Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Varieties of Conservatism

I've been reading Alice Von Hildebrand's biography of her husband Dietrich. In December 1933, after he had fled from Germany and was living in Vienna, Dietrich Von Hildebrand gave a number of talks in Belgium and France, some of them explicitly in opposition to National Socialism. While in Belgium, he visited Zita, the empress of Austria and Hungary who had been deposed after the fall of the Empire at the end of World War One. Dietrich at the time was working closely with Englebert Dollfuss, the Chancellor of Austria, and one who was trying hard to implement the Catholic social teaching and corporatist political vision of Pope Pius XI on a national scale, as well as oppose Nazism and Communism. The situation is instructive for conservatives today:
[Zita] favored Dollfuss' political vision, but as an archmonarchist and a member of the deposed Habsburg dynasty, she could no share her visitor's enthusiasm for his leadership. It was a strange situation for Dietrich von Hildebrand. On the one hand, he as indeed himself an ardent monarchist and considered the demise of the Habsburgs a terrible blow not only for Catholic Austria but for Europe. On the other hand, he had a deep admiration for Dollfuss, who single-handedly was fighting the Nazi Goliath. The theme of the hour had to be collaboration with him, inasmuch as the Habsburgs had been stripped of all political power. (The Soul of a Lion, p. 265)
Zita, Dollfuss, and Von Hildebrand each could, in some important sense, be called "conservatives." All three were interested in preserving and furthering "things human and divine", those deep things that have been passed down to us, and incarnating a moral and spiritual order in the political and the everyday, and yet also doing only what was possible in the current state of things, rather than seeking a progressive utopia. But in other foundational issues, they differed deeply, as in the question of the application of these principles to actual circumstances.

There's been some fine analysis lately about the current non-existence of the conservative movement. James Heaney, for example, has argued that what was the "Reagan coalition" has splintered into at least three parts, each of which would call itself conservative: the populists, the establishment, and the grassroots. But this is only the latest incarnation of what has perhaps long been the normal state of conservatism. George Nash showed long ago that post-World War Two American conservatism, that resurgent movement that arose at a time when even so fine a thinker as Lionel Trilling could say that there were no conservative ideas in America, was a wildly disparate thing: an amalgamation of libertarianism, anti-communism, traditionalism, Burkeanism, Straussianism, and so on. The addition of the Evangelicals and the social conservatives and the Neo-Conservatives some decades later just added to the mix.

But the disparateness of conservatism goes back further. My wife has been reading Russell Kirk's biography of Edmund Burke lately, so we've discussing that father of (a certain sort of) conservatism a lot lately. Burke himself is the leader of a sort of hodge-podge conservatism, seeking to steer a middle course between a more extreme royalism and traditionalism, and the progressivism and rationalism of not only the Jacobins but the English utilitarians and many of his fellow Whigs as well; he is both a child of the Enlightenment, and one who would return to ancient British custom and prescription. The "movement" he engendered, at least as Kirk describes it, was likewise motley for its long history.

There are so many divisions in conservatism--not only as a movement, but in my own heart as well--that it is difficult to describe them all. A few years ago there was a dust-up in the Catholic blogosphere about something called "illiberal Catholicism", those strands of Catholicism that reject the legacy of the Western liberal tradition, with its attendant notions of human rights, separation of Church and state, capitalist economics, libertarian (in both the political and the metaphysical senses) freedom. But illiberal Catholics, many of whom might call themselves conservatives (or traditionalists), are themselves a divided lot, from those that draw on the nouvelle theologie tradition of De Lubac and Von Baltahsar, to those that draw on an older Catholic tradition of an integral relation between Church and state, each in its proper sphere of jurisdiction, but the good of the state explicitly subordinated to the supernatural good of the Church.

And again, those who by and large oppose the illiberal Catholic are themselves conservatives; it is a conflict within that disparate movement (or at least within one section of it, the Catholic and Thomistic section). But the opponents of illiberal Catholicism are those likely to follow a more American, Lockean, free market, rights-oriented, small government "liberal" conservatism, that of those like John Courtney Murray and Richard John Neuhaus.

