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Sisyphus Revisited: The Myth of the Conservative Ideology

Dec 26th, 2015 | By | Category: Features, Lead Article

Twenty-sixteen is not 1916 and it can never be.  The world in which we live is not a world of industrial capitalism and small merchants.  The world in which we live is not a world of isolated nations.  The world in which we live is not organized by local communities and their concomitant primacy in defining life. The world in which we live is not a parochial one in which we only see our beliefs and values being practiced.  The world in which we live is not one in which we are only in the presence of people exactly like us.

The world of 2016 is a world of international capital.  It is a world of multi-nation states and super-states.  It is a world structured by large formally organized institutions that frame our production, our consumption, and our civic organization.  It is a world in which these institutions are highly coupled, sometimes loosely and sometimes tightly.  It is a world in which our identities are not emergent from our local life and our community ties.  It is a world where information flows freely and in which there is no protective shell surrounding our beliefs and values.  It is a world where we cannot avoid being in contact with people who are not like us.

The world of today is unlikely to change anytime soon.  It certainly is unlikely to return to the world of 1916. Why?  The organization of the economic world is the major framer of most other elements of our lives.  It is a primitive determiner of where we live, how we obtain sustenance, our dreams and our realities, our values and beliefs, our political organization, and how we relate to one another. The organization of the economic world is not deterministic.  Rather it is the starter’s gun for the complex interplay of the economic structure with the inherited culture, individual will, technology, and all elements of the symbolic world that constitute the nature of the world within which we live.  In the end, it is unlikely that elements of our culture and lives are at odds with the prevailing economic structure.  This consistency is more a consequence of the economic structure framing other elements of our world than the other elements framing the economic structure.  The real world is not a Marxian world in which the power of material production determines all else, rather it is a world that is living and constantly changing through people who know the world through meaning.

So in 1916, the western world was organized as nation states (with some empire) based on an emerging industrial capital economy.  The world was a bourgeois world with bourgeois values.  Technology and mobility still limited our spatial organization and we lived locally in “communities,” mostly small and still organized around non-industrial agriculture.  All of this was quite consistent and supportive of bourgeois capitalism and agrarianism.  The bourgeois values of this time included the valuation of work; thrift, self-restraint; adherence to existing authority; freedom of commerce; loyalty to groups defined by ethnicity, locality, or religion; and a distrust for others not in the groups to which we were loyal.  These values are exactly the values included in the contemporary conservative narrative and, to a significant degree, the goals that define the political agenda of conservatives.  A desire for social institutions to support such values and even a desire for the state to contribute to that support were not unrealistic back then–now, not so much.

The twenty-sixteen world cannot accommodate a return to a world defined by those values.  Those values are not compatible with the world economy and the freedom of movement that has evolved in today’s world.  Perhaps unaware of this limitation, the contemporary conservative quest is for that return.  An important tenet of the conservative narrative and an important definer of that quest is an us vs. them definition of the world.  A sustainable world defined by us vs. them  would require a world organized around small enclaves of homogeneous people, much like the world of 1916.  This will not happen today given our political economy.  We will continually be in the presence of others not like us, if not a physical presence a virtual presence.  Not only would it be difficult to define the nature of these enclaves (who “us” are), but if we attempt to retreat to these ill-defined enclaves within a heterogeneous world, disorder will emerge.  Disorder will emerge because in that world trust is reserved for those within the enclave (the us) and distrust rules for those outside of it (the them).  The ability to keep our large-scale institutions functioning in the presence of such distrust would be wrought with problems.  In short, the return to the master tenet of the conservative world, us vs. them, is inconsistent with the existing political economy and would not survive.  This inconsistency is also true of other tenets of the conservative narrative which favor traditional group values over individualism, an individualism needed to feed the free-flowing functioning of a mobile capital world.

This reality does not preclude partial victories for the conservative cause.  The National Front in France may succeed in limiting immigration, in the U.S. some traditional values may work their way through the state; but a shift to a wholesale conservative world is not in the cards.  It would only be possible if the economic structure of the world economy were to change.  It will not change on its own accord and a change through evolution promises only more of the same.  The only way for the world political economy to change is through revolution and I can confidently advise the reader not to wage any money on that eventuality.  There is very little will in the world to do so.  When such will surfaces, the power residing in the existing world economy is a Goliath.  Even though the mobilization of radical Islamic groups have found a powerful sling shot, the fruits of their efforts will not resemble David’s.

