Conservatism, Ideology, and the Death of Seeds

Our country is being pulled further and further in two directions, one that can be safely described as progressive and the other as conservative, though not in a way intended by many who use that term now.

To see a nice summary of the progressive position, take a look at this article.

Progressives see the world in terms of ideologies in conflict, each trying to achieve what they consider a just representation. It is a politics rooted in relativism and one that, historically, tends toward centralized planning and thus to tyranny, though in varying degrees.

Conservatives, in the sense that I use the term (rooted in Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk’s writings, not the Weekly Standard or Rush Limbaugh), regard ideology itself as a poison. We don’t see the world as the battlefield of ideologies unless people are foolish enough to embrace an ideology.

Conservatism in this sense is opposition to all ideologies. Conservatism is not an ideology itself for one simple reason: it acknowledges a law of nature and of nature’s God to which everybody is bound.

Ideologies may begin within the constraints of natural law, but they possess an inner impulse to break down those constraints. They turn to the identity of the group instead of human nature.

In general, they join the money-lovers in their assault on nature itself, but they attack it from the other side. Thus, while the money-lover comes from a position of strength and thus strives to establish an oligarchy in which he uses his capital to build a fortune and then buys the state to secure it, the ideologue usually arises from or uses those in a position of weakness.

He organizes the oppressed into a force that rises up against the oppressor, whether that be the Roman Republic of the era of the Gracchi (2nd century BC), the English peasantry under Richard II (late 14th century) the French peasantry under Louis XIV (18th century), the unorganized forces of labor during the railroad years (late 19th century), or the descendants of the slaves in our own time.

The advantage of the ideologue is that he always has justice on his side. In other words, oppression is always wrong and people always absorb guilt into their souls and their communities when they practice it.

The other advantage of the ideologue is that the oppressed are excluded, by definition, from both the centers of influence and the means to those centers of influence of the wider culture. In every case I can think of, that means education. In other words, the oppressed tend to be illiterate.

The illiteracy that the oppressor imposes on the oppressed is the very weakness that leads to the overthrow of the oppressor. It’s simple. Illiterate and oppressed people (they need not be the same) feel vulnerable and weak. They are looking for someone to protect and strengthen them. They become, in varying degrees, gullible.

The ideologue thus becomes the demagogue. He promises peace and prosperity and delivers violence and suffering.

But in so doing he adds a meaning and a hope to the lives of the oppressed that fuels the revolution the seed of which was planted by the oppressor himself.

Then sets in the law of the catastrophic continuum. Once the ideologue is able to gather power to himself, he is attractive to anybody who wants a share of his power. More and more people find themselves oppressed. They establish an identity for themselves. They form a group and feed off the ideology.

And who is not oppressed?

But here is the fatal problem with both money-loving and ideology. Both of them, having built their kingdoms on greed and envy, are idolaters. Both of them are trying to overthrow nature. Both of them, to do so, need ever-expanding power.

The money-lover buys out the established government. The oppressed threatens it.

Both expand it and then find themselves unable to control it.

This is why amoral capitalism leads to socialism and why democracy always leads to demagoguery. The forces of greed and envy unleashed are demons of violence and suffering. Both are impatient. Both deny limits. Both centralize power.

This is where we sit as a nation today, on the knife’s edge between the money-lover driven by greed and the ideologue driven by envy.

Conservatism has been taken over and redefined by the money-lover. Liberalism has been taken over and redefined by the ideologue.

Conservatism has become a sounding brass and liberalism a tinkling cymbal.

The one sure thing is that we will continue to watch our government expand and intrude relentlessly until either we repent and assume responsibility for our lives, our families, and our communities, or we will find ourselves under a “benign” tyranny that stultifies every genuinely human ambition or impulse that does not meet the narrow goals of the ideologue.

What solution, then? Practically, I don’t know. But certainly if we don’t acknowledge truth and a law of nature that governs all of us, including the ruler, the merchant, and the revolutionary, then there is no solution.

The always insightful CS Lewis put it this way in his most important book:

Only the tao* provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

The Abolition of Man

* by “tao” Lewis means what the west has commonly referred to as the natural law.

Because our people have formally rejected this natural law for over a century (as seen, for example, in the maxims and decisions of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.), the oppressed have nowhere to turn but to the direct quest for power themselves.

When the powers that be determine that they are the ones who determine what is right and wrong (the practical definition or at least effect of moral relativism), even their best intentions leave no genuine hope for the oppressed.

This happened to slaves in the pre-civil-war era and it has happened to workers and to descendants of slaves since then.

But if the oppressor does not acknowledge a higher law, then how can the oppressed be expected to?

