Monday, November 19, 2018

Two kinds of globaliser

Paul Embery is a British trade union official. He describes himself as a socialist. You are probably thinking right now that he is some sort of SJW globalist type.

But he isn't. He is part of a "Blue Labour" movement (of which I know very little) and his analysis of globalisation is excellent. He writes of the resistance movements to globalisation that,
they are, for the most part, defensive crusades against rapid cultural and demographic change, against the rapacious and disruptive power of global finance, and the weakening of democracy and sovereignty at the hands of remote and unaccountable institutions.

For 40 years, the nation state found itself caught in a pincer movement, assailed by two kinds of globaliser: on one flank, the economic globalisers in the form of the multinationals and speculators, the totems of neoliberal ideology, with their demands for access-all-areas and reductions in regulations, including controls over capital and labour; and, on the other, the political globalisers in the form of a cultural elite whose brand of cosmopolitan liberalism and internationalism became so dominant within our modern establishment.

The first stood to benefit in the form of greater global clout and increased profits; the second from the advance to their desired destination of a borderless world, in which we all exist alongside each other in a diverse and liberal utopia under the benevolent patronage of assorted wise technocrats. Both groups had little more than the bare minimum of loyalty to the nation.

This seems right to me. You have right liberals who are the "economic globalisers". They are more than happy to reshape individuals into interchangeable (fungible) units of production and consumption within a global marketplace (with the assumption that it is right for these individuals to seek their rational self-interest within the market).

Then you have the left liberals who are "humanist" in the sense of rejecting real, historic communities in favour of a single global one, and who wish to govern this one permissible form of community via global institutions run by a class of benevolent experts. This belief in a class of bureaucratic experts running people's lives was expressed back in 1928 by the Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb who spoke of,
our common faith in a deliberately organised society – our belief in the application of science to human relations … the common people, served by an elite of unassuming experts

Paul Embery describes well the significance of national identity to most people and the hostility of those on the left toward it:
There was, however, a slight problem: the masses wouldn’t wear it. Their sense of attachment to nation was inviolable, born not from some sense of national or racial superiority, but simply passed down the generations through tradition, social mores, history, culture and language. Nationhood, for many, goes to the heart of what it means to feel a sense of place and belonging, to be part of something greater than oneself. Disrupt that with sudden and large-scale flows of population and money, while at the same time limiting the opportunity to do anything about it at the ballot box, and you’ll get blowback.

For globalisation means different things for different people. If you have power, wealth, and education and broad cultural horizons, you may ride its waves on to the golden sands. But what you won’t see is the little people whom those same waves have buffeted on to the rocks. For them, amid the tumult, the nation state represents a lifeboat.

Of course, for the modern Left, there is not mere indifference nor absence of loyalty to the nation state; there is a visceral hatred for it. Few understand how deeply this hatred runs. It is repelled by any demonstration of attachment to country, no matter how benign or understated. Such sentiments, especially if they relate to England, can, in their own minds, stem only from innate xenophobia or racism.

...In elevating the global over the local, and the cosmopolitan over the communitarian, the liberal and cultural elites stretched the democratic elastic beyond breaking point. They took the words of John Lennon’s Imagine and tried to apply them literally. But their promised land turned out, for millions, to be a desolate wilderness. In short, they forgot the politics of belonging, and they are now paying the price electorally throughout the West. Serves them right.

It's important not to skim over the observations made here by Paul Embery. If you were to try to answer the question "what is the nature of man and his purposes", then one part of the answer would be man's relational nature and that one part of who we are is derived from our membership of an ethny - a people with distinct forms of relatedness (biological, cultural, historic, linguistic and so on). An ethny is a "body of people" and we are a member of this body - we have an existence within it. To be cut away from this body of which we are a part is a radical type of alienation, with a loss of transcendence (of belonging to something larger than ourselves) and a loss of a deeper form of connectedness to a particular people, culture and place. One whole aspect of our existence is lost to us - and it is difficult not to link the maladies so prevalent in the West to this disordering of our lives.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

A trimmer Frum

In my last post, I made a distinction between two entirely different types of conservatives.

There are principled conservatives who wish to conserve aspects of society, such as family and nation, that are threatened by the unfolding logic of liberalism.

Then there are the "trimmer" conservatives who wish to conserve liberalism and its institutions, particularly against too rigidly ideological an implementation of the liberal program ("The ‘trimmer’ is one who disposes his weight so as to keep the ship upon an even keel.")

A principled conservative opposes liberalism at its philosophical starting points, including its understanding of the nature of man and his purposes. A trimmer conservative supports liberalism, its institutions and values, and wishes to sustain it.

