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Response — We Need To Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives

Those of us who believe in the merits of conservatism, the road ahead is one on which it is more important than ever to start calling ourselves conservatives.

Speaking about his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, the American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, observed:

The End of History was never linked to a specifically American model of social or political organization. Following Alexandre Kojève, the Russian-French philosopher who inspired my original argument, I believe that the European Union more accurately reflects what the world will look like at the end of history than the contemporary United States. The EU’s attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a “post-historical” world than the Americans’ continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military.

Francis Fukuyama

In other words, history is an evolutionary process, and its end comes in the shape of the emergence of liberal democracy, which Fukuyama thought was the final form of government. Note: I use the past tense thought as Fukuyama’s thinking has continued to evolve over the last thirty years.

His theory was problematic, not least because liberal democracy is an extremely new phenomena in world history. Thus, making generalisations about its strengths, for example democratic peace theory, are fraught with objections because we lack a sufficient range of scenarios to be confident in the hypothesis. There was also the glaring reality that while 1992 represented the first flush of the Post-Cold War period, the collapse of the Soviet Union was no more proof positive that Communism was dead than the demise of any political institution means the death of the underlying ideology of which it is the temporal representative. This is an important point we will revisit later as the Soviet Union represented not just a political ideology, but an economic system, both of which partnered to bring social change.

Never one to sit when the The Internationale is best sung standing on two feet, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida got up on his hind legs, took a deep breath and intoned:

For it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-evangelize in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy that has finally realized itself as the ideal of human history: never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity. Instead of singing the advent of the ideal of liberal democracy and of the capitalist market in the euphoria of the end of history, instead of celebrating the ‘end of ideologies’ and the end of the great emancipatory discourses, let us never neglect this obvious, macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable, singular sites of suffering: no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth.

Jacques Derrida

While there is much to disagree with in the pantheon of Derrida’s work — most notably his conceptualisation of the ‘referential illusion’ that argued context, history, and tradition cannot be objectively determined — he was on to something in rejecting Fukuyama’s assertion about the death of history. The reasons are twofold:

  1. There is a tendency in many Western movements to think in Christian eschatological terms and to conceive of everything in the context of end times. Yet even if a particular person, process, or even way of life does come to an end, it does not axiomatically follow we have reached the end times.
  2. Even if we accept the assertion that ideas or ideologies have a life span and are thus capable of death, this only ushers in Hauntology and an equal and opposing belief that these ideas or ideologies can return as ghosts or spectres which continue to haunt the body politic.

In reading three thought provoking articles by Jon Askonas (Why Conservatism Failed), Rod Dreher (The End Of Conservatism? Or Birth Of A New Right?), and John Daniel Davidson (We Need To Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives), I felt a similar inner tension to what I felt when reading Fukuyama’s work. This is evident in the very headline of Davidson’s article:

The conservative project has failed, and conservatives need to forge a new political identity that reflects our revolutionary moment.

Yet to argue for a ‘revolutionary moment’ is problematic — to say the least. One is either a conservative or a revolutionary, it is illogical to assert one is a conservative embarking upon a revolution. This is because conservatism comes to us, in its most simplistic rendition, as an ideology that rest firmly on tradition, and tradition is best served via reform not radical change. Remove tradition or force through change by fiat, and whatever is left many be many things, but it is not conservatism. Davidson continues this inner tension in arguing:

Calling oneself a conservative in today’s political climate would be like saying one is a conservative because one wants to preserve the medieval European traditions of arranged marriage and trial by combat. Whatever the merits of those practices, you cannot preserve or defend something that is dead. Perhaps you can retain a memory of it or knowledge of it. But that is not what conservatism was purportedly about. It was about maintaining traditions and preserving Western civilization as a living and vibrant thing.

Well, too late. Western civilization is dying. The traditions and practices that conservatives champion are, at best, being preserved only in an ever-shrinking private sphere. At worst, they are being trampled to dust. They certainly do not form the basis of our common culture or civic life, as they did for most of our nation’s history.

Davidson is certainly right, Western civilisation is under attack. But as a historian that is one of those ‘so what?’ statements with which history is replete. Western civilisation has been under attack ever since its earliest inception and will likely continue to be so until it vanishes from history — be that in the next decade or at the end of time itself. Ed West recently wrote on just such an instance, yet Western tradition not only survived but thrived in the centuries following.

