Understanding Conservatism in 2017

In the current historical moment, in which far right movements are on the rise throughout the post-industrial world, from Trump to UKIP and the looming threat of a Marine Le Pen presidency in France, it behooves us to attempt to understand conservatism as an ideology and political philosophy. While these far right movements bear little resemblance to the typical orientation and comportment of mainstream conservative parties, they are related and are in competition with one another for ascendency on the “right” side of the political spectrum. In what follows I want to make the argument that there is no single unified conservative ideology, but rather that conservatism is best understood when it is broken up into two dominant strands. The first I refer to as dispositional conservatism and the other is ideological conservatism. Modern conservative parties are typically an amalgam of these two strands. Furthermore, I will argue that the relative disappearance of the dispositional strand from mainstream conservative politics is very dangerous for the health of post-industrial democracies.

Dispositional Conservatism

First, we should distinguish between the dispositional and ideological strands of conservatism. The dispositional strand of conservatism can be identified with the intellectual tradition of Burke, Oakeshott and Scruton, among others and the politics of Disraeli and Diefenbaker. This strand of conservatism is very suspicious of radically altering society based on abstract notions of freedom and justice, and wants to preserve what is valuable in existing social and economic institutions. It is an avowedly anti-revolutionary creed which sees the existing society as imperfect, but believes that significantly changing the society is likely to lead to more bad than good. This tradition was formed in reaction to the horrific things done in the name of equality, freedom and brotherhood during the French Revolution and is deeply sceptical of the power of reason to allow us to create a perfect or near perfect society. As a result it favours maintaining the status quo and minor gradual changes to deep restructuring.

This form of conservatism is peculiar because it has no inherent policy prescriptions. This is part of the reason why Anglo-American conservatism differs so fundamentally from conservatism in countries with a stronger Catholic heritage. In the former what needs to be preserved is a welfare statist liberal market society founded upon individual right and the rule of law as this constitutes the existing status quo. Whereas in countries where Catholicism is a stronger force, like France, Germany and Italy what is preserved includes support for individual rights and the rule of law, but also a corporatist order founded on the obligations of classes to one another and noblesse oblige.

As a result, from a dispositional conservative perspective, the demand for privatization and the assault on the welfare state is not conservative. Its aim is to radically alter society to bring it in line with free markets. Conservatives whose primary allegiance is to free markets as opposed to preserving the existing order are not part of the dispositional strand of conservatism. This partially explains the irony that the first modern welfare states did not come to fruition under the rule of liberals or socialists, but under the corporatist-conservative state of Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck saw welfare policy as a way of ensuring the loyalty of citizens to the German community in the face of the individualizing and deracinating forces of capitalism that erase the bonds of local community.

Consequently, at its core, dispositional conservatism is about preserving valuable aspects of a society and its related practises and governing institutions. I call it dispositional conservatism because it reflects an attitude towards change and the public good rather than a formal set of propositions.

Ideological Conservatism

Ideological conservatism on the other hand is support for policies that are typically associated with the right side of the political spectrum. These policies include support for free enterprise, a relatively non-intrusive state, non-governmental communal associations as the locus of social assistance (churches, families and other voluntary/philanthropic associations), encouragement of the dominance of the existing morality and religion within the society, as well as an overarching concern for maintaining security and order. These policies prescriptions are not held by all conservatives as ideological conservatism is a broad church. Neoconservatives, Paleoconservatives, Red Tories and Liberal Conservatives tend to disagree on policy specifics. But the policy prescriptions outlined above do suggest a variety of policy issues that are central to conservative politics in post-industrial societies.

In this light, ideological conservatism is defined more by support for a specific set of policy prescriptions than a fundamental attitude towards social change.

As a result ideological conservatives are not necessarily dispositional conservatives and vice versa. For example, some ideological conservatives wage war on government as a mere nuisance that should be made as small as possible in societies in which the modern bureaucratic state has been fundamental to the way of life of the society since the early 20th century. Their concern here is not preserving what is of value within existing societal practises and institutions but fidelity to the principal that government is a necessary evil and should be as minimal as possible. Where agencies are acting for conservative causes but doing so not preserve, but to remake, they are not reflecting a dispositional conservative, but an ideological conservative ethos.

Where are we now and why does this matter?

While, the policy prescriptions of recent far right movements that we have seen come to prominence are not identical with typical ideological conservatives, they certainly share a family resemblance with a couple of qualifications. For the sake of simplicity I refer to these emergent far right movements as right wing neopopulists. These qualifications are that right wing neopopulists are far more overtly xenophobic and relatedly are uncomfortable with a globalized economy.   They certainly support free enterprise and markets, but within the borders of the national state, not across the globe. In this sense, the recent emergence of right wing neopopulism has pushed the ideological right in a more xenophobic and nationalistic direction, but outside of this significant shift, there have not been huge qualitative shifts within other areas of policy. Donald Trump is very different from Ronald Reagan on immigration and the role of trade, but the two share general support for capitalism, the primacy of order and security, the dominance of existing form of Christianity and morality and the deregulation of the economy. Thus, there is a significant degree of continuity from an ideological perspective between of mainstream conservatism and right wing neopopulism.

However, right wing neopopulism in all of its guises is radically opposed to dispositional conservatism. A fundamental aspect of the right wing neopopulist point of view is not to preserve what we have, but to get back the jobs and greatness that we have lost. Right wing neopopulism necessarily sees the existing society as something of a wasteland that needs to be redeemed; it is not just that the existing social institutions in danger, but that they work against the people and must be radically restructured. In this regard, right wing neopopulists do not reflect the dispositional conservative attitude.

