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Conservatism

The Challenge Of The Modern

If there has been a specter haunting conservatism in modern times, it is the specter of "mass society." The fear of mass society is a product of two related possibilities. The first is the disintegration of traditional allegiances in the name of liberation and personal freedom. Since conservatives hold that such allegiances are the condition of identity, the consequence would be the loss of individuality. Liberalism, ironically, promotes the death of liberty. The second fear concerns the manipulation of that disintegration by ideologies that promise material satisfaction in return for absolute political power. Having destroyed individuality, mass society would demand abasement before the secular image of its collective power, the state. Socialism, ironically, promotes the death of the social.

In the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century, conservatism defended property, religion, and family as bulwarks against the feared drift to "mass" society in which the decencies of civilized life would be subverted by popular barbarism. This disposition helps to capture what is distinctive about the conservative idea of the nation, the one form of popular politics to which it not only adapted but which it also helped to define. For conservatives, the nation is understood as a political community united in acceptance of the legitimacy of traditional political arrangements. The "people" is not some abstract category but the historic nation in its regional and social variety, with its traditional beliefs, particular affections, and long-standing prejudices. To be conservative is another way of professing one's sympathy for the "real" character of the nation, and like de Maistre, conservatives would agree that they have met the French, English, Germans, or Americans but have yet to meet "Humanity."

In rejecting the universal claims of radical politics, conservatism has been compelled to identify exactly what it is that makes the nation distinctive. What differentiates conservatism from right-wing ideologies is the nature of that distinctiveness. In right-wing thought the idea of the nation serves to mobilize the people in order to assert its distinctive purity, honor, and greatness. In conservative thought, the idea of the nation serves to foster piety toward its distinctive social and political institutions. This differentiation has nothing to do with the intensity of national feeling. It has to do with the source of national feeling. Right-wing thought locates it in the will of the people. Conservatism locates it in the inherited practices of a way of life and has been concerned to limit the popular will in the name of tradition and order. In Europe between the two world wars, conservatism was outflanked by radical right-wing movements because an appeal to tradition and order appeared irrelevant in conditions of economic collapse and social disintegration. The sense of political decadence made an ideology of popular salvation, like fascism, a powerful alternative to traditional conservative patriotism. Britain was the exception, and the experience of British conservatism was thought to illustrate the distinction between the politics of the moderate right and the politics of the extreme right.

While the drama of modern European history has been taken to be exemplary of this difference, an American illustration is more appropriate. Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. considered that the great achievement of American politics has been the replacement of the idea of the sovereign people with the idea of the constitutional people. "The warmth of their republican genius must somehow be cooled; the confidence in their own sovereignty, which is responsible for the factiousness of democratic majorities, must be restrained" (Mansfield, p. 57). The practice of constitutional politics educates democracy in the responsibilities of government, in particular the need to limit power in order to enjoy life, liberty, and happiness. All elements of government "are derived from the people but none of them is the people," and populism, with its tendency to deny limit and constitutional constraint, is just as subversive of good government as any other species of radicalism (Mansfield, p. 55). This does not imply that there are no elements of populism in conservatism or that conservative politics has not appealed to its prejudices against innovation. However, conservatism's suspicion of political enthusiasm of all kinds makes it uncomfortable with the fickleness as well as the hubris of popular opinion, especially when it proclaims itself to be "the moral majority."

Resisting democracy, defending tradition.

Of course, resisting the claims of democracy in the name of limited constitutional politics can be interpreted as an offense to modern sensibility, and defending tradition in a world of rapid change can be seen as either irrelevant or willfully ignorant. Conservatism always faces an enormous challenge in making these ideas persuasive in a world of programmatic politics. It appears insufficiently purposeful to those who are seeking a political faith and insufficiently principled to those who are seeking an alternative to radicalism. To such critics, conservatism is always right, but its inability to be proactive also means that it is always wrong. For example, Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992) thought conservatism incapable of offering "an alternative to the direction in which we are moving" because it does not and cannot indicate another direction (p. 398). Since Hayek famously believed that the socialistic path along which society was moving was the road to serfdom, then clearly conservatism, for all its useful maxims, would not do. This attitude helps to distinguish conservatism from that other species of recent politics, the New Right.

