Friday, August 19, 2011

Conservatism: Myth-Making for Oligarchy

What does the conservative believe, deep-down, if anything? While liberalism is rooted in the Scientific Revolution, conservatism has a much more ancient pedigree, stretching back to ancient monarchies and aristocracies, to prehistoric nomadic tribes, and even to the dominance hierarchies in most social species, from fish to birds to mammals, in which a minority of elite members rule over the majority by force, for the group’s stability. Prior to the advent of capitalism and the rise of modern science and the middle class, resources were lacking to educate the majority of people to make them fit to rule; the majority had to work tirelessly on the farm and had no time for more intellectual pursuits. Elites and predators arose to occupy the power vacuums, and the paths they carved established pecking orders. Myths accumulated to rationalize those unequal social arrangements, associating the leaders with gods and positing the wickedness of human nature that’s overcome either by the will of God bestowed on the king who’s given the divine right to rule through his bloodline, or by intensive training in a religious or secular institution.

The British conservative, Edmund Burke, argued that this traditional form of minority government is the most prudent and shouldn’t be tampered with by rationalist radicals, such as the Jacobins who were to do just that in the French Revolution. Conservatism is thus opposed to scientism, to optimism about the prospect for social progress that mimics the scientific kind, making government out to be social engineering. According to Burke, traditions that stand the test of time have more authority than an unproven abstract theory of how a society might be designed from scratch. Moreover, democracy is an unwise system for the above reason having to do with original sin. Whereas liberals trust in human nature, replacing God, angels, and other supernatural forces with human technocrats, conservatives are pessimistic about human beings: we tend to behave wickedly because we’re innately depraved. We’re lucky that some few of us manage to control their beastly impulses, excel in their education, and act for the general welfare by taking up the thankless task of government.

Elitist Conservatism

Talk of original sin is, of course, the oldest form of monumental fear-mongering for narrow political advantage. Granted, there must have been nomadic tribes or villages whose ignorant members were indeed thankful that they’d been blessed with leaders who stood out from the crowd by being not just more intelligent but more virtuous. The majority then would have benefited from the work of that elite minority, and the inequality between them would have been not just real but relevant to the different tasks for each social class.

But in a larger state, the inequality becomes a liability and the greater power needed to run that state tends to corrupt the rulers. Moreover, the myth of original sin contradicts elitism. If human nature is depraved, how can anyone overcome that innate depravity, by human effort? If God can overcome it by somehow purifying royal bloodlines, why doesn’t God grant everyone the same favour? When the king says that he deserves to rule because God wiped away his corrupt nature, he appeals to a miracle, which is tantamount to saying that no one but God understands why he should rule. Besides being childishly anthropocentric, the myth that God hand-picks human rulers has been all-too self-serving: long before the televised Kennedy-Nixon political debate, monarchs learned to appear majestic in public, keeping their debaucheries secret.

And we should concede, too, that in evolutionary terms a dominance hierarchy benefits the whole social group by preventing unnecessary damage to the members, making the group more stable, the alternative being constant internal conflicts in aggressive competitions for scarce resources. Clearly, though, the existence of liberal democratic societies shows that humans aren’t as limited as fish or birds in their capacities to solve such conflicts. We can imagine alternative, less exploitative and self-corrupting ways of organizing people than naked or covert oligarchy. The liberal thinks this can be done scientifically, with social engineering, ignoring the nonrational factors such as the need for inspiring visions, myths, ideals, and principles. The conservative seems to think this can’t be done at all and that when a democratic society emerges, appearing to disclose the possibility of an alternative to the primitive pecking order, the conservative should hide the evidence by sabotaging that society’s ability to challenge the oligarchs’ privileges.  

The upshot is that Burkean conservatism is a form of what I called Straussian, Platonic elitism and is quite comparable to the liberal version. (See Liberalism.) The difference between the two is just that conservative elitism is much more brazen in its noble lies. The liberal humanist has only the stale, derivative myths of civic religions to appeal to, pretending to uphold the values of reason, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all the while suffering internally from postmodern nihilism and angst. The conservative elitist taps into much better-tested myths, flowing from ancient monotheistic religions.

