The Roots of “Modern” Conservatism

Edmund Burke

If you were are an apolitical cog in the machine working blindly in your cubicle each day to pay your bills and you asked a liberal and conservative “activist” to describe what each stood for in four words the lib would most probably say “I stand for equality!” while the conservative would say “I stand for freedom!

Now this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left because historically the right has favored liberty for the higher orders only and constraint for the lower orders while on the left advocates favor more equality (particularly in the areas of the law and income) while conceding that total absolute equality can probably never be obtained though Zinoviev once said “No one deserves two rooms while some have none!”

While “modern” conservatism speaks glibly of “freedom” and has built a massive edifice of intellectual justification for its positions it remains reactionary in its true nature and is rooted in “the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere.”

Now conservative intellectuals love to quote Edmund Burke and Thomas Hobbs in their arguments for “freedom.”

Burke was certainly not arguing for “freedom” when  he spoke to Parliament  “The real object of the French Revolution, is o break all those connections natural and civil that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination: to raise soldiers against their officers; servants against their masters; tradesmen against their customers; artificers against their employers; tenants against the landlord; curates against their bishops; and children against their parents.”

Even before Burke, Thomas Hobbes was the first counter-revolutionary.  Rejecting the revolutionary argument he mounted a spirited defense of the most hide-bound form of rule.  He took the calls for liberty which threatened the old order and used them to justify absolute rule, redefining “liberty” in the process.

“The reconfiguration of the old and absorption of the new is designed to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses.”

The idea is to conscript the lower orders into a regime of “aristocratic” rule.  Sometimes, “conservatism has multiplied the ranks of privilege, creating ever-finer gradations between the worse off and that were worst off. Here the model is the American firm, with its many tiers of middle and lower management. Sometimes, conservatism has simplified those ranks into two: the white race and the black race of the white supremacist imagination. Sometimes, it has offshored society’s inequalities, seeing in the people of an imperial state a unified rank of superiors, “a kind of nobility among nations” subjugating less civilized people abroad. And sometimes it has turned elites into the victims, encouraging the masses to see their abjection reflected in the higher misery of those above them.”

There are hybrids, for example:” Corporate hierarchies can coexist with sharp binary divides between “productive members of society” and the “undeserving poor.” Or loss of privilege can be recast as victimhood — “Christians” losing their “religious freedom” to discriminate — and thus, via martyrdom, as grounds for reclaiming privilege on a new footing. The same logic can be deployed against the “tyranny” of evolution, global warming or any science at all that offends some conservative faction,”

Today the right is much less credibly challenged than it has been in the past and the rise of Trumpism is perhaps a symptom of the dissolution of the “unity” of conservatism because its victories have been so great and it has achieved so much power.

Recent progressive movements haven’t cohered to the point of scaring conservatives the way that Hobbes, Burke and even Antonim Scalia were scared by earlier movements.  None of the stirrings on the left – Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ movement and the Sanders campaign have achieved enough traction to pose a serious threat to the new right.  Thus conservatives are free to fight amongst themselves.

The left – from the squishy center to the farthest extremes has failed to take conservatism as a powerful movement of ideas – a coherent hierarchical worldview.  The left blows it off because not to do so would question belief in Enlightened Rationalism which is taken as self evident to every man.  Thus the conservative is “ignorant.”

Conservative thought begins and ends with one principle – that some are fit and aught to rule over others – and then it recalibrates that principle in order to meet the current challenge from below.

The question of who is fit and why may shift, sometimes dramatically, but the position of principle remains, along with the recalibration project. Together, these give the conservative intellectual tradition far more heft, continuity and significance than is commonly recognized, either on the left or the right.”

From the moment conservatism came on the scene it has had to contend with the decline of the medieval idea of an orderly universe with its permanent hierarchies of power.    And still to this day we question whether all persons are equal or that some are more “fit to rule:” more equal than others.

Burke was also instrumental in bringing about current conservative economic thought.

The price is a product of a mutual agreement between buyer and seller,” and thus the market itself “does the work of creating harmony out of dissonance, settlement from conflict.”

But that’s not where Burke ultimately leaves things, as hierarchy once again enters the picture as his argument unfolds. “It is no longer the market settling price but the man of capital determining value, whether he’s buying or selling, whether the commodity is labor or money.” At the same time, Burke argues, “labor is commodity like every other, and rises or falls according to the demand” of the buyer of labor. Thus, the worker’s wage needn’t even be enough to live on, but, as Burke insists, “There is an implied contract … that the labor, so far as that labor is concerned, shall be sufficient to pay to the employer a profit on his capital, and the compensation for his risk.”

Far from being an ancient forgotten text, Burke reads like a primer for understanding GOP economic policy at least since Ronald Reagan and a vivid example of how conservatives favor liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower.

Burke’s economic views shed new light on Hoover’s actions during the onset of the great depression:  that the great depression would end when “confidence” was restored and businessmen said it should  end.

