Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Politics, Left and Right

Conservatism is broken.

Obviously, as a lefty, me saying so may strike you as mere partisan sniping, but I don’t mean to speak disrespectfully. Indeed I think there are many conservatives who would agree with me when I say that the political traditions of moderate Burkean conservatism — respectful of tradition, convinced that human flourishing happens best in certain, mostly smaller-scale structures of family and community (churches, schools, universities, friendship groups and so on), anti-authoritarian and small-g governmental, engaged both with civics and individual civility — has been eclipsed over the last four decades or so.

This has happened, after the manner of a slow-motion car crash, in two stages: first with aggressive free-marketeers for whom all those Burkean values have a price, actually, and for whom they are all conditional, existing on the sufferance of the Market, conceived as the arbiter of everything. Then, more recently, with a group of nativist, racist and populist ‘conservative’ authoritarians: the Berlusconis and Trumps and Orbans and Brexit-barons of today. I would argue that the former led directly to the latter, in part by the scorched-earth deracination of social life that their asset-stripping, coked-up Capitalism entailed; but perhaps I’m wrong about that. But I’m not wrong, I think, in suggesting that what used to be called ‘conservatism’ is in practical disarray today.

Plenty of people who think of themselves as ‘conservatives’, and who cleave still to those principles Burke so eloquently articulated, have either broken with contemporary political conservatism, or else have gone along with this newer, overwritten version of it for mess-of-pottage reasons (because they, for instance, hoped for more conservative judges, or because, though they disliked Trump, the prospect of a left wing government scared them more) to the present-day regret of some of them. Still, here we are. The recent events in the USA have been alarming indeed, and amongst other things they speak to precisely this kind of fracture. On social media I see some people outraged and disgusted by Ted Cruz’s (disingenuous, we can be sure) mouthing of the ‘stop the steal’ slogan, his continued toadying support for Trump. But it’s easy to see why he’s doing this. He has his eyes on the 2024 election and has made the calculation that Conservatism in the US is now three distinct and inimical groups: traditional moderate conservatives, Evangelicals and Trump’s crazy base. The only path to power lies in somehow coalescing these together. That’s his play: he figures he can rely on the Evangelicals and that moderate conservatives would vote for him over Kamala Harris, but he knows he can’t get over the finish line if he alienates the Trumpists. Hence his lickspittleosity with respect to the Big Baboon.

I’m no expert, and have (I must say) a poor track record when it comes to making political predictions, but I really don’t see Cruz’s strategy working. Trump accrued his base, in the first instance, by saying the things — all those racist and nativist and tub-thumping things he said — no respectable politician would utter. His lucky break was that the Evangelicals decided to overlook his lying, his sexual incontinence, his immodesty and bullying and narcissism, and pitch him their support, something he cannily cemented by choosing Pence as his VP. But that still left a lot of traditional conservatives wavering. The long-story-short history of this period may shake-down into something as simple as: in 2016 enough of these voters disliked Hillary Clinton enough, and/or were prepared to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, to inch him, just, over the line. By 2020 no doubts remained to benefice so far as Trump’s instability and incompetence were concerned, and Biden didn’t alienate old-school conservative voters the way Clinton had done. That leaves US Conservatism humpty-dumptied. I don’t see how Cruz, or anyone else, can glue those three constituencies together again. The Trumpists who stormed the Capitol were chanting hang Mike Pence, after all; and they wouldn’t recognise Burke if he boiked them on their bonce with his beak.

This lengthy prolegomenon, though, is not my main point. My main point is the adjective, so often deployed by old-school moderate Conservatives: ‘Burkean.’ It so happens I’ve been re-reading Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) — indeed, say rather I’ve been reading it properly, since I last read it as a gawky and much more doctrinally narrow-minded lefty youth, in my undergraduate days. Now that I’m middle aged my response to the book is, I think, rather more nuanced. Not, I should add, that I’m swinging to the right in my 50s. My core political orientation remains what it has been for a long time now. Of course everyone believes they have good reasons for their political affiliation, and it’s possible mine are mere bias, residual attachment to my upbringing, a congeries of Trillingian irritable mental gestures and so on. But obviously I’d hope not. Indeed, if asked, I’d say that my political beliefs have been bedded-down by my fairly in-depth study of the 18th- and 19th-centuries, undertaken over the last three and a half decades, as part of my university job.

