Forms of Conservatism

June 25, 2013

[This very much a ‘clearing headspace’ post rather than a ‘considered informed opinion’ post.]

What is conservatism? Well – see provisos at the bottom, but one could say:

– It’s the view that things (social and political things, I mean) ought to stay more or less as they are.

Or

– It’s the view that things ought to have stayed more or less as they are – and now things ought to be changed to get them back to the way they used to be.

Or

– It’s the view that there is a ‘natural’ way for things to be, and even if things have never been that way in actual fact, we ought to work at getting things that way.

Why should things stay more or less as they are (or be returned to a former or natural state)? Well, maybe:

– Things are in fact extremely good as they are/were – possibly unimprovable. Here a substantive argument is offered for the specific virtues of the current/past state of affairs. This substantive argument might in principle have ended up endorsing any social/political arrangement at all – but as it happens, it ended up endorsing the current (/past) one.

Or

– Things are not exactly fantastic as they are/were – but neither are they utterly catastrophic, and given the human propensity to fuck things up we’re better off leaving well alone in fear that political intervention or innovation will produce something even worse.

Or

– Tradition is itself a virtue, for more or less ‘formal’ reasons – e.g. it creates bonds of community and social stability, which are goods in themselves – and therefore that which is traditional is worth conserving more or less regardless of its social/political content

Or

– There is an immanent order (of divinity or of nature) working its way out through our current (or past) modes of social organization, and social or political intervention will upset this order.

These are some of the forms of conservatism, or of conservative argument, off the top of my head. And, of course, it goes without saying that these arguments can (like any argument) be a mask for or expression of much more direct interests. We may advocate the politics we do because the achievement of those political goals would benefit us or our milieu – materially, socially. And this may be the case, even if the justification offered for that politics has nothing to do with material or social interests.

The categories listed above seem very general – indeed, they seem far too general to be of much practical analytic use. For example – any of my first three ‘formal’ characterisations of conservatism are in fact compatible with ideological content that is extremely non-conservative.

This may mean that my theoretical categories are just inadequate. Or it may also mean that analysis of conservatism (as of any ideology) should be first and foremost an analysis of its history. Perhaps there is a limit to the extent to which the complexity of the strange alliances that form family-resemblance political ideologies can be treated at this degree of generality at all.