Poised on a Knife Edge

“To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
~ Edmund Burke

I spent much of the day looking back at old posts. My purpose was to find my various writings on the revolutionary era, specifically in relation to the American Revolution. I was doing so in order to link to them in the post I just wrote, about democratic republicanism in early America.

In my search, I came across a post from several years ago. It is sort of a rambling book review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, the topic being the relationship between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. What caught my attention was the comments section. I sometimes put more into the comments section than I do in the post itself. A longtime friend and reader of the blog left a comment, which is partly what led me to go off on some tangents there.

As one of my responses, I quoted at length from Corey Robin’s writings. One quote came from the first book I read by him, The Reactionary Mind:

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Robin explains what Burke meant by the moral imagination, explains why such power exists and what nullifies it. That is why I began this post with the quote by Burke. Here is the fuller context from the 1759 text (“A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful”, Part Two, Section III – Obscurity):

To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion.

It’s not just the power of the mind. Moral imagination is what extends power over people, the emotional grip of distant or hidden authority, human or otherwise. Sublimity and fear, awe and terror.

But this misses the subtlety of this power. Moral imagination is everpresent, the pervasive force that puts blinders on our vision, hypnotizing us into a reality tunnel and sometimes full epistemic closure. As Burke puts it, this forms the wardrobe of our moral imagination, from which we clothe our experience of the world. This wardrobe holds the social constructs of the mind, the ideologies and narratives of society, the customs and norms of culture. It is just there, all around us, enclosing us, a familiar presence, and yet near impossible to see directly, most often barely glimpsed at the periphery of our awareness. It’s power is in its simultaneous obscurity and presence, the unseen depths of unconsciousness with an undertow that can be felt.

Also in the comments section, I pointed to the connection to another writer: “I noticed in these passages that ‘horror’ was mentioned a few times. Corey Robin even made reference to horror movies/films and “delightful horror.” What came to my mind is something that Thomas Ligotti said in an interview. He was discussing monsters. He explained that no story can ever have a monster as the protagonist, for then the sense of monstrosity would be lost. The monster has to remain other and the evil vague. That is what gives a horror story its power to horrify.” That stood out to me most of all. There is a simple reason for this, as I had just recently mentioned Ligotti (in relation to True Detective) to this same friend when he came to visit me. I had forgotten about these comments. Reading them again, I saw them in new light. That involves a more important reason for these comments interesting me. Ligotti was making a deeper point than mere commentary on horror fiction. The most horrifying other is that which is unseen and that is its power over us.

This all connects back to the ongoing development of my own theory, that of symbolic conflation. But I forgot about an earlier post where I brought Burke into the context of symbolic conflation. It was for a different reason, though.

In that post, I explained Burke’s role as an outsider and how that positioned him as a purveyor of symbolic conflation. The moral imagination is all about this, as symbolic conflation is the beating heart, the meeting point of the imagined and the real. The centrality of the outsider status also brings into play the reactionary mind, according to Corey Robin, for the outsider sees most clearly the threat of boundaries being transgressed and all boundaries are ultimately boundaries of the mind. A symbolic conflation is a wall that both marks and establishes the boundary. It makes the boundary real and, in doing so, defends the authority of claims about what is real.

This is the moral imagination of fear. It is a visceral fear, the embodied imagination. A symbolic conflation requires a grounding within bodily experience, fight and flight, pain and illness, pleasure and guilt, punishment and death. It relates to what I call the morality-punishment link. It also offers possible insight into the origins of the reactionary mind. The conservative, as I argue, is simply a liberal in reactionary mode. The conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by their own moral imagination. Their minds have been wrapped in chains of fear and locked shut by symbolic conflation, the visceral experience of a story that has become their reality.

This is a potential existing within everyone, not just those on the political right. But this potential requires specific conditions to become manifest. Liberalism and the conservative reaction to it is an expression of modernity. This dynamic isn’t found in all societies. It is a cultural product and so there is nothing inevitable about it. Other cultures are possible with other ideological mindsets and other social dynamics. For us moderns, though, it is the only reality we know, this endless conflict within our collective psyche.

Maybe unintentionally, Edmund Burke offers us the key to unlock the modern mind. Knowing this key existed is what he feared the most, for then the human mind and its potential would be laid bare. Yet this fear is what gives the reactionary mind its sense of power and purpose, an existential threat that must be fought. Modernity is continuously poised on a knife edge.

The near cosmic morality tale of ideological conflict is itself a symbolic conflation. There is always a story being told and its narrative force has deep roots. Wherever a symbolic conflation takes hold, a visceral embodiment is to be found nearby. Our obsession with ideology is unsurprisingly matched by our obsession with the human brain. The symbolic conflation, though moral imagination, gets overlaid onto the brain for there is no greater bodily symbol of the modern self. We fight over the meaning of human nature by wielding the scientific facts of neurocognition and brain scans. It’s the same reason the culture wars obsess over the visceral physicality of sexuality: same sex marriage, abortion, etc. But the hidden mysteries of the brain make it particularly fertile soil. As Robert Burton explained in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (Kindle Locations 2459-2465):

our logic is influenced by a sense of beauty and symmetry. Even the elegance of brain imaging can greatly shape our sense of what is correct. In a series of experiments by psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel, it was shown that “presenting brain images with an article summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to other articles that did not contain similar images. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination and credibility of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images.” The authors’ conclusion: “Brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.” *

The body is always the symbolic field of battle. Yet the material form occludes what exactly the battle is being fought over. The embodied imagination is the body politic. We are the fear we project outward. And that very fear keeps us from looking inward, instead always drawing us onward. We moderns are driven by anxiety, even as we can never quite pinpoint what is agitating us. We are stuck in a holding pattern of the mind, waiting for something we don’t know and are afraid to know. Even as we are constantly on the move, we aren’t sure we are getting anywhere, like a dog trotting along the fenceline of its yard.

* * *

* D. McCabe and A. Castel, “Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning,” Cognition, 107( 1), April 2008, 345– 52.
(For criticisms, see: The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images, The Neurocritic.)

Feeding Strays: Hazlitt on Malthus

Below are some excerpts from William Hazlitt’s Reply to Malthus’s Essay on Population (1807).

I hadn’t previously given any thought to Hazlitt, but I noticed that David Bromwich wrote a biography about him. This made me curious, as Bromwich dresses himself up as a Burkean, albeit of a left-liberal variety.

Edmund Burke, of course, was the great target of Thomas Paine’s harshest criticisms. But he was also the target of Hazlitt’s low opinion, probably influenced by Paine. Hazlitt and Paine seem of a more similar mindset and political persuasion. Interestingly, Hazlitt’s response to Malthus was published just two years before Paine’s death.

I don’t know what Burke would have said of Malthus’s arguments. Apparently, like Malthus, he was against a right to subsistence; whatever form it might take, whether a social safety net for the poor or Paine’s citizen’s dividend. So, the two were in the same British vein of thought, in defense of plutocracy and aristocracy—as it began to take the form in modern capitalism, specifically in terms of meritocracy (i.e., a proto-Social Darwinian scapegoating of the poor). In this, both were opponents of Paine’s radicalism, which oddly was more in line with ancient British tradition (i.e., the Commons and “The Charter of the Forest”)—especially as it took shape with the Country Party, the “Country” referring to those areas where both the Commons survived the longest and radical politics began the earliest; the strongholds of the Diggers and Levellers, the Puritans and Quakers; the areas of the much older Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian ancestries.

