In the late 18th century, Edmund Burke, a parliamentarian and a critic of the French Revolution, argued that there was a limit to how much human beings could be manipulated by others.
It was a cautious, incremental conservatism. It was premised on the notion that change was both desirable and necessary, but that it needed to grow out of a society’s existing prejudices, beliefs, practices, habits and institutions. I thought about Burke again recently while reflecting upon 2012 and the apparent failure, or at least the weakening, of much of the Arab Spring and the hoped-for democracies and hoped-for liberalism that were supposed to accompany it (liberalism at least hoped-for in Western circles).
Burke has much to teach us here. Burke favoured the American Revolution on the grounds that it in fact was not a revolution but a continuation of a long tradition whereby Englishmen fought for their property and their right to a private life and to contra the Crown when necessary.
It was the right to form and to keep private associations, be they one’s family, church or pub mates. All were “little platoons” as Burke called them, formed voluntarily, and which preceded political institutions. So, too, one’s property, be it a hovel or a castle. All of the above, argued Burke, helped to inculcate feeling for family, friends, fellow citizens, and thus created virtue and stability in a society and thus provided the ultimate foundations for political regimes.
For Burke, importantly, people’s preferences – how people behave, what they value and their attachments to the same – had been carved out over the centuries.
In contrast to his support for the American Revolution, such an interruption was why Burke opposed the French Revolution: because its animating notion was the errant belief that reason could create a new world from revolutionary scratch.
In late 18th century France, revolutionaries sought not to build upon existing precedent. They were seeking not to modify society and its political institutions or to demand slightly better terms of representation but to uproot French institutions. They desired to rip the fabric of society apart, to tear down the old, to burn it and to create a new regime out of its ashes, and to do so from pure reason.
Not possible, said Burke, who correctly foresaw a bloody end to that revolution.
The 20th century had its own similar follies. By mid-century, the notion that human beings might not be forever malleable in their passions and prejudices and thus their behaviours had again been cast aside in favour of the belief that central planning, economic and otherwise, could twin with reason to create a brave and new and perfectible world.
In the context of the 1950s, the most glaring example of this approach, the most pure example of this folly, was the behaviour of Marxist governments and how they attempted to mould “their” citizens. But a people’s passions and prejudices also matter, and those are rather difficult beasts to tame.
If one looks back at 2012, consider the conservative critique from Burke – people are not infinitely malleable and there is a limit to what others should attempt vis-à-vis other people even with good intentions in play – but now as applied to recent events.
The last decade has seen attempts in Baghdad, Kabul and Cairo to either intervene in favour of human freedom or to support others who desire it.
But it appears at present, even assuming much goodwill in the interventions (Iraq and Afghanistan) or in the support of others (Libya and Egypt), those societies seem to still lack the requisite foundations for anything other than reflexive and tribal democracy – and that seems to be a best-case scenario.
Burke would have understood why, at least and especially for those of us outside looking in: there is only so much one can do with pure reason (to say nothing of pure force, even well-intentioned) and with attempts to lead people by rational argument into the promised land of benevolent, self-ruling representation.
Pace the French Revolution, reason and argumentation alone cannot build a society. Existing beliefs, prejudices, habits and traditions matter. They mattered in 2012 and will again in 2013. •