Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The End of Conservatism, Again

Sam Tanenhaus's long, historically informed, analytically sharp history of the conservative movement's emergence, triumphs, breakdowns, and most recent collapse in The New Republic may not become required reading amongst the many hundreds (thousands?) of pundits, bloggers, scholars, and just interested observers out there involved in the ongoing "whither conservatism?" debate, but perhaps it ought to be. It's not perfect; there are some points I would dispute and some matters of significance I think Tanenhaus elides, and I mention a couple below. But I learned a good deal from it, and I doubt there any many people out there--and I certainly doubt there are many, if any, readers of this blog--about whom the same couldn't be said. Tanenhaus has long been about as informed and literate a commentator on the entwining of politics and ideas in American history as anyone else I can think of; if for no other reason, you owe it to yourself to read through it, to see how he puts it all together.

The essence of Tanenhaus's thesis, which plays out across an ideological history which most who have read anything about conservatism know the basics of (Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, etc.), can, I think, be pretty much summed up by the following statement: modern conservatism (meaning, the conservatism that formed around Burke's legacy in Britain during the 19th century, the conservatism that takes its bearings from the French Revolution), whenever it has attempted to be something more than an Oakeshottian disposition, whenever it has attempted to address modern life as a political ideology, has been troubled by capitalism. Which should be apparent to anyone who understands either the basics of capitalist economics or the fundamental meanings of words. After all, what kind of social order can be "conserved" in conjunction with a market economy that encourages the evolution of tastes, the invention of labor-saving devices, the expansion of opportunities, the shifting of investments, the move to mass production, and all the other elements of that "creative destruction" which bring about so much diversification and wealth (and corruption)? Certainly not one that can be left to its own devices! Which is why Tanenhaus points to Benjamin Disraeli as the truly quintessential conservative (not to mention having been a hero to Whittaker Chambers, perhaps Tanenhaus's own personal hero).

There's more which can be said here than Tanenhau's essay allows. I would argue that Disraeli, besides recognizing that modern technology and the market economy were transforming the relations between the classes, besides recognizing the social and cultural costs of a rapidly expanding socio-economic whirlwind which was uprooting the farmers and concentrating new wealth and power in the commercial and trading and financial classes who congregated in the cities, besides, in response to all this, pushing forward--for eminently conservative reasons--policies favorable to trade unions, to public education, to improved worker conditions and so forth, grasped what may be the most important practical conservative ideological contribution to modern democratic life: the need act against an over-reliance upon the self-interest and individualism which liberal freedoms and market imperatives generate, and promulgate in its place a "One Nation" conservatism, wherein a shared cultural heritage is seen as something which requires collective action to be adequately tended to. For Disraeli himself, this required some kind of Tory-radical alliance (what some of his later followers called "Tory Democracy,"), but I see the same sort of thing in Canada's Red Tory tradition, and in elements of Progressive thought in the United States at the turn of the century. The Progressives are rarely understood as conservatives, and of course for the most part they weren't...except for the fact that, however one may criticize their specific policies (and there is plenty to criticize there, don't misunderstand me), they had borrowed from many of the radical Populists of the 19th century, and they carried forward well into the 20th (to some degree all the way up to and through the New Deal) a sense that helping the poor, that responding to deprivation and the accidents and harms of complex economic world in which so much power has been removed from the hands of the working class, was primarily about creating a national community that all could more fully be a part of, rather than an open field everyone would be equally free to run wild (and run over their neighbors, if they saw fit to do so).

