Interview: Machine Man
Unions: Testing Times
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Unions: Badge of Honour
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History: The Honeypot
Review: Death And The Barbarians
Poetry: Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
The Mouse That Roars
Justice For Victims Denied
Labor Council of NSW
Rethinking Left and Right Part 1
All successful movements for social change are underpinned by strong political ideas. If there was ever any doubt about this, the triumph of the New Right in the 1980s demonstrated this again. The Left of politics, however, is floundering. The American academic, Russell Jacoby describes the problem forcefully: 'Once upon a time leftists acted as if they could fundamentally re-organize society. Intellectually the belief fed off a utopian vision of a different society; psychologically, it rested on self-confidence about one's place in history; politically it depended on real prospects. Today the vision has faltered ... Almost everywhere the Left contracts, not simply politically but, perhaps more decisively, intellectually.' The idea of socialism, even though it has been defined historically in an elastic way, is now not even part of the vision of one part of the modern Left, the cultural left.
In this paper I want to argue that we are experiencing an historic shift in one of the key ideas concerning political philosophy that has underlain societies like Britain and Australia for more than 150 years - the idea that politics can be largely defined by a spectrum of Right and Left. In this notion, the Right is defined as conservative and the Left as socialist. This change has major implications for those whose allegiances are on the Left. It requires a major rethinking which goes beyond earlier frameworks expressed in terms such as 'a renewal of socialism' or a 'rethinking of the Left'. The paper argues that what remains after the triumph of neo-liberalism and the collapse of the socialist framework are the values inherent in Left thinking for 150 years. These can be part of a new ethical framework which also draws from aspects of feminism and green politics (and even from some values underlying certain kinds of conservative political philosophy). This paper therefore paints with a broad brush in order to sketch out some issues relevant to such a rethinking. The starting place is the ideological revolution of the Right, associated with its ascendancy in the 1980s and 1990s.
This revolution represented the triumph of the subordinate strand of liberalism over what I call classical conservatism. Hence today more people are referring to economic globalisation as the expression of 'neo-liberalism'. In parties of the Right both liberal and conservative strands were historically intertwined and mutually supportive. Today we are seeing a disentangling of this whose consequences have implications for the Left. (The word conservative is often used so often as a catch-all term of opprobrium. In this paper, however, I draw a sharp distinction between it and neo-liberalism).
From conservatism to neo-liberalism
To carry through a revolution, even an ideological revolution on the Right, requires vision and daring, risk-taking and radicalism. It was this last element, radicalism, which has proved to be the unexpected quality of the free market revolution.
Whereas once it was the socialists and the Left who were the radicals wanting rapid social change, the contemporary radical visionaries who want to overturn the established order are the neo-liberals. Setting in place market mechanisms in almost every aspect of life leads to a society being constantly and relentlessly transformed, a characteristic famously described in that passage by Marx in the Manifesto which describes the earliest consequence of capitalism, 'all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.'
But the radicalism of the neo-liberals has had major consequences for their colleagues in the Old Right as well as the Left. Conservatism looks to tradition and is hostile to change while the new liberalism despises tradition and is a radical force for change. The more far sighted conservatives are beginning to see that free markets corrode old values and the social fabric, as well as economic monopolies.
So while the headline news at the end of the century was 'the death of socialism', the other death -- that of the Old Right-- escaped notice.
The culture of the 24/7 economy, lean and mean, is based on a shrunken moral universe where competitiveness, and self interest rule. It is a society increasingly dominated by commercial values. It is in conflict not only with the Left but with the philosophical conservatives, who base themselves on moral values and a socio-cultural order that increasingly clashes with the New Capitalism. At one end of the spectrum are the ideas expressed by John Gray in his False Dawn. The other extreme is the emergence of a conservative, populist, even racist opposition to globalization evident in a number of countries. To those who use conservatism as a swear word or as a loose catch-all term for the Right, this poses a problem. But the values to which conservatism appeals are significant and examining them is part of rethinking the vision of social democracy and the Left.
The appeal of conservative ideas
Classical conservatism is a odd kind of philosophy for anyone used to the systematic ideologies of Marxism or of liberalism. It is much more a range of attitudes and values. When conservative philosophers like Roger Scruton discuss the foundations of conservatism they talk about a 'conservative attitude' and 'an attachment to values which cannot be understood with the abstract clarity of utopian theory' . The British philosopher Michael Oakeshott talks about a conservative 'disposition,' rather than a theoretical stance. This is because conservatism is a philosophy whose core arose organically from traditional society.
