These days it seems there are two kinds of people: those who embrace labels, and those who eschew them. The talk radio partisans, for example, delight in their “liberal” and “conservative” credentials. The great muddle-headed middle can’t make up their minds so they call themselves “moderate” or “independent”, meaning they are independent of labels I suppose. Among Catholics, some are fond of the categories of “traditionalist”, “progressive”, or “charismatic”, but most prefer to be “just Catholic”, which sounds admirable but can be a lazy way of ignoring important distinctions. On the fringes of political and social categories we have environmentalists, fundamentalists, crunchy-cons, feminists, nationalists, racialists, individualists, capitalists, socialists, libertarians, and so on. All seem to be reaching for a single principle that animates a particular way of looking at the world.
I’m not someone who eschews the use of labels. Labels are necessary. I use them for myself and I apply them to others. It seems to me that communication is really impossible without the use of broad labels and categories. Politically and socially, there need to be labels to describe “The Good Life”, its animating principle or principles, and the means of getting there. In the context of western civilization and culture, I generally prefer, for myself, the term “conservative”, because it implies the preservation and defense of that which has been received. The assumption here is that what we have received is “good” and worthy of conservation.
Yet the idea of conservatism is inadequate for a couple of reasons. Paradoxically, an undeniable component of our received tradition is the constant questioning and re-assessment of tradition. It is the long-established “tradition” of western intellectuals to re-examine everything they have received. Tradition, as such, does not get the benefit of the doubt in our culture. And so if we are going to conserve the tradition we have received, we are going to conserve a powerful force for undermining tradition. In short, conservatism in contemporary western thought contains the seeds of its own destruction.
The second defect of conservatism is precisely what the western habit of re-examination tries to redress: the fact that not everything we have received is good. If we eliminate the habitual distrust of tradition from western conservatism, then we are left with a predisposition to conserve everything we have received. That won’t do either because it leaves a culture prone to stagnation and closed to genuine progress. If implemented today, we end up conservative defenders of the post-Christian barbarism we have inherited.
The best conservatism, I think, has two elements:
1. An habitual predisposition in favor of tradition;
2. An authoritative means of evaluating tradition (the Catholic Faith, which includes the Natural Law) – a set of first principles – so that unworthy customs may be modified, discarded or replaced.
A predisposition in favor of tradition means that, for the most part, only the most egregious deviations from a society’s first principles will be subject to re-evaluation and change. A defensible conservatism therefore requires a common set of first principles that is shared by the majority – something definitely lacking in the United States. And let us emphasize once again that conservatism is defensible only when that which has been received is predominantly and objectively good – a situation that, arguably, no longer prevails in the West, or at least cannot be taken for granted.
What about a society like ours, then, in which there is no unity on first principles, and much of what has been received is unworthy? So much of the good has already been lost; so much of what is now established is shallow, worthless, degrading, objectively false and positively harmful. What’s left to conserve? Surprisingly, there is still plenty left to conserve – but there may not be enough to justify an habitual predisposition to conserve or to give “tradition” the benefit of the doubt. The task of re-evaluation has become too enormous and burdensome.
So here we come to the difference between “reactionary” and “conservative”. The reactionary doesn’t want to conserve what he has: he wants to return to what has been lost. The reactionary has a vision of society – most often, but not always, of an era within living memory – that he wants to revive and restore. For most American reactionaries, that means the United States of the 1950s. For some others, it means the antebellum South. For a few traditionalist Catholics, it means Western Europe before the Enlightenment. For some traditionalist Orthodox, it means 19th century Russia. The reactionary doesn’t need to “re-evaluate” everything in the present age: he assumes it is all hopelessly defective and he wants to replace it wholesale.
On a national scale the reactionary program is an impossible dream. Some things just cannot be repealed, and in many cases attempting to repeal them would involve means and attitudes of questionable morality. Furthermore it must be granted that certain aspects of modernity are positively good: medicine, hygiene, technology (when used responsibly), etc. There have even been social improvements, such as the elimination of slavery and the cruelest forms of exploitation, though some would argue that modernity extended and perpetuated these evils before it eliminated them.
There is some hope for the reactionary vision on a much smaller scale, on the level of families and villages, in a few little pockets here and there. To some extent this is the approach I and many other Catholic families are beginning to take, very modestly and tentatively. It does have an arbitrary nature to it that seems profoundly un-conservative. When it comes to entertainment, for instance, how does one choose where to draw the line? We listen to Andy Williams, Perry Como, and Dean Martin, but others find even these too modern. We let the kids watch The Andy Griffith Show, The Lord of Rings, and The Sound of Music, but other families forbid television viewing altogether. Our daughters wear skirts and dresses and do not even own a pair of jeans, but we allow them to wear short sleeves while other families do not. I have no problem, in principle, with my wife working outside the home, so long as our children are well cared for, but other families draw the line at this. Etc.
The point is that reactionaries are united in only one thing: a rejection of the principles (and practices) of modernity and a desire to return to earlier ways. There is no unified reactionary vision or organizing principle. Much of what reactionaries end up doing becomes a matter of taste or preference. To combat this defect, many reactionaries end up converting non-essential ideas and practices into dogma, further marginalizing their influence. It seems that unity – and therefore any kind of progress towards a common goal – is going to be elusive among reactionaries.
Such confusing times. When society unravels, when tradition disappears or becomes unreliable, we are left too much on our own. For my part, I can’t see the way forward. I vacillate between optimistic neo-conservative and throw-in-the-towel 13th-century reactionary, depending largely upon my mood. The only thing clear, the only reliable “tradition”, the only institution left standing is the Catholic Church. “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis.” The Church isn’t enough to make one feel at home in this world … but maybe that is exactly the point.