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Conservatism Pages 65-82

Conservatism Pages 65-82 - 54 POLITiCAL IDEOLOGIES Further...

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Unformatted text preview: 54 POLITiCAL IDEOLOGIES Further reading Arblaster, A., The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1984). A wide-ranging and very stylish account of liberal doctrines, emphasizng their individualist character. Bellamy, R., Liberalism and Modern Society: An Historical Argument (Cambridge Polity Press, 1992). An analysis of the development of liberalism that focuses on ; the adaptations necessary to apply liberal values to new social realities. Gray, J., Two Faces of Liberalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000). An account of liberalism that emphasizes the divide between its universalist and pluralist forms Gray, J ., Liberalism, 2nd edn (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1995). A sholt and not uncritical introduction to liberalism as the political theory of modernity contains a discussion of postlibcralism. Harvey, D., A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). A concise but comprehensive guide to the nature, origins and implications of neoliberalism, looking at the developing world, including China, as well as the developed world. Holden, 13., Understanding Liberal Democracy, 2nd edn (Hemel Hempstead‘. Harvester Wheatsheaf, i993). An accessible introduction to the concept and " nature of liberal democracy, which looks at criticisms and justifications. Ramsay, M., What's Wrong with Liberalism? A Radical Critique of Liberal Political Philosophy (London: Leicester University Press, 1997). A thoughtful and access sible account of liberal theory and practice from a variety of critical perspectives. 66 POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES Origins and development Conservative ideas arose in reaction to the growing pace of political, socta] and economic change, which, in many ways, was symbolized by the French Revolution. One of the earliest, and perhaps the classic, statement of conser— vative principles is contained in Edmund Burke’s (see p. 70) Reflections on the Revolution in France ([1790] 1968), which deeply regretted the revolu- tionary challenge to the cncien regime that had occurred the previous year. During the nineteenth century, western states were transformed by the pres- sures unleashed by industrialization and reflected in the growth of liberal ism, socialism and nationalism. While these ideologies preached reform, and- at times supported revolution, conservatism stood in defence of an increas- ingly embattled traditional social order. _ Conservative thought has varied considerably as it has adapted itself to existing traditions and national cultures. UK conservatism, for instance, has drawn heavily on the ideas of Burke, who advocated not blind resrstance to change, but rather a prudent willingness to ‘change in order to conserve’. In the nineteenth century, UK conservatives defended a political and social order that had already undergone profound change, in particular the overthrow of the absolute monarchy, as a result of the English Revolution of the seventeenth century. Such pragmatic principles have also influenced the conservative parties established in other Commonwealth countries. The Canadian Conservative Party adopted the title Progressive Conservative prec1sely to distance itself from reactionary ideas. In continental Europe, where some auto cratic monarchies persisted throughout much of the nine- teenth century, a very different and more authoritarian form of conservatism developed, which defended monar- chy and rigid autocratic values against the rising tide of reform. Only, with the formation of Christian democratic thér .- parties after the Second World War did continental conser- ‘lmh . -. . - vatives, notably in Germany and Italy, fully accept politi— " cal democracy and social reform. The USA, on the other hand, has been influenced relatively little by conservative ideas. The US system of government and its political culture reflect deeply established liberal and progressive values, and politicians of both major parties — the Republicans and the Democrats u have traditionally resented being labelled <conservative . It is only since the 1960s that overtly conservative views have been expressed by elements within both parties, notably by southern Democrats and the Wing of the Republican party that was associated in the 19603 With Barry Goldwater, and which supported Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and later George W. Bush. As conservative ideology arose in reaction against the French Revolution and the process of modernization in the West, it is less easy to identify polit— Authoritariani'srn: A bel' n ' CON SERVATISM 67 ical conservatism outside Europe and North America. