linked with a view of human psychology which they rightly think both false and immoral (p.172).

And Intelligent Design is Creationism trying to co-opt the status of science.

Nevertheless, making teaching alternatives to natural selection a marker of political virtue, and stem cells an issue worthy of a Presidential address to justify restricting their use, is a new direction for the Republican Party and mainstream conservatism in the US; both of which used to be notably pro-science. But it is a direction which slides very naturally into attitude uber alles.

The shift is the more striking given that Republican voters tend to be moderately more scientifically literate than Democrat voters and conservatives generally are about as scientifically literate as US liberals. With the stand-out exception of evolution.

Departing reason
Catholic theologian Tracey Rowland characterises the periods of Western history as the pre-modern period of faith-with-reason, the modern period of reason-with-privatised-faith and the post-modern period of faith-with-privatised-reason. The attack on Enlightenment universalism and the insistence on a trumping ‘authenticity’ from a disappointed progressivist left has been bad enough. That the contagion has spread to infect the frustrated conservative right is deeply depressing.

Neither group can point to any genuine achievements to justify their tub-thumping self-satisfaction. (Any achievements they may wish to claim actually came from quite different outlooks.) But that is the charm of faith-with-privatised-reason: your own convenience becomes your reality principle. You can proclaim your compassion, or patriotism, or whatever while actually being massively self-indulgent. Alas, endless indulgence in ignoring or ‘re-framing’ consequences does not abolish them; it just leaves them for the rest of us to cope with while saddled with a public arena so many of whose participants pretend to care (particularly to themselves) but profoundly do not: not in any way that is actually useful.

[A note on the title from Lorenzo: a friend who is a registered wizard (no, really) used the term ‘post modern conservatives’. The term niggled at me until I decided he was onto something. Which led to this post].

2 Trackbacks

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