In light of George Osborne’s seeming inability to confront the inconveniencies of a reality that exists beyond the walls of the Treasury, it seems appropriate to revisit a couple of debates regarding the character of conservatism. The first pertains to the status of conservative thought as a form of pragmatic thinking that privileges the wisdom of experience over the abstract truths of rationalism. The second relates to the conceptual ‘core’ of conservatism that can unite the dogmatism of an Osborne with the pragmatism of a Disraeli. One always needs to be wary of speaking of ideological or intellectual traditions in sweeping terms. Such traditions are invariably characterised by contestation and heterogeneity. That being said, I will now proceed with some sweeping claims regarding the character of conservatism.
Conservative thinkers such as Burke and Oakeshott privileged forms of ‘practical reason’ or ‘experience’ over what they considered to be the dogmatic and ideological nature of ‘abstract’ or ‘theoretical reason’. This formed a kind of philosophical scepticism that led many conservatives to consider their conservatism to be a non-ideological form of thought as opposed to the dogmatic rationalist philosophies of Enlightenment liberalism and socialism. For Burke, the rationalist philosophy that inspired the French Revolution contained within it an extreme danger that seemed for foreshadow the Terror. He presciently wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France of the Enlightenment revolutionaries, ‘In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but gallows.’ This ‘conservative as pragmatist’ approach was systematically advanced by Michael Oakeshott in the mid-twentieth century. Oakeshott argued that rationalism led to a politics of ‘perfection’ and a politics of ‘uniformity’ which was tantamount to an ‘assimilation of politics to engineering’. A rationalist technocratic politics was of course the problem, for it failed to understand the importance to human life of practical knowledge. After all, said Oakeshott, one did not learn to ride a bike by reading a book.
The point of conservatism, then, was to cleave as close to practical knowledge as possible; to take the path of least resistance; to set aside the abstract blueprints of Utopianism and pursue a politics devoid of ‘ideology’ – a politics of pragmatism. From this perspective, George Osborne has clearly fallen far from the conservative tree. His constant prognostications of immanent economic growth resulting from austerity despite the continuous disappointment that reality does not share his optimism makes him sound like a Soviet-era five year planner reassuring the proletariat that communism is just around the corner. The dismal science of ‘neo-liberal’ economics has replaced Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country’ as Osborne ignores the cautionary pleas of neo-liberal institutions like the International Monetary Fund.
Nonetheless, from the early nineteen-eighties onward, conservatism in the English speaking world became increasingly ‘revolutionary’. But this was no utopian revolution – this was a ‘common sense’ revolution. It was a revolution firmly ensconced in the practical wisdom of the common man and the ‘spontaneous order’ of the so-called free-market.
Not all conservatives were on board for the revolution. In 1997, in an essay titled ‘The Undoing of Conservativism’, John Gray argued that the conservative embrace of neo-liberal individualism during the Thatcher years had amounted to an ‘undoing’ of the British conservative tradition – one that sought to conserve the ancien regime rather than overthrow it. Gray’s point, of course, was that the radicalism of the New Right (a New Right that he incidentally supported in the late 1970s) had no place in the conservative tradition. There is, of course, something very attractive about this position. After all, Hayek famously published a postscript called ‘Why I am not a conservative’ in the very book that Thatcher allegedly declared to be the source of her inspiration. However, Robert Eccleshall, in an article called ‘The Doing of Conservatism’, argues that, while conservatism has always been something of an intellectual patchwork, conservatives have always been ‘robust and unambiguous in vindicating inequality’. From this perspective, the socio-economic inequalities produced by capitalism substitute for the social, economic and political inequalities (the latter being understood in the formal sense) prescribed and defended by traditional forms of conservatism. While few conservatives today would advocate the formal political inequalities that precluded full participation or integration into civil society (such as a restricted franchise, apartheid, etc.), their prescription that everyone should be treated the same regardless of their social position (e.g., eliminating affirmative action or employment equity) serves to legitimize the unequal outcomes of the so-called ‘free market’. Thus, while the kind of inequality may be different, and the ways in which inequalities are produced may vary a belief in the necessary or desirable outcomes of inequality remain.
I would like to throw Nietzsche into this debate. After the revolutions of 1848, Europe experienced a conservative counter-revolution; and particularly after the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871, strands of ‘conservative’ political thought transformed into what Lawrence Goldman calls ‘more complex, intellectualised and yet more irrational forms’ in the context of the rise of ‘mass’ politics in the late nineteenth century. Nietzsche feared and despite socialism and viewed the Paris Commune as a threat to European civilisation that represented ‘a minor indigestion compared to what is coming’ in the next century. But Nietzsche’s reactionary thought was not a traditional form of conservatism. No one who espouses the ‘will to power’ as a means of overcoming the ‘slave morality’ of custom and tradition (including, of course, Christianity) can enjoy an easy place in the conservative tradition. Yet, there is a sense in which Nietzsche’s embrace of natural inequalities and the role they play in enabling ‘nobility’ can be traced up through the more illiberal intellectual aspects of New Right thinking that has been embraced by so many contemporary conservatives.
In his book Nietzsche and the Politics of Aristocratic Radicalism (1990), Bruce Detwiler refers to a letter sent to Nietzsche that referred to his political thought as a form of ‘aristocratic radicalism’. Nietzsche approved of the characterisation, and I think it is worth considering the elements of aristocratic radicalism in contemporary conservative thought as much of the focus has been on the ‘liberal conservative’ tradition of the New Right. In The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, Shadia Drury has argued that the political theory of Leo Strauss – the alleged doyen of American neo-conservatism – is just as indebted to Nietzsche as it is to Plato. In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s character Howard Roark regales the court with a Nietzschean paean to the entrepreneur, whose creative, yet self-interested, ‘will to power’ forms the engine of civilizational progress. Nietzsche’s overman, after all, is an outgrowth of an aristocracy of the will – a form of meritocracy stemming not from the intellect, and definitely not from virtue, but rather from the ‘will to power’.
This Nietzschean component sits rather uneasily with the conservative emphasis on the rule of law – something that conservatives share with liberals and can be traced back to the conservative republican thought of Cicero. Nietzsche’s political thought does not accord much place for what Hayek referred to as the restraining rules of ‘just conduct’. Indeed, an irreconcilable tension seems to exist between the liberal conservative elements of the New Right and the Nietzschean elements. All the more reason then, that the sphere of ‘creative destruction’ be clearly differentiated from the sphere of formal political equality. The freedom of action in the market will be supplemented by a constitutionalism restricted to the formal sphere of politics.
To be continued…