Thursday, April 23, 2009

"A Left Conservatism" Gets Revisted

If my involvement over at Front Porch Republic has done anything for me, it has introduced me to enough thinking-outside-the-box conservatives--or so-called conservatives--to realize that some of my previous judgments as to the unlikelihood of religious, left-leaning, localist/socialist/populist like myself making common cause with any of them was perhaps premature. Or at the very least, I was premature in making my oft-stated claim that people like myself, who are convinced that often the best way to achieve and maintain conservative values is though progressive politics, our vanishingly rare. Case in point: the wonderful commenter E.D. Kain, whose re-examination of my old, beloved "A Left Conservatism" post gets some serious consideration at his group blog, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. As for who Mr. Kain is, well, I'll let him describe himself:

I listen to NPR; watch Colbert and Jon Stewart; loathe Fox News; voted for Obama; am critical of Big Business and the military; opposed torture; support gay rights but understand the complexity of the debate over gay marriage; support legalizing marijuana; can’t stand conservative talk radio; often agree with Andrew Sullivan...and the list goes on and on. I’m pro-life but I’m not ready to ban abortion outright because I don’t think that’s the right way forward…and on top of that I’m pro-contraception. I’m in favor of a progressive tax system because of my belief in a broad middle class which, in a capitalist economy, sometimes requires that most dreaded of sins--redistribution of wealth! (I suppose the Catholic Church and its social teachings make it, too, a socialist organization - one place where the Obama administration and the Church can find common cause in the fairy tale land of Glenn Beck et al) I think the history of Western Civilization is vital to our understanding of the present and future. I think the arts should be preserved. I think our childrens’ education is more important than almost anything else. I think commercialism is more of a threat to our children than rock and roll....I am critical of free trade and capitalism. I’m critical of a lot of things that get too big or too opaque, be they governments or businesses or religious organizations. I’m wary of globalism because it seems destined to sacrifice the "little platoons" in favor of the generals with the biggest regiments.

And I suppose this is where I begin to truly identify as conservative....What we have is a sort of web of considerations about modernity, economics, social stability, centralization (of capital and power), localism, and so forth. Now, I would argue that both liberals (or progressives) and conservatives and the non-denominational can all find common cause in this arena....I believe in "family values" as it were, but I believe that they are best preserved by building pro-family communities; by maintaining such antiquated things as aesthetic beauty, walkability, and the environment. I am certainly not a proponent of sexual licentiousness or pornography, and I have deep, deep reservations about cloning, assisted suicide, etc. but my social critiques tend to focus on social harm and not abstractions like the "sanctity of marriage" which was, in all honesty, watered down long ago by cohabitation sans stigma and lax divorce laws.

Wow. Clearly, I have found a soul-mate, or he has found me. (Hope you don't find that an offensive or troubling prospect, E.D.)

I actually do have a reason for posting this besides gushing. At one point in his post, E.D. quotes my statement that "[t]raditions and communities cannot exercise the same authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self." In response to this, Nob Akimoto writes:

I think rather we’re approaching an era of social fluidity, democracy and technology (particularly in communication) where such things have a net positive to what would be described as "community" and "tradition" vis-a-vis mass communication/media, marketing and manufacturing techniques which made these things so ephemeral and weak in the last 50 or so years. Centralized, top-down capitalism to me always seems to be more of a factor in undermining traditional interconnections between people, rather than permissive mores about types of moral behavior. (Whether sexual, religious or some other form) Consumerism writ large tends to I think atomize people and make them generic units of consumption rather than individuals, and there’s a pervasive top-down mentality to culture that’s produced in the same way. On the other hand, there’s some evidence that online communication and the way social groups form might actually help reinforce traditional diaspora communities. (There’s a few studies of this sort and online ethnic identification for example, in more political theory literature) I think it’s helpful in fact to think of the dichotomy more in terms of power structures. Are things flowing unidirectionally top to bottom? Or are they more something that’s created bottom-up?

