Again and again, I return to the issue of conservatism. What or who defines it? How is or should it be defined? It’s endlessly mesmerizing, at least to my more liberal mind.
There are two typical answers to the question of conservatism’s definition.
First, (true) conservatives want to conserve.
This a nice notion, but doesn’t work out very well. Everyone, liberals included, want to conserve something as this is simply a facet of human nature. So, this doesn’t get at the core motivation of conservatives as a distinct group, movement, worldview or predisposition: What exactly do conservatives want to conserve? What don’t they want to conserve? And why? Its clear that many conservatives don’t have good answers, beyond largely ahistorical nostalgic fantasies or else abstract philosophizing/theologizing. In relation to American tradition (in the mainstream), many mainstream liberals have taken on the role of conserving the status quo and mainstream conservatives quite the opposite.
Second, (true) conservatives are traditionalist.
This is another nice notion that is equally problematic. There are many traditions, even within a single culture or society or political system. Heck, after several centuries, modern liberalism has become one of the most dominant and well established traditions in the world, a tradition that the United States was founded upon. This is why American ‘conservatives’ are classical liberals rather than classical conservatives. The British Tories were the classical conservatives that Americans sought independence from.
Conservatives do want to conserve something, but many things can be and have been latched onto. Furthermore, anything conserved, even if only in memory or imagination, becomes a tradition and is treated as such by conservatives. This obviously doesn’t clarify the matter. The conservative impulse, separate from the general conserving impulse, does have limits to what or else how it is applied.
Here is my preferred hypothesis. It won’t win awards for originality, but it makes sense of the evidence.
Conservatives value relatively stable, strict or even rigid social orders that are based on, justified by and maintained according to hierarchy and authority. Conservatives will seek to conserve any tradition thus deemed worthy or, failing that, seek to (re-)create a tradition that when established will be worthy of being conserved; both of these easily being conflated at least in rhetoric, hence the close tie between the traditionalist conservative and the reactionary conservative, the distinction as such being an academic exercise — I wonder if traditionalist and reactionary are just two stages in the life-cycle of conservatism, each inevitably leading back to the other.
I would add that, in this way, there is no ‘true’ conservatism since there is no fundamental content or inherent substance. Conservatism isn’t any single thing or set of things, but a preference/tendency in relating to things. For this reason, conservatives have no loyalty to tradition simply for the sake of it being tradition.
American conservatives, for example, have no inherent commitment to any given American tradition, although of course they are committed to a collective imagining of a tradition (a social and political narrative, an origin myth) that may or may not partly correspond to some period or aspect of history. American conservatives have no particular loyalty to the tradition of the Republican Party prior to the Southern Strategy nor loyalty to the European tradition of conservatism. Each generation and group of conservatives has re-imagined what is ‘true’ conservatism.
The world history of conservatism is immensely diverse, including everything from theocracy to monarchism, from fascism to republicanism. Even American socialists have grounded themselves in conservative traditions such as German communalism. Just within the limited spectrum of mainstream American politics, there are conservatives as polar opposite as evangelical states’ rights libertarians threatening secession and secular statist neocons using liberal rhetoric about spreading democracy around the world, two extremes that can’t be contained in any single consistent ideology.
Loyalty and consistency aren’t the issues.
A social order is perceived as worthy or unworthy not because of the social order itself, rather what that social order accomplishes or fails to accomplish. What is trying to be accomplished is that a worthy order will reward the worthy and punish the unworthy. Conservatives turned away from a monarchical system of feudal aristocracy not because it oppressively denied individual rights and liberty. What Corey Robin points out is that conservatives saw the old social order as having become weak and so no longer able to maintain its own hierarchy and authority against opponents. Conservatives didn’t want to remove this kind of social order, but to offer a new and improved version. This required adapting to changing conditions which is how modern conservatives adopted classical liberalism in place of classical conservatism.
The rhetoric of conservatism is misleading. The purpose of conservative social order is first and foremost to defend and maintain conservative social order, i.e., hierarchical authority. The upholders and representatives of conservative social order don’t need to justify their reasons to social inferiors. They just have to keep their social inferiors in their place, thus maintaining conservative social order.
On this most basic level, conservatism is morally neutral or rather morally relativistic. No external objective standard can be used to measure the authenticity and merit of a social order in the mind of conservatives. It is a self-referential closed system. That is what conservatism does: closes down, tightens the ranks, guards the boundaries, etc. This is what makes it stable and dependable, strong enough to be its own moral standard (in the way the conservative God doesn’t need to justify his own divine laws and moral pronouncements; it is right, good and true because God says so, and you know he said so because that is what God put in his own holy book).
Any principle, belief or value put forth by a conservative is always symbolic. And every conservative symbol represents the same thing: conservative social order. An example I’ve used before is that of conservatives claiming to be pro-life. I’ve pointed out to conservatives that research has shown banning abortions doesn’t decrease and in some cases increases the rate of abortions, just illegal and more dangerous. If conservatives were primarily pro-life, this evidence would cause them to change their mind. Does it make them rethink? Of course not. Being pro-life is a symbolic position representing conservative social order in its role as overt moral order.
This is an opaquely symbolic way of thinking and speaking. The best way to defend the social order is by disguising it as something other or more than what it is. The moment the social order is clearly seen, it can be openly questioned and doubted. The social order has to be taken as a given of reality in order for it to have power to persuade and inspire. The symbol must become conflated with reality and this conflation is of prime importance, the very heart of conservatism.
I can’t begin to explain how immensely this fascinates me. There is power in this that, as I’ve said before, goes way beyond anything liberalism can accomplish (which is meant as a compliment of sorts). As long as the conflation stands unchallenged, liberalism is pathetically weak (a definite criticism coming from my inner left-winger).
Many liberals don’t understand this or are afraid to speak truth to power. When social order is weakened, all of society becomes threatened by the possibility of change. Only the most radical revolutionary will embrace the new and different without trepidation. Liberals want to loosen up the social order, but they don’t want to pull out the lynchpin. This is why liberals can be more conservative than even conservatives, moderating the extremes. The reason conservatives rule to the extent that they do so is because liberals allow them.
Social order is a strange thing. It would seem even stranger that conservatives take social order for granted more than do liberals. I suppose this is the case because for conservatives social order always has to largely play out on the level of unconsciousness.
None of this is meant directly as a criticism of conservatism. Conservatism can be used in the service of beneficial social orders just as easily with destructive social orders. The deal conservatives and liberals have is the following. Liberals won’t do an all out assault on the symbolic conflation that holds social order together and conservatives will incorporate liberalism into the social order so as to strengthen it. Whether this is a good deal, whether this is symbiosis or codependency (certainly not opposing ideologies in a simplistic sense) is another matter. I offer it just as an observation and analysis of how society seems to operate.
So, it all comes down to social order. That is what all of civilization is about. The precariousness of civilization helps me understand the mysterious and hidden nature of conservatism. I have a basic respect for the function it serves.
I’ll end as I began with some questions:
Could civilization operate differently? Or could such ways of operating serve a new kind of social order?