New Sherwood

Conservatives, Reactionaries, and The Good Life

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.


July 19, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. The problem with labels is that they are equal opportunity sticky-notes. They don’t mind who sticks them in place, whether I might, to define myself, or whether others might, to define me according to THEIR terms, sometimes innaccurately or uncharitably.

    I admit, it’s hard to get through life without these burma-shave signs to direct us. I find the need to define myself politically by saying “Conservative”. On the other hand, I call myself simply “Catholic”; but because I am an “orthodox” Catholic – (as opposed to a “progressive” Catholic) – rather than a “traditional” Catholic, others have labeled me a “neo-Catholic” or a “Conciliarist”.

    Politically, sometimes right goes so far to the right it goes full circle and ends up on the left. Not really surprising, since every driver knows that three rights make a left. :)


    Comment by annabenedetti | July 19, 2008 | Reply

  2. Jeff, I’m afraid this is going to sound flippant, but you’ve made me terribly curious: Can you point me to a post or anything you’ve written in which you sound like an optimistic neoconservative? I’m astonished to hear you admitting that anywhere into your self-characterization. Maybe you only blog in the other mood. :-)


    Comment by Lydia | July 19, 2008 | Reply

  3. Annabenedetti: Yes, labels have their limits, for all the reasons you indicate. I merely contend that they are necessary and useful, though not sufficient. Terms like “right” and “left”, “conservative” and “liberal”, require some historical context for understanding. Even then, they don’t really help us get to the truth or essence of a thing. It is arguable that the “Catholic” labels shouldn’t be necessary at all, so I understand why one would want to avoid them. Their frequent misapplication is also frustrating. I’m probably considered a “neo-Catholic” or “conciliarist” by some, and a “radtrad” by others, but at the end of the day, like you, I just want to be Catholic. Until all Catholics are traditionalists again I think we’re stuck with labels. :-)


    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | July 20, 2008 | Reply

  4. Lydia: Ha! I can’t think of an example in writing offhand. You’re probably right that I mostly blog in the other mood. But trust me, my inner neo-con is never far from the surface. When push comes to shove I have a strong instinct to defend the status quo against its challengers, no matter how bad it is. “The devil you know …”! Furthermore I can’t work up any kind of respectable paleo-con hatred for Bush, Cheney, or Lincoln, despite my disagreements with them. In fact, just the other day I was openly entertaining the idea of voting for John McCain, even though I recently swore off voting Republican (for about the third or forth time). As for the optimism, well, it’s kind of built-in to me as an American. I live my life as though better times are ahead, not because I insist it must be true, but because I don’t know how else to live.


    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | July 20, 2008 | Reply

  5. That’s all (perhaps except for voting for McCain :-)) probably a good thing. The paleos and crunchies definitely have their problems.

    Perhaps you could get really rad and put up a post praising the free market! :-)


    Comment by Lydia | July 20, 2008 | Reply

  6. “Perhaps you could get really rad and put up a post praising the free market!”

    That would clinch it, Lydia. :-)

    I’m allergic to the free market sloganeering these days. A market is only free if everyone can freely enter it. We can all enter it as consumers, of course, and we can all sell our labor, but very few can enter the market as producers/providers and survive for very long. Unfortunately as a business broker I see more failures than successes. What the neo-cons mean by “free market” is freedom for big money and big corps. I can live with it, but I can’t propagandize for it.


    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | July 21, 2008 | Reply

  7. I have an idea for a solution for that: Massive deregulation at all levels–federal, state, and local. Should remove some of the edge for big corps, who can afford compliance with the regs. when the little guys can’t.


    Comment by Lydia | July 21, 2008 | Reply

  8. Deregulation has its place. I would go for massive (and selective) deregulation for small family enterprises. That way we could at least sell our goat milk and jams. We could put up a produce stand without having to rent a port-a-potty. We could manufacture soap without obtaining a costly and time-consuming manufacturer’s license. We could market our products from a cart downtown without permits, licenses, sales taxes, and rent. Etc.

    But I don’t think deregulation solves everything. The wealthy (nothing wrong with wealth, by the way) still have the means to obliterate the little man with massive economies of scale. I could make widgets one at a time here in my shop and sell them for a price, but mega-factories can produce them for a fraction of the per-unit cost. Maybe it’s better to have those factories, and maybe it isn’t, but one thing is certain: a free market simply guarantees that certain small enterprises will not exist when there is a large market for what they produce. End of story. Is that really the kind of economy we want in this country?

    In principle, I think governments have the right to regulate the economy so as to maximize the number and quality of smaller enterprises. It is true that large factories and enterprises are also necessary, and even capable of doing a great deal of good, so I grant that regulation is a delicate balancing act. But I don’t think we have the option of de-regulating indiscriminately, across the board, without regard to outcome.

    My point is really that free markets are not enough. Here in Orland, at the local supermarket you can buy products imported from Mexico (labels in Spanish) – products which are virtually identical to the American version – at incredible discounts. Something is very wrong here. The libertarian free-marketeers say the solution is deregulation and lower wages so that American producers can compete and sell just as cheap – or move their resources to other industries. I think that’s exactly backwards and will end up being the ruin of the American economy.

