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Conservatism is in many ways a philosophy of belonging. It appeals to the nation as a communal home, a vessel for culture, language, custom, tradition and all the vestiges of identity garnered from generations of shared history…

Recent discussions about conservatism have wondered how it can appeal to young people. These discussions necessarily emphasize the liberating role of capitalism—referencing young people’s inherent social entrepreneurship, and desire for material enrichment—but I think this has missed the point in two ways. One, we live in a political world defined by post-materialism, focused on spiritual and communal ties, and so material enrichment cannot be the only motivation for voting, or even being, conservative. Two, conservatism is already appealing more and more to young people. And it is the purpose of this essay to explain why.

Michael Walzer’s essay, “The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism,” offered a diagnosis of where political liberalism failed to truly inspire any form of loyalty. After all, if the system to which you belong is not loyal to you, why would you be loyal to it? If you joined a club, you would expect certain privileges and benefits to be made—and if you were a longstanding member of a club, you would expect a certain degree of recognition above and beyond that given to new members—who may themselves, over time, come to deserve such recognition.

Dr. Walzer laid out four very convincing and very systematic reasons as to why people found political liberalism deeply unsatisfactory. It is by looking at the four of these reasons, however, that I think we can start to see why conservatism is beginning to find its appeal in young people—a demographic traditionally associated with liberal-leftism. After all, “if you aren’t a liberal before thirty, you don’t have a heart”. Dr. Walzer was, of course, writing in a different time and place—America at the end of the 1980s, when the (necessary) economic liberalization of the free market had displaced traditional loyalties in favour of hyper-mobility, rootless wandering, and hollow individualism. Whereas in the U.K., the Thatcherite project was balanced by stress on the role of families and voluntarism, and the virtue of civic association, American capitalism’s over-reliance on individualism severed the ties between people and their homes.

In the U.K., we managed to avoid it—mostly. But since the Blair years and the tearing down of every institution but the market—a trend the Conservatives seem unwilling to reverse—young people have found themselves increasingly without a real sense of belonging, as if their only loyalty is to themselves and their own ambitions. Aside from the fact that this is objectively untrue, it is also deeply unsatisfactory. It leaves us with a deep sense of longing in ourselves, a desire to find somewhere that we can call ours—and it is conservatism that has come to offer, not the answer, but a route to the answer. Like a young person ending his or her gap year and returning to the safety of their previous life, the young people of this country are finally coming home. And this is visible, if we look at Dr. Walzer’s “Four Mobilities.”

Geographic Mobility

Dr. Walzer’s first mobility, the reason for the loss of identity, was that of “geographic mobility.” “Americans apparently change their residence more often than any people in history…. We are all self-moved, not refugees but voluntary migrants. The sense of place must be greatly weakened by this sense of geographic mobility.” What was true of America is true of England now—young people move school several times in their life, most typically when they progress from Primary to Secondary and to College or Sixth Form, meaning that between the ages of seven and seventeen most young people will have moved to a different educational institute three times. Then there is university, a major factor of geographic mobility considering forty percent of young people now attend a university in a different city to the one they grew up in (if they grew up in a city at all). This in turn means graduate life, and thus a significant change in career several times in a young person’s twenties, has become a further contributor. All of this, without considering that many young people’s parents divorce, change jobs or whole careers, or want to move elsewhere anyway, complicating the sense of geographic loss considerably. No wonder, then, that young people do not feel attached to a particular place.

But conservatism can offer an answer to this. For one, conservatism is in many ways a philosophy of belonging; at the macro-level, conservatism appeals to the nation as a communal home, a vessel for culture, language, custom, tradition and all the vestiges of identity garnered from generations of shared history, all dictated—especially in Britain, and England more so—by geographic necessity. So, while we may feel like colliding atoms in our day-to-day lives, it is a recognition of this country, our home, as a place to belong that offers the remedy to geographic mobility. It is the fact that a Cornishman could travel to York, to Coventry, to Anglesey, all whilst feeling at home.

And on the micro-level too, conservatism offers an answer. The emphasis placed on the “little platoons” of Edmund Burke’s world, the “civic associations” of Michael Oakeshott and the “first-person plural” of Roger Scruton, all offer us ways of finding our place in the world by finding our place with each other. By joining local clubs, founding our own societies, campaigning with charities, praying in churches, synagogues, and mosques—all of this provides us with a sense of belonging, by stressing that it is the community that provides us with an identity.