As a leftie what I sometimes hear is: ‘Communism is a fine idea in principle; but we tried it, in practice, and it doesn’t work.’ The thing is, and speaking ex cathedra as a Professor of 19th-century Literature and Culture, I can say: we also tried full capitalism and it absolutely does not work. We tried it in the UK from the middle of the 1700s (and especially from the New Poor Laws of the 1830s) through to the Liberal government’s introduction of welfare reforms in the early 1900s. It made a tiny fraction prodigiously wealthy and it impoverished or starved the majority. In the 20th-century we (in the west, and elsewhere) experimented with finding the balance between social security and permitting capitalist wealth-seeking. But the hardcore right-wing dream now is to abolish the social security part altogether. This is a deeply, deeply bad idea. There’s a reason that whole period, from the late 18th-century to the early 20th-, was in essence The Age of Violent Revolutions. When a system disenfranchises, oppresses and starves a majority of its population bloody revolution becomes not only likely but inevitable. I’d suggest we not go back to that. Even Thatcher understood that her ideology required a balance between capitalism and social security. Me, I’d suggest her idea of the balance was weighted too far to the former, but it was still a balance. The Johnsonian-Farageist future doesn’t want the balance at all. The most irksome thing is all those people of my and my parents’ generations who enjoyed the manifold benefits of the capitalism/social-security balance & who’ve convinced themselves that their present-day prosperity is entirely self-authored. I’m-Alright-Jackism of the most toxic kind.

Still, not to rant. The point is: I do find I’ve more time now for Burke’s elegantly expressed insights these days, and more sympathy with Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s volte face (‘Genius of Burke! forgive the pen seduced/By specious wonders’ etc; Prelude Book 7 etc) from youthful radicalism to middle-aged caution. Though I find problems in the book as well.

Written right at the end of Burke’s life, the main thesis of Reflections is that the French Revolution is a bad idea. Though he was a lifelong Whig, it could be argued that this book marks a late shift to a more Tory Burke (he wasn’t exactly happy about the American Revolution of 1776, but he did nonetheless think we should establish friendly relations with the new United States; not so France). The book has certainly been praised for its prescience — writing in the immediate aftermath of 1789 Burke predicts that the Revolution will lead both to the Terror and eventually to a military dictatorship in France, which is exactly what happened. Nonetheless, it’s in some ways a slippery book. Burke doesn’t want to argue that all Revolutions are wrong, since it’s a matter of great political and patriotic importance to him that the 1688 Glorious Revolution be affirmed as a Good Thing. Since many of the grounds of Burkean criticism of France could, without much distortion, be teleported back to 1688 and applied there, this involves a certain contortion of approach.

One main plank of Burke’s argument is that it is both wrong and dangerous to treat ‘liberty’ as an abstract. Everything, he says, is embodied, everything is situated in particular social contexts. Abstraction is a chimera (‘what is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or to medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In this deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor’). Political questions must be framed in terms of what he calls ‘circumstances’ rather than as ‘metaphysics’:

I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman of that society, be he who he will; and perhaps I have given as good proofs of my attachment to that cause, in the whole course of my public conduct. I think I envy liberty as little as they do to any other nation. But I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions and human concerns on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind. Abstractedly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good; yet could I, in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government, (for she then had a government,) without inquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered? Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom? Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate a highwayman and murderer who has broke prison upon the recovery of his natural rights?

It’s hardly a novel observation where Burke is concerned to note that he has his own abstractions which he insists deserve reverence. And I’d say there’s more than mere political pragmatics at play here:

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure — but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

The argument in this paragraph is that some ‘circumstances’, whilst necessary contexts for existence (how we ensure we have enough to eat and so on), are inferior to others because they are material, pertaining only to ‘gross animal existence.’ Standing over those are higher, purer ‘circumstances’: science, art, virtue and perfection. If we apply Burke’s earlier criteria to these — that is to say, if we treat them like ‘government’ and ‘liberty’ — we might say: they surely depend, in a discursively radical way, on whether we’re talking about good science or fake-science of the Lysenko or healing crystals sort; whether we’re talking about good or bad art; whether our virtues are oriented towards kindness or (as it might be) military daring and ruthlessness. They depend upon whatever ‘perfection’ could possibly mean. I have to say, bruiting ‘perfection’ as any kind of political ideal chills me much more than liberty, fraternity or equality as slogans — it has a hideous Pol Pot final-solution remorselessness to it. But I don’t mean to turn Burke’s argument on its head: he would of course reply that he is arguing for a politics that accounts for the messy and imperfect realities of human social existence and against those Robespierres who desire to force human beings into the procrustean bed of inhuman ideals, the very opposite of the Pol Pot approach. So I’ll leave that.

