It’s a miracle that conservatism survived in the West after the rise of modern free societies. To see why, reflect on the difference between two kinds of conservatives, the preservationist and the reactionary. The preservationist seeks to maintain the status quo as the culmination of favourable developments of certain traditions. For example, a preservationist such as this one here could approve of the rule of law, the separation of political powers, and the right to liberty as secular values that stem from ancient Greek and Roman innovations. By contrast, the reactionary draws a red line between two historical periods and calls for a reversion. Typically, the reactionary opposes the revolutions that began with the European Renaissance and that were largely fulfilled in the more recent civil rights movements. Thus, unlike the preservationist, the reactionary doesn’t approve of just any tradition in the names of social stability and continuity, but explicitly condemns modern culture.
Preservationist conservatism turns “tradition” into a weasel word and thus should be opposed merely by radicals who will accept a social order only if its origin is arbitrary and chaotic. Everyone else is “conservative” in the sense that we don’t think our beliefs and practices fall from the sky. We all demonstrate this when we complain about some governmental dysfunction, but are loath to actually change our social system. As flawed as the system may be, most people assume there are no viable alternatives and any establishment is better than none. Innate fear of the unknown makes all but the most adventurous and naively youthful among us conservative about the need to avoid pandemonium.
For just that reason, preservationist “conservatism” is uninteresting, since it’s irrelevant to our prominent social and political divisions. Indeed, by labeling the roots of Western secularism “traditions,” from the rise of democracy and reason-based ethics in ancient Greece, to the rule of law in the Roman Republic (which contrasted with the later arbitrary power of the emperors), to the rediscovery of those secular possibilities in the West’s period of modernization, the core principles of liberalism end up being consistent with this so-called conservatism. After all, liberalism is the relatively recent realization that we could break from the autocratic norm of human history that naturally also prevails more generally in social animal behaviour.
That break occurred in early modern Europe primarily when the rediscovery of North America fired the European imagination with thoughts of radical change and when mercantilism and democracy replaced the feudal order. But there were forerunners to this transition in ancient Greece when rationalists worked out esoteric philosophies such as Plato’s, which offered intellectuals respite from the prejudices of the masses. By exploring their rational potential, Hellenic philosophers paved the way for the Enlightenment principle that the individual’s right to liberty is based on everyone’s capacity for rational self-control. Likewise, in ancient Rome, when pragmatists confronted a version of the global practice of tyranny in the rule of the Etruscan kings of the city of Rome, and worked out a proto-American form of government that used checks and balances and the rule of law to prevent natural forms of corruption, this was a radical means of protecting and empowering the majority, which foreshadowed the liberal’s ideal of social equality.
Thus, by speaking of any status quo as the completion of a certain tradition, including the Western tradition that ushered in modernity and its corresponding liberalism, the preservationist uses a rhetorical trick to attempt to marginalize her opponents. By glossing periods of historical progress as continuations of some culture, the preservationist would turn moderate liberals into inadvertent traditionalists so that the ideological options would include only preservationists (conservatives) and radical outsiders and anarchists.
Preservationist conservatism thereby obscures the big picture. To glimpse this picture, notice that the idea of progress is central not only to liberalism but to humanism itself, to the belief that humans are anomalous in the animal world because of certain skills which allowed our prehuman ancestors to override the instincts that confine the other species to behaviour governed by their biological cycles. The conservative may account for this divergence by saying that God created us alone in his image, but regardless of whether our rise to planetary rule was due to natural or to supernatural causes, the preservationist must admit that this was a profound breakthrough. Even if God chose to create a uniquely privileged species, the point is that that privilege required a rupture in the relations between living things. Political experiments such as democracy or communism are made possible by the (biological or divine) experiment in which our species was equipped to take our evolution in our hands. We can conceive of ideal social arrangements only because we have unique mental powers which distinguish people from animals.
Perhaps the preservationist can likewise accommodate that bit of initial human progress by defining it as the fruit of God’s “tradition” of performing one miracle after another (a miracle being yet another radical departure from a norm—which should hardly comfort any devotee to stability and continuity). In any case, despite the uniqueness of human nature, old habits die hard: the dominance hierarchies or pecking orders that characterize most groups of animals, from wolves to chickens to dragonet fishes, reemerge in the inequalities between social classes of humans in which a minority subjugates the majority.
The crux, then, is that the split between conservatives and liberals isn’t about a choice to protect the result of just any social change, on the one hand, and to disregard such continuity by way of imitating something like the Big Bang and embarking on a wild, anarchic group adventure, on the other. Instead, the division is between, if you like, two particular traditions: animalism and humanism. Most forms of human social arrangements are ineffective in preventing the reemergence of the animalistic dominance hierarchy. The French Revolution and Soviet Communism are classic examples, since their proponents were rationalists who were inspired by explicitly liberal ideals but whose movements nonetheless ended in tyrannies. Still, social progress seems possible since psychological progress has already happened. Put more neutrally, we know that personhood is anomalous when compared to animal natures, so the humanist’s faith is that anomalous societies should be possible to complement the uniqueness of our rationality, freedom, and imagination.
