Two Philosophies of History

Political philosophies often involve views of history. There seems to be two fundamental views of history, as I have touched on in "Traditionalism as Stagnation" and "Radicalism and Moderation". These two views are what I would call the "conservative" and "progressive" views of history. I would like to elaborate on the ups and downs of both of these views of history and to explain why I ultimately side with a progressive view of history and consider it to be compatible with and perhaps even essential to libertarianism.

The conservative view of history may be summed as either the desire to keep things the same or the romantization of the past. The progressive view of history may be summed up as a desire to see things change or the idea that things progress and evolve over time. By definition, the progressive view is more foreward looking, and as a consequence it is quick to abandon traditions. It easily leads to notions of social evolution. In contrast, the conservative view is pessemstic towards the future and consequentially clings to tradition and even aims at reversing history in some respects. The progressive view could be said to be comparatively optimistic because there is something to possibly look foreward to, and therefore it would seem like it has the potential to be radical and revolutionary, while the conservative view easily becomes reactionary and counter-revolutionary.

The marxist view of history, in which communism is proclaimed without proof as being an inevitable future stage of history, is an example of progressivism. On the other hand, progressivism of a quite different sort was espoused by Herbert Spencer, in which social evolution necessitates adaptation to man's environment through increased individual freedom in accordance with the laws of nature. An example of the conservative view would be rigid religious or cultural traditionalism, in which changes that have occured in recent times, such as the move towards secularism and cultural tolerance, are radically opposed while systems of the past are held up as the ideal.

When understood in their proper context, both views have lead to both erroneous and correct conclusions. The conservative view always faces the danger of becoming primitivism or ludditism, in which more simple, agrarian and tribal living of the past is considered the ideal. And progressivism always faces the danger of becoming unenthusiastic and desensitized to the present, or of becoming overly utopian by basing the allegedly "inevitable" future on false notions about human nature. Hence, the social evolutionist faces a danger of becoming more gradualist. Such was Murray Rothbard's diagnosis of what happened to the social evolutionist Herbert Spencer as he aged.

But there have also been some good tendencies on both sides. The wise progressive possesses the insight that it is possible to improve conditions through both social evolution and revolution. They are aware that there things that have not been tried yet, at least fully. The progressive has reason for optimism toward the future. The wise conservative possesses the insight that there are certain basic principles or laws which are necessary for order to flourish. They are aware that there is much to be learned from the thinkers and writters of the past, and that there are some things that will never go away.

Where the progressive may err is over the question of how to go about changing things and what to change to, and in exessive optimism. Change for its own sake, divorced from context, is not rational. Neither is a utopian view of the future. Where the conservative may err is in the inability to aknowledge the changes and extensions that have been made upon the basic principles and laws of the past, and in their exessive pessemism toward the future. Tradition for its own sake, divorced from context and new information, is not rational. Neither is a utopian view of the past.

However, despite such a neutral comparative analysis, ultimately the progressive view has certain benefits that is lacking in the conservative view. For as Frank Zappa once stated, "progress is not possible without deviation from the norm". All innovations had to result from deviations from, modifications on and the total abandonment or replacement of past traditions. The conservative ends up functioning as an apologist for the status quo in the name of a false sense of realism, while inaccurately demonizing all progressive forces as idealist or utopian. The more successful progressive forces are, the more the conservative enters a state of desperation. At best, the conservative can only be a moderate, while the progressive at least has the potential to be a libertarian. The only thing that the strict conservative could concieve of abolishing is modernity, for when driven to their extremes the conservative effectively becomes anti-modern.

Allow me to apply these two basic views via historical example. When there was slavery in America, there were three basic positions with respect to chattel slavery. There were the slavery abolitionists, the slavery reformists and the outright slavery supporters. In the context of the times, the application of the conservative view of history inevitably would lead one to be a slavery supporter or a mild reformist at best, for this view would treat slavery as if it were virtually an inevitable law of nature that always has been and always must be. In this view surely the abolitionists were far too radical and utopian. Consequentially, the conservative view could only lead to a passive acceptance of the existance of the institution of slavery while possibly trying to minimize its effects if one is slightly generous. Only the progressive radicalism of the abolitionists could truly represent a principled opposition to slavery.

The same principle applies to any other institution or tradition, such as the state. By their own logic, the conservative has no choice but to conclude that because the state currently exists and has prevailed in the past, it inevitably must exist by necessity of human nature. Indeed, the conservative view easily leads to extremely pessemistic notions about human nature that are used to legitimize current conditions and institutions. All inequities can be brushed off as mere inadequacies of nature, and all positions of power can be legitimized as the consequence of inexorable laws of nature. Libertarianism and anarchism, in contrast, questions the alleged legitimacy of the state and consistantly applies the same human principles to state agents as they would to any other individual. It questions whether or not existing institutions and traditions are particularly necessary or ethical or logical at all.

The level-headed progressive does not necessarily have to be a starry-eyed utopian. For the progressive may very well grant that there will always be some degree of inadequacy and suffering in life. What they seek to abolish is not reality itself but the synthetic institutional framework that allows such things to be expanded and traditionalized. The constant charge of utopianism thrown at the progressive by the moderate or conservative thus becomes a mischaracterization. The progressive libertarian is neither a utopian or a conservative. Rather, they are radical bastions of vigilance and certainty. The libertarian stands on the side of social power rather than political power, and they do not cave in to moderate and conservative pressure. Neither would it be accurate to blame the libertarian of being only against things and for nothing, for while they certainly may wish to deconstruct certain things they also propose the construction of new things.

The conservative is ultimately a mere apologist or shill for power, while the libertarian is a delegitimizer of power. While the libertarian has a possible future to look foreward to, the conservative is ultimately doomed because they are attempting the impossible: a static society. Despite their sense of being realistic, the conservative refuses to accept the dynamic nature of reality. The future lies with the libertarians.

Published Sat, Apr 12 2008 4:02 PM by Brainpolice