Revelations are necessarily mythical and sub-rational; they express natural forces and human interests in a groping way, before the advent of science. To stick in them, when something more honest and explicit is available, is inconsistent with caring for attainable welfare or understanding the world. It is to be stubborn under the cloak of religion. These prejudices are a drag on progress, moral no less than material; and the sensitive conservatism that fears they may be indispensible is entangled in a pathetic delusion. It is conservatism in a shipwreck. (Santayana, 1954:484 ).
Half the world looks backward. The fact that the past can be known only incompletely allows me to fill in what is unknown with my desires. The future, by definition, should be the fuller home of the imagination, rather than the past, but because it cannot be known at all, at least ahead of time, dampens my enthusiasm for self-projection. At some further point, I shall no longer exist; I shall become a part of the past. Could the penchant for backward-looking in our time be an expression of an auto-memorial, a way in which to preserve the selfhood of what I am, a preparation for ‘mine ownmost death’?
In Mannheim’s famous essay, ‘Conservative Thought’, he suggests that the recent history of rationalization has made the present into a series of functions, almost autonomic, and that quite literally. These ‘self-naming’ processes in fact have no precise names. The poet of the past suddenly speaks to the experience of the present. I suffer the ‘insolence of officials’ in Weber’s bureaucratic organizations, for instance. I endure the ‘slings and arrows’ in romance and in the casino, perhaps. And I am myself more outraged than fortune is itself outrageous. Mannheim explains that the ‘one-sided emphasis upon rationalism’, while it ‘repudiates concrete and vital forms of thought by no means’ extinguishes them (1953:87), and that these forms have not ‘sunk into the past’ but have rather been ‘preserved’ in some occlusive manner. But for Mannheim, simply defining conservatism as being part of a tradition and holding to certain precepts thereof is not enough, for this is something characteristic of every human being (ibid:95). Instead, ‘being conservative’ both partakes of this basal layer of consciousness, not entirely conscious of itself and certainly not usually questioned in the action of everyday life, as well as taking concrete action in an entirely new way, concomitant with our own times (ibid:94). By making myself a part of a social action in the present I reach far beyond mere tradition, even though I might be accused of reproducing something of it, either in part or, insofar as it can be known, being both a relic and reliquary, out of whole cloth (ibid:97). In doing so, I may be semi-consciously ‘retarding’ progressive social change or even retrogressing it (ibid:99). On top of this, my action of this sort in the social world depends upon my social location in a steeply hierarchical culture: “In a word – traditionalism can only become conservatism in a society in which change occurs through the medium of class conflict – in a class society.” (ibid:101, italics the text’s).
It is by now old hat to identify conservative action among the polar bookends of hierarchical or stratified society; the elites desire to ensure the ongoingness of their status, the marginal simply desire to have a voice. Yet is this enough to fully understand the pressing political penury that conservative persons state they ‘feel’ or ‘experience’ in modern culture? An openly retrogressive movement seeks to return to a past that has been historically lived at one time or another and thus can be more or less documented as having been part of the species experience. That such an identification can be made entails that the period in question not be temporally too far afield or chronologically distant from either our present-day understandings and sensibilities. Conservative thinking demands a reckoning with the disjunction between past and present, but at least it is not making things up as it goes along.
Not so neo-conservative thought. Its ‘enactmentality’ is not retrogressive but rather simply regressive, as it seeks a ‘return’ to a time which is wholly imaginary and never did exist at any known historical time period. That it can define itself as desiring a time out of time, either as the primordial utopia of the Garden or as a revelatory millennialism of the coming judgment, clears its conscience when it must confront the problem of otherness. Not all can be saved. Not all will be saved. Conservative thought takes action on behalf of all of us, for each of us is a product of this or that tradition, the vast majority of which is, once again by definition, both unthought – if not unthinkable given historical precedent – and relatively unconscious. There will always be something or other in a cultural tradition that appeals to me, something known and in its own day perhaps as ‘progressive’ as the forces and actions I may, in my sense of the future, take in my own time. Conservative thinking is thus wholly historical, and it only differs from even the most radical of future-oriented poses and positions because it emphasizes a wider slice of the tradition which all of us share and from which all of us gain the basic self-understanding of the present. But neo-conservative thought needs neither history nor thinking. The one is a burden upon the imagination; the neo-conservative person is moral and not historical, for history trumps morality and in all cases. The second because mythical time is unthinking, both of itself and of history; indeed, any sense of change at all has ceased to exist. When Marx differentiates his ‘atheism’ from that of Feuerbach he declares that ‘for the communist man, the question of God does not exist’, meaning that it is not the mere existence of a divinity that is proposed but the very concept thereof. In neo-conservative thought the question of history does not exist.
