Don your futurist caps and peer into a political reality in which technology accelerates the speed at which society changes; what role is left for conservatives? The political, deliberative realm that we sometimes trust to chart our societies’ course either fades as deliberative government becomes too lugubrious for rapid development, or the speed of deliberative government accelerates to a point where they might cease to exist. In either case, legislative thinking disappears, but these are the worst cases. A much more likely case is that deliberation continues unabated while power shifts from government to private corporate nodes.
Those who dominate current conservative discourse, a brand of neo-liberal, are largely adrift in any of these tech-fueled futures, and they represent the wider problems that assail government. The lack of adequate technological adaptation and regulation in public services is a symptom of governments’ slow movement. Conservatives who seek to preserve social norms even as society moves beyond them similarly fail to adapt and regulate, but this time because the message that they send is a moral or economic injunction.
‘Thou shalt not’, however, does not inspire, nor does it accomplish a worldly conservative agenda. That phrase writ large fixes on social preservation. Such an emotional response, engendered by clinging to past behaviour, has no place in a digital society where everything is liable to be impermanent unless consciously continued.
Bottom line: a longer view of conservative thought (theory) that unites ideas of conservation and pragmatic government is needed for a century that will experience dramatic technological change at breakneck speeds.
At present, the increasing polarization of American and Western politics more generally grounds itself in facts: issues of the moment are assigned left-wing and right-wing descriptors ad hoc. Words like ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, and ‘socialist’ are bandied about with regard to individual issues, and these descriptors stick based on patterns of behaviour. There is an inductive simplicity to this approach: Democrats are ‘liberal’ because they advocate solutions to issues that are generally more progressive; Republicans are ‘conservative’ because they believe in small government, so oppose democratic attempts to further regulate business, &c… Canadian politics, to take a second north-American example, has some similar divisions as social conservatism takes root in our Conservative Party.
Inductive reasoning, as I have elsewhere been at pains to illustrate, is faulty reasoning because it generalizes from particular cases that we might never see again. This reasoning has caused many to err in their appreciation for historical patterns and ways of living. These realities, though immensely valuable (again, I’ve touched on this elsewhere), are anachronisms from which we select concepts that ought to endure. This process is truly conservative because it implies curation.
Curation within the conservative tradition is magnificently expressed in Edmund Burke’s prose, prose which is sometimes associated with conservative movements. Burke frames a conservative intellectual stance as maintenance of continuity in social organization. His explanation of complex political systems relies on absolute self-interest that, in Lockean fashion, balanced competing self-interest: politicians and lawyers form their Plans upon what seems most eligible to their Imaginations, for the ordering of Mankind. I discover the Mistakes in those Plans, from the real known Consequences which have resulted from them. They have inlisted Reason to fight against itself, and employ its whole Force to prove that it is an insufficient Guide to them in the Conduct of their Lives. (A Vindication of Natural Society, 1756)
Emotion and reason, concepts that Burke plays on throughout his long rhetorical career, are juxtaposed in political systems. Emotion causes adherence to fantastic notions (perhaps those of bygone times); reason—Burke labels it as natural reason—is the tonic that can correct too much emotion. Reason can also, however, be used to create erroneous assumptions, ones that induce a bias. These inductive fantasies will successfully play to emotion, yet they provide little satisfaction for much of society because they do not serve the working population’s interest.
Induction aside, Burke acknowledges that tough love prevails: all organized societies are tyrannous because the will of others is imposed on individuals. There is violence in every society. Burke justifies the order because it is pragmatic. Some order is required to govern, even if the order is inevitably violent.
Burke’s later works explain the departure from or alteration of social order as a cultural phenomenon. In Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, Burke expresses the conservator’s fundamental truth: ‘Every age has its own manners and its politicks dependent upon them’ (1770). Understanding an idea’s context allows the able conservator to translate the idea into contemporary practice.
That practise receives extended treatment in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. This work against the French Revolutionary government encapsulates Burke’s late thinking on government: ‘to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind’ (1790). The quality of this mind proceeds from deductive reasoning. The form of government, once created, is sustained by pragmatic application of the principles of the form of government. The combining mind exerts itself with a view to the continuity of government, and the deep reflection required for this task is the curatorial instinct of a true conservative.
In brief, then, curation proceeds from a top-down logic that will control cases. The conservative in this view does not defend issues, but principles that have been selected to sustain government as a part of culture. The principles so selected inform the synonym of government and culture.
Preservation—what I believe is the dominant misapprehension in conservative circles—fulfills Burke’s biting criticism of politicians in A Vindication of Natural Society. The tendency to hold something unchanged runs toward an ideal, a perfect image whose perfection is anachronistic. The image occupies the imaginer’s context without accounting for any historical concerns, so it is inherently flawed. Preservation fixes things out of context. Pure nostalgia animates this kind of view, but, without some mediating (and, ideally, dispassionate) intelligence, the emotion carries politicians and governed alike into stagnation.
Conservatives for a digital age
Conservatives will, on the above theory, flourish when they do the intellectual work of identifying the machinery of government and understanding whatever they wish to conserve as an artefact.
The faster pace of a digital world can and will admire these artefacts when they are contextualized because context shows social utility. That work of contextualization embraces a pragmatic view of politics and government, a view where propositions must be justified with reference to the machinery of government, history, and prospective value. This is a patient exercise, but one that can be achieved in a digital age if conservatives can build solid bases.
The populism that appears to overtake conservative movements reacts against a reasoned approach to government, thus defeating attempts at solid bases. Burke and many eighteenth-century politicos attribute populism to the breakdown of hierarchical authority. They are, in their way, correct. Technology’s decentralizing effect on governance structures, in terms of speed and distribution of power, presents fresh challenges that centralized political systems rarely face. Discovering fresh hierarchies, ones palatable to the governed, is an important challenge for conservatives and progressives alike. The conservative movement can’t hope to address these concerns without first having understood that conservation is not preservation.