Saturday, July 17, 2010

In the beginning...

What contemporary political ideology was created by academic intellectuals, who were elitist and anti-democratic, who looked to Europe rather than to America's founding for ideas and inspiration, and who were opposed to classical liberalism? It would probably come as a surprise to many that the answer is: Conservatism.

Conservatism was created after WW2 by a group of academic intellectuals, it was not a bottom-up, grass-roots movement:

[T]he new conservative movement was overwhelmingly associated with colleges and universities. Virtually every one of its spokesmen held a position in academe.

Conservatism was founded by people who were elitist and anti-democratic:

As conservative intellectuals examined the fruits of liberal ideas, they frequently noted with special distaste the spectacular rise of a mass society and the cult of the common man...

[Bernard Iddings] Bell unsparingly castigated the so-called civilization around him. "The chief threat to America comes from within America" -- from the complacent, vulgar, mindless, homogenized, comfort-seeking, nouveau riche culture of the common man. Was this perspective undemocratic? Of course it was, Bell cheerfully conceded. One of the most dangerous assumptions of our time is that the common man "can be entrusted...without skilled leadership, safely to run himself and society." Instead, the masses require "an elite, a democratic elite," that will exemplify excellence and "a more urbane and humane way of living."

Many people mistakenly think that conservatism was founded to champion the ideals of the American founding. Instead the intellectuals who created American conservatism were European oriented. They were inspired by Old World conservatism not the American founders.

A second noticeable feature of the traditionalist group was its extraordinary orientation toward Europe. We have already noted its relative lack of interest in the specifically American past. One must take care not to exaggerate; nevertheless, the principle early acts of recovery were of European conservatives--Burke and Metternich, for instance--not Americans...
...Instead, they imported European insights and took their stand at home.

Not only was the original, Old World conservatism anti-classical liberal, but it was in fact classical liberalism's first ideological enemy, later to be followed by socialism, fascism, and communism. Many of the founders of the American conservative movement after WW2 were also anti-classical liberal:

...nearly all the leading new conservatives took pains to dissociate themselves from the "nineteenth-century liberalism" that was also enjoying a new vogue on the Right. Most vehement was Viereck; his conservatism, he said, had nothing to do with rootless, "cash nexus," selfish, laissez-faire individualism. Russell Kirk also emphasized that his kind of traditionalism was not a defense of materialistic businessmen or the "dogmas of Manchesterian economic theory." "Conservatism is something more than mere solicitude for tidy incomes." In a lengthy critique of Ludwig von Mises...Kirk warned of the dangers of rationalistic, atomistic capitalism and utilitarianism: "...once supernatural and traditional sanctions are dissolved, economic self-interest is ridiculously inadequate to hold an economic system together, and even less adequate to preserve order." Kirk had worked for a "soulless corporation" and had lived in a dreary industrial city; he had no inclination to idealize free enterprise. Robert Nisbet was also critical of the corrosive, anti-social laissez-faire of the nineteenth century: it had weakened social bonds and "accelerated" the aggrandizement of the "omnicompetent State."

All quotes from The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America by George Nash. This is an excellent book and required reading if you want an understanding of conservatism.

No comments: