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In a Guardian article from this past Friday, Marina Hyde asked the question “What are the Conservatives conserving?” I’ve been reading some of the classic statements of conservatism recently - particularly Edmund Burke - and I think I’ve come to a realization: today’s conservatives are not conservative at all, in the sense that Burke (or more modern representatives, like Oakeshott) would recognize.

For both Burke and Oakeshott, conservatism is not an idealogy, or a philosophy, but a disposition to maintain (conserve) what one loves. In a nutshell, society should be maintained as it is because one belongs to it, to its traditions, to its familiarity. When conservatives offer the argument - as Burke does in the Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) - that people are happy in the current social order, respect it and approve of it, it is easy to return the criticism that Burke is speaking only of privileged people like himself. Burke is wrong that the majority of “free Englishmen” approved of the social system - the history of poor and working-class social unrest in England shows that.

But nevertheless, whether Burke is right or wrong about that, his position is only conceivable in a period when England still adhered to the traditions, values, and “antient” authorities that have produced it. Put simply, one can only conserve what one has, so conservatives can only be conservative in a society which conforms to (their view of) its ancient constitution, laws, and social relations (Burke is also wrong about the antiquity of England’s constitution, laws but that’s also beside the point here). This raises the question of whether one can still be conservative in a world transformed by capitalism and its “liberal-democratic” political system? I don’t think you can, at least in politics.

Once, as Marx and Engels put it, the revolutionary force of the bourgeoisie has caused “all that is solid to melt into air”, once the democratic revolution that raised Burke’s ire has spread throughout the capitalist world, there is nothing left to conserve, and so conservatives become merely one more voice in the liberal plurality. Given that the state of social affairs they want is not in place any longer (if it ever was), conservatives are simply one more voice proposing social change. That they are regressive social changes does not make them any less transformational, therefore by definition unconservative. Furthermore, conservatives have adopted much of the language and theory of liberalism - individual rights, for example, which would have shocked Burke - so in reality those we call conservatives today are really right-wing liberals. And given the opportunistic flexibility of liberalism, this leaves very little to choose between them. (It is for this reason that liberalism can be understood as paving the way for fascism - fascism is just the openly authoritarian form of right-wing liberalism).

We can get a good sense of the difference by looking at, say, austerity conservatives, looking to slash social programs in the name of balanced budgets and individual responsibility. This kind of conservatism is really no different than libertarianism, an offshoot of liberal theory produced by the neoliberal turn, except sometimes in the question of the “minimal state”. Burke’s warning of the threat of democracy describes austerity conservatism to a t. Burke writes

One of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin instead of an habitation.

Burke’s criticism was of democrats, but it applies even more to contemporary conservative parties, like the British Tories and the various Canadian conservative parties. They may describe their social programmes as a return to “the good old days”, but this does not make them any less engaged in social transformation.

All this makes Cass Sunstein’s article on the good-faith reasons conservatives might be opposed to social reform quaint if not outright ridiculous. Sunstein claims that should Biden win the US election, “many republicans might want to go back to basics and recover some of the foundations of conservative thought” such as Burke and Oakeshott. According to Sunstein, these “basics” include opposition to social reform, and Sunstein adduces a book by the economist Albert Hirschman to inform us of the “rhetorical moves” conservatives employ to justify their opposition. The three moves in question are familiar ones, appearing in both Burke and Oakeshott:

Perversity: “many seemingly appealing reforms are self-defeating; they hurt the very people they are supposed to help”.

Futility: It “is not that reform efforts will have perverse effects; it is that they will have no effects”.

Jeopardy: “Progressive reforms will undermine, destroy or imperil important values and hard-won gains”.

However, given that today’s liberal-democratic society does not conform to the kind of world Burke and Oakeshott were interested in conserving, what today’s conservatives propose is not a status quo justified in the name of the perversity, futility, or jeopardy of social change. Rather, today’s conservatives want to transform society in a libertarian or fascist direction. These three “rhetorical moves” are cynical attempts to rationalize or convince others (the media, say, or the electorate) that right-wing liberalism is a good faith attempt to deal with the modern world.

Someone raised a question recently as to why the GOP has such a preponderance within American discourse, and the answer I think is precisely this kind of cynical rhetorical justification. By calling themselves conservative, by positioning their social views as already in existence and of ancient provenance (or even, as Burke does, “natural”), they put the onus on liberals/progressives to justify their own social agendas. This places conservative parties discursively in the driver’s seat, even though the world they claim to be conserving is long dead and buried. It is then easier for them to push through their own radical and destructive social policies (e.g. austerity) in the name of a return to “tried-and-true” values or “natural” truths.

Similarly, the hegemony of liberal theory, as I said in previous post, puts liberal political thought in the driver’s seat with respect to the left, forcing any “radical” position (Marxism, feminism, Critical Race Theory) into the position of challenging a dominant incumbent.

In my own province, the right-wing liberals of the United Conservative Party are currently commiting just the kind of depradation Burke warned against. It remains to be seen whether, in the name of a conservatism permanently allied with Burke’s name, they reduce the “habitation” of Alberta into a ruin.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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