You might think the conservative’s brazenness in this regard must be matched by a more chaotic inner life for the conservative, since the conservative has to live with his or her more-stupendous hypocrisy. When a liberal system manager falls short of human-made law, this is no more egregious a crime than failing to follow the instructions in setting up a microwave oven: since in liberalism there’s no evaluation of the system’s ultimate goal, the liberal’s crime can be one only of inefficiency. But the conservative elitist scares the majority into docility with wild, utterly anachronistic and manifestly absurd myths, and the conservative’s failure to live up to them should naturally be understood in just as grandiose terms. (Goebels must have been thinking of theology when he said that the greater the lie, the more people are willing to believe it--if only because it so taxes faith in human decency to try to imagine the scale of monstrosity needed to tell such a lie.) But this isn’t necessarily so, because the mental compartmentalization and other capacities for cognitive dissonance needed to pull off the conservative’s whoppers in the first place can be just as effective in rationalizing the conservative’s inevitable hypocrisy.

Religious Conservatism

So far, I’ve suggested that Burkean conservatives are Straussian elitists. But those are just the secular conservatives, who may pretend to be religious. What about the truly religious conservatives? What do they really believe? The easy answer is just to look at what their religions proclaim. So religious American conservatives, for example, would be Christians and that would be that. But no one can understand religious conservatives just by assuming that their fundamental beliefs are dictated by their religion. The main reason this is so is that there’s an insuperable hermeneutic problem of interpreting religious texts. Especially when the texts have multiple authors and are written over a period of centuries, as is the case with the Bible, the texts admit of endless interpretations, making the religion flexible enough to survive for millennia by transforming itself as needed. Saying, then, that religious conservatism is defined by a religious text only pushes the problem back a step: the reason conservatives interpret their scriptures as they do, ignoring swaths of teachings and emphasizing others, is that they already have fundamental beliefs which don’t derive from their religion.

There’s abundant evidence that the deepest beliefs of religious Republicans, for example, aren’t religious. Their religion would be Christianity, but both the New Testament and early Church traditions are obviously at odds with Republican foreign and domestic policies. According to objective (as opposed to dogmatic) New Testament scholarship, the few scraps of information that have a chance of tracing back to an historical Jesus indicate that Jesus was, in effect, a hippie who believed that the world’s end was somehow imminent in his own time. Therefore, people needed to quit their worldly concerns, such as their family relations, political squabbles and material possessions, and focus obsessively on relating to God. In other words, Jesus was, roughly speaking, an Essene, a type of Jewish radical in his day.

Instead of the world literally ending in the way expected by Jesus’ confused earliest followers, Jesus himself ended on the Roman cross, and Paul provided an elaborate theological excuse that preserved Jesus’ ethical message only by tearing it to pieces and replacing it with his own in Jesus’ name. Paul’s message was that we can’t improve ourselves enough to please God, because of that handy horror story of original sin, which is why Jesus came to please God by dying as our sacrifice. All we need to do is believe that Jesus did so and our inner nature will be magically transformed, giving us the power to please God by living up to Jesus’ ascetic social standards.

When the world stubbornly continued instead of ending in apocalypse--the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE notwithstanding--and Christianity accidentally became the official religion of the collapsing Roman empire, the religion transformed itself again, to justify the power that Christian officials would need to hold together the empire’s remnants. Thus, by Catholic decrees that supplement what little is known about the Christian founder, Christians could eliminate heresies, persecute pagans, and war with the Muslim world. Whereas Jesus preached pacifism and impractical love of enemies--again, because his ethical standards presuppose the terrifying mystical nearness of God’s rule on Earth--later so-called “Christians” could act as though they hate their enemies enough to torture or kill them, and that behaviour has been sanctioned by the later Church officials.