At this point someone might object that right wing neopopulists are concerned with preservation as they want to preserve their countries against the influx of the problematic customs of particular types of foreigners. There is a certain sense in which it is true that right wing neopopulists do oppose the change of the customs of their society, but it is important that they do not want to preserve the existing customs, but return to an imagined period of glory and excellence. For example, a period when America was great. In this regard they are not preservationists but restorationists. They want to restore the nation to the way of life that made it great rather than preserving valuable social institutions. This is why in a very basic sense right wing neopopulists are reactionaries as opposed conservatives. Their aim is constructed in reaction and opposition to the status quo, rather than in preservation of the valuable elements of the status quo.

In light of the preceding, the distinction between ideological and dispositional conservatism helps us to understand right wing neopopulism as a phenomena that shares certain features with typical conservatism, but radically departs from the dispositional aspect of conservatism. This understanding is helpful because it provides us with an understanding of what is lost when the political right moves towards right wing neopopulism beyond the obvious fact that we are seeing a more crass political discourse, which is more thoroughly invaded by misogyny, and racism.

What is lost is the attitude of the dispositionally conservative citizen; instead it is replaced with the attitude of the right wing zealot. The right wing zealot merely wants to remake society in their desired image; they do not operate with a thought of what is best for this specific political order given its history, mores and demography. Instead they want to create a pure society that matches their intuitions and desires.

We need dispositionally conservative citizens as an integral part of the political order as they provide the caution that tempers the hubris that suggests to us that is easy to correct social ills, and we just have to think and act rationally to do so. The pull to make our society more just, equal or free, needs to be tempered by the ability to preserve the social order as a whole. If it is not we are not caring for our society and the concrete beings that live in it, but showing adherence to abstract principles whether such adherence causes more harm than good.

Dispositional conservatives may overstate what is required to preserve social order, but by pointing us to the question of care for an existing set of social institutions they point us to a very important issue. The dispositional conservative attitude is an important safeguard against the sway of adherence to doctrinal purity and abstract ideology. As a result the fact that right wing neopopulism erodes the dispositional aspect of conservatism makes it extraordinarily dangerous for post-industrial democracies.

As most readers of this blog know I am far from a conservative, but I have genuine sympathies with dispositional conservatism, because I too see the social order as a fragile thing to be preserved even when it is imperfect. It is in this light that I am horrified by the rise of right wing neopopulism. Post-industrial societies are socially unjust and problematic in many respects, but their support for individual freedom, equality and material well being make them something that must be preserved against the vilification of right wing neopopulism.

The Meritocracy of Desertolia

The simple, hardworking people of Desertolia had constructed their political institutions in the most ingenious way; all elements of society were structured around the single divine purpose of rewarding each for his or her merit. Those who worked hard got the finest homes and were honored publicly, while those who did not lived in squalor and were rightly condemned through public ceremony. Unlike those societies based on a confusing mix of goals Desertolia was truly unified around its fundamental purpose.

With a judicious eye to fairness the people of Desertolia ensured that children were not unduly punished for the sins of their parents or unduly rewarded for the virtues of the parents. As a result the residents of Desertolia had no need for the warm sentimentality of blood ties and had abolished the family in favour of a form of raising children that truly fulfilled the need to reward all for their merit. If parents were to raise their biological children this would reward the children of the excellent and punish the children of the mediocre as the children of the mediocre would be habituated to act in mediocre ways, while the excellent would be habituated to act in excellent ways. A child born to a mediocre set of parents should not be punished for having been born to mediocre parents, as the child’s future should not be sullied by the status of its biological originators.

Instead of having romantic couples form and raise their biological children the Desertolians had yearly breeding ceremonies in which breeding matches would were chosen by the ruling council in accordance with merit. Those who had properly done their duty and lived excellent lives were rewarded with likewise fine, attractive mates, while those who were mediocre or corrupt were made to breed with others who were mediocre or corrupt. The Desertolians understand that it would be a travesty to the sacredness of merit to have the excellent breed with the mediocre or corrupt. After the children were born to their biological mother, the child would be taken to the Kinderecclesia, a set of public grounds that served to raise children. In the Kinderecclesia each child was cared for according to its merit from the time of its birth to the age of 17. The commitment to rewarding children according to merit within the Kinderecclesia was both admirable and thoroughgoing. Infants who cried too much and misbehaved were justly disciplined, while those who were quiet and pleasant were given fine rewards. Likewise, older teenagers who could recite the Seven Sacred Principles of Merit of Desertolia were allowed to engage in conjugal relationships with one another, while those who could not were barred from engaging in romantic relations of any kind. In Desertolia, the right to pursue erotic love was not something that was accessible to anybody, but only to those who had met an appropriate standard of merit.

The Desertolians rejected both socialism and capitalism as neither properly rewarded each according to his merit. Capitalism displayed injustice because it allowed inheritance and unduly rewarded many who had not worked hard. Socialism was impious because it provided according to need rather than according to what people merited. Instead of capitalist or socialist forms of economic organization, in Desertolia, all goods were distributed by the Economic Commission of Desertolia according to the merit of the recipients. Those who had worked hard and lead morally upright lives were given much, while libertines and slovenly scoundrels were given little. In the past small scale trade had occurred between people in Desertolia, but these practises were rightly recognized as heretical to the principles of merit. If people were allowed to buy goods from one another than the mediocre or corrupt could end up with something that they did not merit, and this would violate everything that the Desertolians held dear. Surely, nothing could be worse.