Conservatism is confronted by the existential question of its own philosophy: what is left to conserve? Indeed, is there anything worth conserving? I think there are positive answers to this—the nation being the foremost—but that is a concern for another time. Here, I want to make the point that conservatism, beyond the substantive vision of life, must be about stability and continuity.

Upon the establishment of the Orthodox Conservatives, there was (predictably) all the fashionable backlash, amongst which there were the accusations of homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, and just about every modern form of heresy you can think of. The other great Offence that we caused was of existing—not a small number of people seemed to imply that, by believing that there was a place for conservatism in the Conservative Party (the case for which was made brilliantly by my colleague, Simone Hanna) that we wanted to push the liberals out of the Party.[1] But the more valid question tended to be the cautious, curious, “What are your aims?”

Conservatism of the 21st century is not—indeed, cannot be—the conservatism of the 20th. It is actually notoriously hard to identify the “conservatism” of the 20th century, because that century was one of change, insofar as change suffices for what happened in those hundred years. Upheaval, genocide, technological innovation, population boom, globalisation—all of it cut adrift the vast majority of humanity, physically, spiritually, or both. What sufficed for conservatism in 1920 could not suffice in 1950, nor could it in 1980. It is likely this that caused Michael Oakeshott to remark that conservatism is a disposition, a vision not of the world but of life and change, and how the two can be navigated successfully. But, for all of Oakeshott’s wisdom, I think his inability to articulate and define a concrete vision of the conservative cause is a significant flaw. There are, of course, other thinkers that provided such a vision—the late, great Sir Roger Scruton being the foremost of them, but also Maurice Cowling, Russell Kirk, George Will—but, and I hate to say this, they were the last of a dying breed.

Conservatism is confronted by the existential question of its own philosophy: what is left to conserve? Indeed, is there anything worth conserving? I think there are positive answers to this—the nation being the foremost—but that is a concern for another time. Here, I want to make the point that conservatism, beyond the substantive vision of life, must be about stability and continuity.

It is no great insight that we live in a dynamic world. Changes happen almost daily, and the old saying that “a week is a long time in politics” seems to have spilled into the real world as well. The problem is not merely that we have lost a certain sense of continuity with a grand vision of a political order (“Great Britain,” for instance), but simply a disconnect with the generation before us. We might laugh at it, and I won’t deny it is funny, but when the idea of the internet is a very fact of life to everyone currently in education despite being a marvellous invention to anyone over the age of 30, there is a disconnect that is undeniable.

I’d like here to quote a distinctly un-conservative poet (at least, in his politics):

                                            In yester times it
was different: the old could still be helpful

when they could nicely envisage the future
as a named and settled landscape their children
would make the same sense of as they did,
laughing and weeping at the same stories.
Epistle to a Godson, W.H. Auden

The old should still be helpful. This generational gap is not the worrisome grumbling of an old crank—I believe it is the root cause of the discontent surrounding the belief that the “old has sold out the young,” whether it is on Brexit, or on the climate. We no longer have a vision of ourselves as a timeless, corporate body that exists in the past, living in the present, and projected into the future.

Conservatism, then, needs to emerge from its own self-reflection. It cannot be a naval-gazing exercise in reminding ourselves of a fantastic past and mythologised origin—any true conservative recognises no origins ever really exist—but, and this is where it gets tricky, conservatism needs to do something fundamentally unconservative. It needs to become a philosophy of action.

There are two great foes of conservatism today: neoliberalism, and progressivism. Sometimes they work in tandem, without realising their own enmity, but the consequence of their existence is the same: the destruction of culture. The former takes aim at the physical, because it denies the transcendental in any respect, and tries to make our allegiance one of material condition; the latter erodes the spiritual ties of the world, hollowing out identity until it is merely a shell that can be shattered with a tap.

Neoliberalism has at its root a vision of the world dependent on two principles: individualism and materialism. The first of these, individualism, is predicated on a liberal assumption from the Enlightenment that the individual is a self-contained being, capable of knowing entirely who they are, what they want, and how to achieve it, all without reference to either another human being, or some external body of knowledge that is capable of providing vital knowledge. In this, what I mean is a rejection of the transcendent.

The transcendent is not a uniquely conservative, nor even a Christian notion, but is a universal experience that arises from the interaction between human beings. For the vast majority of us, the realisation of the transcendent comes from the simple act of looking into the eyes of another person, in which moment we realise the existence of entirely separate, autonomous consciousness over which we have no power. We might, as Hegel postulates, engage in a process of conflict that seeks to assert our autonomy over theirs, but even this conflict helps us to arrive at the transcendent, as we recognise in the final moment that we cannot control another’s thoughts. As a result, we become aware of the limit of our own capacity for action, and of the final insurmountable obstacle—we will never have full knowledge of another person.

