The Pathology Of The Conservative Mind

On the surface conservative and reactionary sensibilities share much in common; however, in spite of a shared disposition and ancestry, the reality remains that no other ideology is as hazardous to reactionary ends than conservatism (understood here, of course, in the North American context).

Even a cursory survey of history reveals a basic axiom: the false friend is always more dangerous than the enemy. Deceit is the ultimate force multiplier. The most devastating blow is always the one you don’t see coming. Beneath this axiom, however, lies another, which is rarely comprehended: the only enemy more dangerous than the false friend is the genuine one.

Men frequently find themselves undone not only by the cunning and bravery of their enemies, but just as frequently by the rashness and stupidity of their friends. The truer the friend, the greater the danger.

Both World Wars saw Imperial Germany undermined by the strategic fecklessness of its allies (Austria-Hungary and Italy, respectively). The Reich fought not so much with a hand behind its back as it did with an anchor around its neck. These allies became little more than bottomless holes into which the German leadership frantically shoveled men and material. Mussolini is of course the exemplar par excellence. His strategic brainchild, the invasion of Greece, was arguably the most impressively stupid blunder of the entire war, the mother of all unforced errors. In the summer of 1941, Hitler, obsessed with the Jewish-Bolshevik threat, sent his Wehrmacht in a doomed drive east to Moscow, when they should have been marching south to Rome.

Today, we observe the same phenomenon in the foreign policy conundrums of the United States. Indeed, much frantic hand-wringing goes on in clueless beltway circles about the waning of American influence. Buckets of ink are spilled daily warning of the dangers of newly assertive, anti-liberal regimes in Russia, China, Iran etc. Yet the more obvious and immediate danger is almost never mentioned, i.e., the main threat to the status quo of USG geopolitical dominance remains the duplicity and incompetence of its poorly chosen allies: Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Here, it is important to draw a distinction between temporary alliances of a generally transactional nature and those of a deeper ideological type. The former are characteristic of a realist political disposition and should be pursued wherever possible. The rewards of such alliances are many and the risks are few. Agent X will cooperate with Agent Y on issue Z, even though they are at odds over issues Q and W.

The other more ideological approach, presently practiced by the USG in its dealings with the present Zionist project, is more like a bizarre kind of marriage. The USG will always support Israel, in spite of the fact that Israeli and American strategic interests are frequently divergent. The past decade has witnessed an overt attempt by the Israeli regime to goad the USG into an invasion of Iran, an event that could only end in disaster and defeat. Yet incredibly, Israel continues to be counted as one of America’s closest allies and continues to benefit from a uniquely generous and long-lasting military and economic largess from the USG. It should be noted that this continues in spite of an open and acrimonious conflict with the current president.

The Saudi example is similarly egregious. The Saudi regime is the single largest financier and promoter of Salafist ideology in the world, and still, it continues to receive an incredible amount of financial and military support from the USG.

One could go further in documenting historical examples of this phenomenon, seeing as they illustrate the danger inherent in all alliances, whether of the geostrategic or ideological variety. The danger lies not in the inevitable confrontation with the North American Liberal enterprise; rather, like the aforementioned examples, the true danger lies in a hasty ideological marriage of convenience with modern Conservatism. Sun Tzu entreated his readers to “Know Yourself” and “Know Your Enemy,” but Tzu forgot a third and equally important commandment: “Know Thy Friend.”

If we could reduce modern American conservatism down to one main characteristic, it would undoubtedly be its near total impotency. On the surface this might seem like a hard statement to qualify, especially when beholding its formidable array of propaganda outlets and wealthy donor class. Seen from such a perspective, the house that Buckley built does indeed seem to be quite the marvel. But once one dispenses with superficialities and inspects the state of the actual ideological project, the once stately citadel quickly morphs into a crumbling McMansion.

The problems besetting conservatism today run much deeper than a mere lack of leadership or run of the mill strategic incompetence. Modern conservatives are simply incapable of actually advancing their own cause; their position always is one of continual defense. At their most effective, they have acted as little more than speed bumps for a tenacious Liberal Left, or have otherwise forwarded the interests of the Chamber of Commerce.

While the liberal ideologue states his claim confidently and without apologies, the conservative is ever the shrinking violet. The past half century has witnessed the systematic transformation of all major cultural levers into strictly liberal entities. The academy, judiciary, 4th Estate, Hollywood, and, in many cases, even the church are now all strictly and unequivocally ideologically liberal institutions. This was accomplished in the manner of an overt and self-consciously liberal pogrom. Institutions were infiltrated and once a critical mass accumulated the purges of non-liberals began–ruthlessly and until the desired level of ideological purity was attained.

