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ive here. This post by Tom Neuburger is ultimately about the coercive power of capitalism, or more specifically, the system that requires non-capitalists to sell their labor as a condition of survival. It’s not as though pre-modern societies don’t end up with most of them working to survive…Think of subsistence farmers. It’s different power dynamics. This is where politics and political positions such as conservatism and liberalism come in: they can have some influence on the informal rules and practices under which capitalism operates.
By Thomas Neuburger. Published for the first time in Spies of God
In the hierarchy of capital values, capital stands higher than labour, and collected things higher than the manifestations of life. Capital employs labour, not working capital. The one who owns capital commands the one who “only” owns his life, human skills, vitality and creative productivity. “Things” are higher than human.
– Erich Fromm, sane society
There must be groups protected by law but not obligated to them, and external groups to whom the law is bound but not protected.
Frank Wilhoit, Defining Conservatism as a Political Philosophy
Through a roundabout – starting with a very good piece of the crane In the next abortion battle, to Cory Doctorow’s musings about a toxic modern aristocrat (Barry Syd), to thinking about neoliberal Crooked Timber—I landed in my reading of a brilliant commentary by composer Frank Wilhoit. This piece is about his comment.
Let me set the stage. The last conventional wisdom is that America is a divided country, and these divisions are best expressed by those on the right (Republicans and their supporters) opposing those on the left of the right (Democrats and their supporters). The former are usually called “conservatives” – when they are not called “fascists” – and these are usually called “liberals” or sometimes “progressives” if “liberals” are considered more tame.
The true definition of “conservatism”
An earlier article on conservatism by UCLA professor Philip Agrey, an essay much read in the second Bush years, asserted that “conservatism is an aristocratic domination of society,” and thus conservatives strive to make the status quo “appear permanent and timeless” and “to transfer their positions distinguished for their children.
This definition, of course, conflicts with self-proclaimed notions of conservatism as the protector of “freedom”. But the concept of freedom in the conservative movement is confusing and easy to refute the definition, starting with the arguments in an article conducted itself, and ending with the actions of our “conservative” Supreme Court, whose definition of freedom seems to begin with their freedom to tell you what to do, and ends…there.
Which leads to Wilhoit’s comment, which was written as a reader responding to a Crooked Timber post. Wilhoit’s main point (modified slightly; my focus):
Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, which is:
There shall be groups protected by law but not required, along with external groups which are required but not protected by law..
There is nothing else or other, and it has not existed in any place or time.
So far, we are more or less in agreement with Agri. But Wilhoit has more. It opens like this:
There is no such thing as liberal – or progressive, etc. There is only conservatism. There is no other political philosophy in reality. Through the political counterpart of Gresham’s Law, conservatism took every other idea out of circulation.
There may be, and there should be, anti-conservatism; But it doesn’t exist yet. What will happen? To answer this question, it is necessary and sufficient to describe conservatism. Fortunately, this can be done very succinctly.
Stop here, dear reader, and ask yourself the question Wilhoit asked. If there is such a thing as ‘conservatism’, and if it is well defined by Agrey and Wilhoit, then what is the opposite? liberalism? progressive? socialism? Roosevelt socialism? Social democracy?
What is the real opposite of conservatism, if conservatism is the system by which money is transferred to power and control over others (as David Graeber said many times in blew everything up)?
The domination of man by man. Here, agents of the ruling regime impose their will on those they suppose to resist. In which country did this happen? Does it matter?
What is the true mathematical opposite of the conservative position? What is the essence of the anti-conservative?
Give up? Read on.
The answer lies in the definition of conservatism itself, which is in fact its mathematical (in fact, logical) antithesis.
If conservatism is a system in which, by law, there is a system in which some are binding and not protected, and some are protected and not, then anti-conservatism must be
The proposal that Can not the law [be allowed to] Protect anyone unless it’s binding on everyone, and they can’t [be allowed to] You oblige someone unless you protect everyone.
Simple, yes? However, no, it is not at all that simple.
Which of our proposed societies is better than conservatism—liberal democracy, socialism, social democracy, and “Roosevelt’s socialism”—not enforcing the inherent right of those with wealth to exercise power over others?
All of these alternatives are flavors of capitalism, and they are all moderate subjugation, modified authoritarianism. All of this mitigates the devastating effects of billionaire-controlled corporations and institutions — such as “charities” (look for “take Bill Gates”) and often government — so that many suffer less than they might otherwise, and few suffer more.
Child labor, Carolina cotton mill, 1908 (source)
Fast food worker at McDonald’s, 2018 (Source)
Does this make these institutions – social democracies; Liberal democracies – better? Do you make them, like conservative regimes, bad or evil? As Gerber and Wingro responded in blew everything upWhen answering the question “Are humans inherently good or evil?”:
“Good” and “evil” are purely human concepts. It would not occur to anyone to argue about whether it is a fish or a tree, good or evil, because “good” and “evil” are two concepts created by humans to compare ourselves to one another.
None of these institutions are good or bad. Do some cause less pain than others? Of course yes. But calling socialism or any of its cousins the “answer” or “antidote” of conservatism is to cast these systems wrong as they are not, and to mislead others into making the same mistake.
All of these regimes are flavors of capitalism. And this, from Erich Fromm, is capitalism at its core, modified or not, diluted or not, sweetened or bitter root:
Human use of human being is an expression of value system underlying the capitalist system. Capital, dead past, employs Work – the living vitality and strength of the present. In the hierarchy of capital values, capital stands higher than labour, and collected things higher than the manifestations of life. Capital employs labour, not working capital. The one who owns the capital commands the one who “only” owns his life.Human skill, vitality and creative productivity. “Things” are higher than human. The struggle between capital and labor is much more than the struggle between two classes, than their struggle for a greater share of the social product. It is the struggle between two principles of value: It is between the world of things and their accumulation and the world of life and its productivity. [bolded emphasis mine]
That those who control things command those who control life…that is makruh. The opposite should be true, but it hasn’t been since the earliest temple states, the first days of the city-state.
Natural order or unnatural ‘thorny place’?
Is it a state of nature, a state of nature, the domination of man by man, over mankind by their equals? Our species has been on this planet for 200,000 years, give or take. Oldest persecuted states, less than 5000. Ninety-eight percent of human history has been lostso it’s a separate project to answer that question well.
But if this is not the natural state of our species—and I am inclined in the positive spirit that I am, to believe that humans have simply become ‘stuck’ (graeber’s term) in only one of a great variety of alternative structures—then we can become ‘unintelligible’. Stuck”, we can “separate” ourselves, and we can get up as easily as we made ourselves fall.
If “stuck in the present ugly social system” is not our natural state, we can actually free ourselves from the norm that gives money power. We can re-launch our destiny, restart our social operating system to a more rational state, and live in a truly anti-conservative way.
Others who are much older have lived better than us – the other Stone Age people if Greber is right. If they, ‘just cavemen’, can hold their own through most of our hidden past, why not consider their more intelligent cousins, us? I ask honestly.