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.
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’.
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.