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Old school tories: at least they’re not new school tories

In the last blog, I looked at conservatism as a disposition. You know the type; the general, not-thoroughly-thought-out feeling that needlessly changing things is just bad.

In this blog I’ll look at conservatism as a philosophy. There are different takes on philosophical conservatism, but I prefer the approach in Noel O’Sullivan’s 1976 book Conservatism (great title, right?). O’Sullivan considers conservatism a “a philosophy of imperfection”, in which people, and their attempts to create equal or free societies, are doomed to fail.

It’s built on a sceptical view of human nature, one that sounds suspiciously close to the Bible. O’Sullivan claims that conservatives prefer incremental change (rather than radical change) and limited government; however, philosophical conservatism is divided on the ideal level of state involvement.

Philosophical conservatism is separated into two main schools: Traditionalist Conservatism and New Right conservatism. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, Traditionalist Conservatism was more common. Then came the oil shocks of the 1970s, and with them Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, and the New Zealand Labour Party. The oil shock led to the resurgence of classical economic Liberalism, also known as Neoliberalism (discussed in the next post). Neoliberalism combined with social conservatism to create New Right Conservatism… but more on that later. In this blog I’ll look at the more old-school Traditionalist Conservatism.

Members of the neoliberal fourth Labour government of David Lange.

Members of the neoliberal fourth Labour government of David Lange.

Traditionalist Conservatism is the old-school paternalist, government-knows-best form of conservatism. Socially speaking, Traditionalist Conservatism places a higher value on duty, loyalty and authority than other political philosophies, which leads it to favour a greater role for government in preventing social ‘permissiveness’. Economically speaking, Traditionalist Conservatism’s pessimistic view of human nature means it doesn’t trust the market to allocate resources in a moral way. As such, it accepts relatively more state intervention in the economy. Traditionalist Conservatism has several important strands, including:

  • Authoritarian Conservatism
  • ‘One-nation’ Conservatism
  • Christian Democracy

Authoritarian Conservatism in the West grants extensive power to an existing ruling class, without the consent of the citizenry. Authoritarian regime types in the West have included monarchy, aristocracy, and rule by religious or military elites. Authoritarian Conservatism has fallen from favour since the French Revolution, and especially since the end of the Second World War. It’s basically not a thing anymore in the West.

‘One Nation’ Conservatism is frequently associated with the UK’s 19th century Conservative Government led by Benjamin Disraeli. It has a bit of a nationalist flavour, in that it favours conserving the nation rather than a particular class or institution (eg the aristocracy or the crown). It favours an interventionist state and advocates limited social and economic reform in order to promote a sense of national identity, solidarity and stability. But they didn’t really care for people outside the nation. It’s kind of like “We can’t let a British man starve! This isn’t India!” After the Second World War, One Nation Conservatism united social conservatism with Keynesian economic policies. One Nation conservatism fell from favour in the 1970s and 1980s when the oil shocks challenged Keynesian policies, although it still persists amongst those who like to reminisce about the good old days over a wine biscuit or six. David Cameron has claimed he leads a One Nation government, but that’s basically bullshit. Austerity is not One Nation, it’s neoliberal. But more on that later.

Yes, I am referring to you Winston

Yes, I am referring to you Winston

Similarly, Christian Democracy also favours a socially conservative, economically interventionist state, although it differs in conceiving of society as a Christian community. Christian democrat parties are more common in Europe. Examples include Germany’s CDU, led by Angela Merkel and Mexico’s PAN, which ruled Mexico for twelve of the last fifteen years. But Christian politics in general is more complex than this, and will get more attention in a future blog.

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“Varoufakis is gone, actually gone!”

I don’t think there’s a huge amount that the Left can learn from Traditional Conservatism in general, due to our huge incompatibility. We don’t think the same thing about existing institutions, and we (mostly) we don’t share the same view on human nature. Rather, we can benefit from learning about Traditional Conservatism. In particular, it’s good to know that traditional conservatives are vulnerable to claims about goodness, and that they think the state has moral obligations to the citizenry. I’ll show how we can exploit these in a future blog.

