While I don’t agree with most of what New Statesman cultural editor Jonathan Derbyshire had to say in ‘The meaning of conservatism’, I nevertheless found the essay irresistible – for at least engaging in a conversation about conservatism that is critically necessary in the West, and because that project is, unfortunately, no more advanced than it was three years ago.
Perhaps the most telling absence in Derbyshire’s essay was a consideration of the fundamentals in a healthy democracy: well-led parties opposing each other effectively on policy matters to promote robust debate and the emergence of better policy than would accrue from no debate, or discussion by pedestrian intellects only. I forgive Derbyshire’s omission for reasons of brevity and on-topic focus, but it is nevertheless a suitable starting point here.
On the day of Barack Obama’s re-election, one of the Australian commentators in the local election coverage was former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who made a characteristically acerbic and yet irresistibly accurate observation: there are no great leaders anywhere in the world at this time.
Hawke on paucity of leadership
Speaking some days later at a charity function, he clarified his remark, responding to a journalist’s question to say that a
lack of “outstanding” political leadership was a problem worldwide, and that the media was part of the problem.
“There hasn’t been a point before the present time, since the end of the Second World War, when there hasn’t been at least one outstanding political leader in the world,” he said.
“Why is this so? One of the reasons, I think, is that … the media in general [has] become much more intrusive into the personal and private lives of people in politics.
“People of talent … say, ‘Why the hell, why should I subject myself to this?” (1)
Robert James Lee Hawke, Rhodes scholar and Oxford graduate, Australian Council of Trade Unions President 1970-1980, and Prime Minister 1983-1991, is neither shy about his opinions, nor to be dismissed lightly.
Hawke was certainly savaged by the Australian press in his day, but perhaps no more than a man with his imposing personality and arrogance deserved. In the same way that Thatcher was overwhelmed by ‘public opinion’, which was really rather more media opinion than public, and the product of the very labour relations reforms she ushered in to allow people like Rupert Murdoch to destroy an independent Fleet Street paradigm in the UK, and then the US.
Pertinent to Derbyshire’s commentary is that David Cameron can be validly critiqued for coming short as a charismatic, strong, intellectual, innovative leader, or even as one deft at party machine politics.
One of the characteristics of leadership is an ability not to fall prey to a narcissistic preening that caters to press-gaggle prejudices rather than substance, and the capacity to articulate one’s thoughts and vision clearly enough not to be cowed by feckless, sensationalist muckrakers, dull-witted stenographers, or those already set on fabricating an ‘angle’.
If so called journalists can play at character assassination or intrusion into privacy, the tools are certainly available to politicians to make withering responses about lack of wit, intellect, literacy, and honesty. However, such responses to media hyenas can be carried off only by people of substance who will not allow themselves to become vindictive rather than respected (or feared) enough to pre-empt, annihilate, or deter such attacks; it cannot be faked. To that extent Hawke is quite right. The current crop of media whores, toadies, petulant tyrants, solipsists, and barely coherent ‘leaders’ in the world leaves a lot to be desired, and Cameron, as Prime Minister, is highly visible for his flaws in these dimensions. Worse, contenders in the USA and Australia are possibly even less enviable examples of conservatism in the Anglophone West.(2)
With that thought in mind, returning to Derbyshire’s essay, he seems to have focused on conservatism only as the kind that peristaltically disgorged itself from the enormous, enervated posterior of the Conservative Party in the post-Thatcher era, and even then by limiting himself to certain orthodoxies that obscure a greater depth to Tory tradition than can be observed with a sole focus on publicly vocal MPs.
Hayek demonised, again
The first of these orthodoxies is the demonisation of Hayek as a cheaply Randian, libertarian of the Paul Ryan, lumpen-patrician kind. This just won’t stand. Like Adam Smith before him, Hayek may have been a staunch defender of free markets, but not at the expense of ethics, or a clinical blindness to self-evident proof that markets can be distorted just as readily by private concerns as by states. Free markets means free also from the reckless, collusive corporate criminality that has been actively fostered in the West since at least the 1980s.
