Thursday, May 27, 2010

C B Macpherson on Burke

If you want to understand the relationship between conservatism and capitalist modernity, you could do worse than consult the Canadian marxist C B Macpherson and his brief guide to Edmund Burke. The apparent paradox of Burke is that he is a defender of aristocracy, of tradition and hierarchy, a scourge of liberal revolutionaries, a natural law conservative, at the same time as being a bourgeois liberal, a pro-market Whig and a vehement opponent of British imperialism. It is true that conservatism gradually integrated aspects of liberalism throughout the 19th Century so that, in its dominant Angl0-American variant, it eventually became a more ardent defender of classical liberalism than the liberals of the 20th Century. But Burke was there at the beginning, as it were - along with Joseph de Maistre, a founder of modern conservative thought, such that his paradoxical embrace of aspects of liberalism can not be treated as merely part of that adaptive process. His liberalism, and his modernism, were always-already constitutive of his conservatism.

Macpherson intriguingly suggests in his introduction that the key to resolving this conundrum is Burke's support for capitalism:

"There is no doubt that in everything he wrote and did, he venerated the traditional order. But his traditional order was already a capitalist order. He saw that it was so, and wished it to be more freely so. He had no romantic yearning for a bygone feudal order and no respect for such remnants of it as still survived, notably in the royal household ... He lived in the present, and made it his business to study the economic consequences of actual and projected state policies. As MP for Bristol (1775-80) he could scarcely have done otherwise, for Bristol was then one of the greatest commercial ports in England. But his interest in economic affairs had, as we shall see in some detail, begun earlier and lasted longer than his connection with Bristol..." (C B Macpherson, Burke, Oxford University Press, 1980, p. 5).

In chapter five, he draws this out further, but it is necessary to further elaborate on his market liberalism, as well as his hierarchical conservatism. The former manifested itself earlier in his career, the latter after the French revolution. From his earliest undergraduate polemics on political economy in Dublin, Burke's position on the rights of property was impeccably bourgeois, as befitted a member of the Ascendancy. He was no leveller, but he believed that the owners had a duty to "improve" their property, to augment their own wealth and thereby increase the wealth of all classes. For this reason, he was to find himself far more at home in England, where most landowners were commercial proprietors, than in Ireland, where absentee landlordism was still rife. He was taken up by literary London, joining the 'Club', among whose luminaries was Adam Smith, and taking up residence in Grub Street (though, in a rather more august capacity as a writer than the street is notorious for). His entry into politics was equally facilitated by a superior taking him under his wing, when William Gerald Hamilton MP asked him to be his private secretary. As a bourgeois, he owed much of his career to patronage, and later to the accomodating abundance of 'rotten boroughs' that enabled him to be 'elected' as MP for Wendover by grace of Lord Wendover.

It was Burke's career as an MP that marked him out as a moderate Whig, a reformer, and an opponent of colonial abuses. His liberalism was as opposed to a priori reasoning as was his later conservatism. Rejecting abstract accounts of liberty, as he had earlier rejected Rousseau, he denied that freedom bore "any resemblance to those propositions in geometry and metaphysicks, which admit no medium". Liberty in real social life was "variously mixed and modified, enjoyed in different degrees ... according to the temper and circumstances of every community". This anti-theoretical approach informed his response to the American revolution, in which he urged the British government not to see the abstract virtues of liberty, but the concrete virtues of a peace obtained by tolerating liberty in some degree. Consistently, against inductions from general principles, he posed complex empirical reality, the frailty and imperfection of human beings, and the hard reality of "human nature" about which he held bourgeois assumptions. His assumptions about human nature provided the foundation for his principled attack on Irish penal laws, for he maintained that the law was of necessity grounded on two aspects of the human condition: equality of original condition, and rationality. The law must therefore apply equally to everyone within a given polity, and must be of use to the whole of society.

If the law was to apply equally, and be of use to the whole of society, this had some ramifications for Burke's views on property. For the law must protect property, the better to further industry for the benefit of he commonwealth. Any law that abridged the rights of property, in just that proportion also curtailed the propensity toward industry. But if private acquisitiveness benefited society by stimulating industry, and if Burke was happy to defend the rights of property no matter how it was originally acquired, he was not content with property-holders who lacked industry. His attack on the Duke of Bedford, provoked by the latter's attempt to deprive him of a pension in his retirement, displayed bourgeois resentment of lazy aristos in gloriously contemptuous prose. His pension, he noted, was a reward for "merit", while the Duke's holdings were his despite his "few and idle years", and his inability to "know anything of public industry in its exertions".

So, from the ground of "human nature" to the lofty principles of law, economics and justice, he was a thorough bourgeois. But the bourgeois revolution in France produced, apparently, quite a different Burke, the Burke that is most familiar today from his Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event. The latter part of the title is of course crucial - it was that the French revolution was being held up as a model for Britain to emulate which inspired Burke to produce his conservative manifesto. The revolution, the "plague", must be quarantined - and if this quarantine eventually called for an all out war by 1796, on an ideological level it entailed detailed elaborations on the nature of society, and government. The sacrosanct position of property, and of inheritance, was above all what he sought to conserve. He did so by citing, or rather inventing, a tradition grounded in transcendent principles. He noted that in English law, liberty was itself "an entailed inheritance, derived to us from our forefathers", in contrast to the French revolutionary assertion of liberty from natural right. Liberty, along with privilege, peerage, the crown, property, franchises, etc., were all heritable goods, and all goods worth conserving. Such principles did not exclude gradual improvement, but they did exclude radical innovation which was likely to be motivated by a selfish spirit. Institutions of longevity having demonstrated their worth, their utility for the whole of society, ought not to be overthrown in a fit of revolutionary pique, by the fiat of revolutionary pick-axes. If the sentiment is clear, Macpherson claims, the logic is not: a prolonged sequence of momentary choices is not logically superior to a single momentary choice. The distinction between small changes, of which Burke approves, and large, qualitative changes against which he sets himself is not clear. Burke's argument amounts to a case for prejudice in favour of tradition.