Paine was always one to see through such pathetic defenses of unjust power, such moral sophistry. He understood, as did other supposed radicals, that the poor were made, not born. The reason he understood this is because he saw it happen firsthand, by way of the enclosure movement or what Marxists refer to as primitive accumulation; theft by another name, in this case theft of land and livelihood. Is it a surprise that people become poor and desperate when the rich and powerful take everything away from them, even their homes, destroying entire villages and throwing the residents to the street? Being a feudal peasant isn’t so bad compared to being a landless peasant, constantly threatened by starvation and disease, prison and the noose.

Hazlitt may not have had the radical vision and revolutionary fervor of Paine, but he spoke with the same tone of dissent against brute power and class supremacy. They both recognized the hollowness of such arguments against the pleas of those made desperate (poverty and unemployment being realities Paine knew from personal experience). The moral outrage motivating Hazlitt’s able dissection of Malthusianism is the same basic complaint Paine penned in his famous takedown of Burke’s glorifying of the oppressive French monarchy while ignoring the violent oppression, the suffering and starvation of the masses.

What turns my mind to such voices from the past is that they still resonate. Other than the writing style, these views could easily be written today.

The present political right likes to insult the intelligence of the well-informed, by pretending that the clarion of progressivism wasn’t heard until Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that modern liberalism was invented by hippies or maybe even communists. That is all bullshit and everyone would know it was bullshit, if the American education system did a better job at teaching history. Mass ignorance allows the right-wing to get away with their games of spin and lies. Sadly, many mainstream liberals willingly play along with this game, because too many of them also fear the moral force that flows down the centuries of Anglo-American tradition.

These are old debates that strike deeply upon unhealed wounds. They didn’t arise from the culture wars of the late twentieth century. These contentious issues were creating divisions long before the United States was founded, long even before the entire early modern revolutionary era. The most basic conflict took full form with the English Civil War, but ultimately goes even further back, as the struggle to maintain the Commons (and the common law) began with Norman Invasion. If the gauntlet thrown down by the likes of Hazlitt and Paine was radicalism, it was a radicalism at the heart the Anglo-American tradition and at the foundation of Western Civilization.

That is what scared Burke shitless. It still scares many others shitless, even as (or maybe because) this supposed radicalism has come to be seen as increasingly reasonable and necessary. Reactionary politics thrives on fear.

John Adams, in speaking of the world he saw taking shape, argued that it was no “Age of Reason,” and so, after a litany of failures and horrors, he bitterly quipped, “Then call it the Age of Paine.” He was too early in making such a declaration. It took some centuries for Paine’s vision of justice to take root, although it is far from full ripening fruition.

As Philip Clark explained:

Like Thomas Paine in “Common Sense” (which, in its day, contained anything but “common” or widely-held beliefs), Hazlitt defends the right of the people to self-governance, and does so with a righteous anger worthy of Paine: “…you [speaking about the defenders of monarchy] would make the throne every thing, and the people nothing, to be yourself less than nothing, a very slave, a reptile, a creeping, cringing sycophant, a court favorite, a pander to Legitimacy – that detestable fiction, which would make you and me and all mankind its slaves or victims…” It is difficult, in the present day, to convey how radical Hazlitt’s argument is; we have largely taken for granted those liberties – freedom of expression, representative government and the rights of the accused – for which Hazlitt is fighting, but it is on the foundations of these arguments that our society has been built, and for this we owe him and his compatriots a greater debt than we recognize.

Despite all the continuing injustices, those old school “classical liberal” radicals would be amazed by how far progressive reform has gone. We continue those centuries-old debates and yet at least the poor no longer starve in the streets. Even conservatives, despite the empty claims of some, wouldn’t genuinely want to return to how bad things once were. That is a sign of progress, however meager it may seem in contrast to ever more radical visions of tangible freedom, beyond mere freedom from the most cruel oppressions.

In that light, read the following words of Hazlitt. Similar critiques, in simpler language, could just as easily be writing against the likes of Ayn Rand, William Buckley, or Russell Kirk. Without ever having heard of Hazlitt, his argument is already familiar, as is what he is arguing against. The past few centuries of Anglo-American politics have been a broken record.

Thomas Malthus’s argument can be summed up in a statement made a few years ago by Andre Bauer, a Republican politician:

“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

That is the attitude that the Hazlitts of the world have been endlessly fighting against. It’s a worthy fight, no matter how tiresome.

* * * *

William Hazlitt:

“Mr. Malthus says that the true cause of the difficulties under which the community would labour, would be the excessive tendency to population, arising from the security felt by every man that his children would be well provided for by the general benevolence: by taking away this security then, and imposing the task of maintaining them upon himself, you remove the only cause of the unavoidable tendency of population to excess, and of all the confusion that would ensue, by making his selfishness and his indolence operate as direct checks on his sensual propensities. He would be tied to his good behaviour as effectually as a country fellow is at present by being bound in a penalty of twenty pounds to the parish for every bastard child that he gets. If every man’s earnings were in proportion to his exertions, if his share of the necessaries, the comforts, or even the superfluities of life were derived from the produce of his own toil, or ingenuity, or determined by equitable compensation, I cannot conceive how there could be any greater security for regularity of conduct and a general spirit of industry in the several members of the community, as far as was consistent with health and the real enjoyment of life. If these principles are not sufficient to ensure the good order of society in such circum stances, I should like to know what are the principles by which it is enforced at present. They are nothing more than the regular connection between industry and its reward, and the additional charge or labour to which a man necessarily subjects himself by being encumbered with a family. The only difference is in the proportion between the reward, and the exertion, or the rate at which the payment of labour is fixed. So far then we see no very pressing symptoms of the dissolution of the society, or of any violent departure from this system of decent equality, from the sole principle of population. Yet we have not hitherto got (in the regular course of the argument) so far as the distinction of a class of labourers, and a class of proprietors. It may be urged perhaps that nothing but extreme want or misery can furnish a stimulus sufficiently strong to produce ‘the labour necessary for the support of an extended population,’ or counteract the principle of population. But Mr. Malthus himself admits that ‘the most constant and best directed efforts of industry are to be found among a class of people above the class of the wretchedly poor,’ among those who have something to lose, and something to gain, and who, happen what will, cannot be worse off than they are. He also admits that it is among this middling class of people, that we are to look for most instances of self-denial, prudence, and a competent resistance to the principle of population. I do not therefore understand either the weight or consistency of the charge which he brings against Paine of having fallen into the most fundamental errors respecting the principles of government by confounding the affairs of Europe with those of America. If the people in America are not forced to labour (and there are no people more industrious) by extreme poverty, if they are not forced to be prudent (and their prudence is I believe equal to their industry) by the scantiness of the soil, or the unequal distribution of its produce, no matter whether the state is old or new, whether the population is increasing or stationary, the example proves equally in all cases that wretchedness is not the sine qua non of industry, and that the way to hinder people from taking desperate steps is not to involve them in despair. The current of our daily life, the springs of our activity or fortitude, may be supplied as well from hope as fear, from ‘ cheerful and confident thoughts ‘ as the apparition of famine stalking just behind us. The merchant attends to his business, settles his accounts, and answers his correspondents as diligently and punctually as the shop-keeper. The shop-keeper minds his customers, and puffs off his goods, tells more lies, is a greater drudge, and gets less for his pains than the merchant. The shoeblack piques himself upon giving the last polish to a gentleman’s shoes, and gets a penny for his trouble. In all these cases, it is not strictly the proportion between the exertion and the object, neither hope nor fear in the abstract, that determines the degree of our exertions, but the balance of our hopes and fears, the difference that it will make to us in our situation whether we exert ourselves to the utmost or not, and the impossibility of turning our labour to any better account that habitually regulates our conduct.1

[“1 Thus the shop-keeper cannot in general be supposed to be actuated by any fear of want. His exertions are animated entirely by the prospect of gain, or advantage. Yet how trifling are his profits compared with those of the merchant. This however does not abate his diligence. It may be said that the advantage is as great to him. That is, it is the greatest in his power to make ; which is the very thing I mean to say. In fact we are wound up to a certain pitch of resolution and activity almost as mechanically as we wind up a clock.”]

