Monday, February 16, 2009


At the weekend I read Anthony Quinton's superb analysis of conservatism in the Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy. It's an article of mild vintage now (dating from 1995), but, quite apart from the main body of argument, contains at least one vital and pertinent admonition, which messrs Blair and Bush would have been wise to heed: seen [by conservatism] as a good in itself. But representative parliamentary institutions, continuously developed in parallel with the political maturity of the population, is, in advanced Western societies, an historically established mode of proceeding and, therefore, worthy of preservation. That does not make it a universal political panacea.

The primary onus on a writer seeking to provide an intellectual defence of political conservatism, is to provide a rational foundation which refutes the view that conservatism is simply a self-interested attempt to preserve the status quo, by those who happen to possess the power, wealth and status in society at a point in time. To this end, Quinton argues as follows:

[The] main tradition of conservative thought derives from three central doctrines...The first and most obvious of them is traditionalism, which supports continuity in politics, the maintenance of existing institutions and practices and is suspicious of change, particularly of large and sudden change, and above all of violent and systematic revolutionary change...

The chief intellectual, rather than emotional, support for traditionalism is a sceptical view about political knowledge. Political wisdom for the conservative is embodied, first of all in the inherited fabric of established laws and institutions. This is seen as the deposit of a great historical accumulation of small adjustments to the political order, made by experienced political practitioners, acting under the pressure of a clearly recognized need and in a cautious, prudent way...Even less welcome to conservatives than abstract principles, such as doctrines of universally applicable natural or human rights, are utopias, systematic proposals for comprehensive social transformation.

Political scepticism in its turn rests on the third central doctrine of conservatism, the conception of human beings and society as being organically or internally related. Individual human beings are not fully formed...independently of the social institutions and practices within which they grow up. There is, therefore, no universal human nature. People's needs and desires and expectations differ, from time to time and from place to place.

As Quinton conceives it, conservatism is not a substantive political ideology:

An ideology derives political prescriptions or principles, even sometimes utopias, from theories about human nature and society...conservatism does not depend upon a substantive theory about universal human nature, issuing in universal political principles, such as lists of the rights of man...The desirability of [particular institutions, such as a monarchy or an established church, is, for a conservative] relative to the circumstances of a particular time and place, one in which they are historically established...As an ideology conservatism is, then, procedural or methodological rather than substantive. It prescribes no principles or ideals or institutions universally and so falls outside the scope of its own rejection of abstract theory.

Curiously, then, Quinton's account of conservatism implies a type of moral and political relativism with respect to substantive questions. Moreover, Quinton's defence of traditionalism does, in fact, tacitly presuppose a substantive theory of human society, even though this tacit theory is used to derive methodological, rather than substantive, political prescriptions. Let us turn now to this tacitly supposed theory of society, given that it raises some interesting questions.

As we've seen, Quinton argues that the prevailing political state is "the deposit of a great historical accumulation of small adjustments to the political order, made by experienced political practitioners, acting under the pressure of a clearly recognized need and in a cautious, prudent way." He then argues that, whilst a society will inevitably change due to extra-political factors, change should be gradual; large and sudden change, he argues, leads to unintended and unpredicted consequences. If the prevailing political system is subjected to large or sudden change, then:

A host of stabilities which provide a background of regularity within which life can be rationally and prudently led are jeopardized...It is not only that large political changes have many unintended results that are unwelcome. They also frequently fail to achieve their intended results or achieve opposite ones...The formation and running of a state is more like walking a girder high above the ground or driving a car along a narrow, winding road...There are innumerable ways in which it is possible to go wrong, indeed disastrously wrong, but only a very tightly restricted number of ways in which you can go right...Change should be in response both to a change in extra-political circumstances...and to a widely-felt need arising from it, and it should be gradual so that unplanned detrimental side-effects be counteracted.

Pace Quinton, there are a number of tacit substantive assumptions here about the nature of human society. In fact, these assumptions can be cast into the language of physics:

(1) Politically organised human society can, at best, attain a metastable state, a state which is capable of being perturbed into chaos by large and sudden politically-induced changes.

