People often remark that I am surprisingly conservative. Surprising at least, for someone who identifies as a socialist. Let this be my confession: I am deeply sympathetic to elements of conservative philosophy. And yet conservatism in practice appears deranged, not least due to its adherents. What explains this apparent contradiction?
Contemporary Western political parties have abandoned their founding ideologies. There is nothing socialist nor even social-democratic about most major centre-left parties today. Conservative parties take this ideological bastardisation to a crescendo. Today’s so-called “conservatives” are nothing more than reflexive reactionaries, mired in a culture war they seem destined to lose. To quote conservative American writer Julius Krein: “Conservatism is a collection of losers. But it doesn’t have to be.” This implies there is something worth salvaging within conservatism. But what is that thing? And can it explain my inexplicable attraction to conservative philosophy?
If there is something worth conserving within conservatism, its most likely to be found within the writings of Roger Scruton. A philosopher who wrote about Kant, aesthetics, architecture and wine, Scruton’s erudition and lucidity commands our attention and demands to be taken seriously. In the hopes of discovering the source of my conservative sympathies, I began reading Scruton’s works earlier this year. What follows is largely taken from his more recent text: ‘How to be a Conservative’.
What is conservatism?
Conservatism is a temperament, not a programmatic policy platform. Conservatives feel before they reason. Of course, this is not unique – progressives too are driven by emotion, particularly outrage towards injustice. Conservatives on the other hand, are driven by feelings of attachment: a love of one’s country, culture, and religion. Scruton terms this a “culture of affirmation”.
Conservatism is not liberalism. Conservatives reject the abstract individual found in the pages of Hobbes, Locke, and Descartes. Humans form societies to seek meaning in something greater than themselves, not to maximise utility or secure their property rights.
In Australia, we tend to think of liberalism as being ‘right-wing’. This is not entirely accurate (nor is it entirely inaccurate). Progressive social politics is deeply steeped in liberal individualism. Social progressivism concerns itself with liberating or emancipating the individual from unjust social ties. Such ties, they point out, are historically contingent. In fact, their injustice stems precisely from their contingency.
This is what Scruton means when he critiques the Left for ‘deconstructing’ values and identities. And in fairness, he has a point. Of course, social progressivism is incredibly valuable for its critique of sexist, racist, and religious chauvinism. But its moral endpoint is based on a false anthropology. Humans do not exist in a vacuum as isolated individuals defined only by themselves. To define ourselves, we must first know our place in relation to others. Ontologically, “we” precedes “I”. Scruton labels this the “first-person plural”.
To progressives, patriotism may appear irrational. In fact, it is an accurate recognition of the human condition. To paraphrase Aristotle: humans are social animals. In times of need, we depend upon those closest to us. It makes sense therefore, that we should owe greater moral obligations to our family, community, and yes, to our country.
Where did conservatism go wrong?
So far, so good. Insofar as conservatives reject individualism, count me in. Why then, do right-wing parties today give us politicians such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Scott Morrison? None of them appear motivated by the sentimentalist conservatism of Burke, Oakeshott, or Scruton. The answer lies in that oft invoked but ill-defined ideology: liberalism.
Liberalism derives from the Latin word libertas, meaning liberty. Freedom is its goal. Scruton rightly asks, however: “Whose freedom, how exercised, how circumscribed and how defined?”. Good question.
Ancient philosophers frequently defined human freedom as the ability to transcend desire. Taming our sensuous, earthly desires through the cultivation of reason and virtue was a necessary step towards the Good Life. Liberalism inverts this. Freedom is the ability to pursue our desires, as unencumbered as possible. Selfishness replaces moderation as virtue.
Consumerism is the most vivid example of untrammelled liberalism. Every hedonistic impulse is to be pursued. Consider liberal arguments for free trade. Although job security for large swathes of the working-class has been eradicated, free trade is defended on the grounds that it provides cheap consumer goods. Consumption is an end in itself.
If consumerism destroys our environment, traditions, or local communities in its endless quest for new markets, then so be it. But hang on, don’t conservatives claim to hold these things dear? Traditions are like the souls of societies – without them, what exactly are conservatives conserving?
Fusionism describes the political marriage of convenience between conservatives and economic liberals. Fusionism is perpetually unstable, as liberalism and conservatism fundamentally contradict. Such instability explains why right-wing parties today are conservative in name only, and why figures such as Trump are able to embrace the term.
Rescuing conservatism from the conservatives
Scruton writes of a “metaphysical conservatism” which aims to defend “sacred things” against “desecration”. Upon reading this, a familiar quote sprang to mind:
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…”
Karl Marx wrote this in the Communist Manifesto. Marx also wrote:
“[Capitalism] has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism in the icy water of egotistical calculation’.
Marxist critiques of capitalism are often presented as being entirely concerned with economic inequality. Addressing inequality is important, to be sure; but Marx abhorred capitalism for reasons extending far beyond economic injustice alone.
Fundamentally, Marx is concerned with realising the conditions for human freedom. Like conservatism, Marxism rejects liberalism’s vision of freedom, of abstract individuals roaming around in a fictional state of nature.
What Scruton calls the first-person plural, Marx labels ‘species-being’. Anthropologically, humans are social animals. Identity, meaning, and happiness all derive from our shared form of life. Marx points out that capitalism erodes our social ties by making them purely instrumental. Experiential value is subordinated to exchange value. Conservatism seeks to preserve these ties against the onslaught on technological and economic change.
Marxism and conservatism both reject liberalism’s false individualist anthropology. And yet it is Marx who presents the more compelling case in the end. For all its strengths, conservatism offers next to no solutions to the greatest challenges facing humanity. Worse yet, conservatives (Scruton, at least) appear ignorant to the causes of the problems they lament. This is why I remain a socialist.
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