Now, Republican policies (minimal if any government help for the domestic poor, socialism for the wealthy, warmongering, etc.) may be more or less in line with late “Christianity,” but this alignment is as political--rather than religious--as has been the Church’s transformation over the centuries. Late Christianity reflects a secularization of the religion, a necessary compromise so that the religion could survive despite its foundation in Jesus’ absurd life and death. So once again, we can’t say that the fundamental beliefs of a Christian conservative, at least, are religious, because those so-called religious beliefs (Family Values, Just War Theory, Prosperity Theology that rationalizes material wealth, etc.) have nothing to do with religion, and that’s the case even when those beliefs are blessed by the official Church, which itself long ago became a cryptosecular institution bent on surviving regardless of the cost to its spiritual side.

A similar argument can be made about conservative Muslims, especially the militant Wahhabis who adapted Muslim traditions to fulfill their secular, anticolonial agenda of ridding Muslim countries of occupying military forces, such as those of the Soviet Union or the US. Regardless of whether there’s a kernel of truth in the militant’s interpretation of his scriptures and religious traditions--there’s no doubt a kernel of truth in any logically possible interpretation of them, given their poetic character--that interpretation is clearly selected because of the militant’s prior interpretation of what seem to be principles of social justice and tribal ambition. While Islamic theism and supernaturalism surely exacerbate tribal instincts, the militants are defined not by certain contents of their scriptures, but by their secular emphasis on those contents. At least, I think there’s something deeper going on in so-called religious conservatism.

Note that I’m saying not that religious conservatives are really atheists who are pretending to be religious. I’m assuming that they’re theists and therefore different from the conservative variety of Straussian elitists. But their brand of theism is chosen for secular reasons; once chosen, they believe in that brand as members of their sect. While these conservatives are religious, then, their conservatism isn’t explainable simply in religious terms, because their religious beliefs, which they genuinely possess, serve a deeper secular purpose which I’ve yet to explain.

Evangelical Conservatives

What, then, does a religious conservative believe, deeper down? Why does that conservative warm to a certain interpretation of scripture despite the plethora of alternative interpretations? In my view, the religious conservative believes simply in the default form of government that was more or less universal prior to modern times: the rule of the many by the few. This dominance hierarchy can be despotic, as in a dictatorship, or linear when there are multiple levels of power, each dominating only those below it (as in a complex oligarchy or a monarchy with a court beneath the king). Those primitive evolutionary patterns are the “traditions” that religious conservatives wish to conserve, their arch opponents being the scientistic, democratic liberals who, inspired by modern scientific progress, trusted in the universality of human reason but then found that that trust produces only rudderless, nihilistic technocracies (see Canada and Europe), turning liberals into “pragmatic centrists” or systems managers like so many desiccated Darth Vaders. Liberals want the majority to rule, because they’re humanists who regard everyone as equal by their power of human reason. Conservatives want a minority to rule, because they reject the scientistic reduction of human society to the rest of nature, maintaining that just because reason can rule the latter through technological uses of scientific theories, doesn’t mean it can rule the former through big, bureaucratic governments.

Which minority should rule, according to modern religious conservatives? There are at least two answers, accounting for the division, for example, between evangelical Christian Republicans and superficially-secular, libertarian Republicans. I’ll consider each in turn. To cut to the chase, evangelical Christianity is theocratic. The evangelical Christian believes that Christians are superior to non-Christians, because the latter are controlled by Satan’s demonic forces while the former alone are liberated by the power of faith in Christ’s sacrifice. So this Christian rejects the social extension of the Scientific Revolution in the Enlightenment, and is left with a preference for the default social structure, common to primitive tribes overseen by elders, to empires run by monarchs or aristocracies, and to police states ruled by dictators, not to mention most of the social animal world. The conservative Christian’s deepest defining belief, then, is a preference for autocratic rule by some elite minority over the inferior majority. That preference causes the conservative Christian to favour a conservative interpretation of Christianity, which in turn dictates the identities of the minority and of the majority. The minority who ought to rule is made up of born-again, Bible-believing evangelical Christians, while the majority who ought to be ruled consists of everyone else, especially those who explicitly reject Christianity.