“We all do the best for ourselves that we can. This is at least a general rule. […]

“Now I shall not myself be so uncandid as not to confess, that I think the poor laws bad things ; and that it would be well, if they could be got rid of, consistently with humanity and justice. This I do not think they could in the present state of things and other circumstances remaining as they are. The reason why I object to Mr. Malthus’s plan is that it does not go to the root of the evil, or attack it in its principle, but its effects. He confounds the cause with the effect. The wide spreading tyranny, dependence, indolence, and unhappiness of which Mr. Malthus is so sensible, are not occa sioned by the increase of the poor-rates, but these are the natural consequence of that increasing tyranny, dependence, indolence, and unhappiness occasioned by other causes.

“Mr. Malthus desires his readers to look at the enormous proportion in which the poor-rates have increased within the last ten years. But have they increased in any greater proportion than the other taxes, which rendered them necessary, and which I think were employed for much more mischievous purposes ? I would ask, what have the poor got by their encroachments for the last ten years ? Do they work less hard ? Are they better fed ? Do they marry oftener, and with better prospects ? Are they grown pampered and insolent ? Have they changed places with the rich ? Have they been cunning enough, by means of the poor-laws, to draw off all their wealth and superfluities from the men of property ? Have they got so much as a quarter of an hour’s leisure, a farthing candle, or a cheese-paring more than they had ? Has not the price of provisions risen enor mously ? Has not the price of labour almost stood still ? Have not the government and the rich had their way in every thing ? Have they not gratified their ambition, their pride, their obstinacy, their ruinous extravagance ? Have they not squandered the resources of the country as they pleased ? Have they not heaped up wealth on themselves, and their dependents? Have they not multiplied sine cures, places, and pensions ? Have they not doubled the salaries of those that existed before ? Has there been any want of new creations of peers, who would thus be impelled to beget heirs to their titles and estates, and saddle the younger branches of their rising families, by means of their new influence, on the country at large ? Has there been any want of contracts, of loans, of monopolies of corn, of good understanding between the rich and the powerful to assist one another, and to fleece the poor ? Have the poor prospered ? Have the rich declined ? What then have they to complain of? What ground is there for the apprehension, that wealth is secretly changing hands, and that the whole property of the country will shortly be absorbed in the poor’s fund ? Do not the poor create their own fund ? Is not the necessity for such a fund first occasioned by the unequal weight with which the rich press upon the poor, and has not the increase of that fund in the last ten years been occasioned by the additional exorbitant demands, which have been made upon the poor and industrious, which without some assistance from the public they could not possibly have answered ? Whatever is the increase in the nominal amount of the poor’s fund, will not the rich always be able ultimately to throw the burthen of it on the poor themselves ? But Mr. Malthus is a man of general principles. He cares little about these circumstantial details, and petty objections. He takes higher ground. He deduces all his conclusions, by an infallible logic, from the laws of God and nature. When our Essayist shall prove to me, that by these paper bullets of the brain, by his ratios of the increase of food and the increase of mankind, he has prevented one additional tax, or taken off one oppressive duty, that he has made a single rich man retrench one article at his table, that he has made him keep a dog or a horse the less, or part with a single vice, arguing from a mathematical admeasurement of the size of the earth, and the number of inhabitants it can contain, he shall have my perfect leave to disclaim the right of the poor to subsistence, and to tie them down by severe penalties to their good behaviour on the same profound prin ciples. But why does Mr. Malthus practise his demonstrations on the poor only ? Why are they to have a perfect system of rights and duties prescribed to them ? I do not see why they alone should be put to live on these metaphysical board-wages, why they should be forced to submit to a course of abstraction ; or why it should be meat and drink to them, more than to others, to do the will of God. Mr. Malthus’s gospel is preached only to the poor! — Even if I approved of our author’s plan, I should object to the principle on which it is founded. […]

“To make this clear to him, it would be necessary to put the Essay on Population into his hands, to instruct him in the nature of a geometrical and arithmetical series, in the necessary limits to population from the size of the earth, and here would come in Mr. Malthus’s plan of educa tion for the poor, writing, arithmetic, the use of the globes, &c. for the purpose of proving to them the necessity of their being starved. It cannot be supposed that the poor man (what with his poverty and what with being priest-ridden) should be able to resist this body of evidence, he would open his eyes to his error, and ‘would submit to the sufferings that were absolutely irremediable with the fortitude of a man, and the resignation of a Christian.’ He and his family might then be sent round the parish in a starving condition, accompanied by the constables and quondam overseers of the poor, to see that no person, blind to ‘ the interests of humanity,’ practised upon them the abominable deception of attempting to relieve their remediless suffer ings, and by the parson of the parish to point out to the spectators the inevitable consequences of sinning against the laws of God and man. By celebrating a number of these Auto da fes yearly in every parish, the greatest publicity would be given to the principle of population, « the strict line of duty would be pointed out to every man,’ enforced by the most powerful sanctions, justice and humanity would flourish, they would be understood to signify that the poor have no right to live by their labour, and that the feelings of compassion and bene volence are best shewn by denying them charity, the poor would no longer be dependent on the rich, the rich could no longer wish to reduce the poor into a more complete subjection to their will, all causes of contention, of jealousy, and of irritation would have ceased between them, the struggle would be over, each class would fulfil the task assigned by heaven, the rich would oppress the poor without remorse, the poor would submit to oppression with a pious gratitude and resignation, the greatest harmony would prevail between the government and the people, there would be no longer any seditions, tumults, complaints, petitions, partisans of liberty, or tools of power, no grumbling, no repining, no discontented men of talents proposing reforms, and frivolous remedies, but we should all have the same gaiety and lightness of heart, and the same happy spirit of resignation that a man feels when he is seized with the plague, who thinks no more of the physician, but knows that his disorder is without cure. The best laid schemes are subject, however, to unlucky reverses. Some such seem to lie in the way of that pleasing Euthanasia, and contented submission to the grinding law of necessity, projected by Mr. Malthus. We might never reach the philosophic temper of the inhabitants of modern Greece and Turkey in this respect. Many little things might happen to interrupt our progress, if we were put into ever so fair a train. For instance, the men might perhaps be talked over by the parson, and their understandings being convinced by the geometrical and arithmetical ratios, or at least so far puzzled, that they would have nothing to say for themselves, they might prepare to submit to their fate with a tolerable grace. […]

