Thanks to a provocative article title, a little while ago I found myself on the unfamiliar webpage of The American Conservative.
It’s an alien place, where, in the manner of an 18th century salon conversation, sincere hierarchists present erudite justifications for all manner of political and social injustices.
The article that drew me to this font of evil is titled “Right Minds: What sets conservatives apart from authoritarians and fascists?” Officially a review of left-leaning Corey Robin’s book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Samuel Goldwin’s article is really a short history of rational conservatism.
Its primary purpose, as the article’s title indicates, appears to be to reassure thoughtful conservatives (perhaps common enough in other countries, but gravely endangered in the United States, and on the extinction watch list in Canada) that their political philosophy of choice does not automatically make them the selfish despots that their liberal opponents believe them to be.
This really isn’t alien territory for me, at least in the sense that I’m familiar with the basic tenets of historical conservatism, including the Archangel Burke. I’ve read more than a little Hobbes, and even Aristotle’s Politics.
What’s new is the fact that, in the current political climate, a conservative writer feels the necessity to reassure his fellow travellers that they’re not the one-dimensional monsters others accuse them of being. It’s ok, guys, we have a noble tradition of rational philosophy to justify our anti-egalitarian ideals. No need for guilt, or reform, or reparation. Just relax.
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Goldwin’s tone is much more formal than the last paragraph suggests. He takes seriously his responsibility to act as rational conservatism’s apologist. Fairness requires a short and objective summary of his position, before I get to the criticism and moral indignation.
Goldwin approvingly cites Robin’s characterization that conservatism “provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity.”
The flexibility and power of the conservative ideology, in his view, comes from the fact that the structure of this argument can be preserved even as the identity of the “lower orders” changes. What’s important is that conservatives insist 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.
He writes that “classical conservatism is a coherent theory of opposition to the French Revolution and its consequences. And it does insist on hierarchy in human affairs, both public and private.” He ties this basic principle to Burke’s assertion that we are not born “free”; rather, “human beings are born into networks of sympathy, obligation, and authority.”
If the social arrangements that characterize national communities are background conditions of humanity, they are not legitimatized by the consent of those who participate in them at any given time. Instead, they derive their authority from they way that they bind together past, present, and future in an enduring partnership. It follows that men and women of today have no right to dissolve the partnership in which they are involved merely because it seems inconvenient to them. Society, which always means a particular society, is an “entailed inheritance,” like a landed estate whose owner is legally prohibited from selling.
Goldwin writes that the “real issue” with the French Revolution “was the Revolution’s implicit aim of establishing a condition in which nobody would obey anyone else unless he agreed to do so.” The conservative mind recoils: “This aspiration, the conservatives insisted, was not merely unwise, but actually insane.”
However, and here he turns to the issue in his article’s title, Goldwin argues that “the counterrevolutionaries were not simply authoritarians.” He explains that ” the classical conservatives insisted that only certain persons are in a position to develop the skills and habits that fit them for rule, not for their personal enjoyment, but rather to secure the common good that is available only when men acknowledge the distinctions that God and nature have established.”
And it is the network of overlapping obligations that keeps rational conservatism from despotism: “Power was to be constrained by the complex structure of relationships that make up a whole society.” Although a ruler’s will must be obeyed, “Religion, laws, customs, opinion, and class and corporate privileges restrain the sovereign and prevent him from abusing his power…”
And turning to the other comparison in the title, Goldwin argues:
The insistence that power be embedded in restraining traditions and institutions is the crucial distinction between classical conservatism and the fascism that would eventually replace it on the European right. Conservatism defends the authority of lords, of generals, of kings—but not of a “leader” who emerges from and rules over the disorganized mob.
It is interesting how much Goldwin wishes to distance “classical conservatism” from contemporary American right-wing politics. He writes: “What does this backward-looking, theologically inflected ideology of hierarchy have to with the contemporary America conservative movement? The answer is: not much.”
The twist comes when Goldwin asserts that the key difference is that today’s “conservatives” — especially the libertarians — are irremediably tainted by the false ideology of individualism:
The concept of individual rights imposes an unbridgeable theoretical gap between the two positions. Classical conservatism is essentially communitarian, and locates individuals in structures of obligation that are not derived from their choice or consent. The American conservative movement, on the other hand, appeals to many of same beliefs about natural freedom and equality that inspired the French Revolution.
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My reaction to this article reminds me of how some of my students used to reject the similar themes of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (For an intellectual mischief-maker like me, the opportunity for involved objection was one of the principal attractions of the play.)
In that short, symbolic fantasy, Shakespeare anticipated all of the important ideas of classical conservatism.
A conservative reading of The Tempest shows us that leaders have great privilege solely as a means to fulfill great responsibilities. Rather than fight against the social order, our correct action is to accept it, to see its essential rightness. Rebellion by the “lower classes” is thoughtless and chaotic and, in the end, is an action against the best interests of the upstarts. Real contentment, beauty, and truth emerge only from harmony and order. Disruption of the legitimate constraints imposed by society violates the just and beneficial hierarchies that God provided for our benefit.
From the point of view of the elites, these are all reasonable, even self-evident truths. And in this catalogue of rational insights one can see how distressed Goldwin must be with the chaotic, inconsistent, and often thoughtless politics of the American right. Messy, messy, messy. Where did the well-expressed and attractive principles go? How embarrassing it must be for a thinking conservative to be associated with this rabble. No wonder David Brooks so often looks so uncomfortable.
And yet, where are the discomfort and embarrassment in living in the 21st century yet still speaking in terms like “the lower orders,” and in feeling no shame at regretting the good old days, when the mob knew its place?
In the end, then, despite the coolly academic tone and the clear writing, The American Conservative really is an alien place. It’s not the planet on which I live, and its denizens are not creatures that I recognize easily as con-specifics.
I don’t think that I’ll be visiting there again anytime soon.