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Thursday, February 12, 2009

British Conservatives are Better

The latest round of "end of conservatism" discussions, prompted by last week's TNR piece by Sam Tanenhaus, and which I talked about here, is still ongoing. See here and here and here and here, for example, and that's just within the pages of TNR. The exchange between Andrew Bacevich and Damon Linker has prompted some e-mail discussion between he and I, and now Patrick Deneen has joined in too, with a further response from Damon. There are some things worth saying about the argument over "authoritarianism" and its relationship to conservatism and liberalism; I touch on it slightly below, and I may blog about it more later (though then again, maybe I've already made my point back when I was talking about the authoritarian John Paul II's relevance to progressive politics, something I up out in the midst of the whole Schiavo mess), but for now, I want to pick up on an earlier post by Patrick on the same general topic.

Patrick writes that the whole "end of conservatism" debate is misnamed:

[C]onservatism was never tried. A version of liberalism was implemented, particularly a toxic combination of Wilsonian visions of remaking the world combined with a particular brand of laissez-faire economics that gave particular favor to Bigness. BOTH of these pursuits, perfectly combined during the Presidency of George W. Bush, but present in various iterations throughout the years of Republican rule, are purely distilled varieties of liberalism. We called it "conservative" because it wasn't the more potent version of Statism. However, all the same, it relied upon basic liberal assumptions of self-interest, privatism, large and centralized government and growth economics that place a stress upon large scale, mobility, debt, and consumption.

So, his argument is that it isn't conservatism that has run it's course; it is a particular brand of liberalism. Fair enough; I'm not sure that Tanenhaus himself would dispute that point, though he might disagree with the preferred nomenclature. One of Tanenhaus's primary historical contentions was that what has called itself "American conservatism" over the past 30 or 40 years abandoned the British conservative wisdom which once animated it, and reaped the whirlwind through its often ignorant interactions with the global capitalist economy and the populist resentments that economy (rightly) creates. Patrick is only pushing this idea slightly further, by implicitly arguing--as I read him, anyway--that said British wisdom was of a piece with the larger liberal tradition which, whatever its caveats in its different varieties, always ended up empowering the private over the public, self-interest over common interest, and consumption over conservation. And so, yes: "conservatism" has never been tried.

Now, an obvious snark at this point is to observe that Patrick is sounding like your stereotypical classroom Marxist, who insists (again, probably rightly) that "communism" has never been tried either, so why use the Soviet Union to dump on Marx? But as much as could be done with that snark, I'd like to instead explore his contention more seriously. Has there never truly been a modern "conservative" polity, or even attempts to create one? Well, arguably the Confederacy comes to mind, as well as the Southern Agrarians two generations later. But even there, one might claim that liberalism, or some version of it, sneaks in: one thinks of the good classical liberal Lord Acton defending the secession of the Southern states as a perfect expression of personal liberty, and echoes of the same argument can be found in the writings of the Vanderbilt School, with their speaking out on behalf of local independence and farmers markets in the face of industrialization. Of course, a great many conservatives would argue that such personal, local, and economic liberty is exactly what they are trying to "conserve" against the state, and they have a point. But that is also what classical liberals and libertarians (most of them, anyway) want to do, to say nothing of the populists with all their arguably leftist ideas.

The point is, I suspect, that trying to extricate liberal ideas in all their varieties from any political argument that doesn't address capitalism (and the mostly or at least increasingly democratic forms of modern life it presumes to be valuable) itself directly is probably always going to end up failing. Burke himself, who is usually held as the very font of modern conservatism, was a liberal, or at least was liberal; as Jacob Levy (among others) has persuasively argued, Burke was a Whig whose "pluralist liberalism" led him to greatly respect the "ancient liberties--of churches, guilds, parlements, provinces, cities, nobles, and all the rest--[that] provided a place to stand against absolutism." So from the beginning, any conservatism which speaks of liberty in the context of modern democratic capitalism--the arena within which different groups (the small platoons!) as we know them today can form and seek the freedom and power to live their lives as they see fit in the first place--is going to be, at most, a form of liberalism, one that is, as Alasdair MacIntyre once put it, a "conservative liberalism," a liberalism more pluralist in its devotions, more sensitive to history and less rational in its ambitions, but a liberalism nonetheless.

