left conservatism revisited
So my wife tells me yesterday that I’m not conservative. She asks me how exactly I consider myself to be, in any sense of the word “conservative” and I go through some of my reasons, and she says “That could be a liberal. All those things you said could be liberal.” I say that I think conservatism has been co-opted by the “movement.” She says maybe I need to go with the flow.
I don’t know. I guess I don’t consider myself to be “a conservative” but rather consider the “conservative disposition” to be essential to the well-being of society. Oakeshott resonates with me. Limbaugh does not.
After all, I listen to NPR; watch Colbert and Jon Stewart; loathe Fox News; voted for Obama; am critical of Big Business and the military; opposed torture; support gay rights but understand the complexity of the debate over gay marriage; support legalizing marijuana; can’t stand conservative talk radio; often agree with Andrew Sullivan (who, it should be remembered, is one of the top 25 most influential liberals in America!); and the list goes on and on. I’m pro-life but I’m not ready to ban abortion outright because I don’t think that’s the right way forward…and on top of that I’m pro-contraception. I’m in favor of a progressive tax system because of my belief in a broad middle class which, in a capitalist economy, sometimes requires that most dreaded of sins – redistribution of wealth! (I suppose the Catholic Church and its social teachings make it, too, a socialist organization – one place where the Obama administration and the Church can find common cause in the fairy tale land of Glenn Beck et al) I think the history of Western Civilization is vital to our understanding of the present and future. I think the arts should be preserved. I think our childrens’ education is more important than almost anything else. I think commercialism is more of a threat to our children than rock and roll.
When Garry Wills, intellectually drenched in Chestertonian distributism, asked William F. Buckley if he was a conservative, Buckley told him no – distributists aren’t conservatives. He still let him write at the National Review until Wills publicly opposed the Vietnam War. My own thoughts on distributism (and Red Toryism etc.) are still not fully formed, but I am critical of free trade and capitalism. I’m critical of a lot of things that get too big or too opaque, be they governments or businesses or religious organizations. I’m wary of globalism because it seems destined to sacrifice the “little platoons” in favor of the generals with the biggest regiments.
And I suppose this is where I begin to truly identify as conservative – despite what Buckley might say on the matter – though I’ve come to realize that perhaps “conservative” and “liberal” are really pretty meaningless. What we have is a sort of web of considerations about modernity, economics, social stability, centralization (of capital and power), localism, and so forth. Now, I would argue that both liberals (or progressives) and conservatives and the non-denominational can all find common cause in this arena. Russel Arben Fox, for one, is a self-identified “left conservative” – a Christian socialist of sorts, whose many writings on the subject are all worth reading. Philip Blond’s “progressive conservativism” and the Red Tory movement in general also provide critiques of the current state of affairs that transcend the typical conservative/liberal sand-lines, though I disagree with the thrust of many anti-liberalism arguments in that I see the greatest threat to our liberty and our community arising more out of the sort of centralized capitalism and monopolization of today’s markets than out of the civil freedoms we’ve acquired over the years.
Essentially, economic liberalism strikes me as more of a threat to our moral well-being than mere “permissiveness.” Where Blond is very much a social conservative, I am not. I believe in “family values” as it were, but I believe that they are best preserved by building pro-family communities; by maintaining such antiquated things as aesthetic beauty, walkability, and the environment. I am certainly not a proponent of sexual licentiousness or pornography, and I have deep, deep reservations about cloning, assisted suicide, etc. but my social critiques tend to focus on social harm and not abstractions like the “sanctity of marriage” which was, in all honesty, watered down long ago by cohabitation sans stigma and lax divorce laws.
But for the purposes of this post, I’d like to hone in on Fox’s really, really good (and really, really long) post on “left conservatism” that I mentioned above. I have cherry-picked some passages that do a good job of explaining some of my own grappling with localism, tradition, and progress. Because as it happens, I think I probably fit very nicely into Fox’s definition as a left conservative and a pro-tradition localist, but also a progressive. I think the preservation of society and of western civilization rests at the crux of progress and tradition, and the balance must be preserved….
So what do I advocate–some sort of conservatism? Well, yes. But it is a very narrow and specific kind of conservatism: I believe that that are goods–real, material, moral, essential goods–that need to be conserved if any kind of decent society is to be achieved, much less maintained. Practically speaking, all this means is that I hold certain standards, certain virtues, to be larger than, and thus not necessarily subject to, individual preferences or arrangements. You might protest that almost everyone’s “conservative” under that definition, and I would agree: we all need to be part of a larger community and history, though most people seem to want to deny or downplay that fact. But even if you do consciously take such communitarianism and traditionalism to be the deep structure of civilization, there remains the question of how you respond to it, and indeed what you think there is about that structure than can be responded to…
…Tradition and community are taken to be necessary and important because they are the only things that cannot (at least cannot easily) be turned into abstractions which in turn can be taxed away from you or turned against you; to the extent that the modern world sees profits, wars, borders, religions, families, markets, marriages and more as institutions and events best understood, conducted, and transformed in light of some abstract principle–whether that be individual rights or personal conscience or democratic harmony or economic progress–then the modern world has gone wrong, gotten away from the instinctual truths and embedded necessities of human existence….
…Traditions and communities cannot exercise the same authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self (at least in the West–but increasingly, most everywhere else as well). Technology, social fluidity, democracy: all genies let out of the bottle. This could be cause for a jihad-like revolt against modernity, or a St. Benedict-like retreat from it (both of which are themselves interestingly compromised responses, but leave that aside for now). Or, it could be cause for calling forth a Marxist response, one carried out on behalf of Burkean communities and traditions.
Okay, you might say: even if all this is acceptable, and “left conservatism” is more than just an odd neologism, what kind of policies does it actually suggest? Well, a whole range of them, would be my response; there would be no single left conservative platform….This could plausibly include Christian social democrats, Red Tories, egalitarian populists, various “Third Way” types, and many more. Most of these folks would surely disagree with one another in some important ways, and probably one of the few things they would agree upon would be to reject the label “left conservative,” even if they did accept my explanation of it. It makes far more sense for them to simply see themselves as liberals who happen to reject some of the more individualistic and secular presumptions behind many modern liberal arguments, and thus are perhaps critical of the Democratic party’s commitment to abortion rights, or struggle to reunify progressive causes with religious orthodoxy, or seek to articulate a liberal politics of public morality and the common good, while at the same time insisting that the real focus of any leftist critique of American society should begin and end with the real material concerns of class and culture.
Modernity has had consequences good and bad, and some upon which the judgment is not yet final. The fecundity and diversity and complexity of modern life is one of those. For the most part, I find it worth retreating from, or at least seeking ways to make it more simple. But simplicity need not be a denial of opportunity; it may merely be an insistence upon seeing it with different eyes, seeing it first in light of the many communities of production and exchange (often local, often specialized, and almost always–at least if my experience of attending fan conventions are any indication–rather humble in their understanding of the ground upon which they necessarily stand) which it adds to and rebounds from, and not first and foremost as a possession of the individual who buys and consumes it.
I suppose in the end I believe that the cause of community, the moral critique of modernity and centralization and capitalism – all these things can come from the left or the right, but rarely do from either. So I suppose the label “liberal” or “conservative” for yours truly is essentially not important. Labels are useless without boxes to put things in. Categories lose meaning. The only way they can really take shape and exist is with some sort of movement to help the ideas form into concrete – which can be a good and a bad thing. This world of ours, this humanity, is complex damnit. The mechanisms of society defy any easy, clean social taxonomy.