Derbyshire’s most egregiously dismissive statement on Hayek may reveal a regrettable shortage of people who have read Hayek rather than about him, and an artless, fundamentalist literalism in failing to discover nuance to Hayek’s actual words:
A society, for Hayek, was not, as it was for conservatives such as Burke, an organic, living whole in which essentially social beings are bound by ties of custom and tradition, but merely an aggregate of self-interested economic actors. “The only ties which hold together the whole of a Great Society,” he wrote, “are economic.”(3)
This is a gross oversimplification if you consider that Hayek remains elusively misunderstood about his understanding of a dynamic market order that is also fundamental to social cohesion in liberal democratic societies, which he referenced as ‘the Great Society’, not ‘the Great Market’ or ‘the Great Economy’. He called that dynamic ‘catallaxy’, explicitly referring to an etymology that not only signifies ‘“to exchange” but also “to admit into the community” and “to change from enemy into friend.”’(4) Only after acknowledging that Hayek did not include these words in his work by accident does it become apparent that his focus might be economic, but the ambit of that focus extends into the social and the political:
It is often made a reproach to the Great Society and its market order that it lacks an agreed ranking of ends. This, however, is in fact its great merit which makes individual freedom and all it values possible. The Great Society arose through the discovery that men can live together in peace and mutually benefiting each other without agreeing on the particular aims which they severally pursue. The discovery that by substituting abstract rules of conduct for obligatory concrete ends made it possible to extend the order of peace beyond the small groups pursuing the same ends, because it enabled each individual to gain from the skill and knowledge of others whom he need not even know and whose aims could be wholly different from his own.(5)
Perhaps Derbyshire would have written differently if he had understood that Hayek was not at all denying the existence or efficacy of Burke’s somewhat bucolic sentiment, or Disraeli’s grand imperial visions, but these were not the main focus of his thesis, just as Derbyshire doesn’t really focus on market economics in his essay about conservatism.
The second of the noxious orthodoxies to be repeated uncritically by Derbyshire is the ridiculous persistence with meaningless nomenclature like neoliberalism, which is a classic example of what Hayek himself regarded as a weasel word, where a prefix sucks all the meaning and original significance out of its subject. Hayek was a traditional political liberal and a neoclassical economist. The two are not necessarily, or even often, interrelated, and borrowing neo from classical to dress liberal is either disingenuous or just imbecilic. The people who misused Hayek’s work to advocate unbridled greed, corruption, and the rise of plutocracy, are associated with nothing that is either new or liberal, and only remotely neoclassical. One must suspect that most of them did not read or understand Hayek, and confuse him for Milton Friedman, who made of himself a pop-art, bubble-gum version of a cross between Ludwig von Mieses and Hayek.
The word neoliberalism has been the subject of at least two books by left-leaning academics(6) who themselves concluded that the ambit of the term is so broad as to embrace political and economic policies spanning decades and continents from South America and the USA, to Britain, Germany, and the Russian Federation, and from Japan to the People’s Republic of China. Something else all these years and locations have in common is that they are all subsets of history, which is a description similar to the term neoliberalism in its precision and meaningfulness.
Clearing up these misconceptions about Hayek and neoliberalism is vitally important for any renewal of traditional conservatism, because they represent the left’s attempts to tar many undeserving people with the same brush, and the rancidly unprincipled attempts by amoral plutocrats to legitimise a non-existent common cause with genuine conservatives.
Politics of imperfection
It is refreshing for Derbyshire to acknowledge the heritage of a politics of ‘imperfection’, even if it has the ring of a slightly smug, perhaps even sneering, superior air about it. Burke and Disraeli, separately in their own eras, were viscerally aware that they and fellow travellers were inventing their future not according to some grand plan, but strategy by strategy, fight by fight, and issue by issue, learning and evolving along the way.
Derbyshire may believe it to be a failing to desist from a grand plan, but the evidence of history suggests that all grand plans are ultimately no more than deterministic, idealistic, but ultimately always dictatorial ideology. It is precisely the strength of liberalism, and the authentic Burkean strain of conservatism, to refrain from imposing deterministic ends, and to seek to resolve the conflicts of the day by resort to guiding principles and pragmatic attention to specific contexts and circumstances rather than to a fixed set of unforgiving rules. Unfortunately, while Derbyshire may well have recognised that underlying feature of ‘imperfection’, many others have not and continue to seek the deadening certainty that comes from the religion of ideology.
