All politics are the politics of the future. The one cause that we all champion, regardless of our political orientation, is the cause of the future. All that we fight for is the ability to shape the future.
The fundamental political question is, “Do you believe things are getting better or worse?” Ruling parties tend to answer, “Better”, opposition parties tend to answer, “Worse”. The deeper answer to that question though lies in our perceptions of the past and the future.
The left tends to view the past negatively and future shock positively. It wants change to disrupt the old order of things in order to make way for a new order. It hews to a progressive understanding of history in which we have been getting better with the advance of time, the march of progress mimics evolution as a means of lifting humanity out of the muck and raising it up on ivory towers of reason through a ceaseless process of change.
The right often views the past positively, it sees change as a destroyer that undermines civilization’s accomplishments and threatens to usher in anarchy. It fights to conserve that which is threatened by the entropic winds of change. The conservative worldview is progressive in its own way, but it is the progress of the established order. It sees progress emerging from the accretion of civilization, rather than from the disruption of revolution.
Where the left tends to be unrealistically optimistic about the future, acting like a child running to the edge and jumping off, without remembering all the bumps and bruises before, the right tends to be pessimistic about the future. It tends to be wary of change because it is all too aware of how dangerous change can be.
Youth who do not understand the value of what is around them rush to the left. As they achieve a sense of worth, of the world around them and of their labors, they drift slowly to the right. Age also brings with it a sense of vulnerability. Knowing how you can be hurt, how fragile the thin skin of the body, the fleshy connections and organs dangling within, brings with it a different view of the world. Once you understand that you can lose and that you will lose, then you also understand how important it is to defend what you have left.
The vital mantra of the left is do something for the sake of doing something. Change for the sake of novelty. Action for the sake of action. This carnival drumbeat loses its appeal when you come to understand how dangerous change can be. Personal history becomes national history becomes personal history again as you live through it. Seeing what a mistake change can be as you watch politicians disgraced, causes revealed as fool’s errands and crusades fall apart, is a great teacher of the folly of change for the sake of change.
Reagan’s question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” is the fundamental challenge of the conservative that asks whether the change was really worth it. It is the question at the heart of the struggle between the right and the left.
Are you better off than you were twenty years ago or forty years ago? It’s an uncomfortable question because it has no simple answer. In some ways we are better off and in some ways we are worse off. Examining the question points us to the sources of the problem. The places where the tree has grown wrong, the branches that have to be pruned so that it may live.
The power of this question is that it challenges the narrative of change. It asks us to examine that most basic premise that change is good. But beyond the narrative tangles of those in power and those out of power, is the larger echo of that question which asks whether the world overall is becoming a better or worse place.
This question has deeper resonances. Is history a wheel or a rocket shooting up to the stars? Are we on an inevitable evolutionary trajectory rising up or are we doomed to repeat dark ages, progress and then dark ages again? Beneath all the speculations and theorizing is the grim question, what becomes of us? Not us individually, but our societies, our nations, our civilizations, our accomplishments and our way of life.
If you assign no value to the past, then the question hardly matters. Who really cares about the Western Canon, if the only aspect of literature that matters is its relevance to present day social problems? Such a literature by definition has no past or future. Only the throbbing political pulse of the present. What do the Dutch Masters matter if painting is merely a tool for challenging notions of color, order and space? What does the American Revolution matter if blacks did not have the right to vote? Why should anyone pay attention to the Magna Carta when it didn’t cover gay rights?
Change measures the past against the potential of the future as embodied in the strivings of the present and finds it wanting. It does not recognize that it emerges from the past and is defined by it, rather it is always fleeing the past, casting it off, tossing it aside and running breathlessly toward the future. For those who want a single explanation for the Jewish liberal, it is to be noted that political liberalism is an aspect of the rejection of traditionalism. Those who break their ties with the past, escaping the shadows of what seems to be a dark past, to eat of the lotus of an idyllic future, are always running, afraid of what might be following behind them.
The left destroys its future by breaking with the past in search of the future. Like a fish out of the water or a tree with no roots, it perishes and becomes a meal for passing predators. It conceives of futures that have no link with the past and ruthlessly strives to implement them over piles of corpses. It fails to understand that the past is neither good or bad, but a mix of the two that has been tested and refined by struggle and conflict. The future will have both good and bad in it as well, but the more it breaks with the past, the more it will be untested and unrefined.
Change has both positive and negative aspects to it, which is why leaps of hope and change are dangerous. When you jump without looking, without understanding that there are sharp edges, then bad things are more likely to happen. If the right proceeds too cautiously into the future, blinded by a rosy vision of the past, the left rushes too heedlessly forward, mistaking darkness for light.
The left romanticises chaos, while the right romanticises order. But the left’s chaos necessitates a harsher order as the chaos it unleashes is managed with higher and higher levels of social authorities that enforce their perfect plan for change on the formless society bubbling under them. The right’s order allows for less authority because it depends on empowering organic social institutes and mores, rather than enforcing a detailed plan that goes against the grain.
The right’s organic order allows for freer societies because it stems from how people actually live. It is rooted in the past, rather than an ever-changing plan for the future. The left’s artificial order makes for societies that are fundamentally repressive, even when they allow for a limited degree of autonomy, because the hand of the planners is always on every man and woman.
Repressive societies on the right are bottom up, they represent the preferred order of the people, but while the left chants of the will of the people, their repressive societies represent only the master plan of an elite. The right builds such societies to foreclose change, the left builds its societies to implement change, but once that happens, their societies freeze, turn reactionary and fall apart as they no longer have any reason to exist, but to perpetuate the power of the elite.
The right sees positive change as organic, deriving from the inevitable trajectory of a civilization, the left sees positive change as revolutionary, the result of the dispossessed fighting the possessors until the former triumph and the latter yield. This view of history is dangerously childish and violent, but it has become our version of history and it demands that we constantly sacrifice ourselves on the altar of change for the sake of emerging groups of the dispossessed.
For the right, change is life. For the left it is death. It demands the death of societies and people, of nations and beliefs, it is a beast that is constantly hungry for blood, always baying with outrage at the moon. For the right change brings continuity, for the left, utopia. It is this utopia that they worship at the altar of change. This Moloch of hope and fairy cloaked dreams scribbled on scraps of notepaper, signs and slogans which scream that if you want a better world badly enough, then sheer outraged optimism will bring it about.
The old order must die, says the left, for a better world to be born. Sooner or later we must all mount the altar of change and let our blood drip beneath the shaman’s knife, so that the green world may renew itself. Some must be euthanized, others aborted, we must pay more and give more, we must volunteer and donate our times, our lives and our minds to the new order. Our beliefs, our nations and our children, these too we must offer up to the fire.
And when all of it has been burned away, everything but our dream of a perfect world, then the gleaming new world will emerge out of the ashes, a world too wonderful for us to look at. And if that world seems like a dark age, where savages prowl the streets, knives are sharp, services are lacking and there is a man with a whip on every corner, that is because we are too reactionary, too full of the old world to see the glory of the new world for what it is. To rejoice in its bestial scream, to dance mindlessly as the ages are swept away beneath the dead moon while the ashes of burning books and paintings rain down on us and civilization is rubble under our bleeding feet.
Better or worse? It all comes down to how much you have to lose.