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.

Screenshot 2015-08-30 11.55.01

“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.

References

  • 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.

Looks like it’s up to you, Green Party

Dear Green Party of Aotearoa/New Zealand,

Labour seem so hopelessly inept and lost that I have basically lost hope in them winning the election. So now it’s up to you. Ideally Labour would be the centre-left pragmatists and you would be the principled left flank, but desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s now up to you to bring blue votes over to the left, since Labour seems neither willing nor able to do so. Here are a few suggestions. I did postgrad research on the specifically conservative appeal of green politics, so I am not a complete idiot on the subject.

1- You have a surprising amount of support. Build on it.
Here’s some of the findings of my research. All data comes from the New Zealand Election Study.
Firstly, 23.7% of people who are more conservative than the national mean care more about the environment than the economy. That’s some rich pickings.

Table 1: Conservatism and levels of environmentally concern.

Less conservative More conservative
Values environment>income

35.50%

23.70%

Values environment=income

28.00%

29.10%

Values environment<income

36.50%

47.20%

Total Percentage

100.00%

100.00%

You also have a lot of goodwill from supporters of other parties (except ACT and United Future)

Table 2. Support for the Greens from supporters of other parties.

Political Party Neutral ‘Like’ to ‘Strongly Like’ Total
National Party 24.6% 25.9% 50.5%
New Zealand First 19.2% 34.6% 53.8%
The Māori Party 33.3% 38.1% 71.4%
United Future 33.3% 8.3% 42.1%
Conservative Party 13.3% 21.1% 34.4%
ACT New Zealand 10.5% 10.5% 21.0%
Labour New Zealand 21.4% 53.1% 74.5%

2- Promote ‘valence’ issues
Great job on the 2011 election. You went with Jobs, Rivers and Kids as your campaign issues, and they worked a treat. Good call on going with ‘valence’ issues. For those that don’t know, valence issues are those issues that have overwhelming support, but when raised imply the other team opposes them. For example, no one is against jobs, rivers or kids. But by advancing them as an election issue, you suggested that National opposed them. Smart. Perhaps this year could be- ‘Cheaper and cleaner power. Oil-free beaches. A fair go for Kiwis. Keep New Zealand beautiful, party vote Green’.

3- Embrace your conservative streak
Green philosophy in general, and the Green Party specifically, have always had a conservative (conservationist?) streak. By that I mean ‘little c’ conservative, not ‘Conservatism’- although both share the same impulse to preserve.  This was really prominent back in 2005, when the Greens ran their anti-GE campaign, and we’re seeing it again with anti-offshore drilling and anti-climate change campaigns. While these issues are serious, a big part of their popular appeal stems from a ‘change is bad, things might go wrong, let’s stay the same’ attitude. This attitude is called ‘the conservative disposition’, and is at the heart of Conservatism. Admittedly, this disposition manifests in other arenas for the true conservative, but it exists nonetheless in Green thought. So make use of the fear of change! Climate change kills native birds! Changing our economy to dairy destroys rivers! Offshore drilling jeopardises family campgrounds! Change is bad, party vote Green.

4- ‘The Land’ has nationalist and conservative appeal
Did you know Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s most conservationist PM of the last 30 years? That’s because few things evoke patriotism more than ‘The Land’, and the national animals that dwell in it. Even Newt Gingrich, Colin Craig and Peter Dunne have a green streak when it comes to local conservation. But it must be local- the green-leaning conservative is not concerned with climate refugees and failed harvests in the Sahel. That’s why rivers were such a great call. Rivers are where you take your family camping, they are where your kids swim, they are where you catch your dinner. You’re doing well talking about beaches- they are also repositories of family values and have similarly conservative appeal. So focus on green issues that play out at the local level, especially near where people were able to go with their families, back in ‘the good old days’ (remember when kids were healthy and rivers were clean? At the coming election, party vote Green).

5- Dog whistle politics
Getting rid of Sue Bradford and Nandor Tanczos was smart when it comes to appealing to the centre. They made great changes (anti-smacking and clean slate), but were poison to middle New Zealand. While they may be gone, your base is still very firmly anchored to the left of Labour. This can be a problem when you’re trying to appeal to middle class trampers and anglers. So you can either gag your base (not ideal), or you can get better at dog-whistling. Dog whistling, for those who don’t know, is when you say something that means one thing to a general audience, and another to your target audience. I think ‘a fair go for kiwis’ is a good example of this- it sounds nice and patriotic to some, but the base knows that it means pro-poor policy.

Regardless of whether you choose to gag your base of get a dog whistle, keeping it nice and simple (or ‘high level’ if you prefer) is key. Explaining is losing, and easy comprehension is king. Your base is aware that solid progressive thinking underpins your policy, so why state it explicitly in national media? All middle New Zealand needs are nice clear valence issues- cheaper power, oil-free beaches, and a fair go for all kiwis. Cis-privilege and genderqueer issues can be discussed at branch meetings, or in the fine print on the website, which middle New Zealand won’t visit anyway.

That’s all for now. I’ll have more to say throughout the year.