Now in some ways this is obviously a kind of silly point to make. Political theorists like Jacob and Patrick (and, sometimes, me) can argue all we like about the conceptual and/or historical connections between Burke and other early modern liberals, but in historical fact it is the conservatives--certainly at least since Russell Kirk--that have seen in Burke's appreciation of tradition and natural limits a conservative response to Rousseau and thus to all the revolutionary or egalitarian implications of liberalism. And, of course, the liberal reading of Burke can itself be contested: the man did rhapsodize about how moved he was by the glorious presence of Marie Antoinette, after all. So (perhaps to allude back to the aforementioned debate between Patrick and Damon) there are elements of a fundamentally illiberal appreciation of authority in his thought. Still, overall, I think the general point stands: every successful modern conservative political argument has been, to a degree, in the same position as that which Michael Walzer once famously said about the relevance of communitarianism to our modern liberal world (about which, more here); namely, that it is, however interesting and important an ideology, nonetheless parasitic on liberalism, a "recurrent critique," at best.

So does this mean that Patrick's search for a conservatism that can truly be tried and made fruitful is, in the end, in vain? Not necessarily--it just means that one needs to get clear on what it is you're searching for, and think again about where to find it and what one hopes to accomplish There are different sorts of recurrent critiques, after all. Some--I'm thinking here in particular of Albert Jay Nock's work--very explicitly see themselves as having no other justification than to provide solace to the "remnant" out there, the folks that will be left behind to pick up the pieces once civilization has gone to the dogs. The way some conservatives--including Patrick--have flirted with the interesting elements of agrarianism and anarchism partakes of this attitude. But a political conservatism, a movement of reform and direction, an agenda and theory of governance...well, that is something different. In the United States, thoroughly Lockean country that it is, any such conservative theory is going to have a very difficult time finding some way of thinking that will allow it to address liberalism and modernity on a conceptually equal level; without that, all you have is a pleasantly angry dissidence (or, again, an outright or at least quasi-religious faith in a remnant out there). As Rod Dreher--the conservative thinker who has probably done the most to package this kind of conservatism as practicable and accessible to his audience--is himself nonetheless quick to admit, his "crunchy conservative" movement isn't one that can likely function as a political movement in America; rather, it points, once again, towards the (honorable, important, but not all that public) "Benedict Option" of retreat. I have contrasted that option for conservatives (and John Schwenkler joined in as well), in light of Obama's maybe-not-entirely-impressive-but-nonetheless-important victory for conventional liberalism, with Ross Douthat's and Reihan Salan's "reform conservatism", and perhaps those two choices pretty much exhaust the political possibilities for conservatism in America: try a different (but not radically so) sort of engagement with liberalism, or simply turn one's conservatism into a kind of libertarian-secessionism, and just bail. However, there is another, better response, one that that Patrick and his commenters touch on. They toss back and forth several possible labels--"Christian Democrats," "Traditionalists," etc.--but pass too quickly over the one I think best (because, of course, it's the one I would prefer): "Red Tories."

I've talked about the Red Tory option before, specifically in reference to the role it plays in how conservatism is thought about in Canada. More recently, I've contrasted it with a variation upon the same kind of libertarian-secessionist mentality I mentioned above: on the one hand, we have the belief that creating communities of order, virtue and "conservation" (itself very much a "Tory" goal) has to involve an oppositional stance to any kind of substantive collective action; on the other, the conviction that the "egalitarian corollaries which must (or at least should) attend [such communities] in our democratic age...will not emerge without at least some kind of structuring or maintenance of the socio-economic playing field" upon which they are built (that would be the "Red" side of things). But this is in an argument mostly abstracted from any real political stakes...at least, so far. But Rod's recent infatuation with David Cameron and the possible revival of Red Toryism through the Conservative Party in Great Britain suggests that the argument--assuming those with conservative inclinations of any sort are willing to learn once again from the British tradition--may have some real political traction after all. Here's how Phillip Bond describes what Rod calls "what crunchy conservatism could be if it got serious about politics":

[P]hilosophical liberalism was born out of an 18th-century critique of absolute monarchies. It sought to protect the rights of the individual from arbitrary abuse by the king. But so extreme did the defence of individual liberty become that each man was obliged to refuse the dictates of any other—-for that would be simply to replace rule by one man's will (the king) with rule by another. As such, the most extreme form of liberal autonomy requires the repudiation of society—for human community influences and shapes the individual before any sovereign capacity to choose has taken shape....Conservatives who believe in value, culture and truth should therefore think twice before calling themselves liberal. Liberalism can only be a virtue when linked to a politics of the common good, a problem which the best liberals--[John Stuart] Mill, Adam Smith, and [William] Gladstone...recognised but could never resolve....

