Conservatism and its discontents

Phil Agre has written an interesting essay on modern conservatism.

I like the optimism of his statement that "Conservatism [in his definition] is almost gone." This appeals to me because in my own more optimistic moments I remind myself that numerous social movements that seem to have stalled -- like feminism for instance -- are actually pretty young, and their effects may take some time to really be felt.

There are a number of other things in the essay with which to take issue -- his rejection of Marx, for instance (for a useful defense of Marxism for today's issues, one that has optimism without being as pollyannaish as Hardt and Negri's Empire -- just my opinion -- see David Harvey's Spaces of Hope, published in 2000), and disdain for theory.

But the main point, that conservatism is the same thing as aristocratic authoritarianism, seems like a dead end to me. Agre doesn't allow for a small-c conservatism of the type one might see in the old-fashioned Republicans who appear in Garrison Keillor's recent article in In These Times. I suspect that numerically, the number of self-identified "conservatives" who are not in favor of aristocratic rule vastly outnumbers those who are. I suspect many of these people don't think much about politics (viz. previous discussion of Louis Menand article) but have instincts that tend toward suspicion of things they view as "change" or as attacks on traditional values. This is not to say that conservatism doesn't also, in some incarnations, go along with a respect for authority that borders on blind faith, or that this confluence doesn't help bind together the two flanks of the Republican party. But it also has a historically relative character (just like progressive): what is conservative in one historical moment (or geographical location) might not be in another. And what about conserving the environment? I think trying to claim that conservatism tout court is the equivalent of support for an authoritarian aristocracy would not be a tactically helpful strategy for the left. The point to make is that Bush and Co. are not conservative by almost any definition of the word. They're radical.


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