Sunday, June 03, 2007

He's somewhere to the LEFT of Genghis Khan

From Paul Johnson, via Gil Bailie, this will amuse my colleague who is much concerned to properly locate or, I sometimes think, re-locate the referent(s) of the term "fascism". Meanwhile, if anyone wants to jump into it, I'll just lead off with the question: is Paul Jonson right that:
There are six indispensable hallmarks of a conservative. First, firm belief in one, beneficent and omnipotent God. Second, absolute morality as the basis of public law. Third, strict limits on the size of the state. Fourth, respect for a multiplicity of traditional power centres. Fifth, restraint and self-restraint in all things. Sixth, search for the right balance between the individual and the traditional units of society. Hitler broke all these rules: he was an atheistic pagan, a moral relativist, a totalitarian, an ultra-centralist, an uninhibited exhibitionist and a collectivist. In many ways Stalin was to the right of him.
Can one not be an atheist conservative, however less-than-complete from the believer's perspective the non-believer may be? Or, is the non-believing conservative who nonetheless holds, anthropologically, to belief in the great human truths that are represented by the tradition of faith in the Judeo-Christian God, always going to find himself on a slippery gnostic slope to man playing God? Can the liberating humility and serenity of theistic faith ever be reproduced in a humility of faith in humanity and the goodness of what is humanly eternal, transcendent, and beyond our worldly grasp? While I find myself increasingly in prayer, to what extent should I profess to know the Being to whom I pray? To what extent is prayer a form for acquiring non-egoistic self-awareness (it is not simply a call for divine grace)?

I don't know if it is conservative or not to say this: but I tend to think the verdict of history is still out on these questions. In the meantime, let's encourage each other in good faith to pursue and live the truth of our greatest revelations, divine or human, and see what works in building up our responsibilities to past and future generations.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

If one’s scheme of ideological categorization places Hitler to the ‘left’ of Stalin then it’s probably broken. Johnston’s filtering suggestions are vague and pretty much designed to produce this counter-intuitive (and likely incorrect) conclusion.

The self-restraint filter, for example, is strange. Is the mark of the left really exhibitionism? I doubt it. One could make that case for liberalism. With socialists, though, there’s always going to be some appeals to sacrifice personal gain for the collective good.

And the last hallmark of conservatism, the search for the individual-societal balance, is vague because it tells us nothing about where a conservative is going to land on this question. Johnston could be implying that conservative’s fall somewhere between individualistic liberals and collectivist socialists, though this would mean liberals would be to the right of conservatives. Again, this is a bit odd, though not without a hint of truth.

The problem here is that Johnston is working with multiple dimensions. Left-right spectrums make more sense when you focus on one dimension, like people’s views on state intervention in the market. If one were to be charitable to Johnston, they could read this as a tongue-in-cheek jab at those who place Genghis Khan on a left-right spectrum, who themselves are making a tongue-in-cheek comment on the occasional scorched earth tendencies of right-of-centre politicos.
na

truepeers said...

I can see no essential difference between the likes of Stalin and Hitler. Many leftists point to the question of the ownership of the economy to defend their position that Hitler was of the right. But the Soviets had a state owned-apparatchik privileged economy with a large black market necessitated by reality. The Nazis had a gangster state that did not try directly to rule everything economic but would immediately dispossess you of any property rights if it was displeased with you (or your race) or your black market activities (even as all high officials were black marketeers). So, there were no real property rights only political privileges or losses. Any real difference here with COmmunism? I don't see it.

Socialist exhibitionism, at certain times, may be restricted to the self-righteous party leaders that dominate everyone else. But Johnson has a point. In a truly conservative order where there is little questioning of the established ways of representing authority (whether this is centralized or decentralized) there is little exhibitionism. Real, accepted, authority doesn't have to prove itself. A mere wiggle of the finger, and everyone knows and follows the king's wishes. A low beat Canadian "come on guys" and the guys, recognizing what shared authority rules what context, generally know what they should do, or at least they used to.

If you have to claim authority, it's a sign you don't have it. So, certainly, when the left is in opposition it is exhibitionist. When it has consolidated power it no doubt becomes less so but as long as there remains lingering uncertainty about its legitimacy, or opposition elsewhere in the world, there will be a need to claim the authority it does not yet have in peoples' eyes. And since socialism can never really work, other than in the form of big man tyranny (and even then, only for a time) there will always be doubts about the legitimacy of the left. The left, almost by definition, can never claim the authority of well-established and continuing traditions; it will always be somewhat exhibitionist, whether in the mode of anarchists at G8 meetings, Greenpeace, or May Day in Red Square. Even when the left-liberal majority controls the media and the universities and the ngos and the courts and bureaucratic opinions, it will still feel need for ritualistic performances expressing the opposition it bravely faces from established authority!

Historically, the left-right distinction is the invention of the left, and the conceptualization of the right has always been in good part an artefact of their propaganda, one in which conservatives, and libertarians, have had trouble finding themselves. This is perhaps Johnson's real point, as your comments also suggest.

As for liberalism, while it has been a movement that has held values I and other conservatives support, it has done this best, historically, when it retained a conservative side, i.e. when it remained rooted in a particular form of traditional national society. When finally rid of any conservative foundation in the age of multiculti, and after fears of socialist revolution have subsided, liberalism is revealed to be a kind of far leftism in low gear, eventually getting around to eating its own, like, e.g., the liberal state of Israel which it increasingly wants to feed to totalitarian forces, or like the President of Harvard U who dared to suggest that women and men, in general, will have statistically measurable differences in cognitive traits, or like the children to whom liberals do not have inclination to give birth. So, it seems that in an early period, liberalism maintains a distinction with the left and the latter's dissolution of the old order during the years of Communism; but today, liberalism seems to me on a similar dead end road of nihilism and increasingly centralized authoritarianism where things like criticism of homosexuality, long a part of Judeo-Christian culture, are deemed hate speech, and not even an honestly or reasonably held difference of opinion. It's far from obvious that liberalism, with its many gnostic elements, has any firmer grip on reality and humanity's dependence on true transcendent values, than does socialism.

Colin J Campbell said...

Of course, truepeers, your insight that the best 'liberal' state orders are always founded in a conservative context (with which Edmund Burke would have agreed) is not really that helpful in the end. Isn't Great Britain the HOME of the liberalism that we see degenerating into nihilism in the post-modern age? Does this mean that only G.B. can ever find this intangible 'lib-con' balance, and everyone else is doomed to fascism? Can you not see the hopelessness, and nihilism too, of trying to maintain the Burkean line in a world where national borders have lost so much of their integrity?

Anonymous said...

Colin, thanks for your comment; i'm not able right now to give you much of an answer, as I'm at work. I'll just quickly say that I think that nations where they have been eroded or never existed can be (re)built through processes of covenanting. It's not easy, it may not in the short term be likely. But in the long run, unless you believe in the possibility of one-world government, or permanent colonization of parts of the world by more developed nations (I can never see it working), I think people will have to find a way to do it. In the event, it will mean that we will have to interpret some conservative forces as more radical than others. When you are trying to develop a constitutional order to replace a tyranny, you are more radical than when you are working within a well-established tradition. But the common conservative element is respect for constitutional order of some kind (that reflects the history and culture of the people who come to create the nation), and it this on which all viable liberalism depends. We can get back to this later, if you want to go into it in more detail.

truepeers

Anonymous said...

Colin, i'm thinking along these lines

tp