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.


  • 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.

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.

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, liberation.typepad.com

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

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.

10 Reasons why the Right is also in crisis.

The election of Tony Abbott has led to a lot of crowing from my right-wing friends about a ‘tory takeover’. But I think they’re wrong. While, electorally, the right is doing okay, I think there are some serious problems below the surface. I believe the right is also in crisis, and we should stop all our forlorn navel-gazing and talk about it.

I know what you’re thinking- “What? No. The LEFT is in crisis. Death of socialism, no alternative, et cetera”. True, the left may be in a crisis of sorts, but I think it’s a different kind of crisis, a healthier crisis than that of the right. But more on that another day.

The right no longer stands for much (Julia Gillard referred to this in her recent piece in the guardian). Oh sure, it claims to stand for something, but these claims are weak. Much of this weakness stems from the events of the first decade of the 21st century, namely the (failure of the) war on terror, the global financial crisis, and the relative decline of social conservatism. Now, I’m not saying that the right is powerless; clearly it’s not. But public perception on some of the right’s core ideas is shifting, and the right itself doesn’t seem to have much to say about it.

But firstly- ‘The Right’ never existed.
Like ‘the Left’, ‘The Right’ doesn’t really exist. It’s a combination of diverse groups with diverse interests. These groups differ on all the main issues; intervening in markets, the place of morality, the relevance of religion, the necessity of war, and the importance of the nation. But since these concerns often overlap, people call this group ‘The Right’, and assume it’s a whole, even though it contains Christian conservative sexagenarians, coked-up capitalist libertarians, and neo-nazi nationalists. But hey, people believe and perpetuate the myth, and in doing so they make it relevant.

1.    Truly free-markets are a terrible, terrible idea.
Let’s start with the most obvious. The legitimacy of free market capitalism is in tatters, and not just with the usual rabble either. Rightly or wrongly, many people believe the global financial crisis was caused by reckless bankers, and that we need government regulation to control them. This deals a serious blow to the right’s supposed superior knowledge of the economy.

2.    The ideal of the small state is dead.
This was once a pillar of the right- that governments only cause problems economically, and that they inevitably overreach and intrude on freedom. Well, PRISM, NSA and the GCSB have dealt serious damage to that. Big government is back with a vengeance and a high speed internet connection.

3.    “Austerity- a popular and effective policy” (Tui Billboard, 2013).
The old ‘government budget is like a family budget’ line has turned out truer than the right would like. Because when your family is running up debt, you DON’T starve the children to balance your budget. You keep borrowing, keep buying the essentials, and try to figure out a way to get more income. Experiments with austerity have not been famously effective in southern Europe, to put it mildly. Also, it turns out democracy gives the people a say on government (somewhat), and austerity isn’t super popular.

4.    Who is socially conservative these days?
Remember the outrage at the smacking ban? You’re one of a few that do. Remember the outrage at marriage equality? What outrage? And what about the perennial claim that the media is corrupting the minds of our children? It’s just as likely to come from liberals or feminists these days. Nobody laments the rise of divorce rates, or the decline of the nuclear family. Social conservatism just doesn’t hold the sway it used to over the political centre.

5.    When was the last time you went to church?
Need I say more? Chances are that if you’re reading this and you went to church recently, you probably went to a youth church with a cool non-denominational name like Arise or Huge or Radness. The Western right used to be all about good Christian morality. Try getting elected on THAT platform nowadays (I’m looking at you, Colin Craig). A lot of people just don’t trust religion, or super religious people.

6.    Tradition isn’t cool.
Well, western tradition anyway. When was the last time anyone ran a political campaign promoting tradition? Seriously, let me know, because I can’t remember. Tradition is not something we celebrate that much anymore, partly because the idea of tradition is tied up with all sorts of uncool things, like women in the kitchen, non-straight folk in the closet, and brown people absent entirely.

7.    ‘The West is white’ idea is on the way out.
Immigration and multiculturalism- curse of the conservative, enemy of the amateur blogger, anathema of the (insert anything alliterative). Bloggers call them both failures, but as far as failures go, they’re spectacularly resilient. The idea that ‘the West is  white’ is on the way out. That’s not to say that white culture isn’t the dominant culture in the West; it is. But the idea that it should be the only culture in the West (and that immigrants should assimilate) doesn’t fly. Immigration is now considered legitimate, even beneficial, policy.

8.    Militarism- an epic and costly fail.
You can blame Bush for this one. The Iraq war was/is an enormous clusterfuck built on lies, and has made things worse in pretty much every way. As a result, a lot of people have lost the ’this will not stand!’ attitude. Nowadays, things stand. A strong defence and ‘not taking any guff’ used to be a pillar of the right, but not anymore. Now it’s more a case of ‘leave the brown people to their problems, we’re not getting involved’.

9.    Nationalism is cringe-worthy.
Winston still gets a lot of votes from this, and lately the Greens and Labour have started playing it up a bit, but at least they make the effort to call it ‘giving kiwis a fair go’. And it still comes across terribly. It sounds awful to tell your taxi driver that he can’t live amongst us, as we do.

10.  There are no more reds underneath our beds (or terrorists on our trains).
Let’s be honest- nobody is scared of communism anymore. This has undercut the right’s claim to protect us from the red bogeymen, bogeywomen and non-cis-gendered bogeypeople. Terrorists briefly filled that gap but, thank god, the rhetoric from the media and governments has been dialed down since about Obama took office. When was the last time we heard the phrase ‘War on Terror’?

There you have it. The right is in crisis.