Arbitrary - Part II: Values
Politics happens to us like the sky. Far away, options occur; we hope for one or the other, but then we take what falls. While the formation of left and right parties may be motivated by pure behind-the-scenes manipulation for profit, the emotions and ideas that draw individuals to these parties are worth exploring. Both sides have some merit and some incoherence; like halves of a puzzle, they only make sense in combination.
When we look into not what parties state are their ideals, nor what people who have absorbed propaganda as well as criticism claim to think, we can see the emotions and germs of logic that motivate people to pick one or the other. As with all things in life, it is a chaotic spectrum, and although each party has a dominant outlook, people choose them for many reasons. If we look at the desired outcome of those reasons, we can break down the partisan illusion and see what is of importance to those who become politically active.
If the fundamental principle behind conservatism is that tradition must be upheld, the quasi-opposite principle of liberalism is that the order of things has excluded people from its benefit without reason. Conservatism reasons that the order of things has purpose, where liberalism emotes that it is unkind. This leads to further schism in that while conservatives discuss values, liberals are more concerned with a change in the distribution of wealth as the result of a values shift.
Since neither of these doctrines upholds any more dramatic change that the introduction of compensatory influences favoring the doctrine, it is fair to say that they are united in their approval of modern society as the chassis upon which politics operates. Yet if we read more closely into each doctrine, there is a compelling sense of an underlying desire for vast change -- a complete alteration in how we view civilization and our roles in it.
Conservatives in their hearts of hearts want to throw out what they see as an immoral and directionless system, and liberals want to tear down the world and replace it so that the poor are equal to the rich. It is almost as if each partisan vector has become stalled by its need to make its offering palatable to politics as a mass phenomenon, and thus, each has neutered its fundamental impulse. To look behind that veil is to see that underlying both systems is the recognition that our functionalist, materialist, utilitarian modern society has lost sight of values in favor of a pragmatic adaptation to itself. (As Plato was wont to note, each political system excels at one thing -- furthering itself. William S. Burroughs would refer to this tendency as "the control virus" based on "the algebra of need.")
Let us then for a moment praise liberalism. The stories of factories run by greedy manipulators who gleefully pay their workers whatever minimum is currently acceptable, without a concern for how those people turn out, as well as contemporary experience with the ruthlessness of moneymakers should show us there is some sense to the liberal -- or more properly, socialist -- impulse. Why are we willing to let people be used by their jobs, taxed by the government despite their poverty, and then made bankrupt by their own uneducated and inept spending?
It is not as if our system, despite being called "Social Darwinism," is using this as a mechanism of eliminating these people; they are kept alive, and kept doing the low-paying but profitable jobs like working in fast food, mall shops, factories, security guards, and the like. Liberalism asks, rightly: what is our intent regarding these people, both as function in society and as individual lives? Where other systems may appeal in sterile terms to our functional minds, liberalism address our hearts.
Most sensible people recognize that the denizen of an organized civilization, or one where division of labor requires power structures and economics and forms of mass control, walks a fine and dangerous line between being restricted by government and being restricted by the flaky, criminal, predatory, parasitic or simply selfish behaviors of fellow citizens. Liberalism focuses most intently on the abuse of power by centralized authority, and as such is inherently both anarchistic and anti-money.
These are admirable tendencies even if for now we do not have to consider them as in themselves solutions. They touch something in all of us: to love justice is to hate injustice, and to love people is to hate the idea that they can be used by some crazy abstract system like industry, government or even the social pressures of the mob. We want to stand up for all of us to be sure that our sacrifices and labors mean something and come to a good end, and that in the process we are not treated like rapidly-obsolescing equipment.
Liberalism is also critical of situations where one ethnic group is the slave-crop of another, or where women are given no recourse against being essentially sexual vassals, and any case where personal ability to choose lifestyle or belief is regulated. Does it make sense, a good liberal asks, that a wealthier nation beat up a smaller one? Or that women have a career choice of "wife" or "courtesan"? Or that every black person in a large nation is impoverished and futureless while the children of fat imaginative white bankers have any option open to them?
Belatedly, the left has added environmentalism to its list of concerns (until the mid-twentieth century, it was exclusively a conservative position) -- delaying in part because to make any choice in favor of the environment is to deny some individual something they would prefer to have. It is a paradox of freedom that often its preservation requires its denial, but we'll come to that in a moment. This cuts a paradox into the core of liberal values: we have compassion for the environment as well as for people, but their needs are in conflict.
