What does Michael Lind mean when he says conservatism is dead? Could he be right?

(Note: these thoughts, which originated in an e-mail, are not fully polished but are sufficiently clear for posting.)

Michael Lind, since his loudly proclaimed break with neoconservatism and embrace of some kind of Progressive liberalism in the early 1990s, which was really when his career as an intellectual commentator began, has always been oddball and highly idiosyncratic. In his article at Salon, “Intellectual conservatism, RIP,” he adds to the never ending accumulation of articles by liberals declaring the demise of conservatism, a questionable enterprise. What I initially found annoying about the piece was that Lind, who stands outside conservatism, acts as if he’s discovering what serious conservatives have in reality been struggling with from inside conservatism for a long time, the decadence of mainstream conservatism. He sees the movement in disarray, he sees intellectual decadence, and he declares, with seeming satisfaction, that conservatism is dead. As though conservatism were an external thing. I’ve been saying since at least 1995 that as far as an intellectual movement is concerned, there is no conservatism, there is just a bunch of incomplete fragments that need to be brought together. But at the same time, I’ve continued, there a conservative essence, parts of that essence can be seen in different aspects of conservatism, and the parts need to be brought together and the essence needs to be built up. (See my 1996 article, “A vision of a new conservatism.”) So the essence is certainly not dead. But Lind, looking at conservatism from the outside, as a hostile and spiteful critic, sees only the external decadence and says that conservatism is dead as such.

He says he likes the early neoconservatism of the ’70s and thinks that’s the place to start over again, not the militaristic neoconservatism of the ’00s.

Also, he considers neoconservatism the only intellectual conservatism. He denies that the old National Review conservatism was an intellectual movement.

So that’s what he means by “conservatism RIP.” By conservatism he’s only speaking of neoconservatism, and because (as we all know) neoconservatism has gone terribly wrong for many years and stands for little but U.S. intervention abroad (see my discussion of Irving Kristol’s 2003 article, “The neoconservative Persuasion”), therefore “conservatism” is dead. This liberal is not even cognizant of a non-neocon, traditional intellectual conservatism. Or if he is, he simply dismisses it.

At the same time, one can’t blame him for this, since he’s looking at actually existing external movements, not at tendencies in individuals’ heads, and at present, except for a few scattered people, there is no trad conservatism as a real movement. It doesn’t have enough mass and weight to be considered a movement.

So in a sense his take is correct, with qualifications. But what is annoying is his pretense that this death of “conservatism” has just occurred in 2008, with the rise of the awful Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, etc. Now I said myself in September 2008 that social conservatism died when social conservatives threw over their principles and gave their gushing approval to the Bristol Palin situation. But that doesn’t affect my understanding of Lind’s argument, since Lind is not talking about social conservatism, which he doesn’t consider an intellectual movement.

Where he’s wrong is his suggestion that “conservatism” (i.e. neoconservatism) died as an intellectual movement recently, when in reality it died by, say, the early to mid ’90s, in the aftermath of the death of the USSR, when neocons realized that without the Cold War they were at loose ends. They tried to fight multiculturalism and Culture War, but their hearts weren’t really in that.

So, what is the point of these meandering thoughts? It is what I’ve said all along. There are various valid fragments of conservatism, but nothing like a whole. The whole has to be created for a new conservative movement to be born. Lind’s take and Lind’s concerns are irrelevant to ours. He wants to go back to the neoconservatism of the ’70s. He ignores—he doesn’t give a damn about—the possibility of an intellectual traditional conservatism.

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Kristor writes:

What is the central animating core that can link together all the incomplete fragments of economic, social, national defense/patriotic, and traditional conservatism? I think it may perhaps be skepticism about man.

Liberalism stems originally from the humanism of the Renaissance, when the philosophes threw off the Church and rejected the doctrine of Original Sin: to the liberal humanist, man is essentially good, and can be relied upon. Thus the liberal confidence in five year plans, bureaucrats and scientists and experts, education and socialization, law and regulation, treaties and organizations. Utopia will blossom if we can just get the public policy right. If man is fundamentally good, why then God is superfluous, no? So liberalism rejects God, either forthrightly and explicitly as Nietzsche does, or by subtly derogating him, as the liberal Christians do, to the role of kindly grandfather in the sky who, in C.S. Lewis’ priceless locution, “just likes to see the young people enjoying themselves.”

Conservatism is jaundiced. It rejects with horror the very idea of a human utopia. It produces dystopias like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World; it never produces actual communes like New Harmony or Amana. Conservatism knows that man is fundamentally good AND fundamentally corrupted. Conservatism is pre-modern (this does not mean it is irrational, anti-intellectual, or anti-scientific, as the pre-moderns are popularly supposed to have been. They were not. On the contrary, the Christian Middle Ages were far more rational, pro-intellectual, and pro-science than we are today.) Conservatism knows that man is wicked, and prone to wickedness. So it distrusts all the things liberals trust. Believing in man’s wickedness, conservatism is more likely to understand man’s reliance upon God, or at least upon transcendent values (these are what the HBD guys think they are invoking—biologically given values that we inherit willy nilly, and scorn at our peril), to steer us in the way that we should go.

And this is the great PR problem for conservatism. Liberals get to go around singing “We are the World, we can all be happy, yay, can’t we just all get along?” Conservatives, meanwhile, are stuck with singing Mass in Time of War or the Battle Hymn of the Republic, all wrath and trampling and dies irae, calamitatis et miseriae. It’s perverse that it should be this way, because liberalism leads directly to dies irae, while a studied skepticism about the capacities of good intentions averts it. Who would have peace prepares always for war, but preparing for war is no fun.

So if we are ever to be more than a disparate congeries of nay-sayers, we have to find a way to articulate the core of the positive conservative vision for a flourishing human society that is more appealing than “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” I mean, an appeal to the eschaton just doesn’t cut it.

I am still groping. But it seems to me that what we must reach for is a vision of the Republic as a system of small autonomous communities—families, villages, enterprises, churches, associations, guilds, social clubs, neighborhoods, schools, what have you—coexisting harmoniously and peacefully under a hierarchy of state powers—towns, counties, cities, provinces, topping out at the nation. It’s medieval society perfected; or Jeffersonianism. The Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity articulates beautifully the principle under which these communities are allowed and encouraged to flourish. But the flourishing of such communities will be meaningless to our audience unless it is presented as a pursuit of a real, objective Good. Indeed, it will appear as a threat (this is why they hate Palin so much, and Bush). The conservative vision will look to the godless liberal like just another godless—therefore unjustified, and unjust—attempt at tyranny over his mind, unless he can be convinced that the pursuit of the Good is a really possible endeavor.

And for that to happen, the godless liberal must be convinced that there is a Good, and therefore also an Evil; and that there is a choice to be made between them. Everything flows from that: the pursuit of the Good, of the Truth, of Beauty; the crucial importance of discernment, judgment, reason; recognition of the absolute nature of the oughts that ineluctably govern all that is, and that are therefore the source both of our power and our liberty (i.e., of our natural rights); recognition of the prior duties we owe to our own people; and so forth.

I wish I had time to develop this more.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 24, 2009 02:05 PM | Send

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