For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
The Spiritual Truths underlying Liberalism and Conservatism, Part III: The crisis of nihilism, the triumph of Power, and a NeoPagan promise
This is the conclusion of a three part essay on conservatism, liberalism, and their relationship to NeoPagan spirituality. Part I described what liberalism and conservatism have been historically and philosophically and argued there is considerable truth in both views. Part II explored their relationship to Christian and Pagan spirituality and how Pagan insights enabled us better to understand their competitive but ultimately symbiotic relationship. Now, Part III examines why neither, but especially conservatism, resembles what they have been historically and why those Pagan insights are so critically important to everyone today.
The argument is more complex than the preceding two, but I hope you will bear with me. I am happy to elaborate points that seem undeveloped in the discussion to follow. Exceptions exist to much of what I am arguing, my larger argument is that the exceptions are minor themes today.
A valid conservative criticism of liberalism
One of the oldest conservative arguments against liberalism was that it lacked the moral weight to replace Christianity as the foundation for a stable society. Liberalism was too much a product of rational thought when liberal reason in the final analysis could not derive ethical principles from statements of fact. Something more was needed, a something supplied by Christianity. As liberalism gradually secularized society it was undercutting its own moral foundations. The results would be disastrous.
I believe there is considerable truth in this conservative critique, but it manifested in ways no genuine conservative imagined possible. We are living with the consequences today.
Conservatism’s Achilles heel
If liberalism lacked moral weight, conservatism had a connected weakness. Conservatism arose within Great Britain, the most liberal European society of its time. Edmund Burke did not challenge the values of this society, he challenged liberalism’s understanding of why these values were important and how to extend them elsewhere. He saw them as culturally rooted and supported in tradition and religion rather than as universal principles applicable everywhere. Unlike so much of Europe, the British crown made no claims to absolute authority, and Burke was a steady critic of centralizing efforts by the King and his ministers. He even defending the American rebellion arguing they were fighting for the rights of Englishmen.
Just as liberalism depended on its Christian roots, conservatism depended on English cultural and religious roots. Conservatism privileged the status quo, but it was a status quo deeply enmeshed in English religious and political institutions. Further, by the standards of the time those political institutions were liberal. Burke even argued France could improve its society by building on its own institutions that could increase French freedom along similar lines. He did not simply support the monarchy against reform.
Should conservatism reject broad liberal values but continue to privilege the status quo it would cease being conservative. Once they truly rejected liberalism, conservatives undermined their own position as deeply as liberalism had undermined its own foundations.
This was because, minus liberal values of any sort, conservatism becomes simply a defense of those who benefit from the status quo. But because change is eternal, it takes more and more power to preserve those who are benefiting against changes that might undermine them. As more and more power is needed to preserve the status quo, conservatism becomes the worship of power.
The rise of nihilism
We can understand what happened by introducing another term: nihilism. Nihilism is modernity’s darkest shadow, hidden for years by the bright light the Enlightenment seemed to shed on all it examined. But today the light is dissipating and the shadow is growing.
Nihilism is the belief there are no ultimate values, that the world and life itself is without intrinsic meaning or value. It entered into the modern world as an unintended byproduct of modernity’s greatest achievement in acquiring knowledge: science.
As I argued in Part II, liberalism’s ethical roots are Christian, particularly that variant that emphasized everyone is equal in God’s eyes. And Christianity is based on interpreting the Bible. But as scientific knowledge advanced many Biblical statements were found to be literally false. Faced with this unexpected development, many Christians reinterpreted scripture to make passages once thought literally true to be allegorical or metaphorical. But Darwin and evolutionary theory was a step too far. If Darwin was right there was no Garden of Eden, no Adam and Eve, no Fall. Reinterpretations could still be done, but at this point they would undermine Christianity’s claim to religious exclusivity and therefore the commonly accepted interpretation of Jesus’s death.
To make matters worse, science inherited the Western Christian view that the world is without intrinsic value. If people arose from a world without value, they were without value as well. Ultimately life was pointless. Liberalism made modern science possible, and modern science cut liberalism’s original ethical foundation off at its roots, ultimately undermining conservatism as well.
This intellectual and moral earthquake took a while to percolate through society, starting initially with Europe’s philosophical elite. Friederich Nietzsche first grasped the implications of what was happening. In a time when the general mood in Europe was optimistic Nietzsche predicted catastrophe and war as the meaning that held society together dissolved. Soon afterwards WWI broke out. Nietzsche’s view became widely known and often accepted.
Nietzsche’s observations complimented the traditional conservative view that liberalism could not sustain itself, but Nietzsche did not hold out the promise that if we returned to religion all would be better. As Nietzsche put it, God was dead.
