Monday, February 15, 2010

A Few Thoughts On Russell Kirk

My recent post on conservatives and their fear-based politics drew a response from a commenter who took exception to my characterization, although it seems clear to me that he or she is not really a conservative in any meaningful sense of the word, although, as I make clear below, I do not think that that conservatism is actually a meaningful description at all. (If Stalin and Goldwater can both be considered conservative- and they can- then I doubt the term is very useful.) The commenter directed me to conservative icon Russell Kirk's Ten Conservative Principles and asked for my thoughts. So I've excepted a few quotes, along with my thoughts. (I encourage you to read the whole thing, if for no other reason than to ensure I'm not cherry-picking).
In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night. (Yet conservatives know, with Burke, that healthy “change is the means of our preservation.”) 
One could paraphrase this by saying that conservativism is an ideology whose adherents oppose change, unless it's change they want. I cannot think of a more meaningless statement.
"Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know." 
This is a stunning lack of imagination. No doubt this preference has been used to justify the continuation of things like slavery, debtor's prisons, the denial of universal suffrage, Jim Crow, and so forth. Currently it is being used to rationalize an insanely unjust war on drugs.

This ideology, furthermore, is used as an excuse to perpetuate the status quo. If you believe in an American aristocracy, than this is the ideology for you. Of course, conservatism, while sold as a cultural or moral philosophy, is actually based on the perpetuation of power.
"Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. " 
Therefore, no matter how unjust and immoral our society has become, we will not change it. Notice the inherent contradiction: Our fantastic society was only achieved by centuries of trying new things, and thinking hard about what can and should be done, and then making sacrifices to achieve these goals. Therefore, we should stop trying new things, stop thinking, and become afraid of the sacrifices which change requires.
"Thus the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls. Human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically. The continuity, the life-blood, of a society must not be interrupted." 
This is a stretch, and a non-sequitur to boot- not so much an argument based on fact as a collection of emotionally appealing words designed to convince people that change is bad.
"Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste." 
I'm sure this was a popular argument back when slavery was still legal.
"The individual is foolish, but the species is wise, Burke declared." 
This is an appeal to authority. And Burke is not an authority.
"In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality." 
This is more of the same self-fulfilling nonsense. I realize that the prejudice he is referring to is of a more general kind, but this justifies racial prejudice as well. There is no doubt that at times humans are forced to resort to prejudicial action in the absence of other means of making decisions, but this should be as a last resort, and we should never use it as an excuse to stop acquiring wisdom and greater understanding.
"Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues." 
Again, Kirk posits this appeal to authority as fact. But why not justice, or courage, or hope, or love or charity?
"Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious." 
I couldn't agree more, and yet it flies in the face of conservative/free-market ideology. The real world consequences of which have been shown in graphic detail over the last two years. The abject failure of the free market is apparent to all, yet the conservative response is that either 

A) although human society is too complex to fathom, we nonetheless believe that there is one economic theory that can describe the way it works


B) It's too hard, just let them do whatever they want.
"The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences." 
The liberal says this too. This is meaningless.
They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. 
I have no doubt that if you came from a wealthy Connecticut family, whose wealth has been accumulated over the centuries, often at the expense of others, and your position in the social elite was firmly set, that you, too, would have an affection for keeping things they way they are. And I'm sure that losing your exalted status in the meritocracy aristocracy would seem rather deadening.

But to me, it seems rather self serving.
"For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality." 
This "diversity" will no doubt continue to exist in some form, because it's impossible to eradicate. But that does not make it desirable. This "principle" is nothing more than a way for people to justify looking the other way, and ignoring Christianity's most important social directive, to love your neighbor as yourself.

