Today, the topic will be the ontology of conservatism. My experience leads me to identify two different strands of the idea of what it means to be a conservative, and while these definitions may not work for everyone, that's in the nature of creating labels and defining terms, which is itself a political exercise. But having a reference for what words mean is also necessary to think cohesively, so this might help define a reader's perspective. Later on, another post will do the same for liberals.
Conservatism as Status Quo
The most basic and intractable meaning of conservatism is to resist change.
This tells us a number of things. First, it tells us that those who oppose conservatism fundamentally disagree with the idea that society, as it stands, is fair and just. Of course, fairness and justice run on a sliding scale for almost everyone, with hideously unjust on one side and flawless on the other, both extremes being ludicrous. But conservatives are less willing to risk the integrity and basic ideas of their society for the sake of putting wild idealism into practice, which in praxeological terms, should tell us quite clearly that they value it more and see the odds of reaching greater excellence through serious change as being slim.
These people generally think you should calm the fuck down and accept reality as it is.
The ideal promotes stability as a value in itself. Consistency, being able to hold rational expectations and deal with the world accordingly, is worth fighting for from this perspective. Elderly people often hold this position.
It looks nearly arbitrary: whatever's here now is good, and changing it is not. WHY it's good is mostly a matter of my personal disposition and greater logic isn't the point. Neoconservatives in the Irving Kristol vein subscribed to this way of thinking, and while they made good points on the social value of religion, they dropped the ball severely by accepting elements of the welfare state, simply because it had already become the status quo.
With American politics, the tendency of conservatives to simply try to put on the brakes of what leftists consider progress has given them the problematic reputation of doing nothing but saying no. On race, gender, consumer protection, and environmental issues in particular, conservatives get tarred as scum all the time. Unless you fundamentally disagree with the goals of affirmative action and environmentalism, the bleating of the right looks a lot like stick-in-the-mud naysaying or political corruption, without principle, as if the disagreement was just a brave side versus a cowardly side and nothing more meaningful.
And in the case of politicians, it frequently isn't any more meaningful. They are, after all, politicians, and their entire existence stands in contrast to the other element of conservatism which is understood mostly by its opposition to most ideals of prevailing moral sense.
Conservatism as Hierarchy
If you're looking for a definition of conservatism with more meat on its bones, there's no need to waste time trying to find it in the sphere of democratic politics, or even in modern ideas at all. The more solid definition of conservatism is the dark definition, the one that won't win beauty contests.
This perpetually strong definition of conservatism is to accept and support the hierarchy of the society you identify with. This isn't simply saying "no" to change: quite the opposite, these types of conservatives frequently see their side as not being properly in charge, but think they should be, so they can be every bit as radical, activist, loudmouthed, and self-righteous as any given leftist. This is where your joiners and your patriots hang around.
Importantly, this isn't simply saying that you identify with a culture. Everyone identifies with a culture of some kind. It's identifying with a culture that explicitly endorses a hierarchy, accepting it. It's an anti-liberal perspective which specifically does not embrace egalitarianism or any of its resulting ideas.
If status quo conservatism applies the brakes, then this form of fascist conservatism defines the cardinal direction of the car. It wants to make society more hierarchical, more masculine, more driven to ordered empowerment.
|And I don't mean fascism as an insult.|
This ideal is so disgusting to so many people that calling it sane might get you spat on, but it's always there. This is what happens when you place more value on the group, with its traditions and identity and systems, than on the individuals in it, and therefore find it sensible to require sacrifice from individuals to preserve it. This is what happens when you believe that the people in charge should be there and should have power. When children tell their parents to go fuck themselves, this is your impulse to throw all your sweet-natured understanding out the window and swing a paddle.
It isn't irrational, particularly given that the existence of moral and judicial thought in society comes from agreements, from people subordinating themselves to ideas and cultural values. These values are to be defended by a hierarchy. This conservatism makes the individual a part of the whole on explicit, honest terms. It might seem distasteful, but hierarchy is inevitable and not everyone is stuck in denial of this.
