The MWS Podcast 123: Amod Lele on Literal Conservatism

We are joined today by Amod Lele, who teaches Indian philosophy at Boston University. He is also Visiting Researcher at the Center for the Study of Asia, and an Educational Technologist with Information Services & Technology. He writes a regular blog in cross-cultural philosophy, called Love of All Wisdom on which I came across an article he wrote on ‘Literal Conservatism’. I was struck by his contention that in recent times the political left has been far more conservative in this sense than the right and this will be the topic of our discussion today.

MWS Podcast 123: Amod Lele as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

3 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 123: Amod Lele on Literal Conservatism

  1. I’m really pleased to see something on conservatism in our podcast series! There seem to me to be too many otherwise humane, thoughtful people around who seem to believe that anything with the word ‘conservative’ in it must necessarily imply motives of greed, exploitation and short-termism. These are of course polarized against the other otherwise humane and thoughtful people who think that anything called ‘conservatism’ simply involves standing up for what is obviously right. Since they can’t both be correct, a closer look at what ‘conservatism’ most helpfully means is badly needed, reaching beyond the lecture halls of political philosophy where only a very small minority of people routinely examine these concepts. Like any ideology, it can be unhelpfully absolutized or helpfully interpreted in ways that are open to increasingly integrated experience.

    There are two thinkers I greatly respect who are literal conservatives – Iain McGilchrist and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. McGilchrist would stress the relationship between revolution and left hemisphere idealization. We get a fixed idea in an over-dominant left brain, with insufficient modifying input from the right, and assume it is the whole story. Literal conservatism for him would be a helpful adaptation to compensate for left hemisphere over-dominance. Taleb, despite his off-putting maschismo, has a lot of interesting things to say about the ways in which traditional systems have gradually evolved into ‘antifragility’ – that is to positively gain from difficulty rather than be damaged by it. He uses the example of the labyrinthine trading relationships and economic conventions used in a bazaar in his native Lebanon – which could not be suddenly replaced by any sort of rationalized economic model. Things that evolve gradually have been chipped away at by a huge variety of phenomena, rather than only the ones we can think of.

    But of course literal conservatism raises lots of problems of interpretation. One of them, which was raised in the discussion but I don’t think Amod really answered, is that of reversing disruptive change. I disagree with him about Corbyn because I think Corbyn is much more literally conservative than Theresa May or anyone in the Tory Party. All he wants to do is remove some of the disruptive innovation of the Thatcher years. Amod didn’t seem aware that in the British context, higher levels of nationalization and a more fully adequate welfare state are still part of a lost status quo that many older people still yearn for. Perhaps the Thatcherite rollback of these things is still recent enough to be reversed without being seen as revolutionary. The justification of reversing negative changes obviously depends on how well embedded (as well as how successful or unsuccessful) the recent change is.

    The key principle of Middle Way Philosophy that this relates to is incrementality. This principle springs from our embodied experience, and involves the avoidance of discontinuity, both in the way we used concepts and in the changes we bring about (the changes depend on the way we use concepts). Gradual change is the only sustainable change, because embodied creatures cannot change their ways of behaving instantaneously – a nervous system has to be retrained and new synaptic pathways developed. Sudden change is false change because it tends to snap back, which is no surprise at all given that people’s brains and thinking patterns will have barely changed. For anyone interested in making links between this topic and Middle Way Philosophy, the intro videos on incrementality and also on avoiding discontinuity, may well be of interest.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I’ve never lived in Britain, so no doubt you are more qualified to speak about Corbyn and British politics in general than I am. I think we are in agreement that over the past forty years the left has been more conservative than the right, with the latter’s radical disruptions under Reagan, Thatcher and beyond, that the left struggled to resist. We now seem to be at a point (happily, I think) where the left wants to do more than resist, and (as you note) actually reverse that negative change. But the question of when to reverse negative change is a big one for literal conservatives: I think there is some point at which attempting to return to a previous state is so disruptive that it ceases to be conservative. But there is a big question about when that point would be; I think you’ve identified well some of the factors that work to determine it.

      I tend to think that returning welfare programs is more conservative than nationalization, because the disruption of livelihoods caused by simple tax increases is much smaller. That’s one reason I would identify Sanders as more of a conservative than Corbyn. Corbyn’s past support for the IRA also does not seem to me very conservative in temperament. To my knowledge, he is also more supportive than Sanders of exiting NATO – a seventy-year alliance long predating Reagan and Thatcher.

      1. Hi Amod,
        Thanks for responding. I don’t think it’s a fair portrayal of Corbyn to talk about ‘support’ for the IRA, which can easily make it look as though he supported their terrorist campaigns, which he never did. What he did do was engage with the IRA – in the process merely pre-empting John Major and Tony Blair, who shortly afterwards negotiated secretly with the IRA to bring about the peace deal. Corbyn has a long record of putting peace first and being willing to talk to media hate figures to promote peace – but that doesn’t imply that he ‘supported’ them. His actions in that regard seem to me like a very literal conservative thing to do, because almost nothing is quite as disruptive as unnecessary war. As far as exiting NATO goes, whatever Corbyn’s private views there was no sign of that at all in Labour’s recent manifesto, which also even maintained the crazy and unnecessary commitment to renew the UK’s ‘independent’ Trident nuclear weapon system. It seems obvious that Corbyn has sacrificed some of the more radical foreign and defence policy that he would personally prefer, to try to get support from the wider Labour party for his domestic agenda.

        Aside from Corbyn, though, I’d be interested in your views on some of the other points I mentioned above, such as the principle of incrementality. Personally I would see literal conservatism as an application of this principle, which applies more widely than just in politics. Would you say that your support for literal conservatism is based on any such more basic philosophical principles?

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