This eternal struggle of Western civilisation against not just opposing cultures, but against the very notion of entropy itself, means that we need not only resist what opposes us but also resist our internal demons. Our tendency to think in terms of end times. Our tendency to assume unless we triumph in this very moment, all will be swept away on the tide of history. Arguably this latter threat is the greater because where the West is in its greatest peril is when it pulls itself apart from within.

From this stand point, it is critical to go back to basics and recall that conservatism suffers whenever it pushes for a society that is ossified and unreformed. Yet worse, when people abandon conservative principles and seek revolutionary change to return to a bygone age.

To better understand this, let us pull a brief primer from the shelf on the difference between change and reform. The former, change, is a process that is generally ill-conceived and frequently seeks little more than to fundamentally alter an institution, often for no other reason than it has existed ‘time out of mind’ — to take a phrase from Burke. The latter, reform, is about preservation and alteration by ‘insensible degrees’, again plucking from Burke’s prose, so that the vitality and, to Burke’s thinking, the authority of the institution, office or title remains.

This constant state of evolution is critical to the conservative project, and to see conservatism, or even tradition, as a process or magic incantation that can halt or roll back time is to misconstrue its purpose and its wonder.

How weak an argument prescription [tradition] is… [when it precludes] every improvement… in the constitution.

Edmund Burke

Yet is is easy to see why many conservatives are lunging for the lever of revolution because what is increasingly passed off as ‘our new tradition’ is something worthy only to be rejected. Furthermore, many ‘new traditions’ are in reality not even the palest imitation of tradition. They are twenty-first century equivalents of the French Republican calendar, and never likely to take root. It is why their advocates are utterly determined to cancel anyone who dares to not embrace their relativist’s dream of a ‘post-truth’ world where people are seized, as Jorge Luis Borges would have it, by a ‘hygienic, ascetic rage’ which casts some schools of thought as ‘analogous to a god,’ with acolytes prostrating themselves before approved ‘books and like savages kiss[ing] their pages, though they cannot read a letter.’ Other texts or outlooks fall victim to ‘epidemics, heretical discords’ or ‘pilgrimages that inevitably degenerate into brigandage;’ ultimately extinguishing the fire of any meaningful agonism. In the face of such developments, conservatives need to be wary of throwing out the core of what makes the conservative project so important to society in an effort to save the movement.

Where Davidson is on firmer terrain is in drawing on an article by Jon Askonas, Why Conservatism Failed:

The modern conservative project failed because it didn’t take into account the revolutionary principle of technology, and its intrinsic connection to the telos of sheer profit. Decrying left-wing revolutionary politics and postmodern anarchy, conservatives missed that the real moral relativism was to believe that one could change the material form of society without directly affecting its substance or its ends.

Jon Askonas

The thesis both Davisdon and Askonas seem to be asserting is that the digital revolution has wrought change faster than tradition, or the conservative project, could manage to digest it. The result is that many conservatives have acquiesced and ‘focused instead on narrower issues.’ There is much truth to this. Conservatives, particularly in America, have often taken a very narrow view of the issues that define conservatism. This has, for several decades now, been the Achilles’ heel of the conservative project and opened it to unending ridicule from the radical left. A ridicule that makes younger conservatives ashamed or embarrassed about being seen as fellow travellers and has cast older conservatives as reactionaries who hate modernity.

The result is a schism in conservatism, one that is hard to see at present and likely will only be obvious several generations hence. To put this probability into perspective, let us look at another movement which has undergone its own internal divisions — liberalism. For this, I will draw on the late great Roger Scruton:

the term ‘liberal’ is now used in two conflicting ways, on the one hand to denote the politics and philosophy of individual liberty, as advocated by Locke and his followers, on the other hand to denote the ‘progressive’ ideas and policies that have emerged in the wake of modern socialism. In effect, the two ideas belong to two contrasting narratives of emancipation. Classical liberalism tells of the growth of individual liberty against the power of the sovereign. Socialism tells of the steadily increasing equality brought about by the state at the expense of the entrenched hierarchies of social power. The French revolutionaries went into battle with a slogan that promised liberty and equality together. Subsequent history might be taken to suggest that the goals are, in practice, incompatible, or at least in radical tension with each other.