Instituting political and social change based on conservative values is not sustainable because it is incompatible with the international political economy.  If and when such change is successful, it can only be limited and has a high probability of being called back.  This observation is not a  polemic about the immorality or lack of virtue of the conservative agenda.  It is entirely independent of such moral judgments.  One can argue (sometimes successfully) for the human or social advantages of the conservative agenda.  Rather, this simply is an observation about the nature of the world.  An observation that leads to the conclusion that such an agenda cannot be accomplished in a sustainable manner.  So pursuing the conservative political agenda, both in the world and in the United States, is an exercise in pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it role back down the hill.

Addendum 12/27:

In the original essay I didn’t include the most significant inconsistency between the conservative agenda and the 21st century political economy.  A major tenet of the conservative (or Right if you prefer) narrative and agenda is a desire to diminish the size and reach of the state.  The size and reach of the state will always be consistent with the needs of the economy.  Given that the international economy consists of complex, large organizations that are highly coupled and extend past state boundaries; a large and complex state is required to manage and support that economy.  This develops in forms that are not always fair, but will be complex nonetheless.  The size and reach of the state is also responsive to the formally organized nature of modern non-economic institutions.  The very nature of  their rationality and bureaucratic form requires an appeal to the state to provide order.

The state’s reach into largely moral and value-driven affairs is another matter.  The conservative agenda in the United States strongly opposes such a reach.  This development of the state is not required by the nature of the political economy or the rationalization of institutions.  Although a reliance on the state to be an actor in these matters is a consequence of that rationalization, since it spawns an expectation of a formal and rationalized method to achieve the goals pursued.

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  1. Having read this thoughtful response to the rise of nationalist populist movements, I would like to add my two cents as someone who has written widely on this phenomenon. I do not see the tendency that Mike is writing about as fitting a conservative template, since I’m not sure what “conservatism” means at this point in time. Therefore I would rather speak in terms of Right and Left and view the Right as a reaction to the Left, which may be one of a number of Lefts, all of which are committed to the ideal of equality and to the use of state coercion to level inequalities. The second defining feature of the Left is a commitment to universalism, which requires the breaking down of national and (at least for Christians) religious and cultural barriers.. All leftist visions entail totalitarian projects, whereas rightist movements could result and have resulted in authoritarian governments. A victory by the National Front would unlikely change much in France, since Marine Le Pen has been trying to mainstream her party in order to widen its electoral appeal. Once in power, the Front would likely follow the examples of the Alleanza Nazionale in Italy and the FPO in Austria and become simply a dominant party in some kind of coalition. The attempts to exclude parties of the right from government in France, Belgium and England are stupid and antidemocratic. But whether or not the present parties of the populist Right can be rendered bland and part of the system is not the same as the question of whether the Right, as opposed to the establishment business interests in the GOP, can be eliminated from political life. The essential Right can go into eclipse but since it answers certain human needs, e.g., rootedness, social belonging, and the defense of acquired rights, it is unlikely that the Right will disappear. The Right is not based on a “grand narrative.” It arises out of legitimate human needs.

  2. Professor Gottfried added in a personal correspondence, “The Right does not arise because people are deluded by un grand recit. It is a legitimate response to threatened human needs for rootedness and identity.” This is a reassertion of his closing comment above. To which I responded:

    I agree with you that there is a basic human need for rootedness and identity. That need is partly biological and evolutionary and partly a need arising out of a social construction. It is one of the shortcomings of modern rational society that a mechanism to fulfill such a need has not emerged to replace what existed in traditional society. Even though this is true, you shouldn’t consider the grand narrative a delusion–it too is part of a universal human process and need. It shouldn’t be put in opposition to the universal needs you mentioned.

    It is also true that these needs exist and must be addressed on a personal level and considered at the policy level. The manner in which they are addressed can vary — there is not only one way. I too have sympathy for a return to traditional community, although I recognize its shortcomings as well as its strengths. The point of the article is, that as a consequence of the environment in which it has to occur, the old way cannot make a reappearance in the same form it took before — despite how much we wish it so. Some individuals have been able to devise a personal replacement and some have been not as successful (indicative of Durkheim’s warning). The task for public policy is to set in motion the seeds for a replacement of the community of old. One that is generic enough to be partaken by a majority of the population. The parochialism of old must be synthesized with the enlightenment of the new to form a new enlightened parochialism. Only a enlightened parochialism can serve as the basis for our replacement of the community of old.

    The grand narrative is not a fiction made of whole cloth. It is constructed by many influences, including the legitimate human needs you mentioned. The form that it takes is not only contingent on those needs but on the social environment in which it develops throughout one’s biography. In the end, the grand narrative always serves as a collection of frames, filters, and forms to which contemporaneous attitudes must pass.

  3. Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars makes the same case about why conservatives lose and always have and why they win a little in the process.

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