Conservatives and Progressives

[This article is the second in a series on Elitism, Conservatives and Progressives.]

Andrew Sullivan has been chewing over what it means to be a conservative and I would like to clarify my own ideas here. I agree with Sullivan in seeing Edmund Burke as the founder of modern conservatism. (Of course, that I am a Bristolian and the Anglo-Irish Burke represented the city in parliament doesn’t bias me in the least.) Modern conservatism arose as a reaction to the French Revolution, which is not to say that it was a reactionary movement, there being much to be said for the point of view that the French Revolution was a glorious mistake (the same could been achieved much less violently) and that conservatism offers a valuable critique, with Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France setting the terms of the debate.

Against the conservative narrative is the progressive narrative, that in a changing world it makes sense to actively move it towards a better place, leaving conservatives to cling to their illusory golden era. Indeed this idea fits Rousseau’s idea in the Social Contract that man was ‘born free but everywhere he is in chains’—that man is intrinsically good, naturally free to achieve perfection, but everywhere chained by backwards institutions designed to entrench power and wealth of the privileged.

From the ethical perspective, progressives tend to focus more on distributive justice, ensuring that resources are fairly distributed, while conservatives prefer formal justice, a set of rules that respect property ownership and provide a framework for their transparent exchange. This gets confusing because neo-liberal philosophies are highly market-oriented, resistant to any state interference, and generally favoured by conservatives; progressives are suspicious of neo-liberalism as it tends to favour the strong who can use their power to advantage. There is a school of thought that says that neo-liberalism is an extreme doctrine (market fundamentalism) whose principle attraction is that its selfishness. By slavishly deferring to the market the un-tempered individualism associated with extreme progressivism and the desire to entrench power associated with unbridled conservatism were allowed expression. This made it easy to make the transition from Thatcher/Reagan to Clinton/Blair. This school of thought tends to see neo-liberalism as corrupting both progressive and conservative values, leaving parties in both traditions hollowed out and doing the bidding of the corporations and the wealthy.

Running along side this is the idea of social conservatism (see previous article). Social conservatives believe that social norms are important for social cohesion, while progressives see them as irrational and repressive, the operation of the tyranny of the majority.

For those familiar with the dialectics in Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood, her mother and Willoughby represent the progressive extreme while her half-brother John Dashwood and his Ferrars in-laws represent insensitive conservatives; Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars represent a sane synthesis of these extremes. To understand that Elinor and Edward do not represent a one-sided conservative view but a mutually-enriching balanced synthesis of the concerns of the individual and those of the community that avoids above-all selfishness in either its progressive or conservative guises may help in reaching a more rounded view of progressive and conservative philosophies.

My first awareness of the tendency of hard-core progressives to embrace neo-liberal values came in trying to make sense of Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, essentially anticipating Margaret Thatcher’s political philosophy, which may or may not have caused the author some discomfort write a new introduction for the 1987 edition of the book (see The War of Ideas).

Of course, this is all fairly relative, with conservatives acknowledging the need for adjustments to accommodate changing situations and liberals aware of the value of stability and the workings of the law of unintended consequences. As hinted by the resolution in Sense and Sensibility, the best place is often away from the extremes with the real enemy our natural tendency to selfishness.

Next: Who is being Racist?

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