The Republican Party is driven by conservatism as an ideological movement while Democrats are described by the right as a loose coalition of interest groups.  Black and Latino minorities, various LGBTQ groups, immigrants, labor, celebrity elites, ivy league professors etc.   What leftists lack is a unifying ideology which allows the right to tag them generally as “Marxist” elitists and paint them if necessary as Stalinist communists whose ideas are to be ignored.

Unfortunately there is no real “Left” in America.  The Democrats are still controlled by the Clintons and the remainder of the progressive movement, those “interest groups” have little traction or influence on the current governing power.   And the masses of the white working class, the natural constituency of the left, ignore them.  The vast majority are not interested in the doings of Caitlin Jenner.

A unified ideological left capable of bringing the lower classes (read working class) home must be centered on challenging the hierarchical idea that some are more fit to rule than others and the recognition that this begins with a more equitable distribution of the income created by the working classes.

The problem with Democrats is that most of the time no one knows what the hell they are for whereas conservatives know exactly what they are for.

We need a new, vibrant Social Democratic Party to clarify the ideology on the left.  Don’t hold your breath.

Quotes from “The Reactionary Mind” by Corey Robin:



About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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6 Responses to The Roots of “Modern” Conservatism

  1. macsmarvels says:

    Posted a quote from your conclusions starting with ‘Unfortunately’. Absolutely the best summary of the reasons for the current near total failure of government in the US today. Included a pointer to your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. beetleypete says:

    You got it all right of course, as you generally always do.
    I’m not holding my breath for Socialism in the USA. And neither is my grandson, nor the children he is yet to have.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. greenpete58 says:

    Pretty dense stuff here. You seem to be arguing for a Democratic Party, or third party, that has a unifying economic ideology more unabashedly Marxist-Socialist (maybe Communist?), to counter the Right’s more simplistic ideology of “hate taxes, hate government.” But at the same time, you say (I think) that it’s this LACK of unifying economic ideology on the Left that allows conservatives to paint leftists as “‘Marxist elitists'” and “Stalinist communists.” So I’m confused. Whether more or less economically socialist, the Left will always be painted by the Right as Socialist/Communist. This Cold War demonization has worked for them. I agree that white working class people’s abandonment of the Democratic Party has severely hurt Democrats in elections. But I think this has more to do with the fact that working-class whites relate better to the chest-thumping, simplistic rhetoric of Republicans, and they’re also terrified of blacks displacing them on the economic ladder. I don’t see how ramping up Socialist ideology will remedy this. Bernie Sanders is a Socialist, yet I think most of his support came from young educated whites, not older working class whites. Just my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toritto says:

      Hi Greenpete! Thanks for your in depth comment. The point I was trying to get across is that the “New conservatism” is essentially based on the old – it’s object is to maintain the hierarchy and rule of the “best people;” freedom for them and constraint for the “masses.” I consider my a democratic socialist of the Norwegian/Swedish mode – not a communist and certainly not a Stalinist although I have been called one. It is fairly clear I think that current Republicanism is in the pockets of corporations and the 1% while at the same time Trumpism creates the new hierarchy of less well educated white workers by demonizing immigrants, blacks and Muslims. How does it get away with it? What makes a down and out low wage worker vote for a billionaire and think he cares about them? After all, the GOP would undue the entire “New Deal” tomorrow if it could.

      I believe the lack of an economic policy meaningful to the lower white working class is what is missing. Truly universal health care with a public option. Free college tuition in state colleges for residents of that state (after all, what is a state college for?); forgiveness of student debt which is now higher than all credit card debt. A living wage bill.

      Let me give you an example of what has happened to the “middle class” in my life time.
      My wife and I bought our first house in 1966. were two high school graduates making a combined $13 – 14,000 a year when I left the service. This house cost us $24,500 or just less than twice our combined annual salaries. Ten percent down and move in. Today the value of this house within the city limits of New York is estimated by on-line realtor sites at an astonishing $725,000. Quite a bit more than twice the combined annual income of two high school graduates. THAT is what has happened to America. It is where the dream has gone. I feel sorry for the kids today. It is no wonder so many are still living in their parents basements.

      While the income gap in this nation continues to accrue upward our people struggle with two jobs, broken down cars and couches they can’t replace. Someone on the left needs to put these issues in the forefront. Today the left is obsessed over guys coping a feel decades ago; what will the next issue be?


      • greenpete58 says:

        Roger all that. My son drove to L.A. a few days ago for a new job/career. He has a Master’s degree. But he’s had to deplete his small 401K the last few months just to pay bills (including massive college debt) while between jobs. He’ll be lucky to afford a room in a someone’s basement in L.A. But you asked the million-dollar question: How do Trump and the GOP get away with what they get away with? How DO we establish an “economic policy meaningful to the white working class,” then have them support it? Dunno.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. toritto says:

    Not sure Pete but it might help if a progressive Dem ran on the platform and talked loudly about it. Can’t hurt. Sitting back and hoping a majority hates Trump enough isn’t a policy. Besides, I don’t see too many national favorites in the party right now. Best regards


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