Saturday, November 08, 2008

Not a Conservative or a Progressive

Brian brings up a good point in this comment:

''When you write something like this
..the state cannot change human beings- it cannot make us conform to other people’s religious beliefs. Social engineering is impossible and essentially totalitarian
are you sure you're really a progressive?''

No, I would say that I do not fit into the progressive movement. I do agree with them on a number of issues- abortion, gay rights, the failure of the drug war, the need to preserve the environment, and the belief that a gap between the rich and the poor can only widen so far before society collapses. When it comes to overarching goals, I think the progressives can still send me their mailings. If nothing else, we have similar gripes, and there's nothing more bonding than bitching about things.

Where I disagree with them, and it's sort of a big thing, is that I believe human beings are innately imperfect. I don't believe that putting people in an ideal environment will make them ideal people. We are irrational, and passionate, and flawed beyond belief- and I think this is a good thing. So I believe that we'll never get to a point in which people are universally just and giving, or in which we've ended racism, or in which all of our children see themselves as stewards of the earth. We will always have a few psychopaths pop up. And I believe that the effects of education are limited. Change will never be total, and for me, a world in which everyone thinks the same way is a nightmare, even if that means that we will always have bigots to argue with.

More importantly, I think that change has to come slowly from the ground up, by persuading enough people to want it. I don't think you can make people perfect, but I do believe you can convince them to want to do things in a better way. So, in terms of gay rights, I don't think we'll ever live in a world without homophobes, but I do think we'll eventually convince a majority of people that the laws should be fairer, even if they personally don't care for homosexuals.

Now, for the Conservatives. I've often had people tell me that I am a ''small-c conservative'' because of a number of things I believe: that the government can't make people better, that traditional ways of understanding the world worked as well as scientific reason and that losing them was the central tragedy of modernity, that cultural institutions like the university cannot function without a strong element of authority, that authority is valid while power is not, that culture is in decline right now, and ultimately that people are imperfect- in large-scale social situations I keep an eye on the door because I believe that civilization is a pretty flimsy hiding place, and chaos is always a possibility. I'm not a ''populist''. I'd probably be okay living under an aristocracy.

In terms of my job, I see myself as a steward of the best that has been thought, said, or written. I have noted before to my colleagues that we are the real cultural conservatives. So, in terms of high culture, I often sound like Alan Bloom; but conservatives need to remember that Bloom never saw himself as a conservative. Christopher Lasch, for example, said a number of things that would please conservatives, but from a place to the Left. Even Marx was a cultural conservative, because he believed that capitalism was anathema to traditional culture. I agree. And few conservatives have argued as strongly against the state's social engineering than Noam Chomsky, who sees himself as an anarchist.

[Incidentally, this fantastic article makes the same point- that ''conservative'' arguments have often come from people like Chomsky or Jane Jacobs who were not of the conservative movement.]

See, the state is a modern phenomenon. Traditionally, people's lives were ordered by smaller collectives: the tribe, the village, the church, the extended family, and so forth. With the rise of the modern state, these centers of traditional authority were replaced by the 'authority' of a bureaucratic, rational government. In many ways, this has been a blessing: disparate villages would never have been able to organize polio vaccinations, for example. Churches can indeed be irrational and psychologically-damaging.

But, the loss of these ordering, traditional ways of understanding the world and one's place in the world was, for most people, a tragedy. Sure, a Voltaire can dance over the abyss; but most people feel vaguely lost within modernity. The state can force people to conform in more malevolent and total ways than any traditional authority could- this was Foucault's argument. The conservatives describe this tragedy as a loss of traditional values, while people to the left bemoan the loss of community. And I'm still fond of the Enlightenment and science. But I'm not sure that anything science or the state provides can equal what was lost. Most importantly, I don't think the state has ever fully justified its existence.

I am as much a child of Romanticism as a child of the Enlightenment.

I differ with Conservatives in two ways here: I agree with Marx that capitalism is corrosive of traditional cultures; traditional values say that we must do what is good for our communities, capitalism says that the standard of value is our will- community is ultimately about the negation of the will. Incidentally, so is democracy. Capitalism profits from the breakdown of traditional authority. Just because Communism has been worse doesn't mean that Capitalism is a panacea

Secondly, and unlike many religious conservatives, I don't think we can, or should, go back to traditional structures of authority. They have crumbled, and we can't make ourselves believe in God in the way that the pre-moderns did. This was the point that Nietzsche- another cultural conservative- made. I agree with conservatives that the state should be chipped away at- I disagree that either corporations or churches should take its place as a center of authority, or of power. I am not a reactionary.

So, if traditional centers of authority have withered away, and one hopes the state will largely wither away, what should we have? To be honest, I'm all for small communities of like-minded people without anyone in a position of authority. David Mamet once made the point that everyone who has ever worked in a theatre troupe has felt at one time that plays would be better put on without any directors. Instead, groups of equals working together can avoid the problems that come with multiple levels of authority that distrust each other. Compare the response to Hurricane Katrina of small groups of activists and anarchists who drove in to help to the response of government bureaucracies- who do you think was quicker and more effective? One might note that these non-hierarchical groups might not be able to function with large groups of people- perhaps even anything more than 20 or so. I'm alright with that.

[Incidentally, I don't think Obama has ever gotten the credit he deserves for his own views about bottom-up change. His argument with Hillary Clinton about President Johnson's role in the civil rights movement was about exactly this: she argued that the state ultimately changes things, while Obama argued that groups of people working together at the ground level ultimately bring change. Similarly, he has supported ''faith-based initiatives'' with the argument that local churches can run things like soup lines better than the government- a conservative argument if I ever heard one. Lastly, he was recently vilified by republicans for saying in an interview that the courts are too flawed to force social change- but, if you actually listened to the whole interview, he was arguing that this is why change must come from the culture and not from the courts! Obama might be a liberal, but he's never been as statist as people like Hillary Clinton... or George W. Bush, for that matter!]

As for me, I would say that I'm not fit for the Progressive Movement or the Conservative Movement. I don't care for Big Mother or Big Brother. But, I've always said that Conservatives and Progressives are each right about 20 percent of the time. I think the trick is making use of their ideas in those few areas where they are right and ignoring them otherwise.

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