Despite conservative rhetoric of “freedom” and “fiscal responsibility” the truth is that the right has always been a staunch defender of elite interests at the expense of the common man
Before you start reading this post, please, I implore you, don’t take my word for anything that I’m about to say. This Journal is not meant to be an ideological stump for or against any particular party. My admonishment of “conservatism” should not be construed as an attack on Republicans or support for Democrats. It is a critique of a political philosophy that emerged to challenge the Enlightenment liberalism that spread through Europe in the 18th century and evolved in the 19th century. I’m not saying anything radical or contentious. Go into the history on your own and challenge the ideas presented in this or any other post.
Note: this post presumes American conservatism.
Conservatism as a philosophy exists for one reason and one reason only…to protect the interests of the elite class in any given society. Of course, this is not the manifest testament of conservatives themselves. Nowhere in the conservative literature, not on a single brochure, will you read “The purpose of conservatism is to perpetuate elite interests.” Rather, this is a latent function of what might otherwise be considered sensible, enlightened, even “liberal” philosophy. But make no mistake, conservatism is successful among the elite in our society not because of some sense of noblesse oblige but because it is instrumental in maintaining power over others.
Central to conservatism is a nuanced view of freedom that sounds enlightened and sensible, but upon examination sets the majority of a population up for exploitation without recourse. According to conservatives freedom is a legal construct through which the individual is free from undo government coercion. Yes. This sounds good. Who wants to be subject to government coercion? So any contradiction of this philosophy is immediately attacked as a defense of tyranny.
To the conservative, the Enlightenment principle of the individual as a rational actor is a fundamental assumption. Without the aforementioned legal constraints the individual is free to pursue his own interests. His success or failure hinges only on his personal aptitude and commitment. The individual is free to pursue his interests without regard to the exploitation of others because the underlying assumption is that all individuals are free to not be exploited. Therefore, if one is exploited, it is by virtue of her own consent and acceptance.
So if someone rises to the top of the social hierarchy it is because they are successful in their endeavors to do so. He rises through the ranks of the existing institutions and achieves his personal level of aptitude. The existence of successful people, the wealthy, the powerful, proves that success is possible if only one works hard enough. So there is nothing wrong with existing institutions. In fact, the existing institutions are the natural result of aggregate individual success. For the conservative it’s important to define success within the traditional framework. For this reason, conservatism often serves as a defense of the traditional institutions and values, regardless of the nature of those values.
Challenging traditional institutions and values is challenging the very stability of society itself. So stability is the final core attribute of the conservative mindset. During the French Revolution conservatism defended the inequitable Estate System and the position of the king as a divine ruler premised on the instability that was being created by radical, liberal elements at the head of the revolution. In fairness, the Reign of Terror lent substance to the conservative argument that the rabble was incapable of ruling itself.
Most of this sounds pretty reasonable. In fact, there are aspects of the conservative definition of freedom and individualism that most liberals can appreciate. But absent from the conservative discourse is a concept of the legitimacy of power. That’s where conservatism and liberalism really depart. According to the conservative philosophy those who are in power deserve to be in power (unless they are liberals, in which case they are usurpers or conspiracists). Their ability to exploit others is a benefit of their superior acumen. The common individual is responsible for ensuring that he is not exploited. There is no responsibility of the state, no legitimacy of government in interfering with the power of one man to exploit another man as this is simply the product of the interaction between autonomous individuals. The exploited is so because he is incapable of being the exploiter. Nothing more.
That’s where you see the cold heart of conservatism. Freedom is the freedom to exploit those who are exploitable. Individualism justifies this exploitation as a central tenant of the capable ruling the incapable, those on top deserving their position due to their individual superiority. Existing institutions and traditional values are not to be challenged because those who are at the top of the social hierarchy are there because of their ability to maneuver within the existing institutional and traditional order. A challenge to that order is a challenge to the foundations of the social elite. Stability means accepting your social position because you are just not good enough to have the same rights as the elite.