This may also be a principal reason why so many commentators on the right get it wrong when they evoke Burke as a kind of patron saint for reaction. He was nothing of the sort, never opposing change for the sake of it, but rather, he tried to prevent the vandalism by overly simplistic world-beaters eager to tear down grand old structures in their entirety just for the sake of making room for the new. Burke’s opposition to the revolution in France was not so much a condemnation of revolutions as of the wholesale destruction of every last vestige of a society in a ‘year zero’ orgy of violence and terror.
In chiding Burke for this, Tom Paine may have produced a landmark rhetoric, Rights of Man, which continues to mislead people about Burke to this day, but the inestimable Paine was demonstrably wrong about France to such an extent that he almost lost his head for his miscalculation; historian Simon Schama tells the story that when confined in Luxembourg Prison for questioning the need to execute the King and other nobles, Paine was actually condemned to death and escaped that fate only because the chalk mark signifying his selection for decapitation had been made on his cell door while it was open, becoming invisible from the outside when it was closed, as it was when the executioners came for the day’s attainted.
It should be recalled that Burke was actually an advocate for compromising with the American colonists before they were driven to become revolutionaries, and that he greatly compromised himself by criticising the arrogant intransigence of the King’s party in refusing to consider what Burke thought of as properly English demands for justice and fairness. Burke was equally at pains about the treatment of his native Ireland, fearing that continued oppression and brutality by the Crown would inevitably lead to rebellion there too. All this to say that Burke was not a conservative in any American sense of libertarianism, nor of any continental strain of aspirational fascism, but of an entirely pragmatic kind that sought to earnestly engage with and resolve the complexities of his era.
Disraeli, however, might be the subject of a largely undeserved reputation as a reformer, and in Derbyshire’s essay maintains that illusory status because of the absence of another name, William Ewart Gladstone, who made it his business to push the cause of poor reforms to address the astonishingly brutal conditions endured by the people in Britain’s industrial towns with such vigour that Disraeli had to embrace change or resign himself to permanent opposition. Not without a certain symmetry to the fact, Gladstone was the leader of the Liberal Party, which may have been the last Western political party with an accurate eponym.
Perhaps most ironically of all, the American definition of liberalism appears to be stuck in a time-warp, hearkening back to the 19th century in Britain, and fearfully hostile of any attempt to restrain the power of plutocrats to enslave, immiserate, and disenfranchise those without money. The recent Romney campaign for President appears to have been a miscalculated reactionary hankering for a return to the days of the unrestricted freedom the British industrialists of the early 19th century enjoyed, only this time for post-industrial corporations. Such a perspective reveals the Republicans to be less conservative than reactionary, if its extraordinarily fractured representative base permits any categorisation at all.
What such a perspective makes possible is an interpretation of widespread dissatisfaction among nominal Democrats with Obama’s credentials as a reformer. Could it be that without a Gladstone baying at his heels, Obama is as lax about meaningful reforms as Disraeli would have been without his bête noir? And is it at all arguable that the Democrats are the real conservatives in the US, with a collection of extremist movements in charge of the Republican Party, and a complete void on the left?
Middle of the road down under
It might be tempting to paint the Australian political scenery in the same colours, but that would be quite misleading. While the Labor Party is as much a mainstream conservative party as the Democrats, there has always been agitation on its left, and outside it. Most recently this has meant an uneasy alliance between a minority Labor Government needing the support of the Greens. However, the formal Australian right is far less extreme than the Republican Party, having burnt its fingers trying to emulate the GOP in the 1980s. The Coalition (of the Liberal and National Parties) is still a less than cohesive political animal, but generally not given to any extreme positions, and certainly not inclined to be as accommodating to plutocratic tyranny as the American right.
The bipartisan political consensus in Australia includes an unchallenged welfare state with open-ended unemployment benefits, universal healthcare for all. but elective surgery only on geological time-frames, tax breaks for private health insurance, strict regulation of financial market dealings, and less onerous student loan arrangements for university education than apply in the US or the UK. In that regard, Australia may have borrowed currency and federalist structure from the US, but it has certainly retained a greater Westminster flavour and European inflection to the articulation of the state.
