If we were to distill society into a dichotomy of impulses, one that underlies not only cultural attitudes but the narrative structure that defines political discourse, the poles would have to be conservatism and progressivism. With each generation, both in terms of government and population, as well as paradigm shifts brought about by advances in science and technology, the fundamental challenge for any society is learning to adapt to changing circumstances without losing its core character. That is, without losing its core character in a sudden, cataclysmic change that can create social unrest – as opposed to the change in character that can occur gradually over the course of a society’s unfolding history. Although by no means the only possible or necessary dichotomy, it thus seems reasonable to interpret societal dynamics on the basis of the ideas and practices society conserves and those it changes in an effort to maintain stability.
Unfortunately, the discussion about these two inherent impulses is too often reduced to the simplistic all or nothing confrontation of Right vs Left, Conservative vs Liberal, and the straw tigers (the metaphor is deliberately mixed) that emerge from both. Although there are differences between how each “side” presents the other (to be partly glib, liberals rail against social injustice while conservatives rail against liberals), interprets policy, and governs in practice, it is the massing of partisan ideological forces that creates the problem.
The point isn’t to call a plague on both these houses, however well deserved, or to repeat reasons why the partisan divide is antithetical to good reasoning, but to suggest that the rhetorical trappings of the Conservative vs Liberal distinction ultimately obscures the character of the conservative and progressive impulses by focusing on rigid idealistic categories. Dogma, in other words. And what is being obscured is not the product of a dialectic but the way in which conservation and progress essentially occupy the same space and time while simultaneously delineating opposing movements. Conservation and progress function as opposing forces that nevertheless come together in the end.
To understand what this means in practical terms, we can begin by sketching how the rhetorical manifestation of these impulses ultimately shares a similar set of assumptions. In the simplistic pundit terms, conservatives are right to be suspicious of government excess, to emphasize personal responsibility, and to value family and community. Interestingly, these are also liberal values albeit in a context rejected by conservatives, namely, the view that inequality is in itself a social problem. There is a risk, of course, in drawing that contrast. Definitions of conservatism and liberalism are all too easily adjusted for the sake of scoring rhetorical points. However, it seems sensible to enough to suggest that there is agreement when it comes to the basic human goals of safety, happiness, and social harmony – the difference is methodological, and ideological differences coagulate around differences in method.
Consequently, the idea of conservation, narrowly defined as preservative function, is necessary to keep within society those ideas and practices that work. To this is opposed progress, which strives to develop new ideas and practices as solutions to existing problems. Both serve as a counterpoint, in that conservation rejects change for its own sake, and thus the false positives of progress, while progressiveness rejects the movement from function to dysfunction when tradition is ossified into the status quo. What we are left with is something evolutionary, but not in the sense of “social Darwinism,” and certainly not in the misapplied conception of evolution as a kind of teleological process. Rather, it is a matter of adapting to circumstances that are sometimes variable, even volatile, and sometimes persistent. While I don’t want to suggest some sort of societal dynamic that is homeostatic in its effect – that would imply that a given society has a natural balance to which it returns to when disturbed, an implication that is upended by historic examples of large-scale upheavals (think French Revolution) – I do think we need a better conceptual framework to encapsulate the tension between conservation and progress that is necessary for society to exist.
As a point of clarification, it’s worth noting here that I define “society” narrowly, to some extent, as the numerical aggregate of individuals. Yet it is also necessary to account for the fact that the dynamics of the aggregate can in turn influence the individual. So while I would reject the idea of society as an emergent organism that is greater than its constituent individuals, I would suggest that insofar as individuals have common needs, shared cultures, and political/economic cohesion there is a construct we could refer to as “society.”
Returning to an organizing concept that brings together conservation and progress (or evolution) while also refuting the often vaguely articulated partisan distinction of conservative versus liberal, it might helpful to shed to idea of social engineering that is implicit in policy. Although the term is unpleasant, as it suggests an active and mechanistic manipulation of society towards a particular goal, that is nevertheless what goes on when governments pass laws. Certain behaviours are punished, others are rewarded or, at least, tacitly accepted simply by not being disallowed.
But what if instead of engineering, with all the rigidity that comes with the concept, we turned towards design as a conceptual model? As an active disciplines informed by give and take, a feedback loop between problem, solution, context, and the way in which the solution itself alters the context thereby altering the overall system, design offers a useful analogy to interpreting policy. To borrow a cliché, the concern is on figuring out how to fit society’s form to the various functions we want it to perform, recognizing that it’s not a question of function then form, or form vs function, but that good design is the result of function and form working through each other.
Thus, among the qualities of a desired conceptual framework are:
- Seeing society, its strengths and weaknesses, as it is.
- A focus on practical rather than ideologically pure solutions.
- Working with the fluidity inherent in social organization.
So: fact-based (“reality” based), practical, and adaptive, resulting in the wisdom to know what to conserve and maintain in society and what to reform or revolutionize. Is it even worth labeling this to distinguish it from the pop-punditry terms “liberal” and “conservative?” If so, what word would be suitable?
Ideas, comments, suggestions ?