Posted by: Chris | March 6, 2011

The Conservative Dilemma

Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored, which I am currently on the cusp of finishing, is truly a superlative book.  I suspect I will discuss bits of it here and there in these parts in the future, but suffice it to say, despite ostensibly focusing on just ten years of nineteenth century diplomacy, the book is consistently wide-ranging and insightful and reads like no other dissertation you will come across.

One of the best sections of the book is a chapter in the middle which in Kissinger engages in a lengthy disquisition on the political thought of Prince Klemens von Metternich, the work’s tragic hero, and, by extension, a look at the nature of conservatism. 

Update: Those with Jstor access can find what appears to be the same text as the chapter in question but as an essay in the APSR.  It lacks the opening bit contextualizing the discursion to the rest of the work, as well as, one assumes, the lengthy section at the end relating Metternich’s philosophy to the domestic difficulties in Austria.  I will keep the quotes-at-length beyond the fold for those who want a sampling of the chapter (but mostly because I spent awhile retyping them and I want something to show for that time spent).

Some quick background from the rest of the book: it deals with Metternich’s and Lord Castlereagh’s individual struggles to create a sustainable European equilibrium, as well as the moral sanction to sustain it, during and following the ultimate defeat of Napoleanic France.  Kissinger portrays Metternich, here and elsewhere, as “man of proportion” to whom the most important thing is “the recognition of limits” (77).  However, he is also characterized as an arch-rationalist, one who sought “finely balanced solutions which to the eighteenth century expressed the fitness of the universe conceived as a ‘great clockwork'” (110), which makes Oakshotte’s essay on Rationalism in politics linked to by CF a great companion piece.  

Metternich and the Nature of Conservatism

A conservative, simply put, believes that what is deserves special consideration simply for being.  To Metternich, the charge of a conservative statesman is the imperceptible maintenance of this existing order, whose legitimacy is unchallenged not based on the persuasiveness of its cause but because it is inconceivable otherwise.  This means one must preemptively quell or integrate all challenges to the superstructure before they manifest, to preserve the illusion that the status quo can only be refined, never remade.  This is why he supported keeping Napoleon on the French throne, integrating him as best as possible into the concert of states, instead of deposing the Corsican menace as much of the rest of the Allies preferred.  In Metternich’s mind, removing the Bonaparte line from office acceded to the idea that monarchs could be removed and the restoration of the Bourbons, especially with constitutionally limited powers, was a vain attempt to reseal an already punctured myth, destined to invite further turbulence at the slightest disturbance.  Kissinger, though sympathetic, remarks on the impossibility of this goal, which portents the weaknesses of Metternich’s particular conception of conservatism.

[Metternich] had fought Napoleon’s revolutionary attack on the international order.  But he had admired Napoleon’s domestic policy for its ability to master a decade of social upheaval.  He therefore attempted to eliminate Napoleon as a threat to the international equilibrium while preserving him as the protector of the social balance.  But no policy can combine all advantages.  The very qualities that made Napoleon an autocrat domestically caused him to be a revolutionary in foreign affairs.  The very intransigences which had led him to crush domestic opposition made it impossible for Napoleon to come to terms in time with his foreign foes.  As the Allies traversed the road to Langres, the road to Paris seemed open; France had been eliminated as a weight in the balance; the war fought in the name of equilibrium had lost its necessary balance.

Metternich, though masterful at diagnosing potential maladies that others willfully ignored, often found himself incapable of averting their eventual manifestation.  In attempting to keep the exact right proportion for France domestically and internationally, both ends overshot irretrievably; both, ironically, thanks undying  will to power of the one man whose empire and whose reign this effort at limitation was attempting to preserve from himself.  This is of course a microcosm of the conservative dilemma: to recognize changes as lamentable as they are inescapable.

