Look Back, Don’t Turn Back | Mark Seymour
As far as I can tell the criticism of Conservatism as being a stagnant ideology comes from Edmund Burke, who argued that the entire point of Conservatism isn’t to return to the past (which isn’t possible in the first place), but rather to identify those things that remain and to conserve them; the idea being, we take these things that have worked in the past, and as we develop we keep them in the system until they are no longer functional. Of course, this won’t stop Republicans from not reading conservative literature- so they’ll continue with their weird pseudo-primitivisms, which is often the motivation for this stagnation criticism, but this shouldn’t be conflated with genuine conservative theory.
It should always be remembered that the conservative project is inherently hauntological, insofar as we bring our ghosts with us. This isn’t to say we live in the spirit realm, but we have a fully fleshed out understanding of their right to participate in society. This is what Burke means when he talks about how in society we have the dead, the living, and the unborn. It is not simply enough to consider actions in society based solely on the living, we have to consider the dead (by way of considering whether to conserve something or not), as well as considering the unborn, because they will inherent the decisions we make now. To better understand this, we might want to consider John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance, where the living have a duty of organising the world in such a way that those being born won’t feel concerned about entering into the world.
The Republicans, are often the impetus for this criticism; they have no consideration for the dead as they try to prop up the old in a world where the old isn’t viable, and they make a mockery of the dead by not allowing them to rest. The traditional understandings of the family are bastardized because the families nowadays aren’t worthy of fulfilling that tradition, and the reaction is an attack on change as opposed to an attack on oneself. By worthy, I mean they don’t have the same genealogy as those who in the past participated with the family in such a way; an example of this might be understood as propping up a dead relative in their favourite chair and, although it’s an appalling thing to do, the justification is “well, they always sat there!”. This stagnation seriously affects the living, but perhaps more so the unborn, as the world they inherit isn’t a desirable one; at least the living can change that, but the unborn are thrown into an undesirable world- this is not to say I’m an Anti-Natalist (Or that conservative theory mandates that you should be), because the optimism of change is still there. The living can change things for the better by analysing where things went right in the past, and how we can adapt and adopt those changes to fit our current situation.
There is a terrible mistake that has swept over laymen conservatives, where they think society is in such a deplorable spot that we should turn back and “return to tradition” (whatever that means). By no means should conservatives be so childish as to think that turning back is a viable means of societal change; if you understand society to be in a negative spot, it is your duty to diagnose the issue, not turn and run! We have the virtue of having ghosts to consult, through the analysis of history we are able to understand the genealogy of how good times come about, and we can instigate that process in our own time. Of course, the changes we make won’t be the same as those made in the past, but they will have the same overarching structure in the process of history. This is the conservative duty, to ensure we stay with our feet on the ground, to serve the function in history of stability and gradual change. Only cowards hide in history, and it is a gross misunderstanding of the spirit of conservatism to suppose we should, or we want to, return to the past.
As a product of this position in history, we shouldn’t make the mistake of seeing the left as the enemy- this idea is too short-sighted. The way political history develops is that the conservatives protect the stability of society, they make sure the dead, the living, and the unborn are working in harmony with one another; this normally entails gradual change, so that all parties can be accounted for.
The left, or whoever is in opposition to us, functions to push society forward in a much faster pace: they cover our blind spots by pressuring social features that aren’t of primary concern to us, and are willing to entertain systematic changes in society. An old joke with regards to British politics is that the Conservatives make the money, and Labour spends it- but beyond the comedic factor I feel this is accurate. The Conservatives are primarily concerned with stability in society, and Labour is primarily concerned with making changes in society.
I’d like to think most Conservatives understand this back and forth, but unfortunately many are too misguided to see this- for them, a Labour victory is a defeat, instead of another step forward, and they see a Conservative victory as a victory, instead of another step forward. Society will always be plodding along so long as the left and the right fulfil their part of histories development, to be radical enough to suggest that we should take some steps back is beyond the pale of what acceptable conservative theory is, to undermine the development of history by supposing we can backtrack mistakes or things we disagree with brings the entire stability of political development under question. Look back, learn lessons from the processes of history, but don’t let yourself be tempted to turn back.