“For in a community in which the ties of family, of caste, of class, and craft fraternities no longer exist people are far too much disposed to think exclusively of their own interests, to become self-seekers, practicing a narrow individualism and caring nothing for the public good. Far from trying to counteract such tendencies despotism encourages them, depriving the governed of any sense of solidarity and interdependence, of good neighbourly feelings and a desire to further the welfare of the community at large. It immures them, so to speak, each in his private life and, taking advantage of the tendency they already have to keep apart, it estranges them still more. Their feelings toward each other were already growing cold; despotism freezes them.”
–Alexis de Tocqueville in The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856)
It is ironic in our troubled age of the managerial state and politicized corporations that so few business managers display any proper understanding of politics or the catastrophic consequences that will flow if current developments remain unchallenged. We live in revolutionary times, and the dangerous thing about revolutions is their unpredictability, which all too often gives rise to extremist regimes of either Left or Right.
The fact that the latter terms are so poorly understood by the general public, politicians, professionals, and business leaders, is an obvious indication that most people are just getting on with business at a time when business as usual is under serious threat.
Ask any business executive, and they will tell you that Left means liberal, and Right means conservative; that on the Left are progressives, socialists, and communists, and on the Right are authoritarians, fascists, and capitalists. In reality, though, both Left and Right are liberal in the proper sense, and the term “conservative” has been totally corrupted.
Our idea of Left and Right come from the French Revolution. In the States General of 1789, the nobles sat on the King’s right, while the Third Estate, those seeking reform, sat on his left. This division between defenders of the status quo and more radical elements was echoed in subsequent bodies, including the Convention that executed the King. Both the moderates and the advocates of violence in the Convention were almost entirely middle class, comprised mostly of lawyers, merchants, officials, and journalists. Sound familiar?
And this is what most people fail to understand: both left-wing radicals and right-wing shills for an unjust status quo are proponents of the principles of liberalism. They differ only as to how the principles are to be put into practice. Liberalism, the political expression of the ideals of Modernity, has many forms, but all have evolved from a simple premise.
To be liberal initially entailed opposition to the Ancien Regime, the political dispensation based on the supremacy of the Church and the aristocracy. The determination to bring down the Old Order gave common cause to an assortment of socio-political aspirations, including constitutional monarchy, republicanism, terror, socialism, oligarchy, and dictatorship.
Liberalism’s opposition to the Ancien Regime gave expression to three ideas that had emerged in Medieval Europe and given birth to Modernity, the modern mindset:
- Humanism, the unrestrained confidence in the creativity of human beings.
- Nominalism, the idea that human beings make their own meaning and purpose.
- Voluntarism, the belief that a person’s will has primacy over the intellect.
These three ideas, combined with Descartes’ understanding of the human person as an isolated, autonomous individual, promoted a radically new vision of human freedom. Classical philosophy had seen human free will as a freedom for excellence, that is, the freedom to be the best one could be by practicing the virtues of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance, or the rational ordering of one’s life in community. Modernity rejected that vision in favour of a freedom of indifference that left it to the individual to choose his own meaning and purpose, trusting in his own creativity, and the power of his own will.
So the cornerstone of the liberal ideal is the autonomous self, liberated from the constraints of family, religion, custom, history, and all traditional ties. Ignoring the fact that this revolutionary understanding of the human condition flies in the face of history, science, and reason, it is nevertheless easy enough to see why it soon displayed its potential for tyranny.
Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) decried the lot of the isolated individual in nature as “the war of all against all”, leaving “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. His remedy was the Social Contract, in which all the autonomous individuals gave authority to a strong absolute ruler. John Locke (1632-1704) also supported the theory of a social contract, but he favoured constitutional monarchy. Ironically, though Locke was massively influential with his ideas on human rights and toleration, he was unable to justify his ideas without an appeal to God, and he refused toleration to atheists.
The uncomfortable truth about Modernity and the revolutionary vision of human freedom is that they gave rise to not just Liberal Democracy, but also to Marxism, Nazism, and all the ideological antagonists arrayed on both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum. Classic Liberals, libertarians, progressives, and socialists, not to mention those cynical nihilists who embrace any ideology that furthers their own interests, all justify their policies by an appeal to the radical freedom of the individual to maximise personal preferences, constrained only by the power of the state, soft in some cases, severe in others.
Postwar Britain provides an illustration of the two-headed serpent of liberal democracy. From 1945 until Maggie Thatcher became PM in 1979, Keynesian welfare capitalism, the theory that government spending must stimulate economic activity and generate full employment, reigned supreme. The economic woes of the 70s enabled Thatcher to usher in a neoliberal antidote, distorting Adam Smith, that prevailed until the global debt crisis of 2008, but now finds itself locked in mortal combat with more extreme versions of its Keynesian predecessor.
The irony is that for all their undeniably significant differences, the two approaches are outgrowths of the Modern worldview, sharing key philosophical and economic assumptions. This is why the Tories and Labour in Britain, the Republicans and Democrats in the US, and similar centrist divisions in Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have been able to maintain the equilibrium of liberal democracy for so long. As G K Chesterton once noted:
A horrible suspicion that has haunted me is that the Conservative and the Progressive are secretly in partnership. That the quarrel they keep up in public is a put-up job, and that the way they perpetually play into each other’s hands is not an everlasting coincidence.
Chesterton, a true Conservative himself, misused the word here, and should have employed the term Classic Liberal instead. But more on that below.