7 things that Greens and Conservatives have in common

I’m currently doing research on the overlaps between Green thought and conservatism, and how such overlaps are evident in the 2011 election policies of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. Below is an excerpt from my dissertation. I’m chiefly concerned with ‘traditional’ paternalist conservatism here (not the more market-friendly ‘New Right’ conservatism), but for the sake of brevity I use the term ‘conservatism’. Also, I’m mostly concerned with environmentalist green thought (rather than more the radical ecologist thought), but for brevity I use the term ‘green thought’.

blue and green seem far apart, but they can fit together well

blue and green seem far apart, but they can fit together well

The words ‘conservative’ and ‘conservationist’ share a common etymological root- ‘conservare’, which means to “keep watch or maintain”. The two schools of thought share a fundamental desire to conserve that plays out in different arenas. While this impulse is largely restricted to environmental issues in green thought, and social and political arenas in conservatism, a surprising amount of agreement exists. Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has even gone as far as saying the two are “aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources”.[2] Political theorist Bruce Pilbeam detailed these overlaps in his article Natural Allies? Mapping the Relationship between Conservatism and Environmentalism. These include; respect for natural limits, scepticism of the supremacy of industrialisation, scepticism of unfettered capitalism, the belief that nature holds a moral value that can trump material values, preference for community over individualism, the belief that authority and regulation are necessary, and concern for (and obligation to) future generations.[3] This post addresses each of these briefly.

Firstly, Pilbeam argues the most obvious overlap is a shared fundamental desire to conserve and respect natural limits. In green thought this manifests as the ‘precautionary principle’, which effectively argues it is better to err on the side of caution in questions of environmental degradation.[4] In conservatism, this manifests as an appreciation of natural limits and the belief that the results of going beyond such limits are not fully knowable.[5]

Secondly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share a marked scepticism of industrialisation and unfettered technological progress. In the case of green thought, Pilbeam draws on the work of Jonathon Porritt, who has argued that “the super-ideology of industrialism”, and not capitalism itself, is the core danger facing the environment.[6] This suspicion is shared by many conservatives, who are often sceptical of the “alienating and dehumanizing effects of industrialization.”[7]

Thirdly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought are, to an extent, sceptical about relatively unfettered capitalism. In green thought this is articulated in ideas of resource finitude and conceptions of a ‘zero-growth’ economy. Indeed, capitalist growth is often taken to be the core mechanism of ecological harm.[8] Similarly, conservatism holds concerns regarding the moral and social harm caused by the unsettling and change required by a dynamic market system. Conservatives often favour a paternalist role for the state in order to mitigate harm and guarantee certain moral goods.[9]

Fourthly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share a belief that nature holds moral value that can trump material values. Green thought and conservatism both disagree with the morality of liberal consumer capitalism, and sections of both schools ascribe a spiritual value to the environment.[10] In the former case, this stems from monist and new age beliefs, while in the latter it stems from a custodial role decreed by God.[11] However, the two schools of thought differ in the scale of their concern, For conservatism, concern is largely local, and often for specific sites, whereas green thought is concerned with both local and global scales.[12]

Fifthly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share a preference for community over individualism. Similar to the overlaps above, this is in part a reaction against liberal individualism.[13] Elements of both schools hold community to be an undervalued political unit, and advocate returning it to prominence.

Sixthly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share the belief that authority and regulation are necessary.[14] Similarly, both schools are sceptical of the neoliberal view of the small state model of self-regulating entrepreneurs, and argue state intervention is required to bring about growth and the ‘good’ life.[15] As such, both conservatism and green thought favour state involvement in the economy in areas concerning moral goods and employment. However, the two schools disagree on the pace and scope of change, with conservatives wary of radical, abrupt change.

Seventhly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share concern for (and obligation to) future generations. Both schools of thought take a “multi-generational” perspective, with green thought concerned with the long-term health of the planet. Similarly, the conservative worldview is often described in Burkean terms as “a partnership … between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”.[16] This similarity is particularly striking considering the two schools’ views on issues relating to the family are generally considered to be different. Green thought is often associated with socially progressive politics, while conservatism distrusts changes to family structure. Despite these fundamental difference, the two schools agree that society has an obligation to future generations.

Other overlaps exist, but those stated are sufficiently illustrative. Perhaps the spirit of these overlaps is best summarised by Scruton, who claims both groups are chiefly concerned with “defend[ing] a shared but threatened legacy from predation by its current trustees.”[17]


[2] Roger Scruton, “Conservatism,” in Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge, ed. Andrew Dobson and Robyn Eckersley (Cambridge: Cambridge Universty Press, 2006), 8.
[3] Bruce Pilbeam, “Natural Allies? Mapping the Relationship Between Conservatism and Environmentalism,” Political Review 51(2003): 493-500.
[4] Ibid., 493.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 494.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 496.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Scruton, “Conservatism.”
[13] Pilbeam, “Natural Allies? Mapping the Relationship Between Conservatism and Environmentalism,” 499.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., 500.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Scruton, “Conservatism,” 13.