Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Why Conservatism Was Always Doomed

In the future, when Dubya is known as the Hoover of the 21st century, it will seem obvious: the wave of conservatism from Reagan to the second Bush was sheer folly. What may not seem as obvious is the philosophical truth that all conservatism is always untenable.

The human impulse to conserve arises primarily out of illusion. We imagine that something we know or believe is either worthy of preserving or will actually last forever.

Yet if we know only one thing it's that the central characteristic of reality is change -- growth, decay and renewal, over and over and over again.

In a wide-ranging discussion of his philosophical worldview, education innovator A. S. Neill once confessed his profound doubt concerning God. People point to Christianity's two millenia, he argued, yet the cult of Isis lasted longer and where are her followers today?

Where is Rome, Athens and Sparta, the Persian Empire, the Ming dynastry?

Indeed, where are the absolute monarchs? Montesquieu, who lived under the last of them in France, was a precursor of the French Revolution and the ideas behind American independence.

He compared monarchy to a galleon capable of sailing the seven seas yet vulnerable to sinking like a rock if hit by a single well-placed cannonball. Democracy, Montesquieu also wrote, is more like a raft in rapids: it sometimes gets flipped over yet ultimately always floats, seeking equilibrium ... like reality itself, I would add.

Perennially seeking equilibrium in which to float, however, is not the same as achieving it. That ideal floating equilibrium is elusive precisely because it is ideal -- it is an abstraction, what could or might be, but not what is.

But surely some things must be there at the eternal point of equilibrium, you say?

Moral principles are eternal and universal, some argue. I believe that our desire to survive creates moral imperatives, but these differ markedly from the ethics of most religions.

Also, our survival, individual or as a species, is not a sure thing by a long shot. Not eternal. We're really johnny-come-latelies in our planet. Current science places our collective origin some 200,000 years ago in Africa. Contrast this with our planet's 4.5 billion years.

If you wanted to pay the Earth and humans $1 per 100,000 years of existence, the Earth would get $4.5 million and humans just $2.00. A mansion versus a fancy cup of latte.

Has the temporal insignificance of everything we hold dear dawned yet?

In such a state of reality, the only sane public policy, the only survival approach to life, is to adapt to change. To conserve is not merely foolish, it is a falsehood. Nothing is conserved, nothing stays the same.

Even change is almost never absolute and irreversible. Until it is. Mark Twain put it another way: "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes."

Moreover, modern conservatism, political or religious, isn't really that conservative.

In the 1950s the Republicans demonized Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson because, among other things, he was divorced. From the 1980s to the 2000s, the "moral majority" adored divorced, lapsed Catholic Ronald Reagan.

Funny how those immutable morals changed, even among the most rabidly fundamentalist Protestants in the country.

For the most part, neo-conservatives want to preserve a past that never existed.

It's a Disneyfied 1908, when everyone was white and polite and Christian. Men with handlebar moustaches concerned themselves with important matters such as business and machines, while women read poetry at their sewing circles.

Conservatism is about the illusion that time and life can be somehow jarred and pickled, or made into a never rancid jam. It's an idea that is doomed from the moment it is spoken.


Anonymous said...

J'apprécie la qualité de l'écriture et la logique irréfutable de la démonstration.

Un petit point de détail : je ne suis pas sûre que l'éthique de survie soit si différente de la morale de la plupart des religions comme tu le dis.

Anonymous said...


I appreciate the quality of the writing, and the logic of the demonstration.

Just a detail: I am not sure that ethic of survival to be that different from most of religions' morale.

Ellen K. said...

So, reading the beginning of your post, my thought is that political conservatives aren't conserving anything. They aren't conservative in the ordinary use of the word. As a "liberal" who tends to be conservative in the non-political, ordinary (or should I say old-fashioned?) sense of the word, I see nothing at all conservative about the political "conservatives". But, then, after first strongly implying the idea that conservatives are trying to conserve something, you have that line about preserving a past that never existed. So, you agree they aren't trying to conserve something. And it sounds like what you are saying they are trying to do is not conserve, but change. Changing to return to how things were in the past (or how one imagines they were) is still change, which is different than converving.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Ellen K, conservatives conserve something: delusions ("a past that never existed" plus "changing to return" to that past,)delusions settled on hypocrisy, which is their basic principle.

Cecilieaux said...

Interesting point, Ellen. To me, the key historical element of almost any kind of conservatism, be it political, economic, social or religious or philosophical, is that it has arisen in response to or after a change. I'm tempted to write a whole post about it ... we'll see.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Great post!

"In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy," said John Paul Getty.

Our survival as individuals and as a species depends upon our ability to adapt to ever-changing conditions. Insistence on repeating what may have worked in the past is stupid and lazy because it doesn't take into consideration that time has wrought new challenges.

And how boring it would be if nothing ever changed. There would really be no point in continuing this great experiment called Life.