JR'S Free Thought Pages
The Poverty of Conservatism
The ideology of power, privilege and plutocracy
By Johnny Reb (revised November, 2011)
Footnotes follow paragraphs and are indicated by “*”
Democracy, a system designed to challenge the status quo, has been corrupted to serve the status quo – Chris Hedges (from Death of the Liberal Class, 2010)
The strong do as they wish and the weak suffer as they must – Thucydides
What is Conservatism?
One key to understanding is the root “conserve” in conservative, thus the propensity or desire to conserve what is already established, to resist change and preserve the status quo.
The Encarta Dictionary defines Conservatism as:
1. The reluctance to accept change, an unwillingness or slowness to accept change or new ideas.
2. A right wing political viewpoint, a right-of-center political philosophy based on a tendency to gradual rather than abrupt change and to preserve the status quo.
3. The desire to preserve current societal structure.
Conservatism has both a political and non-political meaning. Many of us are “conservative” in the non-political sense in that we tend to value norms or habits that have been beneficial to human flourishing and moral imperatives that have stood the test of time and facilitated fairness and a just and civilized society. Sadly, and this includes the present socio-political and economic arrangements throughout the world, we have a long way to go in attaining such a just and civilized world. I will now focus on the political conception of conservatism.
I submit that throughout history and including the present, Conservatism has for the most part been a morally bankrupt authoritarian political philosophy, antithetical to freedom*, justice, democracy and civilized society for all. It’s an amoral doctrine of self-interest and how to create a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. In short, it’s an authoritarian inflexible political philosophy based on class, status, possession, greed, power, hierarchy and the sanctity of private property - a depraved aristocratic political anachronism that, like monarchies, ought to be tossed into the moral and intellectual trash bin.
*Conservatives endorse freedom in the sense that you have the freedom to own a yacht with a helicopter pad, enjoy a stay in the Imperial Suite at Park Hyatt in Paris - or a cardboard box on skid row - or drive your new Lamborghini to your minimum wage job at Walmart. They also endorse the freedom of a Chemical Company to use a river as dumpster if it is conducive to profit. Conservatives by the way are not adamantly against all change, only change which is opposed to their historical privileges and vested interests.
Conservatives throughout history have resisted change, especially reforms that would promote freedom, equality and social justice. Conservatives only endorse change if it serves their interests and hereditary entitlements, especially those they may have lost to the enlightenment ideals and reforms of liberalism and democracy. They have invariably endorsed authoritarian, reactionary and regressive political agendas for quite understandable reasons and have been counter-revolutionaries when their historical entitlements are imperiled. That's because conservatives are people who have throughout history been perched atop the hierarchy of the economic pyramid, controlling the political process, the vast majority of the wealth and the subordination of those beneath their class. One of the most predictable aspects of anyone born into wealth, and many who have become wealthy primarily via inheritance, is that they will endorse conservatism as a political ideology.
Corey Robin tells us in his The Reactionary Mind (2011) that the conservative is challenged by the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution realities and the concomitant problem of the loss of absolutist verities and moral certainties in addition of how to
...defend a principle of rule in a world where nothing is solid, all is in flux? From the moment conservatism came onto the scene, it has had to contend with the decline of ancient and medieval ideas of an orderly universe, in which permanent hierarchies of power reflected the eternal structure of the cosmos. The overthrow of the old regime reveals not only the weakness and incompetence of its leaders but also a larger truth about the lack of design in the world... The conservative defends particular orders—hierarchical, often private regimes of rule—on the assumption, in part, that hierarchy is order. "Order cannot be had," declared Johnson, "but by subordination." For Burke, it was axiomatic that "when the multitude are not under this discipline" of "the wiser, the more expert, and the more opulent," "they can scarcely be said to be in civil society" In defending such orders, moreover, the conservative invariably launches himself on a program of reaction and counterrevolution, often requiring an overhaul of the very regime he is defending. (p. 18, 24 )
Conservatism, I hesitate to say, is a political tradition that really has no underlying secular moral principle because self-interest is antithetical to behaving morally in any meaningful way. Adam Smith promoted the dubious idea of "enlightened" self-interest*. I'm sorry to say, there's nothing enlightening about self-interest. Adam Smith, a highly intelligent moral philosopher ought to have known better than to introduce such a self-contradictory notion into his ethical world view.
* In The Wealth of Nations (1776) Adam Smith argued that individuals acting out of "self-interest" produced as if by an "invisible hand", results that were beneficial to the society as a whole. Not unlike the critiques of capitalism by Karl Marx, Smith also pointed out that these selfish actions frequently led to mayhem, injustice and ruin. He also pointed out the how business owners colluded with each other to drive down wages in addition to the "savage injustices" European mercantilist forces had "committed with impunity" in the colonial empires of Asia and the Americas. Any interference with the profit seeking mysticism of the "invisible hand" was considered anathema to the efficient workings of this economic dogma. The massive intrusions of governments throughout North America and Europe and the trillions of dollars of bailouts by taxpayers has graphically demonstrated facade and sham of the so-called "invisible hand." Smith's metaphysical nonsense of the invisible hand has never been as "visible" at it has been with the $7.7 trillion free lunch to the banks by the state to bail them out. The state has always existed to serve privilege and power. No sentient being can deny that the real welfare bum is, and always has been, big business.
It is often claimed that the political left wing stands for equality while the right stands for freedom. This contention misstates the actual conflict between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension to the working classes and anyone below them in the economic order. Economics has been aptly referred to as the "dismal science". I would not even dare refer to it as a science at all. Economic s and politics and their confluence will never replace religion as the locus of prime bullshit, but it's a close contender.
