What does conservatism stand for?

First published by the Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ July 15 2012

What does conservatism stand for? What is its core, motivating commitment? In the light of the various divisions within conservative thought today – between, for example, one nation and new right conservatives – some political theorists have concluded that the doctrine is simply incoherent. Others argue that conservatism has only ever been a rag-tag bundle of beliefs, prejudices and vague sentimental attachments rather than an organised, unified philosophy. Nevertheless, the fact that parties and movements thinking of and calling themselves conservative, for all their factiousness, have been such a prominent and permanent feature of the modern political landscape suggests that they’re bound together by some sort of shared, deeply rooted rationale.

We can certainly identify several central themes running through conservative thought. The most obvious is the desire to conserve, and a general suspicion of social change. Closely connected with this is the importance of tradition which reflects, for the conservative, the accumulated wisdom of the past. Long-established institutions and practices have evolved over many generations and are thus, say conservatives, “tried and tested”. Change, if it must come, should be cautious and pragmatic. Society, for the conservative, is best understood as a complex, organic whole which must be allowed to evolve at its own pace. Other central themes include the idea of human imperfection and the importance of authority for social cohesion. Further, conservatives often claim to value freedom over other political principles.

The trouble, as Ted Honderich argues, is that none of these central themes seem to provide a firm or distinct underlying rationale for conservatism. Take the suspicion of change. Clearly, conservatives are not against all social change, yet the kinds they’re for and those they oppose remain largely unspecified. Matters are not made clearer by reference to the value of long-established traditions because the question remains: which ones?

Conservatives are not generally noted for vociferous defence of labour movement traditions – the well-established tradition, say, that one should not cross a picket line – whereas they tend to be quite keen on those associated with the monarchy. Yet, if they were committed to the value of tradition as such there would be no reason to prefer the latter. Neither do we get closer to a clear, distinctive rationale when we consider caution and pragmatism – Fabian socialists are committed to incremental reform, too, yet they’re clearly not conservatives. Furthermore, conservatives such as Thatcher have themselves implemented far-reaching programmes of reform. So it’s not radical, rapid change, per se, conservatives oppose.

We encounter similar problems in relation to freedom and authority. Conservatives can’t be for all and any form of freedom or authority. Further, one would be hard pressed to identify any major political tradition that doesn’t claim liberty as a central principle or which doesn’t advocate certain forms of authority. The conservative view of human nature is not as distinctive as it might at first appear – one does not have to be on the right to think that humans have a natural capacity for selfishness.

So how might we identify the fundamental rationale? The circumstances of modern conservatism’s birth are illuminating in this regard. Some of the ideas we associate with conservatism go back many centuries, but as a coherent political doctrine, conservatism is a very modern phenomenon which developed in response to the radical challenge of the French revolution. Indeed, it’s widely agreed that Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France represents the founding text of modern conservatism in which its core ideas were first coherently formulated.

It’s clear that what most alarmed Burke about the revolution was not the violence (he wrote before the terror set in) and it will not do either to say that it was the overthrow of the constitutional order as such that really angered him (he supported the American revolution). What he really feared about the French revolution was that it was driven by, and put power into the hands of, what he called “the swinish multitude” – it perverted “the natural order of things”, which was that the wealthy should rule and the poor should remain subordinate.

This is the core commitment of conservatism. In the name of general principles such as tradition, order, authority and moderation, they seek to preserve particular relations of power. They defend privilege from those who threaten it. As Corey Robin puts it, conservatism is “a meditation on – and theoretical rendition of – the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back”.

As such, conservatism is, very precisely, a reactionary ideology. It’s also – contrary to what conservatives usually claim – an activist ideology. It is, as Robin puts it, an “idea-driven praxis” much more than it is simply a disposition or outlook. For this reason, conservatism has always been remarkably dynamic. The long-term defence of privilege necessitates a high degree of tactical flexibility. Conservatism has not merely reacted against the left; it has also consistently appropriated and adapted the left’s ideas. The most obvious example here is the idea of democracy, which conservatives once vigorously denounced, but which they later claimed as their own.

The gradual acceptance of the idea of democracy reflected in part the strategic imperative of broadening conservatism’s social base. From the time of Burke onwards, the right grew increasingly aware that it must widen its appeal beyond a small class of aristocrats. As Robin explains, it realised that “the masses must either be able to locate themselves symbolically in the ruling class or be provided with real opportunities to become faux aristocrats themselves in the family, the factory, and the field”. The former path was epitomised by nationalist and imperialist politics whereby the working class at home was made to feel part of an elite in relation to the colonised.

The latter path involved broadening and, in a sense, partially democratising the series of hierarchies to be defended – the power of husbands over wives, for example, and of employers and managers over workers. More recently, conservatism has sought to mobilise resentment and fear on the part of relatively privileged groups (or sections of society which at least feel they ought to be superior) in relation to other subordinate or putatively threatening groups – immigrants, benefit claimants, unionised workers, single mothers and so on.

Social inequalities and hierarchies can be defended and secured in different ways. The defence of wealth and property-power when threatened might be organised, for example, through authoritarian means or, alternatively, through free-market policies (the predictable effects of which are to transfer wealth upwards). This, in part, explains the heterogeneity of conservative parties and movements. But all conservative politics pivot on a fundamental commitment – defence of privilege and inequality.

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