Against Conservatism

Conservative: one who pokes through the ashes of yesterday's fire
instead of looking for fuel to light a new one.      (my own)

Conservatism is intellectually indefensible because it is the denial of something that is both universal and inevitable - change.

It is also ahistorical in that the conservative arbitrarily chooses a period of time, whether it be ten, fifty or a hundred years ago, and adopts it as a model of how things should be. They take a one-sided view in that they choose to see the good points of their favourite period, such as social stability, lower crime, absence of a drug problem, while ignoring its disadvantages, such as the poverty of the vast majority, lack of freedom, racism, sexism and so on.

In fact, conservatives are often not conscious of hankering after a specific period. It may be the mythical 'good old times' when all was well with the world and god was an Englishman. Where there is an explicit desire for the customs and mores of another period, the choice seems accidental or even humorous to an outside observer. Witness the Jewish orthodox clinging to the dress of Polish noblemen of the 18th century, the Peruvian Indian women wearing their impractical bowler hats that originated in Spain (where these have long since disappeared) and the Amish fixation on archaic clothes and technology.

It is instructive to realise that someone considered a 'radical conservative' today would, 200 years ago, be instead taken for a radical libertarian. Conservatives do not understand this, in the same way as fundamentalists (whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim) reject the fact that their respective religions have undergone great changes over the centuries. In the secular sphere colonialism is now regarded as indefensible. Only a century or two ago it was seen as normal that the stronger society would subjugate the weak.

The paradox is that conservatism is reborn in every time. It is always a reaction against what is then current in society. The term 'new conservative' is an oxymoron. Likewise, the label 'radical conservative' is a contradiction. For the conservative never goes to the root of anything. They want to avoid examining the world around them too closely and do so by taking recourse to a fantasy of what the past was like. A fantasy of this kind never needs to be analysed or understood, since its role is to provide an illusory nirvana and solution to all present problems. It is like with the Marxists, who are as loath to construct their new society as the conservatives are to analyse the old.

In the US 'conservative' is a respectable label. People are proud to call themselves this. In Australia it isn't a label that many people would choose for themselves. We are more sophisticated - or are we? Unlike the British, we don't have a political party that calls itself 'conservative', but is that because we are advanced or because the average Australian would object to the label even as they accept the reality? I wonder whether the average Australian knows that the Liberal party is essentially conservative.

As for the definition of conservative: a conservative is anyone more conservative than you are.

On the morning after Keating's re-election, a Liberal senator was asked whether his party should have added more elements of fairness to their policy, as they did in going from Fightback One to Two. He replied that their package was fair because it would make Australia competitive and prosperous. Clearly, he had not even understood the question.

The trouble with political conservatives is not that they are behind the times. We need a balance of accelerator and brake as we motor into the future. The real trouble is that they are socially uncaring. They don't care about the poor, the homeless, battered wives, aboriginal deaths in custody, gay-bashing, or vanishing rainforests.

There is a vulnerability in extending one's caring to the aborigines, the environment, gays, homeless kids and so on. It means that we suffer distress when we hear about the fate of these people. Most of us have enough problems of our own. Caring also implies a measure of responsibility, at the very least to be informed, at most to actively help. It is understandable that most people prefer not to read Amnesty International reports of torture and do not join land rights demonstrations.

The social model favoured by US conservatives is one of untrammelled competitiveness and unrestrained materialism, ie the unfettered operation of market forces. Referring to the down-and-outs, Maybury-Lewis asks,

What responsibility do I have to these people anyway? This is the unanswered question of our times. In an age of competitive individualism, who am I responsible for and to whom do I have obligations?

If you refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem, then you're certainly not going to solve it. If for example, you refuse to admit that there is any problem in a society which declares people redundant... if you think that's perfectly natural and that's the way things are going to be, then you're going to go on having societies which declare people redundant and you are going to have all the alienation that follows from it. You are going to have societies where people step over or walk around the homeless in the street and so on.

The essential problem is that our capitalist system operates as if people did not matter.

We cannot plead ignorance of the problems in our society, as would a bourgeois gentleman of the 19th century. He could believe he lived in a just and harmonious world where good triumphed over evil. We know that this was a false harmony. False because it was based on the exploitation of the lower classes of his own country and of subject peoples in other parts of the world. Like their predecessors, the contemporary conservative is not much interested in such matters.

