The Conservative Impulse
In the face of our current phase of modernity, everything not bolted to the floor is fair game.
This article is the final in a three part series that was originally published in O Tempora, O Mores, the Substack of C.L. Bovington and D.L. Williamson. Consider subscribing to their Substack for free here.
Today, we are faced with a liberal worldview that privileges a false fixture on progress and the future. This orientation did not simply and suddenly replace the earlier worldview that privileged continuity and past experience. If the emergence of this new temporal worldview appeared to burst on the scene suddenly in the late eighteenth century, we can see in hindsight that it had been gestating for at least a century beforehand and would require at least another century before becoming the dominant temporal worldview of the West.
Indeed, the attempt to overthrow the premodern worldview by fiat and revolutionary decrees was ultimately unsuccessful in the short term. In the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Wars, throne and altar made a tepid comeback in France. The Gregorian calendar was reestablished, the year was recalibrated to 1805 Anno Domini, and the Bourbon monarchy returned to power.
However, even after the excesses of the Revolution had been marginally excised, the worldview that Burke noticed brewing in the revolutionary cauldron could not be dislodged and, as Burke rightly predicted, could not be contained in France alone. The modern temporal genie could not be put back in the bottle of restoration. At hand in the late eighteenth century was less a conflict between the monarchy and its subjects than it was a clash between opposing temporal worldviews. This is what Burke understood all too well.
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But Burke was not the only one who understood the epochal significance of the French Revolution. Even Immanuel Kant commented that the French Revolution aroused expectant emotions that were shattering the political limits of the possible based upon past experience. Thus, it matters little if the French Revolution succeeds or fails. For Kant, the Revolution and the enlightened ideals that supported it unleashed new expectations that would eventually demand fulfillment. A definite temporal shift was afoot: the relative solidity of temporal continuity was giving way to what Kant calls an unbounded future.
By the 1820s it was becoming clear that Kant’s insight was correct. The inheritors of the post-revolutionary world were not Burkeans or Bourbons. The inheritors were those who were mesmerized by the prospect of an unbounded future. The new temporal worldview had not only gained a foothold in the West, but it also gained obstinate adherents and strident proselytizers.
While liberalism became the immediate and preeminent beneficiary of this new worldview, there were soon many other factions struggling to lay claim to the future. From utopian socialists to anarchists, and from communists to syndicalists, each faction competed to stamp the future with its own particular vision. Thus began the modern era of “isms” that have continued to multiply unabated to our present day. As a result, a ceaseless upending of the old and a relentless striving toward all that is new has become the defining characteristic of our age of modernity.
Modernity assumed a momentum of its own, seemingly beyond human control and, much in the manner of Frankenstein’s monster, after initially faltering steps, it eventually took over the reins. Captivated by an ever-extending open future, fueled by economic, scientific, and technological changes, and pulled by vague expectations of a better world, modern conservatives at best became capable and reliable managers who could not hope to alter the direction of modernity, but who could only slow its momentum.
Conservatism thereby became ensnared in the very temporal dynamic it hoped to oppose, as if gravitationally and inexorably pulled in by the larger black hole it orbits. By the 1970s, whatever remained of the conservative outlook in the wake of Burke’s reflections had been relegated to the backburner, if not altogether jettisoned.
Over the last several decades, mainstream conservatism has increasingly gravitated toward liberalism itself, with so-called conservatives becoming little more than conservative liberals. Mainstream conservatism has even out-liberalized liberalism by replacing a sense of debt to the past and reverence for the Divine with an economic materialism guided by a blind faith in the classical liberal mantra of deregulated or free markets. Ironically, this is no different from the Enlightenment and French Revolution’s blind faith in a Reason liberated from the meddlesome ways of past traditions, reverence for ancestral customs, or non-secular religion.
In the face of our current phase of modernity, everything not bolted to the floor is fair game and can be fobbed off as a mere “social construct” — as fashionable parlance phrases it — that can be reshaped, socially engineered, or discarded at will, depending on the latest virtue-signaling fad du jour. So inexorable has become the dynamic of modernity that it has assumed an aura of unassailable inevitability, and this to the point of supplanting so fundamental a biological fact as the distinction between human male and female.
Coinciding with the hubris of declaring everything to be a social construct to be duly discarded or re-purposed at will is the demand for unquestioned allegiance to the blueprint of the future as concocted by the intelligentsia and implemented by experts — whether these be the Jacobins or political commissars of yesteryear, or the media and education apparatus, human resources diversity officers and Davos acolytes of today. To deviate so much as a scintilla from the virtue-signaling cause du jour leads today, no less than it did during the Terreur, to being exiled to the irredeemably infâme that we have been exhorted, since Voltaire, to mercilessly crush. While the variables might have changed, the crushing of dissent remains unchanged. Cancel culture has replaced guillotine culture.
The very idea that we might be in debt to anything beyond top-down imposed priorities of the political elite — whether this debt be to past history, to customs, to ancestral lore, to biological and social evolution, let alone to a Divinity — has become anathema. All such ideas are not only to be jettisoned, but they are to be ruthlessly dismantled and retrospectively excised from living and future memory.
In the face of what currently parades itself as progressive and the pinnacle of moral rectitude, how can conservatism mount a defense other than one that begrudgingly acquiesces to current demands and takes a knee, hoping to not draw too much attention to itself as it hunkers down? How can conservatism extricate itself from the very temporal and social dynamic to which it is a response?
By nurturing and cultivating the conservative impulse.
Underlying the ceaseless advancement of modernity is an intrinsic defect. Unfettered modernity sows the seeds of its own destruction. By so wagering on the new, it smothers the past, and in so doing, it destroys the possibility of a future that extends beyond the present. This intrinsic defect is becoming ever more noticeable in our current phase of modernity. The modern project that privileges a radical future orientation is failing. A conservative impulse that privileges respect for the past is resurgent.
The conservative impulse is an elemental part of human nature necessary for human flourishing. After all, without a past to draw on and subsisting only in an evanescent, provisional present, one is left open, vulnerable, and malleable, to every capricious whim thrown our way by a fickle and unpredictable future. One also becomes easy prey to the siren calls of those who, out of sheer hubris, would presume to devise and implement the blueprints for a New Man or New Era, starting at ground zero — whether it be that of Robespierre, that of the Third Reich, that of the Khmer Rouge, or that of the latest Woke Ideology.
The conservative impulse in human nature persists, stubbornly, defiantly, and seemingly against all odds. The French revolution faced much counter revolutionary upheaval from the very peasant ranks it presumptuously claimed to represent. The neoliberal order imposed on Russia in the 1990s has given way by the 2010s to a revival of the Russian Orthodox Church. Viktor Orban’s push back against the decrees and the European Union and his revival of the Church in Hungary have but increased his popularity. Conservatives in the United States are rejecting the “conservatism” of the political elite and embracing the conservative impulse toward family, faith, and nation. A veneration for the past and tradition persists, as can be seen in the ever-growing touristic frequenting not of the latest postmodernist edifice, but instead of Notre Dame de Paris or of the ruins of Ephesus. Michelangelo attracts more crowds than does the latest hip performance art.
The tradition of the West continues to resonate, if feebly, despite all attempts to smother it. It is becoming clear that the future of the West lies in an acknowledgment of its debt to its past. Without this, we are but like those mid-summer flies of which spoke Burke, doomed to aimlessly flitter about in place, as ephemeral as the present instant, without a trace of having been, without the capacity to hope, dream or yearn, alone, and without a place to call home.
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