“By contrast, Kirk insists that progressives are the real fools in thinking that unbridled reason alone can provide us with an adequate sense of meaning in the world.”
he conservative theorist Russell Kirk once opined that a fundamental difference between progressives and conservatives is that the former ask “What ‘is’?” while the latter ask, “What does this mean?” Progressives from the Enlightenment onwards have consistently tried to use reason to show that many of the conceits we have about the world are predicated on shaky or even entirely self-serving reasoning. A key example is Voltaire, who spent his long life not just criticizing but, outright, lampooning religious and secular authorities. The influence of these figures was so prevalent that a “critical”—or what Michael Oakeshott might call “skeptical—approach to the world became integrally associated with intelligence. This became so much the case that just a century later, J.S Mill would ridicule the Conservatives as the “stupid” party, given their unreflective belief in traditional and religious ways of apprehending the world. By contrast, Kirk insists that progressives are the real fools in thinking that unbridled reason alone can provide us with an adequate sense of meaning in the world. Conservatives, from Burke onwards, recognized that while it may be impossible to give a fully rational defense of traditional knowledge and institutions, they nevertheless played a vital role in the world. This is because most people did not desire to be critical thinkers and ask what truly “is.” Instead, they believed they possessed enough instinctual wisdom to recognize that such would be an endless task, which would never allow a person to settle back into their world after having been so cognitively disrupted.
This has a strong relationship with a theoretical question that has been on the minds of many conservative or conservative-friendly commentators over the last few years: how to maintain or restore a collapsing sense of shared order. Pundits like Ben Shapiro claim that we shouldn’t be surprised that without society being organized by shared values, there is only disorder and “warfare.” Religious critics writing in First Things decry increasing disagreement on what constitutes a good life, how people should live, and so on. Underpinning these anxieties is a belief that unless society is committed to a shared meaning on “what matters,” as Derek Parfit would put it, there can only be cynical idolatry, at best—and warfare and conflict, at worst. Few have expressed these anxieties more eloquently than Yoram Hazony, who, in his essay “Conservative Rationalism Has Failed,” called on even atheistic or skeptical conservatives to embrace the religious heritage of their nations to restore a shared sense of meaning and order:
“I often speak to young men and women who say they are excited about ‘conservatism.’ Yet when the sabbath comes around, they have not the slightest intention of keeping the sabbath as their ancestors did for two or three thousand years, but happily tell me that they are headed for the mountains or the beach, or staying home ‘to finish up something for work.’ No doubt, many of these are atheists or agnostics, and this is perhaps not their own fault. But this absolves them of nothing. If they were conservatives, they would not simply shrug their shoulders and go off to the beach, saying, ‘Oh well, too bad I’m an atheist.’ A conservative says in his heart: My entire country is suffering terribly from having cut off its traditions at the roots. What can I do to revive these traditions, to make myself a more conservative person, to give honor to the ideas and way of life of my ancestors who brought me here (or of the nation that adopted me)? And is it not, perhaps, my own fault too that I know nothing of God, having given up the search for the wisdom and understanding of my ancestors as an adolescent? Perhaps it is my own fault, after all, if I seek to exercise my freedom by going to the seashore on the seventh day, rather than setting it aside as my ancestors did, as a day for reconnecting myself to the traditions of my nation and its God.”
Now, this position brings with it many specifically religious dangers—most importantly, perhaps, the danger of inauthenticity. In effect, the demand, at least in some cases, is in asking others to dedicate themselves to a religious tradition, even one that person perhaps does not believe in, for the sake of preserving the order engendered by that tradition. It may, however, very well be the case that this is tantamount to compromising the ideals of a faith by demanding obedience to it, even from those who lack authentic love and dedication towards that religion. Arguably, this could pose far greater risks to a religion than rising secularization. I have discussed this elsewhere and need not repeat the entire argument here. In this piece, I merely invoke this position to highlight how deeply this conservative commitment to order can go.
Being unable to rationally justify the positions of a tradition is not a sufficient reason for abandoning it. This is because the disorder and “suffering,” which results from cutting off tradition “at the roots,” is enough to compel intellectual acquiescence. In the remainder of this essay, I want to show why this position is wrong on two levels. First, it overestimates the extent to which order can simply be established through putting forward a shared set of values, which are to be meaningful to all. Second, it largely ignores—as Kirk himself did—the major philosophical elephant in the room; just because conservatives care more about what something means than what “is” doesn’t mean they can just will into existence whatever they wish. One cannot simply reason from the human need for order and meaning to postulate the existence of spectral entities—whether one is referring to religious values, or the ever-ephemeral idea of the nation. As Max Weber pointed out in his Vocation Lectures, the mature way to approach the world as an individual in the post-Enlightenment era is through accepting the disorder associated with uncertainty in a dignified manner.
Conservatism, Order, and Values
“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
T.S Eliot, “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”
In his excellent book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, Edmund Fawcett argues that conservatives have more in common with their utopian opponents on the Left than they might expect. Both hardened conservatives and utopian leftists believe that one can conceive a transcendent society, which exists beyond the disorderly to-and-fro of politics. For utopian thinkers on the Left, this would be a fraternal society of equals who cooperate and share everything. For conservatives, it is a society ordered by shared values where the excellent rise to the top through virtuous acts—and the masses accept it for their own good. Conservatives might, thus, decry the emergence of the liberal personality which is “politic, cautious, and meticulous” and who holds the mediocrity-inducing doctrine that life will always be filled with conflicts, many of which tend to be petty, snide, and mundane. Conservatives also see in the progressive and liberal personality the potential for disorder, given his calls to redistribute power and wealth to those to whom they do not belong. For some conservatives, this disposition means defending the status quo and retroactively trying to claim that—despite some individuals and groups being seriously disadvantaged relative to others—society, as it exists, is such a meritocratic hierarchy. This then leads to attacks against progressives who are bringing disorder into the world by disrupting meritocratic competition by elevating the less worthy over others through social and affirmative action programs. For other more reactionary conservatives, the hierarchy is already so destabilized that just defending the status quo is no longer sufficient. Militant pushback is needed, such as what Sohrab Ahmari describes in his reflections on the culture war.
The problem is that without a shared set of values, the order needed to produce the effective and virtuous hierarchy dissolves. We can no longer be sure as to what constitutes excellence, virtue, or a life worth living. This results in each individual person or group siloing himself off and pursuing his own conception of the good life, without concern for the affective consequences for a society as a whole. For many conservatives, this disorder finds its ideological expression in calls for equality of all sorts. Economic egalitarians do not see any excess value in what the capitalist produces relative to labor. As such, they call for the “appropriation” of his likely ill-gotten gains. The egalitarianism of identity politics is of a more subtle sort—but can be seen in calls for tolerance of even unvirtuous activity, as well as the leveling of all standards of excellence to make way for greater cultural pluralism. All of these are symptomatic of the breakdown of shared values, which produces chaos and division.
Conclusion: The Limitations to a Politics of Order
There are several difficulties to this conservative account of the world, which need to be addressed one at a time. First, conservatives overestimate the practical tenability of establishing a shared value system, which can order the world at the level of both meaning and social hierarchy. This can be seen in the conservative approach to history, which is often predicated on a highly nostalgic reading of the past as relatively free of conflict because people believed the same things. This does not tend to square with a looking at traditional societies, which were—if anything—even more mired in dispute and internecine violence than today’s liberal and social democracies. Everything from disputes over religion, to wars of imperialist aggression, to demands for recognition and equal treatment rocked traditionalist societies from the beginning. The only way to settle these disputes was through the application of power and authority, which enabled those who benefitted from the status quo to paper over the ideological and material cracks in the edifice through force.
And, of course, this is what liberals and progressives have long criticized conservatives for. The insistence on shared values, order and hierarchy often seems to mask a thinly concealed ambition for keeping those at the top where they are by providing retroactive justifications for unequal and unfair hierarchies. This suspicion is further vindicated when one sees the politics of resentment characteristic of say, post-modern conservatism. As Wendy Brown puts it in her excellent new book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, it is not hard to read Trumpism as the resentment of the powerful towards those who are demanding a greater share of the pie. Many of its intellectual justifications take the form of trying to defend those with power against such calls, even going so far as to suggest that historically unequal peoples should be “grateful” for what the powerful have done for them. It is not hard to question whether this resentment-driven interpretation of history and the world now is really driven by a realistic understanding of what was and what is.
This brings me to my final point, which is that there are fundamental limitations to the conservative approach of asking what values “mean” to those keen on maintaining ordered hierarchy rather than what “is.” What “is” fundamentally impacts us all, whether we wish it or not; we cannot decide to opt-out of reality, no matter how hard we wish to be able to. Part of the danger to traditionalist worldviews is that are predicated on epistemological and metaphysical ideas that simply are not that intellectually convincing anymore—and certainly not in the order-inducing form many conservatives wish them to be. Whether one talks about the declining respectability of medieval religious metaphysics from the critiques of Hume and Kant onwards—or the complications to Western triumphalism wrought by critics who point out its many sins and multicultural contributors—the idols of more reactionary conservatives look to be tottering. In the long run—without taking drastic steps to limit people’s exposure to critical arguments—it is inevitable that many will find these idols less convincing as both an account of the world and what matters. The only solution would be to find a way to situate conservative positions on less shifting grounds, which is obviously unpalatable to many with a deep attachment to the way things were.
Over time, I feel that many of the more pertinent objections raised by conservatives concerned with order can be better met in other ways. One example would be through paying far greater attention to the material needs of the people at the bottom, who are often among the first to look skeptically on the romanticized hagiographies about virtue and hierarchy put forward by conservative intellectuals. One can also take firmer strides in the direction of political inclusion and participation, which can give previously ostracized individuals and groups in society a stake in the system. The disorder we see in the world today is as much a result of failing to take citizens’ concerns about equality and democracy seriously as they are about value. Indeed, more reactionary strains of post-modern conservatism are often the greatest threat to the overlapping liberal-democratic value systems that hold many societies together—not to mention their disdain for the truth. This is why I think committing to a rejuvenation of the Left and social democratic values is a better way to bring order to the world than the nostalgic demands of contemporary and post-modern conservatism.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.