When I hear the words liberal and conservative I am reminded of Jim Edwards’ notion that we don’t use these words except as weapons. But I have a friend who uses one of these as a defense against the opposing view. “I am a conservative” he says, as if that would protect him against the onslaughts of the liberal.
I was reviewing and revising my marijuana web site, and I again watched the video from 1996 that is posted in that page. I heard from William F. Buckley, Jr., an avowed conservative, that in order to be a conservative one must first be a realist. That might not be a startling claim for some, but having always respected Buckley for his careful exposition of the world, I recognized an axiom that, though I am not a conservative (or liberal), I think is fundamental to our engagement with people and the world.
The axiom, in its uncomplicated form, states:
There is a real world whether we perceive it or not, whether we understand it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, and that real world persists irrespective of our association with it.
In contrast with that reality we criticize people for not living in the real world. In this part of the presidential election cycle we know the politicians are mostly not living in the real world, especially if they expect that we will vote them in based on their promises. Politicians are notorious for failing to keep promises to the electorate. There are good reasons for this, of course. The politicians are beholden to powers that prior to election do not express themselves with teeth bared only after the election. We don’t forgive them for this, but they expect us to forget.
Nate Silver in his book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t, he describes two types of people, metaphorically, hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs are free with their opinions, predicting the future but mostly failing, because they have no sense of the tangled reality of the sandbox in which they play. And they never get any better in their predictions, because they don’t tie real causes and effects together successfully. Contrarily, the foxes are shy about expressing their opinions, because there are really so many factors that determine any outcome. They realize the future is fraught with unknowns and the flux of human interactions. But Silver notes that their predictive success gets better the longer they are at it.
The hedgehog does not live in the real world, even though they contact it every day. Though they may go by the label liberal, or conservative, they are not realists in the important sense. Or if they are, they choose to ignore the tangled web of influence and causal complexity. They live in Wonderland, criticizing Alice even as they remain clueless of their own companionship with her.
The fox, however, lives “circumspectly, as wise,” recognizing that though one can’t have an objective viewpoint, there are more or less objective views. They choose self-consiously the entangled universe that is acknowledged as entangled, accepting the fact of their prejudices as prejudice, being aware that it can mislead them.
So, this led me to think that whatever label we choose for ourselves, or the avoidance of labels, that a realist perspective typified by the fox will always be preferred over that of the hedgehog.
Frankly, I don’t care whether one proclaims oneself a liberal or conservative, a socialist or capitalist, except in the case where they live clueless of the complexity of the world they live in, and expect me to favor them because of their label. Labels have the curious effect of locking out options for thinking. Michel Foucault and many others have suggested that labeling is intrinsically reductionistic. That is, a label prevents one from examining possibilities that are by definition unthinkable. Since we’re talking about presidents, let me remind you that some of the most effective presidents are those who attached their own label to projects of the opposing party and pushed them as their own. That certainly is a realist perspective.
So when Bernie Sanders claims to be a Socialist, he stings the eyes of the capitalist, OK, I meant to say conservative because conservatives in this era are capitalists. Let me play with socialism and capitalism as opposing worldviews. Really, they are not opposing worldviews, they are modes of production, more tied to how we divide ownership than how we rule ourselves. As financial modes they are both unstable, not worthy of the totalizing domains they wish to control. Both of them require a moderating influence, a political structure that both stabilizes and moderates their worst effects. Kai Nielsen, proposing socialism as the more moral of our pair, suggests that the errors of socialism can be lived with more easily than the errors of capitalism.
What are the errors of socialism? As Nielsen says, an all pervasive bureaucracy attempts to control every effort and every possible effect of our lives. The errors of capitalism on the other hand, divide the world into the owners of production, and those who work for them, the peasants, the proletariat, the wage slaves. Nielsen thinks that a democracy can control the pervasive bureaucracy, preventing the intrusion of government into the lives of individuals. And those framers of the Bill of Rights thought that could control the worst depredations of capitalism.
Here we are in the real world today in the United States. We see both the errors of capitalism and the errors of socialism. But what controls these errors is not their opposite. Capitalism is not a solution for socialism, nor vice versa, but a democracy that can vote appropriate people to lead the nation. That is why the travesty of the modern oligarchy is so egregious. It prevents the democracy from actually doing anything more than spin its wheels and justify the status quo. That’s the real world we live in today. Capitalism and socialism are companion parts of the grain of our political system. The socialists engage the bureaucracy to surveil you and the capitalist dispenses with you as an employee when they no longer need you. You are not a person to either one, but an irritation that needs to be controlled. Their methods differ, but the result is the similar. You become a construct to be controlled and manipulated by message and media, by money and meaning. That is why a democracy, or in our case a representative republic, is required. Only it can control the out of control bureaucracy and the one-percenters’ oligarchy.
Classical liberals side with the people against the power of government. Classical conservatives aim at a government for the people by the people. But today’s rubbish heap of political cronies have lost the concept of the people entirely.
How do we exit this political and economic grinder? First and foremost, by becoming realists. Recognize the trouble we’re in and then vote to get us out of it. That means, we’ll have to ignore the press who are in the pocket of the cronies who have been purchased by the special interests to send the messages they think will help us ignore our responsibilities to vote these creeps out. Second, let me defer to politicians who are not afraid to challenge the status quo. And I’m not talking about the newspeak where change means the status quo, but the Libertarians like Gary Johnson, or the Socialists like Bernie Sanders. Will they be able to fix the republic? No, not in one fell swoop, but they will bring a shakeup that can at least throw the drones across the yard. (Bee drones can’t find their way back to the hive if they are taken out of it.) Gary and Bernie are realists. Their mutual outrage at the current state of affairs promises a disruption of the status quo. They are not like Hillary “Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse” Clinton or the drones of the Republican party, as well-meaning and competent in their world as they may be.
We can vote the status quo, following the press recommendations, or we can change the world. It’s up to us I think.