We are driven by ideologies in conflict, each seeking enough power to protect themselves and to overthrow the oppressed.

But, says St. Paul, if you bite and devour one another, take heed lest you be consumed by one another.

Let us learn not to trust in the deceitfulness of riches, nor to allow envy to drive us into ever new forms of slavery. Perhaps we can model again what Gandhi and King imitated:

Unless a seed falls in the ground and dies, it abides alone.

Conservative Literature: Where is it?

In this article, Brian Doherty compares libertarian literature to conservative and finds the latter wanting. His argument is intriguing, as it indicates the decline in conservative thought since Russell Kirk was the leading spokesman and sage of the conservative renewal. Until conservatism can reconcile the free market with the preservation of culture and the soul it sustains, it will continue to be a divided movement, somewhat effective but always on the brink of ruin.

Laughing at Conservatism

Here are the issues that conservatives get mocked for:

  1. Questioning the dogmatic authority of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism
  2. Questioning global warming
  3. Questioning the safety of undefined government, and therefore feeling threatened by what they perceive to be unconstitutional activities by our government, especially the federal one.
  4. Teaching their own children at home or in non-state schools
  5. Questioning the validity of the right to abort a baby
  6. Questioning the benefits of extensive taxes and suggesting that people would do better if they were taxed less and able to produce more
  7. Questioning the value of an education provided by and controlled by state funded institutions that root their doctrines in untenable beliefs like Naturalism and Pragmatism, especially when many or even most of those in power were educated in what the conservative perceives to be a radical and even cynical setting
  8. Questioning the social impact of removing the need to be responsible from the average citizen
  9. Questioning the value of any policy that weakens family structures
  10. Believing that the courts have been complicit in remaking our country in ways that the people did not want or vote for or approve of

I think most Americans want to lean conservative on most of these issues, but the issues need to be carefully explained (“framed” is what the ever Pragmatic media like to call it, though, trusting in the power of truth I think explaining would do even more good than framing).

Parameters need to be identified on each issue as well. I’m a big believer in compromise if it is part of a strategy to move in a given direction.

To me, the most crucial and the coordinating issue in that list is the need for defined government.

What’s a conservative?

When I was a child, my father was driving the family somewhere or other and some political conversation came up. This was the 70’s, when conservatism was a rising star but not yet the term ascribed to anybody liberals don’t like. I remember him describing for us children the difference between conservatism and liberalism. Dad was no philosopher. He wasn’t terribly sophisticated politically. But he had a point worth contemplating.

He was frustrated with Jimmy Carter, and his explanation was that “Liberals have to have things right now.”

That’s a fascinating oversimplification, but he was on to something. If people aren’t wealthy, what do you do to help them become wealthy? Give them money. Now. By taxing others.

I’ve come to look at most political discussions through that perspective. Not so much that liberals want their solutions right now, but the understanding that no problems can be solved right now, and most can’t ever be solved.

Americans, if my father was right, are all pretty liberal in that sense. We don’t like to see people suffer and we don’t like to think that suffering can’t be ended right now.

The trouble is that this approach creates so much more suffering. I cannot fathom, for example, the suffering imposed on African-Americans when they were more or less forcibly moved into the cities and projects.

Good intentions don’t solve problems when they are accompanied by the pride – the hubris – of the person or group who considers himself or itself qualified to solve them. Compassion and capacity are not the same thing.

That is why, in my opinion, liberalism is more inclined than conservatism toward abstractions and symbolic gestures.

And it is at least one reason why the liberal considers the conservative heartless.

Of course, conservatives also make themselves look pretty heartless as well, but most of that arises from their fears of a government that, from their perspective, is completely uncontrollable.

So here we are, 2009, conservatism supposedly having been beaten to death by the events of the last 8 years and a renascent liberalism obliterating the hopes of the conservative heart.

More than anything, it seems to be an age of conservative confusion. What is a conservative? What ideology do we believe? What policies do we support?

And that’s very interesting, because those questions, especially the second, show that conservatism, a movement with great respect for tradition, is not drawing nourishment from its roots.

If there is one thing conservatism is not, nor cannot be, it is an ideology. Conservatism is the ultimate enemy of every ideology.

What then do conservatives believe?

It depends where he lives. An American conservative believes that the constitution provides the job description for the federal government and that, like every other subordinate, the federal government should focus on doing its job and leaving other people to do their jobs.

In general, the American conservative prefers the old order when political decisions were more likely to relate to daily realities than to visions of the future and undefined changes.

The conservative in America wants his government to act more humbly and circumspectly.

But are there any foundational principles to conservatism. I believe there are. I believe they can all be summarized in one principle, but this principle cannot become ideological.