    I’ve always detested the focus on economics as an end in itself. Free markets, if they are good, are a means to an end – the end being a free, strong, and virtuous people. When it ceases to serve those ends, it ceases to be good. Some industries need regulation. Some industries require temporary subsidies. Some industries ought to be banned or taxed out of existence. What’s wrong with the American economy is that regulation has become a tool of both large corporate interests and leftist ideological interests, both of which have their own reasons for crushing the small, free, and independent family business.


    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | July 21, 2008 | Reply

  9. Good post and great comment, Mr. Culbreath. You summarize my own ambivalence about free markets better than I ever could. The fact that your uncommon common sense carries you toward what has been called distributism make it all the more appealing to me.

    The classic example I have used for modern Capitalist madness deals with local policies on pruning and removing trees here in Atlanta. If you have a big, aged oak which dangerously overhangs your house, you have to jump through a network of bureaucratic hoops, in some cases so onerous as to require the services of a lawyer. Meanwhile, I have watched developers cut whole swaths out of the remaining woods around my neighborhood, seemingly without the least imposition from the city.

    Socialism for the small owner; unfettered freedom for the well-connected corporate developer. Madness.


    Comment by Paul Cella | July 21, 2008 | Reply

  10. “Good post and great comment, Mr. Culbreath. You summarize my own ambivalence about free markets better than I ever could.”

    Thank you for your always generous remarks, Mr. Cella. The difference between you and me is quite telling: you comment when you have something kind to say, I comment when I have something to argue about. :-)

    “The fact that your uncommon common sense carries you toward what has been called distributism make it all the more appealing to me.”

    Having once been captive to the libertarian ideology, I try not to turn distributism into the same kind of intellecutal trap. I think common sense really is the key here.

    “The classic example I have used for modern Capitalist madness deals with local policies on pruning and removing trees here in Atlanta. If you have a big, aged oak which dangerously overhangs your house, you have to jump through a network of bureaucratic hoops, in some cases so onerous as to require the services of a lawyer. Meanwhile, I have watched developers cut whole swaths out of the remaining woods around my neighborhood, seemingly without the least imposition from the city.”

    Or, if the were an imposition from the city, it was easily handled by the developer’s connections and/or a team of staff lawyers. One of the controls I would implement immediately on a local level is a limit on the number of units in new subdivisions. Like maybe 5 or 10. The result: most new homes would be smaller; older neighborhoods would be more quickly rehabilitated; people would live in their existing homes longer; suburban landscapes would develop a personality.

    “Socialism for the small owner; unfettered freedom for the well-connected corporate developer. Madness.”



    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | July 21, 2008 | Reply

  11. Me, I’m still far more leaning the libertarian side. For example, the madness, to my mind, is not so much that the developer gets to cut down all those poor trees. It’s the hoops the homeowner has to jump through. I’m sure all for removing the hoops for the homeowner, and I’ll cheer very loudly over removing the hoops for the Culbreaths to sell goat’s milk and produce without the port-a-potty. All of that makes me steam. I just am not convinced by the reasons for grabbing the regulations off the one group of people and making up new ones for the other (the limitations on development size, for example, or the attempts by punitive measures to prevent the sale of foreign goods in the U.S. _just because_ they are foreign).

    But actually, one of the reasons I liked the post (and should have said so sooner) is that I think Jeff puts his finger on the fact that we can’t really have big plans. I’m probably more doctrinaire than he is on women’s not having a career outside the home. (Could be very hard to home school, for one thing.) But on the other hand, my girls wear very carefully chosen jeans. (Harder and harder to find these days, I might add. My decent hand-me-downs from the days before falling-off-style jeans are much patched.)

    The point being, as Jeff makes it, that it’s not like we can prescribe one definite set of counter-cultural conservative rules and make them for everybody across the board.


    Comment by Lydia | July 22, 2008 | Reply

  12. Tadeusz Mazowiecki was the first post-Communist prime minister of Poland. When asked whether he was a Socialist or Capitalist, Liberal or Conservative, he replied “I am a Catholic. In so far as Socialism is consonant with Catholicism, I am a Socialist. In so far as Capitalism is consonant with Catholicism, I am a Capitalist.”

    The problem with political labels is that most of them mean “someone who disagrees with me.” Why does the right wing include both Rod Dreher and David Duke? Because Right means “someone opposed to the Left.” Why does the left wing include both Bill Clinton and Barney Frank? Because Left means “someone opposed to the Right.” In other words, political categories are defined by who you oppose, not what you propose.

    RE: Libertarianism,
    I would have been tempted to Libertarianism, if I didn’t know any Libertarians.

    BTW Jeff, you’re not a neo-con. Neoconservatism is often defined as the desire to remake the world in America’s image. You’re a patriot, maybe verging on Nationalist. The Neo-Cons have sucessfully laid claim to Patriotism in their public image. Why, I’m not sure, since I can’t even see the so-called propositional nation they pledge loyalty to.

    In terms of regulation, how about exempting people from most regulation if they’re not corporations, don’t hire more than 5 people FTE, and have less than 10 times the local average income in revenue (not a multiple of profit, since that is so easily manipulated.)

    The free market has become for many people, an idol. To the god Mammon, specifically. Just like Feminism is an idol to the goddess Me. Or Environmentalism, Atheism, Politics, Homosexualism, or any of the other isms that have taken God’s place for so many people.


    Comment by Danby | July 22, 2008 | Reply

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