Any problems that might exist within the society are, according to the conservative, not a matter of injustice, power discrepancies or wealth inequalities. Instead, existing social problems are the natural consequences of straying from traditional values and power alignments (in other words, liberalism). It is, therefore, incumbent upon the citizen to go back to a presumed golden age when all was as it should be and the traditional values were respected. Of course, this requires the construction of a nuanced mythology. In the United States this mythology is manifest in the idolatry of the Founding Fathers and the elevation of the Constitution as a sacred text rather than a legal parchment and claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
It makes sense, then, that conservatism would be embraced by the power elite. Conservatism is the apologist philosophy for elite excess. In every nation, and every culture elite groups perpetuate their self-interest by asserting that those elements and structures of the society that serve the ruling class are right and natural, even God given. In Soviet Russia the conservatives were the members of the Communist Party insisting that theirs was the only path to a truly Marxian society (a path which Marx himself would have abhorred). In Iran the conservatives are fundamentalist Shi’a Muslims who claim to be ruling in the traditions of Muhammad. In the United States and much of the western world the conservatives are the free-market elitists who insist that the long discredited “invisible hand” is all that is needed for prosperity to flow. Only in the United States the conservatives add a hint of Christian fundamentalism and John Wayne style individualism to their discursive formations.
Indeed, the concept of the free market is instructive of how conservatism evolves as the composition and desires of the power elite changes. Originally, free market economics was a centerpiece of radical liberalism. Think about it. At the time, economic and political power was vested in the landed elite and in the king who stood at the apex of the mercantilist pyramid. All economic functions served to empower the nation. And those investments served to enrich the noble class. But changes were taking place in the European market that was vesting a growing amount of economic power into the hands of common people. The Black Death devastated the population, increasing the value of individual labor and liberating serfs from the land. At the same time labor shortages required investment in technologies that could compensate for the dearth of man-power. These merchants accumulated capital, which they invested in other ventures including vast resources that were becoming available in the New World, like cane sugar, tobacco and, yes, beaver pelts. Thus, within the Third Estate, was a growing class of wealthy commoners who could compete with the anemic nobility socialized to rest on their inherited laurels.
This tertiary class became invested in the development of market forces rather than mercantilist forces. They became invested in divesting the power of the king and the nobility in shaping the economy to the merchant mastery of supply and demand. Enlightenment ideas of freedom, rights and rationality spread throughout Europe. The rising merchant class had access to these unorthodox ideas as they had disposable income through which to educate their children and to acquire knowledge through the second of the great information revolutions, the invention of the printing press. They developed a concept of capitalism that justified and defined the actions of the common people. Imagine a radical, liberating philosophy that took the power of the economy out of the hands of the noble class and vested it in the hands of individual human beings who were rationally pursuing their economic interests for maximum wages to purchase the highest quality goods for the lowest possible price. This radical liberalism was elaborated by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations and it was a powerful force in the world.
Indeed, it was one of the driving forces of the French Revolution and subsequent revolutions throughout the nineteenth century. Governments became liberalized during this time, empowering parliaments and legislators over kings and nobles. Nations rose and found themselves competing with each other for market share. Capitalism and the capitalist class became irrepressible social variables. The conservatives of the time, having established the failed Congress of Vienna to ensure the end of liberalism and protect the royal establishment, railed against the dangerous capitalist class. But they could not deny the vast accumulation of wealth and power that was the reward for industrialization. By the time the nineteenth century ended, capitalism was the driving force of the nation state and the primary mechanism for personal and class enrichment. As the capitalist class grabbed the reins of power the free market was embraced by conservatives…and abandoned by liberals.