That principle is reverence. The conservative soul is deeply disturbed by any irreverence, whether it be to holders of office, cultural norms, parents, tradition, religion, the neighbor, or anything else.

Conservatives revere everything according to its degree. That doesn’t mean they don’t want things to change. To the contrary. If a president shows himself incompetent in office, the conservative wants him respectfully removed. But changes must be respectful. Contempt and irreverence is the fundamental attitude of the revolutionary.

More precisely, perhaps, conservativs believe in and revere human nature. They believe it to be unalterable in its essence, though widely adaptable in its state. This probably explains why liberalism fights viscerally for evolutionary doctrines, while conservatives have a much more hesitant response to them.

To go a step further, the conservative believes that morality leads to the fulfillment and satisfaction of human nature.

He believes that the individual finds and perfects himself through active love.

He believes that reality is more important than theory.

And he believes that there is a realm of what Russell Kirk called the permanent things that matters much more than the things that change and can be changed.

Every one of these principles only provides guidance and light for the issues of the day. When a Rush Limbaugh or an Ann Coulter or any other pundit rises up to tell conservatives how they ought to think on various issues, they have betrayed a fundamental principle of conservatism: the need for judgment and personal involvement in the decision making process.

The conservative wants a small state because he wants everybody to grow up politically, to be involved in the decisions that affect their lives (which is what we mean by political freedom). When the state grows too large, the local government becomes an association of eunuchs.

The liberal, in my opinion, tends toward the large state because he wants to create a world that defies nature and only through undefined power can nature be defied for any extended period of time. It always eventually wins, but a large government apparatus can absorb and redirect an awful lot of the blows that nature directs at her enemies.

The conservative reveres the nature of things and wants to live in harmony with it.

That is why conservatism tends toward agrarian approaches to life. And it is why it opposes abstract environmentalism, but favors concrete actions on behalf of the environment.

What is the Left

I keep coming across somewhat amusing and hysterical posts on the web about whether or not Obama is a socialist. The right uses the term to describe his policies and the left ridicule the right for not having anything original to attack him with but this tired old charge – an interesting and rather tired response. So I got thinking: is he actually a socialist – I mean in terms of his policies, not his own beliefs, which are more or less irrelevent to the question.

My first thought was that he’s probably not a socialist, he’s just a novice. According to the Republicans in congress, he isn’t particularly engaged with the congressional democrats or republicans. He’s just letting congress do it’s thing and being presidential.

This charge will take time to confirm or deny because it’s much too early and you don’t know when what you hear is true or false coming out of Washington because people only tell the truth if it pays them. But it wouldn’t surprise me, given Obama’s profound lack of executive experience.

So I’m maybe a little skeptical on this point – and worried, because if he can’t control Pelosi and Reed we’re in trouble. These California congressfolk are bringing us the policies that have turned that state into a catastrophe.

All of which is preamble to my real point, which is to say, we should probably work out what it means to be a socialist before we evaluate whether or not Obama is one or whether, as Newsweek claims, we’re all socialists now.

So I turned to a book by the Austrian thinker Erik Von-Kuehnelt-Leddihn called Leftism Revisited. He doesn’t specifically go after socialism in this book; it’s more of an analysis of Leftism generally. He identifies 41 principles of “leftism” and lists them in the back of the book. I’ll list some of the key ones here:

  1. Materialism: economic, biological, sociological
  2. Messianism assigned to one group: a nation, a race, a class
  3. Centralization: elimination of local administrations, traditions, characteristics, etc.
  4. Totalistarianism: perversion of all spheres of life by one doctrine
  5. Brute force and terror, not authority, an endogenous force
  6. Ideological one-party state
  7. Complete state control of education
  8. Socialism: the opposite of personalism
  9. Provider (Welfare) State: from the cradle to the grave
  10. Militarism (not bellicosity):conscription, people’s armies, levee en masse
  11. Rigid ideology enforced by the state: complete anti-image of “The Enemy”
  12. Antimonarchcal leader system: the leader (Fuhrer, Duce, Vozhd’)
  13. Antiliberalism: hatred of freedom
  14. Antitraditionalism: against the historic past, against “reaction”
  15. Territorial expansionist tendencies as form of self-realization.

That’s all I’ll list for now. If I’m reading this correctly, all or most of these qualities and principles are derived from Marx’s writings. What strikes me is how any element that one of our parties doesn’t give us the other seems to. The Left is in a pincer movement to squeeze everything personal out of us. Everything is at war with the person – from work to child-birth to medicine to (especially, perhaps) education.

On the other hand, we are far from being brought into total subjugation, and I am grateful for that. We are not Hitler’s Germany or Lenin’s Russia, though we may be well on the “road to serfdom.”