Conservatism vs. Progressivism: Towards A Synthesis

In this essay, I use the term "progressive" in a broad sense, indicating political ideologies that are oriented towards rapid social change and that believe social change/progress is either inherently good or else inevitable and consequently worth embracing. I do not here indicate the sort of American progressivism that came with the Progressive Era, as that sort of "progressivism" was considerably more conservative than socialism, which is the most quintessential form of progressivism.

I recently saw something where someone said, "I'm a transhumanist and an anarcho-primitivist." For all the apparent absurdity there, there's also a certain rationality. The person who said this may have been thinking in sophisticated and dialectical terms. He or she may see the value in both perspectives and be attempting to synthesize them. In reality, most sane people are somewhere in the middle between the two extremes or else embrace aspects of both. We all have nostalgia for the primitive, a desire to reconnect with nature, a longing for the freedom enjoyed by our ancient ancestors. At the same time, we long for a future where disease and death are eliminated, scarcity is ended, and technology frees us from the necessity of toil. So, is the affirmation of this contradiction really that incoherent?

What I really want to talk about though is the dichotomy of conservatism and progressivism, of which primitivism vs. transhumanism is merely the extremest form. There's a certain truth presented by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and yet an equally important truth is presented by Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. And both truths are equally valid. To embrace either truth without the other is to embrace falsehood. Marxism is wrong and so is conservatism, but elements of truth exists in each. They're both partially wrong, but that means they are also both partially correct. If you never read any other socialist literature, you should read The Communist Manifesto, Engels' Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, and chapters 26 and 27 of the first volume of Marx's Capital. And if you never read anything else of conservative literature, you ought to at least read chapters 1, 2, and 3 of Kirk's The Conservative Mind as well as Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Classical Marxism can be seen as the most extreme form of progressivism. The Marxist doctrine of historical or dialectical materialism holds that the development of societies is deterministic in nature. The material conditions - which is to say the economic relations between individuals, through which they procure necessities like food and shelter - determine the social and political developments within societies. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx uses his historical materialist approach to make very specific predictions about the future. He predicts that as capitalism progresses wages will decline and working conditions will worsen, resulting in the immiseration of the proletariat. This immiseration or impoverishment will eventually cause the people to revolt and take over the State in order to create a dictatorship of the proletariat. When the people can no longer bear with the injustices of the status quo, they will spontaneously rebel. The revolution, according to Marxism, is simultaneously inevitable and necessary for correcting injustices inherent in the capitalist system.

In contrast to this revolutionary progressivism, traditional conservatism opposes revolution and insurrection. It values peace, stability, and social order. It recognizes that countless people will suffer and die in any revolution; and it thinks that such pain and suffering ought to be avoided whenever possible. Revolution, in the opinion of conservatives, can only be justified if one is certain that it would cause less suffering than bearing with the status quo. To justify revolution, one needs to demonstrate that the instability and chaos that comes with insurrection is actually a price worth paying for change. In most cases, the conservative will say that revolution is not worth the cost.

Historically, conservatives have been sceptical of democracy, but I believe that this scepticism was largely the result of the novelty of democracy. In reality, republicanism - or "representative democracy" - is actually the form of government most consistent with core conservative values. The beauty of democracy is that it has a progressive element in it. A republican system has a democratic mechanism through which the people can change the system from within, without overthrowing government. The virtue of republicanism (representative democracy) is that it is both progressive and conservative.

With the Industrial Revolution, economic conditions changed drastically but government policy did not. As a result, the people rebelled and overthrew the monarchs. Under monarchy, the easiest way to change government policy is to kill the king. In times when natural and economic conditions beyond government control are affecting social change, monarchy is too rigid and conservative to stave off insurrection. To be too conservative is to not be conservative at all. By refusing to change when the status quo has become unbearable, governments encourage insurrection and rebellion. The goal of a conservative government would be to avoid the instability and insecurity that come with insurrection and revolution. This means that a conservative government - in pursuit of conservative values - must not try to halt social progress or prevent change altogether.

Sometimes it may even be necessary to embrace rapid and radical changes. Under a republican system, the people can change government policy fairly easily without any need for insurrection or revolution. When the people decide that they no longer believe certain government prohibitions to be just and acceptable, they start to protest, practice civil disobedience, harass their politicians, and vote out the representatives that are too conservative. Thus, longstanding prohibitions on marijuana, gay marriage, and prostitution have been overturned in many republics. When working conditions became unbearable and wages became insufficient to supply workers with a decent standard of living, the people rose up and affected social change through strikes, protests, civil disobedience, and electoral politics. This gave us OSHA, minimum wage laws, the 40-hour workweek, etc. The people in many republics have also recognized market failures in the realm of healthcare and demanded single-payer healthcare or socialized medicine. By affecting such social change through democratic means, the people have been able to improve their lot without having to revolt.

In a republic, the people can force the system to change with the times. Republics are inherently progressive, but this allows them to have a conservative element too. Only under a republican system is perpetual stability and permanence of the State a genuine possibility. The only way that revolutions and insurrections can be avoided is if the people can reform government gradually so that the masses are never so dissatisfied as to feel that insurrectionary rebellion is justified. And this is the beauty of republicanism; it allows for change without revolution. In my estimation, republicanism has reached its highest peak in European nations, where we have seen the manifestation of social democracy and the social market economy. America, for the time being, is lagging behind in a regressive stage that is approaching despotism. There is still hope that the American republic will survive, but that will require the abolition of the monarchical elements within the American system. The great republics - Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, etc. - are the most stable nations of all time, in spite of all their flaws, because there’s very little reason for anyone in those countries to revolt.

At the same time, the social democratic and social market form of republicanism that manifests itself in these European nations is also the most libertarian form of government, as it tends to reduce or minimize the domination of man over man. Hierarchy and domination still exist in the great European republics, but it is far more limited there than in most other societies. The rule of bosses and the wealthy has been put in check. Land value tax and universal basic income are necessary in order to make those societies more thoroughly libertarian, but they still represent the peak of human progress thus far.

The progressive element in republicanism is entangled with its conservative element, because the ability to reform government more easily means that outright revolution and insurrection will be rendered obsolete and unnecessary. If the people can get what they want through the republican system, then there’s no reason to overthrow the State or attempt to take over the government. In a republic, the people already control the government. The conservative vision of a permanent State with perpetual peace, stability, and security is impossible apart from a republican form of government.

Anarchists and socialists despise social democracy and social market republics because they aren’t libertarian enough or aren’t socialist enough. Nevertheless, these countries have a far more libertarian and participatory form of government than others and they ensure the wellbeing of all their citizens to an extent that no other society can boast of. The society of tomorrow will be progressive, libertarian, and conservative. It will have a republican form of government that implements universal welfare programs like single-payer healthcare and universal basic income. It will be a libertarian social democracy.

Conservatism and progressivism are part of a political dialectic that all people must wrestle with. I see these two contradictory systems as reaching a synthesis in the social market and social democracy forms of republicanism that have emerged in the last century. This synthesis can be described as being either both marxist and conservative or as being neither marxist nor conservative - the synthesis transcends the dialectic and becomes something totally new, a third alternative. It's a progressive conservatism or a conservative progressivism.

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