Nob makes some good points here, ones that I wouldn't want to disagree with necessarily, but which I do think need to be stated more clearly. "Social fluidity, democracy and technology" do obviously have communitarian potentials to them; this is the sort of thing Camassia commented on in response to my recent "geek post", suggesting that the technologically enabled social fluidity which allows idiosyncratic fan communities to form is a kind of collective empowerment, something which turns "isolated consumers [into] collective producers." But this is one area of our lives as social animals that where distinctions are important; purely chosen communities, the communities that arise from the proliferation of choices, often lack inculcative power, lack the discipline that comes along with knowing that one essentially belongs for whatever historical or religious or spatial reason. This goes to the heart of an old and important dispute in communitarian reflection: as the philosopher Charles Taylor put it years ago, in response to the culturally-sensitive-but-still-fundamentally-individualistic-arguments of his fellow Canadian Will Kymlicka, "can liberalism be communitarian?" His response was, put simply, no: the democratizing and expansion and transformation of cultural resources though fluid interactions have many positive effects, but one thing they cannot do--because they are beginning with the agenda of the participating individuals, not with the survival of the culture as a collective good in itself--is preserve the authority of such communities, including authority over their own identity. "Cultures are, indeed, plastic and multifaceted things," Taylor wrote. "But that does not mean that any one of them will allow anything. If this were so, they would be indistinguishable and uninteresting. The question is still open whether certain cultures, even at the widest stretch of their plasticity, are not committed to certain goods that are incompatible with neutral liberalism. Since even such a common aspiration as survivance nationalism is incompatible with liberalism [here Taylor is referring to the continuing debate over language and identity and community in Quebec], the answer to this question is almost certainly affirmative." (Criticial Review, Spring 1994, pg. 261)

Now I'm enough of a Marxist (or, at least, democratic socialist) to agree with Nob that "[c]entralized, top-down capitalism" is the primary threat out there to "traditional interconnections," and--religious traditionalist though I may be--I'm also enough of a modern liberal to recognize that much of the hand-wringing out there over social permissiveness is a little overwrought. And moreover, Nob is absolutely correct that modern technologies and in particular online tools have been, and will no doubt continue to be, great boons to the ability of members of conservative communities to network with and build up one another. But I would not want to go so far as to close my eyes to what I think is the fundamental issue here, and indeed, perhaps the fundamental issue to "left conservatism" itself: that the reason why all sort of modern or progressive tools sometimes may be or need to be used to conserve local communities of belief and culture and practice is because said communities offer something different than what any empowered individual is ever likely to be able to put together on their own. In the "civilizational tango" of progress and tradition which E.D. mentions, let's never forget which partner is which.


E.D. Kain said...


Wow. Clearly, I have found a soul-mate, or he has found me. (Hope you don't find that an offensive or troubling prospect, E.D.)Not at all! Thanks much for the response...I suppose that's one of the technological advantages of the modern world - the ability to write something about a writer you admire, and then have them show up at the piece you've written, and then turn around and write a response to that...

In any case, excellent post. All the best!

E.D. Kain said...

Hmmm. Formatting on that last one was not what I intended...

Unknown said...

Thank you for taking the time to address my points.

In light of your response, there's a few things I'd like to try to hammer out in a more specific manner.

First, I'd like to preface that the basis of my observations is founded more on a political theorist's point of view rather than philosophy insofar as that means examining power structures and culture formation.

In that respect, I think it's important to view liberalism as a contributing source in culture formation as much as a political culture in it of itself. Namely, is it really fair to call what we presently have as simply "liberalism" and decry that it's eroding traditional communities? Or should we view the core aspects of liberalism as merely one causal variable in the large-scale consumerist democracy we live in now?

In this light, I think we can see the aspects of individual liberalism, when combined with limitations such as technology (media/content delivery) and economics (free-market economics with a corporatist bent) is certainly part of the individual atomization and erosion of traditional communal ideals.

I think where we come into disagreement, is in the valuation of culture which comes into existence as a result of liberalism combined with more modern communication technology. Or rather how liberalism, with its emphasis upon participation in culture as a matter of individual agency, conflicts with the notion of traditional culture. I don't necessarily disagree that there's a vast difference between participatory cultural institutions like fan groups or consumer groups, vs. traditional religious or ethnic identity. But if the question is whether or not liberalism is communitarian, I think I'd have to answer the opposite.

By its nature, liberalism must be communitarian, because the only circumstances under which an empowered individual has any value is within a societal structure where that empowerment allows them to contribute to society writ large. I understand that on the face of it, it's placing a qualifier on what should be a basic tenet of liberalism regardless of any such qualifiers.

But the point of liberalism, I think in so far as it exists as a cultural phenomenon is to provide cultural agency to those who would otherwise be subordinate to a dominant cultural discourse. In that it exists to provide agency, it's there to enable people to participate and therefore have a stake in the continued existence and reinforcement of culture, or even more grandly civilization itself.

I'll clarify my thoughts a bit later if I can think of how to express this in more concrete terms.