“If then this natural repugnance in the poor to subject themselves to the necessity of parish relief has ceased to operate, must it not be owing to extreme distress, or to the degradation of character, con sequent upon it ? How does Mr. Malthus propose to remedy this ? By subjecting them to severe distress, and teaching them patience under their sufferings. But the rational desire of bettering our condition and the fear of making it worse is not increased by its being made worse. The standard of our notions of decency and comfort is not raised by a familiarity with unmitigated wretchedness, nor is the love of independence heightened by insults, and contempt, and by a formal mockery of the principles of justice and humanity. On the previous habits and character of the people, it is, however, that the degree of misery incurred always depends, as far as relates to themselves. The consequence of an effectual abolition of the poor laws would be all the immediate misery that would be produced, aggravated by the additional depression, and proneness to misery in the lower classes, and a beautiful petrefaction of all the common feelings of human nature in the higher ones. Finally, I agree with Mr. Malthus, that, ‘ if, as in Ireland and in Spain, and many of the southern countries, the people be in so degraded a state, as to propagate their species like brutes, it matters little, whether they have poor laws or not. Misery in all its various forms must be the predominant check to their increase: and with, or without poor laws, no stretch of human ingenuity and exertion could rescue the people from the most extreme poverty and wretchedness.’

“As to the metaphysical subtleties, by which Mr. Malthus endeavours to prove that we ought systematically to visit the sins of the father on the children, and keep up the stock of vice and misery in the family (from which it would follow, that the children of thieves and robbers ought either to be hanged outright, or at least brought up in such a manner as to ensure their following the fate of their parents) I feel and know my own superiority on that ground so well, that it would be ungenerous to push it farther.”

The Haunted Moral Imagination

I want clarify and expand upon a point I’ve made before: What is it that reactionaries truly fear?

More people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. The British government killed more people in their suppression of the 1798 Irish bid for independence. The Catholic Inquisition in just one province of Spain had a death count that far exceeded the number killed in the entire French Revolution.

In criticizing revolution, such counter-revolutionaries were defending colonial empires and theocracies that were more violent and oppressive than any revolution in history. For example, the Catholic Church, that ancient bastion of traditionalism and conservative morality, ordered the death of millions over six centuries. At least, a revolution is typically a single event or short period of violence. Oppressive governments can extend such violence continuously generation after generation.

Reactionaries obviously haven’t minded violence. They are criticizing the ends, not the means. It is impossible to say the world is a worse place for most people because the revolutionary era happened with its ensuing democratic reforms. But it is far worse for the elite that once ruled without having to tolerate their power being questioned. Some reactionaries would claim that they fear the disruption of the social order. Really? Whose social order? Those who suffered under those regimes would have liked a bit of social order in their favor. No revolution ever happens in order to fight all social order. Only oppressive and violent social orders incite revolutions.

What is feared by the ruling elite and those aligned with it isn’t even necessarily overtly physical violence. The French Revolution started off fairly peaceful and moderate. But what the French revolutionaries wanted to take away from the ruling elite was their privilege over everyone else and their power to wantonly abuse those below them. The French Revolutionaries began with no desire to kill the king, take the land away from the rich, or abolish religion. They simply wanted a democratic society. It was only after that was denied and undermined by those in power, both domestic and foreign, that the revolutionaries eventually turned to more drastic measures.

If the reactionaries hadn’t fought against democracy, the French Revolution may have been more like the American Revolution. That is the main difference. In the American Revolution. the ruling elite mostly decided to fight on the side of the masses instead of against them. It was only later on that the American ruling elite co-opted power and suppressed the very people who fought for democracy.

So, what exactly is the fear that reactionaries have?

Edmund Burke wrote his famous passage about the French Queen and her demise. While untold numbers suffered in prisons and from starvation, Burke decried the end of an age of chivalry because the masses refused to chivalrously lay down and die. Thomas Paine offered an incisive response, even more famous:

“Through the whole of Mr. Burke’s book I do not observe that the Bastille is mentioned more than once, and that with a kind of implication as if he were sorry it was pulled down, and wished it were built up again. “We have rebuilt Newgate,” says he, “and tenanted the mansion; and we have prisons almost as strong as the Bastille for those who dare to libel the queens of France.” As to what a madman like the person called Lord George Gordon might say, and to whom Newgate is rather a bedlam than a prison, it is unworthy a rational consideration. It was a madman that libelled, and that is sufficient apology; and it afforded an opportunity for confining him, which was the thing that was wished for. But certain it is that Mr. Burke, who does not call himself a madman (whatever other people may do), has libelled in the most unprovoked manner, and in the grossest style of the most vulgar abuse, the whole representative authority of France, and yet Mr. Burke takes his seat in the British House of Commons! From his violence and his grief, his silence on some points and his excess on others, it is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry, that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope and the Bastille, are pulled down.

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.

To someone like Burke, a single queen or rather what she symbolically represented is worth more than the lives of thousands of people oppressed and thousands more dead because of that same despotic power. The personal is lost within Burke’s moral imagination. He complains about the supposed abstract ideals of revolutionaries while he himself gets lost in his own abstractions. The conservative moral imagination is haunted by its own imaginings.

His concern isn’t with the mere violent force that can be wielded by military and mob alike. Instead, he wishes to hold up the symbolism of power. When that symbolism is challenged, the entire symbolic order is challenged. If Burke understood nothing else, he understood the power of imagination. For the imagination to serve established power, social order must be enforced upon imagination. The true danger of revolutionaries isn’t that they threaten to bring bring down social orders but that they imagine new ones.

Nothing Is Inevitable

What is the relationship between who we used to be and who we became, who we might have been and who we might yet become? What defines who we are as a whole? Is there an essence to our identity, a center to our being? If so, is our ‘character’ destiny, does that center hold? After it is all over, who ultimately judges a life and what it means?

I’ve often contemplated these questions. It seems strange how I ended up where I now find myself, a path that I followed because other ways were blocked or hidden, difficult or treacherous. I really have no clue why I am the way I am, this self that is built on all that came before.

From moment to moment, I’ve acted according to what has made sense or seemed necessary in each given situation. This isn’t to imply there weren’t choices made, but it can feel as if life only offers forced choices. Certainly, I didn’t choose the larger context into which I was born, all the apparently random and incomprehensible variables, the typically unseen constraints upon every thought and action. Nor did I even choose the person I am who does the choosing.

I simply am who I am.

It’s hard for me to imagine myself as being different, but it isn’t entirely beyond my capacity. I sense, even if only in a haze, other possibilities and directions. I try to grasp that sense of unlived lives, potentials that on some level remain in the lived present. It is important not to forget all the choices made and that are continually made. Life is a set of endless choices, even if we don’t like the choices perceived or understand their implications. But choices once made tend to lose their sense of having been chosen.

We look at our personal and collective pasts with bias, most especially the bias of knowing what resulted. The telling of history, our own and that of others, has the air of inevitability. We read the ending into the beginning.

Historians don’t usually talk about what didn’t happen and might have happened, the flukes of circumstance that pushed events one direction rather than another. The same is true for all of us in making sense of the past. We comfort ourselves with the narrative of history as if it offers us an answer for why events happened that way, why people did what they did, why success or failure followed. We judge the individuals and societies of the past with 20/20 hindsight. But as the narrators of their story, we aren’t always reliable.

