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Conservative Totalitarianism

February 13, 2009
Oliver O'Donovan suggested in class yesterday that Burkean conservatism was, to a large extent, responsible for the development of the totalitarian nationalist state.  Not, of course, that Burke caused the totalitarian nationalist state (O'Donovan is rightly skeptical of all claims of historical causality), but the lines of development and logical connections are certainly clear.  By renouncing universal abstract claims about the nature of rights and the state, and focusing attention on the historically contingent character of individual states, which ought to reflect the national characters of their own people, and create institutions suitable thereto, Burke's conservatism paved the way for an understanding of the State as embodying the personality, the soul, of the nation.  What feature of national life, then, lay outside the legitimate scope of the State?  
A jarring narrative, but a persuasive one.  Perhaps then the recent mutation of conservatism into fiercely patriotic nationalism is not such a mutation after all.  


sure, if there's no excess of 'nation' or 'state' apart from the instantiation of people in particularity which stands over against them to judge their excesses, all you have is a possible slide to pure contingency.

February 15, 2010 at 11:00 PM  

Intriguing. I'm a little confused, though. You said Burke didn't cause totalitarian nationalism, but then you say the shift wasn't a mutation. If it wasn't a mutation, then the totalitarian gene must have come either 1) from breeding with another system, or 2)from the pure Burkean DNA. If 1), then the resultant totalitarian expression came from the other parent, and Burke should not really be faulted. If 2), can you give me the locus (chapter and verse) of the faulty gene in the Burkean code itself?

February 16, 2010 at 6:43 PM  

The point is this: Burke's ideas cannot be said to cause the development of nationalism and totalitarianism because the world of ideas doesn't work that way--it's not mechanical...rather, it is in fact more genetic. Just as a gene can be present but won't necessarily be expressed unless it is in the presence of certain other genes, and even then, may not express itself depending on upbringing, circumstances, etc., so a particular idea can be introduced into the world but will only bear a certain kind of fruit when it comes into relation with certain other ideas. Also, just as gene interactions are likely to cause a number of different variations on a theme, so it is with ideas, which generally do not combine and code for a single fixed product. But, though all this variation and uncertainty is present, it is still possible to look at a trait that has manifested itself and say, "Ah, it came out of this gene, and would not have appeared in this case unless that gene had been present."

The same goes in this case. Burke's ideas contributed to, but, had circumstances or individuals been different, need not have given rise to totalitarian nationalism.

February 17, 2010 at 8:14 AM  

Sensible enough. In fact, I think that's a very perceptive way of looking at the influence of ideas in history, as long as we're not actually laying the guilt of nationalism at Burke's feet.

February 17, 2010 at 7:04 PM  

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