There are two senses to the word ‘conservatism’ (actually I’m going to use the word in a third way next week as well). The two I’m going to discuss this week are political conservatism and personal conservatism.
On one level political conservatism is just dumb: if you can say that political conservatism’s motto is ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’, you can also say that no one ever proposes to fix something that isn’t broken, if they come up with proposals for change it must be because they genuinely believe that change is required. And if concerns are widely raised then there is likely to be a reason this impetus, and things as they currently are are broken. And for conservatism to stand in the way of necessary change, or act as a drag upon it, is, well, dumb.
On the other hand in most of human history, doing nothing new was the best course, or at least the one with the fewest risks, and in this sense conservatism has some sort of appeal, and as a relic of this personal conservatism (the second sense) is a widespread mentality.
Political conservatism, having flourished throughout most of human history ran into trouble at the beginnings of modernity (the C18), when it became apparent that technological and societal change could produce such dramatic transformations, and that these changes weren’t going to stop after a few years, but were going to become the very feature of modernity itself. Thus in Britain conservatism in its strict form died with Duke of Wellington, and in Australia with Wentworth’s successful foiling of the plans for the ‘Bunyip aristocracy’.
Since then conservatism has become a sorry thing, condemned to play catch-up with liberalism at all times (this was the form of conservatism formulated by Disraeli and other Conservative Party luminaries in Britain, and in another form, by Bismarck in Germany). This strategy consisted in supporting the principles of reform, but opposing most actual reforms proposed by parties to the left of the conservatives, and only implementing reforms on a very small scale, or in a form where the effects of these reforms could be easily controlled.
This is modern political conservatism at its best, at other times modern political conservatism has had a pretty sorry history of cuddling up to various groups that nothing to do with conservatism, strictly speaking; a list of such entanglements might include:
- fascists (eg the German conservative politicians who invited the Nazi Party into coalition in 1933 and got swallowed up);
- populists (people who can believe six impossible things before breakfast), (eg the current entanglement of the US Republican Party with the Tea Party, or John Howard’s manoeuvring to secure One Nation voters in the 1990s);
- racists (eg the Howard Government’s refugee policies passim);
- agrarian socialists (eg the National Party/Liberal Party Coalition in Australia, the enormous farming subsidies in the US, endorsed by both political parties);
- liberals (in the non-US sense), (eg the sad history of the liberals in the ‘Liberal’ Party in Australia, the current bear-hug of the UK Liberal Democrats by the Tories).
And finally there is that strange beast which I can’t even think of a name for, the prurient political movement whose major interest is in other people’s sexuality, and trying to control it (good luck!).
All this is because political conservatism has a powerful constituency, something like 30% of the electorate who really believe that nothing should change, everything is fine (though it was better in the 1950s (even though conservatives then thought it had been even better in 1930s)), and to gain the extra few percent of the vote required to form government it has to find another set of voters from the list above to secure its ‘mandate’.
Against this we need to set the observation that change cannot be avoided and conservatism is basically a confidence trick as no actual functioning conservative government has even been able to get away with changing nothing, however hard they tried (President Eisenhower in the US tried quite hard). In practice the functioning of conservatism is to cleave closely to the pillars of respectable society, such as financial institutions, business and industry groups, professional groups, and allow them to dictate policy, even where the changes that these groups require are quite radical and hurt the conservative bloc that forms the backbone of conservative parties’ support. How ironic.
(Just as an aside, can anyone think of social reforms that have been proposed from the C19 onwards that have not, in the end, been enacted, excluding a few things like abolition of private property which never had much of a chance of success? If you look back at the catalogue of changes demanded, including votes for women, sexually equality enacted in legislation, no-faults divorce, abortion rights, legalisation of homosexuality &c &c, all of these have been granted eventually, despite all the heel-dragging in the world by conservatism. I suspect this means that current progressive ‘demands’ are eventually going to be ‘granted’ regardless of what conservatism thinks.)
Against conservatism, we have to argue that things are always changing, and always will be changing. Nothing stays in place for any length of time, as Heraclitus and the Yi Jing* concur. Conservatism heel-dragging does not ensure that change only occurs when wise heads have pondered deeply and only the best changes are enacted, because some of the most radial and least well-advised changes in the C20 and C21 have occurred under conservative governments, such as those under Thatcher in Britain, Reagan in the US and Howard here in Australia.
And, as this blog keeps on insisting, humanity at the moment is faced with ecological changes that are so momentous that only immediate and radical change can prevent disaster. If conservatism is allowed to continue its slow, and ill-advised, attitude to change we will not see a failure to act in the face of ecological change, we will see a properly conservative reaction: this will be very ugly and will probably involve killing, or at the least allowing-to-die, on the widest scale and several generations of organised cannibalism to enable the survival of a few societies.
By contrast changes that can be contemplated and enacted soon and in a willing and intelligent way, I hope, can make the transition to the future that modernity has entailed, one that can preserve as much of humanity as possible and provide a proper sense of continuance and continuity for humanity (ironically what conservatism wants, but never delivers).
* For Yi Jing aficionados I’d say we’re probably at 12, ䷋, 否 (pǐ, ‘obstruction’) right now.
Next Week: Impediments 8: Liberalism