What then is the proper repose of a conservative amidst a revolution, facing down these intolerable, inexorable changes?  This is the question Kissinger considers towards the opening of the chapter:

But what is a conservative to do in a revolutionary situation?  A stable social order exists with an intuition of permanence and opposition to it is either ignored or attempted to be assimilated…A revolutionary order, on the other hand, is characterized by its self-consciousness, because political life loses its spontaneity once the existing pattern of obligation has been challenged.  The motivation of a stable order is a concept of duty, the assertion of the self-evidence of social maxims, where alternate courses of action are not rejected but are inconceivable.  The motivation of a revolutionary period is a concept of loyalty, where the act of submitting the will achieves a symbolic and even ritualistic significance, because alternatives seem ever-present.  An ethic of duty involves a notion of responsibility which judges actions by the orientation of the will… An ethic of loyalty involves a notion of orthodoxy, because it is a means to achieve a group identity…  Duty expresses the aspect of universality, loyalty that of contingency.

In this manner the conservative, when he organizes himself politically, becomes, in spite of himself, the symbol of the revolutionary period.  His fundamental position involves the denial of the validity of the questions regarding the nature of authority; but the questions, by exacting a reply, have demonstrated a kind of validity.  To the revolutionary, the conservative’s position becomes an answer, a victory even should the immediate battle end adversely.  For what does it profit a conservative to emerge victorious in a battle of wills?  His battle is social not personal, his justification not individual but historical.  It is no accident that, in revolutionary periods, the conservative position becomes dominated by its reactionary, that is counter-revolutionary, wing, which fights in terms of will and with an ethic of loyalty.  For the true conservative is not at home in social struggle.  He will attempt to avoid unbridgeable schism, because he knows that a stable social structure thrives not on triumphs but on reconciliations.

How then can the conservatives rescue his position from the contingency of conflicting claims?  How can that which is persuade when its self-evidence has disintegrated?  By fighting as anonymously as possible, has been the classic conservative reply, so that if the answer must be given, it will transcend the will, so that the contest occurs at least on a plane beyond the individual, so that obligation can become duty and not loyalty.  To fight for conservatism in the name of historical forces, to reject the validity of the revolutionary question because of its denial of the temporal aspect of society and the social contract; this was the answer of Burke.  To fight the revolution in the name of reason, to deny the validity of the question on epistemological grounds, as contrary to the structure of the universe; this was the answer of Metternich. (192-193)

The conservative dilemma arises quite naturally: once the existing order is challenged (ie the only time in which one’s conservatism becomes relevant), one necessarily cannot appeal to the self-evidence of that order to justify its continued existence.  A conservative could abdicate the point, adjusting the norms sufficiently minimally to obviate the challenge while preserving the essence, in the hopes of establishing a new normal not dissimilar from the old.  However, this actions risks effectively conceding control of devising social and political structure to the most revolutionary element  extant.  Conversely, conservatives can predicate their response on the specific logic of the current system, disavowing the universality of the institutions in question and weakening future attempts to found a new tranquility on this principle.  Political outcomes are then reduced to a battle of wills, with all elements subject to successive dismantlement and reinstatement.  The first approach concedes the substance in hopes of preserving the principle; the second abandons the principle so that it can fight more effectively for the substance.

Kissinger points to two attempts to thread the needle, to emerge from a revolutionary challenge with both elements largely intact.  The first, broadly speaking encompassing much of British conservative and classical liberal thought, achieves this by delimiting the realms of the political and of human reason through an appeal to historical trends outside the grasp of either, arguing that norms and institutions do not change but evolve and only into forms analogous to that which preceded them.  The second, corresponding most closely to Metternich and a like-minded coterie of Continental statesmen, concurs with the revolutionaries on the competence of rationality, but draws from their premises wholly opposite conclusions; it finds revolutionary change, of any sort, in violation of the intricate workings of the universe, where it is not in Man’s role to engage in creation or destruction and thus the ultimate result likely abhorrent.

