'Reform' conservatism

  • Posted on: 9 January 2018
  • By: benfell

It is probably easiest to begin this with a passage from the essay I wrote for my practicum (at a point when I thought my dissertation would be a theoretical dissertation):

Thomas Frank (October 4, 2012) describes the objections of wealthy financiers to being vilified for the financial crisis that began in 2007:

For one thing, [the billionaires’] criticisms reveal a contemptuous view of their fellow citizens. That all the books and articles on the financial crisis and the recession might have had an effect — that people might see the economic downturn as a reflection on the individuals who were, a few years back, lionized as the economy’s leaders — is inconceivable to the class-war complainers. The public’s attitude, they seem to believe, can have arisen only as a result of propagandizing by Mr. Obama. No American would ever stop respecting his betters unless he was brainwashed into it. (Frank, October 4, 2012)

Frank does not exaggerate. Here is Richard Weaver (1964/1995), relying on Goethe’s description of a tranquil German village, generalizing to patronize the poor everywhere, but especially in the United States:

The classes thrived on a mutual dependence, and the principle of distinction, far from being felt as invidious, was the cement that held the whole together. One senses the kind of satisfaction that was felt in seeing different kinds of people to the right and left of one and, since it is in the nature of things, above and below. Not to be overlooked is the fact that a "lowest" class often finds satisfaction in knowing itself "superior" to other classes in certain respects—in hardihood, in industry, or in religiousness. (Weaver, 1964/1995, p. 17)

There is, almost, too much to address in Weaver’s view of the poor. Weaver (1964/1995) does not review possible alternative explanations for the supposedly tranquil nature of German society; his argument simply proceeds from 1) they have stratification, to 2) that is why they are happy. Nor do we have anything like an adequate perspective on that society; for this, we only have Goethe's, who, in his autobiography, is apparently permitted to speak authoritatively for everyone in his society, as if he knew—or could reliably know—their inner thoughts. Reference to the 'lowest' class comes almost as an afterthought and in a patronizing way: they are religious, or they are hardy, or they are hard-working (and, it seems, poorly rewarded for their hard work), as if these virtues would not befit someone of higher standing, and as if we can be assured, simply because Goethe says so, that such virtues are indeed adequate compensation for their lot in life (Weaver, 1964/1995).1

In general, as I note in my dissertation,

[Traditionalist conservatives] seem to value only one linguistic, historical, and religious heritage, and with Richard Weaver’s (1964/1995) tyrannizing image they assign members of that heritage a privileged status in society. Traditionalists are unsubtly authoritarian, albeit at a radically decentralized, local level, “insist[ing] on the right of the better to command the worse, however conceived, against the revolutionary claim that no one has the inherent authority to rule anyone else” (Goldman, 2012, p. 37). I see woefully few clear means of differentiating the “better” from the “worse” other than Weaver’s tyrannizing image, however; and those who have power are apparently in charge because the god of Abraham put them there (Kirk, 1985/2001; Weaver, 1964/1995). Russell Kirk writes nostalgically of the squire, a feudal landlord, and “he parson, a preacher. He disparages democracy and praises the U.S. Constitution for qualities that limit democracy. With a frequency that seems out of place for an event that occurred hundreds of years ago, traditionalist conservatives express an apoplectic view of the French Revolution that upset the medieval order and sought to impose equalitarianism (Attarian, January 12, 2009; Blum, 2006; Goldman, 2012; Kirk, 1985/2001; Livingston, 2011; Mattie, 2003/2008; Preece, 1980; Radasanu, 2011; Weaver, 1964/1995).2

Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and T. S. Eliot each strongly disparage not social inequality, but rather those malcontents whom they blame for introducing unrest and thus destabilizing the "natural order" of their god's "plan."3 Thus their apocalyptic view of the French Revolution, in which the elites who are elites because the traditionalist god made them elites were overthrown by their "lessers" who are "lessers" because the traditionalist god made them "lesser."

So have we got all that? Now check out this passage from a book review in the American Conservative, a publication which labels itself 'reform conservative,' but failing a persuasive distinction from traditionalist conservatism, I have treated as traditionalist conservative. This book review is of Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deneen, who refers not to liberalism as most people have understood it since the New Deal, but rather "classical liberalism" which, of conservative tendencies, most resembles capitalist libertarianism in economic, but not so much social, respects:

Deneen makes a particularly important, and commonly misunderstood, point in the following passage: “The ‘Noble Lie’ of liberalism is shattering because it continues to be believed and defended by those who benefit from it, while it is increasingly seen as a lie, and not an especially noble one, by the new servant class that liberalism has produced…But liberalism’s apologists regard pervasive discontent, political dysfunction, economic inequality, civic disconnection, and populist rejection as accidental problems disconnected from systemic causes, because their self-deception is generated by enormous reservoirs of self-interest in the maintenance of the present system.”4

These two views of authoritarian hierarchy simply do not go together. But even more significantly, the recognition that transitory "accidental problems disconnected from systemic causes" might undermine an idea as important to conservatism as capitalist libertarianism simply cannot be reconciled with Weaver's valorization of ideas over temporal evidence.5 If, then, we accept this review6 as an expression of 'reform' rather than traditionalist conservatism, we see an acceptance of the very type of evidence that Weaver was least inclined to accept at a cost to the very type of evidence he was most inclined to accept:

Proto-liberals such as Locke and Jefferson and modern liberals such as Mises and Rawls have all started from a similar place: we are first and foremost human atoms who only need to “contract” into social groups insofar as it is to our advantage. As Deneen notes, “Even marriage, Locke holds, is finally to be understood as a contract whose conditions are temporary and subject to revision…” Or, as Mises put it, “The fundamental facts that brought about cooperation, society, and civilization and transformed the animal man into a human being are the facts that work performed under the division of labor is more productive than isolated work and that man’s reason is capable of recognizing this truth.”

Anyone of a religious bent would surely object to the idea that humans only get along with each other because they realize output will be higher if they do so. But one need not be religious to see that Mises is spouting nonsense: humans (and proto-humans) lived together in tight-knit social groups long before they could have been calculating the advantages of the division of labor. There never were “isolated…self-sufficient individuals” with which they could compare their “output” as members of a group. Isolated humans were dead humans, not self-sufficient humans. And our chimpanzee, bonobo, and gorilla relatives also live in tight-knit social groups, as do many other animals.7

This is nonetheless an evolution rather than the introduction of a radically distinct tendency. Yes, Gene Callahan, the review's author, appeals to religious (social and traditionalist) conservatism in pointing to what he sees as Ludwig von Mises' nonsense, but he relies not on a fundamentalist Biblical view, but rather an anthropological and archaeological understanding of Ice Age humans. But he also appeals strongly to another traditionalist value: community. That makes this a departure from traditionalism but only partly a renunciation. So yes, there is an argument here for recognition of 'reform' conservatism as a distinct tendency, but like other tendencies, it has overlaps with other tendencies.