At the weekend I read Anthony Quinton’s superb analysis of conservatism in the Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy. It’s an article of mild vintage now (dating from 1995), but, quite apart from the main body of argument, contains at least one vital and pertinent admonition, which messrs Blair and Bush would have been wise to heed:

Democracy…is…not seen [by conservatism] as a good in itself. But representative parliamentary institutions, continuously developed in parallel with the political maturity of the population, is, in advanced Western societies, an historically established mode of proceeding and, therefore, worthy of preservation. That does not make it a universal political panacea.

The primary onus on a writer seeking to provide an intellectual defence of political conservatism, is to provide a rational foundation which refutes the view that conservatism is simply a self-interested attempt to preserve the status quo, by those who happen to possess the power, wealth and status in society at a point in time. To this end, Quinton argues as follows:

[The] main tradition of conservative thought derives from three central doctrines…The first and most obvious of them is traditionalism, which supports continuity in politics, the maintenance of existing institutions and practices and is suspicious of change, particularly of large and sudden change, and above all of violent and systematic revolutionary change…

The chief intellectual, rather than emotional, support for traditionalism is a sceptical view about political knowledge. Political wisdom for the conservative is embodied, first of all in the inherited fabric of established laws and institutions. This is seen as the deposit of a great historical accumulation of small adjustments to the political order, made by experienced political practitioners, acting under the pressure of a clearly recognized need and in a cautious, prudent way…Even less welcome to conservatives than abstract principles, such as doctrines of universally applicable natural or human rights, are utopias, systematic proposals for comprehensive social transformation.

Political scepticism in its turn rests on the third central doctrine of conservatism, the conception of human beings and society as being organically or internally related. Individual human beings are not fully formed…independently of the social institutions and practices within which they grow up. There is, therefore, no universal human nature. People’s needs and desires and expectations differ, from time to time and from place to place.

As Quinton conceives it, conservatism is not a substantive political ideology:

An ideology derives political prescriptions or principles, even sometimes utopias, from theories about human nature and society…conservatism does not depend upon a substantive theory about universal human nature, issuing in universal political principles, such as lists of the rights of man…The desirability of [particular institutions, such as a monarchy or an established church, is, for a conservative] relative to the circumstances of a particular time and place, one in which they are historically established…As an ideology conservatism is, then, procedural or methodological rather than substantive. It prescribes no principles or ideals or institutions universally and so falls outside the scope of its own rejection of abstract theory.

Curiously, then, Quinton’s account of conservatism implies a type of moral and political relativism with respect to substantive questions. Moreover, Quinton’s defence of traditionalism does, in fact, tacitly presuppose a substantive theory of human society, even though this tacit theory is used to derive methodological, rather than substantive, political prescriptions. Let us turn now to this tacitly supposed theory of society, given that it raises some interesting questions.

As we’ve seen, Quinton argues that the prevailing political state is “the deposit of a great historical accumulation of small adjustments to the political order, made by experienced political practitioners, acting under the pressure of a clearly recognized need and in a cautious, prudent way.” He then argues that, whilst a society will inevitably change due to extra-political factors, change should be gradual; large and sudden change, he argues, leads to unintended and unpredicted consequences. If the prevailing political system is subjected to large or sudden change, then:

A host of stabilities which provide a background of regularity within which life can be rationally and prudently led are jeopardized…It is not only that large political changes have many unintended results that are unwelcome. They also frequently fail to achieve their intended results or achieve opposite ones…The formation and running of a state is more like walking a girder high above the ground or driving a car along a narrow, winding road…There are innumerable ways in which it is possible to go wrong, indeed disastrously wrong, but only a very tightly restricted number of ways in which you can go right…Change should be in response both to a change in extra-political circumstances…and to a widely-felt need arising from it, and it should be gradual so that unplanned detrimental side-effects be counteracted.

Pace Quinton, there are a number of tacit substantive assumptions here about the nature of human society. In fact, these assumptions can be cast into the language of physics:

(1) Politically organised human society can, at best, attain a metastable state, a state which is capable of being perturbed into chaos by large and sudden politically-induced changes.

(2) Extra-political factors provide a constant source of change in a politically organised human society, but if the political response to such changes is gradual, then the metastable state can be maintained. Such a process of gradual change could be thought of as akin to a quasistatic process, a thermodynamic process in which equilibrium is maintained by performing the process very slowly. (The analogy doesn’t quite work, however, because human society more closely resembles what Prigogine termed a dissipative system, a type of system far from thermodynamic equilibrium due to the large flows of energy through the system).

Supplementing Quinton’s justification of traditionalism with some concepts from physics, these are the substantive theoretical claims about the nature of human society which conservatism tacitly assumes. Can such claims be justified, however? Doing so appears to require the very degree of political knowledge which conservatism avowedly rejects. What is the empirical basis for such claims? Quinton correctly points to the chaos which typically follows revolutionary change, such as that associated with the French Revolution, and the revolutions in Russia and China. However, conservatism is not uniquely distinguished politically by its resistance to revolutionary or radical change. Most of those in the modern Western world who subscribe to progressive reform, do not advocate revolution, and do not harbour utopias; they seek merely to gradually improve human society, and often find that their attempts to do so are resisted by political conservatives.

I’m far from convinced, then, about conservatism’s intellectual credentials once it strays from the safe territory of utopias and revolutionary change, but Quinton’s article is an excellent read.


Published in: on February 17, 2009 at 6:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

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