One senses Kissinger prefers some middle ground between these two answers, for, though his heart is clearly for Metternich, he also acknowledges the drawbacks of this response and the fundamental benefits of the irrationalism and the segregation of state and society inherent in British conservatism.  Metternich, according to Kissinger, became prone to precipitating and exacerbating crises particularly because he existed so thoroughly on an ideational plane., slowly abdicating on his prized proportionality and thus making the perfect the enemy of the good.

It was thus that Metternich posed the conservative challenge as the need to transcend the exclusive validity of the will and as the requirement to limit the claims of power…  It represented an effort to deal with the most fundamental problem in politics, which is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.  To punish the “wicked” is a relatively easy matter, as it is a simple expression of public morality.  To restrain the exercise of righteous power is more difficult, because it asserts that right exists in time as well as space, that volition, however noble, is limited by forces transcending the will; that achievement of self-restraint is the ultimate challenge of the social order.  Metternich dealt with this problem by asserting that excess in any direction was disruptive of society…

Metternich’s thus became a never-ending quest for a moment of tranquility, for a suspension, if only for an instant, of the flux of life, so that what happened, perhaps inevitably, could be represented as a universal principle instead of an assertion of will and of indeterminancy…  So it happened that Metternich’s insights, however powerful, became increasingly dogmatic.  While he may have been right in asserting that those who have never had a past cannot own the future, those who have had a past may doom themselves by seeking it in the future…

Therefore, his increasingly rigid opposition to any change, for change symbolized the possibility of yielding to pressure: “Where everything is tottering, it is above all necessary that something, no matter what, remain steadfast, so that the lost can find a connection and the strayed a refuge.”  This accounted for his preference for Napoleon of the Bourbons despite the “legitimacy” of the latter; to Metternich legitimacy was not a tool and when it conflicted with the requirements of stability, it had to yield.  Therefore, paradoxically, Metternich became a defender of existing institutions however much he might deplore them, because their overthrow might represent an even more dangerous symbol…

For Metternich was an opponent who fought liberalism using the same universality that it claimed for itself, whose mode of argument represented as much of a challenge to his opponents as their existence to him.  It is difficult, indeed, for a rationalist philosophy to survive the demonstration that the same premise can lead to diametrically opposed conclusions…

That which Metternich believed he merely needed to exhibit to reduce to absurdity, his opponents thought required only an affirmation in order to be validated.  It was the inevitable revolutionary misunderstanding, the reluctance to admit that “truth” might not be self-evident…  Had “reality” still proven unambiguous, he would not have needed to affirm it.  By the increasing insistence of his affirmation, he testified to its disintegration…

But in practice, it led to a vicious cycle, because Metternich, although not opposed to reform in principle, wanted it as an emanation of order, while his opponents desired the same thing in the name of change.  The result was a stalemate, the triumph of form over substance (206, 205, 204, 199-200, 202, 205, respectively).

The Arab League’s Dilemma

Metternich’s conception of conservatism leads, quite naturally, to insights concerning the current revolutions that are rippling across the Arab world and the comparative responses of various leaders who seek to quell these uprisings.  This is especially fitting considering various commentators have analogized these convulsions to the series of revolts that swept Europe in 1848, the culmination of Metternich’s half-century struggle with the amorphous forces of liberalism.  These regimes face the same dilemma that Metternich and his contemporaries grappled with and ultimately failed to solve, of how to confront an infectious revolutionary fervor without sacrificing the existing arrangements or their justifications.

To start with the most newsworthy (and extreme) example, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi has explicitly made the current struggle a violent contest of wills, abdicating any sense of the legitimate rule, hoping instead to secure his power through appeals to personal loyalty rather than civic duty.  His strategy, insofar as it has a logic beyond vengeful brutality, seems to be to so thoroughly debase the foundations of Libya so that no one but he would want to rule it and to so completely eradicate the state’s legitimation that only through appeals to his person and his will could anyone hope to run it.  But Gaddafi cannot hope to control a people on fealty and hand outs alone, even if he successfully defeats the organized opposition in his contest of wills.  He will himself be dragged under soon enough by the swirling tumult he has stirred up and then there will be nothing left of Libya but chaos. 

