Monday, November 3, 2014

Progress and conservatives


I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine, out now: 'The right side of history is wrong'. The issue is on progress, and I reveal why the idea of necessary progress--whether Christian, Marxist or liberal humanist--is dodgy.
For many, the idea of progress is not simply psychological recompense – it is also a political lure or cudgel. Take the common phrase, "the right side of history". The idea of progress becomes a rhetorical means to its own end: the world changes because we are told the world must change. And those with conflicting values ought to change too. 
Think of the ideal of democratic liberalism, in which freedom is supposedly cherished by all humans, in all times. Yet given the chance, many ordinary citizens will, with a little prodding--and sometimes gladly--give up their liberties for security, and torture or maim others for pleasure, profit or righteous tribalism. 
The point is not that freedom is evil, or all humans likewise. The point is that the ideal state of universal emancipation is utopian: it removes much that is selfish, petty and cruel in homo sapiens, and turns this ideal into tomorrow’s promise. “To think of humans as freedom-loving,” writes John Gray in The Silence of Animals, “you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.” Thinking this way has, as Gray notes, encouraged laws and customs that do promote liberty – for a handful of citizens. But the fantasy of innate freedom-seeking is often a failed means to its own end. 
This is by no means solely a liberal democratic or capitalist principle. Vladimir Lenin argued for a orthodox Marxist theory of history, in which the contradictions of economy and society ended in communism. But this did not happen without help: the intellectual vanguard had to lead Russia’s oppressed. The conscious revolutionaries would direct the “spontaneity” of the masses, and stop them from being perverted by the bourgeoisie.  “Through self-renunciation and ascetic self-discipline,” writes philosopher Arran Gare in Nihilism Inc., “Lenin’s followers could experience themselves as transfigured into instruments of Providence through which the millennia would be achieved.” 
The capitalists were, in other words, on the wrong side of history – a history the Bolsheviks had to righteously guide. Historians recorded how this glorious willing ended.
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Michael Oakeshott
I also had a piece in the Canberra Times, on conservative thought. 

Instead of using 'conservative' as shorthand for greedy villainy, I wanted to recognise its recent intellectual history, with a couple of notable examples: Oakeshott and MacIntyre. 

My point was not that conservatism is therefore my 'go to' philosophy, or that the current Australian (or UK) government exemplifies this thoughtfulness. I simply wanted to note that 'conservative' need not be a slur. A sample:
In Rationalism in Politics, the English philosopher argued against the reduction of political and ethical life to technical expertise. His point was not that such specialised knowledge was bunkum, but that it simply did not apply everywhere. Technique can be written down and taught; can be turned into rules and maxims. However, much of civilisation is actually what Oakeshott called 'practical knowledge', which can only be learned by doing. 
This does not make it mysterious or esoteric. It is the kind of knowledge familiar to doctors, carpenters and artists alike. It is cultivated in habits, customs, traditions. But it cannot be turned into some universal law or official statement without losing much of its nuance and agility. 
One reply to this conservatism is that all kinds of cruelties and illusions are hidden away in 'the old ways', which are then sanctified. For example, we accept that women cannot vote, or that indigenous land ownership is void, simply because of The Way Things Are. This is a genuine danger, and conservatism can easily turn into ideology. But so, as Oakeshott points out, can liberalism when it is 'living by the book'. Knowing the difference between just wisdom and malicious prejudice, and then knowing how to keep the first or reject the second, requires practical wisdom. Put another way: progressive politics, if successful, will involve some conservative know-how.

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