The US shows us where unrestrained individualism combined with lack of social consciousness leads to. Americans are worried about seeing the navel or beer-drinking on TV. They are not worried by the increasing numbers of homeless people and beggars on the streets of the cities they live in, nor about poor people not being able to afford medical care. Many are born-again Christians, so that their own salvation is assured. A society that lives by the precept "the devil take the hindmost" cannot be a healthy one. My personal view is that the US is very sick.

One of the issues where conservatives show their de facto beliefs is censorship. They are extremely concerned about people seeing pornography but not very concerned about violence. The irony is that the 'X' video censorship rating is the only one that guarantees no violence.

I had never really understood why Catholics embraced fascism so readily, as they did in Spain under Franco (and since), as well as in other countries. Emma Pierce's book "Ordinary Insanity" provided me some clues:

I firmly believed that authority, lawful authority must be upheld at all times, even when in the wrong. There was a greater consideration; the consideration that law and order must prevail and a bad law is better than no law at all. A father, as designated by the Bible, had lawful authority over his children.

She wrote this to justify the fact that she did not protest when her husband began to habitually beat their children on the slightest provocation. She explained, "He was their father, and if I gave them support against him, then anarchy would rule."

There is a joke in which a policeman stops a tank driven by two smiling men in pin-stripe suits. He says, "Your tank registration papers are in order and you're not hippies or anything dangerous like that." This is a fair portrayal of conservatives and right-wingers. They are not afraid of coercion and violence so long as it comes from sources they approve of. What they really fear is change.

The emotional basis of attachment to the past is that change is psychologically threatening to all of us. Conservatism has the power of habit and the comfort of the known. We all hanker after what we were brought up on, whether this be food, place, or a real or imagined rosy childhood.

The point about being used to how things were in past times can be illustrated by a fairly minor example, that of male gallantry. My father sees the various manifestations of chivalry towards women as affirming and valuing them. I instead agree with the feminist view that putting a woman on a pedestal and extending to her myriad petty courtesies does not amount to valuing her. It means not counting with her as an equal. Treating women like spoilt children or princesses does not raise their status to that of men but merely trivialises them. My inability to communicate this to my father illustrates how our conditioning prevents us from seeing things in a new perspective. Hence the typical male response to feminism, "OK, women have won their battle, but now let's move on to other things."

My first reaction to feminist demands for non-sexist language was negative. I was unaware that women felt diminished and excluded by the use of the words 'he' and 'man' to mean 'person'. I could only see this after it was pointed out to me. Previous to that it just seemed normal. All of us are accustomed to what is normal in our society. We do not question the myriad conventions and assumptions that regulate our lives. It is only the contrary assumptions and conventions of other cultures that look unnatural to us, just as ours do to them. The conservative is permanently a captive of the accident of being born in a particular place and time, of the norms that obtained there and then.

Yet old people are right, the world is going to the dogs, as it has been for hundreds of years. The typical conservative attitude to social reform is, "Yes, but that's enough now." They may appreciate the value of progress made so far, but it is always a case of 'that's enough already' or, more often, 'too much'.

The conservative does not actually want to go back to how things were 50 years ago. What they want is a return to the social relations of that time but with all the modern conveniences and advances that we now take for granted. The essential flaw in conservative thinking is that they believe they can have half the package.

The paradox of conservatism is seen clearly in Muslim fundamentalists, who use modern weapons and means of communication in order to bring about an archaic dystopia. They are entirely unaware of this contradiction. As Toynbee wrote, you cannot adopt just one part of a more vigorous foreign culture and hope to keep out all that goes with it.

If the conservatives won every battle then we would still be hunters and gatherers living in caves. No doubt we would also have arch-conservatives using the new-fangled invention called speech to express their hankering after the good old days before the invention of language. So despite temporary pendulum swings, the conservatives inevitably lose in the long run.

The conservative position contains no creative element at all. It is nothing more than a reaction against change, a desperate and ultimately futile striving to prevent change and to turn back the clock.

The worst aspect of the conservative position is that it contains no vision, no desire for a better world except in the form of a primitive wish to return to the womb of a golden past that never was.

Tad Boniecki

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