First thoughts on the May 2015 election

I work in a politics department and so I am surrounded by people of the left. Much of the discussions I have been on the edge of over the last few months, as we moved towards the 2015 General Election, was why was the Labour so timid and why could it not be properly left wing. I have made myself rather unpopular by providing a one-word answer: democracy. I have told my colleagues that achieving socialism in a country like Britain is impossible as long as people are allowed to express their preference through the ballot box. Perhaps it is not surprising that this view fails to gain much traction amongst my colleagues, who regardless of setbacks still persist with the myth that socialism is what people really want. As a result they concoct ever more elaborate explanations as to why the people choose wrongly: it is due to the media, the education system, hegemonic class relations, and whatever else is currently fashionable.

But what cannot be admitted is that many of Britons, perhaps now a clear majority are small ‘c’ conservatives. These are not people who have any wish to labels themselves as such, and they would certainly not seek to join a political party: that would be a very unconservative thing to do. Instead they quietly focus on what matters and this is mainly what is already familiar. When there is an election they will start to engage at the end – only when they must – makes their choice, vote and then get back to what matters. They know that what they are able to do after the election is exactly what they were able to do before it. The sun still shines, the earth still spins, bills need to be paid, meals prepared. In short, life goes on. Most people are not angry, but then neither do they expect politicians to be able to do much. They have low expectations and instead seek to rely on their own resources and use what is around them for comfort.

It is easy to portray this attitude as stupid, ignorant or lazy. It provides all too ready fodder for those who wish to argue that the people are being deluded. But these views are wrong. Most people are not stupid. Rather they are too sensible to be drawn into things that do not matter to them. They know there was no crisis or imminent threat. They know what tomorrow will bring and that it will be there because of their own efforts and not because of someone else’s theories, ideas or principles. And this, I have to say, is really very comforting. At least until they take the vote away.

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54 Theses on the Future

  1. In the future we will still be dependent on the past
  2. In the future we will still be unhappy
  3. In the future we will still dream of what we will do in the future
  4. In the future we will still laugh about the dreams of our ancestors
  5. In the future we will still be afraid
  6. In the future we will still believe we know more than our parents
  7. In the future we will still look forward to tomorrow
  8. In the future there will be no future
  9. In the future we will not be the cause of our own misfortunes
  10. In the future God will still be on our side
  11. In the future we will still aspire for what we cannot hope to achieve
  12. In the future we will show contempt to those who tell us things we do not want to know
  13. In the future we will forget
  14. In the future we will still blame our parents
  15. In the future we will still expect more
  16. In the future we will not be prepared to admit how wrong we are
  17. In the future God will still be dead
  18. In the future it will not appear to matter until it is too late
  19. In the future we will remember all too well
  20. In the future who knows?
  21. In the future we will still be searching for God
  22. In the future we will be confused
  23. In the future it will not be our fault
  24. In the future we will not be there
  25. In the future our children will rightly blame us
  26. In the future we will laugh at those who claim to have found God
  27. In the future we still will not be listening
  28. In the future there will be no time left
  29. In the future it will not hurt any less
  30. In the future may we be forgiven?
  31. In the future flowers will blossom whether we see them or not
  32. In the future we will regret things we know we should not have done
  33. In the future there will be more mistakes than we can account for
  34. In the future birds will still sing
  35. In the future it will all be for the best
  36. In the future what more could we hope for?
  37. In the future the sun will shine
  38. In the future things will seem more vulgar than they do now
  39. In the future nothing will have changed and all will be well
  40. In the future do you think we will really care?
  41. In the future dog will eat dog
  42. In the future we will be as sophisticated as it is possible to be
  43. In the future we will care for others better than we do now
  44. In the future there will be nothing left to say
  45. In the future we will aim higher
  46. In the future we will be disappointed
  47. In the future crying will not help us
  48. In the future all bets are off
  49. In the future we will talk even more than today
  50. In the future we will not be able to imagine our past
  51. In the future we will know our future
  52. In the future everything will be certain
  53. In the future we will still have no idea
  54. In the future we will still be wrong

 

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Review at The American Conservative

Rod Dreher at ‘The American Conservative’ website has commented on my book. It consists largely of a quote but he goes on to say that, “One rarely comes across a work of political philosophy that states such profound ideas with utter clarity”.