John Maynard Keynes, along with Bertrand Russell, were deemed by many to have possessed the finest minds of the twentieth century. Keynes was the most influential economist of the twentieth century. He held that capitalism was morally repellent but believed it could survive and be rendered just and enlightened, given adequate controls on its intrinsic immoral characteristics and potential for a myriad of abuses. It was Keynes who uttered the sentiment that capitalism is a system whereby "the worst men behaving under the worst motives will produce the most good." He regarded "love of money" at best a neuroticism and more likely, a mental illness.*
*My knowledge of Keynes is taken from Robert Skidelsky's recent biography (2011).
I submit that conservatism is incompatible with democracy, justice, freedom and behaving compassionately in any civilized society. It’s a destructive doctrine of privilege, inequality, self-interest and prejudice and not fit for consideration as an enlightened democratic political philosophy. During recorded history conservatives have been the self-styled aristocrats such as the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, the Czars of monarchist Russia, the popes and priests of the Catholic Church, the deified emperors, warlords and land barons of the Dark Ages of absolutist Europe, to the robber barons of 19th century America and England and the present day rapacious Wall Street brokers, hedge fund marauders and financial predators who have demolished the global economy and pillaged the public treasury to provide for their own personal financial rescue package. Here is John Maynard Keynes, a lifelong classical liberal, on Conservatism:
They (Conservatives) offer me neither food nor drink - neither intellectual nor spiritual consolation...(Conservatism) leads nowhere; it satisfies no ideal; it conforms to no intellectual standard: it is not even safe, or calculated to preserve from spoilers that degree of civilization which we have already attained.
Here is Corey Robin with a provocative view:
I use the words conservative, reactionary, and counterrevolutionary interchangeably: not all counterrevolutionaries are conservative—Walt Rostow immediately comes to mind—but all conservatives are, in one way or another, counterrevolutionary. I seat [right wing] philosophers and statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists, evangelicals, businessmen, racists, and hacks at the same table: Hobbes next to Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche in between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia, with Adams, Calhoun, Oakeshott, Ronald Reagan, Tocqueville, Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Ernst Jiinger, Carl Schmitt, Winston Churchill, Phyllis Schlafly, Richard Nixon, Irving Kristol, Francis Fukuyama, and George W Bush interspersed throughout. (The Reactionary Mind, p. 34)
Conservatism, according to Keynes, was a reactionary party of draconian and hereditary moral codes, superstition, stupidity, prejudice, class distinction and jingoism. Despite these reservations Keynes could not escape from his Victorian notions of elitism in the sense that he was skeptical of any direct form of self-democracy by the masses. The state, rather than being the embodiment of democracy, equality and reason which intervenes in the interests of society as a whole as classical liberalism claims, acts instead to defend the class interests of the hegemonic conservative classes and hence to perpetuate of antagonisms and highly skewed inequalities of the state capitalist system.
The idea that inequities of great wealth and democracy cannot co-exist runs right up through the Enlightenment and classical liberalism, including major figures like David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and others. It was more or less obvious to these great thinkers. So what is to be done? Aristotle pointed out that if you have, in a putative democracy, a small minority of very rich people and a large number of very poor people, the poor will use their democratic rights to take property away from the rich. Aristotle, the consummate conservative elitist, deemed that unjust but was uncurious as to how the rich may have acquired their enormous wealth in the first place. He proposed two possible solutions: reducing poverty (which is what he recommended) or reducing democracy.
James Madison, one of the framers of the US Constitution, recognized the same problem, but unlike Aristotle, proposed to reduce democracy rather than poverty. He believed that the primary goal of government is "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority." As his colleague John Jay put it, "the people who own the country ought to govern it." It was Jay’s premise upon which the US Constitution was drafted, setting up a rigged game favoring wealthy male white conservatives. Non-whites, females, indigenous people and those without property were deemed irrelevant. Like Aristotle, the question of how this great wealth was acquired by so few (generally by theft and collusion with state power) didn’t seem to trouble Jay or Madison.
Here is Corey Robin again:
If conservatism is a specific reaction to a specific movement of emancipation, it stands to reason that each reaction will bear the traces of the movement it opposes. As I argue in chapter I, not only has the right reacted against the left, in the course of conducting its reaction it also has consistently borrowed from the left. As the movements of the left change—from the French Revolution to abolition to the right to vote to the right to organize to the Bolshevik Revolution to the struggles for black freedom and women's liberation—so do the reactions of the right.
Beyond these contingent changes, we can also trace a longer structural change in the imagination of the right: namely, the gradual acceptance of the entrance of the masses onto the political stage. From Hobbes to the slaveholders to the neoconservatives, the right has grown increasingly aware that any successful defense of the old regime must incorporate the lower orders in some capacity other than underling or star-struck fan. The masses must either be able to locate themselves symbolically in the ruling class or be provided with real opportunities to become faux aristocrats themselves in the family, the factory, and the field. The former path makes for an upside-down populism, in which the lowest of the low see themselves projected in the highest of the high; the latter makes for a democratic feudalism, in which the husband or supervisor plays the part of a lord. The former path was pioneered by Hobbes, Maistre, and various prophets of racism and nationalism, the latter by Southern slaveholders, European imperialists, and Gilded Age apologists. (And neo-Gilded Age apologists: "There is no single elite in America," writes David Brooks. "Everyone can be an aristocrat within his own Olympus."105) Occasionally, as in the writing of Werner Sombart, the two paths converge: ordinary people get to see themselves in the ruling class by virtue of belonging to a great nation among nations, and they also get to govern lesser beings through the exercise of imperial rule. (The Reactionary Mind, p. 35)
These conservative oligarchs, the founding fathers, wealthy elites, and sadly, the deluded disciples within the indoctrinated mass of conservative cannon fodder from the working classes, people for whom they have nothing but contempt, are conservatives.* Conservatives have grown so self-satisfied and complacent, so profoundly reveling in the bounty of their greed and privilege, that they were blind to the impending economic cataclysms they themselves had created. But in the end, as has always been the case, they provide safety valves for themselves from the recurrent economic calamities simply because it’s they who make the rules and control the political apparatus and their political puppets who work within it. To maintain their entitlements atop the socio-economic order, conservatives find it necessary to destroy conscience, compassion, community and the common good, reason, language and ultimately, any pre-existing democratic mechanisms that have been hard won by the rest of us. Genuine bottom-up democracy has never existed, other than for very brief periods.
Conservatism is particularly appealing to organized religion because it employs the same emotionally charged perversion of language and displays the same authoritarian, faith-based, hierarchical, anti-intellectual and anti-democratic trademarks. And throughout history organized religion has always sided with political power, regardless of its character. The “opiate of the masses”, namely religion, provided the justification for conservative hegemony by providing solace to the dispossessed working classes by preaching that their status in life is God’s Will and the fantasy that justice will prevail in an afterlife.
*As I have intimated earlier, the contempt for democracy that has always been a dominant characteristic of conservative elites, and as disturbing as this is, has ironically spilled over to the working classes. As the insightful Italian Marxist political theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) pointed out, if you capture people’s minds through indoctrination and the continual repetition of alleged truisms long enough, you will have manufactured consent and the masses like docile robots will obsequiously follow you anywhere. Gramsci called this “hegemony”, the symbolic level of the dominant culture that convinces people, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, that this is the best of all possible worlds. In other words by hegemony, Gramsci means the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and ethical norms that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations. Hegemony in this sense might be defined as an “organizing principle” that is diffused by the process of socialization into every area of daily life. To the extent that this prevailing consciousness is internalized by the population it becomes part of what is generally called “common sense” so that the philosophy, culture and morality of the ruling elite comes to appear as the natural order of things. Fascists like Mussolini, Hitler and Franco and other authoritarians knew this only too well. The brilliant Gramsci, by the way, suffered from a variety of serious health problems and was imprisoned under abysmal conditions in the 1920s for 11 years by fascist dictator Mussolini for his socialist political views. He died shortly after his release. His prison notebooks are a fascinating read. For more detailed analysis on this thread see my essays Education, Anti-Intellectualism, Religion and the Conservative Corporate Welfare State and The Conservative Corporate Welfare State.
Conservatism is and always has been a stereotypically hierarchical system, a rigid arrangement of ranked order, entitlement*, position and class. On the political continuum conservatism is positioned on the far right, immediately to the left of fascism. God typically sits atop the apex of this hierarchical pyramid, the notion of the monotheistic God above all, certain humans above other humans, and humans over the rest of nature. Political and economic systems, and in particular corporations, are similarly set up and organized along the same inflexible hierarchical lines so that all of nature's resources are regarded only in terms of how they serve the one God of the Conservative Corporate Welfare State - the deity of self-interest, greed, exploitation, endless war, power and expansion.
*It’s interesting how the conception of the word “entitlement” has been -called mangled and redefined by conservative pundits and their so-called well-financed think tanks. They are supported in this endeavor by the daunting conservative bias and propaganda system of the lapdog corporate controlled media. Historically the word entitlement referred to members of the aristocracy who had “titles” such as prince, pope, baron, lord, and so on. This is typical historical conservatism. Yet in recent decades, conservatives have remapped the language in so many ways. Liberals are called fascists by conservative propagandists like Jonah Goldberg of the National Review and Hitler and Obama are called socialists. Defying logic, conceptual accuracy and historical fact, Goldberg recently wrote a farcical book with the oxymoronic title Liberal Fascists. Now, thanks to conservatives like Goldberg who have redefined words by some Orwellian ruse to mean their exact opposites, those who have entitlements are not members of the wealthy plutocratic class and corporate world, but the dispossessed, those on social assistance or unfortunate members of the working poor who, if they work long enough, may receive paltry pensions by age 65 or those trying to subsist on welfare or unemployment insurance.
But even these hard won concessions after over a century of labor strife are being rolled back in the name of "austerity" to pay for the golden parachutes handed to criminal rogue financial institutions ($7.7 trillion in the USA alone).Moreover, conservatives have created an empirically false association between welfare and dependency whereas welfare is in fact a way of eliminating dependency on the aristocracy and the cultural authorities that serve it. In any event most wealthy conservatives and corporations that use this perversion of language pay little or no taxes. The economic game has always been rigged in their favor and the real competition within the capitalist system is among workers for ever diminishing job prospects. They have their offshore corporate charters, the phony “free trade” agreements and tax shelters while the rest of us pay the taxes. The idea of the working poor and those on social assistance being “entitled” and the idea of “dependency” is the sort of rubbish people are spoon fed by the seemingly limitless right wing radio talk programs, uncountable conservative “think tanks” and corporate news services on a regular basis.
