Monday, December 20, 2010

McCloskey Week: Conservatism's Big Problem

There's a problem at the heart of the modern project of conservatism in America, and it's a simple problem. How can you hope to convince liberals of the truth of conservatism when conservatism is based upon three-hundred-year-old ideas?

F.S.C. Northrop identified the problem precisely in his Meeting of East and West.

The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Hueman scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate.

The secular religion and the politics of our liberal friends is based upon this faith. British empiricism and the American founding fathers are all very well, but they cannot speak for the modern era. Hence the need for an educated elite, a "living constitution," and a big federal government. As if to underline this, Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot has absolutely no references to Immanuel Kant.

Sorry chums. If the conservative mind has nothing to say about Kant, whose transcendental idealism points in a straight line to Einstein, relativity, and quantum mechanics, then it's not going to appeal to the broad community of thinkers and doers of the modern era.

So what conservatives have needed, like an oasis in the desert, is a thinker to put the conservative case in the context of the entire three-ring circus of modern thought, starting where Hume left off with Kant, continuing through Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and the preenings of the postmodernists, and then ending up saying: well, that's all very well, but these chaps ultimately missed the point, and here's why!

I am pleased to announce that this prophet of conservatism has now emerged. Her name is Deirdre McCloskey, and her work is a grand apology for the middle class, an over-the-top Bourgeois Cycle built upon Wagnerian principles just like the Ring Cycle. That is to say: it is long, it is ambitious, it is insufferable, and it is brilliant. And it may never get finished. McCloskey is now 68ish, and has only finished the first two volumes of her multi-volume epic.

OK, so what is all the fuss about?

In the first volume, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce McCloskey argues for a return to virtue, all seven of them. Although the bourgeoisie insists that it is a practical venture, an effort of pure prudence, bourgeois actions belie this. The commercial middle class practices all the virtues, the four cardinal, masculine, pagan virtues of: Prudence, Temperance, Courage, and Justice; and it also practices the Christian, theological, feminine virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love.

The trouble is that the clerisy, particularly the post-1848 clerisy, has turned against a multi-faceted faith in all the virtues, and has plumped instead for the One Big Thing. In Kant, it was Duty.

Kant made a mistake in rejecting as a constituent of ethics the unreasoning particularities of philosophical anthropology or philosophical psychology.

A very guy thing to do, of course. No woman in her right mind would or could come up with a One Big Thing narrative of meaning. Although some have tried.

In Bentham the one big thing is utility. In Marx, the big thing is labor. It is a materialist view of life:

If virtues cannot be connected to self-interest or genetics, to utility or power, they are, in the early twentieth century philosophical term of Vienna and Cambridge, simply "meaningless."

McCloskey calls this the "Prudence Only" approach of the modern era. But Prudence-Only is not how the world works, and particularly not how the bourgeois middle class works. That's important because it is the commercial bourgeoisie and its virtues that has brought the western world from $3 a day of real material consumption in 1800 to $120 a day in the US today. Meanwhile the Prudence Only materialism of socialism and communism has created nothing out of nothing. What is needed is a return to the virtues, as the movement of virtue ethics has been doing since 1958.

You can see, very easily, how this sort of thinking solves the conservatism problem. It is exactly what conservatism has needed. We want a thorough discrediting of the One Big Thing ethos, which for modern American liberals means that liberals get to call all the big shots because they are more educated, more evolved, and more knowledgeable than the average bitter clinger. We want someone who can argue the hind tails off the liberals all day, and then go out and party all night. And now we have got it.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps I misunderstand what you mean by conservatism, especially the "modern project of conservatism", but to say that McCloskey is its prophet seems odd to me. After all, her wonderful books emphasise features I hardly consider 'conservative': the importance of innovation and inventiveness (i.e. change!); the importance of dignity and liberty i.e. legal and political equality (for non-rich, women and non-whites); and that one of the most important criteria by which we can judge the success of commercial society is the increase in the wealth and options of all, including the poor (e.g. their increased lifespans). Also she is radical. She is not content with the present state of capitalism - it is ok (and better than anything else) but not nearly as great as it could be if we were properly ethical.

    It seems as peculiar as the surprisingly common mistake of claiming that Adam Smith, one of McCloskey's heroes, was a conservative. In comparison to Rousseau, yes. But in comparison to contemporary social democrats, not at all. After all, his main reason for restricting government was its propensity to corruption by business interests.....

    Anyway, if this is what you mean by conservatism, then it is something this European centrist can get behind. (Though I must politely excuse myself from going along with your wholly unsupported hyperbole about Big Government. Every successful capitalist country has a big spending social justice oriented government, or hadn't you noticed.)