See more at: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/dont-do-anything-just-sit-there/

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Positive antimodernism

Antimodernism is not simply a matter of saying ‘no’ to things. And nor is it always about excluding others. Sadly, however, these two notions – of negativity and exclusion – often seem to dominate antimodern discourse. Partly this is to be expected: antimodernism is against something. It defines itself by what it is not and what it wishes to fight. Yet to focus on the negative – on being ‘anti’ – is to ignore why we take the stance we do. It is also to risk the idea that antimodernism is based on hatred and fear of those who are different from us.

The form of antimodernism I espouse can be defined quite simply as the love of home. It is the commonly held desire that we all have to keep certain people and certain things close to us. This does mean that we will exclude others, but only so we can protect and nurture those we love. To live privately with those we care for is to exclude. But we exclude not because we hate others, or because we wish to separate ourselves from those we are different. Rather we exclude to make our lives possible. We need a stable and secure base from which we can nurture and care and show love to those special few.

It is this need for stability that leads us to reject the flux and transgression at the heart of modernity. We do not accept the creative destruction that comes with the idea of progress. We do not wish for change, but wish to stay where we are so we can be safe and nurture those we love.

But this sense of nurturing should also lead us to reject some of the more strident forms of antimodernism. The love of home is not a search for identity. We are not seeking to create or defend some national or cultural identity that distinguishes us from others. Rather the antimodernism I wish to espouse is concerned with our ordinary everyday lives. It is a concern with how we live day to day in families and communities. It is where we can recognise what we have inherited and what we owe to those who came before us, but not in any sense of it being threatened or endangered by those who we cannot accept. There is no great sense of otherness, of us against them and the need to defend ourselves. Rather we just wish to be allowed to live as we will, without change being thrust upon us.

We have no need to hate or fear others and we have no need to separate ourselves from those who look and act differently from us. We can ignore those outside of the home, or we can invite them in. What matters is our ability to maintain that boundary. But that boundary is not defined by tribe, nation or race, but by the scope of our everyday lives and the relationship with have those people and things close to us.

This is a positive vision of antimodernism, and one that we can use to challenge the perception that all we are concerned with is identity and difference. For most of us these do matter. We can find no reason for hatred and find no threat at our door. This is because of what nurtures and protects us. And this does not depend on abstractions and constructions built from fear, but on the reality of how we live with others. This gives us clear grounds to resist the flux and change of the modern world, but also to ignore those who wish to forge a collective identity based on ideas beyond our home and ourselves.

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Freedom

What is the connection between antimodernism and freedom? Should we just assume that antimodernists would favour constraint rather than freedom? Is there are a necessary connection between authoritarianism and antimodernism?

I would argue that the link between antimodernism and freedom is not a straightforward one. As I will show, antimodernists cannot properly speaking be individualists. But this does not mean that they are always or even necessarily authoritarian. Freedom is one the main poles around which much of social thought is founded, the other being the idea of equality. However, we can suggest that while this is an important relation, it is a modernist one and does not allow much space for conservative ideas. A conservative would more naturally put freedom up against the idea of authority. For the conservative, any society can only operate if there is a stable social order. I would suggest that most, if not all, antimodernists would concur with this view and place authority above both freedom and equality. If there is no order, no framework in which individuals can act, then there can be no freedom. Freedom can only exist if there are constraints on freedom. Each individual must expect constraints on their freedom to act to allow others to act as they choose to.

