Archive for September, 2010

Critique of a Critique of Conservatism

In the course of events, I came across this article, “What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?”

I think it is a very good article on the whole, but I have a few comments. These are probably make me sound more negative than I actually feel about the article: to much of it, I very much agree, think it is eloquent, and have nothing to add. I only comment on things that I find exceptionally good or worth taking issue with.

0. One can almost pinpoint the author’s background from the content. Ultra-US-centric notions of “conservative” and “liberal”: a US citizen. Categorical statements, clear insights, idiosyncratic ideology: a scientist academic. Support of the Democratic party and dismisal of the Green party: a US liberal academic. Hyper-rational argumentation, non-critical effusive usage of “entrepreneurship”: in IT or CS. Overlaid and particular Hollywood references, yet a professor in computers: must be in LA! There you have it, a UCLA Information Studies professor!

I am sure one could do the same with me and what I write. Still, this sort of thing is interesting.

1. Probably the most accurate succinct description of the notion of “political correctness” I’ve ever seen: “It is true that movements of conscience have piled demands onto people faster than the culture can absorb them. That is an unfortunate side-effect of social progress. Conservatism, however, twists language to make the inconvenience of conscience sound like a kind of oppression. The campaign against political correctness is thus a search-and-destroy campaign against all vestiges of conscience in society.” There is much more that one can say about this, of course, psychologically, politically, philosophically. I tend to read “politically correct” as “correct and progressive and you don’t like it”.

2. For all its excellent history, and history from outside the US, the author fails to make clear that he is only talking about US conservatism. In Australia, and in many other parts of the world today, “liberal” and “conservative” are synonyms, not opposites. I think all readers should know this. ┬áNonetheless, the whole discussion is off on an insular footing. I would also say it gets off on a bad analytic footing — I would say that the hisotrical lineage of “liberal”, whatever else it means, always implies support, if only reluctant, for capitalism.

3. The discussion of democracy is extremely good, I like it very much; in particular the way he relates it to everyday interactions. “The rights revolution is hardly perfect. But the main difficulty with it is just that it is not enough. A society is not founded on rights alone. Democracy requires that people learn and practice a range of nontrivial social skills. But then people are not likely to learn or practice those skills so long as they have internalized a conservative psychology of deference. The rights revolution breaks this cycle. For the civil rights movement, for example, learning to read was not simply a means of registering to vote, but was also a means of liberation from the psychology of conservatism. Democratic institutions, as opposed to the inherited mysteries of conservative institutions, are made of the everyday exercise of advanced social skills by people who are liberated in this sense.” This is what all activists — indeed, all citizens — should aim at.

4. For someone who seems to be familiar with Marx, and other left-of-liberal thought, some statements come across as awfully ignorant, e.g.: “One part of democracy, contrary to much socialist teaching, is the democratization of goods and skills, entrepreneurial skills for example, that had formerly been associated with the elite.” One could just about say that the democratization of economic abilities, like producing goods with all the associated skills, or consuming goods, is a *definition* of socialism. And, he seems to know this, even if he presents it with a snarl: “All that Marx offered to people who worked in deadening factory jobs was that they could take over the factory.” Quite strange. The reflexive anti-socialist tendencies of US liberals — particularly liberal academics, who are one modern version of a priesthood (another version is the think tanks etc.) — are quite interesting, have interesting historical/political/psychological roots, and are worth thinking about.

5. The use of “aristocracy”, instead of many others commonly employed in left writing — e.g. “ruling class”, “power elite”, “power”, “corporatocracy”, etc. — is very idiosyncratic. I suppose he is trying to tie it in to historical roots, but his whole point seems to be to modernize arguments against a conservative power elite. It also makes it unclear precisely who he is referring to: owners of capital, managers, politicans, pundits, corporations, corporate managers, ideologues, the rich, the ultra-rich? So this strikes me as strange and anachronistic.

6. The particular detail on various words, and the mechanics of rhetoric and argumentation, are very good. It is a few years old now, but I think this is useful to read. I can only amplify the following: “Logic does include the syllogism, but it also includes a great deal of savoir faire about what constitutes a good argument, a good counterargument, and a good counterargument to that. In particular, the citizen must have a kind of map of the arguments.”

7. The uncritical usage of “entrepreneurialism” as a phrase, apparently wholly positively, is very idiosyncratic in an essay that is surely written from and and to the left. Only in the US could such a thing be written with a straight face. it really sounds bizarre to my ears. But I suppose that is the product of the culture of computer science and information technology, saturated with start-ups and vast amounts of capital and business jargon which, like all capitalist economic ideology, cloaks systems and institutions of exploitation in apparently neutral terms. Like many terms of economic discourse, this word packs together all sorts of notions. Certainly it is associated with creativity and innovation, which are fine. But it is a very specific type of creativity and innovation, namely those which can give immediate profit; I would not say that this is the same as creativity and innovation which is socially useful; sometimes they overlap, sometimes they do not. And there is no denying that “entrepreneurship”, however it is used, connotes and at least partially includes disproportionate wealth, even greed, far more than any egalitarian conception of economic justice could countenance. With the lack of a socialist culture in the US, and the triumph of capitalist ideology cloaked as business jargon, this meme has slipped through the defences of even an ultra-rational ultra-scientific left academic.

8. The hyper-modernism, almost techno-utopianism, of prevailing culture, particularly in the IT sector — and its consequent forgetting of the true material state of the world — comes through in a particularly damaging way here: “While unions and collective bargaining exist in many contexts for good economic reasons, they are an essentially medieval system of negotiations among orders and classes. They presuppose a generally static economy and society. They are irrelevant to knowledge-intensive forms of work. Nor do they provide any kind of foundation for democratic politics.” Sure there is a qualification, but if one considers the working conditions, living conditions, and incomes of most people in the world — even in the US — and the effect that unionization has had and is having to promote justice, this is indefensible. He is slapping in the face the majority of the world, calling their primary means of seeking justice “medieval”; this is unforgiveable.

Moreover, is he completely unfamiliar with the idea of trade unions as a democratic basis for a future society, i.e. syndicalism? Aren’t the “knowledge-intensive” workers he is referring to just a privileged subclass who are not in such dire need of a union? Is this just more reflexive US-academic-anti-Marxism? I tend to think it is just a little too much being caught up in the “dynamic knowledge economy” that one hears in Information Studies departments, but it should be called out. This language is usually the meaningless dot points of corporate monotones, but it does have a corrupting effect, as we see here.

In fact, as he says, and I agree, “Liberal ideology is in disarray”. This essay is partly inherits that disarray. In many ways it helps, probably much more than it hurts. But I think it is worth pointing out that it partially contributes to it, by amplifying part of the problem: its disconnection from anti-capitalist and socialist thought; the author seems to have a very idiosyncratic mix of hostility, ignorance, and clear understanding of it.

I like his style. That may be because I am a mathematician!


Written by dan

September 11th, 2010 at 11:50 pm