Sunday 9 August 2020

On Conservative Despair

These things make me happy: shelves spilling over with books waiting to be read, trance music, and Tories in despair. You might think this species of conservative is thin on the ground. An effective majority of 80 (Julian Lewis ain't about to oppose the government, despite his expulsion) and super favourable opinion polling suggest they (should) have plenty to be cheerful, if not arrogant, about. And yet Tory gloom about their future exists, and occasionally finds itself articulated in Ed West's pessimistic forays on the topic. Having written a book on the decline of the right (which, you'll be glad to hear, gets a fuller treatment in my coming book on the Tories), Conservative Home gave him welcome space to dampen Tory spirits.

Ed's thesis is conservatism is doomed because social liberalism is on the march everywhere. Despite the grip the Tories have on British politics, the Black Lives Matter protests and the speed at which companies and the media have folded to the movement's demands represents yet another advance. And there is nothing Tories like him can do about it. The woke wave is less a tide and more a tsunami. All is swept up as it surges inland and when it ebbs, the ground is left utterly transformed. The chance of this provoking a conservative backlash is next to nil, especially when the people now entering middle age aren't moving right in anywhere near the same numbers as previous generations - and what push back there is champions the ridiculous, alienating rising generations all the more from conservatism and conservative parties.

What can the discerning social conservative do? Very little, it seems, apart from picking up a few crumbs where Ed finds some comfort. So we see the idea small countries have coped better with Covid-19 as a sort of endorsement of small statism. The crisis has encouraged a communitarian sensibility, reasserted the importance of expert knowledge and the notion and that, yes, sometimes people need to be told what to do. An enforced slowness of life induced by the lockdown has encouraged a move away from instantaneous and disposable culture, with the late Thursday night clapping ritual, a rediscovery of common events that bind us together. Superficial enough observations yes, but not ones you can build a conservative political programme out of. Don't tell Ed but, even worse, curbing atomised, narcissistic individualism and playing up social connectivity foregrounds something guaranteed not to be to conservative tastes.

Does Ed's argument sound familiar? Of course it does. We saw its more academic iteration wheeled out by Matthew Goodwin more recently, and is propagated on a spectrum ranging from Blue Labourism, mainstream Toryism (Ed West, sundry MPs and newspapers), and all the way to the nudge, nudge, wink, wink racism of "Cultural Marxism". They all share the same premise: conservative social values are losing ground because institutions are under the sway of sinister progressivists/unaccountable elites who, in turn, are brainwashing successive generations of people. That ever increasing numbers of people might be socially liberal thanks to the materiality of generationally conditioned everyday experiences, or successive right wing governments having a first class record of dumping on younger people, eludes them completely. Funny how stubborn, persistent, and immediately obvious realities of the 21st century is invisible to those who benefit from them. The likes of Ed then are philosophically paralysed, and can only find comfort in hard right authoritarians like Poland's Andrzej Duda and anti-semites like Hungary's Viktor Orban. 

If you want to take seriously its philosophical underpinnings, conservative thought is about managing change, of being cautious when it comes to reform and preserving what is good and wise over fads or, even worse, radical change. Translated into the brute reality of capitalist societies it's a creed for buttressing power and privilege, of maintaining prevailing class relationships. Therefore, scepticism about and the management of change is always an anxiety over and about the balance of power, ruling class power. Ed's pessimism is an acknowledgement that in the long run, his party and the class he identifies with have a serious political crisis coming.

And yet Conservatism, as a bourgeois political movement, is not paralysed. Far from it. Because it is rooted in ruling class politics, for as long as capitalism persists it too persists, along with subordinate establishment perspectives and traditions like liberalism and Fabianism. The Conservative project, if it can be so described, is a permanent rear guard action for stymieing what's coming and works to recast politics on grounds favourable for its continued dominance. In our present Tory government, we see this fight against the future assume three broad forms. There is being seen to be a crusading, activist, reforming government motivated by the best of intentions. This was and is Boris Johnson's approach to Brexit, and ditto for Coronavirus. For example, Rishi Sunak's stimulus measures, as pathetic as they are, materially benefit key sections of existing Tory support while showing the others in their coalition (i.e. pensioners, largely sheltered from the economic consequences of Covid-19) they are "doing things" to get matters working again. Few among this layer are about to bother looking too closely. The second is tried and tested scapegoating, the familiar spectacle of pinning the blame on or sign posting particular groups as the condensation of all that is wrong with the country. Classic divide and rule; today it's refugees risking their necks in the English Channel, yesterday it was immigrants generally, and tomorrow some other powerless and marginalised people will get their turn. Lastly, a conservative favourite is displacement activity, of generating projects and causes that, to all intents and purposes, are distractions from long-running problems, like Britain's economic decline or climate change. Brexit is the exemplar of such, even if it does reflect a real division among the ruling class. And it has, temporarily, consolidated the Tory stranglehold on politics. It also promises more political opportunities in the future as Johnson and friends jet around the world striking new trade deals to replace what is being lost through leaving the EU - an ultimately pointless piece of theatre sacrificing economic capital for political capital, as Old Bourdieu might have understood it.