This crisis hit Europe first because the war had discredited both liberalism and Christianity in the eyes of many. Illiberal mass movements arose on the right and left. Initially the US was lightly touched by this turmoil, but the same forces were at work. It would take longer for them to manifest, but manifest they would. Today the Christian moral capital that gave substance to both liberalism and conservatism in the US is largely exhausted.
Responding to Nihilism
Nihilism generally leads to two responses. One is to lose confidence in our own values beyond their personal utility. If something works for you but I disapprove, I have no objective grounds to say you are wrong and I am right. It’s all a matter of taste because ultimately nothing matters. This attitude can lead to passivity and weakness, especially for liberals who believe all people are fundamentally equal. No outside stance exists anymore to criticize what it wrong.
Alternatively in a world without meaning we can seek to create meaning through the strength of our will. This is a kind of heroic response. Weaker people can then join with the strong elite to create a new world. It also elevates will above reason, and so is ultimately irrational. Will trumps reason since reason is powerless to find value in life. Living life requires a powerful will able to dominate whatever opposes it.
A third response was once common in the Marxist left, but is not important today. Laws of social development were at work, and people could either cooperate or oppose them. But the laws would ultimately trump any efforts at denying them. Therefore it was best to act in harmony with those laws and eliminate all who opposed them.
Nihilism guts liberalism
Not only had liberalism’s moral foundations been weakened or dissolved, the prospect of a peaceful liberal Europe had wrecked itself on the rocks of WWI, followed by the rise of fascism and Communism, and then WWII. The US was in better shape, but the stage had been set for its own crisis, to hit in the 70s. The “stagflation” of the Carter years coming on the heels of the Vietnam debacle deprived egalitarian and managerial American liberals in particular of confidence in their policies as well as confidence in their moral grounding. A symbolic turning point was George H. W. Bush’s presidential debate with Michael Dukakis. When Bush accused him of being a liberal, Dukakis sought to dodge the criticism rather than responding affirmatively and proudly.
George Lakoff has written perceptively that politics is more about values than about the details of policy. Once values are established, policy proposals can be evaluated. But today managerial and egalitarian liberals talk almost entirely in terms of policy. Moral language is avoided because in all too many cases liberals have no confidence in their moral principles, not the kind of confidence that says “No” and means it. Was there torture and unnecessary war that killed thousands and maimed countless more? This was too bad, but we should “move on.” Were there criminal bankers who ruined the lives of millions? Prosecuting them would be destabilizing. When policy is not backed up by strong principles it is open to compromising itself to death when confronting the unprincipled.
At first classical liberalism and its best known variant, libertarianism, seemed in better shape intellectually and morally, even if most Americans disagreed with their concrete policy proposals. They had a strong political position in frequent alliance with American conservatism, as was particularly clear during the Goldwater campaign, and to some extent later with Ronald Reagan.
But that was about to change drastically.
Classical liberals had their own encounter with nihilism, largely through the growing influence of Ayn Rand. Rand ‘s novels were probably the major vector through which Nietzschean nihilism entered America at a popular level. Hers was an illiberal individualism with contempt for most people for not having the traits of her heroes and heroines. While Rand sometimes wrote in terms of individual rights, her position was basically the strong do what they want, and the weak should step aside or be crushed. In the years after her death Rand became the major voice by which secular classical liberals first encountered praise for capitalism and opposition to ‘socialism.’
Today those calling themselves ‘libertarians’ are more likely to have read Rand’s novels than the more demanding works of the other leading classical liberal thinkers of recent times: F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman. Their increasingly asocial thinking reflects this fact. For example, Hayek and Friedman both supported a guaranteed annual income whereas the asocial classical liberals of today argue no one is owed anything by anyone else, and any assistance to the weak perpetuates “moochers” and the weak.
This asocial attitude has intriguing connections with contemporary American ‘conservatism.’
What happened to conservatism?
Neither Barry Goldwater nor Ronald Reagan would be popular in today’s ‘conservative’ movement. Reagan is a kind of Jesus figure honored but rarely examined. Goldwater does not even get that treatment. As I will explain below, once it rejected liberalism American conservatism declined rapidly into a simple celebration of the power of the strong over the less strong. It has become an individualistic American variant of the right wing authoritarianism that arose in Europe after WWI.
To my mind the major root of this degeneration lie in the alliance many American conservatives made with the very different political elite of the old South.
Deal with the devil
After the American Revolutionary generation died, the South’s new leaders increasingly rejected our Founders’ liberal ideology because it undermined slavery. Unlike their fathers, these men, most of them, did not regard slavery as an evil and so liberalism had to be wrong. The Declaration of Independence had to be rejected. Their ablest thinkers were drawn to illiberal thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, and at a more popular level Southern religion diverged from the Christianity of the north as it rejected the Enlightenment in favor of claims of Biblical justifications of slavery.