What Hayek assumes is the modernist belief in history-as-project, and this makes politics into an engagement between projects, either a capitalist one or a socialist one. That modernist assumption, at the heart of New Right dogmatics about liberty and choice, finds systematic expression in neoconservatism. Indeed, some of the leading neoconservatives, like Irving Kristol, have radical political backgrounds. Their contribution in the last half of the twentieth century was to provide a systematic critique of "big government" and its policy failures and to show that the market was not only compatible with moral values but also more efficient in the delivery of social goods. Neoconservative arguments helped transform the political climate in the 1970s and 1980s and contributed to the intellectual defeat of socialism. However, there does exist a tension in neoconservatism between market fundamentalism and conservative skepticism. As Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990) once argued, a plan like Hayek's to end all planning is still a species of rationalism and one with which conservatives can only feel uncomfortable. It abstracts the market from the institutional and cultural traditions necessary for its flourishing, and for the skeptic, conservatism does not have a project to realize. That is its strength and not its weakness, for it properly designates the restricted competence in human affairs of such projects like market liberalization. If conservatism has an attitude toward capitalism, it is the endeavor to sustain those conditions that favor the political economy of freedom, a very different notion from the minimal state.

Postmodernism, human rights, and multiculturalism.

If in the early twenty-first century revolutionary ideologies like communism no longer threaten, arguments in favor of egalitarianism and the aggrandizing state have taken a new shape. As a result, conservatism has been obliged to engage with new discourses, such as postmodernism, human rights, and multi-culturalism. In 1959 Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) wrote that distinction and difference had become private matters of the individual and that simple insight, with its contradictory effects, continues to have profound implications for conservatism. Traditionally, of course, conservatism held distinction and difference not to be private matters at all but to be ones of public significance. According to Robert Nisbet, this is the key to understanding the conservative sociological imagination, where such differences, articulated in social institutions like Burke's "little platoons," mediate the relationship between the state and the individual.

The trend toward privatization has disordered that notion in two ways. First, the contemporary state has come either to absorb many of the functions of these institutions, like the educational responsibilities of churches, or to incorporate them into centrally determined policy networks. Second, it has become attractive for the individual to retire into a private world and to cede public duties to the care of professionals. The consequence of both aspects is an expansion of state influence that many conservatives do believe is inimical to individual freedom and social autonomy. For the conservative, the old radical dynamic that required a straightforward faith in state-fostered egalitarianism to be achieved through the redistribution of wealth between social classes has been replaced by a politics of inclusion that requires a rather contradictory faith not only in cultural "difference" but also in the redistribution of "worth" between social groups. The dynamic in this case is toward the removal of all obstacles in the way of social inclusion, and the motor is a refurbished language of abstract rights.

This new politics is understood to be yet another strategy to achieve the utopian objective of radical democracy, and conservatives believe that the only way it can be realized is by calling on the state to implement an ever-expanding body of entitlements. The influential neoconservative critique of modern liberalism has its roots here, and the concern is that the emphasis on rights will weaken the informal bonds of society and permit the state to become dangerously intrusive in the lives of citizens, destroying the distinction between public and private. Diversity is officially "celebrated," but what is fostered is a culture suspicious of independent thought or behavior or "political incorrectness." This is reminiscent of what George Santayana (1863–1952) once called "vacant liberty." Santayana's problem with the prescriptions of liberalism is its high-minded egalitarianism of respect, which he believes to be at odds with the very pluralism it seeks to promote. For Santayana, unlimited toleration would achieve the "euthanasia of differences," and as a consequence everybody "would be free to be what he liked, and no one would care to be anything but what pleased everybody" (p. 449). This anticipates a common, two-pronged, conservative criticism of contemporary liberalism. First, liberalism defends difference only in theory but cannot really come to terms with it in practice when it discovers that goodwill alone is not enough. Second, it is actually intolerant of dissent from political correctness and seeks to impose a modern version of "rational despotism." Two strands of conservatism, the civil and the cultural, can be identified in response to contemporary political trends.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshConservatism - Origins Of Conservatism: Britain, France, And Germany, The Challenge Of The Modern, Conservatism: Civil And Cultural