On this ground alone, the individualism of neoliberalism is dangerous. It neglects the significance of community, not as the consequence of autonomous individuals but as the very foundation of the individual, in his desires and moral knowledge, and therefore his identity. To this problem, speaks neoliberalism’s other obsession—of materialism. In rejecting the transcendent, neoliberalism tells us that we can only achieve that gift of the transcendent—of spiritual achievement—in the pursuit of tangible, physical goods. But, as I have written elsewhere, a certain restlessness arises from the mistaken belief that only buying things can give us that sense of satisfaction that community can.[2] The fashionable idea of “retail therapy” speaks to the problem of seeking an answer to moral restlessness in material goods.

What is worse, even more so, is the danger of commodification of the acts that ought to be the wellspring of the transcendent—the most paramount of which is the sexual act. When the measure of value comes out of both a material understanding of goods, as well as the restless pursuit of individual desire, we risk devaluing the human being in favour of what he can do for us, thereby becoming merely tools for the satisfaction of another’s pleasure. The transcendent is lost, and we are all the weaker for it.

So much for neoliberalism. What, then, does progressivism threaten to do? As I say above, while neoliberalism rejects the transcendent, progressivism does not, but its recognition of the transcendent is dependent, not on the lived experience of the real, but the theorised world of the ideal, where the crystal castles in the sky can still exist without fear of crashing into the uncomfortable truths of the world.

A true appreciation of the transcendent comes from the recognition that, unlike Marx and Hegel’s theories, there is no moment of separation between generations or “epochs,” but an unbroken chain that exists, stretching into the past, binding together the people who exist in the here and now. The two words in that phrase—“here” and “now”—matter more than they first appear to: “here” roots us to a physical space, where we can physically imprint the community we have grown from into the world, just as the physical legacies of previous members of our community have contributed to that imprinting; while “now” is always a fleeting thing, the moment that we live in now is already passing away, and the recognition of that fact, of our inability to freeze the world into stasis, compels us both to preserve what we have found to be helpful, and create to pass down into the next generation that which we know to work.

Progressivism does not do this. For one thing, it finds its origins in the future, deriving a utopian project, not from the knowledge that we have inherited through the slow accumulation of experience and shared history, but from the (misguided) belief that such a future can be rationally derived from universal rules of “history,” or “race,” or “human nature.” Like a scientist observing the interaction of chemicals, progressivism believes there are underlying rules to the way in which humans live in all places and time, and in the process abolishing the relevance the here and now plays in our understanding of community. By observing these rules, and rationally exporting them to the entirety of mankind, the progressive believes they can find the “right way” to live for everyone.

The two problems with this belief are, first, that it is impossible to remove oneself entirely from the circumstances in which one lives and “observe” detachedly the existence of mankind, and second that the knowledge required for this universalisation is (as I show above) impossible to achieve. The consequences of progressivism are, therefore, to reject the influence of the historic community that has created even the possibility of an “us” existing in the first instance, and act as though it is possible to “start again” in the pursuit of some idealised goal. But to do this is to deprive us of the roots of our identities, and misunderstand the corporate nature of community in the process. It is like trying to cut a rose from its stem and preserve the petals. As Joseph de Maistre remarked, “a constitution made for everywhere, is made for nowhere.”

What does this mean for conservatism? Conservatives must take the fight to our ideological enemies: we must not capitulate to the materialism of neoliberalism, nor must we pretend that our roots are not the very source of our social identities.

In this respect, there are seven policy areas that conservatives ought to focus on: the family; the significance of nationhood and community; the built world and its beauty, with great deference to the wonders of nature; education for the purpose of the preservation of knowledge, and the pursuit of truth; the role that economics plays in the maintenance and support of good community; and the continued relevance of spirituality and faith today. Most significantly, such policy areas should not be practiced in a simple (indeed, simplistic) form of performative aestheticism, for example building great and beautiful atria simply for the homeless and dispossessed to sleep in, or the return of beat policing that are evaded by moped-straddling criminals, or even the pressing together of uninterested parents to a marriage that they clearly do not want to be in. The policies we pursue should be geared towards results, not simple performativity for the sake of appearances; if this involves innovation and change in how we, for instance, educate young people, then we must not be afraid of doing so.

I did say this might seem unconservative.

None of this is to say that conservatism in the 21st century should be an attachment to the prejudices of the past; but we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Or, as Edmund Burke puts it, we must not tear away the foundations of a great castle because some of the bulwarks are in ruin. What we must do, first and foremost, is arrest the seemingly unstoppable chaos of energy that neoliberalism and progressivism have unleashed, and return to a conception of society as moored in community, hallowed place, and corporate identity. Only through the recognition of the importance of tradition, derived from a transcendent view of society, can we start to make conservatism relevant again.

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Notes:

[1] Simone Hannah, “Give the Tory Party back to true conservatives,” The Conservative Woman, February 8, 2020.

[2] Jake Scott, “The Ten Pillars of Orthodox Conservatives,” Orthodox Conservatives, n.d.

The featured image is “The Account Keeper” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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