Industrialization and urbanization’s liberalizing influence remained weak in the South and did not effectively challenge its pre-industrial values. Dixie remained deeply agricultural and wedded to very hierarchical conceptions of how people should relate. The South’s authoritarian and hierarchical intellectual and religious traditions survived the Civil War and dominate it today as America’s first and most genuine “counter-culture.”
Whereas Northern conservatives saw their politics in terms of the legitimacy of the American Revolution and their understanding of the constitution and its values, the dominant Southern political and religious elites were loyal to the Confederacy and its theocratic, hierarchical and authoritarian values. But for a long time the South’s religious and political impact was mostly regional because Southern voters supported Democrats since Lincoln had been a Republican. And in the north the Republicans were the conservative party.
In the 1970s the Republican Party adopted the “Southern Strategy” to actively court Southern Democrats who were frustrated within a Democratic Party dominated by northern liberals pushing for Civil Rights. Initially Republicans believed they could control the influence of their new recruits. But Southern NeoConfederates had different ideas.
As NeoConfederate Southerners became increasingly involved in Republican politics American conservatism’s connection with the American Revolutionary tradition weakened. Increasingly they became identified with NeoConfederate priorities. Today the core of Republican power is the old South augmented by Midwestern states where Southern versions of Christianity have become strong.
The conservative sensitivity to our being embedded in a society long preceding our birth and lasting long after our deaths, a society towards which even the most successful have profound responsibilities, has been replaced by paeans to egoism. We see today the strange fact of an atheistic philosopher like Ayn Rand being admired by people claiming to be Christian. How can this be?
Two factors are particular important. First, today’s ‘conservatives’ are not interested in preserving American society, they are seeking its radical transformation along NeoConfederate lines. Far from being conservative, in an American context they are revolutionary. As Pat Buchanan continually puts it, they are at war with us, and in war nothing is more important than the power to prevail.
Second, at its roots NeoConfederate thinking is a doctrine of power and subordination, and as such is intriguingly harmonious with asocial nihilism, at least for the powerful. The critical difference is its claims to religious backing, but the deity of Southern Christianity is not a god of love or forgiveness, let alone one who sees all as equally valued in its eyes, it is a God of Power and wrath and punishment, commanding subordination. Secular nihilism and the Christianity that arose to defend slavery came together in the veneration of power and domination.
Conservatism today is not conservative at all, despite keeping some of its former rhetoric. It has become a right wing movement devoted to power and domination. Some so-called ‘Christians’ even call their theology “dominion theology.” Conservatism has lost all trace of its Burkean sensitivity to what makes a stable society possible.
Today’s “movement conservatives” attack virtually every traditional American political institution, seeking to bring them under their own control. The most clearly cut example is the Republican effort to rig the electoral college so as to guarantee a Republican win with a significant minority of the vote. I predict it will be attempted again shortly before the 2016 elections, when there is not time for other states to take remedial actions to keep the process fair.
To this ‘conservatives’ add attempts in the name of a virtually nonexistent ‘voter fraud’ to effectively disenfranchise enormous numbers of Democratic voters. They are even admitting it. In the American context it is hard to imagine a less conservative effort.
What do we call this? It is a kind of revolutionary reaction, an attempt to recreate the old societies of subordination and domination that liberalism found a way out of hundreds of years ago.
Conservatism today shares much with the pre-liberal past of aristocratic and monarchical societies, but without the moral restraint that occasionally moderated the actions of aristocrats and kings. Hierarchy is natural and those on top are better than those on the bottom who in some way deserve their fate. As an Athenian force told the Melians before slaughtering them: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Those on top should take maximum advantage of that position, financially, politically, and militarily. For the religious, a God of Domination gives them its blessings.
A Pagan summing up
If this analysis is accurate, neither conservatism nor liberalism will recover an ability to check and limit Power until they have been strengthened with new ethical foundations. In their present weakness American society and institutions, explicitly founded as they are on principles both liberals and conservatives supported, is hamstrung, its government increasingly unable to serve the American people and becoming instead the help mate and enforcer of the powerful. The third pole of Power dominates both liberalism and conservatism.
The NeoPagan insights that closed my discussion of Part II are the clearest contemporary expressions of the values that need to underlie renewed liberal and conservative political and ethical traditions.We are a particularly clear representative of the values that would enable a sustainable, free, and prosperous post-agricultural society rooted in democracy, science, and the market to last into the next century. The challenge of our time, insofar as we act as citizens of the larger world, is to help that possibility become a reality.
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