In the past few weeks, Peru’s hardline communist and presumptive president-elect, Pedro Castillo, has been called a conservative by many. Castillo’s remarks against gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia, legalization of marijuana, among other causes close to progressive hearts, have led them to call Castillo a conservative–as if it were an insult.
However, for the sake of conservatives and communists, it is worth pointing out that Pedro Castillo is a conservative. In fact, I think that saying so comes from a common mistake people generally make when discussing ideology, namely, tying an ideology to a specific set of policies instead of a specific set of values.
Of course, if we tie ideology just to policies, by all means, Castillo seems to believe in some conservative ideas. But then, we should also consider the liberal revolutionaries of the 19th-century to be conservative due to their steadfast opposition to gay marriage, slaves voting, and women wearing pants.
Tying ideology merely to policies is the same mistake libertarians usually make when they consider Franco, Videla, or… Milton Friedman to be socialists or left-wing.
An individual in Saudi Arabia who supports women being able to take a job without male authorization yet opposes the mere smell of a glass of wine with all the might of the Sharia is, by all means, a liberal in Saudi terms. Yet, if he takes a plane to Southern Europe, he’d be more conservative than the grandmother of a British earl.
This difficulty in defining an ideology within time and space is particularly true to conservatism because it is, as Sir Roger Scruton said, an ultimately local tradition.
What defines an ideology?
What defines an ideology, then? Why is Lisa Murkowski, who supports gay marriage and abortion, a conservative, but Pedro Castillo is not?
The explanation is quite simple. An ideology is a weltanschauung (worldview) that is up in arms. To explain it in the simplest terms possible: if I believe that drinking a glass of whiskey during the afternoon is good for my health, that is part of my worldview, albeit it becomes ideological at the moment I found a whisky-drinking movement to finance a daily glass of whisky for everyone who is of drinking age. Yet, what makes it ideological is no the policy per se but my particular notion of the social good, which is, in part, drinking a daily glass of whisky.
With this silly example what I mean is that ideology has more to do with attitudes and values than with a set of policies.
Terry Eagleton, who can’t certainly be accused of being a conservative, says an ideology is “ideas and beliefs (whether true or false) which symbolize the conditions and life experiences of a specific, socially significant group or class.” Again, we would be mistaken if we called Pedro Castillo a conservative for his support or lack of support of a set of policies. Conservatism, like all ideologies, is about a set of values and beliefs.
Thus what is a conservative, and why shouldn’t we count Castillo among them? For a simple reason: Pedro Castillo is a revolutionary and of the worst kind. And speaking of a revolutionary conservative would be as rare as speaking of a smiling libertarian.
In fact, if I were to define conservatism with two words, I’d say conservatism is about gratitude and stability. Gratitude is the conservative emotion par excellence because conservatives venerate the past to keep the flame of tradition going, paraphrasing Mahler. And stability because the antonym of a conservative is not a progressive but a revolutionary. That is why conservatives usually detest Pope Francis more than they reject Slavoj Zizek, who wouldn’t lead a revolution even if held at gunpoint.
People forget conservatism is a branch of the liberal tradition. The father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, was a man who supported the American revolution but saw the French Revolution as something entirely different. It was not cutting off the branches of the tree to allow it to bear new fruit but it was uprooting it. He was not opposed to change; he was merely opposed to exchanging Versailles for the guillotine, as any sane man would.
And, of course, here lies one of the main criticisms of conservatism: that it is like a powerless father that, knowing his child would escape to a party during the night, tells him to go to the party, but only until 11 p.m. Conservatism seems intended to moderate the more radical impulses of the revolution but, in the end, it defends the revolution. This is the criticism that Jaume Balmes and Donoso Cortés directed towards Spanish conservatism in the 19th Century, but it seems like a topic for another day.
Is Pedro Castillo a conservative?
The reason why Castillo is not a conservative is simple: a man who intends to build a new Constitution for himself when it seems he won the presidency by a few thousand votes and not having a parliamentary majority cannot be called a conservative because he is the antonym of a conservative: a bitter and ungrateful revolutionary.
But I will not certainly criticize Castillo for the only couple of sane positions he may have. Yet, trying to establish what is a conservative in Peru with the same standards of what makes an American or European conservative seems like disguised ideological colonialism.
If you consider Pedro Castillo a conservative, you should take the very same reasoning all the way and say Franco is left-wing and say that today’s heterodox libertarians who oppose Big Tech, are socialists. It is an excessively dogmatic and geometric train of thought. I will not go that way.