Each faction here draws on a substantial philosophical and theological tradition, and each on a substantive picture of the human person and his place in the cosmos. But each is a very different picture of the human person. First, the "liberal" conservative Catholic draws on a theory of the human person that is a synthesis of what we might call an Aristotelian-Thomistic account with a (also thin) Lockean account of the person as individual inasmuch as they have a Lockean picture of human rights. (But this is further complicated in that many such conservatives are also personalists, which is a "thick" picture of the human person--and this is a trait that these thinkers share with the next group, but through which both tend to be in conflict with the third group.) Second, the nouvelle theologie conservative draws on a synthesis of a existentialist Thomistic account (with heavy accents on the neo-Platonic, participatory elements of Thomism) with a focus on historical and dynamic features of the human person drawn (purportedly) from the Church Fathers, but more so from the German Idealists and Romantics. Third, the integralists draw on the long Thomistic tradition, with its thick picture of human nature in relation to many roles, communities, duties, and individual and common goods. (And this is yet further complicated in that while this group rejects the personalism of people like Emmanuel Mounier, other personalists like Von Hildebrand share much of their monarchist or corporatist vision, and it can furthermore be contended that the integralists' focus on the ordering of the person to the common good is an even deeper and "thicker" personalism than that of the personalists themselves. There's a further wrinkle in trying locate personalists Thomists like St. John Paul II in this debate.)    

This is not just all idle theorizing. Where one falls in these issues, the thinkers in whose lineage one wittingly or unwittingly finds oneself, affects one's choices in voting, in educating one's children, in the books one reads, in the form of worship one engages in, in the heroes one admires and emulates. We see this in the rise in interest in the new Catholic democrat party, the American Solidarity Party.

Consider, for example, this party's tax platform, which favors low (or no) income taxes and higher property taxes. This is drawn from the distributist movement, itself beloved of many conservatives, though founded by men who called themselves liberals, and which favors the distribution of land and capital to as many as possible. Contrast this to the position on taxation taken by those conservatives who favor a return to landed aristocracy, to stabilize and perpetuate which they favor high income tax and lower (or no) property tax. Where one falls on this very practical issue, as a conservative, depends on one's lineage.

Or consider the question of a "world government." There was support for a single emperor, even doctrinal statements to that effect, in Pope Gelasius in the 5th century; the call for universal political authority extends even into the magisteria of the current and previous pope. It is called for by many in the integralist movement--but also by some of their otherwise opponents among the "liberal" conservatives, like Jacques Maritain. But it is opposed by many other traditional and Burkean conservatives. (Indeed, Burkeanism doesn't even enter into the above-mentioned debate among Catholic conservatives. But perhaps it should. I think that an injection of thinking about the common law tradition of England into Catholic thought would be good for shaking up the largely top-down model of Catholic legal thinking, itself inherited from the old Roman or civil law. Common law doesn't clearly fit into any of Aquinas' categories for law (eternal, natural, divine, civil) and its treatment of custom and subsidiarity are different from how they are treated in canon and civil law contexts.)

Or consider the use of literary and historical imagery among Catholic conservatives. There is among many such the love of romantic medieval imagery--say, Scott or Tolkien. But what is drawn from such imagery differs greatly based on one's metaphysics of the human person (and of gender) and one's view of what the foundations of ethics are. Some who love Tolkien will not admire the Habsburgs as Von Hildebrand did, while others will. Some will admire the Habsburgs only, while others will long for a return to such a form of government. Some will long for it, and also seek to realize it; others will say politics is the art of the possible, and only the values of that time can now be instantiated, not its outward form; still others will say politics is the art of the possible, and who can say what is possible until one has attempted it. Some, rather than the Habsburgs, will call us to the imagery of our American founders--and yet they were a jumbled bunch themselves, an amalgamation of Lockeans, republicans both in the radical French vein and in the more traditional Roman or Florentine vein, devotees of the common law tradition, and mixtures of these. And of these, some were liberal then that would be conservative now.

A professor of mine, an Orthodox Jew, once said that, in his view, only Orthodox and Reform Judaism had coherent platforms, but Conservative Judaism was trying to walk too much of a middle line and so was incoherent. (One could, perhaps, say something similar about the "conservative" or "reform of the reform" branch of Catholic liturgy vis-a-vis the traditional and the progressive.)

Maybe conservatism is incoherent, and one must opt for one of these factions. Yet I long for the values and outward forms I see incarnated in every single one of the movements I've mentioned here. We're going to see, I think, more conflict among these factions. It's inevitable, because conservatism is a juxtaposition of views with radically different metaphysics of the human person and his place in the cosmos. They can't all be right, though some aspects of all may be synthesizable. Kirk said conservatism is about the variety of life--what I'd call a "thick" conception of human nature, duties, communities. I don't know where to go from here. But I do know that I want to retain the thicknesses, the various dimensions of life, honored by each of these factions.

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