This occurred without the slightest feelings of consternation or guilt. Not for a moment did the liberals question the justness of their cause and the necessity of their actions. When one is firmly on the right side of history, after all, the necessity and ultimate rightness of one’s actions for the cause is rarely in doubt. The conservative movement’s reaction to this overt power grab of course consisted mostly of harshly worded letters to the editor. American cultural Institutions were not so much conquered as they were simply taken possession of.

What explains this contrast of intentions and seemingly inexplicable impotency? The liberal’s blows are vicious and thrown with intention, The conservative’s are cautious and defensive. The liberal fights to win; the conservative not to lose. The fault lies not in the political strategy and tactics, but in the very psychology and metaphysics of the conservative mind itself.

We can see this perhaps most acutely in the conservative understanding of tradition. Vibrant traditions are an essential part of any healthy society and are especially important to a self-consciously anti-liberal one. However, it is urgently important for us to distinguish the vibrant reactionary understanding of tradition from the conservative adherence to a concept of traditionalism because this is ultimately what actually distinguishes the two.

The conservative approaches tradition like a museum curator approaches a dusty box of artifacts. The goal is, first and foremost, preservation. Tradition is treated as a kind of static object, one whose properties are permanently fixed. This sterile understanding of tradition gives birth to what we can call a preservationist mentality. The preservationist task is merely to observe and maintain the object for the benefit of posterity, like a precious family heirloom. The sword of tradition will be kept polished and cataloged by the conservative, but it will never be swung. What we find here is a peculiar kind of Aristotelian fastidiousness, which obsesses over the “thing become.” In the haste to document and categorize its various attributes, it is blinded to the deeper reality of the thing’s constant “becoming.”

It is here that we find and isolate the true pathology of the conservative mind, a mind containing an imagination unable to participate in the very tradition it wishes to preserve.

The problem with the past that is so longed for by the conservative, whether of 1950 or 1850, isn’t so much that it is imaginary, but that it is performative.

The conservative’s call to return to past greatness is a call to a return to a very particular historical moment, not to return to the general ontological conditions that made that historical moment possible.

Goethe encapsulates the issue: “The Godhead is effective in the living and not in the dead, in the becoming and the changing, not in the become and the set-fast; and therefore, similarly, the reason (Vernunft) is concerned only to strive towards the divine  through the becoming and the living and the understanding (Verstand) only to make use of the become and the set-fast.” The Conservative mind, by its very nature, is engrossed with the (Verstand) and refuses to apprehend the (Vernunft). Thus, it is doomed to a static impotence.

The conservative political project is perhaps best understood as a grand project of collective nostalgia, the attempt to reconstruct a lost arcadia and return to a primordial American Eden. This Eden, of course, is almost always tied to the conservative’s memory of his particular (usually suburban) childhood.

The conservative imagination is nostalgic, the reactionary is participatory. The conservative seeks to preserve a tradition, the reactionary seeks to inhabit one.

In light of this reality, the conservative’s history of impotence becomes intelligible. Having rejected “becoming” in favor of the “already become,” he must, in turn, reject the reality of Historical Necessity itself. Thus, due to his inability to advance his claims, he has cut himself off from any possibility of participation. He is a man frozen in time and place. His experience is similar to that of a small child, who dwells in a waking dream world, this psychological Eden of a constant present, not yet cast out into the Dark Wood of Consciousness. Here, he is still innocent of the constant conversion of future into present, and present into past, of Time, Blood, and History.

This will not suffice for us. Our lives must not be in thrall to a frozen nostalgia for a lost Eden, a timeless Rockwellian fever dream.

One cannot dam the tide of history, a delusion just as dangerous and utopian as the most deranged Jacobin fantasy. This task is not only impossible, but it is also completely undesirable. The free acceptance of our providential destiny is after all the only true duty of a man. Anything less is a failure. The participation in the mystery of Historical Necessity is not optional.

Any seemingly traditional or conservative tendencies must be transmuted and constantly reinterpreted through a genuinely reactionary and participatory lens. Tradition is a living thing and like all that lives, it is constantly becoming. Our conservatives, like the historical reenactors who march the field of Gettysburg each July with much care and fastidiousness, seek to recreate the hazy visions of their childhood. Shoulder to Shoulder they march, with the shades of Pickett’s Division across their field of dreams, but in the end they can only fire blanks.

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  1. Excellent article. A focus on ‘becoming’ rather than ‘become’ is vital in both senses.