Central to its attitudes are notions of authority both within the family and within the clan or tribe as well as obligations of kinship. It is an outlook borne of a society frequently at war. Loyalty to the group is at a premium and loyalty is repaid through group protection of members. Both at the social and familial level the power of males is central along with heterosexuality. Ideas based on these practices emerged as a political philosophy in response to liberalism 300 years ago. Conservatism explicitly value traditions, institutions and the wisdom of the past . It is skeptical of novelty, experiments and utopian plans. Promises of progress and reform, especially those based on rationalist schemes, are greeted warily. A classic example of this is the recent work of John Gray and his attacks on the rationalist utopia of the neo-liberal globalisers.
While systematic ideologies appeal to the power of reason and logic, conservative ideas are often very powerful because they appeals to deep emotions, instincts, intuition and passion in humans' psyche. Until the rise of the new social movements, especially feminism and the green movement, conservatism largely had a monopoly of politics based on the non-rational, moral, emotional, spiritual side of human beings. These were woven together in a knot made up of patriotism, religion and moral uprightness. In the glory days when conservatism dominated liberalism within the Right, this emotional-moral appeal (rather than its literal 'policies') was one of the secrets of its success.
Given all of this, conservatism has two sides. Its ugliest side can be a virulent nationalism and hatred of foreigners. Its war-like roots predispose it to militarism and the rule of the physically strong. But this is not the whole story. Love of the nation and group loyalty can mean a belief in a common good. This is a belief that because we share something, we all have obligations to each other. It can also mean that it is possible to speak of a legitimate public interest. This was the basis on which classic conservatism sometimes grudgingly supported public health care and public education as well as other public goods. More importantly this acceptance of a common good flies in the face of free market liberalism and individualism of the modern Right. While conservatism was rooted in the nation, the neo-liberals are militant globalisers. Conservative values are part of matrix which gives rise to an ethic of care and nurturing which is antagonistic to 'user pays' schemes of free market economics. This is what Anthony Giddens was getting at when he noted 'What might be called a "philosophical conservatism" - a philosophy of protection, conservation and solidarity - acquires a new relevance for political radicalism today.'
Valuing the family or the clan can mean valuing the deepest possible emotional ties that humans can have, and those which can give us the deepest personal satisfaction: love, as well as friendship and companionship. This may not sound like the word 'conservative!' when used as a swear word, but nevertheless these human needs have historically been mobilized by conservatism through its appeal to 'family values'. There is a strong case that the needs of a neo-liberal economy are undermining and damaging 'family values' and are partly responsible for a growing social crisis. This is the case proposed by several exciting recent books by American feminists.
None of these deeper philosophical trends is of course expressed in simple fashion at the level of political parties or even in individuals, since I am speaking of what Max Weber called an 'ideal-type'. In reality, right wing parties have historically been an inextricable mixture of liberal and conservative philosophies and both were bound strongly together until the 1990s by the potent glue of anti-communism.
The significance of all of this is that some of the values which classical conservatism appealed to among the population at large are being cut adrift from the neo-liberal Right. They are now looking for a home in the world of politics. Disenchanted supporters of classical conservatism are not looking for traditional socialism or for watered down Laborism nor for radical social movements. But some of their desires connect with some of the values of the Left and this fact holds great significance for the direction of social change in a globalized, post-socialist world.
Green ideas and conservatism
I want to illustrate this with an example of what I believe will be one of the key components of a rethinking of social democracy.
Environmental concerns established themselves on the agenda of many countries with a speed and breadth which was striking, receiving support from right , left and the overtly non-political. One of the reasons for the breadth of the movement is that it appeals to traditional conservative values. For those who assume the Green politics are left politics (as many do in Australia) such a statement is a heretical contradiction in terms. But today growing environmental consciousness is one of the most significant places towards which the now unanchored conservative values may converge.
But there are a number of reasons for believing this. First, Green politics have a significant component which involves the conservation of natural and heritage values and indeed its origins lie in what was originally called the conservation movement. It aims to protect the natural world (or in the case of cities, the heritage of the built world) from predatory forces which want radical change and see the existing world as a mere raw material to be exploited. A conservative response to the dynamic of expansion which markets contain, and their tendency to constantly drive a relentless change, is a perfectly valid response and one shared by many, including many leftists. Whatever else they are, concepts such as the sustainability of the biosphere are conservative concepts.