Of course, I’m not saying that conservative Christians call themselves theocrats (some do, known as Dominionists, Christian Reconstructionists, or The Fellowship, but most don’t) or even that they understand themselves to be such. What I’m saying is that their secular conservatism (their desire for autocratic order established by the capable few) plus their chosen religion (a cherry-picked interpretation of myths and legends, providing a theological rationale for their political preference) entail theocracy.

Libertarian Conservatives

As for the libertarian conservatives, they substitute the “free market” for the supernatural power of God. Instead of miracles brought about by God’s invisible hand, Darwinian competition in a marketplace is supposed to be meritocratic and self-regulating. Just as natural selection produces the “miracle” of designed (adapted) organisms, the unfettered market in which competition is allowed to occur with minimal if any interference produces the miracles of the correct price of goods, innovative products, and growing economies. The market is an environment that selects for economic excellence by bankrupting failures, producing a functional economy that preserves everyone’s freedom to compete.

Note that the libertarian is as scientistic as the liberal humanist, effectively reducing economics to biology (the reduction is thought to be accomplished by Game Theory). Note also that self-consistent libertarianism must speak only of functional markets, not of meritocratic or otherwise normative ones. This is because there are no norms or values--such as ethical or aesthetic ones--in the part of the world explained by biologists. Natural selection creates functional traits, in that the traits will work as their ancestors did, because the ancestors and descendents are built by the same genetic code, which is all that’s directly selected by the environment in which the host organisms live long enough to sexually reproduce members of their type. The prevailing designs in an environment that’s home to replicators are in no sense objectively best; they’re simply the results of some animals’ survival under certain conditions. When the conditions change, other species are built by mutated genes, and the process goes on and on. The animals themselves may approve of their ability to survive thanks to their adapted body-types, but that’s a subjective source of the value of those types.

Now, if that’s all a free market is, an arena for an economic version of natural selection, the products of free market forces are in no way objectively right or wrong, or better or worse. The myths to the contrary, put out by economic conservatives to hype various bubble markets and persuade people to support deregulation, commit the fallacy of social Darwinism, which is a variant of the naturalistic fallacy that infers an “ought” from an “is,” a prescription by a norm or value from a description of an objective fact. A social Darwinist takes Darwin’s biological theory to imply that human societies ought to be just like life in the wild, and that raw competition between humans is best because that’s our most natural state. There’s no such implication, and to the extent that free market libertarianism is a version of social Darwinism, libertarianism is logically flawed.

What the libertarian can add, by way of showing how the free market could be meritocratic, is that the free market produces goods that are appreciated, in that they’re goods that people choose to buy. The value of those goods, though, would be subjective and thus dependent on the quality of the consumers. The questions would remain whether a free market economy tends to elevate or lower the standard of the character of participants in that economy, and whether, in the latter case, the laissez faire economy is sustainable.

In any case, talk of subjective value has no place in libertarian conservatism if the libertarian has scientific aspirations for her political theory. And once we appreciate the scientism of that political theory, we can identify the minority whom the libertarian must say should rule over the majority. The minority must be just those select predators who do actually rise to the top of their food chain in the wild (free) economy. The libertarian isn’t committed to preserving a bloodline, like a defender of aristocracy; instead, the libertarian is religiously adamant that what must be preserved at all costs is an economy’s wildness, since brutal struggle in the wilderness is the selection mechanism for functional, well-adapted members of a society. Oligarchs may come and go, but what should be constant is everyone’s freedom to leap into the capitalistic jungle and do battle, to test his or her capacity to succeed in the conflict of ideas or wills, or whatever is supposed to be the social analogue of genes. The majority who should be ruled, then, consists just of those who are actually ruled in a free market, namely those who wind up having relatively little money or control over the mainstream media or the superficially-democratic political system.

