Saturday, March 20, 2010

Conservatives in the Belfry

I tend to write a lot about conservatism.  Lord knows I'm not one.  Or at least not in any recognizably modern capacity.  Yet there is a tradition among conservatism, as opposed to progressivism, that is worth remembering.  It isn't about gay sex, or guns, or even capitalism.  It is conservative in much the same way liberalism is progressive.  It is simply a voice of reason to the excesses of progress, as liberalism is to the voice of tradition.  It is a very powerful and profound political impulse, one we would be lost without.  This is not the conservatism I have a problem with.

My problem is really with the current conservative base, which is batshit.  The conservatism I can actually find coherence in is basically center right social democrat.  The current conservatism isn't really conservative at all.  It is a bastardization of that fundamentally healthy and reasonable force. 

This is how I think of it: they're the new communists.  The communists wanted total state, total denuding of religion.  They had a marriage of convenience with the radical anticapitalist anarchosyndicalists, who so hated capitalism they'd prefer to suffer flirting with totalitarianism than more corporate oppression.  They were batshit.  They caused some real problems.  Fortunately for those of us on the other side of history, we now have a huge, blinking neon sign that says COMMUNISM = BAD etched into history, (in the form of every communist regime that ever existed).

Modern conservatives are their doppelgangers: no state, total pro-capitalism free enterprise.  They have their own marriage of convenience with Christianist theocrats, who put up with the worship of the dollar because it's better than a strong secular state telling them who they can and can't persecute.  They are causing some pretty serious problems, but presently have no outlet for their utopian fantasies.  All they can really do is obstruct and hope their rhetoric wins the day.

The modern problem is that because they'll never be able to get reasonable society to go along with their crazy.  Their arguments enjoy an air of utopian promise - a hint that if only we just got rid of "big government" all of our problems would be solved.  It's completely delusional.  But it gets to maintain traction because it can always point to the possibilities.  So when Republicans can't govern for shit and begin to destroy the country with all the spending none of the taxes, all they have to do is point the finger at those who just weren't true believers.

Even while people like good public schools for poor kids.  People like to guarantee health care to the sick.  people like a basic safety net.  People like public transportation, clean libraries, mental health clinics, safety inspections, pollution regulation, parks and beaches and the notion of the common good.

Maybe we'll reach a point where the public will be forced to choose between big government and low taxes.  But as long as the middle class is ignorant enough of the underclass and disadvantaged, modern conservatism can probably keep selling them on the notion that a 5% increase in taxes is big government, all the while using rhetoric that is logically more consistent with enormous cuts in all the things the middle class takes for granted.  "Small government" is not quality public school for poor kids, guaranteed health coverage (not for the elderly nor infirm either), adequate regulation for safety and environmental protection, or safety net.

The communist and anarchist left has largely shut the fuck up.  But what will it take to get the small government, modern conservative to do the same?  My guess is nothing less than a soviet-expansion style, yet free-market small government dominance in some high-profile countries, lasting a good 2 or 3 decades.  I don't think this will actually happen, because the now universally accepted rights of democracy and freedom of speech won't let any citizenry maintain the levels of insanity required to enforce such a brutal state.  The only reason communism was able to persist was through its lack of democracy.

So my guess is that we will basically be plagued with this sort of adolescent Randian hand-waving that is as Utopian as it is intellectually dishonest in its denial of the incredibly large and salient amount of evidence for why it will never work.  In other words it is batshit.

The communists thought that humans were perfect, and could run a productive economy.  They were willing to give over massive amounts of authority to see their perfect vision realized.  The modern conservatives believe that humans can be perfect if they choose to, and that markets are self-sustaining.  And so they are willing to over look massive amounts of social injustice to realize theirs.

One would like to see us move on, to solve our problems like adults.  We can all agree that free markets are wonderful, but that they are not self-sustaining of social equality and justice - social capital, tragedy of the commons, etc.  We can all agree that government can be a wonderful check on social inequality and the capricious and inherently immoral nature of the free market.  But it is also prone to corruption and inherently unwieldy and inefficient.  We can agree that people can do amazing things if given the chance, but also be enslaved by dysfunctional consciousness when disadvantaged either by social structure or pure happenstance.

Adults can hold all of those truths in their heads at once and craft thoughtful, nuanced positions with respect to how we'd like to set policy for ourselves and future generations.  It isn't easy, nor is it very satisfying.  It takes longer to speak and think in such terms.  It is much easier to traffic in generalizations infused with impulsive emotion than to be deliberately contemplative.  But we can admit that we don't have everything sorted out, and then take the time to have the discussion.

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