Before I go further about history, let me return to the present. I was involved in a debate that became slightly heated. The fundamental difference of opinion had to do with how society and human nature is defined and perceived, the specific topic having been victimization.

I mentioned the author Derrick Jensen as he offers the best commentary on victimization that I’ve ever come across. But one person responded that, “Lastly I just can’t have a serious conversation about Derrick Jensen. I’m sorry.” Though they never explained their dismissive comment, I suspect I know what they meant.

The thing about Jensen is that there is a distinction between his earliest writings and his more recent writings. He began as an ordinary guy asking questions and looking at the world with a sense of wonder, considering the panorama of data with a voraciousness that is rare. Then he found an answer and it was all downhill from there. The answer he found was a cynical view of society, in which he hoped for the collapse of civilization. The answer was anarcho-primitivism.

Jensen’s answer is less than satisfying. It is sad he went down that road. He wasn’t always like that. In his early writings, there is a profound sense of beauty and love of humanity, all of humanity. Yes, there was more than a hint of darkness in his first couple of books, but it was only a shadow of doubt, a potential that had not yet fully manifested, that had not yet become untethered from hope. His younger self didn’t dream of destruction.

I knew Jensen’s early writings years before he began his cynical phase. Nothing he could write would negate the worthiness of what he wrote before. But if all you knew were his later writings, it is perfectly understandable that your criticisms might be harsh.

I had the opposite experience in my discovery of George Orwell.

I mostly knew him as a name, having never read his works for myself. I had seen the movie adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four and I’ve come across quotes of his writings in various places. But I knew nothing about Orwell as a man and a writer. He was just another famous dead white guy who said some interesting stuff.

Recently, I decided to lessen my ignorance and read something by him. I randomly chose Homage to Catalonia which had an introduction by Lionel Trilling. At the same time, I did web searches about Orwell, about that particular book, and about Trilling’s intro. This led me to info about Orwell having colluded with the British government when he became an informant. He informed on people in his own social circle and, having been a critic of the British Empire, he had to have known the consequences could have destroyed lives.

That marred any respect I might have had for Orwell, maybe permanently.

So, why could I be so critical of Orwell while being so forgiving of Jensen? Well, for one, Jensen never has colluded with an oppressive government against those who voiced dissent. Plus, it might be the basic reason of my having no personal connection to Orwell’s writings. Jensen’s writings, on the other hand, helped shape my mind at a still tender age when I was looking for answers. I have a sense of knowing Jensen’s experience and worldview, and hence a sense of knowing why he turned to cynicism. But maybe I should also be more forgiving of Orwell and more accepting of his all too human weaknesses, or at least more willing to separate his early writings from his later actions.

My basic sense is that nothing in life is inevitable. As such, it wasn’t inevitable that lives of Jensen and Orwell happened as they did. Almost anything could have intervened at any moment along the way and redirected their lives, forced different choices upon them, allowed them to see new possibilities. And, in the case of Jensen, that is still possible for he remains alive.

Now, for the historical aspect, let me continue on the level of individuals and then shift to a broader perspective.

I’ll use my two favorite examples: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. They are long dead and so that air of inevitability hangs heavy over their respective histories. Whatever they might have become, it would be hard for either to surprise us at this point, unless previously unknown documents were to be found.

Both Burke and Paine began as progressive reformers. There was nothing in their childhoods or even their young adulthoods that would have portended the pathways of their lives, that would have predicted Burke becoming what some have deemed a reactionary conservative, an anti-revolutionary defender of the status quo, and that would have predicted Paine becoming a revolutionary, a radical rabblerouser, and one of the greatest threats to tyranny. Before all of that, they were friends and allies. They wrote letters to one another. Paine even visited Burke at his home. If events hadn’t intervened, they both might have remained partners in seeking progressive reform in Britain and her colonies.

What drove them apart began with the American Revolution and came to its head in the French Revolution. They came to opposite views of the historical forces that were playing out before them. Burke responded in fear and Paine in hope. But these responses were dependent on so many circumstantial factors. Change any single thing and a chain of events would have shifted into a new pattern, a new context.

Like Paine, Burke at one point considered going to America, and yet unlike Paine he never got around to it. His early life didn’t hit any major bumps as Paine’s did. There is no evidence that Paine had seriously considered going to America until all of his other options had been denied. There is nothing inevitable at all about these two lives. It was a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin that sent Paine toward his seeming destiny. And it was the lack of such a similar chance meeting that kept Burke in Britain.

Along these lines, it was a complex web of events and factors that led the two revolutions down divergent paths. The French Revolution wasn’t fated to transform into Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s empire. Likewise, the American Revolution wasn’t fated to end in the further institutionalization of slavery that would lead to a bloody civil war, wasn’t fated to lead to imperial expansion, Indian removal and genocide.

There is no shared character that predetermines a people’s fate. The potential of individual members of a nation are magnified by all of their potential combined, the choices and actions of each affecting those of others, millions of paths intertwining like a flock of birds shifting along unseen currents in the wind. History is a thing of luck and chance, infinite possibilities bounded by necessity and circumstance, an interplay of forces that can’t be controlled or predicted. People act never knowing for sure what may or may not come of it.

People and nations are filled with near infinite potential. None of us knows what might have been or what yet might become. Nothing is inevitable.

The path we seem to be on may change in an instant, may change in ways we can’t even imagine. But, no matter what changes, it will never alter all that came before. The many facets of our lives, individual and shared, offer diverse windows onto the world we see. Even as the past doesn’t change, our relationship to the past does and along with it our understanding, along with it the memories we recollect and the stories we tell. And from understanding, one hopes, comes empathy and compassion.

We are who we are, all the many selves we hold within, all the many identities we have taken. The past and the future, the potential and the manifest meets in the world in which we live. No story is completely told while the actors remain.

Revolutions: American and French, Part 2

I’ve been reading many books and listening to some lectures on the revolutionary era. It is fair to say that these sources are educating me in a way my schooling didn’t prepare me for. I’m constantly amazed how, like most Americans, I’ve been so ignorant throughout my life. Not just ignorant, but ignorant of how ignorant I was.

I really had no clue about the French Revolution, that is for sure. Anything you think you know about the French Revolution is probably wrong or severely limited. As always, context is freaking everything.

I wrote a bit about what I had learned a while back, but I have since learned so much more.

One interesting fact is the part the Basque played during the revolutionary era. The Basque region is located in the border region of Spain and France. The Basque are a separate people from the Celts and they have lived in that region for a very long time. The Irish descend from the Basque which is interesting as the English used their policies toward the Irish as a blueprint for their later colonizing efforts. The Basque and the Irish are both a proud people that had long struggles against imperialism.

The Basque were a highly respected people since for most of their history they remained unconquered. Neither the Romans nor the Moors could put them down, partly because they had a good defensible location in the mountains. This is what formed their republican tradition which inspired John Adams thinking about republicanism in America. (As a side note, many Basque immigrated to the Americas and later on helped shape the cowboy culture of open range cattle ranching; so they were the original cowboys.)

The Basque supported the French Revolution early on, like most people (like most Americans and most British). It was only later on that they experienced oppression as well and lost their independence (and only later that the French Revolution got a bad reputation during the era of anti-revolutionary backlash).

