Monday, 18 August 2014

Surviving, Thriving, and Neoclassicism

Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex tries to figure out the different worldviews underlying conservative and liberal attitudes. He calls his result the Survive-Thrive spectrum. In his view, right-wingers tend to imagine that civilization is hanging by a thread: therefore, right-wingers want lots of police to prevent the loss of order through crime, and lots of soldiers to prevent it coming from outside. Citizens (or, anyway, the right citizens) should have lots of guns, just in case the threat is too big even for the police. Egghead intellectuals are of no real use: you need practical on-the-ground knowledge. They’re suspicious of outsiders, who not only take the stuff you need but might also destabilize the existing order. As Alexander writes, right-wingers look for “hierarchy and conformity.” If you want to imagine how a conservative thinks, you need to imagine you’re in a zombie apocalypse. Their goal is to Survive. (I suggest you read the whole post; he ties a lot of seemingly disparate conservative concerns into this point of view.)

Liberals, meanwhile, imagine society as headed towards utopia. Since crime is on the decline, police are more likely to cause trouble trying to assert their authority than they are to protect people. Because we have more than we need, it is more important that jobs are safe and fulfilling than productive. And because we have everything we need, we can focus our energy on more distant and longer-term concerns: the environment, eradicating inequality, etc. Liberals are oriented not towards Surviving but Thriving.

With the caveat that this is of course a spectrum rather than a dichotomy and that many people are inconsistent, acting sometimes in one way and sometimes in another, I think Alexander does a good job of describing some conservatives and some liberals, but his thought experiment has some problems as well. One of the biggest is that he omits a particular kind of conservative from his framework, the kind I’d call the neoclassicist.

Some conservatives, thinking that civilized society is hanging by thread, do not react by acting as though civilization is already crumbling and becoming either a military state or acting like roving bands of zombie-hunters, but by acting as civilized as they possibly can. Think of C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, where the protagonists insist on acting honourable despite the approaching apocalypse, or G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, where the protagonists fight anarchists by not being anarchists. In order to keep civilization from crumbling, these conservatives double-down on tradition, on etiquette, on the arts, on philosophy and science and other intellectual pursuits. In Battlestar Galactica, Commander Adama suggests that the fleet must do more than survive; they must also act such that they deserve to survive. So Survival is important to these conservatives, but they can only Survive by Thriving. Anything else isn’t Survival.

But they still wind up being very conservative. Because civilization depends on being super-civilized, they won’t tolerate many breaches of etiquette. Moreover, they can be very hostile towards different value systems. Civilization, after all, relies on everyone being civilized, so you cannot tolerate your neighbour’s polyamorous relationship or your daughter’s anarchist politics. Conformity is as necessary in this view as in Alexander’s conservative view, but Alexander’s Survivalists will allow certain standards to slip in order to react to the apocalypse which the neo-classicists won’t tolerate, since those slippages would result in the apocalypse. And changes or experiments in culture are potentially dangerous things, since they might turn out to destabilize the whole foundation of that culture; it’s not only art that is held to fairly conservative standards, but also social forms. If you allow same-sex marriage, the very idea of marriage would change, letting polygamy, incest, bestiality, and pedophilia in the door. Examples of neo-classicists include C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton (as I implied above), Edmund Burke, the contemporary conservatives who tend to quote those people (see many of the writers for First Things and the American Conservative), and of course Alexander Pope and the other 17th-century neoclassicists I’m naming the whole group after.

(17th-century neoclassicists, roughly speaking, adhered to the following six principles: 1) Reason and judgement are the most admirable human faculties. 2) Decorum is paramount. 3) The best way to learn the rules is to study the classical authors. 4) Communities have an obligation to establish and preserve social order, balance, and correctness. 5) Invention is good in moderation. 6) Satire is a useful corrective for unreasonable action, poor judgement, and breaches of decorum.)

The neoclassicists are much more logical, I think, than the survivalists: if both groups note that civilization is hanging by a thread, the neoclassicists try to prevent the civilization from collapsing while the survivalists act as though it already has. The neoclassicist could point out the survivalists’ ironic mistake: by acting as though civilization has already collapsed, when it hasn’t yet, the survivalist may actually make the collapse more likely.

