Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Case for Radical Conservatism

Reading Danny Kruger’s review of the book The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, I am reminded of the quote by economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who remarked that, “the modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” To be sure, Kruger has some nice things to say about Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford and the Blue Labour philosophy they represent. However, Kruger’s admiration for Blue Labour only goes so far. For example, he chastises Glasman and Rutherford for failing to exorcise the egalitarian ghost from the Labour tradition, writing that because of its support for equality, “Blue Labour remains infected with the modernist virus.” Instead, Kruger argues that “true fraternity depends upon liberty, not equality.”

It is humorous that Kruger, in a later portion of his article, describes the Left as “unhistorical,” yet it is hard to find a more historically ignorant opinion than Kruger’s argument that equality is not necessary for the development of a fraternal society. The history of the extremely unequal nineteenth century and the violent social conflicts that it spawned should be enough to defeat Kruger’s argument. Indeed, we seem to be moving toward a recreation of the “Two Nations” social model, with a haughty upper class on top and a vast, degraded underclass on the bottom. The expanding differences between the affluent and the poor in terms of marriage and family life is probably the most obvious and egregious manifestation of the new bifurcated society that is being built.

Indeed, I would argue that it is impossible to support a viable form of conservatism without at least some support for egalitarianism (which, of course, should not be confused with a kind of drab, mechanical equality where everyone is exactly the same). For example, historians have argued that one of the major reasons why the
Vendée region of France did not explode into revolution in 1789 was because class differences were not as great as in the rest of France. Aristocrats continued to live in the region along with the peasants and the local clergy, unlike the rest of the absentee French nobility that gravitated toward Paris. More importantly, the old system of rights and duties continued to exist, creating a stable, integrated society.

By failing to recognize how vast inequality poisons social relations, Kruger and others like him risk recreating the conflict-ridden society that he claims Glasman supports. Indeed, if Glasman does advocate conflict between capital and labor, this seems to be out of a realistic appraisal of the current state of affairs under neoliberalism. Neoliberals have unfortunately created a situation where conservatives must be radicals because of how far we have allowed the market society to dictate our values. 

Kruger may claim, as so many liberal conservatives do, that his is the only “real” political position, but this is only true to the extent that his brand of conservatism is about protecting whatever special interests happen to be the most powerful at the moment. Conservatism must rediscover its radical soul in order to use the past to craft an alternative modernity, while always keeping in mind the importance of safeguarding the rights of the human person. Any other type of conservatism is just, as G.K. Chesterton put it, “... preventing mistakes from being corrected.”


  1. Interesting post John
    I suspect American neo-liberal conservatives are also unaware that making statements like:
    “true fraternity depends upon liberty, not equality.”

    are themselves flawed. Frankly, if the middle classes are too cowardly to want certain liberties they won't let poor people have them either. Just look at Britain. Because our middle classes don't especially want a lot of liberties, we are not allowed handguns. By contrast most European nations permit some level of gun ownership.

    I rather suspect if it wasn't for their need to throw a bone to the southern vote, the Republican party would have taken away a lot more liberties from people. As it is, Bush and Clinton were both economically liberal and both destroyed civil liberties.

    I think social democrat France has a far brighter future in terms of liberty than Britain has; maybe even than America has.

  2. For Chesterton, one is made by Christianity “fond of this world, even in order to change it”, in contrast to simple (one might say, Whig or Marxist) optimism or simple pessimism (such as that of much of the political Right), each of which discourages reform. We have to “hate [the world] enough to want to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing”, for it is “at once an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.” Such is the Christian view, uniquely, as all of Christianity’s critics unwittingly concede by simultaneously accusing it both of excessive optimism and of excessive pessimism.

    Chesterton presciently predicted that an age of unbelief would be an age of conservatism (in the worst sense), whereas for the orthodox “in the hearts of men, God has been put under the feet of Satan, so that there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration.” Furthermore, “A strict rule is not only necessary for ruling; it is also necessary for rebelling”, since “a fixed and familiar ideal is necessary to any sort of revolution.”

  3. Gregor,

    Thank you for the comment. I think you are definitely correct about the American middle-classes. Not too long ago people were discussing the importance of the “Security Mom” vote, that is, middle-class women who, while often liberal on issues like abortion, voted for George W. Bush in 2004 because they were worried about terrorists blowing up their children’s schools or something like that.

    While the influence of the “Security Moms” may have been exaggerated, I don’t think it is a completely unreasonable categorization of a group of Americans who were so frightened that they were willing to trade civil liberties for security against an overstated Islamist threat.

    Mr. Lindsay,

    Thank you for the great comment on Chesterton, it was excellent as usual.