It didn’t take long for liberals to realize that their assumptions about the power of liberated markets were wrong. They discovered that there was nothing inherent in the old nobility that made them exploitative and no innate goodness to the erstwhile common merchants that made them magnanimous to the plight of working men. There was little difference between the royal courts and the corporate boardrooms. The problem wasn’t who was in power. The problem was power itself. Consequently the same injustices perpetuated by the Estate System of old were reproduced under the fat feet of the Robber Barons and the new class system. Modern liberalism was born, as was modern conservatism.
Liberals recognized the growing injustices and inequalities of the new capitalist class, yet did not all speak in the same voice. Socialists railed against economic inequality and injustice and attempted to inspire mass movements and unions to impel government to act on behalf of the suffering masses. If government was representative of the people then it should represent all of the people, including working people. Communists declared war against the class system itself, understanding that government was subservient to class interests. Progress lay in the creation of a class consciousness that could rise up against and destroy the capitalist class. Anarchists abandoned the very concept of class and government, believing that individuals should govern themselves at the community level. Populists emerged from the agricultural centers decrying the land grabs of the big cartels and the inelasticity of the gold standard. Progressives emerged as a moderating voice, enlisting government to level the playing field between the working man and the wealthy elite.
Each of these movements, among many others, represented a challenge to the capitalist status quo—a challenge to elite interests. It was the corporate elite and their middle management minions who benefited from laissez-faire policies that allowed them to exploit workers, including children, despoil the ecology, lie about their products and steal from the nation. The last thing they needed was for the rabble to be roused against this fruitful schema of trusts, monopolies and conglomerates. Every position taken by conservatives can be understood through this frame of perpetuating elite interests, specifically capitalist elite interests.
Look at child labor. Progressives pursued the end of this travesty, claiming that children should be in school or on the playground, not bent, broken and mutilated in the factories. The conservative response was one of outrage; after all, child labor was and remains a significant part of the capitalist-industrialist program. Children are easy to exploit, being powerless in most societies; they are small, which makes them easy to intimidate and to fit into small places. Best of all, if a child gets ground up in the mechanisms, or crushed in the mines, they don’t do as much damage to the machines and are fairly easy to replace. The nineteenth century capitalists loved child laborers. Then there were those progressives suggesting that this practice was abhorrent.
Of course, conservatives couched their defense of this indefensible practice in populist terms. After all, if children were forced to go to school rather than to the factories, their families would be denied that income. Sending poor children to school was bad for poor people. When one time reformer turned conservative John Edward Taylor wrote, “though child labor is evil, it is better than starvation,” he was reflecting the pseudo-populist refrain of protecting the poor without giving mention to the evil of the very existence of poverty in a society awash with wealth. These arguments continue today with regard to efforts to reform the global economy. One website, which I have lost the reference to, concluded, “in some cultures child labor is the difference between true hunger and abject poverty.” No consideration was given to the legitimacy of such extreme poverty in the same world where multi-billionaires squander untold fortunes on rare car collections and fine porcelain.
And this is the genius of the conservative paradigm, the ability of its claims-makers to convince common, working people to support programs that are opposed to their own best interests. They do this by appealing to common themes and traditional values that instill a sense of stability to the majority of the population. The fact is that if most people face the prospect of giving up their rights or their stability, they will often surrender their rights. This is a perfect truism for conservatives as stability, pursuit of the status quo, most often serves the interests of the elite groups. Conservatives are safe to frame their arguments in religious terms, in defense of family and a vaunted work ethic that sustains profits but does not generate fair wages. They present themselves as the voice of the “people” while liberals are disconnected elitists who are trying to take the working man’s hard earned money and give it to some deadbeat on welfare. And to be honest, liberals often set themselves up for this critique.