Given the substantial qualifications on Derbyshire’s original essay, it may appear flippant to now endorse his conclusions, but that’s substantially what will happen here, with only one exception.
Derbyshire seemed quite right to heed the cautions of Marquand about labelling Cameron too quickly as a Thatcherite, though three years later he still struggles with the notion that white collar criminals are nevertheless criminals, not sacred cows. Like Barack Obama, it seems beyond Cameron to drive faster, more visible change, even if he talks it up for electoral purposes.
Derbyshire was also right to point to a potential schism among Tories relating to the authoritarians who would impose top-down ethical standards on their society. It would appear, however, that without a significant influx into the electorate of fundamentalist religious voters, the day of such constraint has come and gone. There are no sound liberal arguments for regulating the personal conduct of otherwise law abiding citizens, nor of denying fundamental human rights to anyone because of their sex, skin colour, or sexuality. Most importantly, there can be no Great Society of liberal democracy if it is suborned to religion, the way some might say the US has been. Any conservative argument for a public morality enforced by the state thus would be either theocratic or even more arbitrarily authoritarian. Both positions run the risk of being rightly seen as extreme.
Outside the US there is no more argument that unconstrained laissez faire capitalism is a corrosive, destructive influence on Western liberal democracies. It is settled that it is, and encouraging that David Willetts has publicly rubbished those who misread Adam Smith as proposing a carte blanche for capitalists by reminding everyone that Smith also had a theory of moral sentiments that he saw as fundamental to any market system, and which has been demonstrably ignored by Western corporations in a completely unethical pursuit of profit.
Arising from these signs, then, is the Derbyshire conclusion, citing Disraeli, that the ends of any society may in fact not be solely the accommodation of profit, wealth for some, and a shoulder shrugging indifference to others. That, too, is Hayek’s most urgent advice dating back to the 1940s. Not to impose on people and societies any ends.
Looking at the mess made by nominal conservatives since the 1980s, however, it appears that just to return to some sanity in the balance between individual liberty and relatively free markets would require what will look like radical, or at least, significant change. Such change is bound to raise a hue and cry from moneyed interests, which control the bulk of Western news media and can effectively campaign against reforms in politically very divisive terms. One need look no further than the absence of guiding principles in an editor like Rebekah Brooks to understand how easily a reform program could be undermined, and its proponents publicly vilified by deliberately underhanded means.
That brings us neatly back to the beginning of this commentary. For any kind of conservatism worthy of that name to succeed, an almost superhumanly strong leader would have to emerge who could do three things exceptionally well: articulate a coherent vision based on sound principles that do not alienate the electorate; impose an iron discipline on whatever party political platform were necessary to be elected and put in place a promised program of action; and face down a beholden, belligerent, intrusive, sensationalist news media.
It is tempting to agree with Bob Hawke that such a person is not currently visible anywhere in Western liberal democracies. That includes Cameron, who appears incapable or rising above banal party political bickering. Worse, there appears to be no such leader in the ranks of rising stars either.
For party political conservatives, the concern must be whether a leader who fits that bill will arise in the opposing party first, or whether the conservatives can leverage the emergence of fresh talent in the benches opposite them by having their own ascendant leadership team cut their teeth on debating them. That would be a good outcome only if the result were more than just infantile bickering of the kind all too common already.
The best possible outcome would be the emergence of two strong leaders in opposition to each other, whose strategic and tactical combat would force to the surface the best either side had to offer, in a way that might be ascribed to the rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli 150 years ago.
(1) Snow, Deborah (2012), ‘Double act for Hawke and Howard’. Great Lakes Advocate, 20 November, http://www.greatlakesadvocate.com.au/story/1134038/double-act-for-hawke-and-howard/, accessed 24 November 2012 .
(2) Canada and New Zealand are politically too complicated to be included in the comments here.
(3) Derbyshire, Jonathan (2009). ‘The Meaning of conservatism’. New Stateman, 9 October, http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2009/10/conservative-disraeli-burke, accessed 23 November 2012.
(4) Hayek, Friedrich (1982). Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol II: The Mirage of Social Justice, p 108. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
(5) Op cit, p 109.
(6) David Harvey (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, and Steger & Roy (2010) Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction.