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Among the many political splinters that grow when a society has lost direction, a movement toward post-liberal politics accelerates. History being a series of leaps from one extreme to another, zeroing in on a mean, we the people of the first world nations are now seeing doubt introduced in our view of the dominant theme of our society for at least the past thousand years.
The political split between liberalism and "everything else," from which conservatism descends, begins when civilizations grow and labor is subdivided beyond the individual. In smaller societies, people define roles; in large societies, roles are made and then people sought to fill them. This creates a centralized authority that reads needs from its people, formulates a singular rule, and then applies it back to the citizens.
In addition to raw power, civilizations at this level invent "narratives," or explanations of process in story form. These are like what we tell our children: the farmer grows the food, the people buy the food, and then the farmer buys more equipment to make more food. Narratives are both necessary and destructive, in that creating a meta-level in which we both discuss what we ought to do and explain what we are doing allows us to alter our narrative independently of the process it describes.
We could call this the root of modern neurosis, which could be conveniently defined as "insecurity": unsure of what's actually going on, unsure of our role or importance in it, and distrust of people we don't know who are far away filling roles necessary for our survival. The split between reality and explanation of reality grows as people do what is convenient for them personally at the expense of the whole, as necessarily happens with any intelligent species.
Nature, after all, appears to us as a dumb process. A mouse will have ten babies, eat the two that are deformed or smell funny, and raise eight of whom four may survive to breeding age. This sieve, by which testing each baby against the reality in which it lives picks those who survive, represents a parallel to our scientific method, our thinking, and our history: consider every possibility, test, and keep those possibilities that have proven to work.
This process represents a direct opposite to our linear mode of thought. In linear thought, we work from what exists, assume it is necessary and apply it uniformly and universally. One idea; many identical applications. Nature tries many facets of an idea, eschews anything identical or equal, and sees what sticks. This however does not present a comforting thought to humans, who each like to think of themselves as immortal or at least safe, and want certainty of method, not ambiguity of outcome.
As people do what is convenient for them at the expense of the whole, and others are fearing that they might be the babies eaten by a critical mouse mother, a movement of fear gathers in the civilization. Civilizations are united by a positive idea; mobs are united by what they fear. The movement of fear reverses logic from the natural to the linear, and instead of testing individuals against life, starts looking for a form of "life" -- a surrogate narrative -- to replace the ambiguity.
The positive essence of liberalism is a basis in science, which desires to test all possibilities including those we take for granted as necessary, and so to remove the hide-bound and dusty relics which no longer apply. Liberal movements arise when, in response to people doing what is convenient at the expense of the whole, the wiser citizens start strengthening the institutions and hierarchies that force sensible rules on people.
At this point, liberalism is in response swallowed up by the wave of fear that wants to avoid ambiguity. What was once a sensible movement to ensure society did not let its authority exceed reality now becomes a mania to deny reality. Inevitably, it strikes unconsciously at what it fears, which is natural selection, and instead imposes a narrative of equality, in which each citizen is presumed to be just as valuable as any other, which removes the thought that our human mouse mother might eat some and keep others.
The power of liberalism comes from a simple idea: instead of treating institutions as all-important, treat people well regardless of what the convention is. As this movement gets coopted by the fear of the mob, it becomes a case of when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The narrative of beating back institutions that oppress The People becomes a manic jihad to systematically destroy anything that is not 100% egalitarian and 100% new and in favor of individual equality.
This step puts liberalism on par with the reactionary pseudo-conservatism that triggers it when citizens strengthen institutions in response to people doing what is convenient, not what is right. No longer united by a positive goal, it has become itself reactionary and started a chain reaction which will not rest until it has destroyed every social institution, created social anarchy, and removed culture, values, heritage and even human kindness, because it as a dogma will replace human interactions with a cynical wariness of how actions look in the eyes of the dogma, and not how they affect humans themselves.
With liberalism as a motivation, the case of Robespierre became the archetype which all others would follow. Possessed of revolutionary zeal, he quickly purged those who opposed him -- and then found the circle of enemies widening as his well-intentioned ideas did not take fruit in reality. Hierarchy proves useful, and replacing the calcified privileged elites with amateurs guarantees both incompetence and corruption, which then makes enemies of former friends. This is why in liberal revolutions from Robespierre to Trotsky to Mao to Castro, the guillotine has never quite cooled.
What is important about this history is that while liberalism becomes corrupted, it is not because its fundamental idea -- treat people well, and throw out institutions and authorities that are no longer relevant -- is corrupt. Rather, it is that because liberalism starts with the negative notion of defending people, it makes itself immediately susceptible to corruption. Saying that we must protect people from oppression gives everyone a quick path around reality by affirming the dogma, claiming that they feel oppressed, and therefore, that they should be given things at the expense of others, or "liberated" from authority itself.