Why should we defer to ‘the past’? There are two arguments advanced for this, I think. One is: ‘we should defer to tradition because tradition represents the culmination of long stretches of trial and error that have finally determined what works, in terms of social cohesion, human flourishing, stability and so on.’ This strikes me as wrong, actually, and quite easily demonstrably so. If your ‘it works’ is elastic enough to include the creation both of a self-sustaining crony elite and a huge, immiserated underclass who die sooner, live denuded lives and are starved of opportunity then I don’t think you and I are going to agree on what ‘works’ means, as a word.

Two, though, is closer to the Burkean spirit: that the past is hallowed — that there is something holy about it. I’m also not sure that’s true, as it goes. More, I think that believing so bends an otherwise clever and supple mind into some weird distorting shapes.

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.

This is more like the caricature ‘conservative’, hostile to innovation not on a case-by-case basis, but on principle, that principle being, in sum: ‘what should I put myself out for the unborn generations? What have they ever done for me?’ It is also, I would say, simply false: the biggest differences between most people in 2020 and most people in 1820 are the advantages innovation has bestowed: better technologies and agricultural knowledge so we’re all better and more cheaply clothed and better (more nutritously) and more cheaply fed; better medical knowledge and technology; and a panoply of labour-saving devices and machines have freed us — the last type of innovation has disproportionately freed women, a group in whom Burke seems, simply, uninterested — from gruelling and sometimes deadly bondage. Of course Burke here is talking about social innovation, but I’d still argue that democracy has been improved — votes for women, adulthood suffrage and so on — in manifest ways.

Burke might argue that the difference between reverencing the past and reverencing some notional, innovative future is that the past is real and the future a mere fiction of possibilities. But it’s hardly some kind of sophisticated Derridean point (it is, on the contrary, common sense) to note that ‘the past’ is not real in the kick-a-stone sense. It’s a set of ideas and assumptions people have in their heads, a mere fiction of eventualities. We all know that a large part of what professional historians do is to set more evidenced and nuanced versions of the past against the popular misconceptions and the patriotic distortions many people hold in their heads. The argument ‘we must reverence 1688 because it has already happened, but deplore 1789 because it is setting up things to happen in the future’ is not only specious, it includes its own locked-in sell-by date. Because now that the contemporary republic of France valorises the revolution as its foundational moment, and celebrates every 14th juillet with collective joy, 1789 has become the past that must be hallowed.

But perhaps Burke’s being cleverer than I’m allowing. By repudiating abstracts, he evades the need to define his terms; and by saying (as he did in An Appeal From The New to the Old Whigs, 1791) ‘every revolution contains in it something of evil’ he gives himself the leeway to argue whatever he likes about any given revolution. 1688? Good, because it called for ‘a small and a temporary deviation’ in response to ‘a grave and over-ruling necessity’ [Reflections, 25] 1789? Bad. Why? Because I say so, alright?

In a sense it’s this (we could almost say) proto-Schmittian approach that is the really remarkable aspect of Burke’s argument. It seems counter-intuitive to bracket Burke with Schmitt I know, but there you go. To put the last line of the preceding paragraph in less childish terms, we could quote Carl Schmitt on how soverignty resides in the exception (‘All law is “situational law.” The sovereign produces and guarantees the situation in its totality. He has the monopoly over this last decision’; Political Theology, ch. 1). W L Renwick is perhaps being a little snide when he observed that the heart of the Reflections was a concept of unity that ‘could allow for only one contract: that made by the Whig nobles in 1688. Between whom it was made, for what purpose and with what degree of rigidity, was never clear and was sufficiently disputed, but for Burke it was absolute.’ But perhaps this snideness misses the point. Perhaps that’s the real genius of Burke.



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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.