Conservatism Doesn’t Belong in the 21st Century
A dogma of immobility and regression, conservatism may be the greatest threat to Humanity.
When I was young, I was an old fart.
Thinking against the crowd, against my teenager peers, felt like a victory. It elevated me to adulthood, or so I thought. It certainly didn’t win me any friends, and that reinforced my old-fartitude.
They say that if you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.
I took the opposite path. I Benjamin Buttoned my way out of conservatism.
I used to believe the world was better before, before being some mythical golden age that had no date nor time nor place. As long as it wasn’t now, it was better. Whatever was before needed to be protected or brought back. I was never satisfied with what the present had to offer.
Growing up, I came to realise how wrong I was, how before didn't always use to be better. More importantly, I understood that regretting the past is not a viable political or ethical position, that comparing epochs doesn’t add anything to a discussion, or one’s life experience.
First, we can’t act in the past. We’re bound to our present and faced with our future. There’s nothing we can do about that. All the energy we expend on trying to bring back the past is wasted thrice: once in doing so, another in missing out on the present, and a third time in not planning our future.
Second, the present we live in is the direct consequence of the cherished past we regret. It’s easy to ignore causality wilfully, but whatever we despise today has sprung from something we admire in yesterday. How can greatness yield deception? How can such a discrepancy exist, if it exists at all?
I also discovered existentialism and, eventually, Albert Camus. His absurdist view of the world gave a new meaning to my life. Faced with the absurd of the universe, its lack of empathy for our plights, we can only accept it and act in revolt.
Action is at the core of his philosophy. What we do is who we are.
This is the exact opposite of conservatism.
At its core, conservatism is a dogma of immobility and regression. It is turned towards the past and deterministic in nature.
We need to preserve our traditions. We need to revert to an ancient golden age. We need to be great again. Our actions do not define our selves. Our actions are defined by who we are. It is an essentialist philosophy.
Conservatism was born in the wake of the French Revolution as an aristocratic reactionary movement opposed to the democratic ambitions of the people, that frightening plebe that had cut short a thousand-year-old dynasty and its last monarch.
The concept of aristocracy is rooted in the idea that people aren’t born equal and, consequently, conservatism believes that the
persons’ identities cannot be matters of choice, but are conferred on them by their unchosen histories, so that what is most essential about them is…what is most accidental. The conservative vision is that people will come to value the privileges of choice…when they see how much in their lives must always remain unchosen. — Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The epistemological consequences of this view that essence precedes existence is that:
[O]ne cannot know the general principles whose implementation would benefit the operation of society [because] circumstances give every political principle its colour.— Ibid.
This idea is flawlessly expressed in this quote by Margaret Thatcher:
there’s no such thing [as society]! There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. … There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.
Conservatives regard the radical’s rationalism as “metaphysical” in ignoring particular social, economic and historical conditions:
I cannot [praise or blame] human actions…on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction (Burke). — Ibid.
Conservatism is based on the notion that the circumstances of the actor must be taken into account to judge their actions. We cannot assess the quality of the latter unless we know who the former is.
Conservatism also rejects the validity of general, abstract political concepts because they obviously fail to account for each individual’s circumstances. Something that purports to be “for the good of all” can only be “against the will of each” and is therefore bad.
As Thatcher said, There is no such thing as society, only individuals trying to improve their lots despite others, not together.
The foremost conservative movement today is the US Republican Party and its figurehead, Donald Trump. If like me, you’ve been disgusted by how he and the GOP treated President Obama, by their disregard for climate change, social welfare, and racial justice, you must analyse these issues through the lens discussed above.
This will help you understand the conservative mind. It will also demonstrate why we need to do away with conservatism if we want to move forward.
Before and during his two terms, President Obama was attacked relentlessly by conservatives. Whatever he did, it was wrong: eating mustard, wearing a tan suit, saluting with a cup in hand, making jokes. President Obama could never be right in the GOP’s eyes.
Most people saw this as pure hypocrisy. It is far more than this.
Remember, conservatives believe that who we are defines the quality of our actions. They don’t ascribe to the idea that our actions define us.
The American conservative movement’s origins are grounded in racism and white nationalism. In their minds, people must conform to a given set of socially accepted behaviours. They must follow the rules.
When all relevant facts are taken into consideration, it will scarcely ever be right on Utilitarian grounds […] to break or to recommend others to break the rules of morality commonly accepted in his society. — Ibid.
Breaking the rules isn’t right, but we must take into account individual circumstances when judging one’s actions. If you operate with the mindset that white=good and black=bad on a fundamental level, you will accept white people breaking the rules (“they must have a good reason to do so”) and reject black people doing so (“how could they be so disrespectful”).
President Obama couldn’t do good in the GOP’s eyes, because his very nature wasn’t good. Graham, Paul, McConnell, or Trump are never chastised for their lies and deceptions because they are fundamentally good (white) people. Their departure from the norms must be motivated by a higher purpose.
Looking at broader topics like climate change or social welfare, through the lens set above, also provides us with a new understanding of the conservative mind.
Remember, there is no such thing as a society, and
[O]ne cannot know the general principles whose implementation would benefit the operation of society [because] circumstances give every political principle its colour. — Ibid.
Fighting climate change requires sacrifices; it requires making choices that cannot take into account individual preferences. Social welfare programmes hurt some by taxing their revenues and wealth to help others. While this accounts for individual circumstances, it goes against an individualistic view of the world. It implies we are a society, which conservatives reject. It’s no surprise that conservatives also adhere to the compact theory of the US constitution.
Conservatives reject the idea that we are bound together and that we, as citizens, owe each other and share a common destiny. They refuse to admit that goodness springs from good deeds, preferring the notion that goodness is inherent.
Conservatism prevents us from tackling the challenges we face today, and these challenges are life-threatening. Consequently, conservatism is the greatest threat to Humanity.
We need to get rid of it now.