Yet if you look at the history of conservatism over the last hundred or hundred and fifty years or so you will find that in almost every case it was the right that was on the wrong side of history. Slavery? Conservatives fought vehemently to protect the peculiar institution for the sake of the poor blacks who would never be able to take care of themselves if they were free. Labor rights? Conservatives detailed how paying workers a fair wage and ensuring safe and healthy working conditions would mean putting millions of people out of work, relegating them to poverty? Housing? If builders had to build quality buildings every time there wouldn’t be enough housing for people? Food safety? The market will regulate food safety, after all, consumers wouldn’t buy a product that wasn’t safe. Women voting? Women are too busy taking care of their children and husbands to pay attention to politics, which they are too emotional and unreasonable to understand anyway. Universal male suffrage? Really? Do you want the unwashed masses deciding who is going to be your senator or even president? Obviously the propertied class has more at stake when it comes to voting. Social Security? We can’t be expected to pay people not to work. Civil Rights? “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” Desegregated Schools? You can’t force poor black children to sit in schools where white students will hate them. War? Yes. “Bomb. Bomb. Bomb. Bomb. Bomb Iran!”
I could go on, but the point is clear. In every single instance we see that the positions of conservatives served the wealthy elite, from Southern plantation owners to Northern industrialists. The common man was to remain desperate and poor to provide low wages for the wealthy industrialist. Racism was perpetuated to ensure that exploited white workers and exploited black workers didn’t figure out that they were being exploited in the same way by the same people and had the same interests. The races had to be set against each other; their children could not be allowed to see the other’s humanity. Woman and non-propertied men could not be vested with political power because they might use it in ways that would not profit the capitalist class. We must squeeze as much labor as we can from the working man and avoid any responsibility for taking care of anyone. Once a worker is of no value to the corporation, she is of no value.
The very same arguments continue today. Currently, the few unions that are left are the only institutions capable of challenging corporations at the political level. So unions must be destroyed. Unions are vilified and union labor is depicted as being spoiled, entrenched and overpaid. Schools are spending too much time teaching critical thinking skills to poor people. We can’t have poor people thinking critically, so we will change the curriculum to ensure that American students are incapable of anything but filling in bubble sheets. Meanwhile, the children of the elite are sent to private schools where the same levels of “accountability” and high stakes testing do not exist. Free trade is good for the American worker. When jobs move to other countries commodities are cheaper…so there, commodities are cheaper. Everyone wins! Social Security is insolvent so instead of raising the payroll ceiling we should make working people work more years before they can retire. After all, life spans have increased (mostly for wealthy people). We are living in tough times. The working American is going to have to sacrifice and tighten his belt, but we can’t expect corporations to do the same because they are the ones who provide the jobs. What? They are not providing jobs? Well that means we need to cut their taxes more. Public sector employees need to give up their benefits and pay and collective bargaining. We expect them to work harder, because we want the best education system, police force, etc. in the world, but we are not going to pay them because that would require raising taxes. Women must be forced to have babies, because more workers, especially poor workers, mean lower wages. So no birth control and no abortions. If you don’t want to have a baby, don’t have sex. Gay marriage? We just don’t like gay people. They can’t have children, so they are of no value to the corporate bottom line…except as potential consumers. They don’t have to get married to buy stuff. Science is only useful if it confirms the dominant class hierarchy. Thus global warming is the greatest myth perpetuated on the public. Darwinism is only true when it comes to explaining why poor people are poor and rich people are rich, otherwise it’s bunk. Stem cell research is killing future exploitable laborers. Sociology, anthropology, psychology, the humanities, are all liberal conspiracy movements. Economics is cool so long as it’s free market economics. Paul Krugman doesn’t know what he’s talking about!
Conservatives have always been and continue to be on the wrong side of history. They will always be on the wrong side of history because history is the chronicle of man’s ongoing struggle for knowledge and freedom. Both variables are threatening to the established powers, and are therefore the antithesis of the conservative cause. They may talk a good game about freedom and the American way. They may wrap themselves in the flag and carry a cross over their shoulders, but theirs is not the way of freedom, but oppression. For confirmation just look at how they are responding to the growing, worldwide movement to overthrow authoritarian dictators. There’s nothing the conservative fears more than an aroused public demanding respect.