Why is conservatism difficult to define? Conservatism has prospered because it is unwilling to be tied down to a fixed system of ideas. Conservatives have a clearer understanding of what they oppose rather than what they are for. Conservatives are more inclined to describe their beliefs as an attitude of mind or common sense as opposed to an ‘ism’ or ideology. Conservatism is deeply suspicious of human nature and of grandiose schemes thought by human mind- hence a natural suspicion towrds ideology.
Tradition Values practices and institutions which have stood the test of time… Edmund Burke believed that society was shaped by the law of the creator, to tamper with the world would be to challenge the creator Most conservatives support tradition without arguing for divine origins. GK Chesterton (1874-1936) referred to the democracy of the dead institutions and customs which have been received from previous generations have stood the test of time and should be preserved for the benefit of generations to come. This reflects a Darwinian view of natural selection- survival of the fittest. Tradition generates sense of identity and a feeling of rootedness and social cohesion whereas change is a journey into the unknown.
Human Imperfection Early conservatives based such ideas on the biblical idea of ‘Original Sin’. Humans are imperfect and insecure and naturally security seeking. They desire security over liberty and this is used to justify authority and the maintenance of social order. Humankind is innately selfish and greedy. Crime is a reflection of this and people can only be dissuaded against violent or criminal activity by the effective deterrent of law. The role of law is not to preserve liberty but to uphold order. The world is too complex for people to understand. Reform and revolution entail great risks. In the view of Oakeshott a conservative will wish to ensure the cure is not worse than the disease. Edmund Burke in On Reflections… was highly critical of the revolutionary changes brought about by the revolution in France with the overturning of traditional institutions which had stood the test of time. New right has challenged this. The New right is radical and based on rational, ideological ideas of classical or neo liberal market values.
Organic Society As imperfect and security seeking creatures, humans cannot exist outside society but seek rootedness. Conservatives are opposed to notions of negative freedom which separates a person from society. A society in which an individual knows only rights and not duties would be rootless and atomistic. Duty and obligation holds society together. People are bound together and society acts like a living organism- organicism- the whole is sustained by a fragile set of relationships amongst its parts. It is shaped by ‘natural factors’ rather than by human design, ultimately by necessity. For example, a family is the result of natural social impulses. The rise of the New right has weakened support for organic theories- New right has a much more atomistic approach through its adoption of neo liberal market values
Hierarchy and Authority Hierarchy and authority is natural, a reflection of the fact that talents are distributed unevenly in society and so there is a natural hierarchy. Inequality is an inevitable feature of an organic society. Authority develops naturally there is no social contract- e.g. the authority of a parent over a child. It is necessary and beneficial as everyone needs guidance, support and security of knowing their place. Authoritarian conservatives authority is absolute and unquestionable, whereas most conservatives see limits imposed not by an artificial social contract but by a sense of social responsibility.
Property Property provides security in an unpredictable world, giving a sense of protection. Thrift is a virtue in itself and therefore conservatives have encouraged savings. Property promotes certain social values- those who possess property are more likely to respect the property of others and value measures to maintain law and order. It gives someone a stake in society. Property ownership can be regarded as an extension of an individual’s personality. Possessions reflect something of the owner’s personality and character. Libertarian and New right conservatives see primacy of ownership rights, conservatives have traditionally held that property rights entail responsibility. Much of property is passed down from generation to generation and therefore the present custodians have a duty to preserve and protect it for the benefit of future generations. Harold Macmillan objected to Conservative governments’ privatisation policies of the 1980s as selling off the family silver
Authoritarian conservatism Especially in continental Europe, there is a tradition of authoritarian rule. The principal defender of which was Joseph de Maistre (1753- 1821) who argued in defence of absolutism as the alternative would be anarchy. Any reform would weaken the chains which bound people together. Other authoritarian, reactionary regimes were the papacy and Tsarist Russia. C20 conservative classes in both Italy and Germany assisted in the rise to power of extreme authoritarian regimes. The above are examples of elite authoritarian regimes where unquestioning obedience was expected to those in established authority. In other regimes- Second Empire France (1852-1871) and Peron as president of Argentina 1946-55. Based support on populist policies. In both cases, the regimes were authoritarian in terms of rule and suppression of dissent but appealed to a populist constituency.
Paternalistic conservatism This reflects conservative pragmatism. Burke wrote a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) referred to two nations. Here he warned against the effects of industrialisation which was leading to the creation of two nations- rich and poor and this risked the breakdown of the organic society. For Disraeli the wealth and privilege of the ruling class brought responsibility towards those less fortunate- noblesse oblige. He romanticised that in the past the land owner took care of the interests of his tenants and that in an industrial age this should be reinvented in the form of social reform passed by Parliament. This form of conservatism is sometimes referred to as One Nation. In an age of a widening franchise, such ideas had to be adapted to a more open and democratic political system. Tory democracy was the attempt by end of century Conservatives to make traditional instituitons such as church, monarchy and empire popular with the electorate. This could be achieved through social reform or Tory welfarism. The high point of one nation Toryism came in 1950s/60s with the conservative support for the mixed economy and the expansion of the welfare state. On the continent, authoritarian conservatism which had been the dominant feature of continental conservatism gave way to a more conscious embrace of democratic values. Christian democracy emerged which supported what was known as social market economy. Here there is support for a largely free market economy but supported by a comprehensive welfare system and backed by effective public services.. The market was seen as the best means of generating wealth to be used for social goals.