This is the fifth in a series looking at the Right from a left-wing perspective. This first four can be found here (1), here (2), here (3), and here (4).

Learning from Tories

What?! Learning from tories? What can we learn from them, except maybe how to be… um… narrative discursivity kyriarchy legitimisation performative neoliberalism?

We can learn a lot.

Generally speaking, I favour empathy in politics. Engaging with those who think differently on their own terms is great way to cultivate empathy. And empathy is how we build actual human communities with actual people, as opposed to online communities with avatars. Online communities are great, but they’re probably not going to be much help when you need to attend a funeral in Taihape. Your tory neighbour is right next door. He’ll keep an eye on your house. He’ll feed your cats. He LOVES cats.

There is only one photo of Margaret Thatcher with a cat. And it aint as nice as this.

If only Reagan was a friendly neighbour that fed cats, rather than a US president. 

We don’t have to agree with tories, but we can gain a lot from understanding them. We can benefit by improving our own understanding of political complexity and developing more nuanced positions. Secondly, we can benefit from knowing their weaknesses and using them to our advantage.

Let’s get our head around the largest and most influential intellectual tradition in right-wing thought: conservatism. Like right-wing thought in general, conservatism is pretty diverse.Political thinkers disagree on whether conservatism is a disposition, a philosophy, or a combination of the two. In this blog I’ll look at the conservative disposition.

Despite the diversity, all branches of conservatism share a fundamental impulse to conserve certain established institutions. This leads to scepticism of idealism and radical change. As previously discussed, conservatism considers some forms of inequality and hierarchy to be natural, good, and/or best. Natural, in that hierarchies are a natural feature of society. Good, in that hierarchies are morally good (like because God says so). Best, in that forms of inequality are the optimal social arrangements for everyone.

Conservatism as disposition: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

We lefties tend to look at conservatism negatively, that is, an opposition to progressive change. I think we would do well to step out of our bubble and view it positively, as many conservatives do. That is, as a celebration of existing social, religious, and political institutions.

This positive view comes from an influential (in scholarly circles) speech by Michael Oakeshott called On being Conservative. Oakeshott defines conservatism as “not a creed or doctrine, but a disposition. To be conservative is to think and behave in certain manners”. Oakeshott’s conservatism “prefer[s] the familiar to the unfamiliar … the tried to the untried, … the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss”. That’s kinda nice, right? It’s definitely more poetic.

Dispositional conservatism considers current (or recently departed) economic and political institutions to a tried, tested, and trusted. In dispositional conservatism, the things we inherit are treasures to be preserved and passed on to the next generation. Sound familiar? The same approach is also common in the green movement. Many dispositional conservatives love the environment and oppose the damage wrought by development and pollution. I’ve written a lot about the similarities between conservatism and green thought here, here, and here. It’s not a coincidence that conservatism and conservation share the etymological root conservare, meaning ‘to keep watch and maintain’.

I never knew Thatcher personally, but I think it's safe to assume she was evil. Look at that cat's face.

This is the only picture of Thatcher with a cat. That says a lot. I never knew Thatcher personally, but I think it’s safe to assume she was evil based on this picture.

What we can learn from the conservative disposition.

We can learn a lot from the conservative approach and conservative concerns. The idea that we should exercise caution when changing important institutions is basically sound. We only differ with conservatives when it comes to the thresholds for change. And some of the issues that conservatism is concerned with should also matter to us.

Take ‘The Family’ for example. Until same sex marriage came along, we lefties didn’t talk about it too much. Many of us see the nuclear family model as a patriarchal, oppressive social institution. But family ties are arguably the closest we have as human beings. The family is politically, socially and emotionally important and relevant.