Not long ago in Canada the Conservative Party of Canada tried to delude both itself and the public with the oxymoronic label “Progressive Conservative” but finally had to admit to the self-contradiction and finally drop the first part. If they were really interested in conceptual clarity, they would have replaced “Progressive” with “Regressive.” But today's conservatives resemble little the conservatives of 50 years ago, many of whom maintained at least some semblance of noblesse oblige. Their only ideology today is raw power. No longer is political power about upholding this or that philosophy or ideology; it is about lobbying and legislating for this or that group’s interest.
A Little History
"Hatred of the left in all its guises, from the most tepid to the most outré, is thus not incidental to fascism; it is at its core.The fascist route to power has always been passed through cooperation with conservative elites; without the acquiescence or even active assent of the traditional elites could never have attained power" - Robert O Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism
Historian and political scientist Robert O Paxton informs us that hatred and fear of the left is not just a key characteristic of fascism, but of conservatism as well. For conservatives it's the trepidation that the majority underclass will rise up and demand real democracy and social justice as they did in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917. This hatred and fear is the locus of the conservatives reactionary response to democratic movements that challenge their traditional entitlements and privileges. Violence is, and always has been, an open option for conservatives, but one of their less dramatic and vicious responses to left wing movements is propaganda, cooption or minor concessions to the working classes that don't meaningfully change their supremacy within the socio-political order.
It’s generally agreed by political philosophers that the monarchist Edmund Burke (1729-1797) who, in his ponderous uncompromising diatribe on the French Revolution*, was the first express and define conservatism as a discrete political ideology of moderation and prudence. But the history of the past 200 years has been anything but moderate or prudent when one considers the fanatical anti-democratic invectives against the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, the defense of racism, slavery and Jim Crow, the genocide of indigenous peoples throughout the world, the vicious attacks on trade unionism, the red baiting and persecution of ordinary working people, social democracy and the welfare state, the ongoing hostility to the New Deal of FDR, the Great Society of LBJ, civil rights, humanism, feminism, gay rights and endless imperialistic wars**. Whereas the predecessors of today’s conservatives (and the transmogrified new beta version, the neo-conservative) in the old regime thought of inequality as a naturally occurring phenomenon ordained by God, an inheritance passed on from generation to generation, their encounter with many people’s revolutions such as in the Russian and Cuban revolutions and the Spanish Civil War clearly demonstrates that the revolutionaries were right after all: inequality is a distinctly human creation. No book on conservatism since Burke’s magnum opus comes close to improving on his contempt and condescension of working classes, which he described as the “swinish multitude”, and the pompous celebration of his “natural aristocracy.”
* Edmund Burke, Reflections of the Revolution in France, 1790. Every major political tradition without exception lays claims to liberty and the tradition of freedom. None have so far delivered for the masses the freedom from constraint or coercion that these claims entail. Anarchism is, in my view, really the only genuine political philosophy of freedom and egalitarianism. But it's never been provided with an opportunity with the exception of many indigenous cultures in North America, the short period of the Spanish Civil War and the Kronstadt Mutiny during the Bolshevik Revolution. Burke, whose opinions are not so uplifting as some of his grandiose prose, advised William Pitt that his government ought not concern itself with helping to feed starving citizens by any other means than for sale through profit and not be concerned with actions that would alleviate the suffering and death by famine. This expresses the essence of Conservatism (blame the victim) and Burke’s resolute opposition to democracy and obsession with private property rights that has been carried on by his successors. In fact it was conservatives who consistently blocked the vote for those who did not own property. And only those who are well-heeled, entrepreneurial or efficiently acquisitive are of any value to society and who have the right to lay any claim to liberty. These were the values of the white slave and land owning white aristocratic conservatives who were the framers of the US Constitution.
**Conservatives, it can be evidenced, love war. The historical record confirms that, far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been energized by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense, though it's true that many conservatives have expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. "I enjoy wars," said Harold Macmillan, wounded three times in World War I. "Any adventure's better than sitting in an office." The conservative's commitment to violence is more than psychological, however; it's a philosophical; it's a "war is life and peace is death" philosophical commitment. Power and its partner violence, the conservative maintains, are the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life exhilarating, full of risk and worth living.
One possibility explanation for the conservatives love for war is its embrace of authoritarianism and hierarchy, with their twin requirements of submission and domination; the other is violence, particularly warfare, with its rigid injunction to kill or be killed. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are of great significance to conservatism as a theoretical tradition and historical practice. Consistent with Edmund Burke's argument, however, the conservative often favours the latter over the former. Once we are assured of our power over another being, says Burke, it loses its capacity to harm or threaten us. Make a creature useful and obedient, and "you spoil it of everything sublime." It becomes an object of contempt, contempt being "the attendant on a strength that is subservient and innoxious." At least one-half, then, of the experience of hierarchy—the experience of ruling another—is incompatible with, and indeed weakens, the sublime. Confirmed of our power, we are lulled into the same ease and comfort, undergo the same inward melting, that we experience while in the throes of pleasure.
Let’s next examine some disturbing data from recent history, starting with the Conservative oligarchy’s “Thirty Year War” against the working class instigated primarily by the Reagan administration of the early eighties and continuing right through to the present Obama administration. This has been a period in which American policy of re-writing all the socio-economic rules has been so skewed toward the wealthy and large corporations that we have now experienced the worst period of income inequality in modern history. Consider this: 50 years ago, the wealthiest 1% of Americans accounted for 10% of the nation's income; today, it's nearly 25% and they control well over half the total wealth. Between 1979 and 2006, the average after-tax household income (including benefits) of the wealthiest 1% increased by 256%; the poorest households saw an increase of 11%; middle class homes, 21%, much of which was due to the necessity of both spouses working full time. As the great American jurist Louis Brandeis put it, “We can have democracy . . . or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. We cannot have both.”
