Thursday, May 10, 2018

Understanding Conservatism: Power for the Elite and Subjugation for the Masses

Often pundits will turn to psychology and the traits that its practitioners catalogue in an attempt to understand the mind of a conservative individual.  This usually leads to conclusions that a conservative is uncomfortable with change, and resistant to new ideas.  This is of course true at a psychological level, but does this information provide any useful insight into conservatism as a political ideology, or explain why given classes of people tend to vote for avowed conservative candidates?  Corey Robin has provided a startlingly different view of political conservatism in his book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump.  In Robin’s view, political conservatives are quite willing to embrace change provided change is used to maintain an inequality in which the majority is kept subjugated to a presumably meritorious elite.  Robin explains.

“….many of the characteristics we have come to associate with contemporary conservatism—racism, populism, violence, and a pervasive contempt for custom, convention, law, institutions, and established elites—are not recent or eccentric developments of the American right.  They are instead constitutive elements of conservatism, dating back to its origins in the European reaction against the French Revolution.  From its inception, conservatism has relied upon some mix of these elements to build a broad-based movement of elites and masses against the emancipation of the lower orders.”

In the recent past, this might have seemed a harsh assessment for a party with a history of fiscal solvency, support of the principles of a democratic form of government, and the avowed intention to maintain the Constitution.  However, with the election of Trump and his embrace by the Republican Party, the masquerade is over, and the true nature of the present Republican Party has been revealed: “racism, populism, violence, and a pervasive contempt for custom, convention, law, institutions, and established elites.”

Is there an inconsistency in claiming conservatism is a movement of elites against “established elites?”  Not at all.  Robin tracks a constant theme through Burke, Nietzsche, Hayak, and even the ever-popular Ayn Rand: elite status must be earned, not inherited.  Elites are identified and rewarded for success in conflict, whether, in war or business, or in social or political battles.  Successful elites, with no more battles to fight, will grow complacent and weak and must be replaced when the next insurgency from the “lower orders” emerges and must be quelled.

The picture of political conservatism provided by Robin is compelling.  It is also dark and frightening and is redolent of fascism.  History, particularly since the French Revolution, can be seen as class struggle as those in a subjugated state—serfs, laborers, slaves, women and wives— seek the means to limit their degree of subjugation, while those in power strive to maintain the power to subjugate.  Conservatism and libertarianism are often conflated, but to the conservative, society is not an assembly of individuals, but rather a hierarchy of groups in which each has a place of superiority to those below and inferiority to those above.  Society will fail if this chain of subordination were to be broken.

“….the conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated would be ugly, brutish, base, and dull.  It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse.”

“This vision of the connection between excellence and rule is what brings together in postwar America that unlikely alliance of the libertarian, with his vision of the employer’s untrammeled power in the workplace;  the traditionalist, with his vision of the father’s rule at home; and the statist, with his vision of a heroic leader pressing his hand upon the face of the earth.  Each in his way subscribes to this typical statement, from the nineteenth century, of the conservative creed: ‘To obey a real superior….is one of the most important of all virtues—a virtue absolutely essential to the attainment of anything great and lasting’.”

This notion of society being driven by a few truly exceptional people who must contend with masses of unexceptional people is at the heart of the conservatives’ reverence accorded Ayn Rand’s fiction.  It is the basis for the acceptance and even praise of inequality as an indication of a just society that characterizes political conservatives.  Robin provides this quote from one of Rand’s protagonists.

“The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all of those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time.  The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all their brains.  Such is the nature of the ‘competition’ between the strong and the weak of intellect.  Such is the pattern of ‘exploitation’ for which you have damned the strong.”

Such notions are profoundly antidemocratic.  If one must live with universal suffrage, it is a conservative’s duty to eliminate as many as possible of those in the “lower orders” from the log of eligible voters.  Such notions are also profoundly antichristian.  At one time, the adjective “Christian” referred to people treating others in a kind and generous fashion.  There is no place for such a concept within conservatism.

“When Rand inveighs against Christianity as the forebear of socialism, when she rails against altruism and sacrifice as inversions of the true hierarchy of values, she is cultivating the strain within conservatism that sees religion not as a remedy to, but a helpmate of, the left.”

Given that conservatives must exist in a democracy, and a very religious one at that, how does the conservative approach appeal to the masses of voters?  It is very simple.  The desired hierarchy of subjugation can be presented as a means of preserving the right of one group within that hierarchy to maintain its right to subjugate those below them.  There is no mystery as to why a political philosophy that promises that whites can maintain their supremacy over non-whites is popular with whites.  The antichristian nature of conservatism is even extremely popular with evangelicals who have lost any concept of a Christianity that implies responsibility for the wellbeing of others.  Patriotism remains a refuge of scoundrels.  The war-loving statist conservatives loudly proclaim the exceptionalism of the United States as a means of convincing the weak of mind that they are themselves exceptional—and superior to others—as a member of the mightiest nation on earth.

“Conservatism is an elitist movement of the masses, an effort to create a new-old regime that, in one way or another, makes privilege popular.  Sometimes, conservatism has multiplied the ranks of privilege, creating ever-finer gradations between the worse off and the worst off….Sometimes, conservatism has simplified those ranks into two: the white race and the black race of the white supremacist imagination.  Sometimes, it has offshored societies inequalities, seeing in the people of an imperial state a unified rank of superiors….subjugating less civilized peoples abroad.  And sometimes it has turned elites into victims, encouraging the masses to see their abjection reflected in the higher misery of those above them.  Regardless of the means, conservatism has always found a way to conscript the lower orders into its regime of lordly rule.”

If one is to contend with a political movement, one must first understand that movement.

“People who are not conservative often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something.”

“It used to be one of the great virtues of the left that it alone understood the often zero-sum nature of politics, where the gains of one class necessarily entail the losses of another.  But as that sense of conflict diminishes on the left, it has fallen to the right to remind voters that there really are losers in politics and that it is they—and only they—who speak for them.  ‘All conservatism begins with loss,’ Andrew Sullivan rightly notes, which makes conservatism not the Party of Order, as Mill and others have claimed, but the party of the loser….The chief aim of the loser is not—and indeed cannot be—preservation or protection.  It is recovery and restoration.”

And conservatism always will have an advantage over the revolutionaries of the left.  It will always be easier to recover something recently lost rather than to create something new.

“Unlike the reformer or the revolutionary, who faces the nearly impossible task of empowering the powerless—that is, of turning people from what they are into what they are not—the conservative merely asks his followers to do more of what they always have done (albeit, better and differently).  As a result, his counterrevolution will not require the same disruption that the revolution has visited upon the country.”

Understand your enemy.  Then do battle.

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