Saturday, October 03, 2009

Paradoxical Conservatism

Writing in First Thoughts, Joe Carter says he is not "going Galt":
"The problem is not such much that it’s a silly hollow threat, but that it exemplifies a trait that is prevalent in conservative movement: The embrace of personality driven ideas that are often incompatible with some of our most basic philosophical, religious, or political beliefs."
This lack of reflection about how foundational views mesh is one of the most significant failings of the modern right. During the Cold War-era people who held incompatible views—such as libertarianism and social conservatism—embraced a limited form of “fusionism” in order to provide a united front against a common
enemy—communism.
{Here I suspect he's thinking of Buckley.}
Today, the common enemy is liberalism and thefusionism occurs not between disparate groups but within an individual. People who would laugh at the absurdity of a “Christian Muslim” seem not to recognize the similar incongruity between being a follower of Christ and an acolyte of Ayn Rand."
He thinks modern conservatism is becoming rather incoherent as people try to reconcile different and oppositional strains without much thought. He compares this to being in a cult, or to the way some "well-intentioned, but misguided, liberals" are "so intent on advancing their cause that they... gloss over the views of their nutcase, extremist radical allies."

The mention of "fusionism" suggests that none of this is particularly new, and it's not. I've said that the paradox of liberalism is that it triumphs the autonomy of the individual from all sorts of coercion, while embracing a vision of progress (mono-directional, inevitable, and led by an intellectual elite) that is ultimately given to coercion, and to cultural imperialism. The paradox of conservatism, meanwhile, has long been that it wants to preserve traditions, customs, morality, and faith, while triumphing capitalism, which tends to be deeply subversive of traditions, customs, morality, and faith. Just ask an immigrant from a more "traditional" culture how easy it is to protect traditional values in a consumer culture.

Of course, many conservatives have realized this. I use the Buckley example because of Whittaker Chambers's famous comments to him:
"As I have said ad nauseam, I hold capitalism to be profoundly anti-conservative. I have met capitalists who thought otherwise; would in fact be outraged by this statement. I have concluded that they knew their craft extremely well, but not its implications; and what they considered to be a Conservative Position was chiefly a rationalization rooted inworry."
Another way of saying "rooted in worry" is that the only common denominator between a strong defense of market capitalism and of cultural traditionalism is the common defense of privilege. It might seem more glaring when you compare Jesus Christ with Ayn Rand who was so anti-Christ, but the conflict is still there between any traditional religion and the more vulgar "fuck you; I got mine" libertarianism. The way the two groups understand humanity is quite different.

So, there are contradictions. Buckley's answer was to celebrate the "freedom" of the free market and ignore the issues that freedom raises for Catholicism. Others will argue that the one is economic and the other is cultural, as if they're not the same thing. Then you have people like Daniel Bell, who claimed to be a cultural conservative and an economic socialist. The more common explanation now is that this is the difference between "paleoconservatives" and "neoconservatives", which is good and well. But, the reference to the cold war "fusionism" hints at another thing: maybe what Americans call "conservatism", which is quite different from what the rest of the western world calls conservatism, barely made any sense in the last century, and doesn't make any sense in this century.

So, what can ya' do? Liberalism is infuriating in its defense of both individual freedom and state-mandated "enlightenment". Conservatism is infuriating in its defense of cultural traditions and the same economic forces that have destroyed those traditions. "Classical liberalism" eventually leads you to all the same problems as "progressivism", while the economics that "libertarianism" embraces have failed spectacularly. Nobody seems to be as interested in their own intellectual contradictions as those of their "enemies". Maybe the problem is that the categories haven't made sense since their birth in the late 1700s. It should tell us something that we still categorize politics based on where people were sitting in the National Assembly during the French Revolution.

Maybe there needs to be something new; some sort of synchretism. Or, more likely, we might just need to get rid of liberalism and conservatism and answer pressing questions as they arise. The map is not the territory, after all. But, remember to always answer questions very slowly.

Longer Version of this post:
"The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism", by Daniel Bell.
Shorter Version of this post: "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

7 comments:

gregvw said...

That reminds me, have you ever seen this rather amusing overview on Ayn Rand?

rufus said...

No, that's pretty good though.

It's funny, I read her books in High School and thought they were sort of interesting in places, but the overall tone is almost viciously stupid. They seem best suited to the sort of young male whose greatest joy in life is in winning arguments with other people who don't particularly want to be arguing with him.

But, they remain popular. Proof positive that, if you tell people whatever silly things they want to hear in an erudite enough way, they'll think you're a genius.

Actually, it's impossible to top Whittaker Chambers's review of Ayn Rand, which includes the following:
"Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it...Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: "To a gas chamber — go!"

gregvw said...

I have read the two needed to be trendy and while I objectivism is not my cup of tea, I didn't find them to be bad novels. I've certainly read many duller and less engaging books than those.

rufus said...

It's just too bad she didn't live long enough to write in the Harry Potter series.

rufus said...

Actually, you know, I think I remember enjoying the Fountainhead. What really irked me was the one- I think it was probably Atlas Shrugged- in which her main character has a speech in which he states her opinions for dozens of pages. At that point, I felt like she sort of lost the thread.

gregvw said...

Yes, Cracked nails that pretty well. It's funny that she seemed to think that objectivism needed the candy coating of a plot and characters to make it palatable since it doesn't hold up particularly well to naked scrutiny... and then she goes and has a character recite the manifesto at excruciating length.

Rufus said...

It's probably pretty hard for anyone to fob off 'fuck you. I got mine!" as a well-reasoned ethical stance. What makes it even more annoying is that you get the feeling that the root of it was a really lousy understanding of Nietzsche. It makes me want to pull out Nietzsche from behind a plant for his take, à la Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall.