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  • Writer's pictureJordan Perkins

On Conservatism

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

[I have occasionally been asked to provide a copy of a Twitter thread I wrote roughly a year and a half ago attempting to provide a typology of 'conservative' political thought. I still believe that there is no such thing as a single, coherent 'conservative tradition,' at least in the United States, and that what we think of as conservatism is instead a set of family resemblances amongst a body of political theories which are ultimately bound together by their opposition to another nexus of political theories: Enlightenment rationalism, the concept of a list of liberal rights as absolute trumps over the use of state power to effectuate otherwise legitimate ends, and so on. While I no longer fully agree with the typology, I reproduce the thread, reformatted into paragraphs, below.]

I’ve been dabbling with the idea of writing an academic paper (which would be somewhere around 10th on my to-do writing list) on the archetypes of contemporary western conservatism. So, as is my custom, I’ll start with a twitter thread and see how it goes. I think there are probably four primary families of conservative theory of practical salience, combining real-world politics and political theory: for lack of better terms, I would call them Trumpism, Oakeshottianism, classical liberalism and antiliberalism.

Trumpism (and again, I’m merely stipulating a label) is the one most concerned with pejorative uses of ‘conservative’ in American political discourse. It’s the conservatism of the rhetoric, if not the reality, of the MAGA movement. It is concerned with a reverence for, and desire to return to, a past in which American society worked, basically, the way it should. MAGA. The economy was rapidly growing, unemployment was low, social order was relatively stable. American power on the world stage and greatness of vision was historically unparalleled. The ‘good old days,’ from this perspective, were probably the 1950s and early 1960s.

There are at least two forms of intellectual bankruptcy, I think, behind this form of conservatism. First, because the past is only ever ‘great’ from the fuzziness of a distance in which we can paper over what was wrong in favor of what was right. Most importantly, the social harmony of the ‘great’ period was born largely of the active oppression of large sectors of society which were incapable of making their grievances known in a form of much institutional salience. There was ‘harmony’ and ‘prosperity’ only because the voices which would diverge from that point of view were effectively silenced. America’s preeminence on the world stage was at least as much due to the devastation wrought upon the other great powers through the horrors of the world wars as it was anything intrinsic to American ‘greatness.’ In short, the past really wasn’t that great.

Second, as Nietzsche would point out with regard to the greatness of classical civilization, the past, however great it might have been, is not a place we can return to. We aren’t socially or spiritually the people who lived there. Their institutions, their ways of thinking, their forms of life are not and cannot be ours. What I’m discussing here is a perverse version of what, borrowing again from Nietzsche, we might call antiquarian history: the reverence for what once was simply because it is old and gone, and not because it’s in any way valuable.

So much for Trumpism. If Trumpism is reverence for the past, Oakeshottianism is reverence for the present, a strong bias for the status quo as compared against the new. Oakeshott was clear that we value the people, communities, institutions, and forms of life we have because they are ours. We are familiar with them. We understand them. We know how to work with and within them. The way of living we already possess, so long as it is not disastrously oppressive, provides the substratum in which each of us pursues our own life plans and our own conceptions of the good.

Oakeshott valued the status quo for these reasons, but also for reasons of uncertainty: when tinkering with the medium through which social life occurs, the swallowing of intended consequences by the unintended is the rule, not the exception. Maybe, in themselves, the sum of these changes would be good, and maybe not. Even if they would be, there’s an implicit and great cost associated with them: they are not yet familiar. Like an artisan whose familiar tools have been taken from him and replaced with radically unfamiliar ones meant to do the same job, our ability to meaningfully pursue what we want in the world will be impaired by our mere unfamiliarity with the ‘new’ we create.

Oakeshottianism, unlike Trumpism, is a reasonably coherent and somewhat worthwhile political theory. Almost all that is ‘good’ about American conservatism probably comes from an Oakeshottian state of mind. But there’s a sense in which it isn’t really ‘conservative.’ It’s thoroughly Enlightenment liberal in its presupposition that human beings are more-or-less atomistic beings, free to pursue their own ends so they wish so long as they do not violate the rules of the game. This comes from Oakeshott’s premise that human beings, like our institutions, must be taken as we find them, and, for better or worse, the liberal Enlightenment worldview is the one we inherited and possess. Thus, it isn’t a true antithesis to ‘liberalism’ in the way that ‘conservatism’ is generally supposed to be. It exists in the family tree of liberal theory relatively close to, say, Rawls, disconnected from post-Enlightenment criticism of the liberal order. Importantly, Oakeshott was clear that his vision of conservatism was not based on any family of political doctrine—not natural law respect for liberty and private property, for example. It was a disposition toward problem-solving, not, on his understanding, an ideology. That’s what separates Oakeshottianism from classical liberalism or libertarianism, a ‘right’ or ‘conservative’ species of liberal ideology.