Again, the scientistic reduction of economics to biology has no normative implications. But what makes some libertarian conservatives religious is their use of myths to sanctify the marketplace and to veer into fallacious social Darwinian glorification of economic struggles. (The historian Thomas Frank documents much of this in One Market Under God.) It’s one thing to compare economic competition in a harsh marketplace to natural selection, but it’s another to help oneself to normative evaluations of either natural process, worshipping business leaders for being “rewarded” by something ethereal and reified called The Market, and hyping capitalism as qualitatively superior to any other economic system. Whether capitalism is superior depends on which social goals are best, and thus on the relevance of those sets of statistics that the libertarian conservative likes to trot out when in a scientistic mood. And as a pseudoscientist, that sort of conservative has no authority to speak on the normative, cultural question of the direction in which a society should head. It may be that a fine social goal is to maintain the ecosystem so that organisms can continue to live in it, and that capitalistic systems tend not to be so self-regulating that they take that long-term concern into account.

Regardless, the religious libertarian conservative (as opposed to a traditional monotheistic one) adds a half-baked theology to quasibiological economics, mythologizing and obscuring what actually happens in a minimally-regulated market. For example, competition tends to stop when a monopoly or an oligopoly naturally forms and potential competitors are bought up before they can effectively challenge the ruling companies. The rulers then rig the system in their favour, purchasing politicians with campaign contributions and with the implicit promise of a cushy private sector job; writing bills with their armies of lobbyists; and concocting bubble markets that amount to massive frauds, escaping unpunished when their handiwork--planned for obsoleteness--crumbles. Thus, the “winners” in a once-competitive market tend to violate the libertarian’s creed that the market shall not be artificially regulated, since the oligarchs eliminate competition or “uncertainty” for themselves whenever possible, preferring socialism for the wealthy and wild competition for the rabble. 

What about democratic conservatives?

There’s an obvious objection to what I’ve been saying, which is that most modern conservatives are democrats and therefore don’t prefer rule by the few over the many. In the US, for example, most Republicans treasure the civic duty of voting, love to write to their congressperson, and idolize the Founding Fathers of the American democratic republic. So how can this love of democracy be reconciled with the prizing of vast social inequality in a natural dominance hierarchy?

Here’s the reconciliation: the conservative loves democracy as a means to an undemocratic end, not as an end in itself. The American experiment in democracy was an exercise largely in liberal, humanistic scientism. Democracy as an ideal makes sense only on the liberal’s rationalist assumption that we’re all equal, given our capacity to reason, and thus that we all deserve an equal vote by way of holding the government accountable. The conservative doesn’t share that optimism. Instead, the conservative is pessimistic about human nature: we all suffer from a spiritual original sin or from the beastly egoism of deluded animals that have been cursed with consciousness. Giving political power to beasts is obscene. At best, then, the conservative can be interested in democracy as a mechanism for sustaining the preferred form of government in which the beasts are ruled by the exceptional few whom God favours (theocratic conservatism) or by the super-beasts who prove fittest (libertarian, social Darwinian conservatism).

An oligarchy that disguises itself as a republican form of democracy prevents the sort of rabble’s backlash that happened in the French Revolution. When the aristocracy’s corruption and hypocrisy become too much to bear, and the myths explaining the inequality between the rulers and the ruled no longer enchant, the ruled masses can revolt, execute the aristocrats, and even set up their own barbaric government. The American founders evidently learned that lesson and theorized that as long as the masses believe they have ultimate control over the government, they won’t revolt no matter what economic inequalities ensue, because to do so they’d have to revolt against what they’d think of as themselves (those who enjoy ultimate power over the elected officials). A conservative, then, can consistently be thankful for this instrumental value of superficial democracy in an oligarchy.