Libertarian conservatism Liberal doctrines, especially those concerning the free market, have been advanced by conservatives since the late C18. Libertarian conservatives are libertarian in the sense that they advocate the least possible economic regulation. Burke argued that the free market is efficient and fair and reflected the natural desire for wealth. Also he argued that by the late c18 Britain was now capitalist and therefore the free market could be defended on the grounds of tradition. Libertarian conservatives are inconsistent liberals. They see the free market as a means of restraining individuals and moderating behaviour. In that sense it is consistent with views on human imperfection. They also see the importance of a strong state to maintain law and order. In this sense, they remain pessimistic about human nature.
The New right Post 1945 pragmatic and paternalist ideas dominated conservatism in the western world. However, especially from the 1970s there was a progressive challenging of these ideas… There was a concern at the growth of state intervention- in particular of the creation of a ‘dependent class’ on state welfare. Keynesian style demand management was justified on the grounds that it could deliver continuous economic growth but the long post war boom was coming to an end and so new solutions were sought. There was also a concern among conservative circles at the effects of the so called permissive society of the 1960s on morals and social cohesiveness. Also growing concern over the impact of mass immigration on social cohesiveness and the organic society. Iin the US, conservatives were alarmed at the growing power of the Soviet Union and the impact on national prestige of events such as the withdrawal from Vietnam. In the UK, there was concern at the loss of sovereignty and national independence as a result of greater European integration. Hence within new right circles there was a desire to reinvigorate national pride
Conservative New Right Emerges in the USA in the 1970s as a backlash against fears of social fragmentation and breakdown. In contrast to the liberal new right, the Neocons aim to strengthen leadership and authority in society. Like traditional One Nation Conservatives, the Neo Cons are organicist, but whereas the former see community is best maintained by social reform, the Neocons see communities strengthened by restoring authority and social discipline. In the USA, Neo-Conservatism has been associated with the fundamentalist religious right. The new darling of the Conservative right- Michelle Bachmann has described homosexuality as a disorder or sexual dysfunction, drawing on support from deeply religious small town America. She is also very critical of the state education system for being too liberal and home tutored her children. Opposed to Federal government intervention, she has described Barak Obama as a socialist and pledges if elected as president to repeal all healthcare reform. Neo conservatism sees rising crime, delinquency and anti social behaviour as a consequence of decline in authority which has affected most western societies since the 1960s.. Permissiveness – the cult of the individual undermines established structures in society by permitting the questioning of authority. Neocons are therefore advocates of the traditional patriarchal family with the hierarchy of husband father/provider, wife homemaker and children bound by parental authority. (social conservatism). Social conservatism is matched by state authoritarianism whereby the state has a key role to play in tough law and order policies- Michael Howard- UK Home Secretary 1990s prison works NeoConservatives have sought to mobilise popular opinion in defence of Victorian Values (UK) and the Moral Majority campaigns in the USA in defence of a return to family values. Neo conservatives reject pluralism because it undermines the cohesiveness of society.. A permissive society lacks ethical norms and unifying standards. Neo Conservatives promote the nation as a unifying institution and guard against foreign threats. The core themes of NeoCon foreign policy is the emphasis on the pursuit of the national interest. And a tendency to view the world in terms of a struggle between good and evil. Reagan referred to the USSR as the Evil Empire, George Bush and the Axis of Evil. The neocons in the US argued that US hegemony should be preserved via military supremacy (Star Wars project-) also the successor to this- the Space Based Infrared system in the words of the USA military is designed to achieve ‘full spectrum dominance- land, sea, air, space and information. Furthermore, the aim is to spread US style democracy via regime change as the best antidote to war and expansion.. The latter achieved by intervention via military means.
Tensions within the right Neo Conservatives tend to be supportive of free market principles, nevertheless their main concern is with moral and social fragmentation. Roger Scruton, a leading Neo conservative in the UK argued that a principled commitment to the free market had no place within conservatism. Indeed, support for free market is at odds with conservative social theory which holds that society is organic and that the traditional patriarchal family with the father/provider and the stay at home mother. Free market principles require freedom of individuals to participate in the market place- the working as opposed to the stay at home wife/mother. Elements within the new right clash- Neo cons are socially conservative and see a positive role for the state in promoting social cohesion whereas Alan Duncan in Saturn’s Children sees the state as the problem critical even of Conservative governments’ law and order policy which he claims despite big increase in spending failed to cut crime and calling for the repeal of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Conservatives such as Duncan are much more concerned at the threat of the state to individual liberty whereas Neo Conservatives stress community and obligation. The liberal new right (neolibs) are positive advocates of the free market and have no sympathy for social conservatism which seeks to promote and protect traditional values. Whereas Neocons seek to maintain the independence of the nation state and are jealous of its sovereignty, the logic of neo liberalism is globalisation and the dilution of national barriers.
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