Look to your inner feeling. It is unlikely you want to live endorsing a system that ruthlessly makes much of its population into pack animals for the wealth of others, or keeps one group hopeless while another prospers. Whatever your opinion of the leadership abilities of women, it is doubtful you want to see them confined to an abusive cycle. If you have any sense at all, you will recognize the constant threat of allowing any central control or power regulate what is acceptable behavior, as this empowers the small cranial capacity bureaucrats to impose punishment for their own masturbatory sense of strength.
No one wants to endorse a society of legitimized bullies, or an unspoken economic war against a certain ethnicity or gender. It is this feeling that sweeps people up into liberalism, and means that despite bluster in other areas, it remains a partisan force for (a) civil rights and (b) wealth redistribution or class warfare.
At the same time, even the most die-hard liberal has to admit something beautiful about the ideal of conservatism: we know that without a traditional culture our values become replaced by what is profitable. No one argues that radio pop music is superior to Beethoven. Most of us if we search our souls will admit that we want some higher value to step in and stop the construction of yet another mall or fast-food restaurant or ugly factory.
We would like a governmental force that blocks entities which although profitable for their owners create a socialized cost distributed to the rest of us -- whether that cost is pollution, crime induced by predatory activities, imported labor to pick chicken cheaply or simply completely ugly cities covered in advertising. This our mind, and not heart, speaking; if we define conservatism, it is as a response as much exclusively logical as liberalism is exclusively emotional.
Conservatism is based upon the concept that, whether determined by relativity or not, our world operates consistently and therefore some values are both universal and eternal. These values, in the conservative mind, are not preferences but mathematical optimizations of human behavior based on the most powerful responses to the mechanisms of nature -- physical reality, genetic reality, personal decisions -- as have been discovered through the history of humanity. These values are eternal in that no matter what changes in our abilities or society, they are enforced upon us by existential conditions -- mortality, scarcity of resources, the need for leaders.
What is inspiring about conservatism is that underneath its quasi-reactionary exterior there is a profound love of normal life. Not the extreme pleasures, but the mundane happiness found in doing good work in which one believes, having friends and family and local community, and finding some spiritual (although not necessarily Christian: many of the greatest conservative writers have loathed Christianity but praised spirituality) connection to the mechanism of life, e.g. finding a way to value the end product of life so much as to "forgive" and overlook its dark and morbid side. This transcendent ideal is at the root of conservatism as much as compassion is the root of liberalism.
Sex is understood with the knowledge that no matter how advanced our technology, those parents who are more sexually selective and lead normal balanced lives and have a few children and invest heavily in them will turn out happier, more productive offspring. Conservatism recognizes that for each person with whom one fornicates the potential for romance becomes more calloused. Conservatism recognizes that life is a long and winding journey of which one of the greatest joys is a family, and a family is best based on (relatively) chaste parents who express stability by making that most powerful of decisions to opt for a lifetime partner.
These high-investment chances require the decisions behind them to be thoughtful and balanced, the produced of a mentally and spiritually and socially balanced personality. Conservative views on intoxication, on laziness, on criminality and useless activity (television) reflect this core impetus: those who find a way to accept life and live out its processes in the fullest are the stablest and most apt to become not only "good citizens" but contributing people. They are balanced by the nature of their lack of struggle against the constraints of reality and their consequent determination to turn these to the best advantage.
Although our postmodern view of conservatism is colored by the somewhat useless and fun-dampening right wing parties of our time, it is important to remember that these are both hopelessly reactionary -- believing the cause to be at some level lost -- and manipulative, in that when conservatism abandoned the aristocracy for voters it had to find some way to pander, to make its "serious" outlook on life palatable to the average person. It did so through moral superiority and a kind of condemnation/reaction that has conservative parties today picking targets before they pick goals.
Of all the people out there, only a few are actors on the political stage. The reasons are simple: the poor are too busy being destitute and intoxicated and lack the education to act; the rich do not work within politics but in economics and manipulation of public perception. The lower middle class, while often the most politically active, is accustomed to a partisan "ground-holding" mentality often defined as much by their professions as neighborhoods.
Throughout all of history, it has been the upper two-thirds of the middle class who have been the political fulcrum of each nation. Hard-working but with enough leisure time to read and with jobs that do not require exhausting physical labor and leave them still energetic at night in the time of solitary thinking, the upper-half-middle-class have the education and career tendencies to organize, to motivate disparate groups of people, and to find complex design solutions.