The early years of the French Revolution were more about political reform than the revolution we know from the Reign of Terror (the revolution began in 1789 and the use of the guillotine didn’t begin until 1793). Even so, keep in mind that more people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. Also, keep in mind that more people suffered oppression and died because of the results of the American failure to abolish slavery than did with the entire French Revolution.

Originally, the revolutionaries were pushing for a constitutional monarchy and that would have worked out just fine except King Louis XVI didn’t want to have his power constrained, as neither did King Charles I when facing the English Civil War, and so likewise regicide followed. The revolutionaries also weren’t trying to get rid of the aristocracy, take their land or take their wealth. They simply wanted the aristocracy to be treated like everyone else with no special privileges. Also, the revolutionaries had no desire to get rid of the church. The clergy were among the strongest supporters of the early revolution.

This early period of reform lasted for several years.

So, what went wrong? I’m not sure if anything went wrong exactly. Revolutions are always a gamble. There was nothing that guaranteed the American Revolution wouldn’t have had  a similar fate. Revolutions happen because all other recourses have failed, and that was even more true for the French than for the Americans.

The French people were truly desperate in a way Americans at that time couldn’t have imagined. They were living in a severely oppressive society and the people were starving. Americans before the Revolution were among the most free people in the world. It was because Americans were so used to being free that they felt affronted by having that freedom even slightly lessened. The French, on the other hand, were dealing with problems that literally were life and death for many of them. The French government wasn’t a far off institution as was the British government. It was an everpresent reality. American colonists knew no equivalent to the Bastille.

Also, consider how much more the French revolutionaries had going against them.

Besides the constant threat of starvation, they had more enemies than allies. The French are the only reason American revolutionaries won their war. Thousands of French citizens fought and died in the American Revolution. There is no equal number of American citizens who returned the favor by fighting and dying in the French Revolution. Nor did the French Revolutionaries have a major empire on its side as the American revolutionaries had with France. Instead, the French were facing enemies from without as they were facing enemies from within. Many of the European Empires sought to attack France during its moment of weakness and so the French were forced to fight wars as a nation even as they were attempting to rebuild their nation.

It was a nearly impossible situation for a revolution. It is a miracle that it didn’t turn out worse.

Early Americans had it easy in comparison. If the American Revolution had been similar to the French Revolution, American revolutionaries would not only had to fight the British government on its own territory but simultaneously fight the Native Americans and the Spanish Empire while being abandoned by the French Empire. On top of that, American revolutionaries would have had to deal with a larger population that was facing starvation as well.

How well would the American Revolution have turned out under those conditions? Probably not so well.

When a clueless asshole like Edmund Burke complained about the French Revolution, what would he have preferred? Should the French just accepted their fate by starving to death and allowing themselves to be continually killed and imprisoned by an oppressive government? The British Empire later on killed more Irish than the number of people killed in the Reign of Terror. As an Irishman and defender of the British Empire, what answer would Burke have for that? Would he have suggested the Irish to have just taken it and not to have fought back? Of course not.

Context is everything. And to understand the context one needs to know the facts.

We Need a Miracle

I’m going to summarize two central points about the revolutionary era. I suspect they apply to revolutions in general. There is a dynamic to what causes revolutions and how they result. There are also types of people who tend to play particular roles with predictable responses. I’ll connect these ideas and maybe clarify what this all might mean, for societies and for human nature.

* * *

The first point is an insight I had after reading a few dozen different books. I originally was reading about Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. That led me to seek a broader perspective which eventually brought me to the debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists.

What I realized was that the debate between Burke and Paine was essentially the same debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists. That is quite revealing. It puts everything into a different perspective. The arguments against the American Revolution beforehand were often exactly the same arguments made for the new Federalist government. Sometimes the same people made the same arguments before and after the Revolution.

John Dickinson, for similar stated reasons as Burke, argued against the Revolution and for the unwritten English Constitution and the rights of Englishmen. Both Dickinson and Burke warned of the dangers of revolution. The most interesting part is that it was that type of person who specifically warned the Revolution likely would fail, unleashing destruction instead of renewal, and it was that type of person who did their best to ensure the Revolution failed or rather ensure whatever success it achieved was short-lived. Dickinson was essentially still fighting against the Revolution even after it had happened. He wasn’t a bad guy and I don’t know that he was entirely wrong; actually, I suspect he was partly right which is a feeling I can’t shake.

Federalism was a counter-revolution that fought against the very ideals that offered the only justification for the American Revolution in the first place. If the new Federalism was justified, the American Revolution wasn’t justified. But if the American Revolution wasn’t justified, it should never have happened and the new Federal government shouldn’t have been formed. The basic justifications for the new Federal government, after all, were the same basic justifications given for defending the British Empire. So, it would have made more sense, like Canada, to have remained part of the British Empire. There are some differences between the US political system and British political system as they diverged over their respective histories, but for the most part they aren’t revolutionary-worthy differences.

* * *

That brings me to my second point. Revolutions always seem to fail according to their own ideals. Either they become new forms of oppression or else something akin to the old form of oppression. Is there any way for a revolution to succeed? This bothers me because the question of revolutionary success is tied up with whether genuine justice can ever be achieved. Is there a different way to go about revolution besides the hope of redemptive violence?

I wonder what a successful revolution would look like.

A revolution, in many ways, is a failure right from the start. First and foremost, it is a failure of the old order. Even the likes of Burke and Dickinson saw the failures of the old order. That is why they promoted reform which was rooted in their desire to prevent revolution. If their hoped for reform hadn’t failed, there wouldn’t have been a revolution. But there is a corollary to that. If the revolution hadn’t happened, the needed reforms may never have happened in British Empire and her former colonies. So, the reform’s failure was the cause of the revolution and the revolution’s failure was what finally forced some reform. Burke, however, wanted to believe that reform was still possible without revolution pounding at the door; but his faith remains unproven.

A revolution is always unreasonable according to the old order. There is always an element of the unproven and unpredictable about any revolution. Because of this, Burke had good reasons to fear revolution. But such reasonableness ultimately always fails. If social orders were capable of continuous reform, no revolution would ever happen. Yet it is because social orders resist reform that revolutions are necessary and inevitable, even in their repeated failure.

It seems that civilization as we know it isn’t possible without semi-regularly scheduled revolutions. And, considering the failures of reform in our present society, it seems some revolution in the US is overdue. Of course, revolution could be easily prevented by some thorough reforms, but that is precisely what those in power don’t want to do, just as the ruling elite during Burke’s life didn’t want admit to the need of reform. I must admit that I feel wary about any new revolution. I see no reason that it will succeed any more than previous revolutions. Still, if it takes a revolution to force reform, then revolution is what we will have, no matter who does or doesn’t want it.

* * *

Now, this brings me to the deeper issues underlying all of this.

Why does this seem so predictable, almost deterministic? Is it something inborn within our human nature?

We just go on playing the same roles in the same script. This brings us to the etymology of ‘revolution’: from the Latin revolutio, “a turn around”. We just turn around and around and around, like the ancient philosophy of the wheel of fortune. But like a wheel, there is forward motion. It’s just going in circles we lose track of where we are heading and we’re never quite sure it is the direction we want to end up in.

Is the world genuinely better now than in the past? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. What does it all add up to?

Take a concrete example. Let’s go with African-American civil rights across the centuries.

