Friday, April 15, 2005

Lord Acton's Dictum

This post by Jim Bliss is really good. Although I don't agree with everything he says - and not just the quibble I mention in the comments, but other stuff, mostly environmental issues, which I'm happy to confess I don't really know enough about to argue with him with (which does not mean I should automatically concede any dispute) - it is generally well-written and excellently argued. The one thing which it does which slightly troubles me is the adoption of Lord Acton's dictum, "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely". Now, call me an idealist, call me a naive fool (go on, I dare you) but I'm not really sure that progressives should be uncritically adopting as a universal generalization something said by a late nineteenth century conservative in defence of robber-baron capitalism style limited government. A while ago, Pearsall (this gets very meta-, for which I apologize) wrote a piece, responding to a piece which I had written about why we should remember the Communist regimes of the last century with regret, at least in some sense, rather than the kind of visceral disgust reserved for the Nazi regimes of the same period. He basically argued that rather than remembering these regimes with regret, they ought to stand as reminders of the insanity that follows from attempts, however well-intentioned, to remake society according to some utopian vision. The two attitudes are linked, it seems to me: both are a form of pessimism in the face of the mendacity, grubby self-interest, corruption and narrow focus of much of politics, a pessimism which is generalized to all possible politics, and which thus can (I'm not saying Jim or Pearsall actually do this, but it seems they come close to it) leave us stymied by the unacceptable face of the world as it is, unwilling to try and change it because change will only make it worse. They are kinds of forms of conservatism, of resistance to the idea that, however complex the human world is, it is of our making, and we can, with the correct knowledge, carefully applied by people of good-will, make it better. I'm not a marxist and don't have a utopia lined up, waiting for me to sell it to you, and I am aware that an awful lot of what goes on in politics is essentially pork-barrelling, but that doesn't mean that we should give up on all hope of change (I hope).

Jim Bliss, as he mentions in the comments, has a kind of response up here. I feel that I should say that, if anything, the 'I'm doing my best ostrich impression, me' attitude he contrasts his own view to is the kind of conservatism that Lord Acton's dictum - whatever it's origins - is a symptom of.


Pearsall Helms said...

It's not that I think that positive change is impossible, it's just that I think that the continuous failure of societies that start out on a path to utopia shows that we can't build paradise on earth. I'm just not very revolutionary.

Jim Bliss said...

Hi Robert,

I began writing a comment here, but it spiralled out of control I'm afraid (the criticism of "pessimism" is something that my writing has had levelled at it before).

In the end it got folded into another post I was writing and appears here on my blog.

The piece is not, by the way, aimed at you. I hope I make it fairly clear that I'm merely using your critique of Lord Acton's dictum as a springboard to address a broader issue.

Good blog, by the way!

Take care of yourself,

Shuggy said...

Acton was, as I understand it, refering to the power of the Pope. Accepting the dictum doesn't mean accepting a conservative world-view but it does, I think, mean accepting building paradise involves building gulags; human history doesn't lead us to think otherwise...

Anonymous said...

Acton was a classical liberal. No sort of conservatism has nothing to do with his views.