    The lead with the deceitful friend and the ending with ‘shooting blanks’ is an especially elegant evocation of the latest popular slur for the GOP. Great demonstration of how to use the imagery originally, without falling into a formula or the usual vulgarity (which has its place, but not in an article like this).

    Where did Goethe write that great quote cited in the center?

    I’ll be keeping this near the top of my list for explaining the difference between conservatism and reaction.

  2. You can only win on the offense. I think the reason Israel gets a pass is because it converges with sacred cows of both the traditional left and right. The conservatives believe the Jews are the chosen people of Christianity and that Israel has to do with some messianic prophecy and then the left see Jews as an oppressed class and therefore exonerated from all critique by both sides. And Israel has no qualms exploiting this on both sides (not that I blame them). Making America foreign policy a useful extension of the will of Israel.

  3. The next question is, of course, “What does this all translate to in the real world?” One of the reasons why conservatives lose is because their nostalgia extends to the genteel politics of the past. They genuinely want to believe that the left are well-intentioned people who just have a different vision for making America the best it can be, and if we just engage in enough good-faith explanations of our positions with them, in the end they’ll come to their senses. Then we can get back to the situation we had in the election of 1960, in which there was so little difference between the policies of the Republican and the Democratic candidates for president that the newspapers had to print voter guides to explain what exactly the differences were.

    Conservatives still want to believe in fair play with liberals – in not purging them, in giving them a fair hearing, in not being too obstructionist, in not sinking to their level, in being conciliatory in victory and gracious in defeat. This is, of course, a recipe for defeat and humiliation, but one can still see the appeal. It also may finally be changing a bit with Trump, although unless there’s something about The Donald that we don’t know, it’s almost certainly too little, too late.

  4. Tom, thank you for your generous praise. The Goethe quote apparently comes from a written correspondence he had with Johann Peter Eckermann. I owe Spengler a debt here, about 38 pages into the introduction of “Decline of the West” he drops the quote in an extended footnote. This was originally how I stumbled across it. He cites it as merely: (to Eckermann). If you wanted to track it down in it’s original context this might be a good place to look:

    1. Thank you, P. T. That book of conversation looks wonderful; I’ll have to read it someday soon.

  5. AntiDem, your question: “What does this all translate to in the real world?” is an important question that has many answers. For some the answer will be political activism, for some it will be engaging in rhetorical combat, and for others it will direct action of various kinds. It will require all of us to reevaluate our personal priorities and lifestyles. We need to begin the process of building resilient networks and communities. Real-life ones. These will take many forms, as simple as a local church or as high profile as a think tank or political party. These are just some off the cuff thoughts and perhaps not the answers you were looking for. Trump is not our answer but he is our way into the game. He’s a new beginning, the rest will be up to us.

  6. This quote sums up my thoughts beautifully…
    “The conservative’s call to return to past greatness is a call to a return to a very particular historical moment, not to return to the general ontological conditions that made that historical moment possible.”

    Conservatism seems more about preserving tradition as some kind of museum artefact, than a real place. If ostensibly people seem to follow the traditions, all is good according to the conservatives. I’m not sure of this is what they want.

    I put forward another problem with Conservatism. It supports the means of its own demise. Conservatives long for a traditional lifestyle long gone, but think about what policies they support? Do conservatives support an ideology which make it possible?

    In the past a woman COULD be the mother of her children and stay home to raise them. In the past, a man could afford a family home to give his family a static sense of place and belonging. But conservatives undermine everything which makes this traditional lifestyle possible. They do this because in their mind conservatism means supporting neo-liberalism and big business interests. Big Business supports the destruction of community, family, nation, loyalty to create a mass of consumers, a generic Homo economicus.

    The conservative laments the shallow, consumer driven lifestyle, but supports everything which brings this about. At least the Feminists of the 60’s knew what they wanted, and how to get it. At least the anti-racists know what they want, and how to get it. Conservatives are schizophrenic in that regard. They’ll support policies which turn housing from an affordable place to raise a family to an overpriced speculative asset, and never analyse the contradiction this ideological view has with their vision of strong families. They support “America” or in my case “Australia”, but then also support mass immigration which will irreversibly move these nations away from the past they desire.

    I think liberals run circles around conservatives because conservatives today really don’t have any vision or imagination, as this article points out. There is no coherence between their ideals and between the entities and policies they support.

    Both Liberals and Conservatives engage in moral posturing to their imagined peers. But a Liberal can morally posture towards an entity or institution which will bring about its goals. Conservatives make moral postures towards those who work against their desired goals.

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