It is not difficult to see why the suppression of freedom of speech in academia and state schools, the pressure applied by global capitalist corporations to compel social conformity in matters like redefining marriage and transgender bathrooms, the aggressive push for an ill-defined open borders regime, and the ever-proliferating intrusions of a suffocating bureaucratic fog have descended on unwitting western populations, without any move to reform the global capitalist system. Indeed, many western business executives openly express admiration for the Chinese model of state capitalism.
The inescapable reality is that the liberal fiction of the radically autonomous individual, now enthroned in the postmodern West as a self-centered rational maximiser, devoted to securing the satisfaction of his or her personal preferences regardless of other people, inevitably entails the growth of an ever more powerful central government and intrusive bureaucratic control over the lives of the populace. No wonder Liberal Democracy, in its current globalist oligarchic mode, is under siege throughout the West.
Many academics and commentators today maintain that the terms Left and Right are slipping into irrelevance as the conflict grows between the globalist elites and the vast swathes of the populace socially and economically threatened by the financialisation of the economy, uncontrolled immigration, and a pandemic of drug abuse, homelessness, and violent crime. The sad truth is that the Left has overthrown traditional morality and erected Nanny State, and has never been able to define the utopia it promises, relying on identity politics to ensure the struggle for “social justice” is never-ending. And the Right, by entrenching market economics as the sacred principle around which everything revolves, is quite reasonably identified with oligarchic control and socio-economic exploitation.
So where does Conservatism fit into this dispiriting picture? First, one has to sweep aside all the distortions that have arisen since the French Revolution. These laid the ground for the Left to gradually subsume the terms “liberal” and “progressive”, and their connotations of freedom, leaving the Right, that is, defenders of the status quo, good or bad, to be equated with reaction, authority, and opposition to progress.
To then call the latter “conservatives” was a total misrepresentation, one that the true Conservatives sadly failed to correct, with the result that their name has become a pejorative. That is how Conservatism became saddled with all manner of right-wing baggage.
Maintaining the status quo because you have all the money and power is not Conservatism; it is oligarchic tyranny. Regimenting society to conform to a totalitarian vision is not Conservatism; it is cynical opportunism. Entrenching the follies of laissez faire, trickle-down economics, and corporate rent-seeking is not Conservatism; it is crony capitalism. Resistance to change is not Conservatism, because Conservatism recognizes that progress involves change, but that progress is impossible without a clear understanding of the good of human beings and the conditions for its achievement.
Conservatism, properly understood, stands on the vision of humanity rejected by Modernity, the belief that free will and intellect provide the basis for a freedom of excellence, that is, being free to choose the life of virtue that is essential for the good of both the individual and the community.
By definition, it seeks to conserve the good embodied in the community, which necessarily must aim at the flourishing of all, in the name of justice, compassion, and common sense, because injustice means turmoil, sooner or later.
The commitment to human flourishing explains the Conservative principles of attachment to place, to family, history, tradition, community, and nation, and all the institutions of civil society that keep the out-size ambitions of oligarchic carpetbaggers and the bureaucratic state in check. The acceptance of the responsibility to conserve humane cultural standards developed over centuries, to conserve political forms that have provided stability and justice for all people, and to conserve the environment, all require the deep sense of history and tradition repudiated by liberals of the Left and the Right.
Ironically, Conservatism really provides the only effective antidote to the ideological fantasies for which it is often held accountable. Populism, elitism, laissez faire, authoritarianism, statism, Randian objectivism, and religious fundamentalism are all socio-political time-bombs that are readily primed by special interest groups on both the Right and the Left, but they are inconsistent with true Conservatism.
As Chesterton pointed out, the answer to the socio-political conundrum confronting the West has to start with a man, a woman, and a child, and the freedom and property necessary for their fulfillment as human beings. Statists of both Left and Right attack the family because it’s a rival loyalty, religion because it’s a rival authority, and private property because it’s the only means by which people can escape dependence on the state. Every political regime that attacks the family is a tyranny.
Left and Right are the political blind alleys into which Modernity has led us, and both are wisely treated with deep suspicion. And don’t fall into the trap set by both of them of believing in TINA. “There is no alternative” is the smokescreen of demagogues.
Aristotle’s opening words in Politics are instructive: “Every community is established with a view to some good; for people always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all…aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.” Augustine said much the same thing: “A ‘people’ is an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love…the better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; and the worse the objects, the worse the people.”
Both sides in Liberal Democracy have fallen far short of these standards, the Left in its drift towards an indefinable socialist utopia, and the Right in the oligarchic greed that history has shown to be a parody of true Conservatism, destroying the good meant to be conserved.
Affirming the dignity of the human person, as when we talk of human rights or demand accountability in the stewardship of the environment, involves seeing the human subject as a unique presence, a caretaker, in the world of things, exercising responsible free will as opposed to self-seeking caprice. Liberalism, Left and Right, in misunderstanding human nature, has rendered itself incapable of providing a philosophically convincing justification for human rights and responsibility. Its fatal flaw has always been moral contradiction – the radically autonomous individual is a repudiation of both community and leadership.
Clarity about the meaning of life is essential to leadership, and a leader must always remember that the key to understanding the meaning of life is the truth about the human person.
Grasp that, and everything else falls into place. Central to that truth is the reality that there is a natural law that transcends human laws, and it is accessible to human reason, regardless of culture.