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, political movements have developed that sought to resist change and preserve traditional ways of life, but they have seldom employed specifically conservative arguments and values. An exception to this is perhaps the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated poli- tics in Japan since £955. The LDP has close links with business interests and is committed to promoting a healthy private sector. At the same time, it has attempted to preserve traditional Japanese values and customs, and has therefore supported distinctively conservative principles such as loyalty, duty and hierarchy. In other countries, conservatism has exhibited a populist—authoritarian character. Perdn in Argentina and Khomeini (see p. 298) in Iran, for instance, both established regimes based on strong central authority, but which also mobilized mass popular support on issues such as nationalism, economic progress and the defence of traditional values. Although conservatism is the most intellectually modest of political ideologies, it has also been remarkably resilient, perhaps because of this fact. Conservatism has prospered because it has been unwilling to be tied down to a fixed system of ideas. A significant revival of conservative fortunes has, in fact, been evident since the 19708, gaining impetus from growing concerns about the welfare state and economic management. Particularly prominent in this respect were the Thatcher government in the UK (1979—90) and the Reagan administration in the USA (1981—89), both of Newnghe - which practised an unusually radical and ideological brand of conservatism, commonly termed the ‘new right’. New right ideas have drawn heavily on free- market economies and, in so doing, have exposed deep divisions within conservatism. Indeed, commentators argue that ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘Reaganism‘, and the new right project in general, do not properly belong within conservative ideology at all, so deeply are they influenced by classical liberal economics. The new right has challenged traditional conservative an authoritar nism. . economic views, but it nevertheless remains part of conservative ideology. In the first place, it has not abandoned traditional conservative social princir - ples such as a belief in order, authority and discipline, and in some respects - it has strengthened them. Furthermore, the new right’s enthusiasm for the free market has exposed the extent to which conservatism had already been influenced by liberal ideas. As with all political ideologies, conservatism contains a range of traditions. in the nineteenth century, it was closely asso- ciated with an authoritarian defence of monarchy and aristocracy, which has survived in the form of authoritarian populist movements in the developing world. In the twentieth century, western conservatives were divided between paternalistic support for state intervention and a libertarian commitment to 68 POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES the free market. The significance of the new right is that it sought to revive the electoral fortunes of conservatism by readjusting the balance between these traditions in favour of libertarianism (see p. 86). However, in so doing, it brought such deep ideological tensions to the surface that it may have threatened the very survival of conservatism. Core themes - the desire to conserve The character of conservative ideology has been the source of particular argument and debate. For example, it is often suggested that conservatives have a clearer understanding of what they oppose than of what they favour. In that sense, conservatism has been portrayed as a negative philosophy, its purpose being simply to preach resistance to, or at least suspicion of, change. However, if conservatism were to consist of no more than a knee- jerk defence of the status quo, it would be merely a political attitude rather than an ideology. In fact, many people or groups can be considered ‘conser- vative’ in the sense that they resist change, but certainly cannot be said to subscribe to a conservative political creed. For instance, socialists who campaign in defence of the welfare state or nationalized industries could be classified as conservative in terms of their actions, but certainly not in terms of their political principles. The desire to resist change may be the recurrent theme within conservatism, but what distinguishes conservatives from supporters of rival political creeds is the distinctive way they uphold this position. A second problem is that to describe conservatism as an ideology is to risk irritating conservatives themselves. They have often preferred to describe their beliefs as an ‘attitude of mind’ or ‘common sense’, as opposed to an ‘ism’ or ideology. Others have argued that what is distinctive about conser- vatism is its emphasis on history and experience, and its distaste for rational thought. Conservatives have thus typically eschewed the ‘politics of princi- ple’ and adopted instead a traditionalist political stance. Their opponents have also lighted upon this feature of conservatism, sometimes portraying it as little more than an unprincipled apology for the interests of a ruling class or elite. However, both