We might argue that freedom is an important element in any social order, and most antimodernists would doubtless agree with this. We should be free to choose how we live our lives. But this freedom can only be sustained if there is a stable social order, and so the antimodernist is likely to place greater emphasis on those elements that create and maintain that order. This means that they will tend to be concerned as much with the constraints on freedom as its expression.

The pre-eminence of freedom in social thought is often justified on the grounds that social facts can only be created by the acts of individual actors. Methodological individualists, such as Ludwig Von Mises, argue that there is nothing other than human action. A society is nothing more than the accumulation of human actions.

The problem with this view from an antimodernist perspective is that it will tend to place greater emphasis on current actions rather than those that might have taken place one, ten or even a hundred years ago. It suggests that all human actions are alike and so the actions we take now are as consequent as those of the past. Yet an antimodernist cannot accept this. They will concern themselves with the traditions and customs of a society, and this will naturally lead them to the question of how citizens have been made by these traditions. Individual actors cannot make themselves out of nothing. They can only act within a particular context. This, of course, does not disprove the idea of methodological individualism, but it might suggest that we should focus on the context as much, if not more, than the actions themselves. It is the context which both contains and constraints the actions of the present. It informs us that the actions of an individual actor are heavily constrained, and, furthermore, this is entirely as it should be as no actions are possible without the context.

A more positive way of describing the importance of constraint is to speak in terms of responsibility. We should argue that freedom can only be guaranteed when we all take responsibility for our actions and our behaviour towards others. This allows us to question the consequences of freedom but in a manner that does not denigrate the importance of the individual moral agent. It will allow an antimodernist to defend the idea of individual freedom, but in a manner that locates this freedom within the context of a wider social order. It will mean that instead of focusing on the ‘right’ to indulge in hard drugs it will focus on the effect that this might have on the individual and those around them. Instead of the right to bear arms it will focus on the damage that guns can do to others. In other words, this concern for responsibility and constraint demonstrates that freedom is a double-sided concept: freedom can be taken, but it also has to be given.

So an antimodernist will not be against freedom. But they recognise that it can only exist by being limited. This is the only way of ensuring that liberty does not descend into license, and so allow the freedoms of the many to be protected from the ill-judged choices of the few.

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Doing nothing much

The biggest problem with modernism is its infatuation with the idea of progress and the belief in human perfectibility. It is this obsession that made the twentieth Century such as turbulent and violent time, with the ‘little people’ sacrificed on the altar of intellectual hubris. So it is the very idea of progress that an antimodernist should challenge wherever possible.

It would be comforting if we could take this as one of the basic divisions in politics. However, it is clear that there are many conservatives who also subscribe to the ideal of progress. Indeed, the UK Conservative party, under David Cameron’s leadership, have deliberately tried to develop themselves as progressive. This is certainly challengeable, and has led many to question the credentials of Mr Cameron as a conservative. But there is one grouping commonly seen to be on the right that is perhaps progressive by definition.

Libertarians believe that the most important end in politics and morality is individual freedom. There is nothing superior to this and that societies should be so arranged to maximize this freedom. Libertarians argue that certain forms of state action, including taxation, the provision of welfare, compulsory education and even the provision of public goods are impermissible and should be ended. They envisage a society that is based on the operation of markets and which are led by the choices that individuals make as both consumers and as free moral agents.

This might appear to be either an inspiring or a frightening vision. However, it is most certainly a vision for the future. It is an attempt to draw up a better or even a perfect society. It may lead to diametrically opposing outcomes to those of socialist utopians, but it is exactly the same process. Libertarians believe in the possibility of progress towards a better society. They believe that this can be planned for, even if the outcome is the unplanned society.

Although some libertarians cavil at the distinction between left and right most would consider themselves to be modernists. It is indeed the case that some Americans have taken up the label of paleo-libertarians to show that while they believe in radical economic transformation they remain socially conservative, opposed to the permissiveness of modern society and the transgressive nature of modern art. But at best, this means they are still semi-modernists, and we can question the logic of how compatible are market-based institutions based on choice with social conservatism. How can one be enforced without seriously detracting from the other?

