Sunday, October 4, 2015

A matter of terminology

Discussing the response of "relatively conservative Americans" to the American Revolution, Henry F. May wrote (in The Enlightenment in America [1976], p.96, endnote omitted):
Conservatives had many qualms, but there was no Thermidor, still less an aristocratic and legitimist reaction like that of Europe in 1815.  There had never been a base for real aristocracy.  The colonial bourgeois elite was not destroyed, only divided and weakened.  Moreover, American conservatives were not romantic reactionaries, but Whigs and moderates.
The last sentence of this passage would seem to contradict Corey Robin's argument in The Reactionary Mind (2011, pb. ed. 2013) that conservative and reactionary are basically interchangeable categories.  But perhaps the difference here is less substantive than terminological.  According to Corey R., the "priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power -- even at the cost of the strength and integrity of the state" (p.15; italics added).  It is subordination and hierarchy "in the family, the factory, and the field" (p.15) -- more than in the polity -- that conservatives have been concerned above all to defend.  So if the "conservatives" in America in the 1780s were primarily concerned with 'order' in the public realm, then perhaps, in the framework of The  Reactionary Mind, they were not conservatives at all, but merely traditionalists (see ibid., pp.22-23).

Another point might be that if conservatism in its recognizably modern form(s) arose in response to the French Revolution (ibid., p.43), then, perhaps, no responses to the American Revolution should be classified as conservative.  (And didn't Burke himself favor independence for the American colonies?)

P.s. (added later): May, p.99, discussing the Constitutional Convention: "Most of the opposition to the adoption of the completed plan [i.e. the Constitution] reflected no fundamental difference of ideology.... It seems to me doubtful whether the Constitution could have been either framed or adopted if the Convention [of 1787] had been held only a few years later, when the Moderate Enlightenment had been challenged by a new kind of revolutionary ideology and most moderates had become reactionaries."


hank_F_M said...


Perhaps not on your usual reading, but you might consider Thomas Sowel's distinction between "non-constrained" and "constrained" visions. Though he does not ID them Progressive and conservative respectively. (Conflict of Visions)

I would think the North American settlements were a little to close to mother nature to look at the world with an unconstrained vision.

hank_F_M said...

Wikipedia review

LFC said...

I've read the Wikipedia summary, which is obviously no substitute for reading the book, but I think I understand the argument (i.e., the distinction). I would say that H. May's "moderate Whigs," referenced in the quotation that I opened the post with, fall into the category of the "constrained vision."

The Wikipedia summary, which presumably tracks the language in Sowell's book, makes the "unconstrained vision" sound like Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution (humans are perfectible, they can transcend self-interest, compromise is never acceptable, certain leaders who have discerned the right path can be given a lot of authority, etc.). But of course contemporary 'liberals' and 'progressives' in the U.S. sense of these words don't believe basically any of that.

If you asked Bernie Sanders whether he thinks humans are perfectible, he would, I can almost guarantee you, say 'no'. Indeed, it's precisely because people are *not* perfectible and *are* inherently self-interested that government needs to step in vigorously and ensure that the rich and powerful do not ride roughshod over everyone else and grab for themselves a ridiculously disproportionate share of society's material rewards, which is what is happening now.

A commenter at Crooked Timber pointed out a couple of weeks ago that the wealth of the top one percent of Americans will soon exceed the wealth of the bottom 99 percent combined. The richest 80 or so people in the world have more wealth than the poorest -- what? -- 3 or 4 billion combined? I forget the exact figures. Anyway, whatever. (As they say.)

hank_F_M said...


In the book Sowell makes the point that it is spectrum, both ends being rather impractical. People may be more one way or the other on different issues.

But, between a nearly universal Calvinist "total depravity of man" religion and minimal resources and what we would call ineffective law enforcement a non-constrained viewpoint would not be viable in until the country was more developed. I think forcing the traditional categories on the situation is ahistorical.

A side point you may find interesting is that Sowell described K. Marx's vision of the three phases of history as moving from vary constrained to moderately constrained to the (final) unconstrained as the means of production changed.

LFC said...

I wrote a reply but Blogger ate it. Drastically short version: I don't really understand your charge that the post is ahistorical (cryptic, yes, but ahistorical?). But maybe we should just drop this until I read the Sowell bk, which you've mentioned before. I have 'priors' about him but I could try to set them aside. Oh and one last thing: Calvinism was dominant in the 18th-cent. colonies but there were quite different varieties of it (as May discusses).