In other words, while liberalism has the right goal in mind, it method is broken. Its narrative easily gets perverted because it starts with the assumption of the individual as essential, in contrast to the scientific method and nature, in which what is essential is the test of the whole of reality itself. Unlike liberalism, conservatism embraces these methods, but correspondingly, becomes corrupted when its members pervert that to mean "defend authority, right or wrong, because we fear the mob."
When looking for practical methods by which to implement our liberal goals, history becomes the most vital tool we have. Much as with science, we can look to the results of previous experiments as a foundation onto which we can build the next generation of experiments. History suggests two exceptions to the liberal paradigm:
The first realization states that civilizations give rise to neurosis, or being "unsure" of things -- oneself, reality, what's the right path to take to be personally happy, and what's the right thing to do by society itself. This confused morality, because questions of how one ought to act are fundamentally moral, arises from the presence of other people and the sense that we should treat them as a form of absolute because they're here and, like us, they have personalities that fear death. This explains our tendency to form mobs.
The second realization states that what exists now is less important than what will come, and that the past provides patterns for the future. Most people who want to manipulate you do so with a simple device: telling you how they can improve one aspect of your life, and conveniently not mentioning how it will impact other areas of your life, or even look in the future. No money down, buy it today, and if in three years it's broken and you're still paying debt service, well, not our problem. This means we cannot focus on defending either institutions or individuals, but can only fix the problem by designing a future that treats all individuals fairly.
Thinking about our two exceptions above -- first, that people tend toward neurosis in civilizations; second, that we must consider more than the immediate, both future and past -- we can see that the only way to really guide ourselves is to look at civilization as a whole, as if we were considering a population of penguins, or a forest, or even a computer operating system. This fits more tightly with the conservative vision of the world, but because it is functional, speaks not to goal but to method.
When we view society both systemically and systematically, we can see how the individuals are the means to the end of civilization, which in turn benefits its members. When we design a healthy civilization, it in turn benefits its members, but here's the catch: it does so by making itself healthy and not making individuals the lynchpin upon which its decisions pivot. If we make individuals our target, all of society skews to that end, and the health of the whole is forgotten.
In this way, conservatism re-directs the obsession with the individual from "protect all individuals by avoiding conflict through enforced individual equality" to "promote the good, and remove the bad who would harm the good," trusting nature and not human emotions to bring us the best possible outcome from our species. Interestingly, however, this method -- while it would not benefit everyone when first created -- over time, produces the most egalitarian, justice-minded, cooperative and yet individualistic society.
By focusing on the whole, it is also able to say NO to some individuals in the name of protecting things the organic whole needs, including forests (Conservatives are never environmentalists; what they are is Conservationists, or people who set aside bigger chunks of nature where humans don't go so nature can maintain itself).
Even further, conservatism preserves the scientific method/natural selection paradigm: our problem is not institutions, but people. Some do what is convenient at the expense of others, and use social guilt -- they're equal, why aren't you letting them go first in line? -- to enforce it through passive aggression; others think first of the health of the whole as a process, and then fit themselves into it, and those are the ones we want to keep.
Unlike the mob-fear, conservatism of this nature accepts the laws of thermodynamics: if we cannot make decisions of one thing over another, as true equality would entail, all decisions are pointless because their outcomes are near-identical; as a result, there will be no motion, and no change, creating an entropy-bound civilization. Avoiding this requires we face the great paradox of life, which is that for us to exist there must be non-existence, for pleasure to exist there must be pain, and that for us to love our people, we must treat some un-lovingly.
If we view the last thousand years as an error of history, and see how liberalism was a response to a calcified order that was itself a response to internal problems in a society decaying on every level, we can see how conservatism and liberalism originate in the same impulse: a desire to un-do the decay and return to a better time, when our social order is sane and we find it hard to locate oppressors except for specific individuals who went bad on us.
With a post-liberal worldview, or one that is a combination of conservative methods and liberal intentions, we do not suffer the search for oppressors. Instead, we seek solutions to the health of the whole, and attack the social order directly, using our knowledge of history to see how civilizations have decayed in the past. In this reverent outlook toward the whole, we have escaped our modern narratives and found again a state of primal humankind.
In this state, we do not rely on externalized forces like the institutions of state, religion and the market. Instead, we deal directly with the situation: we want a healthy society, so the best must rise and those who threaten that must be removed, and instead of dishing out equality propaganda, we each seek a place where we can perform to the best of our abilities. With a sacred goal in mind such as the health of a civilization as a whole, the stigma of status and monetary competition eases.
Wherever this philosophy prevails, civilizations rise and reach high levels of excellence; whenever it is lost, civilizations begin their decay spiral into corruption, promotion of the stupid over the smart, destruction of knowledge, ecocide and other signs of an inability to control themselves. The choice remains in front of us: we do not need to be trapped by competing narratives, but can combine them and from that, find a greater, healthier future.
December 12, 2009