I have no wish to argue here against any form of libertarianism: it is a view at one time I have had considerable sympathy for. I now see it as mistaken and do so precisely because of the problems of attempts to enforce progressive change onto existing social arrangements. What I do wish to state, however, and the example of paleo-conservatism demonstrates this all too well, is that it is actually very difficult to oppose progress.

Most forms of political action, whether they acknowledge the fact or not, are about affecting change and so progress can be seen as the main purpose of politics. It may appear to be obvious that we wish to create a better society and so we can see that calls for progress have a ready appeal. It might even seem absurd to oppose progress: why would anyone not want a better society? This leaves the antimodernist with two alternatives. First, we can state that instead of looking to the future we look to the past and try to re-create this better society. The rhetoric here will be of returning to traditional values and institutions; of restoring a society to its former glory. But, we have to acknowledge, that time does not move backwards and we would still be creating something new. The same problems of unpredictability and lack of control would appear as exist with modernist change. And we cannot unlearn all we know about the present.

Second, we can argue that the present society we have, which after all is the accumulation of all past knowledge is the best society we can possibly hope for. We cannot hope to create anything better without the serious risk of destroying all we have. There may well be parts of our society that would like to disown and we can point these out. But there will be other parts that we can emphasise that show the best that has been thought, said and done and which properly link us to our ancestors and the traditions that they helped to form slowly over time. In pointing to these traditions we can point to what appears to be a way forward, but which is actually a way of staying still, or sustaining ourselves properly. And in doing so we can use these institutions, values and ways of acting to slowly pull down those parts of our society we see as failing us. But we recognise as we do this that all we need is currently here with us.

I would suggest that this second option is the only tenable one for an antimodernist to take. The problem is that it does not have the same instant appeal as the call for progress. It can make no claims about the better life we can expect in the future and so we might struggle to convince others to join us. But, and her is the beauty of this option, we do not have to struggle or fight. We merely have to live well and in doing so demonstrate what is still so good about what we have here with us here today.

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The love of home

Without doubt the most significant recent contribution to conservative thought in the English speaking world has come from the philosopher Roger Scruton, and this is in addition to his contributions to our understanding of both the aesthetics of music and architecture. Over the last 30 years or so he had written a series of books that demonstrate the enduring qualities of the conservative disposition. I believe that his most important contribution is one of his most recent books, Green Philosophy, published in 2012. In this book Scruton seeks to make the conservative case for conservatism and the preservation of the natural environment. But in doing so, he raises many of the issues he has discussed in his earlier work, such that we can see Green Philosophy as Scruton’s magnum opus, where he is able to lay out his conservative philosophy it all its detail.

In all of his works Scruton has shown the importance of our local roots. He has discussed in several of his books the importance of England to him and how the laws, customs and traditions of the country are drawn from the soil. Indeed, it is this link to the local that I take to be Scruton’s most important contribution to conservative thought, namely, that conservatism is literally the love of home.

However, Scruton does not help himself here in developing this crucial idea. This is because he chose to give it the rather unfortunate name of oikophilia. It is unfortunate because we live in age that is largely ignorant of the classical languages and so the meaning of the term is not readily apparent to many. Indeed, it is all too easy to link the term to something completely different as the term appears to be referring to a love of ‘oiks’ and also might actually appear to be a celebration of the rude and uppity.

This is unfortunate because this idea is fundamental to understanding the nature of conservatism. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that we could define conservatism as the love of home. We place great store on the local and the familiar, on what we know and consequently have developed a great affection for. We are prepared to die for our home and this is precisely because it gives us a purpose for living. It shows that what is important to us is the here and now, those palpable and ever present things that give our lives meaning.