But we can’t lay all the blame on Ronald Reagan, a man who, after pontificating on conservative fiscal responsibility, tripled the national debt during his two terms. Together with his successor George H W Bush they quadrupled it. In 1978, the Carter administration and Congress took a machete to the tax code, slashing the top rate of the capital gains tax from 48% to 28% - an enormous bounty for wealthy Americans. At the same time, the most ambitious effort in decades to reform American labor law in order to make it easier to unionize died in the Senate, despite a 61-vote Democratic majority. Likewise, a proposed Office of Consumer Representation, a $15 million advocacy agency that was to work on behalf of average Americans, was defeated by an increasingly powerful business lobby. Carter was certainly no progressive but once Reagan was in power, the working classes were subjected to an onslaught of draconian anti-labor legislation, union bashing and tax cuts for corporations and the rich.
So it didn’t seem to matter which of the two big business parties were in power. It was during this period the Democrats had abandoned any sympathy they once had for the working class. In 1999, President Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, a series of deregulatory measures that rescinded the Glass-Steagall Act. In December of the following year, Gramm quietly snuck the Commodity Futures Modernization Act into a massive $384-billion spending bill. Gramm's bill blocked regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from cracking down on the shadowy "over-the-counter derivatives" market, home to billions of dollars of opaque financial instruments that would, years later, demolish not only the American economy, but the rest of the world’s as well.
The momentum of the tax-cut fervor carried through the presidencies of George H W Bush and Bill Clinton, and in 2000 became the campaign rallying cry of George W. Bush. It was Bush II, after all, who told a room full of wealthy donors at an $800-a-plate dinner, "Some people call you the elites; I call you my base," and who pledged that his 2001 tax cuts would be a windfall for all Americans. Yeah sure George old boy, but 51% of the tax cut benefits went to the top 1% of earners.
So how has this kleptocracy arisen with so little resistance and almost total acquiescence from the working classes? How have they come to accept such injustice and massive wealth disparities as the norm? How have they come to accept theft of the public treasury in order to bail out financial corporate criminals that have not only victimized them, but demolished the global economy, a hatchet job that will likely be permanent? When does the docile credulity stop and the revolution start? Usually a jack boot on the neck is sufficient.
From the many people’s revolts, dissent and civil disobedience in the past, conservatives developed, more out of necessity than preference, a need to associate themselves with the masses, employing the mechanisms of mass marketing, public relations and propaganda, mobilizing the street for spectacular displays of power while making sure that power is never truly shared or redistributed. These ploys were brilliantly exposed by Noam Chomsky in Necessary Illusions and Manufacturing Consent and by Antonio Gramsci as outlined earlier in this paper. That is the cunning and deceptive guile of right-wing populism: to appeal to the mass without disrupting in any way their privilege, historical entitlements and dominance or, more precisely, to harness the energy of the bewildered herd in order to reinforce or restore the power of elites. Far from being a recent innovation of the Christian right or the Tea Party movement, reactionary populism runs like a thread throughout conservative discourse from the outset. The working class masses, referred to by Alexander Hamilton as the “great beast”, in particular the vast white underclass, described and analyzed brilliantly by the late Joe Bageant in Rainbow Pie and Deer Hunting with Jesus, need to internalize their condition of oppression and exploitation as the accepted order of things. It’s not to say that conservatives will not resort to terror and violence when ploys of indoctrination and internalized psychological domination fail. The brutal history of the labor, women, environmental, civil rights and other people’s movements are a testament to this. Conservatives have never had a problem with brute force when their propaganda system failed to subdue the masses. It’s then that we truly discover whose interests it is that the police and military are there to “serve and protect” when they bludgeon and even open fire on unarmed strikers and other dissidents.
Because their truly quite trifling losses to the precocious working classes and newly created middle class are recent, primarily during the three decades of strong unions coterminous with healthy GDPs following the Second World War, conservatives feel they can credibly claim that their objectives to recoup those losses are viable and achievable. After all, they merely seek to regain what they perceive is rightfully theirs; the fact that they once owned almost all of the economic pie suggests they are capable of recovering the small slices of the pie they lost to the uppity middle class. Whereas the left’s program of redistribution raises the question of whether its beneficiaries in the bewildered herd are truly prepared to wield the powers they seek, the conservative project of restoration suffers from no such challenge. Power elite conservatives, unlike say, a Che Guevara or Emiliano Zapata, who faced the nearly impossible task of empowering the powerless, the conservative simply asks his followers to do more of what they have always done. As a result, their counterrevolution will not require the same violence and havoc that revolutions from below have brought about. Like so many leaders of people’s revolutions, both Guevara and Zapata were simply assassinated by the goons of powerful elites such as the FBI and CIA that promptly put an abrupt end to their bottom-up revolution.
