March 23rd, 2008

Liberalism And Conservatism

David Mamet had a piece in the Village Voice the other day about how he's no longer a liberal. Only he didn't just say "liberal" he said "dead head liberal" or something equally colourful. it's sort of depressing- because predictable- how famous literary types cross the stage from left to right in the course of their careers. No-one ever makes the journey in the other direction, do they? 

Why does it happen? Is it because these guys become wise, or because they become old and rich? Mamet says his conversion grew out of the realisation that he doesn't want to change people any more. They are fine as they are. They all want money and advancement and security and stuff but- on the whole- within the structure of existing law- they rub along pretty well together and don't do one another much harm. This leads him to a neat definition of the difference between liberalism and conservatism. Liberals believe people can change for the better, conservatives believe they're pretty much stuck the way they are- and that's fine.

Mamet is a benign conservative. If he doesn't want to change the world, it's because he thinks it works pretty well the way it is. Others are despairing conservatives. My man Balzac for example: his people are awful, just awful- driven by greed, ambition, lust,  revenge. If he supports the political status quo- as he does, even though it disgusts him- it's because it puts some sort of restraint on all these utterly selfish egos. 

This is where he differs most radically from Dickens. Dickens is a liberal. For him human nature is fundamentally good and his plots habitually hang on the possibility that the wicked man may turn from his wickedness and live. Institutions, for him, are corrupt and corrupting. Do away with the workhouse, the Court of Chancery, a Utilitarian system of education- and things will improve. Balzac disagrees profoundly. Do away with the straitjacket of institutions and the madmen run wild.

When Dickens writes a fairy story, he writes A Christmas Carol- in which a miserly old man is changed overnight into a cheery philanthropist. Balzac has his misers too- and they all of them die stretched out upon their moneybags. No-one, in Balzac, so far as I can see, ever changes- except for the worse. When he writes a fairy story he writes Le Peau de Chagrin- in which an ambitious young man aquires a magic skin which shrinks every time he makes a self-serving wish- and when it finally shrinks to nothing, he dies.

Dickens was one of those few who, for all the despairing heaviness of his later life, never stopped being a liberal. I admire him for that. To be a liberal is to entertain hope. As you get older you see how history repeats itself and bad people triumph and good people let you down- and the conservative position becomes ever more and more attractive and harder to oppose. Better to stick with what we've got for fear of something worse. But where does a conservative turn to for hope? To religion or occultism or some weird, fetishistic worship of the state and its symbols- to that great foetid, glittery heap of  treasure and old bones.  

I'm sorry Mamet has gone over to the other side. I believe I undestand why he's done it and why it seems like the rational and grown-up thing to do. There's something childlike in the way liberalism is always grasping after some unreachable star.  It keeps failing. It gets shown to be foolish again and again and again. There's no dignity in it.

But then I don't greatly value my dignity.