The Failure of Fusionism, or Modern Conservatism’s Existential Crisis

Despite recent electoral gains by conservative parties, conservatism as an ideology, as it was formed over the last 60-odd years throughout the West, is suffering from a grand existential crisis. The election of Donald Trump, the popularity of Marine Le Pen in France, and the division within the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom over Brexit are the prime global examples. While anxieties over economic change have been identified as a major factor in these increased tensions, the contradictions that lie at the heart of modern conservative ideology remain unexplored.

In 1956 philosopher Michael Oakeshott published his essay “On Being Conservative”, which sought to describe what he deemed to be conservative instincts. He wrote that “To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” While some of these traits are rather generous in light of present-day conservatism’s reactionary zeal, his analysis primarily recognised the mistrust of change that lies at the heart of conservative predilections.

A few years later a project was launched within The National Review — an American magazine that publishes conservative intellectuals — that would create the conservative positions that would come to dominate the West in latter part of the 20th Century and early-21st. This project was designed to bring together a range of anti-communist philosophies into one ideological perspective as a Cold War tactic. This ideology was known as “Fusionism”, as it broadly fused together traditional conservative instincts with the chiefly economic elements of classical liberal philosophy.

Prior to the rise of socialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, conservatism and liberalism were opposing forces — the reverence for authority and tradition versus the suspicion of authority and the constant improvement of institutions via merit. Previous unlikely bedfellows had found a common cause in opposition to a new political player.

But of course, anyone who believes that the enemy of their enemy is their friend is bound to find themselves in an existential crisis sooner or later. Which is where a number of conservative “fusionist” parties around the world now find themselves. For two decades after the collapse of Communism Western triumphalism was able to mask the great tensions and fault-lines that were building within Fusionism, yet now these fissures have become exposed and are manifesting themselves in the West’s current democratic instability.

Understanding where these modern tensions originate requires placing Oakeshott’s description of the primary conservative instincts next to Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “Creative Destruction”. Schumpeter observed that that in market-oriented societies there is a constant incentive to create newer technologies, goods and services. Schumpeter described Creative Destruction in his book from 1942 called Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy as a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” This proved true with the major technological advances of the 20th Century, yet what has occurred in the later half of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st Century, has been an exponential creative destruction, where these new technologies are evolving in increasingly shorter periods of time.

As these new technologies enhance our ability to communicate and exchange, newer technologies are formed. From train to car to aeroplane, from radio to the telephone, to cameras to television to the internet, to now the sum of human knowledge carried in our pockets.

But as you can see from just these technologies, their arrival also brings massive social and cultural change along with them; greater movement and interaction of different peoples, greater exposure to non-traditional concepts. For those who maintain conservative predilections this can be uncomfortable.

Which makes the modern conservative adoption of classically liberal ideas such as freer markets and individual liberty so perplexing, as the modern application of these ideas places society in a state of, if you forgive the irony, permanent revolution (albeit an undesigned one). An environment that can only elicit anxiety in those of a conservative persuasion.

Furthermore, it would be accurate to suggest that freer trade is cosmopolitanism itself; the ever increasing closeness and overlap of groups and individuals exchanging, embracing, learning from, and morphing their ideas. An awkward prospect for those who value tradition.

This adds a further irony to a political ideology that advocates increased free trade, yet bemoans multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and “globalism”. At the heart of modern conservatism is this failure to understand what it has created. Either that or conservatives are masochists.

Social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, wrote last year in The American Interest that as modern Western societies have become wealthier, and further industrialised in the second half of the 20th Century (and now in the post-industrial 21st Century), they have shed many of their traditional values that deem religion, customs and deference to authority of great worth. Instead, these wealthy societies have become more open to social change based on universal considerations; principles that understand the importance of individual rights and protections. Values that previously had placed economic, physical and cultural security in the parochial concepts of family, tribe, or the nation have weakened, and new social norms based on “emancipation” have developed.