If the family is mostly conservative territory, it’s because we’ve ceded it to them. We have surrendered much concern for the family as a social unit due to our distaste for the nuclear family. We have thrown the family out with the bath water. Like ‘the nation’, it’s a matter of definition. If the family is defined broadly and inclusively (rather than as the nuclear family), then it should also be important to leftists. We should be deeply interested in advancing the wellbeing and recognition of all types of family, because many types of family are marginalised and stigmatised.

In the next blog I’ll go into the much less agreeable philosophical conservatism. It’s more diverse than you think.

This is the fourth post in a series looking at The Right from a left-wing perspective. The first three can be found here, here, and here

The Wrong Stuff

This is the third post in a series exploring the diversity of right-wing thought from a left-wing perspective. Here are the first and second posts.

‘The Right’ is useful and coherent idea, but it is not actually a real thing. I hate to go all jargon-y on you, but conceptions of The Right vary across time and space. It is a construct made up of a diverse people, groups, institutions, and traditions of thought.

The term ‘right-wing’ dates back to the French Revolution, when it referred to the seating arrangements in the Estates-General, a French legislative body from before the revolution. The representatives seated to the right supported meritocracy and private ownership (mostly for French men), and valued authority, order, hierarchy and duty (as men are often wont to do). Since then, the label of The Right has been self-selected by some, and imposed on many. Those who sat to the left had everything they owned in a box to the left.

The 21st century New Zealand Right is different to 20th century Japanese Right is different to the 19th century French Right. There isn’t a single ‘Right’. We should really be talking about rights, not ‘The Right’.’ But, the construct is important and widely believed, so we can discuss it as if it’s real. Typical leftie, right? You can always count on a leftist for a jargon-y prose style.

A guy named F. G. Castles wrote a well-received article on the nature of The Right and The Left, where he argued The Right is constructed on an ad hoc basis by elites (journalists, politicians, and academics), perhaps in conjunction with surveys. He makes a good point, but I would go further and add that the labelling of elites wouldn’t stick without acceptance from right-wing masses, and that both groups draw on a diverse tradition of right-wing thought. Either way, it’s entirely subjective.

In my mind, The Right as a political construct has three main elements:

  • Right-wing Voters. Members of the voting public who self-identify as right-wing/centre-right. They empower the political right with their support. They shape and are shaped by the political right. They are minimally politically active and not actively affiliated with right-wing political organisations.
  • The Political Right. These are politically active individuals, groups, and institutions that self-identify as right-wing/centre-right. This includes political elites, political activists, and political organisations. The political right shapes, and is shaped, by right-wing voters.
  • Right-wing Thought. Schools of thought and values advocated by, or associated with, the political right/centre-right. These inform, and are informed, by right-wing voters and the political right.

This blog is mostly going to look at rightwing thought, as it has the most potential to be manipulated and exploited for left-wing purposes. Right-wing thought can be broken into a few main traditions: Traditionalist conservatism, New Right conservatism, Libertarianism, and arguably Fascism.

Right-wing thought is also home to some values, concerns, and policies that are frequently (but not exclusively) associated with The Right. These include: nationalism, aggressive foreign policy, free market economic policies, and religiously-derived social views (eg. on the family, gender roles, and sexual behaviour/identity).

While there is a lot of difference and knife-fighting within the main tribes on The Right, there are a few common concerns that bind them together. Almost all parts of The Right share a belief that certain forms of inequality/hierarchy (be they economic, social, political, or divine) are natural, good and/or best. Many forms of right-wing thought are skeptical towards intellectualism in general, and postmodernism in particular.

When it comes to achieving economic and social policy goals, The Right can take a conservative approach (let’s protect the status quo), a reactionary approach (let’s go back to an older, better status quo), or a radical approach (let’s create a new, better status quo).

We could go into a LOT of detail here, but that’ll do. In the next post I’ll go into right-wing thought in more detail, especially Conservatism. If you approach these ideas with an open mind, you can see that they can make a lot of sense and even be quite elegant…. while still being seriously flawed in practice.

