Thursday, March 01, 2007

Kagan and a new conservatism

I’ve been thinking about the Kagan piece which I posted about last night and it might be helpful to put it into some context.

The closest one can really come to a definition of conservatism itself is the Burkean respect for inherited institutions and wisdom:

"We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages."

However, this necessarily means that the detail of conservatism must be defined anew by each generation as there will be a different set of old truths under attack that the right will need to defend; some may also be abandoned as no longer worth of defence, ideally after a process of incremental change. Defending capitalism, and its productive potential, was a focus in the past century but certainly not for conservatives such as Disraeli in the nineteenth century who viewed it with a vague suspicion. Equally, few conservatives are now interested in supporting limited sufferage.

Islamism is a threat to the West but has limited appeal beyond its ‘heartland’ in the Muslim community. The ideological threat to the established order which is being identified as crucial in this century is transnational progressivism, which threatens liberal democracy. At the moment the intellectual right is therefore doing two things:

Firstly, it is trying to wake itself up to the threat. In this regard the various articles describing the Tranzi ideology and its likely progress serve as equivalents to Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom; they sound the alarm.

Kagan’s article is different in that it instead begins the conservative intellectual celebration of the institution under threat. Though using the example of the classical history of Athens the real subject is the modern world and the call for leadership is a call for conservatives to turn to the task of intellectually defending the liberal democratic nation state. Most of the rest of the article attends to this task: describing the more esoteric benefits of liberal democracy and why individual citizens should support it. Kagan’s piece is therefore the equivalent to W. W. Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth; it even shares Rostow’s presentation as a guide for developing states.

Read O'Sullivan’s article (which I cited here) and you’ll get a good idea of how this new struggle could be just as important as the Cold War in determining the future path of the West. I think there is a good case that conservatives have been sleepwalking for some time basking in the glow of victory over Communism and fretting, in books like the End of History, that there just weren’t any decent challenges anymore. Now we're waking up.

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