Robert Nisbet: Conservatism: Dream and Reality

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Since the election of Donald Trump, conservatism is increasingly being conflated with fascism, Nazism, racial supremacy and xenophobia. For some, it’s a direct equivalence. Unfortunately, the incessant usage of these smears has not only undermined the true meaning of conservatism, but the entire suite of words used as epithets against conservatives. Given progressivism’s rampant vandalism of language, it’s especially useful to peel back the layers of autistic screeching that have besmirched the mantle of conservatism and take stock of its ideological roots. For anyone seeking a good primer on the classical conception of conservatism, Robert Nisbet’s Conservatism: Dream and Reality is a good place to begin. Both a worthwhile companion and more succinct synthesis of Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind, Nisbet’s Conservatism is a tour through the anatomy of conservative thought. Conservatism, in both cultural and political terms, is fundamentally about the conservation of values, institutions and traditions, and Nisbet’s overview also shares Kirk’s affinity for the thought of the movement’s inspirational forefather, Edmund Burke. Using Burke as his intellectual lodestar, Nisbet’s survey brings to bear the entire lineage of conservatism including Burkean contemporaries like Joseph de Maistre, Benjamin Disraeli, Louis Gabriel Ambroise de Bonald, and Alexis de Tocqueville. The contributions of modern exponents such as Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, Irving Babbitt and TS Eliot are also acknowledged. What all of these men had in common was a shared conviction in the sanctity of traditionalism and a determination to ward off the steady encroachment of conservatism’s two adversaries: liberalism and socialism.

Sparked by Burke’s seminal rebuke to the French Revolution, modern conservatism arose as a response to both the Jacobin fervor for equality and the broader Enlightenment consensus which now forms the bedrock of Western modernity itself. Conservatives viewed the liberal fixation on radical individualism and rational empiricism as an assault on traditional life, and by extension, the hard won fruits of stability, order and civil society. Underneath the conservative conception of the entire social order was a natural epistemological framework for discerning cultural knowledge which forms the basis of the conservative relationship to all institutions of authority. Or to use Burkean terminology, the primacy of prejudice and prescription. Burke and his contemporaries argued that prescription and prejudice was a prerational wisdom borne from popular consciousness and intergenerational knowledge which arose organically from a stable social order. Family, church, and community all formed independent spheres of authority which simultaneously served to constrain behavior, build stable institutions, and mitigate the influence of the State. Burkeans maintained that the very notion of liberty itself hinged on the conservation of this social order. Subsequently, the liberal pursuit of abstract principles and the clinical application of the scientific method in an attempt to distill universal laws by which to govern human affairs was capricious, dehumanizing and detrimental to the very cornerstones of society they sought to conserve.

Liberalism’s tendency to consolidate its thought in an aristocracy of academic elites is one of the perennial gripes that binds every generation of conservatives. In contrast to the feudal conception of dispersed spheres of authority espoused by conservatives, liberalism relies very heavily on a system of education lead by a vanguard of intellectual gnostics in order to reproduce the effect normally cultivated within the institutions of traditional society. Stated in contemporary terms, the progressives need propagandists. Beginning with Burke’s savage attacks on Rousseau to the seething contempt poured on the clinical abstractions of Jeremy Bentham, academic elites have long been reviled by conservatives as the engineers of social dissolution.

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Yeah, well Edmund Burke didn’t know queer theory, did he? Checkmate, conservatards.

Where the conservative mind accepts humanity as it is, the liberal zeal for reform seeks to eradicate all vestiges of the traditional order so that the era of emancipated brotherhood can be fully realized. This religious pursuit of a reformed consciousness is the singular hallmark of all leftist revolutionaries from Rousseau to Lenin to its current manifestation in the postmodern, social justice Left. Both Tocqueville and Burke saw the French Revolution as a pursuit of radical egalitarianism engineered by academics. Within these criticisms was a recognition that the “French revolution inaugurated a kind of revolution of the Word, something previously found in only evangelical, proselytizing religions.” It’s a pattern that repeated itself during the Bolshevik Revolution in the 20th century and appears to be resurfacing now within the postmodern Left.

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Conservatives from Bonald to Hegel argued that the transference of the locus of moral authority away from the spheres of family and church and into the hands of the State is the mental carcinogen at the core of the revolutionary mindset. Rousseau himself was very explicit in the Social Contract that the goal was to institute a “civil religion.” In contrast to the conservative conception of independent spheres of authority of which both family and church play an essential role, the progressive appropriates the divine sanction the church confers upon the State and bends it towards a revolutionary end. For the progressive, the moral is political. Subsequently, all areas of life must be subordinated to the “civil religion” of #SocialJustice.

Lead by the feminist vanguard, the assault on family life is now out in full display. Conservatives opposed feminism on the grounds that it undermined the traditional role of women as wives and mothers. While relatively few openly embrace the mantle of feminism, the fruits of the feminist crusade for taxpayer subsidized abortion, no fault divorce and gynocentric child custody law are more than evident in declining birth rates, rising divorce rates, unfavorable outcomes for boys and a perverse obsession with gender neutrality. Add in the progressive obsession with importing immigrants and the conservative argument only gathers strength.

