At this risk of being ageist (which I wholeheartedly accept), I think a primary driving force to explain historical phenomenon can be the changeover from one generation to another. I also believe this is the underlying theory to the American right.
I think, when comparing conservative and liberal thought, we tend to see analogs and similarities. For every microaggression there’s an argument about “Merry Christmas”. For every Howard Zinn there is a Samuel Huntington, a Ron Paul for every Noam Chomsky. Most conservative thought has a liberal analogue, sometimes developed as opposition to a position, sometimes as a natural tendency to arise due to outside forces, sometimes inexplicably, and most liberal thought has a conservative analogue. A good essay to read that explores this is David Graeber’s Army of Altruists.
But I haven’t really seen a historiographic conservative analogue to Marxism. I mean, maybe one of my three, astute readers can think of one explicitly mentioned, but not an explicit theory to address the progression of history. Usually there are counter-arguments to Marx’s theories of class struggle and worker’s movements. Obviously, American conservatives tend to be anti-union and pro-business, but this is merely taking a side in class division, not offering an alternate theory to history or historiographic view.
Explicitly. But implicitly there is one. Conservative thought view history as a struggle between generations. Consider the American adage “”If you’re young and a republican you have no heart. If you’re old and a democrat you have no brain.” Clearly, this was meant to be more of an observation of how the political parties stratify through age, but I think there is more to this quote than meets the eye.
I actually kind of began to see this through Steve Bannon of all people, the now ousted head of the National Security Council. Bannonism adopts three main ideas: Judeo-Christian values (very conservative, so check), Edmund Burke’s theory of passing tradition generationally, and Strauss-Howe’s theory of cyclical generations. I think Judeo-Christian values are well understood, so I’ll move on to the other two.
Edmund Burke forms something of a central basis akin to Marx’s Historical materialism. He argues that abstraction, like “socialism” or “capitalist modes of production”, don’t ensure the success of societies, but concrete, practical traditions do. These traditions are time-tested and should be passed down generation to generation to continue societal survival. Bannon argues that the traditions to pass down are Judeo-Christian. This might sound similar to some of what I’ve written on the blog before, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I think we live in an era where traditions and norms very quickly become outdated.
Strauss and Howe, progenitors of the term “Millennials”, argue that history is cyclical and that there are four types of generations. Each generation shares characteristics because of how they were raised and how events set in motion before they were born affect them. For example, Millennials are compared to the GI Generation because both have lived through large economic crises and are considered “civic-minded”. Granted, none of this is scientifically valid as it isn’t even remotely falsifiable, but then again neither is Marxist class theory, nor any social science theory for that matter. But again, I should note that this theory is widely discredited among historians.
Bannonism is a fringe view that is only recently been developed and is only kind of garnering momentum. He puts the elements into place, but doesn’t acknowledge their outdated or irrelevant nature as I’ve hinted at. Having said that, he does hit something substantial: the role of age and generational standing in society.
I think viewing institutions through this lens helps understand the conservative view point. Conservatives claim to be devoted to the free-market with this hidden assumption that the market place is an effective meritocracy. The biggest block to that notion is how society treats age. Think about it. If you are an 18 year old cashier and you are so much better at being a cashier than everyone around you, you still will not get promoted until you spend a considerable amount of time at the workplace or someone younger comes in. This is because a quick promotion would spit in the face of employees who have “more experience” than you. But that shouldn’t matter in a meritocracy – only utility matters. It also works in reverse. Why am I being ousted because of my age? I know more than that young, upstart graduate, I have more experience and therefore offer higher utility!
Consider two bastion institutions that lend support to the American left – Unions and Academia. Both have an institutional, organizational structure designed to keep the young down and the old relevant. Namely, seniority and tenure.
And here we see the equivalent of class warfare. Experience matters only as long as it is relevant. If things change, your experience doesn’t count for anything anymore and you must continue to adapt, continue to work or the young will eat the old. This creates an incentive such that as you get older you must conserve (see what I did there?) the system as it was – so you can continue to remain relevant. And if this seems greedy or self-serving, well… that’s why greed is good. Most crony capitalists are not younger than 35.
But this incentive also means opposing anything that is too progressive or changes too quickly. It also leads to the barrage of anti-Millennial think pieces and gives a venue to consolidate power among the elders. Anyone that’s below a certain age can be dismissed as idealist or as trouble-makers that jeopardize society and can be disregarded.
So what about children then? the Army of Altruists essay describes a sizable portion of it – conservatives aren’t hateful, just fearful of being irrelevant. School is just something to comply with child labor laws or to keep children busy from starting civil unrest. But children are there to pass on the traditions and mores of a society, so certain myths must be told to incentivize them. Like working hard will eventually lead to a position of leadership. It also helps to have an Us vs. Them mentality, which may explain a predilection towards warfare. Unless, of course, you defeat the “them“, in which case it’s free reign until the end.
A conservative historiography, a reading into history based not off of class struggle but generational struggle. Not that this competes with Marx (hell, with the union and academia examples, it overlaps quite nicely), but I do think that a large portion of conservative thought can be viewed through a generational theory and this may get the interested started.