Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What is Conservatism?

Conservatism is an intellectual movement with political implications. Conservative intellectuals tend to focus on the concept of "Civilization." They ask questions like, "What is Civilization?" "What are its component parts?" "How can it be preserved?"     

To start, Conservative intellectuals have learned from history that Civilization is rare and fragile. It is a golden-mean of sorts, a balance between twin peaks of equal but opposite extreme forms of social arrangement: Barbarism and Super-civilization. According to mid-twentieth century Conservative Harvard sociologist Carl Zimmerman, there is a cycle that no advanced society to date has been able to allude. Barbarism, Civilization, Super-Civilization, back to Barbarism –round and round mankind goes. 

Frank Meyer, founding editor of the Conservative publication National Review refers to the concept of Barbarism, when he writes of the, “subtle, quiet tyranny of ‘customarily’ imposed community, in which no one can escape from the deadly environment of hereditarily or geographically imposed association.” 

Meyer defines Civilization as, "the history of the struggle to carry forward the insight of tension." According to Meyer, a defining characteristic of Civilization is that it is distinguished by tension between power structures and "a preeminent regard for the person." 

Meyer discusses Super-Civilization using terms and phrases like "Utopianism" and "Cosmological Society" when he writes of the, “all-powerful totalitarian state, grinding impersonally and brutally upon the freedom of everyone.” 

Identifying the stage of any given society involves identifying where power is concentrated and how it is enforced.

In Barbarism power is concentrated in the hands of a tribe, clan, or trustee family. 

In Civilization power is balanced, between the domestic family, the person, and the state or community. Very importantly, in Civilization power is also in tension. The tension in turn is buffered by intermediary institutions, mostly local, like the extended family, church, fraternal and civic organizations, and more. 

In super-civilization power is concentrated in the hands of a centralized super-state and exercised over atomistic individuals who have very small nuclear families, if they have them at all. These families tend to be very weak, break apart easily, and politically powerless. Super-Civilization is also characterized by very weak intermediary institutions.

Conservative intellectual movements seem to arise historically whenever the general order of a society begins to transition from Civilization to Super-civilization. Most generally, Conservative movements aim to conserve and restore time-tested ideas and institutions that under-gird Civilization, so as to stop its progression toward Super-Civilization. Conservative intellectual Russell Kirk has called these time-tested ideas and institutions, “the permanent things."  

This is the general essence of conservatism: the conservation and restoration of those ideas and institutions which support a good and free society –Civilization, to stop its descent into Super-Civilization.

Modern Conservatism 

The modern Conservative movement in America began to galvanize in the 1930’s, in the years following the passage of the New Deal -what Conservative founder Russell Kirk has referred to as, "that great mechanism for centralization."

After the New Deal came the landslide re-election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a perceived mandate for a deluge of other centralizing or "socialist" policies. These years may have been some of the most significant in America’s progression toward Super-Civilization, as unprecedented power became centralized in the hands of the federal government.

It was amidst this changing political climate that the modern American Conservative movement began to take shape, slowly at first, as scattered voices of protest emerged, profoundly pessimistic about the direction in which their country was headed. In the words of preeminent Conservative historian George H. Nash, “In this beginning, there was not one [Conservative] voice, but three.”

First, there were classical liberals, or, “libertarians,” resisting the threat of the ever expanding state to liberty, private enterprise, and individualism.

Second, there were “traditionalists,” who were shocked by the rising tide of totalitarian governments around the world, total war, and the development of a secular, rootless, mass societies. Later they were appalled by the disruption of the family. Traditionalists fought to restore the family and intermediary institutions, what Robert Nisbit has referred to as the, “the breakwaters of tyranny.” They urged a return to traditional religion and ethical absolutes. They rejected moral relativism and warned that the subjective and ethically vacuous way of life would hollow out men’s souls, leaving them isolated and atomistic individuals, with a void that the communitarian power philosophies of totalitarianism, communism, and fascism would rush in to fill.

Third, there appeared a militant “anti-communism” shaped decisively by a number of influential ex-communist radicals turned capitalist evangelists. These former men of the left brought to the postwar Conservative intellectual movement a profound conviction that the West was engaged in a titanic struggle with a merciless and relentless adversarial form of Super-Civilization—Communism—which sought nothing less than the total conquest of the world.

These three voices focused on restoring proper proportion of power (the "tension")  to each of the three major power structures that under-gird Civilization: the individual, the family and intermediaries, and the state.

The libertarians worked to restore the proper proportion of power to the individual. The traditionalists worked to restore the proper proportion of power to the family and intermediaries. The anti-communists worked to restore the proper proportion of power (in this case restrict power) to the state, which was grossly over expanded, spreading its tentacles over both the individual and the family and intermediaries by way of government programs and entrenched bureaucracies.   

While each wing of the modern American Conservative movement would have failed alone, together this natural but sometimes fractious coalition has achieved much success. It has slowed the onslaught of Super-Civilization.

The movement has now grown to maturity and although one type of Super-Civilization, formal communism, has been relegated to the dust bin of of Western history, Conservatism is still bound by its more general common enemy; the rising tide of Super-Civilization, both at home and around the world.

As society continues its descent into Super-Civilization the three legs of the modern Conservative movement must continue to lift upward together.

It is my only hope that this fractious three-legged coalition will continue to grow without losing the potency required to counter twenty-first century threats to the individual, the family and intermediaries, and the Civilized state.

Blogger Widgets