Tanenhaus acknowledges this much, pointing out how, at a certain point in the history of the American conservative movement, thinkers and writers like Daniel Moynihan, Daniel Bell, and Irving Kristol were able to recognize in early 20th century liberals like Herbert Croly "reformers with essentially conservative goals." That conservative goal, obviously, required a sensible use of the state to achieve, which during the mid- to late-1960s, Tanenhaus believes many American conservatives were recognizing:

Buckley had begun to give serious thought to Chambers's equation: "how much to give in order not to give up the basic principles"...[A]mid the upheavals of the '60s citizens wanted government--specifically the federal government--to exert the authority Burke and Disraeli had claimed for it. It made no sense for conservatives to attack "statism" when it was institutions of "the State" that formed the bedrock of civil society. In 1967, when Reagan, soon after his election [as governor of California], was being accused of having sold out his anti-government principles--not least because he had submitted the highest budget in state history--Buckley wondered what exactly critics expected Reagan to do, "padlock the state treasury and give speeches on the Liberty amendment?"

That anti-government sensibility had, of course, always been part of the American conservative movement, that part of it which was always more interest in conserving classical liberal (or libertarian) freedoms than in actually ever conserving an order or way or life. This, obviously, touches on Alasdair McIntyre's well-known point that in America, politics is a family squabble between radical liberals, conservative liberals, and liberal liberals--no actual conservatives can be found. In a sense, this is unfair: amongst the Populists of the 19th century, the Southern Agrarians of the early 20th, and the various disorganized (but on the internet, quite loud) radical reactionaries of today, there are true antiliberals conservatives to be found. But of course, mixed in with that antiliberalism have been innumerable localist, socialist, agrarian and communitarian strands of thought. I should know: I hunt them down wherever I can find them, because they're what I find most inspiring and truthful when it comes to political and social matters, not to mention moral ones. But note I said "inspiring and truthful"; not "workable." Unless one truly wishes to embrace an angry dissidence, one has to accept and learn to appreciate one's own place, and the place of American conservatives is within the thoroughly liberal political order we enjoy. That means finding, as Disraeli did, some way of articulating and acting upon conservative priorities in a manner that rides and makes use of the liberal wave which has continued mostly unstopped ever since the revolutionary days of the late 1700s. Christian social democracy, One Nation Conservatism, Red Toryism, the Progressives: whatever form that way makes, it invariably involves a liberal state which ultimately is justified so long as it wields power on behalf of individuals rights and interests. The fact that so much conservative good can be done through such innovative policy-making should be seen as remarkable, not as a compromised to be brushed aside.

But, in Tanenhaus's reading, it was brushed aside, as the era of Richard Nixon, Watergate, and Vietnam made polarization an attractive option, for liberals and conservatives alike. I think Tanenhaus does an excellent job succinctly describing how the Great Society, crowded with the "best and the brightest" of the postwar world, effectively forgot about, or even undermined, the conservative/Progressive elements of the New Deal as the 60s carried on into the 70s:

The [New Deal] had been a response to an economic emergency. A fearful public had been clamoring for help, and the government had met it responsibly. But the Great Society was developed at a time of supreme confidence among the governing class, who were convinced they could pre-emptively cure ills invisible to others. Policy intellectuals had moved ahead of the public--perhaps too far ahead. The "war on poverty was not declared at the behest of the poor," Moynihan wrote in the first issue of The Public Interest in 1965. "Just the opposite. The poor were not only invisible .. . they were also silent." Coal miners in the Appalachians, the first targeted beneficiaries, "were desperately poor, shockingly unemployed, but neither radical nor in any significant way restive"....The poor--believers in the American dream, content to struggle upward on their own--had become "a project" for technocrats intoxicated with nostalgie de la boue. In his book Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, Moynihan--disillusioned with the programs he helped instate--ridiculed the pretensions of social scientists, "who love poor people [and] ... get along fine with rich people" but "do not have much time for the people in between." "In particular," he wrote, "they would appear to have but little sympathy with the desire for order, and anxiety about change, that are commonly encountered among working-class and lower middle-class persons. The privileged children of the upper middle classes more and more devoted themselves, in the name of helping the oppressed, to outraging the people in between."