conservatives and their critics ignore the weight and range of theories that underpin conservative ‘common sense’. Conservatism is neither simple pragmatism nor mere opportunism. It is founded on a particular set of political beliefs about human beings, the societies they live in, and the importance of a distinctive set of political values. As such, like liberalism and socialism, it should rightfully be described as an ideology. The most significant of its central beliefs are the following: CONSERVATISM 69 tradition human imperfection organic society hierarchy and authority property ' Tradition Conservatives have argued against change on a number of grounds. A central and recurrent theme of conservatism is its defence of tradition. Tradition refers to values, practices and institutions that have endured through time and, in particular, been passed down from one generation to the next. For some conservatives, this emphasis on tradition reflects their religious faith. If the world is thought to have been fashioned by God the Creator, tradi— tional customs and practices in society will be regarded as ‘God given’. Burke thus believed that society was shaped by ‘the law of our Creator’, or what he also called “natural law’. If human beings tamper with the world, they are challenging the will of God, and as a result they are likely to make human affairs worse rather than better. Since the eighteenth century, however, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain that tradition reflects the will of God. As the pace of historical change accelerated, old traditions were replaced by new ones, and these new ones — for example, free elections and universal suffrage — were clearly seen to be manemade rather than in any sense ‘God given’. Nevertheless, the reli- gious objection to change has been kept alive by modern fundamentalists, who believe that God’s wishes have been revealed to humankind in the literal truth of their religious texts. Such ideas are discussed in Chapter 10. Mpst conservatives, however, support tradition without needing to argue that 1t has divine origins. Burke, for example, described society as a part- nership between ‘those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born. G. K, Chesterton (1874L1936), the UK novelist and essay- ist, expressed this idea as follows: Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors. It is a democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around (see O’Sullivan, 1976). Tradition, in this sense, reflects the accumulated wisdom of the past. The 1nstitutions and practices of the past have been ‘tested by time’, and should 70 POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES Edmund Burke (1729—97) Dublin-born British statesmen and politicai theorist, often seen as the father of the Anglo-American conservative tradition. A Whig politician, Burke was sympathetic towards the American Revolution of 1776 but earned his reputation through the staunch criticism of the 1789 French Revolution that he presented in Reflections on the Revoiution in 'France {1790). therefore be preserved for the benefit of the living and for generations to come. This notion of tradition reflects an almost Darwinian belief that those institutions and customs that have survived have only done so because they have worked and been found to be of value. They have been endorsed by a process of ‘natural selection’ and demonstrated their fitness to survive. Conservatives in the UK, for instance, argue that the institution of mOnar- chy should be preserved because it embodies historical wisdom and expe— rience. In particular, the crowna has provided the UK With a focus of national loyalty and respect ‘above’ party politics; quite Sll'l'lply, it has worked. _ . Conservatives also venerate tradition because it generates, for both secrety and the individual, a sense of identity. Established customs and practices are ones that individuals can recognize; they are familiar and reassuring. Tradition thus provides people with a feeling of ‘rootedness’ and belonging, which is all the stronger because it is historically based. It generates social cohesion by linking people to the past and providing them with a collective sense of who they are. Change, on the other hand, is a journey into the unknown: it creates uncertainty and insecurity, and so endangers our happi- ness. Tradition, therefore, consists of rather more than political institutions that have stood the test of time. It encompasses all those customs and socral CONSERVATISM N practices that are familiar and generate security and belonging, ranging from the judiciary’s insistence on wearing traditional robes and wigs to campaigns _to preserve, for example, the traditional colour of letter boxes or telephone boxes. ,l—iuman imperfection In many ways, conservatism is a ‘philosophy of human imperfection’ (O’Sullivan, 1976). Other ideologies assume that human beings are naturally ‘good’, or that they can be made ‘good’ if their social circumstances are .improved. In their most extreme form, such beliefs are utopian