Racialized slavery was bad and no one can doubt that the abolition of it was a good thing, and it did require a civil war close to revolution to achieve it, even if the abolition was more a side effect of other societal changes. Before the Civil War, there was over a couple of million of African-Americans enslaved. Presently, there are around a million African-Americans imprisoned (not to count the many more than that number caught up in the ‘justice’ system or suffering under the oppressive conditions of the life of an ex-con). That is some improvement. We’ve reduced by about half of the African-Americans who are unjustly trapped in an oppressive system.

Even so, that is rather pathetic as a case for reform. A (conservative? moderate? failed?) revolution, a civil war, and a civil rights movement and that is all you get for it. Really? The ironic part is that slavery still exists in much of the world, maybe even growing. There might be more slaves today than there was in centuries past for the simple reason that the population is now larger (I’ve heard people make such claims, but I don’t know how slaves are counted when they are sold on black markets and usually kept hidden). Much of these present slave conditions are part of modern capitalism (just as early racialized slavery was part of the rise of early capitalism). We Americans buy products every day made by people who work under threat of violence, sometimes locked or chained to prevent escape. There has been much reporting about the work conditions in certain Chinese factories and that is only what gets reported.

The world improves in many ways. Yet it is hard to say it is actually better overall. It definitely is better if you are an upper class person in a developed country, but that is a minority of the world’s population. As we slowly reform old injustices, new injustices crop up in their place.

It can feel like we are stuck in a cycle. The problem with reform is that it leaves in place the social order that caused the problems in the first place. To build on a proven dysfunctional social order seems less than optimal. Is there something that could bring forth something entirely new, like nothing that ever came before? Are we humans capable of such large-scale ingenuity? Or for that matter are we capable of even reform that would permanently undo injustice and ensure a new injustice doesn’t take its place?

An important insight is made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, racialized oppression never ends. It just takes new forms. Reform only deals with the symptoms instead of the disease. Symptom relief is fine for a dying patient. But what if one doesn’t want to resign oneself to the cynical view that our civilization is doomed and all that we can seek is a bit of comfort on the way down? What about hope for recovery, for a full healing?

What we need is a non-violent, democratic revolution. A transformation that is a paradigm shift across the entire population. We so desperately need for a change to happen that is greater than our own ability to envision change, a change that shifts our ability to envision new possibilities, an envisioning that is simultaneously an enactment. The means have to match the ends. We have to somehow collectively act in a way as if the change already happened.

Basically, we need a miracle.

* * *

As a bonus, I’ll leave you with a recent blog post from The (Dis)Loyal Opposition To Modernity:

The anti-primitive by El Mono Liso

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism

I’ve been reading, since it became available the other day, The Great Debate by Yuval Levin. I won’t attempt a review until I’m finished with it. For the time being, let me use a particular point as a jumping off point.

Levin, in introducing the lives of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, writes (Kindle Location 163):

IT MAY SEEM STRANGE to seek philosophical arguments in the words of two men so deeply involved in day-to-day politics. We are not used to political actors who are also political theorists. Such actors were certainly a bit more common in Burke’s and Paine’s era— when in both Britain and America we encounter some politicians who wrote and thought like philosophers— but they were still very much a rare breed even then. And because nearly all of Burke’s and Paine’s pamphlets, speeches, letters, and books were written with some immediate political purpose in mind even as they made larger arguments, scholars of both men’s views have battled over some very basic questions through the centuries.

Part of the problem is that both of these people were political actors rather than political philosophers. Both were seeking to change the social world around them. This seems even more central for Burke who was first and foremost a life-long professional politician. Raised by a father who was a lawyer for the Irish government, Burke was raised in a political family. Burke never had to learn a trade like Paine, never personally experienced poverty, homelessness and hunger like Paine. Burke wasn’t part of the English aristocracy, but he was very well off compared to most British people at that time.

One major point is that the worlds in which Burke and Paine were living were vastly different. Levin makes a false portrayal when he claims that, “Each was a man of humble origins” (Kindle Location 239). To Burke, the prospect of revolution threatened his class privilege and socio-political position. To Paine, the prospect of revolution offered him rights and freedoms he was being denied. They were hardly responding to the same situation and so it is unsurprising that their responses were so different.

As I explained it in a comment to a review of this book:

Historical context is everything.

A person would be entirely clueless about Paine’s position if they didn’t know this historical context: the Commons (as it relates to the Charter of the Forest, common law, the rights of Englishmen, and pre-Lockean land rights) and land enclosures (privatizing the benefits of public resources while externalizing the costs); populations being pushed from their homes and communities in the countryside and forced into concentrated cities where they experienced desperation and rampant disease; growing rates of unemployment, homelessness and poverty; protests and the formation of the first labor unions in London; starvation and food riots while the poor were being hung for simple crimes like stealing a loaf of bread; massive numbers of the destitute being imprisoned, put in workhouses and sold into indentured servitude; et cetera. All of that was what was the background to what was going on when Paine came of age.

Before Paine was a revolutionary, he was a civil servant of the British government seeking gradualist reform within the system. Understanding the historical context that made Paine a revolutionary would also help one understand why Burke transformed from a moderate progressive who supported revolution to a reactionary conservative who opposed revolution. It wasn’t necessarily inevitable that these people would become who they became. Paine was no more inherently a revolutionary than Burke was inherently a reactionary. They were products of their times and of specific environments, especially large rigid class divisions with Paine coming from the working class and Burke coming from the upper class.

When Paine was growing up and becoming and adult in England, the government wasn’t open to being reformed. If it had, Paine might have lived a long contented life as a civil servant. The British government only took reform seriously after it was humbled from its loss during the American Revolution. It is unfair and unreasonable to compare Paine’s response to a reform-resistant pre-revolutionary British government and Burke’s response to a reform-accepting post-revolutionary British government.

Unfortunately, Levin apparently (from what I can tell by my reading of his book so far) doesn’t discuss this historical context and doesn’t give evidence that he understands it.

So, they were both political actors. However, they were acting in response to and toward very different life experiences. If Burke like Paine had been raised working class and had been treated dismissively by the British government, he wouldn’t have developed into the same person. That is an important thing to keep in mind, assuming one desires genuine understanding of historical figures instead of trying to force them into ideological boxes.

As Levin continues (Kindle Location 169):

In Burke’s case, the leading question has been whether he had a consistent set of views throughout his life or whether the French Revolution transformed him somehow. As we will see, Burke spent the first two decades of his political career championing various sorts of reform: of the British government’s finances, its treatment of religious minorities, its trade policy, and more . He spent much of this time pushing against the standing inertia of English politics. But after the revolution in France, which he was concerned might be imported to Britain, Burke was above all a staunch defender of Britain’s political traditions. He strenuously opposed all efforts to weaken the power of the monarch and the aristocracy and warned against fundamental political reforms (like moves toward greater democratization) that might unmoor the nation from its long-standing traditions. He has sometimes been accused, therefore, of changing his most basic views and turning against his former co-partisans and friends. The charge could first be heard in his own lifetime (voiced by Paine, among others) and has been repeated by some of Burke’s biographers and interpreters ever since.

Consistency is more of an issue of theory than of subjective human nature in the context of the messy details of living. Both Burke and Paine changed over their lifetimes. And so neither, in that sense, is ‘consistent’. Understanding why Burke changed is not unlike asking why Reagan switched loyalties from the New Deal Progressivism of the Democratic Party to the Neocon-ruled movement conservatism of the Republican Party. Burke, like Reagan or like Paine, changed because the social and political conditions changed around him.