And, on a less spiritual and more material plane, it is for this reason that conservatives place so much emphasis on home ownership. It is the motive behind Thatcher’s “property-owning democracy,” and the current Conservative government’s increasing push for house ownership as opposed to merely renting social housing from the state. It is in the home that we, as individuals—and later families—can physically imprint ourselves on the world, by marking out a territory that is free from state interference. As Roger Scruton once poetically put it, if I own a home I can not only shut out the world I do not want, but I can let in the world that I do. If a society is built on all of us having a place that is mine, it will necessarily lead to a society that we can share.

Social Mobility

The second mobility Dr. Walzer termed “social mobility,” although the emphasis is not on what that term might typically mean. Dr. Walzer instead stresses the role of education in the loss of communal identity, arguing that “fewer Americans stand where their parents stood” and that “the passing on of beliefs or customary ways, is uncertain at best.” And though Dr. Walzer is vague about it, the educational system in England has continually moved away from knowledge of our country, whilst imbuing young people with knowledge inimical to their parents’ situations. Of course, rising literacy and numeracy standards are a good thing, but whereas my parents knew how to shear sheep and grow vegetables, I know how to write essays and long, crotchety articles on conservatism. Children used to follow their parents into the same profession, but the eradication of the need for old labour (farming, factory work, tailoring, etc.) and the opening up of new industry—combined with education—means this social bond is disappearing.

How does conservatism answer this problem? Two main points of recognition: the first, is that family life is the most important part of society. Your family gives you everything up to a certain point, and guides you through the rest of your life after that. I may have sounded bitter above about my skills, different from those of my parents, but—natural talents aside—it was my parents’ dream, and product of their hard work, that I attend a grammar school, and progress to university. We can only ever be the products of our parents, because it is their love and guidance that exposes us to the multitude of influences we inevitably share in.

The second point is tradition. When you realize that tradition is not a series of chains constructed to keep you in place, but rather the beaten path through a treacherous world do you reconcile yourself with it. The recognition that tradition is a form of social knowledge—of enduring answers to long-forgotten questions—opens your eyes to its value, and the importance of listening to the voice of the generations long gone.

Marital Mobility

Following this, Dr. Walzer suggests a third contributor to a loss of social identity, that of “marital mobility.” To Dr. Walzer, though the other two previous mobilities contributed to family breakdown, it is the literal collapse of families that contribute fatally to the loss of social identity. “Insofar as home is the first community and the first school of ethnic identity and religious conviction, this kind of breakage must have countercommunitarian consequences.” This translates all too readily to the English circumstance; divorce rates remain high, and marriage rights are too low. The family, as mentioned above, forms the bedrock of society but no longer provides a solid form of social identity. This is not to say that children of broken homes are not productive members of society, but they will be deprived of a traditionally settled source of identity.

As above, the family is stressed once again, but this time the onus is placed on the children themselves. We must be realistic—if parents do not want to stay together, and they no longer feel they can fulfill their duties and obligation to one another, it is impossible to force them to stay together. But the children can take it upon themselves to strengthen the bonds of family, by helping their parents where they can. Once the value of family can be seen—and I think it is already so deeply ingrained in British life—young people will inevitably want to build their own, strong family units, where they can pass on their own traditions. And this is already happening—the idea that Generation Z (the generation to which I personally belong) is the “most conservative” since World War Two on social issues such as same-sex marriage, would suggest a desire to return to traditional conceptions of the family.

Political Mobility

Dr. Walzer’s final mobility emphasizes the “institutional instability” generated by a decline in identity created by the above three mobilities, as loyalty to the old bonds that traditionally determine voting behaviour—family, community, tradition, economic class etc.—declines sharply. The consequence of this is that old institutions of authority—of Church, local association, unions, Monarchy, Parliament, and so on—have been sharply undermined, and offer no bastions of identity around which socio-political duty can be based. Instead, selfish interest acts to inform the decision as to which associations and authorities to subscribe.

