Conquest’s Second Law of Politics
Confronting the inevitable leftification of a liberal society's institutions
There are some who believe that only a pure and uncompromising right-wing can defeat the left. Conservatives, libertarians, classical liberals, and disaffected liberals are useless, these sages of the right insist, because they have proven themselves over time to be incapable of stopping the inevitable “leftification” of the West. This inevitable movement leftward is sometimes referred to as Conquest’s Second Law, which states that “any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.” To understand the extent to which this law is true, some distinctions have to be made and delved into.
Ruling elites govern societies through use of both consensus and force. The social thinker Vilfredo Pareto insisted that no society could be governed solely by consensus. At some point, the governing class would have to resort to violence to maintain their power. We might wonder whether the obverse of this law true might be true as well. Can a ruling elite govern solely with force? Probably not—although North Korea may come perilously close to achieving this approach.
In society, rule by consensus often correlates with what is vaguely denominated as “individualism.” If Pareto is correct in contending that no ruling class can govern on consensus alone, then it would likely follow that any society that becomes overly individualistic would probably also prove dangerously unstable and ungovernable as well. This suggests that there must exist a balance between individualism and consensus on the one side, and uniformity, community, and force on the other. As Pareto explains:
Societies in general subsist because alive and vigorous in the majority of their constituent members are sentiments corresponding to residues of sociality [i.e., the instinctual desire to belong to a group]. But there are also individuals in human societies in whom some at least of those sentiments are weak or indeed actually missing. That fact has two interesting consequences which stand in apparent contradiction, one of them threatening the dissolution of society, the other making for its progress in civilization. What at bottom is there is continuous movement, but it is movement that may progress in almost any direction.
It is evident that if the requirement of uniformity were so strongly active in all individuals in a given society as to prevent even one of them from breaking away in any particular from the uniformities prevalent in it, such a society would have no internal causes for dissolution; but neither would it have any causes for change, whether in the direction of an increase, or a decrease, in the utility of the individuals or of the society. On the other hand, if the requirement of uniformity were to fail, society would not hold together, and each individual would go his own way, as lions and tigers, birds of prey, and other animals do. Societies that endure and change are therefore situated in some intermediate condition between those two extremes. [Mind and Society, §2170-2171]
There are intellectuals and pundits on the right who have been so traumatized by the dissolution of traditional standards and the out-of-control “individualism” that they have lost any appreciation of what both individualism and even the old-style classical liberalism have contributed to the rise of the West. Our civilization has managed to become the dominant social order in the entire world in large part because it did a better job of maintaining the precarious balance between individualism and consense on the one side and stability and social uniformity on the other. Progress in civilization, technology, science and the arts is the sole handiwork of a tiny minority of geniuses. These men in order to achieve the full extent of their immense talent need to be left alone by the rest of society with its social imperatives aimed at stability and communitarian conformity. In other words, the geniuses—those who make up the artistic, scientific, technological and entrepreneurial elites—require individualism. But for the broader society, especially for the chronically discontented, individualism means social decadence and the dissolution of social norms and community. To put it in as brief and pithy a formula as possible, we might say that what a healthy society requires is uniformity, sociality, community for the many and individualism for the exceptional few.
Conquest’s second law emerges in large part because of the impossibility of maintaining over a long period of time this tenuous balance between individualism and uniformity. Individualism finds its ultimate expression in classical liberalism, which could be described as the political doctrine of individualism par excellence. Classical liberalism in its more purer forms was the dominant ruling formula in America until the twentieth century, when more progressive forms of liberalism began to make inroads against within the culture. There appears to be a kind of natural process whereby classical liberalism, when given a free run of a society, inevitably morphs into a more progressive and decadent version of itself, which in turn then morphs into ever more radical forms of leftism.
If we break down all of this into more basic socio-psychological terms, it would seem that something along the following lines is happening. Liberal social orders originally emerge out of aristocratic social orders. In aristocratic societies, the principal institutions of society tend to be dominated by defenders of the established order—i.e., by what we now refer to as “the right-wing.” These “right-wing” institutions, generally speaking, tend to be closed to anyone who is not regarded as a defender of the established order. That’s what gives these institutions their particular strength and permanence. But as liberalism gathers strength, it seeks to break down obstacles to the advancement of talent within prevailing institutions. In its early days, liberalism is often a great promoter of meritocracy. It strives to open up institutions to the best and the brightest—which means the obstacles these institutions set up prevent infiltration by those hostile to the old regime must be worn down and rendered impotent, thereby opening them to all comers, both the talented and the malicious.