This vanishing act is convenient on at least two counts: one, the future as an unknown factor can be summarily dismissed. The future is something that I am uncomfortable with; I face it with some trepidation, if not outright fear. It is the very expression of the problem change presents to me if I am intent on maintaining anything I have created or gained during my brief existence. I already know that entire civilizations have been erased from the historical record, reduced to archaeological fragments and literary figments. What am I, as a singular person, in the face of such a trans-temporal scourge? Two, change is itself expunged. If there is no history I am left only with time, a kind of inexistence or life that, in its stolid and staid counterpoint to living, needs no longer pose any existential questions of or to itself: Why am I here? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a meaning to my presence beyond what I can myself fathom or ferret out? Life without living, time without history, the present without presence, each of these in turn can fortify the regressive interpretation my harried haruspex requires of me. But in denying history I also deny the other.
Even if the soteriological suasions of the newer agrarian period religions were all-encompassing – all are to be saved, come as you are – nevertheless there is a boundary to be constructed between the self-appointed gnostic and the one who appears content to live on both blithely and blindly, at once ignorant of one’s specific fate and unknowing of fate in general. It is this second absence that brands me as a person without faith and thus also without wisdom. For the neo-conservative, shrouding his own equally human senses not in the cast-off cloak of conservative thought but rather in the technicolor triage of draconian dreamcoat, a ‘modernist’ such as myself is purely earthbound, trapped in a history not of my own making and running headlong into not merely death but also damnation. And if conservative thinking raises its eyebrows at the LGBTQ2+ presence in our historically and factually diverse society-as-it-is, neo-conservative thought denies its very right to existence. And it must do so, for such otherness that cannot be so readily identified in either primordial time or paradisiacal timelessness is a threat to the inexistential imagination. At once, however, we must allow for the humanity of the neo-conservative to remain as present as possible; like myself who is future-oriented, the one who closes off his own perception of the world in favor of an otherworld, ahistorical and also non-historical, inexistential and transcendental, is expressing the basic human will to life which all of us share.
In saying this, I am not in any way intending to shore up neo-conservative fantasy. At the same time, it courts both irony and even hypocrisy to deny the humanity of the neo-conservative simply because he has denied his own. Indeed, the duty presented by neo-conservative thought to the rest of us is to help the deluded person back into reality as it can be known. In this, we ourselves must admit that because not all of what is taken to be real can be rationally and factually evidenced in a way satisfactory to science, for instance, that we ourselves should remain open to certain aspects of the tradition out of which neo-conservative thought has extended itself. And it is in the acting and wholly historical space of conservativism that we must encounter the neo-conservative, and we must take upon ourselves that equally historical task simply because the narrowed imagination that desires the end of history presents an existential question to our shared species-essence. But framed by neo-conservatism, it is a false question, presented as a choice between morality and history. While it is the case that no single morality survives historical change, it is a much more open question as to the character of morality itself, which would include the concept of the sacred as Durkheim has defined it, and the presence or absence of Entzauberung, as Weber has defined it. All of us experience alienation in modern life, relatively few of us regress into the stunted stilted stenochoria of stale fairy-tale. The more authentic question, ‘how is morality relevant today?’ is perhaps the most pressing discussion that must take place amongst all persons, since it, with as well a more authentic irony, defines much of our understanding of our own historical epoch.
G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.