Although this group has the greatest political potential, they also face a great pitfall: decadence. Anyone can make fun of soccer moms and guys in fantasy baseball leagues, but often the middle class tendency is to "stay occupied" and then, in guilt at being somewhat inactive, to leap toward emotional rather than pragmatic political solutions. These fail because the motivation behind them is a social gesture and not a design decision. In times of cataclysm, however, these same people leap toward crises with a kind of joy in having found purpose that is otherwise missing from most administrative and professional careers.
When we look at this group, excluding those with resentments (abused children, marginalized groups like homosexuals or BDSM participants, genteel alcoholics) we find a cross-section of our society evenly divided between the two political camps. On economics and foreign policy they tend to be liberal because to them rapid growth is not important; they know a comfortable life can be had and are more interested in raising families, furthering their own career accomplishments and having healthy local communities.
On social issues and domestic rule they tend on the whole to be conservative, wanting to preserve the family-friendly nature of their neighborhoods and make sure society's institutions stay intact so their own youth can take advantage of them. They vacillate here in that during times of wealth, they relax into liberalism because there seems to be some slack in the system that can be used to pacify other groups; they do not appear to honestly believe in eradication of poverty or world unity except when listening to U2 albums.
They have had enough experience in the world to know the poor usually stay that way for a reason, and that the world is always in some kind of disaster that is best ignored unless one wants to get saddled with stewardship and then blamed by all parties involved for its imperfections. Their goal is to provide quality of life for themselves and as much justice as they can afford for others, with the overall goal of having a stable society.
If they have a failing here, it is in attempting to buy off other special interest groups by sharing some of the wealth, not realizing that this falls under the same problems of stewardship mentioned above. They are polite but self-serving, having found out long ago that carrying the weight of the world does nothing for it or the self, and mean well but temper that with a certain pragmatism that believes in elbow grease, (relatively) clean living and meritocracy: the best rising to the top.
That this group swings between left and right with the flavor of elections can be explained by the cycle of conservative and liberal power. Conservatives tend to build infrastructure, and liberals use that infrastructure to increase the possibilities of the average citizen, but by overpromoting individualism create fragmentation. This splintering causes social problems, so the conservatives are called in during the next election to get back to basics. Liberalism is a nurturing psychologist but conservatism is a gruff architect.
The problem with this system is rooted in that inconsistency.
The policies of one group, obliterated by the next, are later reinstated and similarly erase the changes of the last group. Since absolute power does not exist, this constitutes a compromise of a compromise of an originally compromised idea, and soon the parties are reduced to inching forward without effecting any real systemic change. On top of this is the dirty secret of democracy, which is that while all citizens have the "freedom" to vote, most lack variability in their thought process and pick comfortable symbols and emotional responses from their television screens and conversations with neighbors.
In addition to compromise, democracy further adulterates clear action by running every proposed idea through this "popularity filter" which requires ideas both not offend and provoke some kind of simple feeling in their audience. You cannot simply go to war because it's a good idea; you have to invent a devil and pursue him to an ugly end. Social problems cannot be simply a "good idea" to fix, but there must be helpless innocents ravaged or other mournful disaster. Every single decisions becomes threatre in which good symbols combat bad, with the idea that the direction of a liberal democracy (the term for modern democracies, independent of the term "liberalism" for our argument here) is the best and we are enforcing a "progress" which is inherently not only beneficial but morally right.
This brings us to a series of contradictions.
We want to treat people well, but we know from experience and history that most people treat themselves badly and make poor decisions (buying color TVs instead of investing in retirement funds). They would be better off with many of these decisions not being theirs to make. We can educate them, and give them welfare, but ultimately they determine their own path through decisions that are often quite poor.
We want freedom, but too much freedom for destructive-minded people results in all of us suffering more, paying more, and living in alienating and dangerous cities. Destructive people can be criminals or predatory businessmen, and may "intend to" be destructive or not: what matters is their effect, and whether it acts by creating junky strip malls and tearing down trees or by stealing car stereos for meth money is immaterial. They destroy. They are either held back or we absorb not only the financial cost but the cost to our way of life.
We want traditional values but do not want them imposed upon us. The idea of some government bureaucracy, and we know from experience that bureaucratic power draws its share of small-minded people who experience a nearly sexual thrill from exerting that power of negation on others, telling us when to fornicate, where to go to school, etc. terrifies us. It is for this reason among others that modern citizens are adamant about separation of church and state; we know that even if it is stamped Benevolent Government or Benevolent Church, power can attract abusers who will wreck us if given the chance.
