Liberalism Is Not the Opposite of Conservatism
Why do those who control things command those who control life, and not the other way round? Why does capital control labor, and not labor capital?
In the capitalistic hierarchy of values, capital stands higher than labor, amassed things higher than the manifestations of life. Capital employs labor, and not labor capital. The person who owns capital commands the person who “only” owns his life, human skill, vitality and creative productivity. “Things” are higher than man.
—Erich Fromm, The Sane Society
There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, and out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.
—Frank Wilhoit, defining conservatism as a political philosophy
By a roundabout route — starting with a very good piece from The Lever on the next abortion battle, to Cory Doctorow’s reflections on the latest poisonous modern aristocrat (Barre Seid), to a reflection on modern liberalism at Crooked Timber — I landed in my reading on a brilliant comment by composer Frank Wilhoit. This piece is about his comment.
Let me set the stage. The latest conventional wisdom is that America is a divided nation, and those divisions are best expressed as those on the Right (Republicans and their supporters) opposing those to the left of the Right (Democrats and their supporters). The former are usually called “conservatives” — when they’re not being called “fascists” — and the latter are usually labeled “liberals,” or sometimes “progressives” if "liberal” is deemed too tame.
The True Definition of “Conservatism”
An earlier essay on conservatism by UCLA professor Philip Agre, an essay much read in Bush II years, held that “Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy,” and thus conservatives seek to make the status quo “seem permanent and timeless” and “to pass on their positions of privilege to their children.”
This definition conflicts, of course, with the self-declared notions of conservatism as protector of “freedom.” But the notion of freedom in conservatism is confused and the identification is easy to refute, starting with the arguments in Agre’s essay itself, and ending with the actions of our “conservative” Supreme Court, whose definition of freedom seems to start with their freedom to tell you what do, and ends ... right there.
Which leads to Wilhoit’s comment, written as a reader reply to a post at Crooked Timber. Wilhoit’s main point (lightly edited; emphasis mine):
Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit:
There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.
There is nothing more or else to it, and there never has been, in any place or time.
So far, we’re more or less in agreement with Agre. But Wilhoit has more. He opens this way:
There is no such thing as liberalism — or progressivism, etc. There is only conservatism. No other political philosophy actually exists; by the political analogue of Gresham’s Law, conservatism has driven every other idea out of circulation.
There might be, and should be, anti-conservatism; but it does not yet exist. What would it be? In order to answer that question, it is necessary and sufficient to characterize conservatism. Fortunately, this can be done very concisely.
Stop here, dear reader, and ask yourself the question Wilhoit asked. If there is a thing called “conservatism,” and if it is well defined by Agre and Wilhoit, what’s its opposite? Liberalism? Progressivism? Socialism? FDR socialism? Social democracy?
What is the genuine opposite of conservatism, if conservatism is the regime by which money is converted to power and control over others (as David Graeber put it many times in The Dawn of Everything)?
What is the true, mathematical opposite of the conservative position? What is anti-conservatism at its core?
Give up? Read on.
The Definition of “Anti-Conservatism”
The answer is in the definition of conservatism itself, and is indeed its mathematical (actually, logical) opposite.
If conservatism is a regime where, under law, some are bound and not protected, and others are protected and not bound, then anti-conservatism must be
the proposition that the law cannot [be allowed to] protect anyone unless it binds everyone, and cannot [be allowed to] bind anyone unless it protects everyone.
Simple, yes? Yet no, not simple at all.
Which of our proposed better-than-conservative societies — liberal democracy, socialism, social democracy, “FDR socialism” — does not enshrine the inherent right of those with wealth to exercise power over others?
All these alternatives are flavors of capitalism, all are sweetened subjugation, modified despotism. All soften the destructive effects of billionaire-controlled corporations and institutions — like “charities” (search for “Take Bill Gates”) and often government — so that many suffer less than they would otherwise have done, and few suffer more.
Does that make these institutions — social democracies; liberal democracies — better? Does it make them, like conservative regimes, bad, or evil? As Graeber and Wengrow replied in The Dawn of Everything, when answering the question “Are humans innately good or innately evil?”:
‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are purely human concepts. It would never occur to anyone to argue about whether a fish, or a tree, were good or evil, because ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are concepts humans made up in order to compare ourselves with one another.
None of these institutions is good nor bad. Do some cause less pain than others? Obviously yes. But to call socialism or any of its cousins “the answer” or “the antidote” to conservatism is to mistake these regimes for what they are not, and to mislead others to make the same mistake.
