Sunday, 27 February 2011

What Is WICAWIWI and What Is Wrong With It?

Via Making Light, I've just happened upon Philip E Agre's fascinating 2004 essay, What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?

I disagree strongly with more than half of what it says, starting with its definition of conservatism as the goal of aristocratic domination rather than the method of political humility, and going on from there. This foundational mistake would in most cases be a sinker, since it tends to dismiss the natural possibility of driving a wedge between those who defend unwarranted privilege on the one hand, and those who merely object to grabbing a fresh bunch with the other. Nonetheless, Agre partially recoups this ground later with provoking takes on the connection between real democracy and real entrepreneurship; the radical, statist, and partial agenda of the US 'conservative' political mainstream; and the self-destructive tendency for his fellow-liberals to fall into aristocratic habits of authoritarianism and complacency even where they are not, in fact, possessed either of actual authority, or of anything else to be complacent about.

I see one grave omission - a complete failure to address the existence of that half-governmental half-corporate official class, which ranges from harried clerks to powerful ministers and jet-setting executives, and whose membership and interests are quite distinct from those of the 'common people', 'merchants', and 'aristocrats' who dominate Agre's analysis. This is unfortunate, since this class of ruling stewards and regulators pretty much dominates modern Western society. To see them as workers, entrepreneurs, and leaders at best, or lackeys, plutocrats, and aristocrats at worst is not exactly false. It is, however, to miss their fundamental unity. The official class has a collective interest in more ascribed representation (by them) and less autonomous democracy (by those on whose 'behalf' they act), a tension in which Agre otherwise takes a lively and sceptical interest. I think his conclusions might have been stronger and better - i.e. more like my own - had he examined this cause of the tension more closely.

On another and related point, Agre does outstandingly well - for a pro-government liberal - in highlighting and debunking all sides' attempts to confound any form of external government with 'society', 'the people', or even 'democracy'.

And there is much more - much more, indeed, than I can begin to seriously convey in a hit-and-run blog post. It is that rarity, an unabashedly partisan liberal/Democratic think-piece which is well worth reading for liberals, conservatives, and anarchists alike. I heartily recommend it, and shall continue to meditate on its lessons over the coming week.

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