Anyone who has read Christopher Lasch is familiar with this argument, how a "new class" of American elites unwittingly (or wittingly, helped along by the righteous and tragically necessary struggle against racism and segregation in the South) heaped contempt upon the "authoritarian" middle-class morality that had inculcated the same respect for personal sovereignty and a particular way of life which previous reforming movements had brought into their coalitions. And that, of course, set the course of a conservative movement based on resentment and a rabid, anti-intellectual and narrowly libertarian American patriotism, in which property rights and flag-waving trumped all. For a religious believer like myself, perhaps the most frustrating part of this story was how the excesses of a liberalism of personal autonomy--establishment liberalism shorn of its connection to (and electoral dependency upon) the particular places and histories and beliefs which make up our national culture--drove so many people of faith into believing that the Democrats were the party of "acid, amnesty, and abortion," and feeling like the Republicans were the only party of responsibility around. Say something like that often enough, long enough, and folks on both sides will believe it's always been true.

Well, I've gone on with this too long. As I said, it's not perfect; I see problems with it. Tanenhaus is far too quick to assimilate Burke into Disraeli's canny 19th-century compromise with liberalism; as open to the possibilities of the modern world as Burke plainly was, and as wise as he was about the bedrock importance of social stability, it's wrong to allege, as Tanenhaus does, that Burke didn't seek to justify the ancien regime; read what he has to say in Reflections on the Revolution in France about the awesome gratitude he felt at having once been privy to meet the Queen of France in person. And also, Tanenhaus doesn't, I think, grap the full significance which Lasch found in the "new class"; he seems to believe that the complaint had a limited legitimacy, in its applicability to social reformers in the 1960s, but that it was mere demagoguery by the time Kristol--who soon repented of his innovative ideas and embrace the modern conservative movement in its most simplistic form--was railing against scientists, teachers, journalists, city planners, community activists, and so forth. Demagoguery it may have been, but that doesn't mean that a great many of those who hold those positions haven't absorbed elements of a placeless cosmopolitan liberalism which makes them, whether they know it or not, part of the establishment which any proper conservative-radical alliance needs to be on the watch against. And, of course, there's also a whole lot more to the story than Tanenhaus brings in (like, say, the whole Cold War). But enough of me. There have already been a fair number of obituaries written for the conservative movement since Obama's election, and there are likely a fair number more to be written yet. But don't miss this one, if you care about this stuff; it's worth your time.

Update: I barely finish this off, and I find that Damon has already, and typically, found some much more pointed things to say about the essay than I did, in probably less than half as many words. Do check out his thoughts, though I take exception to one of them. He writes that:

[T]he very closeness between [Andrew] Sullivan's and Tanenhaus's form of conservatism raises doubts of my own about its viability as a conservative governing philosophy....I admire the conservatism described and defended by Sullivan and Tanenhaus (and Michael Oakeshott), but it's a personal philosophy, a habit of mind or soul, a style of judgment, a disposition or temperament, not a political philosophy. Example: Sullivan, who considers himself a conservative in this sense, strongly supported Obama, whom he also considers to be a conservative. But of course when it comes to policy, Obama is not a conservative at all. He's a liberal. Tanenhaus thus seems to be saying something like: Conservatives need to be more like Obama. If that means they should be cautious, intelligent, reflective, articulate, then it makes a lot of sense. But what about their policies? Isn't that a big part of their problems, too?