It is worth noting that this pattern coincides neatly with the actions of leaders of other nascent failed states, like that of Siad Barre or Mobutu Sese Seko.  Faced with armed opposition to the current state of affairs, the dictators seek gratuitous retribution concerted with a renewed legitimation of the regime based on personal loyalties or family/tribal ties.  This combination, resulting in a revolutionary posture from all parties, is toxic to the proper function of states and can only result in a prolonged war of all against all, even long after the offending regime has crumbled into the grave it has dug itself.  Lest one interpret this as an endorsement of an anthropogenic conception of state failure, it is important to keep in mind the deeper factors that put the regime and its opponents in a position where the utter delegitimation of the state becomes the best hope for self-preservation.  It is superficial to assume, as some seem to, that all state and substate actors are infinitely flexible at all times, their choices perpetually unimpinged by circumstance; that only a personality defect, a sociopathic avarice or power-lust, can explain why someone would intentionally drive their state and their regime into an inescapable death spiral.

However, this pattern does belie one of the inanities I have read and heard bandied about, which argues, especially in the wake of the ouster of the Tunisian governments, that only unflinching crackdowns can suppress revolts, assuming, not unlike Metternich, that any concession represents an admission of some truth to the regime opponent’s reality and only incites, rather than sops, the clamor for more fundamental change.  It ignores that an active repression of a revolution itself also constitutes a reply to the “questions regarding the nature of authority.”  To treat the opposition as a mortal threat both affirms their existence and the potential validity of their objections.  Indeed, if a leader predicates his response on a struggle of wills between that of the regime and its loyalists against that of the opposition for control of the state, as did Gaddafi, he makes a greater concession to the revolters than any specific policy change: he admits to the contingency the entire regime, forcing political life to become simply a manifestation of explicit and competing loyalties, rather than of implicit obligations.  Thus the leaders willfully abet the central charge of a revolutionary, to puncture the self-sustaining mystique of the state and its related institutions, the crucial distinguishing feature between statehood and being a mere rent-seeking conspiracy; to classify these institutions not as legitimate means of mediating society but as tendentious tools for coercing the public.  Explicitly self-interested repression will always be self-defeating, for it destroys the state to preserve personal rule.

This is why I suspect the Iranian state is much more likely to survive this round of upheavals than many other Western observersseem to believe, despite having utterly abysmal economic indicators (like double Egypt’s inflation, shortages on many necessary items, and growing poverty and economic inequality.  The Islamic Republic has thus far been blessed by the novel structure of its domestic institutions and the illusion, at least, of their constitutionality.  Unlike in much of the rest of the Arab world, political power is diffused across multiple actors instead of in the hands of one man (though, it ultimately resides with the aptly named Supreme Leader) and legitimated by Islamic law and traditions, instead of by temporary contingencies and personal loyalties.  Thus, for example, it can reap some of the benefits of democracy, which effectively disaggregates the state from those who administer it, through the non-impotent Presidency and Parliament and by keeping the Supreme Leader aloof of electoral politics and day-to-day administration.

The Green movement has therefore confined itself to disputing a fraudulent Presidential election, on which the Supreme Leader has barely weighed in, instead of the fundamental institutions of the state.  This gives the regime the capacity to confront the Greens as an disruptive threat to the stability of the state itself, the legitimacy of which largely remains unquestioned, and to rally a significant portion of the public in support of the regime (and, by extension, Ahmadinejad) without needing to resort to appeals to personal loyalties.  In effect, Ahmadinejad serves as a firewall for the legitimacy of the state, which, now secure, can thus be used to justify violently repressing the Greens,  in turn preserving Ahmadinejad’s presidency so that it may further buffer the state.  It is a nifty balancing act, one which the regime likely cannot sustain for too long or with too many more egregious missteps.  But for now, it seems the Greens lack both the will and the reason to effectively challenge the entire domestic structure of Iran and the movement will be confined to regular protests, spinning furiously for Western consumption but gaining no traction domestically against the regime.

