Friday, January 6, 2012

Social Construction as Conservatism

The release of Corey Robin's book "The Reactionary Mind" and some of the high-profile unfavorable reviews it elicited has led to a backlash in the blogosphere

Mark Lilla's dismissal of the book is on first principles.  He argues that the core principle that unites all the different strains of self-identified conservatives -- and therefore the key difference between liberals and conservatives -- is not, pace Robin, their stance on the progress of the underprivileged, but rather, their stance on human nature.  For conservatives, says Lilla, society comes before individuals: it shapes human nature and constitutes individuals.  Therefore conservatives are loath to tinker with tradition: a slow change in traditions is preferable to the vast upheaval of revolution.  Liberals, on the other hand, do not hold tradition in the high esteem that conservatives do.  They are therefore far more eager to dismantle social structures if they think these structures are impeding human freedom and potential.  For liberals, Lilla argues, individuals come first, society, a distant second.

This is not new, of course and this is a great illustration of what separates, say, Edmund Burke from John Stuart Mill.  But then, after positing this as the main principle distinguishing conservatives from liberals, Lilla goes on to say:
Americans’ assumptions about human nature are basically liberal today. We take it for granted that we are born free, that we constitute society, it doesn’t constitute us, and that together we legitimately govern ourselves. Most intellectuals who call themselves conservatives today accept as self-evident the truths enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, which no traditional European conservative could. Some of them have drawn from European conservatism when they write about the constructive role of civil society, the habits and mores needed to exercise liberty, and the limits of government action. But strictly speaking, they are go-slow, curb-your-enthusiasm liberals like Tocqueville, not conservatives like Burke or T.S. Eliot or Michael Oakeshott. As for those like Congressman Ron Paul who promote a minimal state and an unregulated economy, their libertarianism is actually a mutation of early liberalism, not conservatism. This is important to bear in mind.
All right then!  After positing that it is their stance on human nature that divides liberals from conservatives, it turns out that this distinction is moot in the contemporary American context because, well, everyone is a liberal: they all believe that individuals come before society.  What separates them, then?  Well, it seems to me that it's their stance on the welfare state.  Self-identified conservatives (from the early Public Interest neo-conservatives to the Tea Party) take a far more skeptical stance on the possibility of the welfare state to do good; whereas self-identified liberals are more optimistic about this.  (Note that we've now talking about the American context.) 

But there's another point here.  The ability of the welfare state to do "good," it turns out, is in a specific context: of providing government services to the underprivileged (poor blacks, foreclosed homeowners, and so on).  The difference between liberals and conservatives is thus over two points: (a) the possibility that a some kind of systemic injustice exists.  Liberals will admit to this, and possibly some conservatives will too.  (b) The possibility of doing something about this systemic injustice: It is here that the key difference between conservatives and liberals comes through.  With some oversimplification, one might say that liberals typically agree that if the injustice is bad enough then some steps (i.e. government actions) need to be taken to mitigate it, even if they impede human freedom (within limits).  Conservatives might think that the so-called injustice is not an injustice at all and even if it is, the costs of mitigating it are far more than the expected benefits.  This skepticism may range from Ron Paul-style complaints that, say, forcing Jim Crow-supporting restaurant owners to admit black people into their restaurants is an insupportable infringement of basic liberty to a cautiously Oakshottian stance that since changing social mores rarely works out the way we want it to, strict government regulation might lead to results that we may not quite like, and that therefore policies to remove, say, racial discrimination need to be a little less heavy-handed.

It turns out then that Corey Robin is right after all: the dispute between liberals and conservatives is indeed about the existence of system-wide injustices and over the means to mitigate them.  The question of whether human nature is contingent or fixed, or whether society is ontologically prior to individuals, becomes relevant only in the context of debates over the existence of systemic injustices.  Conservatives are indeed counter-revolutionaries, in the sense that they see no need (or are afraid of) agressive action to remove systemic injustices.  This might be out of the genuine fear that agressive action can have unexpected consequences (which comes out of an ontological belief that society is prior to individuals) or the idea that the systemic injustice in question isn't an injustice at all, but merely a matter of just desserts (which is an apotheosis of extreme individualism).

Indeed, the problem with Robin's book (which I haven't read!) may be what Matt Yglesias points out: it is too mean to conservatives.  And as Sheri Berman points out in her insightful review: it cannot account for fascists who were indeed revolutionaries, not traditionalists.  Far more importantly, it does not account for why conservative ideologies have such populist appeal, even to the very people whose "interests" it is supposedly against (at least, not without using false consciousness as an explanation, which, as Berman points out dryly, is "always a bad sign.").  

Indeed, this brings me back to the reason why I began writing this post.  As Lilla remarks, Americans are all liberals today, in terms of their stance on human nature.  Indeed, the only people who may be truly conservative in the Burkean sense are academics, who are often disparaged as part of the "academic left."  My own discipline of STS (Science and Technology Studies) is explicit about its assumptions: that a great deal of work has gone into constituting human nature as we think about it today, even if that work is not really obvious.  This is often called "social construction": the idea that the institutions that consitute society (say, gender, the family, merit and so on) did not arise spontaneously , in and of themselves, but that they are what they are as a result of a great deal of work (anonymous and overt) and particular historical circumstances. 

This is in itself a conservative argument: that "tradition" is prior to individuals.  Yet, the conclusion it takes is the opposite: if one can show that the deepest traditions are made, it is also possible to change them, and indeed they do change with time.  Most social constructionists will agree with conservatives: that changing our deepest traditions requires hard work, with the ever-present possibility that this work will yield unexpected consequences.  Yet social constructionists are not conservatives (and nor are they considered to be) primarily because they agree that the institutions of society often contain systemic injustices and that work that addresses these inequities is necessary and urgent (even if not easy). 

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