(2) Extra-political factors provide a constant source of change in a politically organised human society, but if the political response to such changes is gradual, then the metastable state can be maintained. Such a process of gradual change could be thought of as akin to a quasistatic process, a thermodynamic process in which equilibrium is maintained by performing the process very slowly. (The analogy doesn't quite work, however, because human society more closely resembles what Prigogine termed a dissipative system, a type of system far from thermodynamic equilibrium due to the large flows of energy through the system).

Supplementing Quinton's justification of traditionalism with some concepts from physics, these are the substantive theoretical claims about the nature of human society which conservatism tacitly assumes. Can such claims be justified, however? Doing so appears to require the very degree of political knowledge which conservatism avowedly rejects. What is the empirical basis for such claims? Quinton correctly points to the chaos which typically follows revolutionary change, such as that associated with the French Revolution, and the revolutions in Russia and China. However, conservatism is not uniquely distinguished politically by its resistance to revolutionary or radical change. Most of those in the modern Western world who subscribe to progressive reform, do not advocate revolution, and do not harbour utopias; they seek merely to gradually improve human society, and often find that their attempts to do so are resisted by political conservatives.

I'm far from convinced, then, about conservatism's intellectual credentials once it strays from the safe territory of utopias and revolutionary change, but Quinton's article is an excellent read.


Anonymous said...

Most of those in the modern Western world who subscribe to progressive reform ... do not harbour utopias...

Having demanded empirical proof from the conservatives to support their claims, you leave yourself open to a similar demand here.

It would be impossible to identify those who "subscribe to progressive reform". For example, on the face of it, I would say that I do not. But maybe once I'd heard your definition of "progressive reform" I would change my mind; and I very much doubt that large numbers of people can be found who all agree precisely on such a definition.

However, I suspect that many "progressives" do indeed harbour utopias. Perhaps they do so only subconsciously or indirectly - it is only the avowed ideologues of revolution that proclaim utopias openly - but I have little doubt that the ministers of our current government have utopian ideals in the back of their minds.

I think the principle difference between conservatives and progressives is that conservatives are, in a literal sense, reactionary, whereas progressives are active.

Conservatives believe that society should be modified to cope with changes in circumstance, whereas progressives believe society should be modified towards some deliberate goal.

Revolution is the most extreme example of attempting to modify a society to make it conform to an ideal. However, even gradual progressive reform is undertaken with the same sort of goal in sight. It is merely a more sensible, pragmatic method of achieving the same end.

A conservative does not wish to modify society in accordance with any particular ideal, unless you count Quinton's "traditionalism" as an ideal. I think "traditionalism" is rather oxymoronic, since tradition is the antithesis of ideology, but I suppose it depends on how you wish to categorise things.

None of the above provides any empirical proof for the claims of conservatism. But perhaps it partially elucidates the conservative position regarding gradual progressivism. (By 'conservative' I here mean 'my').

There was an interesting discussion about the term 'progressive' on the Language Log recently.

Gordon McCabe said...

Some excellent points there again.

However, what if there's a tradition of progressive reform in a society, and if a stable political state has been created and maintained as a result of this progressive reform? Conservatism, a la Quinton, then suggests the preservation of this modus operandi. One might argue that there is just such a tradition of progressive reform in modern Western societies.

Once it's established that progressive reform is consistent with stability, then Quinton's conservatism becomes consistent with progressive reform, and thereby becomes self-defeating.

Anonymous said...

The idea of a tradition of progressive reform is one of the reasons why I don't really like the term 'traditionalism'. It is self-contradictory. To me, the suffix 'ism' suggests an ideology and 'tradition' suggests the absence of ideology.

Progressive reform implies the existence of an ideal (i.e. not yet manifest) society towards which we wish to reform our current society. This is an ideological concept. It posits the existence of abstract principles to which society should be made to conform. This positing is sometimes tacit but usually quite open - see universal human rights for example.

However, when a conservative talks about tradition, he usually means the attitude and system of government that Quinton calls 'traditionalism'. That is to say, there are no abstract ideals as such, just a collection of inherited wisdom and "the way we do things".