Whereas liberals are humanists in their quest to perfect societies that honour and facilitate our distinguishing features, the effect of conservative policies is to favour animalistic social arrangements, that is, systems that entrench social inequalities, reinforcing behaviours that lock in dominance hierarchies. The “tradition” that leads from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds to modern America is liberal in its humanistic effects: more reason and individual freedom mean more creativity and a widening gulf between humans and the other animals. If you’re awed by this cosmic anomaly, you might be inclined to call it progressive. In any case, laying claim to the Enlightenment principles that led to the founding of modern America, as culminations of ancient traditions, turns most so-called conservatives into liberals (i.e. humanists) rather than the other way around. The humanism and individualism at issue have to do not with stability or continuity, but with progressive anomalies, beginning with the origin of our species and ending with the practically supernatural, egalitarian institutions such as science, which makes knowledge public rather than esoteric, and democracy in which the majority rules.
This is no comparable rhetorical trick that would identify liberalism with humanistic pride in the distinctness of our species. “Liberal” derives from the Latin “liber,” meaning free, unimpeded, unbridled, and even licentious. You might think this kind of freedom is enjoyed precisely by nonhuman animals, since they’re wild and free from the burden of convention, and so humanism should be at odds with the root of liberalism, after all. But this inference would be specious, because although animals are wild, they’re enslaved by natural laws whereas conventions and other artifices are signs of our having created a gratuitous, cultural way of life which is often at odds with what the genes would have us do. The freedom at issue in liberalism, then, is ultimately that which sets us apart from animals; this freedom derives from our strange attribute of having a personal self which can bypass instinct and direct our actions towards ideal and thus virtually unnatural ends. Like democracy or communism, licentiousness is possible because of the autonomy that makes us godlike rather than animalistic. Liberalism is thus the faith that human nature and anything that allows us to fulfill our unique potential are progressive.
The liberal’s true conservative opponent isn’t the conniving preservationist, but the reactionary such as the Quaker, the Creationist, the Buddhist monk, and the militant Islamist who each either defines his beliefs in response to modernity or else refuses to accommodate modern discoveries in his practice of a premodern way of life. Reactionary conservatism is thus necessarily anachronistic as long as most people are motivated by the humanistic faith in our obligation to act unlike animals. Reactionaries to modernity seek to reestablish some aspect of jungle law in human affairs, but unlike the sly preservationist, they do so explicitly, frequently aided by an all-consuming religious faith.
In fact, the reactionary’s chief complaint with modernity is with its godlessness. Again, you might think this shows that the underlying issue isn’t the conflict between animalism and humanism, contrary to what I’ve said, since animals don’t worship gods. But religious worship happens when the imagination is colonized by the primitive, totalitarian impulse to establish a dominance hierarchy wherever possible. The biological hierarchies are merely imagined to be extended in the sky or in some abstract realm; as I said, old habits die hard. But at least reactionary conservatism is principled—unlike the kind of pseudo-conservatism (i.e. crypto-liberalism, such as the kind that appeals to religious values only as a smokescreen to usher in new freedoms to sin) that’s prevalent in the West.
We could debate whether contemporary Buddhist monks are reactionaries, since some embrace neurological findings about altered states of consciousness and elite forms of Buddhism are atheistic. Moreover, while Creationists interpret the Bible according to the scientific conception of literal truth, as though their faith were all things to all people, they also embrace modern technologies in addition to carrying out their democratic and capitalistic duties. Much of this is due to the fact that Christianity has been modernized, and so it’s instructive to briefly compare Christian with Muslim reactionaries.
The mujahidin, of course, wage war against the United States, believing that it’s the society that leads the free world. Their goal is to establish a caliphate governed by medieval Islamic law. Modernists view those reactionaries as barbarians and savages, and this is because the militant Islamist’s reaction to modernity isn’t swayed by any compromise with modern standards of conduct. Muslim reactionaries are thus perfectly premodern: they condemn not just democracy but the very idea of individual freedom, since they insist on submitting to Allah in all their affairs. Interestingly, if Allah created the universe, those who submit flawlessly to him wouldn’t be saints or prophets or any other people, but the nonhuman animals since they would have no choice but to follow God’s laws.
So-called Christian conservatives are appalled by the reactionary’s primitivism, and so they’re bereft of even an inkling that what a genuine conservative conserves is the social equilibrium found in its pristine form in the animal kingdom, the very stability that was spoiled by the anomaly of human freedom. That freedom’s champion is the liberal and her adversary has at least an animal’s boldness to look into the liberal’s eyes and snarl with the appropriate ferocity.