This is where conservatism appeals most strongly to young people. The loss of identity in association with the decline of clear and strong institutions is remedied through adherence to historical, tried and tested authorities that offer a way of understanding social duty and, in return, provides us with an identity in relation to the rest of society. A welcome essay from the Telegraph earlier this year indicated the influence of institutions on social identity, as it reported that visits to Church buildings inspired young people to convert to Christianity, and reaffirm their faith with regular communion. One wonders if it is a mere coincidence that such a rise in interest in social institutions inspired by architecture is coming at the same time as a revival in architectural classicism.

Conclusion

Finally, it is worth considering Dr. Scruton’s theory of modern leftism as a “culture of repudiation” centered around the phenomenon of oikophobia, a rejection of the old symbols of home. In response, conservatism must become a philosophy of oikophilia, a way of helping people find a place—physically, spiritually, politically, socially—in an otherwise hostile world. As we increasingly find ourselves, as young people, in a strange and foreign world, conservatism must become the philosophy of coming home.

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4 replies to this post
  1. I find this essay to echo many of the statements made by Dr. Jordan B Peterson about young males and their overall desire for meaning in their lives. We, as humans, require a goal and a set of duties and obligations in order to feel fulfilled; this is not, as this essay expresses, found in the leftist political spectrum. It would be wise for us conservatives to understand this and learn how to articulate this so we could help this young people find, not only meaning, but true meaning for their lives.

  2. A nice essay, but a few points:

    1) What the author has laid out is, to a significant degree, a description of reasons for the booming appeal of “identity politics,” and associated illiberalism and ideological zealotry, among young people. It has always been the case the the weaknesses and problems of the late-modern liberal order have evoked varied responses, and “leftist” responses have been most common. Identity politics is especially appealing because it “grounds” (at least superficially) the individual in a well-defined fixed group. It also ends any reason to maintain support for the liberal project and its elements, such as free speech and pluralism.

    The challenge to conservatives is one of how to make conservatism the preferred alternative, especially when conservatism tends to be marginalized and stigmatized on college campuses, and when, at some colleges (like my own) most students have grown up in environments so far removed from traditional conservatism for it to be virtually unthinkable, even literally incomprehensible, to them.

    2) Forgive me if I’m being picky, but this passage is odd, and just off-base historically: “Dr. Walzer was, of course, writing in a different time and place—America at the end of the 1980s, when the (necessary) economic liberalization of the free market had displaced traditional loyalties in favour of hyper-mobility, rootless wandering, and hollow individualism. Whereas in the U.K., the Thatcherite project was balanced by stress on the role of families and voluntarism, and the virtue of civic association, American capitalism’s over-reliance on individualism severed the ties between people and their homes.”

    First, there was no big “economic liberalization” in the US in the 1980s; the author is confusing the US with the UK. (The US was more liberal economically to start with, and changes under Reagan were very modest.) And, Reagan emphasized “the roles of families and voluntarism,” vs. simply “capitalism” and an atomized marketplace, even more than Thatcher. And, there was no explosion of “mobility” (of any sort) in the US in the 1980s; from a British perspective the US has been characterized by “hyper-mobility” (at least geographically) since the 18th century, which did not accelerate. Though, the collapse of the US industrial base and the consolidation and globalization of industry in recent decades has created new challenges by undermining many communities.

    3) Finally, the writer places too much emphasis on the benefits of voluntary associations; though certainly desirable in many ways, these don’t quite substitute for more permanent, fixed relationships. (And they are, of course, not what Burke was primarily thinking of when he mentioned “little platoons.”)

  3. It seems to me that pinning a national identity in the UK together with a sense of community and the local Mosque is inherently the opposite view a conservative would take. This would not be the case for say a conservative in perhaps Cairo or Tehran, and doing so here would be essentially abandoning what would have been considered conservative at any other time for the sake of inclusion. A sense of community at all time has had insiders and outsiders.

    Generation Z being “conservative” really is a disappointing way of putting it as well, my understanding is that my generation, the Millennials was also given that same title, would anyone argue that after college or university that my generation is still such? Further still, these studies say only 12% of the Generation Z is open to conservative perspectives, hardly a wave.

  4. When people in western Europe say ‘capitalism,’ they used to think of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl, in happy memory, who were conservative. But when you say ‘capitalism,’ you think of the European Central Bank, Hillary Clinton and the Social Democratic Party, who are liberal. Thus it seems to me, that when you say ‘capitalism,’ I say ‘socialism,’ but we really think the same. Apparently, to the conservative, the poor are real people.

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