Liberals and Conservatives

What to make of my analyses of liberalism and conservatism? The mainstream media portray liberals and conservatives as being in perpetual conflict, but as media-savvy people know nowadays, that portrayal serves the purpose merely of infotainment. Conflict sells. There are some differences between the two sides of the so-called political spectrum, but there’s also an underlying agreement between them. Specifically, postmodern liberals have come around to the conservative’s surrender to natural inequalities. Enlightenment notions of rationalism, equality, and individual liberty made for a genuine alternative to rule by the elite few, but because the alternative rested on a scientistic overextension of the Scientific Revolution, that is, on a weak analogy between the physical and normative, social worlds, the liberal defenders of the democratic experiments were bound to lose their faith. Rationalists make for poor story-tellers, because story-telling is an art. And if reason is the only mental faculty worth taking seriously, according to the liberal’s scientistic faith, there must be nothing worthwhile to say about values or ideals, social vision, ethics, or myths. Hence, liberals devolved into nihilistic, pseudoscientific managers of systems, otherwise known as technocrats, or “pragmatic centrists.” They thus lost the ability to challenge the status quo, to maintain the alternative to the more primitive social pattern.

And so in North America and Europe, anachronistic liberals, who still hold onto the outdated Enlightenment fantasies, are horrified when Obama turns out not to be a liberal Messiah who can subdue his irrational conservative foes by masterfully shaming them with his superior logic and awakening them to their innate capacity to help achieve a rational consensus. These liberals are shocked to discover not just that reason has no place at all in postmodern politics, but that Obama, the erstwhile incarnation of Logos, uses his power of reason for ill, triangulating like Clinton to appeal to independents and win the next election, and generally continuing Bush’s foreign and domestic policies. When liberals look at Obama, they see what liberalism has become: bloodless social engineering in the service of a prewritten master plan, namely the plan written by Mother Nature, according to which order tends to be kept in surviving social species when an elite few rise to the top and rule over the rest by force.

If he didn’t already learn about it at Harvard, Obama eventually found the US to have a power elite ruling within an oligarchic infrastructure, and who was he to challenge that status quo? Saying it should be challenged is easy; anyone can read from a teleprompter. But actually challenging the prehistoric power dynamic of the dominance hierarchy requires courage that comes from faith in a myth or vision that stirs the soul. Liberal myths are insipid, politically correct delusions; after all, they were authored by Enlightenment rationalists, not by artists. Just as libertarian conservatives make for dreadful governors, believing as they do that government is a force for evil that dares question the miraculous authority of natural selection by wild competition, liberals make for dreary visionaries. Their scientism causes them to don their Darth Vader armor, to pretend that in postmodern times their obsolete Enlightenment myths can enchant for longer than a passing fad. There may well be an uplifting naturalistic religion waiting to awe the masses and to inspire the creation of original social orders, but liberals haven’t found it.

Meanwhile, conservative elected politicians have by far the easiest job in the world. Cleaning tables at McDonald’s takes more effort than being a conservative politician in an oligarchy, opposed only by postmodern liberals. Just imagine: you’re given the job of being the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. You walk the halls of government buildings, most of which you want to see burned to the ground. But actually setting them ablaze would require more skill than what you’re charged to do as a conservative mouthpiece of oligarchs: you simply have to perform incompetently in office, taking orders from corporate lobbyists, and keeping the downtrodden from rebelling by pushing their buttons with reliable religious myths.

Worshipping reason as they do, liberals no doubt feel anxious and dirty when they have to stoop to telling noble lies, as elite social engineers who are contracted to keep the system running smoothly. Conservatives have more worthy objects of worship: God himself or the evolutionary power of nature to create novel forms of complexity. It should go without saying that the conservative’s theologies are absurd, but that’s only the verdict of reason. Being largely nonrational, unconscious, and instinctive animals, we can be moved by rhetorical messages that have emotional force. Conservatives rule mainly by exploiting people’s fear of the Other and of the Unknown, and they’re therefore much superior spellbinders than liberals. One cost of lowering the social bar to such depths, though, is that the conservative loses the capacity for feeling even a hint of shame.

No comments:

Post a Comment