In respect of liberalism, the left has twice sinned. It has produced a managerial state that has destroyed the old mutualism of the working class. And it has destroyed both middle and working class morality; in the name of permissiveness, it commodified sex and the body, creating the licentious empty pleasure-seeking drones of the late 1960s. This left-libertarianism repudiated all ties of kith and kin and, though it was utopian in aspiration, its true legacy has been the dystopia of divided families, unparented children and the lazy moral relativism of the liberal professional elite. In this sense, the left was right wing years before the right, and it created the conditions for universal self-interest under Thatcher. The current political consensus is left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in economics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be....

What must Cameron's priorities be, and how can he begin to build a new communitarian Tory settlement? He could start...by restoring capital to labour. Cameron should reject the Marxist narrative that paints Tories as wedded to a disenfranchised proletariat. On the contrary: conservatives believe in the extension of wealth and prosperity to all. Yet the great disaster of the last 30 years is the destruction of the capital, assets and savings of the poor: in Britain, the share of wealth (excluding property) enjoyed by the bottom 50 per cent of the population fell from 12 per cent in 1976 to just 1 per cent in 2003. A radical communitarian civic conservatism must be committed to reversing this trend. This requires a considered rejection of social mobility, meritocracy and the statist and neoliberal language of opportunity, education and choice. Why? Because this language says that unless you are in the golden circle of the top 10 to 15 per cent of top-rate taxpayers you are essentially insecure, unsuccessful and without merit or value. The Tories should leave this bankrupt ideology to New Labour and embrace instead an organic communitarianism that graces every level of society with merit, security, wealth and worth....

The final piece of the puzzle is for Conservatives to break with big business. We must end a model in which competition is reduced to a cartel of vast corporations maximising profits by discouraging competitors and minimising wages by joining with the liberal left to encourage mass immigration. A covert alliance between the liberal left and liberal right has destroyed incomes and identity at the bottom of the scale....Taken together, such policies will help conservatives create a transformative red Tory manifesto. They would build a new economic and capital base that decentralises power and extends wealth and also makes a final break with the logic of monopoly and debt-financed capitalism. In doing so, Cameron can finally bring together the Tory tradition of Disraeli's reform of capitalism with his own entirely justified desire to be a "social radical."

That's a lot to digest, and it is highly debatable how many American conservatives looking to engage public life broadly could really embrace or at least take seriously the majority of it. As much as conservatives in the U.S. may aspire to borrow from the British tradition--and as much as Tanenhaus thought that they sometimes did manage to do so--nonetheless they do not have a Disraeli in their background. That is, we Americans do not have an intuitive class consciousness of what capitalism does to community, and so have yet to produce a political figure who is able to talk about creation--or, if you prefer, the "conservation"--of a national community, an instantiation of social solidarity, that doesn't become bogged down in arguments over the First Amendment. That's not to say that "culture war" arguments are absent in Great Britain; that's hardly the case. But still, when Americans (liberals and conservatives alike) try to talk about the "common good," we end up arguing over religion and lifestyle and choice, rather than capital and labor and equality and distribution. And as important as the former are, the almost complete absence of the latter amongst conservative arguments is a shame, and something that it would be good to be able to change.

Perhaps this is simply our Lockean inheritance again, meaning that anything which is to be ideologically, politically, built in America is just going to have to begin and end with individual liberty, both economic and personal, and thus anything that is to be conserved has to be done along such lines. Conservatism has to happen within liberalism...unlike that distant option still available to older societies, where people for the most part didn't have the luxury which many Americans had to back away from and--most of the time, anyway, if they were lucky--catch a ride on the wave of the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism and be carried forward by it as it swept across the social landscape, and thus instead had to fight against it and within it to hold onto what they already had. In such political contexts (or those that were born from them, like Canada), there is a way of thinking which recognizes, as Disraeli did, liberalism as a tool towards communitarian, egalitarian, and conservative ends. Practically speaking, what does that mean? It means attacking corporations and big business, it means redistributing property and sources of wealth, it means recognizing the harms of the meritocracy, and the myth that treating people equally means creating legal regimes that are blind to differences in wealth and opportunity but are thrown into a panic if different types of people, living in different types of places, believing different types of things, aren't obliged treat their choices as pretty much identical to everyone else's. This goes back to the argument over Burke, and how one is to associate his pluralism with liberal and/or conservative ways of thinking. American conservatives, in some ways beneficially but in many others ways not, have celebrated and praised what the diverse little platoons--the families, the churches, the civic associations--which individuals form actually do, but they have been too often blind to how they all operate on a larger field, and need support and networks to do what the people who form them seek to accomplish in the first place. A "Red Toryism"--a Disraeli conservatism--recognizes how egalitarian, empowering, collective agents (and these can vary, of course; Disraeli supported trade unions, while Cameron sees them as an obstacle) can actually create more diversity. But how can you be comfortable with an arrangement that allows that different levels of society must be entrusted to agents to orient them to some common end, when you believe--as so many Americans do--that the very idea of "levels" in society is a distraction, and that the ends that matter first and foremost need no coordination, as they are products of individual choice and individual choice alone?