Mainstream conservatives are nearly always trimmers. They call themselves conservatives whilst still supporting liberalism (or libertarianism).

My colleague Mark Moncrieff, of the Upon Hope blog, alerted me in the comments to my last post of a good example of a trimmer conservative, namely David Frum.

Frum recently debated Steve Bannon and he described the event as follows:
The debate in Toronto focused on a prediction: whether the future belonged to populist politics...or to liberal politics, in the broadest sense of the word liberal. As I told the audience, I’ve spent my life as a conservative, but what I’ve sought to conserve is not the Spanish Inquisition or the powers of kings and barons. I’ve sought to conserve the free societies that began to be built in the 18th century and that have gradually developed and strengthened—with many imperfections and hypocrisies and backsliding—in the 250 years since. When I was young, the most important challenges to those free societies seemed to come from Communists and Marxists. When I was not so young, the most important of those challenges seemed to come from Islamists. Today, they seem to come from—again, speaking politely—populists. The vector of the challenge changes, but the thing to be cherished and protected remains the same.

This is trimmer talk. He describes himself as a lifelong conservative but it is liberalism that he cherishes and wishes to protect. His mindset is that people like himself must flexibly change position to meet the different challenges that beset liberal societies (he does not consider the issue raised in Patrick Deneen's book, Why liberalism failed, that liberalism will fall because of its own inner workings rather than any external threat).

The tragedy is that trimmers have been able, for so long, to lead the socially conservative rank and file by seeming to be what they actually are not. They present themselves to the rank and file as "conservatives" but they have no intention of halting the slide of Western societies into an ever more radical liberalism.

The trimmers dislike the emergence of populist leaders, who are willing to at least voice the concerns of the rank and file. What would be even better would be the emergence of a new leadership of principled conservatives, who would challenge liberalism at the level of core principles, so that there was a solid ground to the defence of traditional forms of family, culture and nation.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Are conservatives just trimmers?

It's common on social media to come across young people on the right dismissing conservatism with the question "What has it ever actually conserved?"

It's a good point. What I want to try and explain in this post is this very issue: just what is it that modern conservatism has actually tried to conserve? The answer is critical in understanding one aspect of what has gone wrong with the conservative movement.

But I'll begin with something else, namely what a principled conservatism would be trying to conserve. A principled conservatism would be trying to conserve those important aspects of society that a liberal ideology is committed to dissolving.

Liberals believe that the overriding good is to maximise individual autonomy, understood to mean that the individual is able to self-determine or self-define who they are and what they choose to do. Those aspects of life that are predetermined are therefore thought to be fetters on individual freedom. This includes anything we don't get to choose for ourselves, such as our sex, or our race, or our ethnicity, so these things must ultimately be made not to matter in a liberal society.

Liberalism has therefore sought to undo traditional forms of communal identity (based on ethny); distinctions between the sexes, including within the family; ideals of masculinity and femininity; and ideals of monogamous marriage.

Similarly, anything that is thought to restrain or limit individual choice is also likely ultimately to be attacked or quietly abandoned within a liberal society, and this includes notions of duty, of service, of loyalty, of honour and so on. The informal cultural standards that once regulated behaviour toward higher ends are gradually dissolved (and replaced by bureaucratic, statist forms of regulation).

A principled conservatism would challenge liberalism at its ideological roots, i.e. at the level of first principle, in its efforts to uphold nation, family, manhood & womanhood, as well as to defend a different concept of freedom, of man and his nature, and the purposes of life.

The important thing to understand is that twentieth century conservatism was not principled in the way I have set out above. It did not challenge liberalism at the level of first principle, but instead saw its purpose as upholding liberalism, as preventing liberalism from running too far ahead too quickly. The purpose of conservatism, in other words, was to conserve liberalism, the very thing that was dissolving traditional Western society. Which is why the following tweet, criticising the modern conservative outlook, is so well directed:



So the meaning of the word "conservatism" was colonised by liberalism (as were so many other terms, such as freedom, justice, dignity, flourishing etc.). It went from being a word that challenged liberalism, as a matter of principle, to one that supported it.

You can see this in a recent column by Andrew Sullivan, a well-known American political commentator, whose wiki page tells us that he "describes himself as a conservative and is the author of The Conservative Soul."

But what does Sullivan mean by the term "conservatism"? These excerpts from his column make his position admirably clear:
The retirement of Anthony Kennedy is an obituary for conservatism in America.