All of these regimes are flavors of capitalism. And this, from Erich Fromm, is capitalism at its core, modified or not, softened or not, sweetened or the bitter root:
The use of man by man is expressive of the system of values underlying the capitalistic system. Capital, the dead past, employs labor―the living vitality and power of the present. In the capitalistic hierarchy of values, capital stands higher than labor, amassed things higher than the manifestations of life. Capital employs labor, and not labor capital. The person who owns capital commands the person who “only” owns his life, human skill, vitality and creative productivity. “Things” are higher than man. The conflict between capital and labor is much more than the conflict between two classes, more than their fight for a greater share of the social product. It is the conflict between two principles of value: that between the world of things, and their amassment, and the world of life and its productivity. [bolded emphasis mine]
That those who control things command those who control life ... is an abomination. The opposite should be true, yet hasn’t been since the earliest temple-states, the very first city-state days.
The Natural Order or an Unnatural ‘Sticking Place’?
Is it a natural condition, a natural state, the domination of man by man, of humans by their equals? Our species has been on this planet for 200,000 years, give or take. The earliest oppressor states, less than 5,000. Ninety-eight percent of human history is lost, so it’s a separate project to answer that question well.
But if this is not our species’ natural state — and I’m inclined, positive soul that I am, to believe that humans have simply become simply “stuck” (Graeber’s term) in just one of a large variety of alternative structures — then we could become “unstuck,” could “unstick” ourselves, could rise as easily as we made ourselves fall.
If “stuck in the current ugly social order” is not our natural state, we could free ourselves indeed of rule that hands power to money. We could relaunch our destiny, reboot our social OS to a saner state, and live in a way that’s truly anti-conservative.
Older others have lived far better than us — Stone Age others if Graeber is correct. If they, “mere cavemen,” could retain their freedom through most of our hidden past, why not their putative smarter cousins, we? I ask in all sincerity.
The opposite of conservatism is civic republicanism (“a republic, if you can keep it”). One of great tragedies of USA history is the displacement of civic republicanism liberalism.
Civic republicanism has always been suspicious and hostile to concentrated wealth. Machiavelli explained in Discourses on Livy how the Romans created the system of tribunes to oppose the power of the rich, who had corrupted and seized control of the Senate.
Why is civic republicanism not much discussed anymore? is it because USA has degenerated into an oligarchy, and an oligarchy cannot tolerate the precepts and principles of republicanism?
In The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, Gordon Wood wrote:
"In a republic “each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good, the interest of the whole body.” For the republican patriots of 1776 the commonweal was all encompassing—a transcendent object with a unique moral worth that made partial considerations fade into insignificance. “Let regard be had only to the good of the whole” was the constant exhortation by publicists and clergy.... “A Citizen,” said Sam Adams, “owes everything to the Commonwealth.”[ pp. 60-61.]
Crucial the Constitutional mandate to promote the General Welfare: all economic activity is supposed to directed and regulated in the public interest. This is no longer the case--a searing indictment of our mismanagement of our government. Conservative legal scholars have long dismissed the Constitution’s Preamble as having no legal power; this argument is trotted out whenever someone argues that “to promote the General Welfare” gives sanction to a “welfare state.”
Today, the idea of progress is mostly about increasing and extending individual consumer choice. In the founding era, by contrast, the idea of progress centered on increasing the power of humanity over nature, to free humanity from hard physical labor and allow more people more time to engage in intellectual and cultural advancements. This technological progress elevated humanity from mere brutes exerting muscle power similar to horses, oxen, or mules. This strengthened and deepened the radical claim of civic republicanism that the lowest-born person, working in mud dawn to dusk, was the full equal of any nobleman, or even duke, duchess, queen or king.
While the inalienable natural rights of a human being are central to both liberalism and republicanism (with its insistence on rule by law, not just men), only republicanism counterbalances this focus on individual liberty with the right and needs of the community. [See Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113 (1876), the Supreme Court decision upholding the power of state governments to regulate private industries that affect “the common good.”
So let’s be very clear here: capitalism and the importance it places on self-interest, which not only enables but glorifies selfishness (Ayn Rand merely took things to their logical conclusion) is a fundamental rejection of republicanism).
In response to Erich Fromm’s dishearteningly accurate observation that "In the capitalistic hierarchy of values, capital stands higher than labor, amassed things higher than the manifestations of life,"
we have Abraham Lincoln’s First Annual Message, in which Lincoln deplored
"the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor.... Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."