Classical Liberalism is Dead
Most who claim to be traditional liberals today are really conservatives in liberal drag. I’m referring to the likes Paul Martin, Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama who have sold out what semblance of liberalism and progressivism they once might have believed in. One of the most egregious frauds is the leader of the federal Liberal Party in Canada, Michael Ignatieff, former director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University who is in point of fact a dyed-in-the-wool conservative stuffed shirt despite being deemed a member of the liberal intellectual elite. He’s been a cheerleader for every regressive policy rolled out by the Conservative Corporate Welfare State. So-called liberals like Ignatieff are really nothing but pimps for entrenched power, along with numerous other counterfeit “liberals” cited by Chris Hedges in Death of the Liberal Class. And incidentally, don’t be misled by the fact that Ignatieff is an admirer of the esteemed liberal political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) despite the fact he recently wrote a quite decent biography of Berlin, a biography I happened to have read. While at Harvard he was one of the first Ivy League professors in the US to write a lame sycophantic paper in support of the immoral and illegal war in Iraq, referring to it as a “humanitarian action”.* Now that he’s a politician he vainly claims the essay was a mistake. But there’s more. Quite soon thereafter he wrote another equally shameful essay totally bereft of moral reasoning, an odious justification of the Bush torture policies. This is a man who refers to himself as a liberal and acolyte of Isaiah Berlin? Ignatieff’s aristocratic roots, which he seems incapable of detachment, can be traced back to the Russian Revolution where his family had to escape the Bolsheviks for reasons that ought to be obvious to anyone with a scant understanding of Czarist Russia at the time.
*Read what Ignatieff told the Guardian newspaper in an article published in March 2003: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2003/mar/24/iraq.world. In Chris Hedges latest book, The Death of the Liberal Class (2010), he argues that decades ago the majority of liberal intellectual elites sold out to neo-conservative ideology while at the same time abandoned any support they ever had for the working classes. Moreover, working people have been abandoned by both the big unions who have also long ago sold out to the corporate world and the New Democratic Party (NDP), a once traditional social democratic party that Canadian political icon Tommy Douglas (1904-1986) would not recognize were he alive today.
Broadly speaking, traditional or classical liberalism endorses individual rights and equality of opportunity. A liberal society is ostensibly characterized by a bottom-up direct democracy, freedom of thought for individuals, limitations on state power, the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, a market economy, free/private enterprise (not state capitalism), and a transparent system of government in which the rights of all citizens (not just corporations) are protected. Precious few of these liberties continue to exist and are being steadily eroded.
The traditional liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill rejected the foundational assumptions that dominated authoritarian theories of government such as the Divine Right of Kings, entitlement based on hereditary status and organized religion. A modern variant of classical liberalism since the Great Depression, in some ways parallel to anarchist thought, is called social progressivism and claims that a priori authority must be justified, traditions do not carry any inherent or intrinsic value and social practices ought to be continuously adjusted for the greater benefit of humanity and not just a select few. Moreover, those who do the work ought to be the owners of production and reap the rewards of their toil. Fundamental human rights that all liberals support include the right to life, liberty, and property.
As pointed out, classical liberalism during the early years of the Enlightenment was a challenge to the legitimacy of the crushing authoritarianism of the monarchy, the church and the feudal system. Liberalism was further expanded in the 18th Century by the Scottish moral philosopher David Hume, the authors of the US constitution such as Jefferson and Madison, the French philosophes and in the 19th Century by John Stuart Mill who provided an addendum to liberalism that allowed for wealth redistribution and promotion of a social democracy that would care for society’s worst off. In Canada, this is the short lived form of socially responsible liberalism of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. The capitulation and death of classical liberalism and the decay of the liberal class began after the New Deal and was accelerated during the contemptuous corrosive attacks on unions and workers rights by doctrinaire laissez-faire conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s. The new conservatives (or neo-cons – with emphasis on the “con”) believed there was a “crisis in democracy” in the sense that the masses had been granted too much freedom and taken an unwarranted slice of the economic pie. In short, the “crisis” was too much democracy. The plutocrats, the rightful owners of the world, wanted that slice back – and a whole lot more, including hard fought for unionization, social security, pensions and civil rights. Classical liberals, on the other hand, strongly believe in free markets but qualified and tempered with a belief in the value of promoting the common good, a sense of community, compassion and empathy for those who cannot cope. But since classical liberalism with a heart is dead, the only real inheritors are libertarian socialists and anarchists who oppose hierarchical systems of any form and challenge all sources of power. Conservatives and most counterfeit Liberals these days only care about markets and what the government can do to advance their interests in those markets. Democrats and Republicans in the US have become welded into a political smoke screen that when cleared reveals a one-party system of corporate power, wealth and privilege in which whatever party gains power is of no relevance to the mass of working people. Nothing of any substance ever changes for John Q Public. As Joe Bageant informs us in Rainbow Pie (2010):
We have over two hundred years of evidence strongly suggesting that America’s favorite theological premise, Adam Smith’s "unseen hand", is a sorry thing indeed for any sane person to risk his arse on, given its endorsement by the smuggest, greediest and richest among us. Most working folks would simply prefer an even start – a fair break for everyone, without depending on unseen-hand theology crafted by a man who avowed that the self-interested pursuit of money somehow made men more altruistic. Despite modern apologist’s assertions to the contrary, Smith also believed that the unseen hand was that of God, “whose wisdom works itself through competition for wealth”, and that ‘providence rightly divided the earth among a few lordly masters”. He disliked government except when it was clubbing down the “vice-ridden and slothfully poor”. Property is government, he said, and. “Till there be property there can be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth, and to defend the rich from the poor”, thereby defining the armature of American conservatism a full 89 years before the Republican Party was even born.”
