17 October 2020

What is conservative?

 A commonly accepted definition of conservative in both the political and social sense is that those who hold conservative views on the world want to conserve the social status quo. The opposite of conservative is progressive, meaning that those who hold progressive views on the world see and diagnose all sorts of failings in the present social set-up and want to change the status quo for the better. Whereas conservatives are pretty much satisfied with how the world is and will fight actively or passively resist to preserve the current state of affairs, progressives struggle to overcome the inequities of social living. This seems to me to be a tenable basic definition of conservative and its opposite, progressive.

Here, however, I want to take a different, unfamiliar tack by focusing on values, for conservatism is often cast as a desire and striving to conserve certain values characterized as moral and ethical. Such is, for instance, the ethical value of the right to life that is widely comprehensive and open to many different interpretations ranging from the anti-abortionist right of the unborn to live, to the right not be killed by the state under laws of capital punishment. The debates over ethical and moral values rage on. They all relate to how we estimate and esteem each other and/or the Earth, and they are never finally settled as perpetual rights, but subject to ever-renewed social and political struggle.

But what about that other sort of value intimately familiar from everyday life, namely, the value of things, in particular, commodity things sold on the market? Such economic values are normally cordoned off from the 'higher' ethical values as if they were, indeed, values, but of a somewhat lower, grubby status. A cover for this grubbiness is often provided by masking it with the 'high' value of economic freedom, such as the entrepreneurial freedom to set up a profit-making enterprise or the freedom of the consumer to choose among the endless array of goods and services for sale on the market. 

To start with the most elementary: goods and services. They are valued because they are useful for leading your life, such as a hairdresser who styles your hair or an electric shaver for shaving unwanted hair from your body. Usually you buy these services or goods with money for a price. The price paid is a practical, quantitative valuation and estimation of the value of the good or service; it values directly the work providing the service or indirectly the work that went into making the good or and also the contribution that the Earth made either by way of providing raw materials or simply a location for the work to be done.

The good or service is valuable in itself as being useful, but it is also valuable because it can be sold for money which, in turn, can be exchanged in buying something else. This exchange-value, as distinct from use-value, is quantitative in nature and it is also thingly, reified. With this value-thing you can buy anything that can be had for a price, not just goods and services, but also, say, a politician's honesty or a bureaucrat's official permission, both of which are said to be an abuse or illegitimate use of the exchange-power inherent in money. Money-value can also be legitimately exchanged to hire labour power, whose hiring and setting-to-work is at the heart of capitalism. The exchange may be fair or unfair depending on the wages paid and the working conditions.

Value, whose form or 'look' (εἶδος) we clearly understand, can assume many other thingly guises, including landed property, real estate, factories, mines, exquisite works of art, debt claims, shares in publicly traded companies, the option to purchase a commodity in the future. The list goes on and on, but all the derivative guises, forms or 'looks' of thingly value can be traced back to more elementary guises and especially to the monetary form of thingly value as the universal equivalent for anything else of thingly value. Money as the epitome of thingly value obscures and covers up that it is a social power to harness the powers and abilities of people to produce useful goods and services as well as the natural powers of the Earth for the same end.

Conservatives will usually claim that they value and stand for high ethical values they want to conserve and preserve, including traditional rituals and practices. They value the right to life in a certain traditional religious interpretation and also the traditional androcratic form of social living in the family. But underlying all this valuing of the traditional status quo conserving a given way of social living deemed "the best of all possible worlds" there is, almost without exception, the high estimation and valuing of the thingly property they own, along with the prospect of earning future income that, in turn, is thingified in some form of valuable property of whatever kind, even if it be a portfolio of stocks. Those who have property and also good prospects of enhancing and augmenting their property ownership, thus accumulating and 'having' thingified value in one of its myriad guises, have a strong leaning toward wanting to conserve their thingly value above all else. Their ethical and moral values are relegated to a secondary status behind the value of owning property for their own well-being, and this even to the extent of being morally hypocritical, bigoted and corrupt.

This valuing of thingly value over all else makes of conservatives worshippers of a god I call Pleon Exia. His name derives from the ancient Greek word πλεονεξἰα (pleonexia) meaning 'the wish and striving to have more, gain, greed, advantage'. The 'having' part of πλεονεξἰα, namely, -εξἰα, derives from the Greek verb 'to have'. Those who worship this god strive to have more and more and more, and also to savagely fight, with any deceptive rhetorical argument to hand, anything that stands in the way of this striving. Conservatives, in the first place, are those who have more and want to conserve this status above all else, including their 'higher' moral values with which their unbounded desire to have stands in conflict. 

In the second place conservatives are those who aspire and strive to have more, as in the seductive American Dream. Both classes of conservatives want, above all, to conserve their thingly value and all that supports and enhances its acquisition, its appropriation, either by fair means or foul. The foul means consist primarily in unfairly exploiting, and thus misesteeming, the labour power capitalist enterprises hire and also in rabidly exploiting the Earth, thus misesteeming its powers, solely with the aim a generating thingly profits. The thingified nature of value serves to cover up their bigotry in slavishly worshipping Pleon Exia at the cost of treating others (their powers) and the Earth (its natural powers) fairly in a fair and equitable estimation of what they offer. Fairness here is to be thought in the twofold sense of both beauty and fairness in social interplay.

Related: Philorock song Pleon Exia.

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