We are beings that dwelling: we need to be settled and relish the permanence of our connection with our home. It gives us security and allows us the complacency we need in order to fulfill our chosen ends free from the concerns of subsistence and survival. Without a home we cannot function as individuals or as a society. It is what gives us a focus; home identifies us for what we are and locates us. This is the key conservative insight: that we are located beings who have a naturally affinity to what we already know. From this flows all that we know and understand about the conservative disposition: the love for the past, the ties to the land, the affection for a particular community of people and its institutions, a love of our culture and the desire to maintain and protect it. This is what makes conservatism so uniquely appealing. It is also what both annoys and frightens the progressives, who see this as a direct challenge to their desire for change and belief in human perfectibility. Conservatism has to be opposed and denigrated at all costs because it is a standing example of the wrongheadedness of progress and modernism.

This is why we need to state clearly and precisely what it is that we are seeking to preserve. We cannot afford to obscure the idea by attaching a misleading label. We have to show plainly that what we are considered with and what matters to us is simply the love of home.

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Acceptance

Why should we assume that politics has a happy ending? Of course we believe that our views are superior to all others; why else would we adhere to them? But an antimodernist and a conservative cannot seriously believe that things will necessarily get better. Now things might well improve, but we ought not to expect it.

But perhaps we need to go further than this. If we believe that societies do not progress then we should not do anything to assist in attempts at progress. What we should be concerned with is preserving and protecting, maintaining what we have. We should limit our political activity to preserving things, and this means that we will be reactive, defensive and appropriately cautious in our actions. We must not fall into the trap of believing that because a problem is serious, and it makes us angry, then we must put forward a radical solution. There is no necessary connection between the strength of our views and their truthfulness, and nor is truthfulness in any way linked to the seriousness of our response.

The greatest insight of conservative thought is that politics has no end. Governing has no purpose beyond its own continuance: it is an end in itself. We do not need government to make our lives better, but simply so we can carry on living as we wish to. Societies exist because they permit human beings to flourish. But this is all, and it ought to be seen as enough. Indeed, it is very difficult to manage even these limited aims.

This means that the idea of acceptance is at the very heart of conservatism. Conservatives recognise that we are where we are and are what we are, and to attempt to change this often leads to disaster. We do not know enough to plan for the future and so we should not attempt it.

But this means that conservatives cannot promise a better future. All they can do is state that they will not make things worse. Conservatism necessitates a focus on how we live now. We cannot sacrifice the present for a hypothetical future. We have to accept our place and relish it, not look at the horizon and wish we were elsewhere. This means that we will have to be prepared to put up with things that are not ideal and perhaps which do not always work well. But why should we assume that we can readily changes matters just to suit ourselves? Why should we take the instant gratification promised by modernity as the norm rather than a rash promise? Cannot we see that much of what we have been promised in the past has failed to materialise?

Acceptance implies that we may well struggle to convince the undecided. We have to know the importance of acceptance already. It is part of the dispositional quality of conservatism. It is an attitude towards where we are and what we have. We cannot decide to accept, but have to feel it. It is not a rational act but an act of faith.

Stressing acceptance is unlikely to appeal to everyone. It means accepting many things we find unappealing and realising that we cannot do much about this. This will appear deeply unsatisfactory to those who take a more idealistic view towards political action. But we have to realise that many of the things that we find so unappealing about the world today have come about because of the actions of political zealots who were so certain they knew what was best. These zealots felt that they could make the future better and would not listen to those who called for caution. Conservatives know that the consequences of political zealotry will be failure. But this failure will not lessen the effects of the changes of ill-thought actions: they will be just as consequential and not easily brushed off. We would not be able to merely say ‘never mind’ and try again.

So what we can do is to challenge those who believe they know the future. We should try to stop them, or at worst, to slow them down. If this appears to be negative, cynical or even nihilistic then that is unfortunate. But it is better than being an accomplice to political hubris and inevitable failure. We should not try for happy ending, but rather to convince our fellows that they can remain happy today.

