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August 11, 2008

Which Conservatism?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Jack Kerwick thinks that neoconservatives don't deserve to be called conservative at all.

* Bill Kauffman recounts some of the history of anti-war conservatism. Buy Bill's book on the topic here. Thomas Woods reviews the book. Bill wrote about Ron Paul here. 2Blowhards interviewed Bill Kauffman. Access all five parts from this posting.



posted by Michael at August 11, 2008


i voted for ron paul in the virginia primary but now i don't have anyone to vote for that i'm excited about. i'm definately not voting for mccain/obama and definately not voting for nader or chuck baldwin so i guess i'm gonna be a partison libertarian and vote for the party over the person cause bob barr bugs the shit out of me.

Posted by: t. j. on August 11, 2008 2:05 AM

"...the best hope is in local organic agriculture."

"Organics" may be an effective fad-remedy for the mal-de-siecle of posh people. Practised on a wide scale, it becomes the Sleep of Reason: the very ritual of ingratitude.

Re the enlisting of Burke's name: Edmund Burke was a fine fellow who blundered along in difficult times. Sometimes he was able to make a fist of things, sometimes not. There was little enough he could do for his Irish countrymen...but he would never have flirted with a philosophy which forced them to the dung-pile and a wet bog in the name of "local organic agriculture". They had to do that anyway. Burke, to his cost, could not bear the thought of famine, in Ireland or India: he loathed the mob, but cared for human beings. If the non-neocons or classical or crunchy cons etc are looking for a patron, they might try Rousseau: very upper-crust and crunchy.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 11, 2008 5:26 AM

Conservatism as traditionally understood was group of propositions on the nature of man and reality which were held as the truth.

(1)There was a truth.
(2)There was a God.
(3)Man was inherently prone to corruption.
(4)The God had a will made known to man.
(5)Man had to live by those rules.

Neo-Conservatism is like traditional conservatism except for (1),(2),(3),(4) and (5).


Posted by: slumlord on August 11, 2008 8:41 AM

t.j. -- I really miss having Ron Paul in the race too. He wasn't going to win, but he kept forcing a lot of key questions to the surface. Without him, it's just the usual well-oiled machine.

Robert -- Four questions for you?
1) I haven't looked deeply into the Norman Borlaug phenom, but I do know that the Green Revolution has been responsible for more population growth than we'd otherwise have, and that Borlaug is very concerned about that. As it is often used, without any concern for population growth, it's yet one more way to stack more people in, part of the endless-growth-at-all-costs ethos. Your own thoughts on the theme?
2) You seem to be characterizing modern organic farming as being identical with primitive farming. But modern organic farming can be very sophisticated, as well as quite productive. I know you're using exaggeration to heighten your point, but are you maybe overdoing it?
3) You're offered two plates of broccoli. They're very similar; they cost about as much. One was grown with half the pesticides of the other. Which do you choose? Why? And if another person chooses the broccoli raised with less pesticide, do you have a quarrel with that choice? Why?
4) I'm not sure I understand the mockery -- "posh people," "fads," etc. We live in a rich country; we aren't on the verge of extinction. Hence we get to enjoy options, express ourselves, pursue pleasure, explore our preferences, etc. This is a great thing, no? Besides, the luxury market serves a vital function: it paves the way for the mass market. PCs follow the lead of Macs; even cheapo cars these days have features pioneered by luxury cars of the '80s. There's faddishness and silliness around, god knows. But the interest many people express in food isn't in any way a minor phenom. As people get richer and better educated, they start exploring taste and pleasure, and they start getting picky about how they live. It strikes me as cool, and to be valued. You don't take seriously *only* that which has to do with bare subsistence, do you? That runs entirely counter to an interest in culture, culture having a lot to do with leisure ...

Slumlord -- Well said!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 11, 2008 10:00 AM

"the Green Revolution has been responsible for more population growth than we'd otherwise have"

Yes, by preventing people from starving. That hardly seems to be a bad thing, even if we do have to deal with the consequences. After all, part of the "will that God made known to man" is to feed the hungry, and this should be a no-brainer for a "true conservative". At any rate, population growth rates are falling all over the world. This isn't to say that population isn't a problem in some parts of the world, or that we don't need to encourage birth control and responsible reproduction, or that they should all come and live here, but I personally regard the Green Revolution, along with the eradication of smallpox, as one of humanity's greatest triumphs. If you lived in India or Nigeria, you'd agree.