Fortunately, in those early days, when radical left is still in its infancy and not ready to stage a Gramscian march through the institutions, there is not great danger to opening up a nation’s institutions to all comers. But as liberalism evolves toward ever more radical forms, the development of dangerously anti-social and anti-civilization forms of leftism becomes ever more inerradicable. All civilizational social orders are hierarchical in the sense that within these societies there exists a competition among ambitious individuals for status and power. The aim of classical liberalism is to incentivise status-seeking by rewarding merit with the highest positions within the hierarchy. When a liberal social order is at its very best, the elite positions in the nation’s cultural, economic, and political institutions tend to be filled with people of real merit—that is, people of great intelligence, wisdom, and conscientiousness. Of course, because of the intrinsic corruption in human nature, a meritocratic system of this sort can never be perfect. But the closer it reaches perfection, the greater the heights the civilization in question can reach.
But just as individuals high in both conscientiousness and intelligence are pushed to the top of the socio-political hierarchy, at the same time we find individuals low in conscientiousness and intelligence being pushed to the bottom. Most problematic of all are those individuals who, while reasonably intelligent, are nevertheless low in conscientiousness. They also tend to congregate in the lower places within the status hierarchy, and if they are at all ambitious, this is sure to incite perilous levels of resentment. Because social status is a zero sum game, there will always be losers. Even if a liberal society can produce so much wealth that nearly everyone, even the poorest and most incompetent, can own cars and big screen televisions, the fact that some people will congregate at the bottom is bound to sow widespread discontent. Left-wing movements feed on this discontent—it’s their very lifeblood. Those among the unconscientious who are eager to rise in the social hierarchy will be drawn to these left-wing movements. They will become its progenitors and leaders. Unable to rise in society through merit, they seek status by leveraging the discontent among society’s losers for their own darker purposes.
Once a radical left elite emerges in a liberal society, it’s only a matter of time before they will begin attacking through subversion the nation’s most critical institutions. It’s in the nature of leftists to behave in just this way. Desiring status and power, they will seek it in the only way they know how: that is through burrowing into institutions through the use of chicanery and double-dealing. And so over the normal cycle of a liberal social order, Conquest’s law will find itself inescapably affirmed. Once liberalism removes the right-wing gatekeeping mechanisms from a nation’s institutions, those establishments no longer can defend themselves against capture from an ever more unscrupulous and unprincipled radical left.
This has become a particularly treacherous problem over the last hundred years or so, when the forces of liberalism, in league with science and technology, have enabled the world’s population to expand to seven and a half billion persons. The problem with so many people is that it becomes particularly challenging for ruling elites around the world to maintain the economic and technological conditions required to keep so many people alive. Under such immense strains on resources and production, it becomes vitally necessary that the institutions responsible for providing shelter and food to seven and a half billion souls should be governed by people who know what they are doing. But as leftist radicals become ever more dominant in our institutions, we find ourselves increasingly governed by elites who are in over their heads. Rather than preventing the disasters that will lead to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of people, these leftist elites will, in their incompetence and resentment, choose policies that will actually create conditions out of which humanitarian disasters of unprecedented scope and death become almost impossible to avert.
If one such catastrophe should occur and those who make it to the other side realize its source in radical left governance, how can they be expected to react when they get to the business of reconstituting the civilization of the West? Imagine if you are someone who has survived the very worst humanitarian disaster of human history and you understand that the genesis of this disaster is in the psychopathology of the radical left. Wouldn’t you feel rather uneasy about allowing the left free rein in your society going forward? Because of course there exists a dire fatalism in all of this. If the left is left free to its own devices under a liberal social order, it will likely behave exactly as it has over the last few hundred years. It really can’t help itself. Knowing all this, will future generations tolerate the existence of a left-wing in their society? Just a question to ponder.