Is there any level of political and material inequity that is unacceptable? I do not ask this rhetorically. Would conservatives find it acceptable if ten people on earth held 99% of the political power and wealth? If not, then where is the line? And who decides what it is? Please explain.
"The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at leveling must lead, at best, to social stagnation." 
Equality at the last judgement in no way precludes a desire for equality here on earth. And what is a "just" court of law? Here's the disconcerting answer: there is no such thing. Even the most impartial judge is bound by laws written by man; these laws are always written by those in power; in other words, by those with a prevailing interest in the status quo. So unless you define justice as "whatever those in power want", you're not finding just courts of law around here.
"Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality." 
So-we can never change. A prefect rationale for keeping Fidel Castro in office.
Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. 
So let's just give up. Besides, giving up works out really well for those of us in power. I can imagine this on an ancient Egyptian campaign poster. Or maybe not, since democracy is a liberal idea and hadn't been invented then.
"All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk." 
Yes, we know that this terribly inequitable system is flawed, and that evils and suffering will continue. But it won't feel so bad if you just accept it. Ah, the tyranny of lowered expectations.
"The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell." 
True enough, but consider

A) No one is contemplating a return to totalitarian communism, which is antithetical towards liberalism (but perfectly compatible with conservatism)

B) If I point out that communism was never intended to veer towards totalitarianism, you will rightly respond that those consequences should have been foreseen. But the same could be said for conservatism's neo-con transformation, which has resulted in similar excesses.

C) The entire trajectory of human history has been non-conservative by definition. Sure, communism was a bad experiment. But if we never tried anything, we would still be living under global rule by Pharaoh.
"Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built." 
Ok, so let's debate what private property is. Liberals would say that since society is instrumental in the creation of wealth it should have some claim on it. Conservatives either (wrongly) say that they alone are responsible for everything they have, or (naturally) say "F--k you, I got mine."
"The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth. Economic leveling, conservatives maintain, is not economic progress." 
These are two contradictory statements. On the one hand, the more widespread is the possession of property, the more stable and productive the economy. One the other hand, making the possession of property more widespread is not good for the economy. Seriously, did Kirk have an editor?
"Whatever is beneficent and prudent in modern democracy is made possible through cooperative volition. " 
This is simply not true. And you know it's not true. Let's talk about some things I would consider beneficent and prudent in a modern democracy, that are simply not going to exist through "cooperative volition."
  • Sewer systems 
  • Military 
  • Public health 
  • Fire departments 
  • Police 

I could go on, but I really only need one exception.

This is not to say that I don't think things shouldn't be done as locally as possible in many circumstances. I do. But this is not some hard and fast rule. Each situation is different. It requires us to think, and to use our imaginations. These, of course, are not conservative traits, so maybe this is why Kirk favors making rules and sticking with them, even when they fly in the face of all available evidence.
"Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions." 
So do I, as a liberal.
"A state in which an individual or a small group are able to dominate the wills of their fellows without check is a despotism, whether it is called monarchical or aristocratic or democratic." 
Just to be clear, conservatism leads naturally to an aristocracy.
"In every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage." 
The Founding Fathers come to mind. Surely Kirk will think of this.
" In the name of liberty, the French and Russian revolutionaries abolished the old restraints upon power; but power cannot be abolished; it always finds its way into someone’s hands." 
But no. He conveniently forget that most liberal of experiments, the founding of America, and focusses on two experiments that failed to varying degrees.
Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order. 
And these things would have never existed if not for radicals like our founding fathers, or the long history of Western experimentation with radical, liberal concepts like democracy.
"Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society." 
So forget everything up to now. Change is good.
"The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old." 
So progressivism is good, as long as you don't believe in change just for change's sake.

Well, I don't.

I have a long list of changes that I would like to see, and they are because I would like to make our society better. They are not because I am bored.

As an philosophy, conservatism is nonsense. It requires you to believe either that

A) at all times in human history, things were as good as they would ever be.


B) things were never as good as they are right now, at this very instant, and they will never be better.

In other words, conservatism has been and always will be wrong, but, nevertheless, at this precise moment, it is right.

Or, if not that, then Kirk's philosophy is " I really like the way things are. I don't want to change anything. Of course some people do want change, because they don't like the way things are. In order to pacify them, I will say that change is ok, as long as it's good change. And good change is any change that I approve of."

I don't see a philosophy here.

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