Pessimism is a kind of surrender to existing circumstance. You don’t think things are going to get better, and you become resigned to a bleak future. Generally the pessimist has very limited confidence that human beings can do much to alter their existing condition.
Conservatism is often pessimistic, if not necessarily about “the future” as a whole, then definitely about humankind’s capacity for self-improvement. Whether it’s Thomas Hobbes talking about the nastiness and brutishness of human nature, Thomas Sowell on the “constrained” vision that sees people as fundamentally self-interested, or Michael Oakeshott talking about the conservative preference for the “familiar” over the “unfamiliar,” conservative philosophy often runs something like this: We are flawed creatures kept from descending into barbarism through the institutions we have built, in particular Western Capitalist Democracy and the Rule Of Law. These institutions are fragile and precious, tinkering with them leads to catastrophe, and the best course we can generally take is to preserve what we have rather than try for anything radically different. Attempts to significantly change the existing order of things are doomed to either fail or make things worse, because they are based on an irrational confidence that human perfectibility is infinite. (That confidence is what Sowell calls the “unconstrained” vision of human nature.)
Albert O. Hirschman pointed out that conservative rhetoric almost always dwells on the “futility” or “jeopardy” that will come with some proposed social change, i.e., the change either won’t work or it will be actively harmful. (Hirschman also cites “perversity,” the idea that a proposed change runs contrary to the Moral Order, as a conservative trope, but that is somewhat different because it isn’t an empirical prediction.) What futility and jeopardy have in common is that they countenance keeping things as they are, and they tell people that they cannot hope for a much better world than the one they have. As practiced, then, conservatism is not just about conserving traditions, but about opposing changes. (To use a New Orleans music analogy, conservatism is Wynton Marsalis rather than the Rebirth Brass Band. Marsalis thinks jazz should be played in the traditional way, and thinks experimental developments in the genre make it worse. He sees more recent black musical forms like hip hop as literally worse than monuments to white supremacy. The Rebirth Brass Band, on the other hand, takes traditional New Orleans brass music with funk, rap, and R&B. It conserves and evolves at the same time.)
In saying that conservatism is a philosophy of pessimism about change, I am being more generous to it than many on the left. I am taking conservatives at their word. Corey Robin, in The Reactionary Mind, has a more cynical view, seeing conservatism as essentially a justification of existing power structures. The ideas are jury-rigged to defend present-day hierarchies, rather than resulting from an honest examination of the world. Slavemasters used to come up with intellectual reasons why slavery was necessary, then Jim Crow politicians insisted Jim Crow was necessary, now Charles Murray insists black social inferiority is necessary. To be honest, I share a lot of this cynicism, because the empirical claims made by conservatives about human nature can’t actually be justified. There is no proof to support Thomas Sowell’s “tragic vision” of human beings, which says that their “moral sentiments” overlie a “deep bedrock of selfishness” and we “would waste our time lamenting it or trying to erase it.” In fact, while we know human beings can be both selfish and altruistic, and that the fact we are biological creatures means we do have some sort of outer limits on our potential, we cannot draw any possible conclusions about how cooperative we could be under the right conditions. Civilization is very, very young and we have only just begun the process of figuring out how to live together well.
Some people’s ideological commitments appear to flow directly from their personal economic position. When the billionaire founder of Home Depot writes a book called I Love Capitalism, literally arguing that we know capitalism is great because it helped him and then insisting every alternative would be worse, without demonstrating any clear understanding of left arguments, I tend to think his beliefs do not arise out of an open-minded scrutiny of empirical reality but from the fact that he is a very rich man who enjoys being very rich. He sees all of existence through the prism of his wealth. Billionaires also have an another good reason to insist that resistance to the capitalist system is futile, namely their strong personal financial stake in preserving it. Telling your workers that it’s impossible for them to unionize, that they’re stupid and don’t understand economics, that governance is best left to wise elites, is a very good way of keeping them docile. If you can convince people that they deserve their station in life, they are less likely to challenge you, even if the consequences of their status make them deeply miserable. Powerful intellectual elites have a long record of insisting that only powerful intellectual elites are capable of running things, and that the ignorant herd cannot be trusted to rule themselves. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe that people’s supposedly objective ideas often coincide with their self-interest for non-coincidental reasons.
You need to be very careful here, because not everything has a strictly economic explanation, and any suggestion that conservatism is just bad-faith defense of privilege is going to run into a stubborn series of contravening facts. (And a very stern rebuke from Sowell, who was raised in 1940s Harlem but explicitly disavows “I made it, why can’t you” rhetoric.) Even when we take the conservative political philosophy at face value, though, we should note what it implies: that sense of futility, that feeling that you can’t do anything to substantially change the world, you’re stuck with it as it is. This is the way things are, and if your life sucks, it probably sucks out of necessity or because of your own personal failings. As Ben Shapiro puts it, “in a free country, if you fail, it’s probably your own fault.” Once we have freedom, whatever happens next is the natural order of things, and if you try to change it, you’ll be trying to muddle with things that cannot be changed, and you’ll end up destroying freedom.
I will admit that I hate this philosophy, and everything that sounds like this philosophy, and every piece of rhetoric that even has remote echoes of this type of philosophy. I hate it on a gut level, and my hatred is probably because I have spent much of my life thinking that the battle for my self-confidence and happiness was also necessarily a battle against this type of thinking. What type of thinking, exactly? The type that sounds like this: If you’re sad it’s because you’re weak, if you’re poor it’s because you’re stupid, if you’re marginalized it’s because you’re culturally dysfunctional, if you’re being screwed over you shouldn’t have signed the contract, if you did something horrible it’s because you’re evil, if you don’t understand it’s because you haven’t paid attention, if you’re angry it’s because you’re resentful, if you’re sentimental it’s because you’re not a Man.
