Article Image

Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990) was, for a time, considered one of the foremost conservative thinkers of the Twentieth Century. He is little read now, but in any event he would likely have objected to the term “conservative thinker”. For Oakeshott, conservatism was a “disposition” rather than a political theory, still less an ideology. The conservative tended to prefer life as it was to what it could be, saw all change as fraught with risk (because it would end one’s relationship with the familiar and the comfortable), and saw even positive innovation as something to be regretted because of the unforeseen consequences it wrought upon a world lovable precisely in its familiarity. This disposition has its problems, but it should be immediately obvious how much it differs from the right-wing politicians running — explicitly or not — under conservative banners. Donald Trump. Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán — Boris Johnson, the only one who heads a nominally “Conservative Party” appears restrained and responsible only by comparison. These four are not disposed to protect and support a world they love. We will return to the ways in which they depart from Oakeshott’s conservatism below. As a Marxist, while I can intellectually understand Oakeshott’s description of the conservative disposition, I find it emotionally and experientially alien. I don’t know anyone who feels at home in the world to such an extent that any change to it must be felt as a loss, as a corruption. Oakeshott argued that one of the problems with liberalism and the left was a focus on reason and rationality rather than the “common sense” lessons of experience. But many on the left do not come to left-wing ideologies purely through rational, intellectual inquiry. Rather, we start out wrong-footed, uncomfortable, or oppressed in the world as we find it, and only later look for ideas and perspectives that help us make sense of that experience and suggest ways to change it. Lenin’s older brother Alexander was executed for conspiring to assassinate the Tsar when Vladimir Ilych was 15, and it was this experience rather than a purely “rationalist” adoption of social-democracy that put Lenin on the road to the Finland Station. I grew up in the North End of Winnipeg, and like the hero of John Marlyn’s Under the Ribs of Death (1957), my class-consciousness was marked by the distinction between the working-class immigrant and Indigenous neighbourhoods I grew up in and the wealthy, mainly Anglo-Saxon neighbourhoods to the city. It is important to recognize that left-wing radicalism is not merely a product of what Oakeshott called “rationalism” in a narrow political sense, but is also informed by experience and social relationships. (Indeed, this is the meaning behind Marx’s famous phrase about “the traditions of all dead generations weigh[ing] like a nightmare on the brains of the living”). This point of view raises grave difficulties for Oakeshott’s conservatism. On the one hand, comfort with the world as it is, to the extent that all change is to be deplored is a luxury (today we would say “a privilege”) of those for whom the world has been constructed. Oakeshott can only feel familiarity and love towards the world as it is because he meets it with the privilege of his race and class. To take a more contemporary example, someone like Jacob Rees-Mogg may have the luxury of accepting the world as it is; someone like John Boyega does not. But leaving aside the self-centred view of a comfortable, familiar world, I find it mind-boggling that anyone with the privilege of an Oakeshott or a Rees-Mogg could look at the world — full of poverty, racism, violence, exploitation, and marginalization — and say, “the world is familiar and comfortable to me, therefore let it stay as it is”. To witness the violence of racist police brutality even when it is not directed at you; to witness the effects of transmisia even when it is not directed at you; to see poverty all around you in any European or North American city of a given size even when you are not yourself subject to it, and then adopt a “conservative disposition” towards the world strikes me as monstrous. However, up to a point I can accept that it is a disposition (nonetheless it is a disposition I would wish to change through education), and therefore to be dealt with charitably, but only up to a point. The conservative disposition in a grandfather who is not in a position to implement social or economic policy for anyone is different from a conservative disposition in Jacob Rees-Mogg. But I want to return to the so-called conservatism of Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro, and Orbán. Do they exhibit a conservative disposition? Do they appear to love and respect the world as it is? No, they are bent on destroying it, and in this they have to be characterized as far-right or fascist rather than conservative. Like Hitler and Mussolini, they do not love the familiar and comfortable world so much as they like the cult of personality erected to themselves. And like Hitler and Mussolini they are not interested in conserving society. Rather, they want to see a society purged and purified through the flames of a violent conflagration. They want to see a society in which all the elements unwilling to celebrate them and their power are burned away, imprisoned, executed, or expelled. Oakeshott argues that, when faced with social or economic change, the conservative disposition unwillingly lets go of the thing that changes to refocus on some other familiar and comfortable facet of the world worth conserving. In this way the small-c conservative finds and holds onto their footing in the world. This is not the strategy of Johnson or Trump, whose chaos, confusion, and cruelty puts the lie to Hanlon’s Razor by demonstrating that malice and incompetence are not mutually exclusive. I have no particular sympathy for those of the conservative disposition, but neither do I see them as particularly threatening. I like to think that such a disposition is curable through education and experience — the experience of the world as it is for others — a racist, patriarchal, homophobic, and ableist world — rather than as it appears to those comfortable and familiar with it. Fascism is a capitalist pathology whereby the political process that is normally conducive to increased profits (authoritarianism, slashing of social services, militarism, expansion, etc.) becomes a runaway process that ends up threatening the capitalist system itself (though not for long — war is one of the prime ways of destroying value, giving capitalism the profitability to reboot itself). The “normal” authoritarianism and austerity of capitalism typically falls to conservatives like Thatcher or Cameron; what we are witnessing with Johnson and Trump is no longer the usual conservatism of capitalist exploitation, but the apocalyptic result of the evils of capitalism unrestrained even by a “conservative disposition” which might see something in the world worth protecting.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

Back to Overview