“I can always hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half” – Robber Baron and Railroad/Banking Tycoon Jay Gould (1836-1892)
It’s important to re-iterate that historically both Liberals and Conservatives have always endorsed capitalism but some socially responsible liberals have attempted to mitigate the repellent side of capitalism with its inequities and injustices. To the extent that the expression is meaningful at all, one could call the United States a “capitalist democracy” , particularly since capitalism poses serious barriers to any meaningful democracy. In a capitalist system everything is reduced to a commodity, including people and freedom; you can only have as much freedom as money will buy. Hence most of the time the wealth and privilege of conservative elites have an interest in limiting the coercive power of the state since they are usually the prime beneficiaries of those limitations. Conservatives are libertarians when economic conditions are right for them, but when the economy frequently turns ugly as it has done recently, they become socialists and are the first whining at the trough of the Nanny State. Hello bailout and goodbye state treasury.
The notion of a "pure" market economy in which the government steps aside and just lets the capitalist deity, the mystical “invisible hand of the marketplace” perform its magic has always been a fiction. The government sets the ground rules in distinct ways that impact significantly on economic outcomes, outcomes that strongly favor wealthy investors, financial institutions and big corporations.* It’s becoming quite obvious that the recurring bubbles and inevitable recessions are cunningly crafted because the Wall Street mobsters who cause them are rarely harmed and often benefit from them. Recessions guarantee a permanent cheap labor supply by restocking the shelves of disposable people through layoffs and subsequently driving down wages. That’s where the real competition takes place in the capitalist system, among the working classes who compete for mind-numbing minimum wage jobs, those jobs at least that have not been outsourced to some Third World sweat shop.
*As I was paying some bills online the other day I looked at my Sears credit statement and was shocked to see that usury is alive and well. With the current prime rate about 1% or less these criminals (Sears Credit is now owned by the crooks at J P Morgan) have the audacity to charge 29.9% per annum on the balance! I rarely pay attention to this because I’ve never had an outstanding balance on any credit card I’ve had. Consequently they hate me as a customer. This is shocking and a blatant case of usury – these immoral rotten bastards ought to be tarred and feathered and boiled in oil for such exploitive practices. One can get a better interest rate at your local chapter of Hell’s Angels. Even back in the pre-capitalist era of the Middle Ages thugs and mafia goons such as the folks at Sears Credit would be taken out in the public square and summarily shamed for such gross criminality. They actually had strict usury laws back then and the punishments were particularly severe, even execution. But in today’s casino capitalist world of legalized grand larceny, rip-off artists and corruption within the Conservative Corporate Welfare State, as long as it turns a profit, anything goes. Only two rules are observed: (1) “Profit before people” and (2)”Socialize costs and privatize profits”.
The captains of industry and the robber barons of early American capitalism soon discovered that pure laissez-faire hyper-competitive capitalism could not long survive while maintaining their privileged positions within the economic hierarchy. Business demands a strong state interventionist policy, what Noam Chomsky rightly calls “state capitalism”, to regulate markets and otherwise support the interests of the wealthy investor class and big business. It also regularly entailed violence in the affairs of other countries in the manner described vividly by Woodrow Wilson almost a century ago. Chomsky calls this complicity of government and the interests of big business, "state capitalism" but I have my own descriptive label for it: The Conservative Corporate Welfare State. The imperialistic policies of Woodrow Wilson and all those US heads of state that preceded and succeeded him were particularly catastrophic for all the countries within Latin America and elsewhere not yet invaded and pillaged by the US but still deemed to be within their imperialistic control. Thus there is a paradox for business, a love-hate relationship with government. It claims to want a minimalist government, but only in affairs that do not concern their narrow economic interests. It wants a weak state that will not interfere with private privilege, but that promote and enhance business when economic conditions demand it.
A crucial question one must ask is this: Why, throughout history have the vast majority permitted them to be dominated and oppressed by a very small conservative minority? I’ve briefly suggested part of the reason in this essay in my discussion of Gramsci. This was a question that much earlier mystified the great Scottish philosopher and humanist of the Enlightenment, David Hume (1711-1776). In considering the First Principles of Government, Hume found "nothing more surprising" than "to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and to observe the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. 'Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular."
Hume was an insightful observer, and his paradox of government is very much to the point. His insight explains why especially today under our so-called democracies, conservative elites are so dedicated to indoctrination and thought control, a major and largely neglected theme of modern history. "The public must be put in its place," Walter Lippmann (1889-1976) wrote, so that we may "live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd," whose "function" is to be "interested spectators of action," not participants. And if the state lacks the force to coerce and the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right thing, as respected intellectuals of the power elite, both conservative and liberal, have been advising for many years. Lippmann called this process of subtle indoctrination and overt propaganda*, the “manufacture of consent.” Reinhold Niebuhr, who was revered by George Kennan, the Kennedy intellectuals, and many others, wrote that "rationality belongs to the cool observers" while the common person follows not reason but faith. The cool observers, he explained, must recognize "the stupidity of the average man," and must provide the "necessary illusions" and the "emotionally potent oversimplifications" that will keep the naive simpletons on course.
As throughout most of the history of the past several centuries, it remains necessary to protect the "lunatic or distracted person," the ignorant rabble, the “great beast”, from their own "depraved and corrupt" judgments, just as one does not allow a child to cross the street without supervision. Elections have little or nothing to do with the democratic process where the parameters for debate during election campaigns are strictly controlled and the vast majority of the candidates in all parties are indistinguishable, particularly once they have power. They are all members of an “old boys” network of wealthy conservative business and investor classes who will decide what crumbs will filter down to the working classes. This is the essence of Ronald Reagan’s supply side or “trickle down” economics, what Robin Williams aptly described as “someone pissing on you.” Roughly half of the people today don’t even bother to show up at the polls, realizing that whomever they vote for, it’s a conscious vote against their own interests.