So neo-Cons are atheists? I always thought that they were supposed to be Orthodox Jewish Zionist Likudniks? Live and learn, I guess...

Posted by: Tschafer on August 11, 2008 10:48 AM

Neocons were anticommunist liberals who left the Left for being anti-anticommunist.

With the exception of being anticommunist, neocons have nothing in common with conservatives. In fact, limited government is anathema to them.

Posted by: ricpic on August 11, 2008 11:29 AM

Tschafer -- I'm puzzled by something in your reasoning (and I think in Robert's too). You champion the Green Revolution because feeding the starving is a good thing. Cool. But who exactly are you arguing against? Are there people here who are arguing against feeding the starving? And -- since we don't have any people starving in the U.S. -- how do you leap from your appreciation of the Green Revolution to any conclusions about life in the U.S.? I could be wrong, but you seem to think it's illegitimate, or maybe just silly, for a U.S. person to be concerned about the amount of pesticides used to grow his broccoli because ... Well, that's where I stumble. Because why? Because people are starving in Africa? And the Green Revolution has helped save some starving people? Er, how does it follow from "the Green Revolution has saved some starving people" that "it's silly for anyone in the U.S. to be concerned about, say, amounts of pesticides used, topsoil wasted, taste disappearing from industrical tomatoes, etc?" Starving people in Africa aren't concerned about whether to buy a Mac or a P.C. either. They've got survival on their minds. But whether to go Mac or P.C. is something we here spend some time and energy on, and it does have significance in terms of the evolution of computing, let alone in terms of people's pleasure factor in using their computers.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 11, 2008 11:29 AM

Michael, my answer to question one is that, when societies cease to starve, the growth of a low-proliferating middle-class is certain. When that middle-class becomes dominant - as in my country - birth-rates are not a problem. In the meantime, let's feed as many as possible and let's be proud that, for the first time in history, obesity is a bigger problem than starvation in most parts of the developed world. (I'm sure you can guess what I think of the artificial energy-starvation now being proposed by some, so I won't go into that.)

Re organic farming: it can be sophisticated, just as much 'primitive' farming was sophisticated. And if biotech progesses, it may become less expensive and strenuous. At present I'm only putting energies into bamboo, but I find it far more important to farm my moso cannily than to worry about preferring 'natural' to artificial fertiliser. (Also, those official organic-converter-people are creepy. Their consultancy and 'approvals' don't come cheap; and they sell people common substances like lime and phosphate-rock as special organic-conversion materials at absurd prices. Plus, they have pony-tails.)

As far as the broccoli goes, I'll take the freshest bits with the tightest heads. If the pesticide was used correctly, I don't care about a bit more or less of it.

As for your last question, I agree with you. Your relish for popular and elite consumerism is what attracted me to Blowhards. My problem is with Kauffman's anti-globo cant. And that's all it is: cant. In my cute little corner of the Aussie bush, I wallow in the benefits of higher technology, abundant services, intensive mass-production, world-wide trade, rapid transport of goods and people. That doesn't stop me visiting my neighbours or eating my own oranges. And it doesn't keep Kauffman from his cider and chestnuts.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 11, 2008 12:16 PM

The neo-conservatives are more properly described as neo-jacobins.

Posted by: kurt9 on August 11, 2008 1:33 PM

No solution to any problem is ever final. Every solution will eventually develop a new set of problems that then need to be solved. Often the past can inspire future solutions. Sometimes the past is instead used to justify the continuation of present problematic practices.

We are approaching a point where the problems inherent in the modern global approach to food and agriculture (and energy) are increasing, meanwhile the advantages of those systems are waning. Set aside the issue of how far away the peak of oil may be; set aside climate changes which may well be entirely outside our control; and still the global food production, processing and distribution systems are showing far too many problems. How many salmonella and e coli outbreaks, how many recalls of beef from restaurants and grocery shelves across the nation, or across national borders, how many food riots, does it take to raise the importance of the question; isn't there a better way to feed ourselves?

What the modern era of agricultural technology accomplished in its time is not the issue. Most would grant that technology fed many more of the world's hungry, saved lives and all the rest. This does not mean, however, that more of the same is the best answer for avoiding the problems that loom. Modern agricultural technology has been based on cheap power, cheap water, cheap labor, cheap land and expanding resources. Anyone who would argue that this is our situation today is looking at the world through some mighty rosy spectacles.

