Sunday, November 27, 2005

On being conservative and old age

I was having a re-read of Norman Finkelstein's hatchet job on Hitchens, which I read a while ago but was reminded of again because it's in the footnotes of our lenin's latest piece for MRzine. I've been meaning to do something on this concept of apostasy for a while and will still have to leave it for now because it would take too long. But I wanted, in the meantime, to touch briefly on the reasons for that well-known phenomenon of people becoming more conservative as they get older. Mr Finkelstein's piece clearly impressed the comrades, which I find difficult to understand because personally I find it rather sad. Take the introductory paragraph, for example:

"I'm occasionally asked whether I still consider myself a Marxist. Even if my "faith" had lapsed, I wouldn't advertise it, not from shame at having been wrong (although admittedly this would be a factor) but rather from fear of arousing even a faint suspicion of opportunism. To borrow from the lingo of a former academic fad, if, in public life, the "signifier" is "I'm no longer a Marxist," then the "signified" usually is, "I'm selling out." No doubt one can, in light of further study and life experience, come to repudiate past convictions. One might also decide that youthful ideals, especially when the responsibilities of family kick in and the prospects for radical change dim while the certainty of one's finitude sharpens, are too heavy a burden to bear; although it might be hoped that this accommodation, however understandable (if disappointing), were accomplished with candor and an appropriate degree of humility rather than, what's usually the case, scorn for those who keep plugging away."
Candour I can do - I am no longer a Marxist, haven't been one for over twenty years because I decided the old historical data just didn't fit the theory, and this was sometime before I had children. (This in addition to the absolute confidence I have of being one of the first to be shipped off for re-education come the revolution, which I've mentioned before.) But the humility thing I can't do, I'm afraid - and especially not when confronted with people who think that taking the burden of family responsibilities seriously is "disappointing". Anyway, Finkelstein goes on:

"However elaborate the testimonials on how one came to "see the light," the impetus behind political apostasy is - pardon my cynicism - a fairly straightforward, uncomplicated affair: to cash in, or keep cashing in, on earthly pleasures."
Note the telling phrase "earthly pleasures". You'll rarely find a more pure expression of the politics of faith. This is as opposed to what - heavenly pleasures? Given the piece is about Hitchens, one could remark that prior to 9/11 he didn't exactly have a reputation for lacking the resources to indulge his 'earthly pleasures' did he? But this isn't supposed to be a defence of Hitchens; life's too short. Rather I'm interested in a more satisfactory explanation of why it is that people tend to become more conservative as they get older, assuming - as I hope you do - that you find Finkelstein's risible adolescent puritanism unsatisfying.

'Tis all to do with scepticism - faith rarely grows as one gets older; rarely does one get more absolute in one's opinions with age and a key element here is epistemological scepticism. If you haven't read too much history at least as one gets older, you'll have lived long enough to have actually experienced political movements and ideas break on the rock of experience. Remember the Soviet Union? I could go on about the folly of thinking human beings know enough to plan a human society to that degree but instead can I remind you of another, less commented on facet of the USSR's demise? Hardly anyone saw it coming. Now people retrospectively have claimed they saw it coming - but by and large they didn't. I'd challenge you to have a trawl through the literature pre-1989 and find more than a dozen commentators who predicted the resurgence of nationalism and religion in a world where it was assumed we were becoming more secular and rational with each passing day. This kind of scepticism is often identified as being, pace Karl Popper, linked to liberalism in the classic sense, which it is - but it is also crucially important to conservatism, as some Scottish dude called David Hume would insist. In short, nobody knows anything so one learns to be suspicious of those who have a theory that can explain everything.

Whether this is more or less important than the second type of scepticism I'm not sure but what has also been always and everywhere important to conservatism is scepticism about the human condition. "We are afraid to put men to trade each on their own private stock of reason", wrote Edmund Burke, "because we suspect that this stock in each man is small". It is indeed difficult, as the economists would have it, to "assume people are rational" because human history would suggest that at the very least, they have a rather eccentric way of demonstrating this. It is this understanding that has always led conservatives to see order as the first virtue of any polity.

Michael Oakeshott once wrote that "it is a sign of maturity to be not too dismayed at the human condition". On that basis, I'm not sure I can claim to have reached maturity yet - but maybe more than those who imagine they can remain untouched by the human stain. For what is the impulse driving Mr Finkelstein and all the rest of them that imagine virtue can be gained by always and everywhere aligning yourself against power of any kind but a desire to keep one's white garment unblemished by this world?

Better this, for them, than getting involved in the stuff and filth of the world as it actually is. Finkelstein writes, "It is when the phenomenon of political apostasy is accompanied by fanfare and fireworks that it becomes truly repellent." Possibly - but when it isn't, as was the case with Eric Hobsbawm, nobody seems to notice. Which is a pity because his observations are a salutary lesson to these the political equivalents of the Jehovah's Witnesses: no improvement in the living conditions of the ordinary working man was ever brought about by those who preferred the purity of their ideology over engaging with the world as it actually is and not how they hope it will be come the eschaton, which no student of history expects any time soon, if ever.

Yet conservatism, like all political dispositions and ideologies, has a couple of questions it finds difficult to answer and in this case one of the most important is: what does one do when your enemies come to power? Arguably to answer this in any practical way is to cease to be conservative in any traditional sense and I'm interested in the way that left wing thought feeds into this, as alluded to in this post.

I intend to develop this at a later date. Until then, can I leave you with a Biblical observation? Everyone knows the story of the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John. When the assembled crowd ask Jesus what should be done, he replies that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. So far, so familiar - but a lesser noted feature of the story is that it was the older amongst the crowd that were the first to drop their stones and walk away...

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