There has been some interesting discussion in this part of the internet recently about the nature of what it means to be “conservative” in political, or even in philosophical, terms. To start things off, Edward Trimnell criticized Vox Day in general for being unrepresentative of the ideals of what Trimnell sees as the conservative movement:
– Real conservatives aren’t sexist.
– Real conservatives aren’t racist.
– Real conservatives believe in the separation of church and state.
(Some of the most influential and prolific conservative thinkers have been women and minorities, by the way: Ayn Rand, Thomas Sowell, Walter E. Williams, and Jeane Kirkpatrick–just to name a few. And most of the Founding Fathers were lukewarm on the subject of religion.)
That is real conservatism. Phony conservatism is something else. “Phony conservatism” is the attempt to mix legitimate conservative principles with gender, religious, or ethnic biases.
This is not conservatism at all–but a cynical appeal to barnyard tribalism and group identity politics, the same thing that the Left preaches, only for different political ends.
As Vox quickly pointed out, Trimnell’s conservative vision is not meaningfully conservative in the grand sweep of history:
Due to its false foundations, his “conservatism” is not only neither rational nor coherent, it is more firmly in accordance with the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution than anything that can be credibly identified with conservative thought dating back to Athens.
The core of the problem is that the underlying political philosophy of the United States finds its roots in the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolutionary period. Even though these were expressed somewhat differently in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S Constitution than they were in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the main ideas are congruent — all men are created equal, and the highest order principles are liberty and equality. All of our political discussions take these principles, these ends, as givens. The “debate” between the left and the right is about the relative importance of each, how each is to be properly defined, how each is best to be realized in policy terms, how each applies in different spheres, and, above all, about the appropriate speed and timing of substantial change, but both the left and the right see themselves as champions of the principles of liberty and equality.
And therein lies the problem.
If the political history of the U.S. since its inception is to be traced to these ideals of the Enlightenment and French Revolutionary period, then, of course, any conservatism which finds itself ensconced in the heart of that political history must be constrained by that provenance and find its main meaning within it. That is — our political discourse is all about what we think the heritage of the Enlightenment means, and what we think its best heritage is, and how we think that is to be achieved and when, rather than whether what the Enlightenment preached was good in and of itself. A true opposition would question that baseline, rather than assume a priori its goodness and desirability, and this is precisely why the conservative movement in the United States is neither a true opposition (whether it finds itself in power or not) nor a truly conservative movement, other than in contrast to the left side of the Enlightenment tradition — as between them it is more a dispute about ways, means and timing, rather than ideals. The current right and left in our political discourse really are just two sides of the same coin, each constrained by the same Enlightenment vision.
A true conservatism would question this ubiquitous and unquestioned allegiance to the ideas of the Enlightenment and revolutionary periods. As Mark Hackard has pointed out, Fyodor Dostoevsky identified a similar problem when looking at the political conservatism of his day:
Fyodor Dostoevsky has rightly been called a prophet of the modern age. With a depth of vision unrivalled, he saw that cultural, political, and economic disorder have their main source in a crisis of the spirit. Dostoevsky then foresaw how man’s rebellion against the Transcendent would progressively accelerate into full-blown anarchy. This idea became a central theme of The Possessed, his great counter-revolutionary novel. Within the book particular attention was drawn to the spiritual corruption of the ruling class, the so-called conservative elements of society.
Dostoevsky wrote about Russia, but he was also deeply sensitive to the West’s descent into secularism. By the 19th century “enlightened” European man had hurtled headlong into apostasy, abandoning Christ for the worship of self; his first act of regicide was the murder of God within his heart. Without sacral authority, power was said to derive from the perfect will of “We, The People,” guided by moneyed manipulators and their technocrats. Parties like the GOP and the Tories have done nothing to arrest the decline of our societies because they ultimately share the same radical, anti-traditional principles of the Left. For evidence, look no further than Britain’s rapid transformation into a crime-ridden, multicultural surveillance state, where the ruling Conservatives advance homosexual “marriage” as a matter of moral legitimacy.
The ideals of modernity, manifested in progress, equality, democracy, total individual autonomy, etc. form a counterfeit religion. So long as the self-proclaimed Right holds fast to any of these fantasies, opposition to liberalism is meaningless and purely cosmetic. Rhetorical nods to cultural consolidation, i.e. “family values,” are articulated within the corrosive framework of Enlightenment rights ideology, and only for the purpose of grabbing votes. Does anyone truly contemplate that Republicans will attempt anything meaningful against institutionalized infanticide? Lest we forget, over 50 million unborn children have been slaughtered in the United States since abortion was made legal by the Supreme Court in 1973. It is now a point of pride that American men and women fight for these storied liberties from the Hindu Kush to the Maghreb.
With the traditional West devastated and hierarchy inverted, there is precious little to conserve besides one’s faith and lineage, the necessities for survival and resurgence. But modern conservatives reject the divine-human and heartfelt essence of culture, thereby serving as the liberal order’s most ardent defenders. How easy it is to cheer the next war, demographic dissolution or crass popular amusements, all acts in the founding of a Garden of Earthly Delights, what Dostoevsky imagined as a glorified anthill. The conservative movement knows what’s really important: generous contributions from the financial and defense industries to maintain policies of corporate centralization and overseas empire.
The mainstream Right has led the West to systemic cultural collapse in full collusion with the slightly more radical Left.
In the context of the contemporary West, and the U.S, in particular, conservatism is essentially a waste of time as a distinct political philosophy from the reigning spirit of liberalism. If your allegiance is to the ideas of the Enlightenment, then full-on liberalism is surely a better option, because it adheres even more closely to that agenda and worldview, and does so on a more uncompromising, immediate track. Conservatism functions as its handmaiden in being the sweetener that makes the left’s medicine go down more easily. In a society thoroughly oriented around the ideals of the Enlightenment, as is the case with the United States, this is the political function served by conservatism — support for the more radical agenda of the left by slowing it down and thereby making it more palatable for those portions of society who are more resistant to, and hesitant of, radical change. It seems plausible and understandable that in this context what labels itself as conservatism is more attractive to those members of the society who are less naturally disposed to being accepting of swift and radical change, but this does not really distinguish it fundamentally from the political philosophy of its supposed opponents — the differentiation is relegated to notions of speed, timing and means, whereas both sides share the same basic goals of increased liberty and increased equality.
If one is really interested in countering the juggernaut of leftist thought, one must go outside the Enlightenment tradition, because leftist thought is simply the purer, faster, less compromising manifestation of that tradition. It isn’t the left, or the democrats or labour that is wrong — it’s the underlying philosophy, and it’s a philosophy that the republicans and the tories share almost completely. For people who find themselves at odds with the contemporary system — not just its policies or means, but also its ends — it’s high time to move elsewhere, away from conservatism, and towards other options that more fundamentally address the flaws in the underlying assumptions of our society at their source. Options that address the ends — and not simply squabbling about how to best define the same ends — and not merely the means. And each of these options will be something that is quite different from what we currently call “conservatism”.