Well, all this is not to say that David Cameron has solved American conservatives problems for them, or even that he has come up with a formula for putting my beloved left conservatism into power. As Madeleine Bunting tartly notes, Tony Blair used to sound the communitarianism trumpet too (which used to make me excited too...), and yet, "in the pressure of office and the need to get results for public sector reform, all such rhetoric about devolving to community groups disappeared." Moreover, there are gaps in Blond's construction of the Red Tory argument; while social solidarity through distributive (and, necessarily, at least some redistributive) means forms the heart of his conservative agenda, it may not supply the lifeblood to keep the heart beating. There is still the question of, as John Milbank puts it, "objective values and virtues," and that opens to the door to religious identity (something that Blond hints at in his references to immigration), and the possible relevance of some kind of Christianity (radical orthodoxy, perhaps?) to this whole project. But, in any case, the fact remains that British conservatism is a deep and diverse tradition, one that has, I think, clearly articulated more and better responses to the problems that capitalism and modernity pose to conserving communities...which are--as I, left conservative that I am, have long insisted--the only contexts within which claims of social justice and popular sovereignty can make sense. Hence, we should all, conservatives and progressives (and communitarians!) alike, want to be liberal in the way these British conservatives have been and may yet again be. As always, though, I won't be holding my breath.


Jacob T. Levy said...

Perhaps oddly, I'm nottoo devoted to the "priority of liberalism" story, whether for modernity in general or for America in particular. In the American case I see the force of Rogers Smith's idea that republicanism and ascriptivism are co-foundational with liberalism.

More broadly, for our post-1800 world, I think we've got at least three big party-ideas, in liberalism, conservatism, and socialism. Burke is important to two of them, and Paine is important to two of them, and Rousseau is important to two of them-- each of the parties shares an intellectual border with both the others. (That makes for an assembly in the round, not the semicircle of the traditional left-right arrangement.) And I don't think that liberalism somehow defines the modernity within which conservatism and socialism have to operate.

Conservatism in this sense *is* modern. But it does have the hardest relationship to the modernity of which it's a part. It's always trying to protect something (religion, morality, community, the family farm, a status hierarchy, an English landscape unpolluted by factories-- *something*) against the corrosive effects of some feature of modernity. But corrosive forces just go on corroding. (New things get built up, too; there's not less social order than there was two hundred years ago, just different social order. But that's not the conservative's angle.)

That makes it hard to know what "trying conservatism" is. Conservatism is the party-idea without a platform it can put into effect. That's what makes Disraeli tragic, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Jacob Levy,

I'm not up on my Burke or Paine, which 'intellectual borders' do you have in mind? In my estimation, Rousseau (whatever else he was) wasn't a liberal. His skepticism about "progress" generally disqualify him from being that- as was his belief that in order to work, republican society had to involve a _moral_ transformation as much as a _structural_ one, in which people cared more for the common good than they did for their own.

The modern age, of course, has seen a fourth "big idea" in environmentalism- and I suspect that some of the biggest questions of this century are going to be about natural-resource and climate change issues. Environmentalism is truly hard to categorize, as it overlaps in some degree with both conservative and socialist critiques of liberalism. A marine ecologist lamenting the decline of coral reefs sounds remarkably like a Catholic conservative decrying abortion, in the way they both talk about a natural order and our rebellion against it.

Anonymous said...

....needless to say, I agree with them both about the coral reefs and about abortion.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

In the American case I see the force of Rogers Smith's idea that republicanism and ascriptivism are co-foundational with liberalism.

As you might imagine, I'm a bit of a devotee of republican thought myself, when it comes to American history, though Rogers Smith, interesting as he is, isn't the source I find most persuasive here. I like Phillip Abbot's and Gordon Wood's approaches, in which--as I understand them--republicanism, in its various forms, underwent (thanks to the early forces for democratization in the American colonies and conferederal America) an almost forced synthesis with liberalism, a synthesis that liberalism, once capitalism really starts to come into its own in the Hamiltonian Northern states, eventually came dominate.

I think we've got at least three big party-ideas, in liberalism, conservatism, and socialism.