And Lincoln was not stating anything new or novel — he was merely repeating the founding principles of republicanism, stretching back to Franklin’s Benjamin Franklin’s 1783 essay “Reflections on the Augmentation of Wages, Which Will Be Occasioned in Europe by the American Revolution.”
"…If the term wages be taken in its widest signification, it will be found that almost all the citizens of a large state receive and pay wages. I shall confine my remarks, however, to one description of wages, the only one with which government should intermeddle, or which requires its care. I mean the wages of the lowest class, those men without property, without capital, who live solely by the labor of their hands. This is always the most numerous class in a state; and consequently, that community cannot be pronounced happy, in which from the lowness and insufficiency of wages, the laboring class procure so scanty a subsistence, that, barely able to provide for their own necessities, they have not the means of marrying and rearing a family, and are reduced to beggary, whenever employment fails them, or age and sickness oblige them to give up work….
Why has this history been suppressed? Why, for example, are we taught that Adam Smith’s ideas are the foundation of the USA economy, instead of Alexander Hamilton’s? Why is Alexander Hamilton is repeatedly smeared as a mere tool of rich patriarchal elites, but we seldom hear of Hamilton’s argument that banking is largely a public utility and ought be regulated as such; or Hamilton’s scheme for corporate stock voting, in which no one would be allowed more than 30 votes, not matter if they owned thousands of even millions of shares? You want to shut down private equity’s looting of companies they take over? Simply enact Hamilton’s scheme for corporate governance.
Neuberger quotes Graeber and Wengrow, “Are humans innately good or innately evil?” Civic recognizes that humanity has a dual nature, capable of both good and evil While this nature is unchangeable, it is malleable. This is why the Constitution of the American republic is designed with checks and balances. The negative aspects of human nature can be corralled and discouraged by the institutional design of governments.
More importantly, the positive aspects of human nature can be encouraged and nurtured by governments. In an explicit repudiation of the laissez faire ideas of Adam Smith, Hamilton emphasized the importance of having active government promoting new knowledge and technology. In his December 1791 Report to Congress on the Subject of Manufactures, Hamilton wrote:
“Experience teaches, that men are often so much governed by what they are accustomed to see and practice, that the simplest and most obvious improvements, in the [most] ordinary occupations, are adopted with hesitation, reluctance and by slow gradations … To produce the desirable changes, as early as may be expedient, may therefore require the incitement and patronage of government.”
“The left” misses this crucial point about the structure of government Hamilton helped design. Hamilton’s design of the USA economy (including, crucially, the Constitutional mandate that economic activity should “promote the General Welfare” and that the national government is not limited to the powers enumerated in the Constitution, but has implied powers to undertake whatever is needed to fulfill that mandate). Rather than the Marxist model of the means of production determining the political superstructure, what actually happens under Hamilton’s system is government support for new science and technology creates new means of production, forcing and fostering technological phase shifts in the economy.
* The machine tools and machining techniques developed at the Springfield Armory after the War of 1812, became the basis for the manufacture of interchangeable parts--the foundation for industrial assembly lines and mass production.
* The Army Corps of Topographical Engineers identified and mapped the westward routes followed by the overland pioneers and the railroads.
* In 1843, Congress directly funded Samuel B. Morris’s development of the telegraph.
* In the Civil War era, it was US Navy research that applied scientific methods to steam engine design, creating the science of thermodynamics AND the profession of mechanical engineering.
* The creation of the Department of Agriculture in May 1862 formalized direct government efforts in fighting agricultural pests and animal diseases.
* The first radio transmission was under the auspices of the U.S. Weather Bureau.
* The development of early aviation in USA depended heavily on airmail contracts, breakthroughs in aerodynamics and aircraft design by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (forerunner of NASA).
* Computers were developed in government labs during World War Two to calculate ballistics, cryptography and code breaking, flight simulation, and perform the calculations for the Manhattan Project.
* All the underlying technologies of today’s cell phones and smart phones were originally developed in government research programs.
This piece on Liberalism/Conservatism is one of the best things I have read. Ever. Anywhere.
Some thoughts I've been having. One place we are stuck is using 19th-century labels that describe 19th-century solutions to 19th-century problems. We're stuck because the reaction to Marx triggered propaganda waves from both sides of that argument that force us to fight that battle perpetually. Russia's communists were the kind of unimaginative people who took a book as gospel. Marx's analysis was good but it was one guy and his predictions But why not, it kept them in power.
At the same time America's capitalists fought back with lies etc and became glued to those same lies ever since. But why not, it kept them in power.
Everyone is stuck there. So there hasn't been much of a reexamination of these economic ideas since.