But why bother to learn about right-wing thought and The Right in general? Because, I repeat, KNOW YOUR ENEMY. Once you know its internal tensions and structural weaknesses, you can refute them more easily or, even better, turn them against themselves.


  • Heywood, A. (2007). Political Ideologies. A classic introduction.
  • Castles, F. G. (1984). Left-Right Scales: Some ‘Expert’ Judgements. Google it.
  • Proper citation can go to hell.
I could have gone with the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this seemed more appropriate

Useful idiocy: The concepts of Left and Right

If politics is the interaction of people and power, and if power is worth having, then politics will tend towards division. For and against. Friends and enemies. Right and wrong. But perhaps more than any other, Left and Right.

But this division makes sense, right? The ideas of Left and Right make it easier to understand political complexity. This division is fine, as long as we remember that Left and Right are total constructs. Useful constructs, but constructs nonetheless.

Politics is a range of people/groups/institutions having a range of opinions, on a range of issues, for a range of reasons. Politics is made of nationalists, libertarians, liberals, socialists, conservatives, queer activists, multiculturalists, ecologists, feminists, religious zealots, communitarians and, above all, people who don’t give a shit about politics. Throw in human stupidity and the randomness of life, and you have something too complex to grasp. So we shoe-horn it all into Left and Right.

This is understandable. The pursuit of power (or resistance to power, which is itself a form of pursuit) requires conflict, and effective conflict requires strength. But how do we get political strength? By drawing in the power of others and forming a bloc. If we want to appear formidable, we need to make ourselves into a monolith.

I could have gone with the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this seemed more appropriate

I could have gone with the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this seemed more appropriate

In creating these monoliths, we paper over rich intellectual difference and create a simple Left-Right split. This split makes us worse at understanding social and economic complexity, and less decent to other human beings. And the competition between monoliths draws our attention towards conflict for power (politics as sport), rather than effective use of power (policy and governance).

But what’s the alternative? Dismantle our monolith and divide, while the other teams stays united and strong? Is it better to be honest and weak, or false and strong?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against using Left and Right. I care about the Left. ‘The Left’ is a great organising principle. There are people who think like me, and I want them to have power (because I think I am right about everything). I see enough overlap with other strategic groups to form a bloc. Together, we can get shit done. Left and Right may be wrong and stupid, but that doesn’t make them irrelevant or useless. ‘The Left’ is very useful idiocy.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Left and Right are incoherent and they make us worse at understanding stuff. But they help us achieve stuff, especially if we understand what they are. We can and should can unite as a bloc to achieve our shared goals. But we should also understand the other bloc, so we can learn its strengths and weaknesses, and know what to exploit.

Now it seems appropriate. Behold, the monolith. It bestows knowledge, which we will use to vanquish enemies with bones

Now it seems appropriate. Behold, the monolith. It bestows knowledge, which we will use to hit the other apes with big-ass bones

The problem is that much of the Left doesn’t really understand the Right. In the next few blogs, I’ll outline some core components of the political Right in New Zealand. A lot of this will be self-plagiarised from stuff I did as part of my Masters, so forgive the jargon.

This blog is the second in a series about the Right in New Zealand. The first post is about political cleavage, and can be viewed here.

I stole this from Bryce Edward's blog,

Cleavage. Political cleavage

So. National are going to discuss a Tainui claim for the city of Auckland. Labour don’t like Auckland home-buyers with Chinese-sounding last names. Is it just me, or has the whole ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ thing become a lot more confusing?

The confusion is partly because we’re no longer clear what counts as Left and what counts as Right. In other words, it’s all about cleavage. Political cleavage.