The key term there is "party-ideas." I take it you don't talk about communitarianism in a political way, but only a category that exists on a philosophical (ontological?) level, contrasted with individualism?

Burke is important to two of them, and Paine is important to two of them, and Rousseau is important to two of them-- each of the parties shares an intellectual border with both the others.

I really like that model, Jacob; I'm going to have to borrow it. If nothing else, it makes my claim that a certain kind of (left or "socialist") conservatism can be said to plausibly draw upon both Burke and Rousseau.

I don't think that liberalism somehow defines the modernity within which conservatism and socialism have to operate. Conservatism in this sense *is* modern. But it does have the hardest relationship to the modernity of which it's a part.

Ok, here you're confusing me a little. If liberalism doesn't define modernity, than why, exactly, does conservatism have such a hard relationship to it? I think liberalism does define Western modernity (keeping in mind Charles Taylor's point about "alternate modernities"), thus putting conservatism, socialism (and communitarianism?) all kind of in the same position, which is perhaps one reason why I see fruitful parallels between them.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Rousseau (whatever else he was) wasn't a liberal. His skepticism about "progress" generally disqualify him from being that--as was his belief that in order to work, republican society had to involve a moral transformation as much as a structural one, in which people cared more for the common good than they did for their own.

Very well put. I think you have Rousseau correct here; philosophically speaking, he wasn't a liberal except in the most superficial of senses. I really like Jacob's suggestion above that you can see Rousseau as bordering both socialist and conservative perspectives. No, by associating Rousseau with liberalism in the post I'm only noting what American conservatives from Russell Kirk on down have done: read Rousseau, and see the revolutionary, collective, egalitarian, radical democrat implications of his thought, and constructed that as a major resource for liberal egalitarianism. It really isn't at all, but by so doing, it solidifies their (already reasonable, I think) claim on Burke.

Environmentalism is truly hard to categorize, as it overlaps in some degree with both conservative and socialist critiques of liberalism. A marine ecologist lamenting the decline of coral reefs sounds remarkably like a Catholic conservative decrying abortion, in the way they both talk about a natural order and our rebellion against it.

Fascinating point, Hector, and very well said. Like you--while I probably wouldn't use the language of "nature" in the same way; I might prefer to speak of a "biotic community" which we are part of--I too can see the anguish the social conservative feels over abortion and which the environmentalist feels over the decline of the coral reefs as sharing a common perspective.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Hector, Russell has the right of it. I'm imagining Burke at the frontier between liberal and conservative, Rousseau at the frontier between conservative and socialist, and Paine at the frontier of socialist and liberal.

Russell-- right, I think of communitarianism (and for that matter libertarianism) as being something other than and in some ways more specific than the three great party-ideas. There's no natural class constituency for it, and it hasn't formed the foundation of parties. It's an intellectually useful category that describes something important, but it's not one of the banners people march under-- except, perhaps, in Ontario c. 1963-93!

More later...

Hector said...


I agree with you that in some ways Rousseau could have found common ground with conservatives- at the very least, he would have shared with conservatives a hatred of the Enlightenment ideas that "rationalism", "enlightened self-interest", and "man's mastery over nature" would create a perfect society.

I understand your queasiness with natural-law language as it has been used to support some rather silly or pernicious things in the past (i.e. that wives should be subordinate to husbands, or that smallpox vaccinations are against nature.) We have to be careful when we try and discern the essential nature of a person or institution and when we draw an 'ought' from an 'is'. Which isn't to say that it should never be done- one can separate the abuse from the use. But it should be done carefully and with due reflection.

Britain is an interesting case, as the deconstruction of traditional religion and culture have gone farther there than in the United States. It's possible of course that they may also be further advanced towards renewal as well. It's interesting how Christianity in Britain is beginning to be revitalized by the very immigrants that some conservatives rail against. As an example, two of the most prominent intellectual advocates for the Church of England today are Fr. Sentamu (a Ugandan) and Fr. Nazir-Ali (a Pakistani). It would be really interesting if it turns out to be Asians, Africans and West Indians who re-evangelize Britain.

I'd be interested in your comments on my most recent blog post about the Spanish civil war and the collapse of religion in Spain in the last few decades.....it was inspired by a recent discussion at the Catholic legal blog "Mirror of Justice".

Anonymous said...


As a rhetorical matter "biotic community" is an absolute no starter. Indeed, it partakes of a kind of technical, pseudo-scientific jargon that is extremely jarring coming from you. Why not just embrace "nature" and then talk about "natural communities" or "communing with nature" or the like.

Biotic communities?! Yuck.