Where family pride ceases to act, individual selfishness comes into play. When the idea of family becomes vague, indeterminate, and uncertain, a man thinks of his present convenience; he provides for the establishment of his next succeeding generation and no more. Either a man gives up the idea of perpetuating his family, or at any rate he seeks to accomplish it by other means than by a landed estate. – Alexis de Tocqueville

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One of the more surprising revelations of Nisbet’s research is the conservative opposition to industrialization and laissez faire and its attendant effect on the relationship to property. Contrary to the modern perception of conservatives as heartless and calculating champions of dog eat dog capitalism, a theme that echoed throughout the writings of early conservatives is an outright hostility to free markets that even surpasses those of the Marxists. Disraeli, Coleridge and Bonald along with many others rejected the atomizing effect capitalism had on society. In laissez faire, they saw the erosion of social bonds and destruction wrought on rural life.

Closely related to the conservative critique of free markets is an equally fervent critique of property rights under capitalism. As the laws of entail and primogeniture were whisked away under the modern capitalist order, so too would it undermine the belief in private property itself and eventually pave the path for full scale socialism.

One of Nisbet’s most provocative claims is that the longstanding conservative opposition to liberalism is that it’s a Trojan Horse for totalitarianism. He contends that the veneer of liberation only severs the cultural bonds of family and community that simultaneously form the basis of a stable social order and serve as a bulwark against an oppressive State. In light of the current state of the Left throughout the West, it’s hard to say they were wrong. In fact, the entire multicultural, social justice project seems like a perverse and artificial inversion of the organic forms of social organization championed by conservatives. In place of the network of religious, cultural and familial constraints on behavior, progressives are attempting to fill every crevice of society with overzealous reinventions and policing of language coupled with weaponized identity politics.

One notable figure to whom Nisbet makes repeated reference throughout the book is Joseph de Maistre. Isaiah Berlin sees him as the architect of modern fascism whereas Nisbet places him alongside classical European conservatives like Burke, Bonald, Disraeli and Tocqueville. Though Maistre may not have been an easygoing guy, I am inclined to think that Berlin’s reading of Maistre’s work is uncharitable and his overall appraisal incorrect. Admittedly, Maistre doesn’t engender the warmest feelings when discussing the importance of the role of the executioner in society, but among other things, his opposition to the rationalist consensus of the Enlightenment and the secular tyranny of the French Revolution was entirely well founded.

I further propose that Berlin’s attempt to pin fascism to Maistre or classical conservatism not only contravenes conservatives’ steadfast opposition to state engineered collectivism and feudal conception of dispersed authority, it represents an early attempt by a liberal to attribute the phenomenon of fascism as the exclusive province of the political Right. Christopher Dawson correctly asserted that fascism should be viewed as a product of liberalism since it ultimately seeks to collectivize the individual with the State. The fact that fascist regimes appropriated elements of conservative dogma only changes the particular flavor of its collectivist and leftist ethos. Though Berlin was a thoughtful scholar, this tendency among liberals to assign blame to conservatives for the fundamentally socialist character of fascism has continued unabated. As Paul Gottfried has repeatedly argued, it is not only a feature of contemporary social justice orthodoxy, but it has congealed into a dementia that has consumed the progressive Left.

Nisbet rightly points out that throughout the past few centuries of Western democracy, there has always been a delta between conservatism as pure ideology and as a set of prescriptive cultural norms versus political conservatism. Quoting Benjamin Disraeli, Nisbet emphasizes the fact that political conservatives are creatures of their age, and subsequently, are subject to all of the vagaries that accompany the acquisition of political power.

The truth is, gentlemen, a statesman is the creature of his age, the child of circumstance, the creation of his times. A statesman is essentially a practical character ; and when he is called upon to take office, he is not to inquire what his opinions might or might not have been upon this or that subject he is only to ascertain the needful and the beneficial, and the most feasible manner in which affairs are to be carried on. – Benjamin Disraeli

While this accounts for conservatives’ numerous concessions to progressives, political scandals, ideological purity tests and plagues of corruption, it also creates a bit of a conundrum for conservatism itself. If conservatism is about upholding fixed principles, cultural tradition, intergenerational knowledge and a restraint on state power, what has American, or European, political conservatism actually conserved? Nisbet concedes its failures, but is sanguine about its future.

Quite apart from symbolic value and even genuine, concrete reference, family, kindred, neighborhood and locality, even region and race, have a universal historical meaning that is not likely to be entirely eroded away by the acids of modernity. – Robert Nisbet

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Nisbet may have been a little too optimistic. The Trump era has ushered in what is probably the most fervent and concerted attack on conservatism. Through Trump can hardly be considered a doctrinaire conservative on any given issue, the issues on which he has taken firm public positions that are genuinely conservative are deeply consequential for the future of the republic. The progressive Left is fully possessed by a revolutionary nihilism which only seeks to eradicate all vestiges of the past and has shown nothing but contempt for any form of historical American tradition. We are living in an time in American history in which the Left’s thirst for power is so unrestrained, they are willing to foment both racial antipathy and open hostility to family life. The Left has abandoned the idea of a country with borders and a set of dominant cultural norms in favor of a radical cultural egalitarianism and a globalist utopianism. While the Left revels in its smug certainty that conservative insistence on immigration restriction is inherently bigoted and a design flaw in the conservative mindset, it is more rightly viewed as the time honored recognition of a pluralism of values and the necessity for the preservation of national values. The Left has made it clear that there is nothing to defend, nothing to uphold and nothing to conserve in the American tradition. When we’ve reached a point when even “The Star Spangled Banner” is a bone of contention between progressives and conservatives, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the conservative is the real radical of the 21st century.

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