Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The great melody

I have always thought that the great admiration and respect Keynes had for Burke is very revealing - of both of them. Keynes was the archetypal pragmatic liberal, distrustful of hypothetical theoretical benefits as opposed to concrete existing and working structures. To see him as a doctrinaire left wing ideologue is simply plain silly (so, it is not a great surprise that this is how libertarians see him today). And Burke really was a whig, as traditional and conservative as imaginable (with many silly ideas), but a whig still, and it is only with some violence that he is now fitted to be a part of the English conservative tradition.

Well, I suppose this only shows that modern Tories are actually nothing but a branch of liberalism. I wonder if there is anyone alive today that you could say would still be the genuine article? A few decades ago the most anti-Burkean intellectual tradition around was Marxism-Leninism, and after its unmourned death, the position has been held by free market doctrinaires. An abstract theoretical mechanism is seen as the universal answer to all human problems without regard to any particular place or time. This is pure folly.

For Burke - as Keynes - we have unique constellations, particular contexts, things and structures that work in practice (something we have always had great difficulties in creating). Pure reason becomes only too easily the prisoner of our animal and fearful natures, violent means turn into nightmarish ends. The French Revolution certainly proved that, but we got an even more awful example with the Russian Revolution. But where Keynes is more logical than Burke is that he sees more clearly that pragmatism should then be the most logical answer for political ideology. Sometimes, often, the existing structures are a danger to a free society without being reformed but reform itself should not be doctrinaire and unempirical, irrational, but particular, particularly suited to the existing, unique conditions.

I adopted this view while becoming acquainted to both Keynes and the marvellously optimistic and exuberant young Walter Lippman, whose "Preface to Politics" is one of the great specimens of 20th century liberal thought. His faith got obviously badly shaken by the nightmares then still only looming, but I don't think that it would be reasonable to abandon his outlook. So we should see a society as a living thing, organic in many ways with meanings and coherence beyond any abstract logic. This makes gradual reform a very difficult and unpredictable task but, I would also argue, an absolute necessity: humankind is best at destroyal, without intelligent reform structures will collapse with all the attendant irrational destruction that it entails.

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