Thursday, March 30, 2017

The History of my Conservatism, Part One

Today I watched a video in which a vlogger described her journey to conservatism, and it excited me to write a post along the same lines. I tried to write a quick post, but I realised that the subject will require a whole series. Part two may not appear for a long while!

I don't remember a time when I wasn't conservative in some way, even though there was a time when I was an out-and-out socialist, and there were times in my life when I professed myself an atheist.

Sometimes it's hard to excavate your own past. I have a very clear memory, for instance, of quoting in my diary-- with approval!-- the motto of Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch scientist I read about in Carl Sagan's book Cosmos: "The world is my country, science my religion".This was when I was sixteen or seventeen. (The diary is long lost.)

That seems unthinkable to me now. Not only does it seem unthinkable, but it seems to go against the feelings and reactions I can remember having all through my life-- for instance, my love of distinctive "realms", whether in science fiction or fantasy or mythology, and my lifelong interest in the supernatural and mystical. 

Indeed, around the same time (on the same computer), I wrote a poem called "On The Rise of Irish Cultural Nationalism" (or some such title), whose first verse I can imperfectly remember:

Even the sober chronicler lost hold
And could no more account for what he told
In economic circumstance
But only mutter that romance
Had come unbidden to the world once more.

Even stranger than my comment about Hugyens is a dream I once had-- I don't remember when I had it, but probably in my teens-- set in some kind of socialist utopian future.

I was sitting in a classroom. The architecture and furnishing of the school were brutalist-- every line was straight and every colour was primary. We were all wearing maroon-coloured overalls. The teacher (a young, female teacher) brought us out to the yard, where we performed some kind of drill or callisthenics. There was not only a feeling that we were at Year Zero, that everything was new, but there was also a feeling of togetherness that was utterly euphoric.

As described, that dream seems like a nightmare to me now-- a thoroughgoing Stalinist nightmare. But not only do I remember having the dream, I can vividly recall the feeling of euphoria.

Since I came from a very left-wing family, steeped over several generations in left-wing Irish republicanism, I naturally had left-wing inclinations from my earliest age-- what a Marxist would call "class consciousness". This was an intense identification with the working class (of which we were members) and a conviction that the ruling class, the employers and the government were always trying to swindle poor people and had to be resisted strenuously. The history of trade unionism particularly was seen as a heroic heritage.

I'm not a socialist anymore, and I have a dimmer view of trade unions now (especially public sector trade unions), but I'm still quite influenced by this view of the world. I've never become a cheerleader for unbridled free market capitalism. I've always identified with the working class and retained a somewhat positive view of working class life. 

The Chestertonian idea that the working classes are naturally conservative and traditionalist, however, is not entirely borne out by my experience-- for instance, my working class home of Ballymun gave a particularly big vote in favour of same-sex "marriage" in 2015. I believe the working classes are more patriotic than the middle classes-- witness Brexit-- but in terms of "lifestyle" they are probably at least as liberal. When it comes to religion, Mass attendance in working class areas of Dublin are the lowest in Ireland, although working class people are notably inclined to bless themselves when they pass a church and to show other signs of religiosity, as distinct from religious practice.

Cultural conservatism is the conservatism I've held the longest. I can clearly remember feeling the utmost scorn for modern art of every kind since at least my early teens. I had a particular animus towards free verse and cryptic poetry, but I also despised modern visual art. I remember feeling immeasurable contempt towards one of my class-mates who, on a class visit to an art gallery, asked one of the attendants if they had any modern art. I wanted to punch him.

When I studied the history of visual art in secondary school, in my late teens, I developed more respect for some modern artists-- Piet Mondrian, Edvard Munch, Marc Chagall, and a few others. (Indeed, Mondrian might be my single favourite visual artist, which I agree seems rather out of character.) But I still despised modern art in general, especially the sort of thing that's descended from Marcel Duchamp's urinal.

Painting by Piet Mondrian

Robert Conquest argues that everybody is conservative about the things he knows best. I'm not saying that's true. But I find it hard to believe that anyone who really appreciates W.B. Yeats or Lord Byron can take Seamus Heaney or Ezra Pound seriously.

As I've often written before, I vacillated wildly on the matter of Irishness and Irish nationalism. There was a time in my teens when I was so intensely nationalistic that it seriously bothered me when I learned that, legally speaking, foreign embassies to Ireland were not on Irish soil. (This would have been in my teens, and even at the time I think I realised how ridiculous it was-- why would I even remember it, otherwise?) I've written a lot on this subject so I won't go into it again here. Suffice it to say that my reactions against Irish nationalism were every bit as passionate as my nationalist phases, and that I didn't then make the distinction between political nationalism and social/cultural nationalism which I now make.

In my late teens and early twenties, my socialism was at its height, although it was more social democracy than socialism proper. I was in favour of as much government intervention in the economy as possible.

For me, it was not so much a case of seeking utopia as fearing dystopia. I had the firm conviction that commerce was drowning society, that before long everybody would be working every waking hour for a bare subsistence, that libraries and public parks and public swimming pools would be replaced by office blocks and supermarkets, that massive corporations were dismantling the state, and so on. I'm not sure what this conviction was based on-- perhaps reading about the Industrial Revolution-- but there are many highly qualified adults who seem permanently stuck at this same point. (There was an element of High Tory disdain for "trade" in this.)

I remember coming across this old trade union ditty which I thought perfectly enunciated my philosophy:

Eight hours work, eight hours play,
Eight hours lie-a-bed, and eight bob a day. 

That was my idea of socialism. Just that. And even back then I was very emphatic that this was all I meant-- sometimes I preferred the term "labourist" to "socialist". I was never a Marxist.

At the zenith of my socialism, I despised all "post-materialist" ideologies. What was the point of getting worked up about nationalism or discrimination or the environment if people were living in penury? I thoroughly approved of this Yeatsian couplet:

Parnell came down the road and said to a cheering man: 
'Ireland will get her freedom, and you still break stone.'

I also approved of the words of James Connolly, the Marxist whose socialist militia participated in the 1916 Rising (but who made his peace with the Church before his execution): "Ireland without her people is nothing to me, and the man who is bubbling over with love and enthusiasm for ‘Ireland’, and can yet pass unmoved through our streets and witness all the wrong and the suffering, the shame and the degradation wrought upon the people of Ireland, aye, wrought by Irishmen upon Irishmen and women, without burning to end it, is, in my opinion, a fraud and a liar in his heart, no matter how he loves that combination of chemical elements which he is pleased to call ‘Ireland’. "

To be honest, I now wonder whether I have swung too far in the opposite direction-- whether I have earned Connolly's harsh words. There is so little on this blog about the actual material sufferings of human beings, such as the homeless, or those stuck for years on hospital waiting lists. I do think that contemporary society pays too little attention to our spiritual, cultural and social needs-- but that doesn't get me off the hook for how little attention I pay to my fellow man's simple physical needs. I shudder sometimes when I read the parable of the sheep and the goats. I hope to improve in this regard, to have a more integrated view of the world.

On the other hand, I do think I had an excessively gloomy view of living standards in my socialist days, and that socialists tend to take an excessively gloomy view of living standards. I think most people in our society have had their material needs met, in most regards, and even have a more-than-adequate standard of living. Accepting for argument's sake that Abraham Maslow's famous pyramid of needs bears some resemblance to reality, I now think our post-material needs actually kick in a lot sooner than I once thought they did.

Even today, I'm not the kind of conservative who uses the term "socialism" disparagingly, to describe the "opposite" ideology to his own. To me, that is progressivism, or globalism, or secularism-- depending on the context.

To be continued!

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