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“Conservative” Doesn’t Mean What You Think: A Guest Post By Jack Whelan

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Many of our commenters on this post (at AmbivaBlog) took issue with the spirited defense of New Deal-rooted American social democracy expressed by Jack Whelan at After the Future. In my opinion Jack is hands down one of the best thinkers and writers on the Web; I’m particularly blown away by his “post-secular” take on religious tradition and spirituality. While I don’t agree with every point of his politics, I am grateful to him for making me question what I fear is fast becoming a knee-jerk or herd-instinct libertarianism (is that an oxymoron?!) in much of the blogosphere. I hope you will read, consider, engage, and discuss. ~ amba

Jack Whelan:

Thanks to Amba for inviting me to respond to those of you who take exception to my posts about Normal USA and Whom the Gods would Destroy. The negative reactions come from either misunderstanding my intent or from fundamental disagreements. I’d like to address the latter; I think Amba herself did a pretty good job of trying to address the former. My goal is not to convince anyone I’m right, but only to lay out my case in such a way to promote some serious discussion about bridging a gap between two fundamentally different world views. I challenge you; you challenge me. Deal?

So I think the best way to go about this is to lay out several propositions, any one of which could be developed into a full-length essay. Challenge me on any one of these, because if you disagree with my conclusion, it’s probably because you disagree with one of these propositions. This might help to give the discussion some focus. So here goes:

First. To live in society means to live in a state in which people restrain their liberty for their own and the common good. The best societies are democratic because people get to develop a consensus on the nature and extent of those restraints. To live in “the state of nature� is to live in a state where everyone is technically free until they run into someone who wants to enslave them. Hegel is the guy who worked out the whole master slave dynamic as it operates in pre-social situations. In the state of nature, might makes right. The powerful dominate the weak. In the state of nature, freedom is something only the powerful really possess. The powerful work hard to aggregate power to themselves, and they are free only until they meet someone more powerful who succeeds in dominating them. The New Hampshire license plate slogan, “Live free or die� is rooted in this basic dynamic. The aristocrat of freedom is the one who chooses to die fighting rather than to submit to enslavement to save his skin. The duel is a vestige of it as well. The whole idea of entering into society is to develop more civilized mechanisms for working things out so the powerful don’t go round doing as they please to the not-so-powerful. In its most developed form this alternative is called the rule of law.

Second. No one likes living with constraints, and we all chafe under them. It’s frustrating, and it’s a hassle. People seek wealth and power because the wealthy and the powerful live with fewer constraints. People who have power tend to abuse it. Why? Because they can, and that’s the whole point of getting it, to act with as few constraints as possible. And to be able to act without fear that anyone is going to stop them. One could argue that this desire is fundamentally a form of infantile narcissism, but I’ll leave that alone for now. The only point that needs to be made here is that it exists and it is a cause for all kinds of social pathology. Societies develop laws, mores, and norms which are designed to put constraints on pathological behavior, and the rich and powerful will always use their wealth and power to loosen things up when it comes to the constraints that they have to live with. They have the resources to make it happen if the rest of us let them.

Third. To be a conservative means to conserve. It’s not the same thing as being a man or woman of the right. To be a rightist means to lean toward the authoritarianism in which might makes right, i.e., to lean more toward the end of the social spectrum that is closer to the state of nature in which the exertion of power is the highest value. To be a rightist means, by extension, to celebrate the glories of the military and the control powers of the police which work to do the will of the powerful. To be a conservative, on the other hand, means that you lean toward the rule of law and the preservation of cultural mores and values. I consider myself to be a conservative in the Burkean tradition. Burke in his famous work on the French Revolution decried the Jacobin mentality that led inevitably to the social chaos known as the Terror. The Jacobins’ mistake was the mistake of all social engineers since, that they could systematically dismantle the old system and create from scratch a new one�mostly all that does is create more problems than it solves. I am against Jacobinism in all its forms. I am a subsidiarist, which means that I am against all top downism. I think that initiatives (except in national emergencies) should come from the bottom up, which is the way it should work in a democratic republic. So I would like to dismiss any idea that I am a socialist, if by socialism is meant the top-downism of command economies, Maoist cultural revolutions, legislated moral behavior, or nation building.

