Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Understanding Movement Conservatism (And Defeating It)

Modern movement conservatism is driven by two impulses, the selective deregulation of "the economy" and the selective regulation of culture.

The “deregulation” of economic transactions benefits moneyed elites who have the advantage of capital, influence, and knowledge, and can always duress a “consensual” transaction to their own benefit. The regulation of cultural expression benefits the members of traditional moral communities distressed by the instability of modern techno-cultures.

Thoughtful, democratically-minded people are hypnotized by the contemplation of the apparent contradictions that drive such a movement. This conservative movement is a veritable assembly line generating scores of striking paradoxes and hypocrisies for its victims to document interminably as they are haplessly fed into its machinery. But the analysis of these contradictions is too often a superficial distraction from the actual work of defeating these movement conservatives.

The conservative drumbeat of deregulation without end is not driven by a libertarian hostility to government as such -- though some of its partisans sometimes selectively employ this rhetoric to justify their policies and plans. Movement conservatism is always only hostile to any regulation that hampers the short-term profit-making of the moneyed elites who direct the movement. Of course, the United States massively subsidizes research, production, and trade, and the conservatives would certainly have this state of affairs continue indefinitely. The United States is a planned economy occasionally playing desultorily at laissez-faire, and the proof of this is not to be found in our grudging tattered compromised social welfare programs but in the vast State cathedral that is the Department of Defense.

Religious conservatives and Big Business conservatives are both powerful minorities ruthlessly holding on to power in a complex techno-cultural world that has little need for either of them.

The apparent contradictions in their respective programs are all resolved at the straightforward pragmatic level of political alliance.

Liberals must not emerge from their latest reading of What’s the Matter With Kansas? or comparable tomes believing that religious conservatives don’t really truly want the to see the regulation of culture to better reflect their own parochial values above all else. They honestly do. Even if social insecurity exacerbates the urgency with which religious conservatives hold on to their values it is mistaken to assume that cultural values are therefore actually displacements of these questions of social insecurity. Even if it is often true that moneyed minorities are themselves secular and utterly cynical about the value-preferences of their cultural allies, this does not make the cultural conservatives dupes of moneyed elites ripe for liberal enlightenment and populist revolt. The conservative alliance may be troubled, as political alliances often are, but it is a working alliance, and an alliance that is delivering extraordinary results that are frankly unimaginable for either partner without the participation of both.

We are immersed in globe-girding information and communication networks that confront us with alternate practices of spirituality, meaning-making, and self-creation with which slow-paced slow-witted traditional fundamentalisms cannot hope to compete for our attention or our new needs. Meanwhile, scientific knowledge and technological development exposes the pretensions of traditional elites that they are uniquely deserving of their privileges or uniquely indispensable in complex techno-cultures constantly churning up new opportunities, problems, desires, difficulties.

The proliferative provision of free content online, free software/creative commons models of intellectual property, peer-to-peer networks, emerging modes of technologically facilitated co-operation and collaboration, gift and favor networks, guaranteed minimum income and zerowork movements, sustainability movements, leapfrog societies in the developing world -- these are the forces that threaten to undermine the authority of cultural and moneyed elites. And these are the forces that democratically minded people need to champion and nurture to defeat movement conservatism.

Meanwhile, movement democrats need to recognize the real power of their voices and their contributions to contemporary partisan politics that would enlist our aid and demand our dollars, all rendered especially conspicuous over the last half decade by the ambivalent partisan recourse to digital networks. We must demand that the DNC which claims to speak in our name re-write itself in the image of our actual values -- peace, fairness, sustainability, self-creation, diversity, and science.

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