We want the ability to succeed economically but we do not want such excessive competition that we are forced to become predators or be assimilated as choiceless labor. We like the idea that we can with a reasonable amount of effort walk into a decent living, and that if we have a need for more we can within reason attain it. We fear the super-equalization of Communist Russia but also would rather not live in a world where literally everything is for sale (images of opium dens and brothels flash through our minds).
Although it will never be said in these terms, we want natural selection -- but not by money or obedience to dogma or any other mechanically linear path. We like the idea of living in a system where those who live sanely prosper more than those who are destructive, knowing that with even a little nudge the lesser elements can be induced to not breed more of their type. No one with experience is fooled into thinking you can educate out small-minded tendencies; they have to be bred out, and the best way to do that is to ensure that the small-minded find it even slightly less inviting to survive and breed.
Most of all, we want a social order that we feel is working for the "good people" among us. While we are not against subsidies for those who have falle on hard times or are "disadvantaged" in some way or another, we want our resources to go toward those of basically sound character, mind and body. This might be pure aesthetics, but to live among healthy fit and intelligent people is preferrable to the other option, unless one is so underconfident or deviant that it becomes an appealing camouflage. Drug-addicted child molestors prefer oblivious neighbors, but happy homesteaders like alert responsible people around them.
When we get over our tendency to group positions by political polarity, and thus stop categorizing as left/right and us/them proposed ideas, we can see how simple our actual desires are. Each includes a benevolent impulse with a caveat that abuses must be prevented, albeit by some system other than abuse-potential-high government. And if it's this simple, why do we not have such a system? That answer rests in the methods by which our society regulates political power.
Looking into the hearts and minds of the healthy among us, we can see that all of us on some level want to replace modern society. We are exhausted with the constant infighting and manipulation by special interest groups that democracy creates, and we are drained by the constant questions of regulating economic selfishness in a system based on economic accumulation for the self. We are caught in the middle between two extremes that have been artificially enhanced by the need to create democracy-friendly alternatives.
None of us are pure liberal or conservative, and the positions liberals and conservatives embrace flip-flop enough to show us how futile it would be to try to define ourselves as such. Our real focus is less on idealistic concerns and dogmatic divisions but on how well life treats us, because we're busy -- busy creating art, busy raising families, busy discovering that next important iota of research or rule of law. We like life and we like living well. This for the most part is why we are inert to anything but looming disaster; why rock the boat?
However, we are also depleted by that same impetus. Each broken thing we see wears us down and makes us expect more. Each frustration -- some insane bureaucrat, the ghetto invading our neighborhoods, a war that seems right until it blows up in our faces, global warming coming "out of nowhere" into our collective consciousness -- drains us further. We feel a subliminal dread that not all will work out alright, and that we are like passengers in a boat piloted by committee, careening down rapids while votes are taken and arguments are placed about whether the upcoming waterfall is "a real threat." We fear for our children.
Immanuel Kant, that sage among philosophers, wrote that evil is not a diabolical, intentional force but a consequence of ignorance. He believed it takes a conscious effort to recognize evil, and that the only redemption is to turn from it and to begin doing good without feeling guilt for the past. No doctrinal conversion can achieve this, nor can any charity -- only a thorough changing of our daily behavior. Kant stressed the mundanity of evil and its prevalence. In his mind, most people exist by error and in fact, the way most live engenders a form of unexciting but destructive force that creates long-term decay. As Kant saw it, evil never showed its face as a demon, but as a slightly lazy easy choice because "everyone does it." Evil is not intention, but a lack of intent to do better.
When we contemplate the horrors of the past century and the fact that they show zero signs of abating in the future, we have to ask ourselves: it is possible that our basic assumptions of what life should be lead us to a form of evil? That despite our good intentions, both compassionately liberal and architecturally conservative, we have strapped ourselves into a system that does not do enough to seek a better path and thus leads us through the rapids of mundane evil? ...we fear for the distant consequences of our actions, and suspect in invisible paranoia that perhaps without change our future will be one of "a whimper and not a bang" slowly grinding our society and world into a wasteland from which no future greatness, or even normal health, will emerge.
We are right to have these fears. The divisions of democracy enslave us with false symbols; the method of democracy encourages us to be isolated agents of selfishness; the very "freedoms" we praise give rise to horror; the freedoms we have relinquished are tools we badly need. After years of being able to deny it, we are finally seeing that our path is a mundane evil that will end inevitably in error.
Also we finally notice that our assumptions (of what is "good" but might actually be "evil") prevent us from changing from this path. We are given choices of right and left but neither fits. We cannot find a popular candidate who will speak more than popular illusions. The solution is to be fearless and redesign society toward what in both heart and mind we know is right.
October 13, 2007