The problem of radicalism (part 1)

One of the difficult issues for a conservative to deal with is that of radicalism: just what actions can we take to further our cause? If we take seriously the idea that the role of the conservative is actually to conserve, to prevent change and to keep things as they are, then what actions are legitimate in trying to achieve this? Michael Oakeshott, in his essay ‘On Being Conservative’, offers one of the best and most succinct accounts of the conservative disposition:

“To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbound, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of the more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty and promise.” (1991, pp. 408-9)

This, for me, sums up also what it means to be antimodern, particularly the readiness to accept what is around us, to be content with enough rather than aspiring for everything.

But Oakeshott’s view of the conservative disposition is a quiet, even a passive, position. He does not expect us to have to fight for anything. We have much of what we want readily to hand and he seems to assume that we find much of what is around us congenial and to our liking: we can quite readily accept the world as it is.

But for some this is simply not the case. The state of the world makes them angry and they wish to alter the current arrangements. Perhaps they want to put things back how they once were (or they are imagined to be). This is a perfectly understandable position, but how can we turn this desire into action? And just what cations are legitimate for a conservative to take? For the left it is relatively simple: they is a direct connection between liberalism and socialism and the idea of progress and human perfectibility. This legitimises change and opens up the possibility for radical action. But can a conservative take the same route? If, following Oakeshott, we reject utopian notions, can we use the same strategies as the left? Might strident actions not have unforeseen and unintended consequences which materially affect our familiar world?

But if we reject radical action, where does this leaves us? Do we have to accept what we have and where we are and just put up with it? And if we end up saying that we really must avoid radical action what does say for the coherence of the antimodern worldview?

These are indeed difficult questions and accordingly I shall save trying to answer them for a time!



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