Conservatives have to win and keep on winning for their system and their class power to persist. With all their advantages it's still a massive slog, they are by no means are they guaranteed to win, and ultimately stumping for the persistence of inequality and injustice is demeaning and disfiguring. Just look at the calibre of contemporary conservative intellectuals - bank accounts stuffed with money to compensate for the poverty of their minds. For those able to take a longer view, like Ed West has, a reckoning lies on the horizon threatening a most dreadful finality: the end of conservatism's popular base and, if it all goes terribly wrong, the permanent eclipse of the class it serves. As the old socialists used to say, they need to win all the time. We only need to win the once.

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Blissex said...

«And yet Conservatism, as a bourgeois political movement, is not paralysed. Far from it. Because it is rooted in ruling class politics, for as long as capitalism persists it too persists, along with subordinate establishment perspectives and traditions like liberalism and Fabianism»

But Conservativism with an upper case "C" should refer to the Conservative Party, while “conservative thought is about managing change, of being cautious when it comes to reform and preserving what is good and wise” is torysm, and the Conservative party is a mix of "old money" tory and "new money" whig, and this been the case of well over a hundred years and it is the whig side that represents best the interests of private capital. BTW There used to be even an almost-Fabian wing in the Conservatives.

The whig side has is not very much part of “The Conservative project [...] a permanent rear guard action for stymieing what's coming”, indeed it has been very progressive with respect to pre-existing tory politics.

I continue to blame C Robin's silly propaganda that right wing parties are purely reactionary against emancipation, and based on “a creed for buttressing power and privilege, of maintaining prevailing class relationships”. Because the whig "new money" side have been pushing out of power and reducing the privilege of the tory "old money" side, and capitalism has largely uprooted previous class relationships.

MY usual claim is that right-wing parties in general are about *incumbency*, not just defending it but also *promoting* it, rather than specific power and privilege, or seek to maintain existing class relationships, and even *changing* which form of incumbency is dominant.

So most right-wing parties are coalition of interests of different types of incumbency, and the dominant thatcherite whigs among the Conservatives are mostly about incumbency in favourable financial capital markets positions; the whigs are not about incumbency in large landholdings and the associated tory social values, quite the opposite (ideally they want to asset strip the tories). They are in a temporary alliance with the tories because it so happens that current financial capital is mostly about land speculation; secondarily many whigs are also in part rentiers (hedge funders who buy manors with estates), and many tories are also in part financialists (also have in part funds invested in the markets).

Consider the centre of tory social values, the family (or the dynasty): the whigs are very much indifferent or against it, because of their individualist ideology and their interest that market relationships be more important than family and other personal relationships. The Conservative party have only perfunctorily defended traditional family values overall, and usually to justify tax cuts for them, in part to please their tory side.

Brexit and Johnsonism are in part a return to toryism, but Johnson and his mates have always been sterling financialist and globalist whigs just like Cameron and his mates.
I think that they just saw with Cameron's defeat on Brexit an electoral opportunity to grab another chunk of tory-oriented voters, purely opportunistically, and to switch the Conservatives a little bit more towards toryism.

While I agree that toryism is in long term decline, despite recent events, I am not sure that the Conservative party is in the same decline because it still has its whig side.

Blissex said...

Some of the admiring reviews of E West's book makes it clear it is nothing to do with the actually-existing Conservative party:

«Peter Hitchens has been writing about his hopelessness in all political matters for decades. He hates and disregards the Conservative Party, which he thinks is a Blairite project»

But P Hitchens is a "high tory", and he is right, thatcherism and blairism are essentially synonymous, as Peter Mandelson said, also in their appealing also to tory voters on economic interests (property values!) to overcome their distaste for whig social values (to them big property profits are worth if not a Mass, civil marriage between homosexuals).

Philip Gould: “Peter [Mandelson] thinks that we are a quasi-Conservative Party but that we should stick our necks out on Europe.
Peter Mandelson: "we are all thatcherites now"

a random commenter on "The Guardian": “I'm nearly thirty, which means I grew up under Major (just), Blair and Brown then Dave and Nick. In my considered opinion and the opinion of my peers - you couldn't fit a fag paper between them.

There is of course a difference between the Conservatives and New Labour: the Conservatives have a whig side but their base has many tories, New Labour has a whig side but their base has many social-democrats instead, so occasionally the Conservatives have to appease the tories, and New Labour have to appease the social-democrats.

Jimbo said...

I think you should start a blog Blissex, id read it. You have some interesting things to say, let us know if you start one.

Graham said...

"We only need to win the once." - Now that Starmer is in charge, what is it that we are actually going to win ?

BCFG said...

"I think you should start a blog Blissex, id read it. "

me too!

Blissex said...

«Now that Starmer is in charge, what is it that we are actually going to win ?»

That's a very good way of putting it.

Our blogger in a recent post wrote that he thought that K Starmer's strategy was to be "a safe pair of hands that won't bring the Home Counties out in a cold sweat nor frighten the city boys", but K Starmer cannot do that just by using nicer manners and softer words than a "misogynist racist anti-semitic trot".

The Home Counties and the City boys won't be upset only if he offers a thatcherite economic programme for the benefit of rentiers, they will be upset by any hint of "social-democracy" or any threat to their rentier interests, which is what K Starmer (and his carefully chosen shadow cabinet) are going to take care of.

Yet they don't even switch their vote from the nastier thatcherites (Conservatives) to the nicer thatcherites (New New Labour, LibDems) unless they get screwed by a property/finance crash (as in 1997) and if that happens they have no problem switching from the nicer thatcherites to the nastier ones (as in 2010, even if many switched to the LibDems because they remembered the nastier thatcherites screwing them 10-15 years earlier).