Fourth. Classical Liberalism in the economic sphere was an ideology which was developed to liberate a new class of capitalist investors from the constraints of mercantilism, the early modern top/down command economic system. Liberalism became associated with the whole cultural shift from medieval aristocrat-centered feudalism to modern bourgeoisie-centered democratic capitalism. Liberal had a progressive meaning in its early stages because it was about progressing beyond medievalism, and later it was associated with the policies that were about progressing beyond the social brutality of 19th Century unrestrained classical capitalism. Classical liberalism unleashed an unprecedented new social dynamic in the world which Schumpeter later called creative destruction. It created unprecedented wealth, technological innovation–and social dislocation and chaos, especially for those whose lives had been agriculture-centered. There is hardly anyone who will dispute that the transition from a traditional society to a modern capitalist society is brutal. Is there any one who would argue that it has had a tremendously destructive effect on traditional societies and the values that came with them? And is there anyone who will argue that the behavior of the early winners in this transition followed the logic described in item #1 and 2 above? Social Darwinism emerged as the ideology which justified this survival of the fittest mentality which was just the old law of the jungle rule, which is that the powerful dominate the weak. This system reached its high point in the period between 1870 and World War I. This early form of capitalism was pretty much as close to being back in the state of nature as modern societies ever got. Something had to give.

Fifth. In the social chaos that followed WWI, two great threats emergedâ€â€?fascism and communism. Social democracies, first in Sweden, then the New Deal in the U.S., then the Popular Front in France and so on were developed as a third way. According to point three above, neither fascism nor communism is conservativeâ€â€?they were both centralized command systems that sought to reengineer their societies. All three were attempts to deal with the failures and chaos created by 19th century laisser faire capitalism. Social democracy, I would argue were relatively speaking, the conservative solution that naturally evolvedâ€â€?in the Burkean sense–in democratic societies in response to the brutality and social chaos created by 19th century classic capitalism. Fascism and Communism were the Jacobin alternatives.

Sixth. Americans are human beings and as such we behave no differently than anyone else. The presumption ought to be that Americans who have enormous wealth and power will behave like everyone else in history who have had it, which is that they will abuse it, and that they will do what they can to get more. If Social Darwinism was their mythos in the 19th Century. Ayn Rand Libertarianism is their mythos in this country at least since 1980. As point #2 states above, no one likes living with constraints, and Libertarianism is the ideology of no governmental constraint. But the problem lies in that taking the no constraint argument to its logical conclusion, you’re back in the state of nature. In the state of nature the strong dominate the weak.

These are some questions I put to you, dear Libertarian Ambivablogistas: Do you or do you not agree that the underlying agenda of the GOP since the Reagan revolution is to return this country back to the pre-New Deal era? If you say no, give me evidence, because the evidence for yes is pretty strong. Second, if we return to the pre-New Deal era�if we privatize everything, deregulate whenever an industry lobby demand it, reduce taxes to starve the beast so it has no muscle, what means will you have to protect you and your family when the world is dominated by corporations who can act without any counterbalance to restrain them? Do you really want to return to 19th century power arrangements? What makes you think we won’t if this reactionary agenda is successful? The problem is not big government, but who controls it. And we ordinary Americans have been pretty much sitting around and just let it be taken from us. And the result is legislation like the Medicaid Prescription bill. It now serves the interests pretty much of the already rich and powerful.

So where does the real threat come from? Every system can be abused, but the question for me is in which system do the abuses have the most potential for harm. In which system are abuses more likely to be redressed? Libertarians are afraid we’re going to become Soviet Russia, when it is far more likely we are moving toward becoming something like oligarchic Mexico or Brazil.

I’m for evolution�that’s what the word progressive means to me. I’m for slow steps forward, keeping what works, improving what doesn’t, but moving forward. The Reagan/Norquist/Libertarian program is based on a devolutionary state-of-nature agenda. It benefits the already rich and powerful and strips away the tools that ordinary people have to protect themselves from the predations of the rich and powerful. What part of this am I not getting right? To me nothing could be more obvious. So if it is I who is befuddled and delusional, make your case. Give me some evidence or a coherent argument. Because I haven’t heard it yet.

            ~ Jack Whelan

Cross-posted at AmbivaBlog and After the Future