‘Classical liberalism,’ is, as the name suggests, a species of liberal theory which was, roughly, born in the 17th century, in the aftermath of the English Civil War, and which reached fruition in the French and American Revolutions of the 18th century. It is self-reflectively a liberal ideology albeit one that those who we would today call ‘liberals’ or ‘progressives’ left behind around a century ago. Its primary ideological commitments include, at least: (1) a social contract tradition of individual atomism, such that individuals can take or leave social institutions at their pleasure, based on whether they advance or detract from their self-interest; (2) A hyper-rationalized conception of political morality, which seeks the destruction of social institutions, however ancient, that do not cohere with its ideological tenets; (3) a near-sacrosanct respect for private property as a pre-political institution; And (4) a conception of fundamental human equality which leaves democracy as the only true principle of political legitimation.

Classical liberals are ideologues, pure and simple. They are rationalists, in Oakeshott’s sense: they derive their principles of political action from this set of ideological commitments (as well as other, ancillary ones) with little ultimate regard for whether they are feasible rr whether the place that the principles lead entails a radical reformation of human institutions as they already exist. They have a conception of the good, and, like other ideologues, they wish to remake the institutions of civil society so as to effectuate it. It should go without saying that classical liberals are not in any meaningful sense ‘conservative.’ They’re economically right-wing and opposed on that front to progressives and contemporary liberals, but calling them ‘conservative’ falsely adheres to a conservative/liberal dichotomy.

That brings us to antiliberalism. If ‘conservatism’ is really a subspecies of liberal theory, antiliberal thought is more a direct antithesis. If Trumpists wish that society could have been forever maintained at a prior moment in the history of post-Enlightenment liberal theory, Oakeshottians wish to preserve the present state of society, and classical liberals wish to preserve for all time the ideological commitments (if not the institutional machinery) of the Enlightenment, antiliberals reject all of the above as the illegitimate children of Enlightenment liberalism. They understand the liberal ideological commitments of the Enlightenment as themselves rotten. Antiliberalism, as I understand it, has a fairly ecumenical basis in western political theory. It owes its origins to ideological traditions which predate liberalism, in primarily Aristotle and Aquinas, but also, arguably, Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, and others.

The core of antiliberalism, I think, is the notion that the atomistic individualism of liberal theory is pernicious: Human beings, as both Aristotle and de Maistre put at the central of their political thought, are social creatures, who can live fully ‘human’ lives only in a society. Social institutions are not to be selected from a menu of options at will. Individuals are inculcated from early childhood into the norms and traditions of a society. A society’s job is not to accept all forms of individual difference and work around it, but to actively work at reshaping individuals into productive and content members of the society they inhabit. There’s a clear connection to virtue ethics and perfectionism in moral philosophy, as the inculcation of virtue is seen as one of the core jobs of social institutions.

Morality is not something to be deduced from first principles, but to be drawn from the experience of living together harmoniously with others in a society, a matter of experience which is largely contingent to the particular society an individual inhabits. (And since different societies have different norms and institutions, membership in a society, contra the liberal tradition, is not something to taken up or abandoned haphazardly; individuals are educated to be productive members of a particular set of social institutions, to be citizens of this society and not others.)

A key feature of many important modern antiliberal thinkers is also decisionism: While liberal rationalism places faith in the idea that individuals can be governed by moral and legal principles which can be applied by anyone with decently functioning rational faculties, Antiliberals understand that moral, political, and legal conflict is unavoidable for people with different interests, backgrounds, and points of view, and that no set of neutral principles can dispositively settle these conflicts based on the workings of pure reason.

Antiliberals recognize, unlike Trumpians, that there was no stable past that we were shaken out of by some sort of pernicious and exogenous forces, and, unlike classical liberals, that the principles of the liberal Enlightement are not universally and pre-politically true. They tend to believe that liberalism itself is a source of radical social instability, borne out by the French Revolutionary Wars, the World Wars, and the general decay in social institutions as discussed by e.g. Robert Putnam (a decidedly non-antiliberal scholar). Like Oakeshottians, antiliberals accept that change is inevitable, that there is no institutional or ideological bedrock meant to last forever. But unlike Oakeshottians, they are not willing to accept liberalism as a precondition for contemporary life.

It should be pretty clear that there are overlapping features and differences between all four families of conservative theory. The key point is that academics who try and fail to understand modern conservative ideology simply haven’t been willing to understand the complexity of the set of traditions which make up ‘conservatism.’

[NB: I should have made clearer at the time the these are, basically, rough archetypes, more or less internally coherent strands of ideology which factor into conservative political theory. So, while there are clear differences between, say, Locke and Mill, they're each likely to be drawn upon by contemporary 'conservatives' appealing to a classical liberal framework due to similar commitments which separate them from both other strands of conservatism and from other political traditions. I would similarly argue that there are recurring patterns of affinity between conservatives in the antiliberal mode, such as Joseph de Maistre, Patrick Devlin, and Carl Schmitt. A fuller elaboration would discuss how different archetypes tend to address certain contemporary issues, such as, perhaps, the relationship between church and state and immigration, differently, and how they may relate differently to certain core issues in political theory, such as individual rights protection, the value of majoritarian participation in the political process, the social contractarian mode of political legitimation, and so on. Having moved on to other topics, I am unlikely to address these issues systematically in the near future.]

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