We face a period where we need to be looking at efficiency, sustainability, and productivity in very different ways than they did in the Fifties. But, as this happens, there still remain in place government subsidies, economic supports and incentives that artificially lower the cost for the agribusiness status quo. Sometimes these same programs also inflate the cost of alternatives. And this is before private sector business interests begin fighting with every tool at their disposal to keep market share. [Google "Monsanto + lawsuit" to see this phenomenon on full display.]

Even with this resistance consumers willing to pay more for local organic free-range carrots, and so on are a growing market exists. There are those who then sneer about PC leftist yuppies driving their Prius to Whole Fools and why aren't good ol' American (well, not from China anyway) carrots at the supermarket good enough for them, those Francophile cheese eatin' ingrates. And don't forget organic is all pony-tailed hucksters trying to make a buck.

The more I think about it, the more I like knowing that the carrots on my dinner plate came from an organic farm I can visit run by a guy I talk to twice a week at the Farmers' Market. This winter I'll go to Whole Foods or Hannaford and buy commercial carrots from California because I'll need every nickel for heating oil. Maybe next year I'll join that root cellar collective.

Now, isn't that being "conservative"?

Posted by: Chris White on August 11, 2008 4:41 PM

Ricpic, I'm not certain that "limited government" was ever consciously adopted as a principle of traditional conservative thought, strictly speaking, or at least not outside the United States, where true conservatism never really existed because the US had no crown and no aristocracy.

Prior to 1789, European governments believed themselves to have the right to intervene in every branch of human affairs, and few people questioned this belief. Where these conservatives differed from today's big government "liberals" (with whom they may actually share one or two fundamental principles), was in their belief that human nature exists, that it could not be readily changed, and that to attempt radical changes in social organization in order to alter human nature was both impossible and blasphemous.

English liberals in the Whig (Liberal) party in the late 18th and early 19th century fought for limited government, including lower tariffs, votes for Catholics, and the rights of Parliament. Burke was part of the Whig movement, but when he turned against the French Revolution many of his former admirers and friends turned against him, so although he insisted that he always remained a Whig, his former Whig fellows thought otherwise.

English Tories supported the rights of the Crown. As the Industrial Revolution progressed and its social disorders grew, it was the Tories (who came to be known as the Conservative party) under Sir Robert Peel who fought for limited working hours, higher wages, and better conditions for workers.

American political thinkers may use words like "liberal" and "conservative", but I think the history of American political life makes more sense if you think of all American political thought as taking place within a very broad liberal spectrum.

Alias Clio

Posted by: alias clio on August 11, 2008 4:47 PM


So neo-Cons are atheists? I always thought that they were supposed to be Orthodox Jewish Zionist Likudniks? Live and learn, I guess...

Years ago I had a friend--who has since died--that described himself as a Jewish Atheist. When explained to him that I thought it was a logical contradiction, he just shrugged it off saying that Judaism was not only just a religion but a cultural identity. I think many of the Neo-conservatives are of that mould.

Although there are Neo-Conservatives who are Christian, I think neo-conservatism is the conservatism you get when you try to exclude the Christian God from it: perhaps it's a conservatism that is more "inclusive": A Conservative lite. I think its appeal to a lot of Jewish intellectuals, atheistic or not, lays in the fact that they can be conservative and non-Christian at the same time. I am probably wrong about this, but I started noticing the term "Judeo-Christian" being bandied, about the same time that neo-conservatism started scoring some goals. Previously it was the Ten Commandments, as issued by God and lived by Jesus Christ.

The dividing line between neo-Conservatives and Conservatives is metaphysics; but that of course is a world of difference. Jewish Conservatism and Christian Conservatism are similar but not the same. Neo-Conservatism is an injustice to both.

Posted by: Slumlord on August 11, 2008 11:38 PM

Alias Clio,

I agree with every part of your comment. Especially good is your point that European governments, prior to 1789, no matter how authoritarian, believed that "human nature exists." This is the great divide. If human nature exists it follows that there not only should be, there must be limits on the scope of governmental tampering. If, on the other hand, man is merely plastic to be molded...well, all the horrors inevitably follow.

One minor caveat. I agree that up to the late '60s all American political thought did fall within the broad classic liberal spectrum. What is so jolting about the emergence of today's "liberals" is how thoroughly illiberal they are, what a throwback they are to 1789 and all that follows from the loosing of the totalitarian impulse.

Posted by: ricpic on August 12, 2008 9:33 AM

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