And, by the same token, I think Alexander describes certain liberals quite well, but I wouldn’t consider my own position well-described by his spectrum. Even if society is headed toward utopia, we clearly aren’t there right now. Acting as though we live in a utopia is a fantastic way to prevent a utopia from happening. So I would notice that some liberals might act like we’ve already arrived at utopia, but a more considered liberalism works towards making that utopia happen. The first sort of liberal is, ironically, less inclined to change than the second, because if you think you’ve achieved utopia, why bother changing anything? However, if utopia is possible but not yet attained, you have to work hard to get there: it’s from this more considered liberalism that we get anti-racist activists and ardent environmentalists and so forth.

Indeed, at a certain point and in some respects, leftists look a lot like neoclassicists. I would include myself among these. Some leftists reject the whole “headed toward utopia” vision; we would note with relief that we’ve made great strides in knowledge and medicine, but utopia is far off and we’ve maybe made some things far worse. Income inequality is in a terrible state, and economic mobility does not seem any better today than in 1600. 1600, however, did not have the threats of nuclear war, environmental collapse, or corporate ownership of your genetic material. Indeed, some leftists (including me) would see the world as drifting towards dystopia, not utopia. Civilization is hanging by a thread. But the solution (in our view) isn’t to double-down on tradition and so on, because the existing social order is part of the problem; the existing social order is what produced those nuclear warheads and this environmental precarity and that economic inequality. And the conservative avoidance of change and refusal to accommodate different perspectives is what creates a dystopian government. So my leftist response to thinking that civilization is hanging by a thread is not to double-down on tradition any more than it is to act like there’s a zombie apocalypse going on: my leftist response is to try and tear out all those bad traditions and replace them with something better. We want to try new things and welcome alien perspectives, because our own traditions do not contain the answer, or at least not the whole answer. Perhaps Alexander is right in not counting this as liberal; it may be better called radical. It’s the politics of socialists and anarcho-pacifists. The neoclassicists do not fit so well on Alexander’s Survive-Thrive spectrum, but we radicals fit even less well.

A final word on the Survive-Thrive spectrum: I am not sure how well the zombie apocalypse thought experiment works. It’s easy and tempting to think of a zombie apocalypse as ending civilization, but I don’t think that’s right. I suspect that neoclassicists and survivalists would respond to a zombie apocalypse differently: survivalists would become bands of disciplined survivors, while the neoclassicists would insist that the only way to really prevent the zombies from winning would be to still act honourably despite the apparent absurdity of that honour. In other words, perhaps it isn’t so telling to imagine that survivalists act like they are living in a zombie apocalypse because the culture people come out of would impact how they acted when that culture appeared to collapse. Rapture-ready folks would not act the same as transhumanists and singularity-mongers.

Possible glossary, bearing in mind that this does not describe all of the political landscape by any stretch:

Survivalist: a kind of conservative who, believing that civilization is hanging by a thread, acts as though the apocalypse has happened or has started. Think right-wing US gun nuts or al-Qaeda.
Neoclassicist: a kind of conservative who, believing that civilization is hanging by a thread, acts as civilized as possible. Think Edmund Burke, C. S. Lewis, or Eve Tushnet.
Thriver: a kind of liberal who, believing that society is headed towards utopia, acts as though society is already a utopia and therefore sees little point in challenging the status quo. Think… Hollywood celebrities, mostly?

Activist: a kind of liberal who, believing that society is headed towards utopia, acts to usher that utopia in. Think David Deutsch, Barack Obama, or Gene Robinson.
Radical: a kind of leftist who, believing that society is headed towards dystopia, acts to prevent dystopia by tearing out the parts of civilization pushing it that way. Think Marxists, Christian anarchists, or David Suzuki.

Caveat 1: This is all just a reaction to Slate Star Codex’s framing. I’m not sure how useful it will wind up being, and I don’t expect to think of people or movements primarily in terms of the glossary I’ve offered. This is no more than an offering, no more than one way of colour-coding the thoughtscape.
Caveat 2: I have not read enough of Slate Star Codex to know whether Scott Alexander has already addressed the conservatives I’m calling the neoclassicists. From my skimming, he does an excellent job showing some things that are terribly wrong with what I’m calling the survivalist viewpoint, but I don’t see much about the differences between neoclassicism and survivalism.

(Thanks to Leah Libresco for linking to Scott Alexander's post in one of her own and thus drawing it to my attention.)

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