No institution or movement can get anywhere in this world without functional specialization and the requisite trust of someone in power that it requires. That includes political parties and movements. What finally pushed me completely away from the political left in America was the massive clusterfuck that was the Occupy Wall Street movement: the spoiled, stupid children involved revealed themselves as such when they turned out to be completely incapable of agreeing on any actionable plan or internal organization. They didn't so much push for a different form of governance as for the current power players to simply give them more of everything. In the real world, getting things done in the face of conflicts of interests requires that some people lead, as a simple matter of specialization. Nothing works without it. This naturally results in inequalities of power.
Conservatives accept this, and do not fight the realities of hierarchy in itself. They push to have their side be THE hierarchy, supporting it. The culture and the hierarchy that develops from its principles are, from this perspective, inseparable. Conservative libertarians, for example, typically believe that with the government doing less to promote a secular, pseudo-socialist agenda, legitimate authorities in business or religion will make a comeback. They frequently support the notion that businesspeople deserve to have significant power, since they consider the market system to be workable and good, worthy of preservation. The same can be said of religion.
Now, the status-quo conservative and the fascist conservative are not necessarily opposed to one another. Quite the opposite, in most societies throughout history, they have reinforced one another: willingness to follow orders and sacrifice for your country or family, fulfilling obligations of trust and obedience, is quite compatible with wanting to preserve it. The difference only seems to come up when you separate the maintenance of your house from following the dictates of those in charge. But that brings up an interesting question about our culture specifically.
The American Issue
Thus, we as Americans are at an impasse. Why? Because of ideas like this:
|True or False?|
This country, more than any other, holds ridiculous levels of allegiance to the ideals of equality, freedom, and justice on those terms. Notwithstanding the possibility that freedom and justice are essentially opposed to one another, simply believing that your country's ideology is one that is both anti-hierarchical and fair begs an awful lot of questions about how that's supposed to work out. If people get what they deserve for their efforts or screwups, and everyone should get the same thing even if they obviously don't, then what exactly is that saying about your system?
Americans have branded their culture's authorities as anti-authorities in the same way that 7-Up branded itself the "Un-Cola" back in the day. Conservatives scream about freedom more than anyone else in politics, and many Americans believe, really believe, that authorities in America are supposed to serve people, not rule them. That, of course, is fucking ludicrous, the ultimate inversion of the meaning of those words, not to mention practically absurd. Exercising justice and resolving conflicts of interest fundamentally means wielding power, and some people will be on the losing end of it. That shapes culture. But a huge portion of American ideology depends on the ideal of equality and freedom being compatible; other notions, like objective justice, are ideas intended to legitimize such ridiculousness, and they've been successful enough to convince a lot of people. We believe American exceptionalism to mean that we're the people who don't need rulers, and it's perfectly natural for such thinking to evolve into thinking that we don't need bosses, fathers, pastors, cops, and basically any other authority figure.
So from the perspective of conservatism as pro-authority, the real question becomes, is there such a thing as an American conservative?
And if so, HOW? From the notion of conservatism as hierarchy, there can be no such thing. The vast majority of Americans want politicians who directly reflect popular opinion and popular moral interpretation, not the personal views of those in positions of power. We might say we want integrity, but that's only if the ideals are in line with our own. We require our "leadership" to be a bunch of vacuous tools with no sense of themselves; saying otherwise is masturbatory bitching, as the complainers are invariably using their opinion as the reference point for the correct opinion. Both business and government hierarchies require popular approval to operate, so the mechanics of the systems do not allow for any serious consistency except in the Prom Queen sense of the word.
In an earlier post, I referred to the conservative as a firefighter. Clearly, this places emphasis on conservatives as preserving the status quo, so I do think it's feasible to look at American conservatives as real and active. There are good things about modern American culture. But it's not just preservation.
Those of us who believe that American culture made a wrong turn somewhere, or even believe that there is something fatally nonsensical about the concepts of freedom and equality that comprises the American identity, are not simply running around trying to put out fires. We are also fully willing to start controlled burns in places where the existing structures are of low quality and need to be replaced. Stupid ideas can be tossed out. This gives some conservatives a lot in common with leftists and might seem to make the fundamental meaning of being a conservative disappear in the mix of eclectic preferences for cultural design, but beneath this perception is the fundamental concept of conservatism: hierarchy is not what we should be trying to destroy, but is rather a tool to allow society to organize and pursue a world in line with greater values.
In this sense, you can call me a conservative.