It all often goes under the euphemism “personal responsibility,” but a better (if wordier) name for it would be “being an unsympathetic dick to people who are marginalized, weak, sad, flawed, or vulnerable.” Even though American conservatism isn’t fascist (let me say that again: I am not saying conservatism is fascist) it has one of the qualities I so dislike in fascism: this sense that people must be strong or die, and that weakness or inability at certain particular things are moral failings. So, in our country, we get: If people didn’t purchase health insurance, let them die, if she can’t afford to raise her kids, why did she have them, if you didn’t want to be evicted, you should have paid your rent. (See, e.g., National Review‘s Kevin Williamson evicting an old lady from her house and wondering why she is blaming him instead of herself.)
I think people ought to be responsible, of course, and I can get exasperated with those who get chance after chance and keep making horrible decisions. But because I try to be an empathetic person (or “bleeding heart,” as those who think suffering is bad are often called), I also recognize that a lot of us are fuckups, because we’re human, and hapless fuckups are worthy of sympathy. I’m skeptical that free will matters very much (if at all), and I recognize that none us chooses either our nature or our nurture and that most of what we are is the inheritance of a billion-year process that we had no say over. And generally speaking I think, given that we are all bags of meat, fumbling along in an indifferent and unfathomable universe, it takes a hell of an arrogance to look down on people for their failures, whether those failures are their “fault” or not. To my mind, there is almost no worse person than the one who says: “Oh, you shouldn’t give them money, they’ll just spend it on beer.” They should get to spend it on beer. It’s a hard world and sometimes people need beer.
I said that I thought my fight for self-confidence coincided with my fight against “conservative” thinking. What I mean is this: When I have suffered from self-doubt and depression, it has been because I hear the conservative story running through my head. You are a lazy worm who should shut up and work harder. You are a weird radical who doesn’t know the first thing about Economics. You are a sentimental bleeding-heart who will never understand how things work. Pick yourself up, bucko, and if you say you can’t you’re just making excuses, you’re just the kind of sorry unproductive parasite that the Job Creators and Entrepreneurs have to generously subsidize through their brilliance and benevolence. The voice of my depressions has been the voice of Ayn Rand, with all her nastiness and contempt for the mass of humankind. That voice says the problem is with you, not the world, and if you blame the world you’re failing to take responsibility. And when you start believing this, if you truly accept it, you lose hope entirely, and you creep closer and closer toward joining the 40,000 Americans who decide they just can’t take the pain of living anymore. (Some people insist that this sort of “Shape up or ship out” hectoring has made them determined and successful. That may be. But I have also noticed that these people are usually mean, and what about the rest of us who just end up feeling like crap?) Why do I loathe people like Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris, and Jordan Peterson? Because they have in common that they show not an ounce of empathy toward those who are very different from themselves, not an ounce of true compassion. They don’t feel the need to listen or soothe or help, they just tell people what’s wrong with them and the ways they should be better. They are hard and they are mean and I don’t like living on a planet with people like that.
I am happy now, and self-confident, and hopeful. But it required me to fully satisfy myself that Ayn Rand was wrong, that the conservatives’ “tragic view of life” is false. I couldn’t live in a world where people were just naturally selfish and violent and exploited each other and nothing significantly better was possible. I had to find a way to be, in spite of all the yammering voices telling me otherwise, a utopian and a dreamer who could envision something different and more beautiful. This was difficult, because there’s so much in our experience that does imply support for the conservatives’ pessimism about our nature. The meek don’t inherit a damn thing, and assholes always seem to finish first (see the current president). People publicly celebrated for their virtues turn out to be unconscionably wicked, and people who are humble and hardworking destroy their bodies for their employers only to end up broke. Murder is called humane, collectivism is called individualism, dominance is called dissent, commands are called requests, and it can be hard to even think straight. Even the top figures in the “left” political party are either evil or uncaring. Oh, and there’s also climate change, and everyone has nuclear weapons pointed at them all the time.
In response, you can try Antonio Gramsci’s famous formulation: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. It’s similar to Albert Camus’ notion of “the happy Sisyphus“: in your head you know you’re doomed, but in your heart you pretend you’re not. But if hope is to be genuine, it can’t be built on a lie, and though I don’t consider myself an optimist I’ve had to find a way to conclude that pessimism is false. Conservatism is just too dire, too cruel, too hopeless, for me to accept. Cutting through it, though, requires one to tune out a lot of noise, because the thrum is constant: You will fail, because there is no alternative.
You can’t tune it out alone, because an isolated brain goes haywire, and one reason I started Current Affairs was to try to help people resist despair, to feel listened-to and cared about. I think constantly of All The Lonely People, and wish there were a way to show up and give them a (consensual) hug and say “Look, we’re in a hell of a jam, but if we stick together and stay strong maybe it’ll work out alright. Why don’t you let me make you a cup of tea?” Perhaps that’s patronizing, I don’t know. Maybe they don’t want a hug and a cup of tea. But there have been times when I sure did. I do know that plenty of them (at the very least, the tens of thousands who take their lives) would benefit from a world where being a fuck-up was okay, where you didn’t have to worry about how you were going afford your gas bill or whether you really needed to call the ambulance since it’s probably going to be like $700 and are you really hurt that bad anyway and maybe you’re just being a whiner and actually it’s nothing. I don’t think I can ever be at ease until we finally stop the thrum of It’s Your Fault and Stop Blaming The World For Things You Did To Yourself, and have a society of mutual aid, warmth, solidarity, support. And I can never be a conservative and still live, because I could never live and be hopeless.