Second, the origins of the green movement were not among trade unions, or socialists, or Left intellectuals. The origins were largely among middle class nature lovers, many of whom were conservative in politics. An eclectic mix of social forces built the early environmental consciousness in different countries. They included hunters, aristocrats, transcendentalists, scientists, and socialists. The Left in Australia, earlier than most, grasped the significance of environmental politics and the 'green bans' of the builders' labourers union were internationally path-breaking.
Third, the Left has historically been based on the organized working class and it struggle for a just share of the capitalism's wealth (while a minority strove to abolish capitalism). Green politics are not based on class and their analyses are not reducible to class. The enemy is not capitalism but relentless expansion of an industrial system aimed at generating products to satisfy a consumerism which, past a certain point, substitutes for other meaning and value in the peoples' lives. Rather than abolishing markets, it arguably makes more sense to increase the market price of timber, of coal, of oil, and of fresh water in order to lower their destruction or wasteful use.
Green ideas and conservatism have intersections at the deeper philosophical level. Consider the words of one of the classic conservative thinkers, the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott. The general characteristics of conservatism, he said, 'centre on a propensity to use and enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be' . He adds: 'To be conservative then is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded , the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss'. To prefer the 'sufficient to the superabundant' could well be the motto of a society which rejects consumerism and which does not seek fulfillment through ever-increasing material goods. His conservative suspicion of schemes for improvement and leaps into the unknown is a feeling shared by those who warn about genetic engineering of crops and animals as well as bio-technology involving humans. Although Oakeshott was not thinking of modern environmental problems when he wrote these words, the intersection of these values with green politics is undoubted. Just as a conservative impulse was once mobilized to oppose large scale schemes for radical social change such as socialism, such feelings today can and should be mobilized against the neo-liberal revolution.
In conservative thought a central significance is given to tradition. Tradition is important because it represent the refinement of wisdom of that past. Conservative thought argues that the practices that are handed down to us are the result of many generations of trial and error. Rather than beginning by erring again, we should begin by attaching value to the tradition. As well as the traditions of humans, tradition presents itself to us through the existence of the ecology of the planet. The inter-dependence of living organisms which has evolved though millions of years is a tradition indeed! But tradition is one thing to which market fundamentalism attaches no value and aims to overturn. Humanity has built societies largely based on the manipulation of the ecology through farming. Farming communities both in the developing world and in advanced capitalism are deeply conservative. But today the modern manipulations in industrialized farming, unlike the small scale previous versions, are quite different. The results are actually unknown and incalculable and increasingly disturb rural conservatives.
Allied with tradition is the conservative notion of stewardship. As John Gray says:
Many of the central conceptions of traditional conservatism have a natural congruence with Green concerns: the Burkean idea of the social contract, not as an agreement among anonymous ephemeral individuals, but as a compact between the generations of the living, the dead and those yet unborn; Tory skepticism about progress and awareness of its ironies and illusions; conservative resistance to untried novelty and large scale social experiments; and perhaps most especially, the traditional conservative tenet that individual flourishing can only occur in the context of forms of common life.'
Such conservative notions are central to indigenous and first nation peoples whose societies are extremely conservative. In such societies and elsewhere, respect for tradition can be socially suffocating but in regard to ecological stability it makes very good sense.
Linked to attitudes toward tradition and stewardship is a skepticism towards 'progress' which has shared roots in environmental and conservative outlooks. By contrast, Enlightenment-based theories of liberalism and socialism share a notion of unending progress based on the accumulation of material goods. This version of the good life and progress is understandable, since material deprivation for masses of people is still in living memory in industrial countries and is a living reality for billions in developing countries. But in advanced industrial countries such ideas are no way meet the social and environment crises.
Finally, another important contribution from conservatism is its notion of the common good, to be contrasted to the multitude of personal choices of liberal individualism. One side of this is recognizable in forms of nationalism or in the uniformity demanded by conservative moralists in matters of sex and private life. But another side of this is simply the recognition that we are social animals who have always lived in communities and that the community has a legitimate reason to demand that members obey certain rules. Just how far these rules go is a matter of debate but no community can exist without both written and unwritten rules, customs and practices. This regulatory side of conservatism, expressed both in a notion of civil society and in a more traditional reverence for the 'rule of law' can be a valuable ally in regulating corporations or in preserving the environment.
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