Saturday, February 23, 2013

What's Wrong With Conservatism, Part 3

We continue our series on "What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It? " from the 2004 essay by Philip E. Agre:

"//4 The Discovery of Democracy

"Humanity has struggled for thousands of years to emerge from the darkness of conservatism. At every step of the way, conservatism has always had the advantage of a long historical learning curve. There have always been experts in the running of conservative society. Most of the stupid mistakes have been made and forgotten centuries ago. Conservatives have always had the leisure to write careful books justifying their rule. Democracy, by contrast, is still very much in an experimental phase. And so, for example, the 1960's were one of the great episodes of civilization in human history, and they were also a time when people did a lot of stupid things like take drugs.

"The history of democracy has scarcely been written. Of what has been written, the great majority of 'democratic theory' is based on the ancient Greek model of deliberative democracy. Much has been written about the Greeks' limitation of citizenship to perhaps 10% of the population. But this is not the reason why the Greek model is inapplicable to the modern world. The real reason is that Greek democracy was emphatically predicated on a small city-state of a few thousand people, whereas modern societies have populations in the tens and hundreds of millions.

"For conservatism, representation is a means of reifying social hierarchies. The Founding Fathers thought of themselves as innovators and modernizers, and the myth-making tradition has thoughtlessly agreed with them. But in reality the US Constitution, as much as the British system it supposedly replaced, is little more than the Aristotelian tripartite model of king, aristocracy, and gentry (supposedly representing the commons), reformed to some degree as President, Senate, and House.

"Fortunately, there is little need to replace the Constitution beyond adding a right to privacy. After all, as historians have noted, Americans almost immediately started using the Constitution in a considerably different way than the Founders intended -- in a democratic fashion, simply put, and not an aristocratic one. The president who claims to be "a uniter not a divider" is hearkening back to the myth-making of a would-be aristocracy that claims to be impartial and to stand above controversy while systematically using the machinery of government to crush its opponents. But his is not the winning side.

"The real discovery is that democracy is a particular kind of social organization of knowledge -- a sprawling landscape of overlapping knowledge spheres and a creative tension on any given issue between the experts and the laity. It is not a hierarchical divide between the knowledge-authorities in the professions and a deferential citizenry; instead it democratizes the skills of knowledge-making among a citizenry that is plugged together in ways that increasingly resemble the institutional and cognitive structures of the professions. This generalized application of entrepreneurial skills in the context of a knowledge-intensive society -- and not simply the multiplication of associations that so impressed Tocqueville -- is civil society. The tremendous fashion for civil society as a necessary complement and counterbalance to the state in a democracy, as launched in the 1980's by people like John Keane, has been one of the most hopeful aspects of recent democratic culture. Indeed, one measure of the success of the discourse of civil society has been that conservatism has felt the need to destroy it by means of distorted theories of 'civil society' that place the populace under the tutelage of the aristocracy and the cultural authorities that serve it.

"Economics, unfortunately, is still dominated by the ancien regime...The state of economics is unfortunate for democracy. Conservatism runs on ideologies that bear only a tangential relationship to reality, but democracy requires universal access to accurate theories about a large number of nontrivial institutions. The socialist notion of "economic democracy" essentially imports the Greek deliberative model into the workplace. As such it is probably useful as a counter to conservative psychologies of internalized deference that crush people's minds and prevent useful work from being done. It is, however, not remotely adequate to the reality of an interconnected modern economy, in which the workplace is hardly a natural unit. A better starting place is with analysis of the practical work of producing goods in social systems of actual finite human beings -- that is, with analysis of information and institutions, as for example in the singular work of Thorstein Veblen, John Commons, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Polanyi, John von Neumann, Mark Casson, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul David, Bruno Latour, and Michel Callon.

"This work emphasizes knowledge and the very general social conditions that are required to produce and use it. Simply put, knowledge is best produced in a liberal culture. This is why the most prosperous and innovative regions of the United States are also the most politically liberal, and why the most conservative regions of the country are also the greatest beneficiaries of transfer payments. Liberals create wealth and government redistributes it to conservatives. This is, of course, the opposite of the received conservative opinion in the media, and indeed in most of academia. But it is true.

"Another connection between democracy and a modern economy is the democratic nature of entrepreneurialism. People who reflexively defer to their social betters will never learn the social skills that are needed to found new types of social relationships. This was clear enough in the interregnum in the 19th century between the fall of the American gentry and the rise of the modern corporation. An economy of generalized entrepreneurialism, moreover, requires an elaborate institutional matrix that is part public and part private. As scholars such as Linda Weiss have argued, the conservative spectre of a conflict between government and entrepreneurial activity is unrelated to the reality of entrepreneurship. To be sure, much has been learned about the kinds of government policies that do and do not lay the foundation for economic dynamism. It is quite correct, for example, that direct price controls in competitive commodity markets rarely accomplish anything. (Labor markets are a much more complicated case, in very much the ways that neoclassical economics exists to ignore.) Free trade would also be a good thing if it existed; in practice trade is distorted by subsidies and by uneven regulation of externalities such as pollution, and "free trade" negotiations are a kind of power politics that differs little from the gunboat diplomacy that opened markets in a one-sided way in former times. The point is scarcely that markets are inherently democratic. The economic properties of infrastructure and knowledge create economies of scale that both produce cheap goods (a democratic effect) and concentrate power (an anti-democratic effect). Conservatives employ the democratic rhetoric of entrepreneurialism to promote the opposite values of corporate centralization. But the 19th century's opinions about the political and economic necessity of antitrust are still true. More importantly, a wide range of public policies is required to facilitate a democratic economy and the more general democratic values on which it depends.

"Lastly, an important innovation of democracy during the sixties was the rights revolution. Rights are democratic because they are limits to arbitrary authority, and people who believe they have rights cannot be subjected to conservatism. Conservative rhetors have attacked the rights revolution in numerous ways as a kind of demotic chatter that contradicts the eternal wisdom of the conservative order. For conservatism, not accepting one's settled place in the traditional hierarchy of orders and classes is a kind of arrogance, and conservative vocabulary is full of phrases such as "self-important". Institutions, for conservatism, are more important than people. For democracy, by contrast, things are more complicated. The rights revolution is hardly perfect. But the main difficulty with it is just that it is not enough. A society is not founded on rights alone. Democracy requires that people learn and practice a range of nontrivial social skills. But then people are not likely to learn or practice those skills so long as they have internalized a conservative psychology of deference. The rights revolution breaks this cycle. For the civil rights movement, for example, learning to read was not simply a means of registering to vote, but was also a means of liberation from the psychology of conservatism. Democratic institutions, as opposed to the inherited mysteries of conservative institutions, are made of the everyday exercise of advanced social skills by people who are liberated in this sense.

Next: How to Defeat Conservatism (A list of 17 ways to "make the modern world a better place to live.)


"The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing."

Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and philosopher.

1623 – 1662)