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Is It Possible To Make Conservatism Not So [email protected] Awful?

by Alex Mell-Taylor 19 days ago in politicians / politics / corruption / controversies / activism
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Republicans, Outerspace, environmentalism, and anti-colonialism

Senthiaathavan, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

From Donald Trump to Ted Cruz, modern conservatism is pretty awful, and it’s not just in the US. We could talk about the rise of far-right parties in Israel, India, Italy, and so much more. Conservatives are often trying to defend an awful status quo. We live in a world where these movements are actively harming otherized identities under the guise of protecting historic institutions that are often supremacist in nature.

Amongst this noise, it can be hard to imagine conservatism as anything more than proto-fascism or actual downright fascism. It’s possible, however, to imagine a conservatism that defends not the right to dominate others (i.e., the current political movement) but the environment, marginalized cultures, and other institutions of note (i.e., conservation).

I want to examine this conservativism or conservation, and I think you’ll find that once we start looking at it through this lens, we will not be drawing upon just examples in fiction but the here and now as well.

Briefly Unpacking Conservatism

Proponents of the conservative political movement will often claim that there is no difference between what they represent and more traditional conservation. Many contemporary conservatives falsely assert that conservatism is simply those who like to conserve their institutions and culture (i.e., what we may think of as conservation). As Martin Skold and J. Furman Daniel wrote in the Bulwark: “What conservatives should want is continuity: a sense that the society that they preserve, protect, and care for is the same one they looked after yesterday.” In that article, they encourage users to, among other things, endorse concepts such as “prudence” and the “pioneer spirit.”

While this opinion makes a sort of intuitive sense, it ignores the power dynamics at play and what institutions many US conservatives are defending (spoiler alert — it’s not cultures crushed underneath the boot of imperialism). Conservatism as a contemporary political movement can trace its origin in reaction to the Enlightenment, with academic figures such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre defending the monarchy in the wake of the French Revolution. They were repulsed by the emergence of democracy and wanted to use the market to preserve their position, even as the likelihood of the monarchy falling increased (YouTuber Innuendo Studios did a great video on this topic that you might want to check out).

We exist in the fallout of that world, where power is believed to be doled out to the deserving through the marketplace. The current political dichotomy is between those who favor more democracy in both the public and private spheres (e.g., increasing participation in government, greater worker ownership over places of work, etc.) and anti-democratic factions who want the private sphere to dominate all aspects of life. The current conservative movement does not seem to be as much about preserving all history — but one group’s history — and then giving said group the financial ability to constrain and dominate all others.

If it were any other way, men like Martin Skold and J. Furman Daniel would be calling to conserve not just “the pioneer spirit” but non-white cultures as well, including the many tribal governments that continue to exist inside the United States. But what if conservatism was more like, in this imagined sense of the word, for those who want to conserve aspects of their culture or environment and not just use it as a pretext to dominate others (i.e., conservation)?

Reimagining Conservatism

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1990 Mars trilogy (Red, Green, & Blue Mars, respectively), the major political divide isn’t between capitalists and democracy, as it is in our current dichotomy (both factions hate the corporate Transnationals), but between those who want to uphold the terraforming process (i.e., the Greens) and those who want to keep the environment as close to what it was when they landed (i.e., the Reds). As Red founder Ann Clayborne says of the need to preserve the climate as is: “If there is Martian life here, the radical alteration of the climate might kill it off. We cannot intrude on the situation while the status of life on Mars is unknown; it’s unscientific, and worse, it’s immoral.”

While both the Green and Red factions unite temporarily to excise the Transnationals from the planet, once this mission is accomplished, they fracture into various smaller factions. Even the Reds splinter, some becoming radical eco-terrorists, while others come to dominate the environmental court to slow development in the terraforming process — something that is perceived as a grand bargain between the two factions in the trilogy.

There are other literary examples of this conservation-based conservatism. The elves in the Lord of the Rings series may be a culture that is slow to change — in part due to their long lifespans — but they are also stewards of nature, literally integrating plant life into their buildings and cityscapes. Star Trek depicts a utopian Federation that tries to collaborate with as many different perspectives and lifeforms as possible, but they are so conservative that they don’t even engage with species that haven’t hit an arbitrary technological barrier.

In real life, there are current factions that want to conserve things, often fighting against more anti-democratic capitalist forces in the process. Modern environmental movements come immediately to mind. Groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement often fight against corporate interests in an effort to conserve the environment. We think of these people as leftists, and they are in our current context, but they frequently use language that could come right out of Ann Clayborne’s mouth. “People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” famously pleaded Activist Greta Thunberg on why we must conserve our environment. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?”

These words are very anti-capitalist and quite the evolution from the western environmental movements’ origins. People like Sierra Club founder John Muir were explicitly racist, often paternalistically advocating for Western organizations to take stewardship of the Land in a way that was ahistorical and exclusionary to indigenous groups. Many saw environmentalism as an attempt to protect the white race, not out of an intrinsic respect for nature, and sadly the environmental movement remains quite white to this day.

Reimagining conservatism through this lens is not just a lofty political goal about how we should live in the future but about examining current political movements and seeing how they can change in the here and now. We need to think about this carefully so that the exploitative definition of conservatism we have talked about does not cloud conservation efforts on both sides of the political spectrum.

This is why, in recent years, the discussion of “Land back” (i.e., reestablishing tribal sovereignty of the Land) has become more prevalent in conservation circles, with many localities giving stewardship of parks and tracts of Land back to surviving indigenous tribes. Many indigenous political movements are vocal members of the environmental movement who, as an act of survival, are fighting against white supremacist imperialism to preserve their languages, traditions, cultures, and more (see groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network, Indigenous Climate Action, Seeding Sovereignty, and more). As then-executive director of Indigenous Climate Action, Eriel Deranger wrote of this issue:

“We need land reparations for those impacted by residential schools. So we can heal on the Land, and begin to repair the deep wounds of disconnection from our human and non-human kin. It needs to be affirmed that we are people of the Land, and that our language, our culture, and our identities are connected to these places our parents and grandparents were ripped from. We need Land Back.”

While this is a topic that must be explored, I want to stress that not all indigenous groups think this way. It should surprise no one when I say that Indian people are not a monolith. Many have participated in the worst aspects of American capitalism. I want to be careful not to fall into the paternalistic, “Magical Native American” trope when talking about indigenous people and the environment. We are all human beings, capable of participating in the best and worst aspects of human civilization.

Instead, I am bringing up these examples to talk about counterpoints that go against the grain of modern, white supremacist, imperialist society — something we can learn from in this exercise in reimagining conservatism. We need to look at the present and past for inspiration when imagining a better future, just as much as any great work of fiction.

Looking past supremacy

In the current political alignment, these forces I have mentioned are mostly thought of as being on the left, but as the history we just referenced shows, that is not an inevitability. Left and right are contextual labels, not static formations in our political landscape.

If we are somehow able to move past the capitalism vs. democracy dichotomy that dominates our politics (a tall order in itself), it could be these movements that make the basis for a new right. Groups that want to preserve their culture and environment are in tension with those that want to “develop things.” The decision to change or not to change will most likely always be a tension in our society. (Note that I am not using the words “change” or “develop” positively or negatively. There are plenty of pluses and negatives associated with change — it depends on who is making it and what that change is).

We are by no means close to this new type of conservatism or conservation being dominant in our society. Again, the current conservative movement is regressive and anti-democratic. Still, in imagining a new political order, we make space for us to change our point of view in the here and now. You first have to know what is possible to move past the status quo.

politicianspoliticscorruptioncontroversiesactivism

About the author

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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