Traditionally, social trust has been based on ethnicity, or shared cultural norms that create an implicit understanding of how your surrounding humans will think and act. Yet in a globalising age, and in the multi-ethnic societies of the West, this social trust requires a large degree of modern social capital, that is, the ability to have knowledge of cultures outside of one’s own (this can extend to sub-cultures within one’s own ethnic groups as well). What modern conservatism has done is advocate economic ideas that have created wealth, emancipating large numbers of people, as well as sped up the global interaction of human beings — the cosmopolitan nature of free trade — without providing the necessary public tools and explanations to facilitate an increase in this modern social capital for those who haven’t been fully emancipated in this transformation.

Former conservative Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, believed the state promoting traditional parochial values provided people with “points of anchorage” in this era of great economic and social change. Yet this advocacy of clinging to traditional values in an era of great social change, and clinging to the nation in an era of global integration, has instead pulled people in two different directions, and left society confused and aggravated as a result. Unanchored, society now has a sense of heightened insecurity and seems to be doubling back on their emancipative values, and returning to parochial ones.

These parochial values remain instinctively conservative — a priority for the familiar — which is why conservatism attaching itself to an aggressively emancipative philosophy such as classical liberalism has been so odd. Friedrich Hayek highlighted the great distinctions between the two political perspectives in his 1960 essay Why I Am Not A Conservative, an essay that those conservative politicians and intellectuals who subsequently went to work in his name chose to ignore.

“…one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead…. This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces.”

It is this lack of understanding of the grand social changes that have accompanied these freer economic forces that modern conservatism has advocated that is fostering its current angst and resentment. These feelings are now challenging the modern conservatives norms that were created by Fusionism during the Cold War. Political actors such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen advocate ideas that could be considered a more philosophically consistent form of conservatism; one that has cottoned on to freer trade being the driver of the human integration they find distasteful.

Tariff walls and physical walls make sense as an ideological pairing; keeping out goods, services, people, culture, ideas and evidence-based arguments. Dirigisme, the state control of both economic and social matters, is starting to reestablish itself as a conservative principle, as the instinctive fondness for authority within conservatism that Hayek identified begins to reassert itself. While attempting to slow the pace of change is now a futile exercise, the market is well and truly out of the bag, it is this dirigisme that would have done so in the past were conservatives more attuned to the knock-on effects of the economic ideas they promoted.

That conservative parties are gaining electorally from current anxieties does not indicate that these anxieties are entirely positive for them. Due to conservative parties having control over the rhetoric of nostalgia and parochialism it is a natural reaction for people to place their anxious faith in them. But that does not mean that conservative parties are the parties of solution to people’s current anxieties. The nostalgia they advocate simply trumps an understanding of the longer term impacts of freer markets when people walk into the ballot box. As long as conservative parties continue to sell an economic system of exponential change alongside an advocacy of parochial nostalgia they will not only maintain a deep existential crisis within themselves, but continue to ferment anxiety within the populace, exposing themselves to insurgents like Trump, Le Pen and others keen to exploit anxiety and fear.

Which leads to the question of where conservatism goes from here? Conservatism is inherently a parasitic philosophy, one that attaches itself to the ideas of others and then seeks to maintain those ideas in order to preserve stability. Trumpism’s hostile and resentful bluster may feel good to those left feeling insecure by the pace of change freer trade has created, but his aggressive attacks on established norms will undoubtedly unleash a greater instability that will further undermine conservative instincts.

The conservative elites who devise political ideologies such Fusionism are generally more educated and able handle global economic, technological and social change with greater comfort than the base they are selling to. This creates a distinct disconnect between what ideas are being sold and what those with conservative instincts can handle. Their continued advocacy of classical liberal ideas has become divorced from its outcomes, it is simply maintaining the rhetoric of the cultural group.

Yet, the driving force of conservatism remains embedded in instincts that cannot acquiesce to many of classical liberalism’s central concepts. Suspicion of change and adherence to the bonds of ethnic kinship cannot interact smoothly with liberalism as a globalising, individualistic, change-inducing project. Fusionism can now simply be seen as a Cold War tactic that has lost its relevance without the ideological challenge of Communism.

For conservative elites their most important task is now finding a combination of ideas to replace the contradictions within Fusionism that has created the world’s current dark emotions. These ideas will need to respect conservative instincts, but maintain a calm and responsible adherence to universalist principles, and most importantly provide people with the capabilities to adapt to the modern world.