A VIRUS deadlier than Covid-19 is spreading fast globally. Conservatism has been a dominant human affliction since perpetuity. Its edicts of self-preservation, caution and raw power served us well when we lived in jungles with basic technology but faced big natural threats.
However, as humans mastered nature, it became an anachronistic and harmful evolutionary trait. The continued use of competitive conservative lenses led to huge conflict and misery among humans. Wisdom gradually dawned that the principles of equality, cooperation and tolerance best ensure human welfare. This was the birth of liberalism. The evolution of science, democracy and ethics over centuries finally created a moment in the mid-20th century where it seemed that humanity may transcend conservatism to embrace liberalism as the dominant ideology.
Such hopes lie broken now as conservatism has made an ugly comeback in recent decades, particularly the last one. Today, its five variants — unbridled capitalism, religious extremism, bigoted nationalism, autocratic politics and a patriarchal culture — engulf every breath, moment, thought and flow globally. No human domain — social, economic, political or religious — has escaped conservatism’s wide reach and vice-like grip. The driving force has been capitalism, before which all other forces are supine today. The turning point in conservatism’s march was in the 1980s when capitalism, shackled for decades by concerns about equity, finally broke free in the West to privilege capital unabashedly over labour. Four decades of unbridled capitalism have created huge inequality, ecological damage and economic volatility leading to frequent recessions.
The currents of greed and aggression unleashed by capitalism have fed the rapid rise of other variants too. Bigoted nationalism’s rise globally, with state ideology built on the supremacy and exaltation of one social group, is a new strategy by dominant groups to retain control.
Human existence is returning to the law of the jungle.
Capitalism still follows rules, albeit ones that favour dominant groups. But subservient groups can now compete better under them. Capitalism at least exploits all workers and consumers in markets blind to their social backgrounds. Bigoted nationalism undermines weaker groups further via social biases in markets and political and social spheres to strengthen powerful social groups, eg whites in the West and elite Hindus in India. But bigoted nationalism invariably runs into protections built by democracy for the whole population.
Autocratic rule continues unabated in dozens of countries. The new phenomenon is autocratic rulers attempting to dial back democratic gains in well-established democracies like the US and India as a way to perpetuate bigoted nationalism. Thus, democratic barometers report a global retreat of democracy as nationalist, bigoted autocrats have emerged all across the globe: Trump in US, Johnson in UK, Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil and Duterte in the Philippines to name a few.
Religious extremism has increased in recent decades both as an ally and opponent of dominant forces. Extremism among Muslims emerged as a dangerous form of opposition to Western global dominance, while Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish extremism play a key role in supporting the perpetuation of neoliberalism, bigoted nationalism and autocracy in many states. Even extremism among Muslims displays a duality, opposing Western dominance but supporting the autocracy of dominant groups in Muslim states like Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Extremism in other faiths want state privileges for its adherents while Muslim extremism envisions a theological state. Finally, patriarchal culture has existed for long, but now has merged well with bigoted nationalism, autocracy and religious extremism to abuse marginalised groups, reflected best by Imran Khan’s celebration of such culture against women’s rights.
These five fingers of conservatism’s hand create a vice-like grip on human existence today as it returns to the law of the jungle. Greed, selfishness, aggression, bigotry and extremism run amok. All major ideologies perpetuate these ugly faces of conservatism among humans. Capitalism produces selfish, greedy brats; communism robots; rote faith ritualists and even extremists. The result are blood feuds no other species causes. Species are ranked by their ability to up their numbers, lifespans, welfare and future generations and reduce harm to others. Humanity considers itself the best but has proved the deadliest one.
A century ago, conservatism’s march was halted by the horrors produced by two world wars, the 1918 pandemic and the 1930s Great Depression. Can the efforts of committed progressive activists awaken humanity to the perils of conservatism before the return of such horrors do so?
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.
Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2022