But that tradition is that of the Leviathan state, the subjection of all to the rule of the sovereign, the constitutional impediment to natural passions that human beings enter into by tactic acquiescence. The "real" rights of man are those which he derives from having submitted to that rule, most particularly the right to property, to the fruits of the labour mixed with his property, and to the inherited accumulations of that property. All men, he agrees, have "equal rights", but "not to equal things" - a man with five shillings on his person has as much right to that as a man with five hundred pounds. And "as to the share of power, authority, and direction which each individual ought to have in the management of the state, that I must deny to be amongst the direct original rights of men in civil society; for I have in my contemplation the civil social man, and no other. It is a thing to be settled by convention." Convention, then, has proved the unequal rights of man to property and to say in government. It has produced a "natural aristocracy", a leisured and cultured class whose entitlement to privilege, and whose usefulness for society as a whole has been proven over generations. Moreover, it has established a set of rights, differing for each man according to his concrete specificity, which it would be irresponsible to deny to future generations through some radical overthrow of the old order.

What is continuous, then, what unites the market liberal with the hierarchical conservative, is capitalism. Burke was a bourgeois political economist about whom Adam Smith is said to have claimed that he was the one man to have thought exactly the same way as Smith himself without having conversed with him. It was as a bourgeois economists that he sought to defend his property, his estate of some six hundred acres, against the possibility of non-market-based payments to labourers. In neighbouring Berkshire, the Justice of the Peace in Speenhamland had introduced a system of supplementary payments for workers depending on the size of their families to alleviate the distress caused by the market - it was payment according to need rather than industry. Scandalised, and afraid that the government might nationalise such a policy, Burke argued that such policies by arbitrarily curtailing the rights of property would undermine enterprise, thus ultimately leaving workers worse off. It would, in a word, create a culture of dependency. By contrast, free markets were ultimately the most efficient and equitable means of distributing the social product. Burke did not defend a feudal system of small producers selling surplus product on the market, but specifically a capitalist economy with the drive for accumulation as its motor. He held that it reflected the natural propensities of humans, and that it was thus an inevitable expression of human aspiration. He was happy for capitalists to accumulate surplus since this would compel them to be interested in the welfare of their workers, and to reinvest the surplus in further production for the good of all. He was equally insistent that the able-bodied must all not merely work, but work as wage labourers, since this alone would provide the surplus that would drive on further accumulation and improvement. That labour should be a "commodity like any other" whose price fell and rose according to demand was "in the nature of things".

Burke, it should be said, was fully aware of how much bourgeois society had to answer for. He was aware of the great social misery that it produced, since he documented it in some detail. But to all this, he insisted that it would be "pernicious" to follow his own instinct to "rescue [the labouring poor] from their miserable industry", since it would disturb the "natural course of things" and inhibit "the great wheel of circulation". That wheel of circulation was divinely ordained, every bit as much as the right of monarchs to rule - in a formula mirroring Smith's "invisible hand", he insisted that: "the benign and wise Disposer of all things ... obliges men, whether they will or not, in pursuing their own selfish interests, to connect the general good with their own individual success". The free contract between employer and labour was also a customary status, a convention deriving from natural law, an expression of divine will, and thus of necessity providential and tending toward social harmony. For, in such a contract, he maintained, there was no possibility of conflicting interests - it was in the interest of the farmer "that his work should be done with effect and celerity", which would only be assured of his labourer was well-fed, clothed, healthy, etc. This did not merely imply, but vociferated, an attititude of subjection toward the worker. The relationship between the labourer and his employer was analogous to that between the beast and the labourer, or the tool and the labourer. In each case, the latter stands as the executive, reasoning authority, that directs his subordinate man, beast or tool to his higher ends. To "break this chain of subordination in any part" was "absurd".

Thus Burke the conservative, the propagandist of hierarchy and natural law, is nothing if not a modernist, a bourgeois, and a liberal. His 'tradition' is an invented one, I need hardly add. Capitalism was no more in the natural order of things than monarchs or pontiffs. But it was an invention convoked in his intellect by the challenge of the French revolution, and the egalitarian menace that it promised. Had he been, Macpherson suggests, a 19th Century historian with the benefit of hindsight, he might have moderated his position on the French revolution, seeing that it might expand the dominion of capital. But as it was, he saw only the immediate, urgent battle between the classes. Therefore, his foundation of modern conservatism, of reaction against liberal egalitarianism, is motivated by the desire to conserve the kernel of liberalism, capitalist social relations, against the rationalist dilations of liberty and equality that were infecting the salons of London, rousing the labouring poor, and threatening precisely the "absurd" disturbance of subordination in England, in the very countryside where he resided, that he so dreaded.