This trend also bodes well for the various constitutional monarchies that the British mandators bequeathed across the Arabian peninsula, as well as in Morocco and Jordan.  Though less capable at insulating the structure of the regime from mass opposition, they do, like Iran, have a tradition of both constitutional limitation and prolonged regime stability to appeal to, whose preservation will likely not be called into question.  Further, these regimes have been far savvier than the Islamic Republic at preempting, rather than provoking, revolutionaries, repeatedly mixing piecemeal domestic reform with an extensive system of surveillance and interference (professed to combat terrorists, naturally) in order to quell any revolutionary spirit before it can manifest a challenge to the status quo.  This has kept any uprisings, like the one recently in Bahrain, limited in objectives and thus easily managed.  One cannot assume this strategy will work indefinitely (what happens when, for example, the oil money runs dry?), but it should be sufficient to allow these regimes to survive the current crisis.

What, then, of the two governments whose collapse inaugurated this current mood, that of Tunisia or Egypt?  Were their fates avoidable?  In is tempting, in hindsight, to assume that outcomes obtained were inevitable.  The regimes did err repeatedly in dealing with their oppositions, vacillating between offering substantive concessions and pushing for a conflict of wills with the protestors.  But the Egyptian and Tunisian leadership also lacked the structural advantages of their neighbors, heading regimes that effectively began with their rule (though both Ben Ali and Mubarak can point to tenuous links to their predecessors), legitimated by their person, and predicated on fleeting contingencies.  Theirs was a political life whose impermanence could never fully be expunged; a brackish bog where duty and spontaneity, requiring the illusion of permanence, could never take root.  Further, the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes had a far steeper demographic and economic hill to surmount in quelling the riots than any other similarly afflicted country: high food prices and inflation, a sizable youth bulge, and a relatively well-established middle class all combine to create an almost irresistable force for both liberal and populist reforms.

It does not seem unsurprising then that, confronted with these difficulties and with few institutional advantages, the regimes were thrust without recourse into the heart of the conservative dilemma and were forced to retread Metternich’s doomed path.  Like Metternich, one can imagine both dictators were unopposed to much of the reformers’ platform in principle.  But like him, they wanted it as “an emanation of order” rather than in the name of change, enacted not when the mobs were all atwitter on the streets but following a brief ebb in the revolutionary tide, as if to demonstrate which party were truly in control.  The irony in this belief, of course, is that reform in these instances is fundamentally reactionary; it only seems necessary during periods of institutional duress, which happen to be the exact moment when concessions seem least amenable.  Both the modern Arab dictators and the nineteenth-century conservatives were given ample respite from the prevailing mood, but these periods always seem at the time like crises averted rather than opportunities to avert the next.

Both Mubarak and Ben Ali were ultimately unable solve the conservative dilemma, to preserve their hold on power while retaining the legitimacy of their rule.  However, through one timely and common concession, they were able to insulate as much of the social order as possible, though at their own personal loss.  Because, in both cases, their person had become so completely a symbol for their respective regimes, they could defuse much of the revolutionary appetite for more fundamental reforms by stepping aside, while leaving associates to oversee the transition, thus protecting the state from a more complete overhaul of its institutions.  But this does not mean that their removal resolves all outstanding issues.  Indeed, one can imagine either former dictator penning this in resignation:

“For thirty-nine years I played the role of the rock, from which the wave recoil…until finally they succeed in engulfing it.  They did not become calm afterwards, for what caused their turmoil was not the rock, but their inherent unrest.  The removal of the obstacle did not alter the situation, nor could it have…I would like to call out to the representatives of social upheaval: ‘Citizen of a world that exists but in your dreams, nothing is altered.  On March 14, nothing happened save the elimination of a single man.'” (196).

Thus wrote Klemens von Metternich in 1848, another personification of the existing order forced out of office as a concession to the throng in order to save his state.  As in Europe over a century and a half ago, we should expect more upheaval and more bloodshed before these seas calm again.


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