One of the most popular approaches for understanding political complexity is to depict politics as a single left-right spectrum. This spectrum is based on big political differences, or what scholars (with dubious minds) call ‘cleavages’. There are many types of cleavage that can influence the make up of this left-right spectrum, including:

  • Socio-economic class differences (ie rich and poor)
  • National, religious, ethnic or linguistic differences
  • State intervention versus free market economy
  • Socially conservative versus socially liberal
  • Authoritarian versus libertarian government styles
  • Rural versus urban interests
  • Internationalist versus isolationist foreign policy
  • ‘Materialist’ versus ‘post-materialist’ values/concerns (google it)

Political scientists often put two of the above cleavages on an x-axis and a y-axis, rather than a simple left-right spectrum. While these schemes are more useful, journalists and politicians tend to prefer a simple left-right spectrum because it helps us make sense of some complicated stuff. Unfortunately, this leads to often complex and diverse political positions being shoe-horned into either Left and Right. This invites the question: which political cleavage/s make up the Left and Right in New Zealand politics?

I stole this from Bryce Edward's blog,

NZ political landscape in the 2000s. I stole this from Bryce Edward’s blog,

The most historically dominant political cleavage in New Zealand has been state intervention in the economy, particularly social welfare, housing, health and education spending. However, the shift to MMP has increased the importance of socially conservative/liberal cleavage.

Also stolen from Bryce Edwards.

Also stolen from Bryce Edwards.

While these cleavages generally map well to a simple left/right spectrum, there are some big exceptions. In particular, some of social policy in the ACT party would normally be considered left-wing, but the party is typically considered right-wing. Conversely, some of the possibly-racist-but-definitely-conservative social policy in New Zealand First would normally be considered right-wing, but the party is currently (unfortunately) considered left-wing. Doesn’t that make the whole designation of Right and Left a little fishy?

In the next few posts I’ll argue that Left and Right are (understandable) bullshit. I will also go into the language, values and ideas that comprise the bullshit we call ‘The Right’. I’ll then explore how the bullshit we call ‘The Left’ can use right-wing language, values, and ideas to left-wing ends.

A lot of this is lifted from work I did as part of my Masters at Victoria University, including the stuff in this post. If you want to know where I got all this from, hit me up in the comments or on twitter at @aaronincognito. I don’t want to do footnotes or in-text citation in a blog because it’s ugly.

And I’ll definitely connect previously-written posts to topical events in a similarly ham-fisted manner.

Tips for bringing people over to the Left

If you’re a regular to my blog or my twitter, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been a bit quiet. I swore I wouldn’t blog until my Masters was done, but the following came to me in a dream, so I wrote it down in a half-asleep frenzy. It’s a little rough and makes me sound like a massive know-it-all, but that’s how it arrived. Hopefully it makes sense.

Tips for bringing people over to the Left

  • Work within your networks.
    • People are more amenable to arguments when they are delivered by friends and family. Anonymous Youtube commenters, less so. Resist the temptation to shut yourself away in a leftist echo chamber. Politely inject yourself in non-politicised spaces.
  • It’s not about you.
    • I know it feels good to express your anger and publicly perform your leftism, but it’s not about you. It’s about promoting the values and goals of the Left by reaching consensus (with them doing most of the giving without realising it), rather than winning isolated arguments.
    • When it comes to changing minds, it’s better to look at their intentions instead of your feelings. Sure, you’re offended, but did they mean to offend you? If not, don’t get all caught up in how special and important your feelings are.
  • Assess your audience.
    • How amenable is your target audience is to your message? Some people are not easily convinced. Trying to convince these people is poor use of your time.
    • Understand the values and concerns of your target audience. View them as people with human concerns, and resist the urge to see them as the embodiment of a particular privilege/ideology.
  • Assess their values and concerns.
    • Which values, principles, experiences etc underpin their position? Engage with these on their own terms instead of dismissing or ignoring them.
    • Assess the strength of these underpinnings. How easily are they rebutted? There are plenty of good arguments available if you do a quick google.
  • Assess your arguments.
    • Take a good hard look at your argument. What are its weaknesses? Unless you are strikingly original, you’re probably not using your own arguments. The weaknesses of these will have been pointed out somewhere. Anticipate these responses. Warning: this will require listening to/respecting the views of people who you disagree with.
  • Use an approach that fits your audience.
    • Use tone and language that fit your audience. Speak to them on their terms, rather than throwing around your favourite lefty words. I’m looking at you, kyriarchy.
    • Appeal to their concerns and values, if possible. Many everyday concerns and values can be argued for from a left wing perspective. With a little research and creativity, right wing language and values can be directed towards left wing ends. In particular, Christianity can be used to argue for pretty much anything.
    • Give the appearance of debating in good faith. If they make a good point, acknowledge it. That way it will feel like a discussion, not a sermon.
    • Be charitable when interpreting their words. Ignore the occasional problematic statement. Be compassionate and understanding. Look to their intent, instead of jumping on their phrasing.
  • Use the power of conformity.
    • Most people use a two-step process to reach an opinion. First, people encounter/form a view. Second, they test it on their peers. If the testing goes well, the view is strengthened. If possible, find out where your target audience peer-tests their views.
    • Can you infiltrate these domains and influence the peer-testing? Social media a great place for this (especially facebook) but so are family barbeques and chats at work. People will often agree to avoid an argument. This can help legitimise views and win over people on the margins.
  • Employ wedge issues and valence issues.
    • Wedge issues: drive a wedge between them and the far Right. Tactically misrepresent right wing positions and people to draw your target audience closer to the Left. At the same time, don’t be afraid to be wedged away from the far Left. It’s all about appearing reasonable.
    • Valence issues: use these as much as possible, especially in the form of plain English intuitive truisms like ‘I’m just don’t want kids going to school hungry’.
  • Isolate partisans from the discussion, especially those on your side. They turn a discussion into a battle and make your position seem more combative than it needs to be.

What are your thoughts?

Are we ending hate, or just silencing it?

Is progressive politics ending prejudice, or just shutting down its outlets? Lately I’ve come to suspect the latter. And I’m totally ok with that. It means the next generations are raised in a society that (outwardly) frowns on public bigotry. Of course, that doesn’t stop it at the dinner table, but it’s progress nonetheless. But I don’t think silencing prejudice is enough. Doing so turns prejudice into a game of don’t-get-caught-saying-what-you-really-think.

I’m starting to believe we need to address prejudice at the root rather than the branch, and that this requires a different approach: changing the minds of bigots. I believe silencing prejudice is ethically right, but is it tactically sufficient? I’m not sure. I don’t want an endless game of whack-a-bigot. I want to convert bigots, not bash them.

I don’t think ending hate is purely an ideological, structural or discursive issue. I think it’s also a human/interpersonal issue. In other words, I think ending hate comes from helping a bigot understand the radical humanity of their ‘Other‘. I’m talking about empathy.

I think prejudice is uprooted by making bigots think ‘oh, [group x] aren’t so bad’. I look back on my own personal growth and my successes at getting through to people, and I think more people were convinced by meeting/hearing the story of their Other than by ethical arguments.

I believe art and human interaction are crucial here. Good art (especially film/television) has the power to circumvent prejudice and make bigots empathise with their Other. Good stories draw us in and help us relate to a character. Our identity markers fall away, we move beyond our self and into the world of another/an Other. Good art can open minds and change opinions, and it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than a 100 minute lecture on the analytical value of the many lenses in intersectional feminism. Watching Slumdog Millionaire with your racist uncle may not sound very radical, but I bet it’s more effective than arguments on Christmas Day.

I think our role as leftists is to facilitate these experiences by promoting the art, voices, and experiences of non-white/straight/able/cis/men. But to do so we have to step out of our echo chambers and engage with our Other. And who is our Other? Bigots.

I know this sounds like being extra-nice to abusers instead of survivors. Is this fair or right? No. Is it effective? In my experience, yes. Sometimes what’s right and what’s best are different things. I know this sounds like a shitty project. But I think we can win by being better people, and by being better to shitty people -not because it’s ‘right’, but because it is effective.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we should round them all up and send them to Siberia. Who knows? Not me, I’m still working this stuff out. What do you think?