Few if any people remain unchanged during drastically changing times. Furthermore, no one knows who they might have become under different life conditions, with different events and experiences, in response to different opportunities or oppressions. We all have endless lives not lived, potentials not manifested, roads not taken.

Still, we all want to think we are consistent, that we are morally principled rational actors. So, we try to make sense of what we have become. It is hard for us to know what is genuine insight and what is mere rationalization.

This is also something Levin doesn’t consider, instead taking Burke at his word (Kindle Location 177):

But such a charge miscasts both Burke’s earlier and later views, neglecting the arguments he offered both as a reformer and as a conserver of Britain’s political tradition. Those arguments were always about finding a balance between stability and change— the quest that, as we will see, was at the core of Burke’s ambitions. In the concluding words of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, clearly foreseeing the coming charge of inconsistency, Burke described himself as “one who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.”

This image of the man seeking to balance his ship—or to balance his country in a sea of troubles—against various threats to its cherished equipoise, is fitting, in light of Burke’s varied causes and arguments throughout his eventful career. He was a reformer when some elements of the English constitution threatened to suffocate the whole. He was a preserver when it seemed to him, as David Bromwich has put it, “that revolution is the ultimate enemy of reform.” Equipoise, for Burke, is not stagnation, but rather a way of thinking about change and reform, and about political life more generally. As we will see, it was a central metaphor of his political thought.

Of course, no person, especially no professional politician, wants to be seen as inconsistent. That is the dreaded waffling and flip-flopping for which conservatives like to blame liberals. Conservatives pride themselves on supposedly being principled whereas liberals get characterized as moral relativists. As such, Burke the father of conservatism can’t be a moral relativist. God forbid! Burke was more noble than that. He was seeking ‘balance’ and ‘equipose’. Could you imagine a politician today trying to rationalize away charges of inconsistency with such highfalutin language and getting away with it?

I don’t know Burke’s writings all that well. From Levin’s explanations, Burke seems to have been, if anything, a bit wary of being too principled for in that direction lies radicalism (Kindle Location 312):

Burke argues that human nature relies on emotional, not only rational, edification and instruction— an idea that would become crucial to his insistence that government must function in accordance with the forms and traditions of a society’s life and not only abstract principles of justice. “The influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed,” Burke writes. 5 We are moved by more than logic, and so politics must answer to more than cold arguments.

Having “stark and fundamental principles” (Kindle Location 499) from which one reasons toward political action is what a radical like Paine does, not Burke. “Universal principles” (Kindle Location 543) are dangerous for all worthy values must submit to and serve the social order rather than the other way around. The danger of being too principled is that way lies the extremes of revolution (Kindle Location 120): “the French Revolution launched in earnest the modern quest for social progress through unyielding political action guided by uncompromising philosophical principle.”

This Burkean conservatism sounds like moral relativism to me. Indeed, Levin argues that Burke was fundamentally a utilitarian in that he supposedly didn’t believe humans could know natural law. Moral principles were only to be invoked as they were useful or, as I’d say, when convenient to his purposes.

Even so, Burke wasn’t even consistent in this. When it was inconvenient to limit himself to tradition and established order, he would invoke abstract universal principles as needed (Kindle Location 1453):

Because he had very little positive law to appeal to in making his case, he grounded his passionate and powerful appeal in a higher law. “I impeach him,” Burke told the lords regarding Hastings, “in the name and by virtue of those eternal laws of justice which he has violated. I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured, and oppressed, in both sexes, at every age, rank, situation, and condition of life.”

The accusation of the radical left by the likes of Burke was that they were essentially too principled; yet the left, radical or otherwise, continuously gets accused of being unprincipled. Which is it? Talk about inconsistency. We can’t even determine the problem, much less the proper stance that would offer a solution. It seems to be that this Burkean stance allows for whatever is convenient at the moment, convenient that is for maintaining the social order and maintaining the power of those who already have it. Burke, in justification, uses yet another fancy term — ‘prudence’ (Kindle Location 1573):

Prudence is not the opposite of either principle or theory. Prudence, rather, is the application of general experience to particular practical problems. In Burke’s view, the prudent person believes that the experience of our society generally points to underlying principles of justice (and of nature) and so offers more reliable, if less specific, guidance than do abstract theories like the natural-rights liberalism that Paine would import wholesale into practical politics.

“History is a preceptor of prudence, not of principles,” Burke writes; it does not offer us direct knowledge of precise or abstract rules. But it does give us general rules, which are certainly good enough most of the time.

Prudence isn’t immoral. It is just morality that is relative to human experience (i.e., moral relativism). The practice of prudence doesn’t deny theory. Rather, it is the theory of the practical (i.e., utilitarianism). I guess it was relatively moral and practical for a conservative like Burke to support monarchy and anti-democratic oppression and yet conservatives today would find that less relatively moral and practical. That is as close to consistency as this kind of conservatism gets.

The descriptive is the normative and hence the prescriptive, or in the words of Levin: “For Burke the resort to history is the model of nature’ (Kindle Location 1623).

The problem with this was explained by the author of another book I was reading the other day — Racecraft by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields (p. 128):

All human societies, whether tacitly or overtly, assume that nature has ordained their social arrangements. Or, to put it another way, part of what human beings understand by the word “nature” is the sense of inevitability that gradually becomes attached to a predictable, repetitive social routine: “custom, so immemorial that it looks like nature,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote.

An additional problem is that even conservatives like Burke don’t consistently seek to defend all traditions and in fact they will even actively attack traditions when they don’t like them. Their vision of tradition is dependent on cherrypicking. Liberals like Paine, on the other hand, often find themselves in the position of defending tradition against the attack by conservatives:

Someone like Paine wasn’t simply attempting to create something new. He was trying to save what was being destroyed, the commons along with the rights of Englishmen. This relates to a long English tradition going back to the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Liberalism arose not just in envisioning new liberties but in defense of old liberties. Such things as the commons are what modern conservatives would like to conveniently forget. Conservatives want to pick and choose what they want from the past and discard the rest.

So, is there anything consistent to conservatism besides, as Corey Robin argues, reaction? If the seemingly inconsistent Edmund Burke is the father of conservatism, then what is this conservatism?

Let me lead into my conclusion with one last quote from Levin (Kindle Location 824);

Paine’s book was the most significant reply to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, though it was by no means the only one. Indeed, dozens of counter-pamphlets soon appeared, mostly from English radicals and dissenters accusing Burke of abandoning both Whig principles and his own principles. They charged him with a profound inconsistency, given his support for the American Revolution and his earlier assertion (in his 1770 pamphlet Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents) that the deep disgruntlement of an entire population is proof that the state requires serious reform. Thomas Jefferson spoke for many when, upon reading the Reflections, he remarked that “the Revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution in Mr. Burke.” 56 This theme of inconsistency would follow Burke for the rest of his life and indeed well beyond his life, among historians.

This charge of inconsistency, with Burke as their ideological father, continues to plague conservatives to this day. As far as I can tell, they have no better justification to offer to refute this charge. Conservatives barely even acknowledge it, much less try to explain it.

Maybe conservatives need to look for a better foundation.