What are Conservatives Conserving?

by Bruce Webb

Over at Open Left they are revisiting the concept of Conservatism and whether it is a coherent philosophy. And after concluding that Conservatives by and large have failed to come up with their own definition proceeded to advance some of their own, that it is about enabling aristocracy, or institutionalizing suffering, or whatever. What is Conservatism: Conservatives Have No Idea. Well I don’t think we get very far simply dismissing conservatism as a pathology, in particular it doesn’t get us very far in explaining small town and rural conservatism and particularly that of people who are not really in a socio-economic position to oppress anybody, the normal explanations based on race and economic class more or less breaking down in places like North Dakota.

Is it possible to come up with a common denominator of Conservatism, one that doesn’t reduce to institutionalized capitalist racism (which conclusion unfortunately is where too many of us liberals tend to gravitate to)? Well I think so, and probably not surprising anyone who has read my stuff, I locate it in a time and a place far detached from 20th century America. More in extended entry.

The first step is to separate Conservatism from its modern variant Reactionism. Political and Religious Reaction was a general response to the larger movement we associate with the European Enlightenment starting roughly in the late 17th century and a specific response to the historical developments associated with various revolutions from the Dutch, to the American, and most dramatically the French and then to the subsequent Continental/Napoleanic Wars. After the final defeat of Napolean the European Powers very consciously set up a system of institutionalized Reaction where the clear enemies were the interlinked movements of Revolution, Nationalism, Liberty, Democracy, and Socialism. To which you could add Free Thinking and such things as Deism. All of these were threats to a political and social system based on hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. Nor were these threats idle, within a hundred and ten or so years of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 imperial and royal houses whose histories could be traced back up to a thousand years were for the most part in Marx’s Dustbins of History.

While clearly the kind of Authoritarian Reaction that dominated the 19th century, or at least went down fighting, consciously drew to itself the elements of Conservatism and as noted can be seen as a varient should not be identified with it. Because most Conservatives are not Kings and Princes, or even Popes and Priests, and while there are reasons why Conservatism is most comfortable within a econo-political system based on authority and hierarchy they are not I think its motivating force.

The key question for me in tracking down Conservatism is whether it existed in recognizable form prior to the Enlightenment? If so it can hardly be a product of the latter even though it might have been (and in my opinion was) reshaped by it. And I think the answer is clearly yes, as far back as we have evidence of Western Civilization to which might well add Asian Civilization we see some particular shared characteristics that I think are the basis of Conservatism (I don’t know enough about Oceana, Africa, or Pre-Columbian America to even venture a guestimate on this in relation to them. Feel free to fill in in comments.)

So to answer the title of the post, what are Conservatives conserving? I suggest it is the Household, here seen as a socio-economic unit headed by the Householder (in English the ‘hus-bund) ‘with certain authority delegated to the Wife (O.E. ‘hus-wif’). In this context we can’t separate out ‘house’ ‘household’ ‘family’, each has a literal and figurative center or centers and a defined boundary, and defending that boundary figuratively, legally and often physically was the responsibility of the ‘family’ under command of the householder. And of course the concept of ‘hold’ is integral to both ‘householder’ and ‘holding’ as well to the legal terms of ‘possession’ (cognate with ‘seize’ itself ultimately identical to English Law-French ‘seisen’).

If we had to find a general European translation of ‘household’ we can hardly do better than Latin ‘familia’ which means more than the biological unit, but extends to all human and even animal occupants of the household, all of which are ultimately under control of the head of the household. Now viewed from the outside through our Enlightenment eyeshades all of this looks like a dictatorship, from the inside out that makes no more sense than asking why ships are generally not directed by committee, when the storm hits someone has to be in command.

If we take the European household back to its origins we can see that the authority of the householder extended most definitely to religion, indeed in very ancient times it seems that each householder was his own family priest, each family having its own religion tying it together (‘religio’ possibly deriving from ‘religare’ ‘to bind fast’ cf ‘ligature’). And in such matters precision and continuity were all important, it is characteristic of European religion from its beginnings to the Reformation that change in ritual is not only not welcome, it is potentially disastrous to the household.

Seen from this perspective much that seems primitive in Conservatism is simply natural in context. Patriarchy, emphasis on property rights, rigidity in religious belief, unwillingness to sacrifice the family’s economic interest to outside demands, all can be seen as simple defense of the physical and human boundaries of the family/household.

If we extend our view outside the individual household other aspects of Conservatism come into focus. First no household is a total island, each of necessity is associated with others in a system of mutual defense and with that comes the need for internal conflict resolution (law), military command (kings), and community ritual (priests) all of which are necessary to protect the joint boundary in the same way as the individual householder protects his own boundary. On the other hand this commitment to law, common defense and religion might not necessarily extend to the general welfare. While this will seem heartless from the perspective of universal humanism or the specific tenets of Christianity and other faiths, there is nothing intellectually incoherent about privileging the family and then the larger tribal interest to extra-familial individual interests inside and outside the tribe.

So can Conservatism exist outside Capitalism? Of course, defined as protecting the Household it did so for centuries and millennia. Is Conservatism inherently dependent on racism? Well no, not everything needs to be viewed through the lens of American Exceptionalism and the Peculiar Institution, identifiable Conservatism existed in both European and American contexts where issues of race hardly came into play at all. Or class for that matter. On the other hand Conservatives are by nature suspicious of outsiders, who are by nature a potential threat to the family. Which may leave them very open to classifying the Other negatively by race or religion, after all from this perspective Conservatism is all about drawing and protecting boundaries.

This is by no means meant as a defense of the organized Conservative project as that is seen working its way in the media and Congress, just an appeal to separate out what can properly be seen as a Reactionary attempt to exploit Conservatism to advance an anti-Enlightenment agenda from a Conservatism that was never fundamentally exposed to the Enlightenment at all but instead stuck to a belief system hundreds and perhaps thousands of years old. Some guy wanting to provide for his family and protect what is his may express those beliefs in ways foreign to Liberalism but is not by that token simply open to condescension and disrespect in the ways seen in the linked post from O.L.