and envisage the perfectibility of humankind in an ideal society. Conservatives dismiss these ideas as, at best, idealistic dreams, and argue instead that human beings are both imperfect and unperfectible. Human imperfection is understood in several ways. In the first place, human beings are thought to be psychologically limited and dependent crea- tures. In the view of conservatives, people feat isolation and instability. They .are drawn psychologically to the safe and the familiar, and, above all, seek the security of knowing ‘their place’. Such a portrait of human nature is very different from the image of the self-reliant, enterprising, “utility maximizer’ proposed by early liberals. The belief that individuals desire security and belonging has led conservatives to emphasize the importance of social order, and to be suspicious of the attractions of liberty. Order ensures that human life is stable and predictable; it provides security in an uncertain world. Liberty, on he other hand, presents individuals with choices and can gener- ate change and uncertainty. Conservatives have often echoed the views of Thomas Hobbes in being prepared to sacrifice liberty in the cause of social order. ' Whereas other political philosophies trace the origins of immoral or crime inal behaviour to society, conservatives believe it is rooted in the individual. Human beings are thought to be morally imperfect. Conservatives hold a pessimistic, even Hobbesian, view of human nature. Humankind is innately selfish and greedy, anything but perfectible; as Hobbes put it, the desire for ‘power after power’ is the primary human urge. Some conservatives explain this by reference to the Old Testament doctrine of ‘original sin’. Crime is therefore not a product of inequality or social disadvantage, as socialists and modern liberals tend to believe; rather, it is a consequence of base human instincts and appentes. People can only be persuaded to behave in a civilized fashion if they are deterred from expressing their violent and anti-social impulses. And the only effective deterrent is law, backed up by the knowl- edge that it will be strictly enforced. This explains the consarvative prefer— 72 POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES Thomas Hobbes 1588—1679) English political philosopher. Hobbes - the son of a minor clergyman who subsequently abandoned his family — became tutor to the exiled Prince of Wales. Charles Stuart. and lived under the patronage of the Cavendish family. Writing at a time of uncertainty and civil strife. precipitated by the English Revolution, Hobbes was the-first since Aristotle .to develop a comprehensive theory of nature and human behaviour. ' once for strong government and for ‘tough’ criminal justice regimes, based, often, on long prison sentences and the use of corporal or even capita‘, punishment. For conservatives, the role of law is not to uphold liberty, but to preserve order. The concepts of ‘law’ and ‘order’ are so closely related in the conservative mind that they have almost become a single, fused concep" Humankind’s intellectual powers are also thought to be limited. As discussed in Chapter 1, conservatives have traditionally believe that the: world is simply too complicated for human reason to grasp fully. The polit- ical world, as the UK political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901—90) put it, is ‘boundless and bottomless’. Conservatives are therefore suspicious of abstract ideas and systems of thought that claim to understand what is, they argue, simply incomprehensible. They prefer to ground their ideas in tradition, experience and history, adopting a cautious, moderate and above all pragmatic approach to the world, and avoiding, if at all possible, doctri naire or dogmatic beliefs; Highasounding political principles such as the ‘rights of man’, ‘e ' 7' ' ' ' because they provide a blueprint for the reform or remodelling of the world Reform and revolution, conservatives warn, often lead to ' __ rather than less. For a conservative, to do nothing may be preferable to doin something, and a conservative will always wish to ensure, in Oakeshott‘ words said, that ‘the cure is not worse than the disease’. Nevertheless conservative support for both traditionalism and pragmatism has weakens as a result of the rise of the new right. In the first place, the new right 1 CONSERVATISM 73 f innate qualities intrinsic to the indi- or historical conditioning. Humans are but they are also governed by reason ' ularly through education. hpm n beings are essantially limited and '_ n, the familiar, the tried and tested. al‘corruption is implicit in each human indi- es 3 form of self-seeking individualism. . ' ‘ : mans as essentially social creatures their ca ' ' _ ’ , . pacaties zpeittgehalvgnur being sh pad more by nurture than by nature, and particularly by that tere a our. Their propensity for cooperation, sociability and rationality means prospects for human development and personal growth are considerable A . . . IIAIICI'IIS...
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