* In Mein Kampf, Hitler concluded, with some justification, that Germany lost the First World War because it lost the propaganda battle. They couldn’t begin to compete with the cunning of the British and American propaganda systems which absolutely overwhelmed them. He swore that next time around they’d have their own propaganda system. He did just that, very effectively under the direction of Joseph Goebbels during and leading up to the Second World War.
Hume's observation raises a number of questions. One dubious feature is the idea that force is on the side of the governed. Reality is more sinister. A good part of human history supports the contrary thesis put forth a century earlier by advocates of the rule of Parliament against the King, but more significantly against the people: that "the power of the Sword is, and ever hath been, the Foundation of all Titles to Government." Force also has more subtle modes, including an array of costs well short of overt violence that attach to refusal to submit. Nevertheless, Hume's paradox is real for both despotic and free societies. Even despotic rule is commonly founded on a measure of consent, and the abdication of rights is the hallmark of more free societies - a fact that calls for further detailed research and analysis.
Here is Noam Chomsky on Bertrand Russell’s take on the issue:
"Hume's paradox of government arises only if we suppose that a crucial element of essential human nature is what Mikhail Bakunin called "an instinct for freedom." It is the failure to act upon this instinct that Hume found surprising. The same failure inspired Rousseau's classic lament that people are born free but are everywhere in chains, seduced by the illusions of the civil society that is created by the rich to guarantee their plunder. Some may adopt this assumption as one of the "natural beliefs" that guide their conduct and their thought. There have been efforts to ground the instinct for freedom in a substantive theory of human nature. They are not without interest, but they surely come nowhere near establishing the case. Like other tenets of common sense, this belief remains a regulative principle that we adopt, or reject, on faith. Which choice we make can have large-scale effects for ourselves and others.
Those who adopt the common sense principle that freedom is our natural right and essential need will agree with Bertrand Russell that anarchism is "the ultimate ideal to which society should approximate." Structures of hierarchy and domination are fundamentally illegitimate. They can be defended only on grounds of contingent need, an argument that rarely stands up to analysis. As Russell went on to observe 90 years ago, "the old bonds of authority" have little intrinsic merit. Reasons are needed for people to abandon their rights, "and the reasons offered are counterfeit reasons, convincing only to those who have a selfish interest in being convinced." "The condition of revolt," he went on, "exists in women towards men, in oppressed nations towards their oppressors, and above all in labor towards capital. It is a state full of danger, as all past history shows, yet also full of hope."
Russell traced the habit of submission in part to coercive educational practices. His views are reminiscent of 17th and 18th century thinkers who held that the mind is not to be filled with knowledge "from without, like a vessel," but "to be kindled and awaked."
Bertrand Russell once said that “A good man is one whose opinions and actions are pleasing to the holders of power”. This insightful quote very succinctly engenders the essence of Conservative ethics. From my experience and extensive reading of Edmund Burke and subsequent conservative political writers*, I submit that Conservatives are generally those who are either born into wealth and privilege, those who have become wealthy by whatever means, are in the managerial positions of corporations and who belong to churches and other hierarchical authoritarian institutions.** In addition to being the richest, the most conservative, hierarchical, authoritarian and oppressive institution in the world, is undoubtedly the Catholic Church. Conservatives also include members of the working classes and dispossessed who have been subjected to the daunting propaganda and doctrinal systems – our schools, churches, corporate dominated mass media and other cultural forces that are invariably right wing and ultra-conservative. Self interest seems to be the only driving force that underpins conservatism’s bankrupt philosophy. Throughout history there have always been minority conservative elites that controlled the vast majority of the wealth and the machinery of governance, regardless of what label the socio-economic system assumed. The countries that have mitigated these forces by social democratic and progressive movements are the only ones that have provided for any semblance of social justice and democracy for the rest of us. The best countries in the world to live are those Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland that are still managing to preserve some of those efforts.
*See the references at the end of this paper.
**Most who call themselves “liberals” these days, not unlike our own neo-con Premier of BC, Gordon Campbell, are really dyed in the wool Conservatives. Campbell, a pathological liar and alcoholic who holds the working classes in contempt is the paragon of the "inferior man" as described by Confucius, a pathetic spiteful uncaring philistine who "knows the price of everything and the value of nothing".
It was Adolph Hitler who once said: “What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.” I can recall a few years ago when Britney Spears made the comment that “The Sundance Film Festival is weird – you actually have to think about the films when you watch them.” The incapacity or refusal to think skeptically, independently and critically is the most urgent problem of our failed democracies and unless it can be solved we are heading back to the Dark Ages when the authoritarian forces of the Church, Monarchy and Feudal Land Barons held sway. Only this time your masters will be huge corporations and the obscenely wealthy conservative investor classes on Wall Street who are now in the process of plundering what’s left of the public’s resources and social services. This is all happening with the complicity of conservative (and faux liberal) governments, governments that are quickly becoming tantamount to full-blown fascism.
Burke, E. Reflections of the Revolution in France, 1790
Carlyle, T, Works, 1899
Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, 1960
Hayek F., The Road to Serfdom, 1976
Kirk, R., The Conservative Mind, 1953
Kristol, I., Reflections of a Neo-Conservative, 1983
Mill, J. S, On Liberty, 1859
Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, 1974
Oakshott, M. Rationalism in Politics and other Essays, 1962
Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971
Robin, Corey, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism fro Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, 2011
Smith, Adam, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759
Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations, 1776
Trigg, R., Ideas of Human Nature, 1988