Conservatism and Sociology
Mark Wegierski, on the science of power
In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a central point is that semantics are critical for the maintenance of a given social and political system. “Newspeak is Ingsoc, and Ingsoc is Newspeak.” The coherence or incoherence (in terms of definition), and the positive or negative value (in terms of emotion), which are commonly associated with a political ideology, will tell one a great deal about the strength of that ideology. The words and language which are used to describe social or political phenomena, which Orwell called “the B vocabulary” in his Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four, constitute the primary instruments by which an ideology asserts itself in any given society. It should be noted that complex, multi‑layered political terms such as “conservatism” or “liberalism” or “socialism” conjure immediate images and emotional responses in most people’s minds.
In terms of the unstated emotive content of the term “conservatism”, these images and emotional responses, for a traditionalist conservative, can range from a wistful remembrance of the beauty of a Gothic cathedral and the medieval Christendom from which it sprang to a visceral distaste towards a middle‑aged WASP corporate controller type luxuriating in his penthouse suite atop Manhattan, and the oppressive capitalist structure which he represents (for the archetypal Left-liberal).
Clearly, the term “conservatism” is today a veritable labyrinth of confused and contradictory meanings, many of them quite negative and pejorative. Even those who consider themselves “conservative” fail to appreciate a large part of that word’s possible deeper or more subtle nuances. It seems that many such persons arrive at an overly‑simple “pet definition” of the word, which they then arrogantly and intolerantly foist on their fellow “believers”. The ideological rivals of conservatism hardly need to exert themselves to introduce semantic confusion and chaos into the political battle‑ground. “Traditionalism” has to be restored and rejuvenated as a theory, before it can play any practical part in the future of conservatism, or of mankind.
Almost all conservatives, especially of the “traditionalist” variety, have too long shunned the methods and language of social science. The first goal of conservative theoretical endeavour should therefore be to establish a “new science of politics”. Among the first tasks of this “new science” would be the careful definition of certain terms key to political enquiry -‑ power, ideology, ruling group, etc. This, in many ways, would be a continuation of the work begun by Orwell, Pareto, Machiavelli, Michels, Mosca and Burnham, amongst others. [Editorial note; classical sociology, as elaborated by the aforementioned figures and also by Durkheim, Comte, Spencer and Weber, is predominantly conservative]
The new science would make clear that every society is dominated by a narrow, exclusive circle of power‑holders, regardless of what it claims to be. The task of the political scientist is therefore to identify who are the effective (not only formal) power‑holders in contemporary societies; which ideologies are prevalent among them; and how these ideologies are transmitted.
The question of competing ideologies, and the evaluation of their comparative strength in a given society, is pivotal. Political taxonomies or representations of the political spectrum should be drawn up. The making of careful distinctions, as between Western neo‑Marxists (socially liberal) and orthodox Eastern Marxists (socially puritanical), is imperative. Quantitative and empirical methodologies should be devised to more accurately measure the strength or preponderance of given ideologies.
Ideology, and the semantics of ideology, would be a principal focus of this approach. The real, as opposed to the formal meanings of political pronouncements would be ascertained; the ideological underpinnings and pre‑suppositions of modern political vocabularies would be laid bare; likewise, the unstated emotive content of political terms and discourse. The semantic tricks and devices which are employed by ideologists would not only be identified, they would be systematically classified, and applied to the current situation.
The methods by which ruling groups exercise their control (coercive, utilitarian, and normative instrumentalities) must be analyzed; common legitimating devices and techniques shown; “the circulation of elites” -‑ the displacement of one ruling group by another ‑-addressed; the types of possible dissidence identified (including pseudo‑dissidence).
This emergent, right-leaning “critical theory” would hopefully deconstruct and demolish the ideological underpinnings of contemporary liberalism, building up to a general description of the over‑all “control system” and “shape” of our society. Contra neo-Marxism, this control does not constitute rule by a “corporate‑fascist‑authoritarian” elite but rather rule by an agglomerate of urban‑based corporate, media, and ad‑hoc minority coalition groups, who impose their ideology on the virtually unrepresented and leaderless mainstream of society. The media group in particular is a narrow, closed caste, existing above and beyond any public scrutiny or “checks and balances” and able to impose its ideology on a hapless populace.
This truly critical, social‑scientific approach could rip open the ideological underpinnings, overweening pretensions, and self‑righteous hypocrisies of contemporary liberalism, initiating a new type of political struggle -‑ a struggle for “the heart and soul” of our society ‑- not mired in petty issues, but played for the highest world‑historical stakes.
Every ideology is ultimately based on a theory of human nature or existence. It is only by formulating a unified theory of human nature, society, and history, that conservatism can achieve a sense of ideological consistency and rigour. One of the reasons why many persons were hitherto drawn to Marxism is that it offers consistent answers and solutions to the questions of social existence and the problems of society, however “wrong” those answers and solutions may be.
There are problems which “traditionalist” conservatives face in ultimately justifying their tenets to the modern world. Their most common lines of argumentation, based on religious, literary, and narrowly historical modes, no longer generally appeal. Their over‑written and over-flowery arguments, with their ceaseless invocation of what have become meaningless code‑words like “right reason”, “virtue”, and “the Great Books”, have a certain staleness and sense of unreality about them.
Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which eschewed an overly traditional or scholarly approach to these issues, demonstrates the efficacy of that mode of social criticism. Tom Wolfe has also highlighted the inanities and stupidities of contemporary Western society, without necessarily being identified as a conservative. What needs to be done is to bring this approach into all areas of conservative theoretical endeavour.
Every ideology searches (or should search) for a theory or account of human nature which has “the resounding ring of truth”, and which is consonant with the praxis of that ideology. Theology or literary criticism or picayune historical analysis are hardly credible modes in which such theoretical work can be done, especially in the modern, super‑scienticized, super‑technological world. The extent to which the people of a given society (implicitly or explicitly) accept a given theory of human nature and existence usually determines which given ideology is prevalent in the functioning of that society. Only by focusing on theoretical questions (i.e., by building on a solid foundation), rather than by fighting battles over petty policy issues, can significant social change can begin.
Sociologist Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer