What did the famous British parliamentarian and political philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797) have to say about the internet and our current political circumstances? Quite a bit, it turns out.
Burke is beloved by conservative intellectuals. George Will, for instance, mentions him all the time. Quoting Burke gives their pronouncements a nice glossy sheen.
Yet their Burke-worship is genuinely bizarre. Few people understand this, since few people (including conservative intellectuals) bother to read what Burke wrote. Anyone who does, though, will immediately understand how strongly Burke would have opposed today’s conservative movement, since he strongly opposed their 18th century equivalents.
This is particularly clear in Burke’s 1770 pamphlet, “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents.” It’s not merely that Burke was writing during a time of uprisings in overseas colonies, and in opposition to a monarch named George who was trying to expand executive power and neuter the legislative branch. Almost every sentence Burke wrote applies precisely to today.
For instance, in one passage Burke sounds like he’s describing current efforts by MoveOn and blogs to prevent Congress from granting telecom companies immunity for violating FISA:
Whilst men are linked together, they easily and speedily communicate the alarm of any evil design. They are enabled to fathom it with common counsel, and to oppose it with united strength. Whereas, when they lie dispersed, without concert, order, or discipline, communication is uncertain, counsel difficult, and resistance impracticable. Where men are not acquainted with each other’s principles, nor experienced in each other’s talents, nor at all practised in their mutual habitudes and dispositions by joint efforts in business; no personal confidence, no friendship, no common interest, subsisting among them; it is evidently impossible that they can act a public part with uniformity, perseverance, or efficacy. In a connection, the most inconsiderable man, by adding to the weight of the whole, has his value, and his use; out of it, the greatest talents are wholly unserviceable to the public. No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours, are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
Burke also covers George’s insistence on appointing incompetent hacks to positions of power, to habituate Parliament to impotence; the way the King’s cabal is mired in the “deepest and dirtiest pits of corruption” yet purports to be motivated by the “most astonishing prudery, both moral and political”; and the “futility, the weakness, the rashness, the perpetual contradiction, in the management of our affairs” in colonies across the sea. Then there’s his description of a corrupted, weak legislature, which could have been written yesterday:
A vigilant and jealous eye over executory and judicial magistracy; an anxious care of public money, an openness, approaching towards facility, to public complaint: these seem to be the true characteristics of an House of Commons. But an addressing House of Commons, and a petitioning nation; an House of Commons full of confidence, when the nation is plunged in despair; in the utmost harmony with Ministers, whom the people regard with the utmost abhorrence; who vote thanks, when the public opinion calls upon them for impeachments; who are eager to grant, when the general voice demands account; who, in all disputes between the people and Administration, presume against the people; who punish their disorders, but refuse even to inquire into the provocations to them; this is an unnatural, a monstrous state of things in this constitution.
Parliament cannot with any great propriety punish others, for things in which they themselves have been accomplices. Thus the controul of Parliament upon the executory power is lost; because Parliament is made to partake in every considerable act of Government. Impeachment, that great guardian of the purity of the Constitution, is in danger of being lost, even to the idea of it. [Italics in original]
So if we truly want to remember the past, rather than repeat it, Burke’s pamphlet is a good place to start. As another old dead guy, Thomas Jefferson, said:
…experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny…the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.