I suppose the contrast between ideology and conservatism might be illustrated by contrasting the constitutions of the USA and Britain. One is clearly ideological, the other unwritten and traditional.

Thus I would say that it is not possible for a society to have a tradition of progressive reform. Such a tradition would only be a tradition in the colloquial sense that the society has a history of progressively reforming itself. That's a perfectly acceptable use of the word 'tradition' but it isn't what conservatives mean when they contrast tradition with ideology.

Once it's established that progressive reform is consistent with stability...

Once that has been done, then Quinton's argument is indeed defeated. However, my understanding of the last couple of hundred years of history, the twentieth century in particular, along with my own experiences since I've been old enough to pay attention to such things convince me that progressive reform is not at all consistent with stability.

We haven't all killed each other or starved to death yet, as happened to many people unfortunate enough to be involved in a revolution, but we are gradually sliding into decay. It's that old cliché about boiling frogs.

Anonymous said...

Actually, it occurs to me that we are both talking about "stability" without clearly specifying the subject of this stability.

When I talk about stability, I generally mean the secure existence of civilisation. I do not simply mean the continued existence of any form of society, I have a fairly specific moral and aesthetic concept in mind.

For example, my local newspaper's current headline is "Blind man freezes to death in street". That is not civilisation.

(Quite how a blind man freezing to death is the fault of progressive reformers I don't know, but I'm sure I can blame it on liberal multiculturalists somehow...)

Anyway, my point is that civilisations must navigate a precarious path, which is why a conservative attitude to government might be prudent. But it is possible to fall from this path without dramatic catastrophe. One might have a "stable society" that nevertheless lacks the virtues of "high civilisation".

I suspect, but I may be wrong, that you interpret Quinton's "walking a girder high above the ground" to imply that deviation from the correct path necessarily causes catastrophic societal collapse, rather than merely a slide into uncivilised barbarism.

Come to think of it, maybe such an interpretation of Quinton is accurate - I'd never heard of him or his writings before I read your blog post - but if so then I disagree with him, on account of the fact that the West has endured progressive governments for some time now and my neighbour still hasn't tried to eat me.

Gordon McCabe said...

Let us accept the distinction between decay and a descent into chaos. A fundamental problem still arises with conservatism.

By general consent, the modern tradition of progressive reform in the Western world can be said to have begun with John Locke, circa 1689. We can characterise what followed as the erosion of feudalism and the emergence of liberal democracy. In the current day, this tradition continues to seek individual freedom, (constrained by toleration), and equality of opportunity in society.

Would you say that society has been in decay since Locke, or only for the 'last couple of hundred years'? It's a question which highlights one of the conceptual problems with conservatism, namely that liberal democracy would never have arisen in the first place if conservatism had had its way...

Anonymous said...

...liberal democracy would never have arisen in the first place if conservatism had had its way...

Indeed. This is only a problem if you think that liberal democracy is a good thing. An honest conservative would have to admit that he really prefers some form of monarchy or federation of aristocrats.

I find many things to dislike about democracy. I also find Churchill's description of democracy - "the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time" - a bit trite.

It is not at all clear to me that democracy is necessarily better than all other forms of government. But I mention this only to confirm that there is indeed a tension between conservatism and democracy.

The amusing irony (in an Alanis Morissette sort of way) is that a restoration of the monarchy in the 21st century would require a revolution, which is rather unconservative.

My political allegiance tends to vary with my blood-sugar level: when I'm well fed and happy, I'm quite liberal and progressive, when I'm tired and grouchy, I become a cantankerous reactionary.

If forced to be sensible, I would have to side with Feynman: the key thing is to make sure that we stay uncertain. It all goes wrong when people are certain that they already have the answer.

I tend to identify conservatism with Feynman's virtue of doubt. It has no ideal - it does not think it already knows the solution to every problem - but rather attempts to react sensibly to situations as they arise. In contrast, ideologues always have a ready answer for everything, whether they are Marxists or Libertarians.

The combination of this association between conservatism and my preferred method for solving problems and my aesthetic preference for older times makes me call myself a conservative. Maybe it shouldn't.