...What he was able to do was to hold two ideas in his mind at the same time: that history moves forward and laws and institutions need to adjust to those changes or die; and that the core conception of individual liberty should remain the animating principle of America and the West.

...This, to my mind, is the conservative temperament, fully understood...I’m with David Brooks in his view that Republicanism has become conservatism’s worst enemy — worse even than the social-justice left. But I’d argue that this variety of conservatism is still essential to the project of liberal democracy...

The key to this conservatism is restraint, reform, and concern with the stability of the society as a whole. Conservatives see the modern liberal order as a fragile, precious, and rare historical human achievement...without its attachment to precedent, to gradual change, to evolution rather than revolution, chaos and convulsion would make any justice unsustainable.

It’s not an emotionally satisfying tradition. The point is merely to keep liberal democracy vibrant, to sustain its legitimacy, and to protect its institutions...And that’s why I loved Barack Obama. In his heart and mind, he is and was a moderate conservative, trying to blend new social realities with the long story of America, rescuing capitalism from itself...He desperately tried to keep this country in one piece, against foam-flecked racism and know-nothingism on one side and left-wing ideological purity and identity politics on the other. And he almost did.

And this is why I despise Donald Trump...And Republicanism — in its shameful embrace of this monster, its determined rape of the environment, destruction of our fiscal standing, evisceration of our allies, callousness toward the sick, and newfound contempt for free trade — has nary a conservative bone in its putrefying body.

A liberal society is always in need of this conservatism. The greatest recent philosopher in this tradition, Michael Oakeshott, described the kind of conservative politician he favored, and he used George Savile’s term for such a character: a “trimmer.” His account reads pretty much like Anthony Kennedy:
The ‘trimmer’ is one who disposes his weight so as to keep the ship upon an even keel. And our inspection of his conduct reveals certain general ideas at work … Being concerned to prevent politics from running to extremes, he believes that there is a time for everything and that everything has its time — not providentially, but empirically. He will be found facing in whatever direction the occasion seems to require if the boat is to go even.

No figure is more mocked or ridiculed in our contemporary culture than this kind of moderate. And yet no one right now is more integral to the survival of our way of life.

I'm grateful to Andrew Sullivan for bringing this type of "conservatism" so clearly into the light. The role of conservatives, in this view, is to be "trimmers" who keep the ship of liberalism on an even keel. As Sullivan puts it, the role of conservatives is to conserve liberal institutions against the ideological purity of the more radical liberals.

Is it any wonder, then, that society drifted in an ever more liberal direction during the course of the twentieth century? That there was never any pushback once liberal measures had been put in place? That the "conservative" parties never really represented the rank and file who wanted to conserve not liberalism but family, culture and nation?

This kind of "conservatism" has been prominent within the Liberal Party here in Australia. Sir Malcolm Fraser, a former PM, described the role of conservatism within his party this way:
As its name implies, ours is a liberal government holding liberal principles...

I have stressed the commitment of the Government to liberal principles and values. Precisely because of that commitment it is also concerned to conserve and protect those principles and values.

Once liberal institutions are installed in a society, a government which wishes to preserve them must in some sense be conservative.

The last sentence deserves to be carefully read. Liberalism requires a conservative element "once liberal institutions are installed in a society". The aim is to conserve liberalism, not to challenge it. Unsurprisingly, Fraser himself instituted radically liberal policies whilst PM, including nullifying the older national identity (which he saw as belonging to the previous century) in order to proclaim the advent of multiculturalism.

Tony Abbott, another former PM and often considered to be the leader of the most right-wing faction of the Liberal Party, once gave a keynote address to the Young Liberals, in which he approvingly quoted Fraser's definition of conservatism and added to it that,
In a world where nothing exists in isolation and everything is connected, “liberalism” and “conservatism” turn out to be complementary values...The difference between the ways liberals and conservatives value freedom is, perhaps, more the difference between love at first sight and the love which grows over time.

Which makes conservatives sound more like laggers than trimmers.

But neither term describes a principled conservative. A principled conservative is not there to defend the liberal concept of freedom against a too radically purist and non-pragmatic attempt to impose it on society; nor is he simply slower to embrace the liberal understanding of freedom.

He rejects it. A principled conservative rejects the liberal understanding of freedom as false and harmful. He does not exist to conserve it but to conserve what it threatens.

As Sulla Felix suggested in his social media post, it cannot be our aim to conserve the principles that destroy us and so we cannot be liberalism's trimmers. The trimming version of conservatism is a colonised one in which it is possible for someone like Andrew Sullivan to identify Barack Obama as the true conservative. We should abandon it for something of our own.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.