One of the most salient points about the problems of meaning and ideology, made by (among others) George Orwell in his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is that semantics, far from being unimportant, are critical for the maintenance of a given social and political system of ideas i.e., “Newspeak is Ingsoc, and Ingsoc is Newspeak.” The coherence or incoherence (in terms of definition), and positive or negative value (in terms of emotion), which are commonly associated with a term describing a political ideology, will tell one a great deal about the strength of that ideology in a given society. The words and language which are used to describe social or political phenomena (what Orwell called “the B vocabulary” in his Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four) constitute the primary instruments by which an ideology asserts itself in a given society. It should be noted that complex, multi‑layered political terms such as “conservatism” (or “liberalism” or “socialism”) conjure immediate images and emotional responses in most people’s minds.
In terms of the unstated emotive content of the term “conservatism”, these images and emotional responses can range, for example, from a wistful remembrance of the beauty of a Gothic cathedral, the green countryside, and the medieval Christendom from which it sprang (for a traditionalist conservative), to a visceral distaste towards a middle‑aged WASP corporate controller type luxuriating in his penthouse suite atop Manhattan, and the oppressive capitalist structure which he represents (for the average Left-liberal or left‑winger).
Quite clearly, the term “conservatism” is today a veritable labyrinth of confused and contradictory meanings, many of them quite negative and pejorative. Even those who consider or call themselves “conservative” fail to appreciate a large part of that word’s possible deeper or more subtle nuances. It seems that many such persons arrive at an overly‑simple “pet definition” of the word, which they then seek to foist on their fellow “believers”, often with a great deal of arrogance and intolerance. The situation is so bad that the ideological rivals of conservatism hardly need to exert themselves to introduce semantic confusion and chaos into the political battle‑ground.
However, “traditionalism” has to be restored, renovated, and rejuvenated as a theory, before it can play any practical part in the future of conservatism, or of humankind.
The following parts of this article outline some major theoretical steps which are necessary for this “rejuvenation”, a small beginning for the vast amount of work which will eventually have to be done in both the theoretical and practical realms.
The first major point to be made in regard to contemporary conservative intellectual endeavour is that almost all conservatives, especially of the “traditionalist” variety, have for far too long shunned the methods and language of social science.
The first goal of conservative theoretical endeavour should therefore be to establish could be called a genuinely “new science of politics”. Among the first tasks of this “new science” would be the careful definition of certain terms key to political enquiry -‑ power, ideology, ruling group, etc. This would be, in many ways, a continuation of the work begun by Orwell, Pareto, Michels, Mosca, and Burnham, among others.
It would be recognized that every society is dominated by a narrow, exclusive circle of power‑holders, regardless of what it claims itself to be. The task of the political scientist therefore becomes to identify who the effective (not only formal) power‑holders are in contemporary societies; which ideologies are prevalent among them; and how these ideologies are transmitted and infused into society as a whole.
The question of competing ideologies, and the evaluation of their comparative strength in a given society, would be very important. Political taxonomies or representations of the political spectrum would be drawn up with careful attention. The making of careful distinctions, as between Western neo‑Marxists (socially liberal) and orthodox Eastern Marxists (socially puritanical), would be imperative. Quantitative and empirical methodologies would be devised to more accurately measure the strength or preponderance of given ideologies.
Ideology, and the semantics of ideology, would be a principal focus of this approach. The real, as opposed to the formal meanings of political pronouncements would be sought; the ideological underpinnings and pre‑suppositions of modern political vocabularies would be laid bare; the unstated emotive content of political terms and discourse would be exposed and explained. The semantic tricks and devices which are employed by ideologies would not only be identified, they would be systematically classified, and applied to the current situation.
The methods by which ruling groups exercise their control (coercive, utilitarian, and normative instrumentalities) would be analyzed; common legitimating devices and techniques shown; “the circulation of elites” -‑ the displacement of one ruling group by another ‑- carefully studied; the types of possible dissidence identified (including pseudo‑dissidence).
The effect of this emergent, right-leaning “critical theory” would hopefully be to deconstruct and demolish the ideological underpinnings of contemporary liberalism, building up to a general description of the over‑all “control system” and “shape” of our society.
And, because of the care taken in defining the different ideologies, it would hopefully emerge that this control did not constitute rule by a “corporate‑fascist‑authoritarian” elite, as the neo‑Marxists would have it, but rather constitutes rule by an agglomerate of urban‑based corporate, media, and ad‑hoc minority coalition groups, who impose their ideology on the virtually unrepresented and leaderless mainstream of society.
The media group in particular could be demonstrated to be a narrow, closed caste, having all the sociological characteristics of a class, and existing above and beyond any public scrutiny or “checks and balances” -‑ able to impose its ideology on a hapless populace.
This truly critical, social‑scientific approach would have the potential of ripping open the ideological underpinnings, overweening pretensions, and self‑righteous hypocrisies of contemporary liberalism, initiating a new type of political struggle -‑ a struggle for “the heart and soul” of our society ‑- not mired in petty issues, but played for the highest world‑historical stakes.
It is not enough to criticize without offering a positive alternative. It may be noted, as a general supposition, that every social or political value‑system, thought‑system, or ideology is ultimately based on some theory or view of human nature or existence.
It is only by formulating a unified theory of human nature, society, and history, that conservatism can achieve a sense of ideological consistency and rigour, something which is in itself very appealing. (One of the reasons many persons are drawn to Marxism is that it offers consistent answers and solutions to the questions of social existence and the problems of society, however “wrong” those answers and solutions are often seen to be.)
There are indeed problems which “traditionalist” conservatives face in ultimately justifying their tenets to the modern world. Their most common lines of argumentation, which are based on the religious, literary, and narrowly historical modes, can no longer appeal to any but the most obscurantist, pedantic, or archaic sorts of persons. These over‑written and over-flowery arguments, with their ceaseless invocation of what have really become meaningless code‑words like “right reason”, “virtue”, and “the Great Books”, have a certain staleness and all‑pervading sense of unreality to them. We’re living in the year 2020, not the eighteenth century, after all!
The success of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which stayed away from an overly traditional, scholarly, or stuffy approach to the issues, but rather contained a certain fresh zest and vitality, is good proof of the efficacy of that mode of social criticism. Tom Wolfe has also gotten great mileage from an intelligent critique of the inanities and stupidities of contemporary Western society, without necessarily being identified as a conservative. What has to be done is to bring this approach (or something analogous to it) into all areas of conservative theoretical endeavour.
Every ideology, it might be argued, searches (or should search) for a theory or account of human nature which has “the resounding ring of truth”, and which is consonant with the praxis of that ideology. Theology or literary criticism or picayune historical analysis are hardly credible modes in which such theoretical work can be done, especially in the modern, super‑scienticized, super‑technological world.
The extent to which the people of a given society (implicitly or explicitly) accept a given theory of human nature and existence usually determines which given ideology is prevalent in the continuous, day‑to‑day functioning of that society.
The argument could therefore be made that it is by focussing on the most theoretical questions (i.e., by building on a solid foundation), rather than by fighting battles over petty policy issues, where truly significant social change could begin.