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Antimodernism is …

  • A respect for tradition
  • The rejection of progress
  • The belief that change can only be sanctioned if it protects or corrects existing institutions
  • An optimism towards the past and pessimism towards the future
  • Knowing that the past is fundamentally different from the future
  • Where we have no need to explain or justify the past: the past justifies and explains us
  • An awareness of the fact that it is easier to destroy than to create
  • The opposition to ideas of transgression and repudiation
  • An epistemological modesty: we know that there is much we do not know
  • The desire to protect and support our own culture
  • An appreciation of the importance of home; of the local rather than the global; of identifying with the familiar
  • An understanding that there can be no innovations in morals
  • Knowing that humans are not capable of perfection and that the attempt it not only bound to fail but dangerous
  • The understanding that a society has not purpose other than its own continuance. This is what allows individuals to flourish and prosper
  • Appreciating that change will always be unpredictable and uncontrollable
  • Knowing that we need fixed points to relate ourselves to. We need to put down roots and we need clear routes to follow
  • An acceptance of what we are, where we are, both collectively and individually
  • The knowledge that society depends on freedom and that freedom depends on order
  • The understanding that there are no hidden structures below everyday reality and no necessary outcomes
  • An unwillingness to question and an acceptance of the world as it is

 

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Too much about race

One of the most worrying aspects about antimodernism is the all-too-ready way that both its proponents and opponents are able to link it to the issue of race. And, unfortunately, the opponents of antimodernism are able to do this largely because it tends to dominate the discussion of its proponents. Indeed it seems sometimes that the issue of race, along with the allied notions of nation and identity, are all that antimodernists wish to talk about.

I find this particularly unfortunate, and do so for two reasons. First, it means that all forms of antimodernism get tarred with the same brush: ‘all antimodernists are obsessed with race and therefore ….’ As a result it becomes much harder to get a hearing for other issues such as notion of the sacred, the destruction of long established institutions and the decline in certain forms of elite culture. This means that all antimodernists can be dismissed as extremists and purveyors of hate. The focus on race allows antimodernism to be seen as small minded, nasty and obsessive. It ignores the positive inheritance that antimodernist thought draws from many diverse sources.

Roger Scruton, in his book Culture Counts (2007) makes the point wonderfully when he states: “Civilisations grow out of and into each other, and often divide like amoebas so as to generate two contemporaneous offshoots; hence, it is very hard to set spatial or temporal boundaries on Western Civilisation. It grew from the fusion of Christianity with the law and government of Rome, became conscious of itself in the high Middle Ages, passed through a period of scepticism and Enlightenment, and was simultaneously spread around the globe by the trading and colonial interests of its more adventurous members. And throughout its most flourishing periods, Western Civilisation has produced a culture which rapidly absorbs and adapts the cultures of other places, other faiths and other times. Its basic fund of stories, its moral precepts, and its religious imagery comes from the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament. Onto those Judeo-Christian roots, however, has been grafted a tree of many branches, bearing many kinds of fruit. The Thousand and One Nights, which has a central place in Islamic culture, is equally part of the cultural heritage of the West, while the pagan literature of Greece and Rome has been taught for centuries as the fount of our literary tradition.”

Second, it is plain contradictory, in that the concern for race, particularly as a biological entity is very much a modernist concern. The idea of biological race is determined from the rise of positivist science and the determination to categorise and quantify. We should remember that Guenon took the idea of quantification to be the principle symptom of modernism. Race, as it is used by many on the right, is a modernist concept.

In my book I do not talk much at all about race, other than the make the points I have just stated above. My reason for this is that there is much that is positive to talk about: our shared culture based on the great religions, the literature, art, music, and in particular the long shared history. It is indeed true that we define antimodernism negatively, by what it is not. But this should not be allowed to hide the fact that what we are seeking to promote and protect is entirely positive. Hence, I have tried to focus in my book on the positive, on the exploration of a common and widely held condition, and not to suggest that it is a frightened or resentful state at war with the world as it is.

So, I have a plea to make: stop barking on about race!

 

 

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