Philosophy not politics: A conservatism worth considering | Zedekiah Sparks
In modern political discourse and commentary, few terms are as ill-defined and hollow as ‘conservative’. Even casual followers of such things will see the term used to group people, policies, and practices so inconsistent with each other that they become fundamentally incompatible or opposed.
A policy that intends to deregulate industry, pursue unrestricted trade, and slash government expenditure will be called a “conservative measure”. The same terms will then be used, often by the same people, to describe regulatory, protectionist, or interventionalist policy. ‘Conservative’ as it is used today cannot be trusted to indicate anything substantive about the stance or approach of what it describes. A fantastic example of this can be found in the modern Australian context. In the 2004 Federal Election, the incumbent Liberal Party of Australia led by Prime Minister of Australia John Howard defeated the opposition Australian Labor Party led by Mark Latham. These two men leading parties with fundamentally separate policy platforms against each other and belonging to fundamentally different political traditions can both fairly be called conservatives.
So, if ‘conservative’ cannot be used today to identify anything specific, why is it so widely used? Today, conservative means nothing more than ‘not left-wing’ or ‘not progressive’ when used by commentators and activists. Unfortunately, conservatism’s detractors do not see that those terms have also been co-opted and redefined by the bourgeois liberal elite so that they no longer pose any real threat to the status quo. However, that is a separate matter to be explored elsewhere.
‘Conservative’ is now a stamp pressed onto one’s reputation by the media, academia, or activists in the service of the socio-political hegemon. It warns the good, civilised, and compliant of the world that the carrier of this branded seal is not to be humanised or interacted with, except maybe to chastise them for their mean and backwards sensibilities.
Under these circumstances, defining conservatism can feel somewhat akin to searching for a particular grain of sand in a desert. Unlike socialism, fascism, liberalism, or liberalism’s ugly bastard child libertarianism, conservatism is not an entirely intentional construct. Conservatism acts more as an instinct informed by history and precedent; it has a far less rigid and proscriptive handbook than other schools of thought. With that in mind, is it any wonder at all that no one is more confused about what conservatism is than political conservatives themselves?
The essence of conservatism is extracted in generational learning and intuition. It lives in the very walls of our institutions; It speaks to us from the stained glass of our sanctums of worship, the creaking floors of our schools and in the chorus of conversation in our public houses. More than anything else, conservatism is loving the place you inhabit and all the characteristics that define it. When you love something, your instinct is to defend it from perceived threats to its stability, nature, and existence.
Nowhere is this conceptualisation of conservatism more thoroughly explored or made accessible to the general reader than in the work of the late Sir Roger Scruton. Scruton’s contribution to the literature surrounding modern philosophical conservatism is incomparably influential. Scruton’s unparalleled grasp on the nature of conservative instinct allows him to articulate the abstract notions that even the average conservative has trouble analysing in a space with so little substantive literature.
Conservative instinct recognises that the places, practices, and way of life that are enjoyed result from hundreds, if not thousands, of years of painful and arduous trial and error. It knows that what is loved is precariously balanced on the deadly mistakes of those who came before us. It understands that the ripple effect of even the most minor adjustments can be incomprehensibly far-reaching and devastating.
In summary, conservatism is the intuition that what is good must be protected. Pure philosophical conservatism does not oppose progress; in fact, one can argue it is instrumental in the process of making authentic progress. Conservatism sees that change is not the same as progress by default and that change has far more capacity to be regressive than to advance life to a better state. As imperfect as things sometimes are, conservatives understand that what we have is not easy to come by and is not easily replaced. A conservative approach is a tool that funnels change into progress rather than standing in its way. It is interesting to note that until it merged with several right-wing micro-parties in late 2003 and became the ‘Conservative Party of Canada’, Canada’s foremost historical, conservative movement was named the ‘Progressive Conservative Party of Canada’. Conservatism is not and cannot coherently be an obstructionist, reactionary political framework. Conservatism is a personal philosophy of scepticism as a virtue, a worldview that emphasises the gut feeling to be careful and considered.
Unlike the previously mentioned vision of conservatism as an instinct, when used to describe the tradition of conservatism in the United States, the term refers to a specific political project. America was founded on the tenets of an earlier form of liberalism. When Americans refer to conservatism, they refer to the political goal of conserving the original nature of what they perceive as the ‘American Project’. American conservatism is merely the conservation of early American liberalism. Because of the dominance of American culture and scholarship over Australia, and indeed the English-speaking world, we have culturally accepted their definition of terms despite this American definition conflicting with the far more profound understanding of the term as we inherited it from Britain.
I mention this to clarify that when I talk about conservatism, I very specifically reject the American definition of it as being some form of classical liberalism, with a fatalistic attachment to very particular definitions of “freedom”. When I refer to conservatism, I refer to a purer conservatism not touched by the modern fusion of liberalism and conservatism into one.
If conservatism in thought is scepticism, in action, it is caution. The more radical a change is, the harder it is to reverse; This leads conservatives to be sceptical of calls to revolution such as those cried for by Marxists, Fascists and Anarchists. Still, many forget that historically the greatest threat of all to conservatism and its view of society, culture and politics comes from somewhere that it is synonymous with today – Liberalism. Particularly in its current form of globalist, unregulated crony capitalism, Liberalism is no ally to conservatives. As a project, it tries to break down the connection between people. In its quest to separate every person from every possible perceived chain, it only separates us from each other; and while we are separate, we are easy prey.
Conservatives are passionate about the common good; the good of the people and the nation are its very capstone. Conservatives recognise that societies only thrive when they are explicitly devoted to the generations to come. They collapse when they reject this duty to pursue the pleasures and cravings of the present. The notion that we are all connected and all responsible to one another is directly at odds with the atomistic nature of today’s dominant liberal individualism.
This is perhaps one of the starkest contrasts between the liberal and the conservative worldviews. One lives to be free to pursue their appetites, and one lives to be free from their appetites. The conservative plants trees to create shade that he will never sit in. He may not get to enjoy the fruit of his labours, but those that come after might rely on them. The liberal, conversely, cuts down the tree for firewood. He enjoys a few nights of warmth by himself and leaves ashes to his next of kin.
Conservatives do not subordinate ethics to economics. They believe in welfare, healthcare, education, communal infrastructure, and housing. Conservatives stand for local businesses and local workers who provide for local families. They understand what is meant in Meditation 17 by John Donne “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent”. When society struggles, so do we because we are all a piece of and are all reliant on our society.
This is not a manifesto for a new, modern conservatism to appeal across the aisle, nor is it an attempt to reconcile various expressions of conservatism with each other. It is merely an invitation to consider a more authentic conservatism, which predates the no longer relevant alliance of conservatism and liberalism against communism during the Cold War. A conservatism rooted in thousands of years of practical governance and philosophy. It is an invitation to return to the conservatism that saw Australia, Canada, and New Zealand grow from colonial backwaters to some of the most prosperous nations in the world.
Conservatives must decide. Do we continue to allow the Frankenstein’s monster of a movement we have today to shuffle around, powerless to protect anything but itself from controversy? Do we accept the black and white, tribal conservatism that the corrupt and self-serving allow us to practice? Are we content with being of no consequence to their self-enrichment done at the collective expense of society? Or do we demand a conservatism of deep thought, nuances, love, and selflessness comes to bear?
It is my most sincere hope that conservatism will rebuild itself. It can serve far better if built on more solid ground than the self-imagined, inconsequential culture-wars it fights today. It would be much stronger if it stopped letting blood at the altar of the false Gods that Austerity and Market Economics have become to it. Whether it can reform itself remains to be seen.