Sunday, April 16, 2006

A note on conservatism

Meaning actual conservatism, not the modern free market liberalism with some conservative-authoritarian-theocratic social values added (for show). It is strange how basically all the main parties in the modern liberal democracies represent the various wings of traditional liberalism: the modern “conservative” parties are classically liberal at their core and the “socialist” parties are purely social liberal. The modern Republican Party will earn the distinction of being the first major exception if the present theocratic forces within it will continue to strengthen but otherwise we are all left or right liberals these days with the assorted (and powerless) radicals in the fringes.

This historical perspective is very useful to keep in mind when analyzing the present political constellations. This classical trinity of political ideologies was fully formed in the 19th century. Conservatism defended the old, referential, aristocratic and Christian Europe, the liberals advocated (in varying degrees) democracy, market economy and personal freedoms while socialism was formed as the new counterbalance to the rapidly industrializing and liberalizing society advocating the public ownership of all property and limiting personal freedom as regards the economic and sometimes even the political fields.

In its historical context conservatism was in practice quite an ugly ideology defending the undefensible: the irrational, deeply unjust and ineffective aristocratic society. But the theory was – and is – much better than its usual practice. Burke’s majestic melody does say something essential about the human society: it is a non-rational, interrelated web of meanings where it is always very risky to change structures that have been proven to work based on abstract non-empirical theories. Oakeshott’s intellectually deeper argument about the inherently non-rational logical structure and meaning of human experience is very hard to counter with classical liberal positions. It is therefore only rational to take into account the deeply irrational nature of much of human interaction.

Where I disagree with this otherwise highly perceptive theory is in its practical political application: existing power structures are invariably ugly and not to reform them involves very high risks of exactly that collapse of order that traditional conservatism specifically aims to prevent. It is just that in making the desperately necessary reforms we have to be vary about abstract, inhuman theories and be empirical and flexible – and highly conscious about the fragility of civilization and the easy corruptibility of human nature. In an obviously much more modest way I would then follow Keynes in combining a deep respect of Burke (and by inference Oakeshott) with impeccably liberal political aims.

(Postscript: It should be quite clear from this text that much of my strong criticism of the free market fundamentalism comes from an actually conservative point of view…)


Captain Haddock said...

In my opinion a small goverment with a liberal society is the stablest "configuration".

The goverment should only do a few things and do it good, like infrastructure maintenance, military, police, firebrigade, healthcare and a basic social security net, as well as regulating other industries. A small goverment along with an aim to keep itself small can avoid the fate that tends to occur in older windows computers. Namely windows rot.

A liberal society accepting of change would also be resistant to the change in the sense that it would change more easily without disruptive tendencies that seem to happen in other societies undergoing "modernization" in todays world.

stockholm slender said...

Well, there is nothing in that that I would automatically disagree with. Concentrated power is not good in any hands, so I would want to see a good balance with goverment and private spheres with the state having a role in facilitating liberty instead of stifling it. But where that balance is a matter of empirical pragmatism. If we find better ways than the Nordic social security state, I would not hesitate to give this model up, but here we do have a healthy balance at the moment, considering the circumstances.

helsinkian said...

But isn't the anti-European camp conservative to the core? Especially when we think of the politicians who oppose Turkish EU membership on the grounds that Turkey is not a Christian country, suddenly we see real conservatism at the heart of Europe in large doses.

The Polish elections of 2006 were essentially a choice between conservatives and right liberals. The conservatives won and I really think there is a great dose of real conservatism in what has become of the remains of the great Solidarity movement. In any case I think there is a greater ideological diversity in Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe, where the different shades of liberalism dominate.

In Slovakia there is also a possibility of a populist conservatism emerging if and when the more liberal Dzurinda coalition government leaves the scene.

In Lithuania there is a very strong socialist movement emerging that is not necessarily liberal. I know that these are movements that you put into the powerless populist fringe. When populists movements gain power in Eastern European countries, they might also end up co-opted by the liberal Western European establishment. I agree with your broader analysis especially as regards Europe. But the debate is there and the non-liberal political fringes are growing.

stockholm slender said...

That's a good point, I suppose you would have movements in Eastern Europe that could not easily be characterized as "liberal". But I would say that when we look at the goverment policies, they seem to be overwhelmingly liberalistic in the sense of continuing integration and marketization. I am sure that in the long term the non-liberal fringes will grow with this current climate of no meaningful economic debate and rapid globalization. In a sense I would see this point mostly as a curiosity that does not say much about the core visions of liberalism which are only poorly reflected in the past and present politics.

helsinkian said...

My point about populist movements in East and Central Europe being co-opted by the establishment will soon be tested. Andrzej Lepper, one of the most infamous populists in all of Europe, is set to join the Polish government as a junior coalition partner. His Self-Defence farmers' party is not going to be an easy ally for the ruling conservatives. Lepper is infamous for having said that "liberals should be shot in the head so that they'll never stand up again" and for fomenting anti-EU hatred among Polish farmers. Now he'll have to participate in negotiations with the EU and despite his previously more left-wing than right-wing politics, Lepper is prepared to embrace the politics of the conservative-led government, his goal being a "family-friendly politics that promotes economic growth". Lepper is also trying to remake himself as a moderate democrat now that his party will join the government.