Roger Scruton

This incompatibility or radical tension can be seen at work in modern conservatism precisely because its luminaries and leaders, instead of thinking about how to reform the latest societal change, adopt ever more restorationist or counterrevolutionary stances:

They might, looking to American history for inspiration, conjure up the image of the Pilgrims — those iron-willed and audacious Christians who refused to accept the terms set by the mainstream of their time and set out to build something entirely new, to hew it out of the wilderness of the New World, even at great personal cost.

Or they might claim the mantle of revolutionaries, invoking the Founding Fathers’ view (or, at least, Thomas Jefferson’s) that periodic revolution to preserve liberty and civil society has always been and always will be necessary.

John Daniel Davidson

While this represents a wonderful clarion call, socialism must be destroyed, it is a process that is likely to achieve precisely the opposite of its intended goal. We know these truths to be self-evident because conservatives in every generation have faced similar challenges, and only when they have focused on reforming the latest revolutionary change — rather than reacting in ossified, iron-willed refusal to reform, or lunged toward their own revolutionary change — has the conservative project been a success.

In all those ways modern conservatism arose as a defence of the individual against potential oppressors, and an endorsement of popular sovereignty. However. it opposed the view that political order is founded on a contract, as well as the parallel suggestion that the individual enjoys freedom, sovereignty and rights in a state of nature, and can throw off the burden of social and political membership, and start again from a condition of absolute freedom. For the conservative, human beings come into this world burdened by obligations, and subject to institutions and traditions that contain within them a precious inheritance of wisdom, without which the exercise of freedom is as likely to destroy human rights and entitlements as to enhance them.

Roger Scruton

In this sense the exercise of conservatism, and the preservation of tradition, is not about preventing a law from changing, securing tax cuts for big business, or ensuring government remains small. Rather, it is about the inheritance of wisdom, the reform of social institutions, and the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next.

In Burke’s understanding, therefore, tradition is a form of knowledge. Not theoretical knowledge, of course, concerning facts and truths; and not ordinary know-how either. There is another kind of knowledge, which is neither knowledge that nor knowledge how, which involves the mastery of situations — knowing what to do, in order to accomplish a task successfully, where success is not measured in any exact or fore-envisaged goal, but in the harmony of the result with our human needs and interests. Good manners illustrate what Burke had in mind. Knowing what to do in company, what to say, what to feel — these are things we acquire by immersion in society. They cannot be taught by spelling them out but only by osmosis, yet the person who has not acquired these things is rightly described as ignorant.

Roger Scruton

Thus imagined, the failure or success of conservatism is not dependent on how fast societal, or even technological, change is happening, rather, it is the ability of tradition to absorb, evolve and embrace the change. Given this, Askonas is wrong to argue ‘A technological society can have no traditions.’ Quite the opposite is true. For what enabled the rise and dominance of the West is precisely its technological innovation. What Niall Ferguson termed the 6 Killer Apps in his book Civilization: The West and the Rest.

Everywhere tradition abounds, if we take the time to look, and while the bygone eras of trial by combat, or methods of farming in the American MidWest may have faded, this does not mean we are now in a traditionless society in which conservatives must build from scratch, as revolutionaries seek to do. It is about ensuring the conservative tradition keeps moving and evolving, that the revolutionary change in society is checked, in the sense of fact checked, against the pool of received wisdom and embraced or rejected on its merits, not on whether the change conforms to an ossified understanding of tradition.

This process may, as it does at present, seem to momentarily overwhelm the conservative project, but in the long run the indigestion will subside and the society that remains will not be traditionless nor even absent of conservatism. Rather, it will be the latest incarnation of that which went before — something which is the very definition of a conservative future. In this context, we do not need to stop calling ourselves conservatives, rather we need to start. We also need to acknowledge that conservatism is measured in epochs, not decades, and that much as Fukuyama was wrong to predict the end of history, so too are we wrong to predict the end of conservatism.

Good night and good luck.


Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act I, Scene IV by Henry Fuseli is licensed under Public Domain.

Sources

Borges, Jorge Luis. ‘The Library of Babel.’ Translated by Andrew Hurley. In Collected Fictions, 112- 18. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Burke, Edmund. The Speeches of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke in the House of Commons and in Westminster-Hall. Vol. I. IV vols. (London, 1816).

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (New York: Routledge, 1994).

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and The Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992).

Scruton, Roger. Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (United Kingdom: All Points Books, 2018).


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