218. Duration (IV)
The stock conservative person, the person who is conservative by constitution, has low openness to experience and is highly conscientious. To be conservative in this sense can cause a person to support governments that are leftist, simply because they happen to be born under that system. A conservative by disposition in the USSR would assert in 1987 that Gorbachev was a dangerous man who would damage Soviet society; he would be correct. Gorbachev’s reforms led to the collapse of the USSR and a decade of anarchy that saw Russia lose all her prestige in the world, lose a war in Chechnya, and degenerate into economic bedlam. The suicide rate tracked the general malaise, the mafia ruled, and Russian girls sold themselves to the highest bidder.
It is quite likely that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the successor to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, won legislative and perhaps even presidential elections in the 1990s—except that the oligarchy fixed the results. The situation was so bad in Russia in the 1990s that most Russians would have preferred a return to communism. Even today, Russians are very sceptical of Gorbachev and he is widely reviled for the chaos he caused Russia; he is, in a sense, the classical “good liberal”: a naïve idealist who undertook reforms that unravelled his society’s whole social structure—and he is only really popular in the West.
From the standpoint of ideas, Russia was not a rightist regime in the 1980s—she was against nature—and yet the basic conservative is not an “ideas man”; he is a pragmatic traditionalist, and the traditions do not matter much to him. The assertion that radical change to a political system will lead to disaster is well-founded, even if the regime is unnatural: counter-revolutions are as ugly as revolutions. Russians gained considerable freedom of thought and movement in the 1990s, but they were materially worse off and also emotionally disorientated; they suffered extreme “reality collapse” as all previous institutions and narratives were exposed as lies overnight—a similar process has now happened in the West, thanks to the Internet.
What was once a fairly uniform social narrative—from the BBC to The Times to The Sun—has been punctured. Russia became home to very peculiar ideas in the 1990s—such as National Bolshevism, a mash-up of Marxism and National Socialism—because of the extreme narrative collapse and unreality of the post-Soviet state. We see a similar process in the West, the “post-truth” society and its “weird” ideas is really society after the fixed mass media narrative collapsed—a narrative that was only ever “true” to the people invested in it.
In Russia, it needed to get worse before it could get better. Russia burned off all her accumulated waste in the 1990s and finally arrived as a prosperous and reasonably lawful society guided by a virtuous leader who quotes Rudyard Kipling and emphasises the importance of faith and family. If the coups by the military—always the most conservative section of society—had succeeded, Russia might have trod a Chinese path: a liberalised economy governed by a Leninist state. Russia went one better, since she has recovered her economy, her liberty, and her faith; but it was an extremely rough path—and it was in no way certain in the 1990s that all would be well, the complete break-up of Russia was a real possibility.
My point here is that a conservative disposition is not sufficient to stabilise society. Conservatives are decent—usually correct—but they are also somewhat like lemmings; if elements of their society have been hijacked they continue to follow the established pattern because that is what conservatives do; and they will go right off the cliff. The intellectuals—the people of high openness and creativity—are subject to slightly different, inorganic delusions; and yet their ability to see new possibilities is an important corrective to instinctive conservatives—especially if they think their way back to the natural order.