I don't think this is what Tanenhaus is in fact getting at...and if it is, then I would argue that such isn't the best thing that can be obtained from his thoughtful essay. Tanenhaus does end with arguing that "What our politics has consistently demanded of its leaders...is not the assertion but rather the renunciation of ideology." But it seems to me that what he is articulating here is not an attack upon ideology in general--upon the uniting of a political philosophy or at least the constituent elements of such with a practical road map of how to, perhaps, bring that philosophy to bear on actual political life--but upon ideology in a more cramped sense: ideology-as-groupthink, where the principles that are believed--and because they are believed, ought to be regularly tested and discussed and cautiously experimented upon--are instead reified into peer-group enforced dogma, where dissenters aren't part of the common project, but enemies. At its worst, that's what the Bush administration brought us (as did, as Tanenhaus notes, Nixon's). In rejecting that, I don't think Tanenhaus is rejecting all that which would be required of a "governing philosophy"; on the contrary, I think that, by making much of Disraeli and the early neocons like Moynihan, Bell, and Kristol (in his early 60s incarnation), Tanenhaus is advocating a conservatism which acknowledges that way capitalism has required civil society and the state to become interdependent in a way that a simple socio-economic world did not. In this sense, Obama's current struggles over the stimulus package are "conservative" not just because of some supposed Burkean mentality that lays behind his thinking about it, but also because it's an attempt to bring the state to bear on reviving the economy nationally, thereby securing ways of life which Americans have come to depend upon.

But of course, perhaps we could just wait until Tanenhaus himself clears this up.

7 comments:

Matt said...

Hi Russell, This is only a bit connected but I'm curious if you've read much of John Gray's later work, after he turned against Hayek and turned to a sort of conservativism. I'd be interested to know what you think of it, if so. (It's generally gotten a pretty bad review from philosophers and political theorists, I think, but I've not read much of it.) I thought of this now because of Gray's remark, in the post-script to the 3rd edition of his book on Hayek, that the reason he turned against Hayek was that he came believe that the necessary "creative destruction" that came w/ a Hayekian approach was much too much destruction and too little creation. Anyway, I'd be interested to know what you think, if you've read any of his later work. (I've only read the earlier stuff- on Hayek and Mill and the like.)

DCA said...

One important distinction between Burke and Disraeli: the latter had to think about what to do about a capitalist and industrial society, while the former lived in one that remained predominately agrarian, with most power held by the landed.

Otherwise, agreed: the inability of many conservatives (particularly cultural ones) to recognize how unconservative capitalism is, always has amazed me. Probably a continuing reaction to the Commie menace.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Matt, I'm afraid I'm in the same boat as you; the only Gray I'm much familiar with is the earlier stuff. Sorry I can't help you there. You make want to become more familiar with the "conservative" Gray though; I'll have to look into his writings.

DCA, you're certainly correct that there is a limit how far one can reasonably take the distinctions between Burke and Disraeli; the worlds they inhabited different crucial ways. Burke could probably have imagine some of the changes the Industrial Revolution would bring, but Disraeli was in the thick of them. Still, that doesn't necessarily account for Burke's very illiberal affection for the monarchy, and it won't do to read Disraeli back into Burke as easily as I think Tanenhaus does. As for your point about the cultural and religious wings of movement conservatism having been in denial about the unconservative nature of capitalism, I couldn't agree more.

MH said...

"if you've read much of John Gray's later work..."

Hayek is from Mars, Mills is from Venus?

Stephen said...

I have to say that I thought a very serious omission was race. The intellectuals' remnant conservatism of the 1950's gained an actual electoral majority in the 70's and beyond due to the reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. It's a legacy that is under-appreciated and important, and all his talk about conservative populist rallying against liberal elites ends up talking around a big gap in his piece.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Stephen, that's an excellent point; I agree that was a serious omission on Tanenhaus's part, as serious as his omission of the Cold War. I kind of alluded to it when I mentioned how the "righteous and tragically necessary struggle against racism and segregation in the South" gave liberals in the 50s and 60s a moral edge which translated easily into a contempt for the local authoritarians (and racists!) that previous, arguably more "conservative" reformers, had brought into their progressive coalitions, but it's a point worth expanding upon at length. Perhaps Tanenhaus's and others' worries about the collapse of an American conservatism that can address the modern economy is besides the point; one might very well say that the real problem is that the old social order was illiberal in a way that, ultimately, there could be not compromise with, and so there had to be a parting of ways.

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