June 12, 2017


What Is the Future of Conservatism? (SAMUEL GOLDMAN, 5/02/17, Liberty & Law)

The political theorist Mark Lilla provides a useful starting point in his recent book The Shipwrecked Mind (2016). He describes reaction as the yearning to overturn a present condition of decadence and recover an idealized past. The pursuit of social transformation distinguishes reaction from the conservative inclination to cherish and preserve what actually exists.

If reaction is temperamentally unconservative, it is also historically antiliberal. In the 18th and 19th centuries, reactionary thought challenged the public/private distinction, free markets, constitutional government, and the public authority of reason. These critiques were often brilliant and remain major accomplishments of political theory. For all their insight, however, the reactionaries struggled to propose appealing alternatives to liberalism. Some defended the old prerogatives of altar and throne. Others articulated a kind of aristocratic anarchism that held some literary appeal but was hard to accept as a guide to practical politics.

The historical opposition between liberalism and reaction has led some analysts to impose a sharp separation between an essentially liberal Anglo-American conservatism and a reactionary European Right. Because it is politically flattering as well conceptually clarifying, I have been tempted to make this distinction myself. But I now think the opposition between liberalism and reaction is only contingent. When reaction is defined as the attempt to recover a lost golden age rather than commitment to a specific historical order, it becomes compatible with liberalism.

Liberalism and reaction can overlap in a specific kind of decline narrative--one according to which private conduct used to be protected, government was properly limited, reason ruled. There was a veritable golden age of freedom. But this paradise was interrupted by a calamity that undermined liberalism and imposed different principles of social order. Unless confronted, the substitution threatens to become permanent.

This decline narrative is not just an abstract possibility. Although it can be presented in several versions, it provides a template for the self-understanding of American conservative thought. It does not matter precisely which period is identified as the golden age or what event serves as that intervening calamity. Whether the point at which things went wrong is the Civil War, the Progressive movement, the New Deal, or the Great Society, the basic structure is the same.

It might be objected that even if American conservative thought involves a reactionary pattern of historical reasoning, it does not seek classically reactionary ends. Few American conservatives admired early modern absolutism or ancient paganism (although more expressed affection for the antebellum South). But they have dabbled in the endorsement of non-liberal means to liberal ends.

In the American context, that usually means adopting populist strategies that cater to the prejudices of the public. Conservative intellectuals have been willing to accept support where they could find it, without inquiring too deeply into its sources. In particular, the role of conspiracy theories and racism in generating support for putatively liberal candidates and policies tends to be downplayed or ignored. Conservatives have also been less than vigilant about limited government when sympathetic figures are in office. Concerns about executive power, for example, have a way of disappearing when Republicans occupy the White House.

The divergences are not simply lapses from principle. Reaction is, in a paradoxical way, more hopeful than liberalism. Instead of placing its faith in the long-term salutary effects of countless private actions, it depends on the acquisition and assertion of power. Like Antonio Gramsci's Marxism, reaction could be characterized as pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

Reaction, like Progressivism, is the opposite of Conservatism.

Ten Conservative Principles (Russell Kirk, Kirk Center)


Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent--or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose: "the ceremony of innocence is drowned." The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.

Posted by at June 12, 2017 6:31 AM