Saturday, 12 December 2015

How to Be a Conservative Intellectual, or: The Truth in Roger Scruton

The conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton is an engaging character. His public appearances reveal a likeable patrician charm. He is also very much a product of the academic age, as comfortable debating theology with Terry Eagleton as he is discussing moral degeneracy on right-wing cable news. 

Scruton is an avid, if polemical, reader and critic of the left. His great enemy is the perceived divisiveness and "ressentiment" of social and cultural "egalitarians", whose projects wreak havoc on the traditional values of the home. His book 'How to Be a Conservative' is structured as a series of short inquiries into the truth in various ideas - capitalism, socialism, environmentalism - which preoccupy the modern world but are, in his eyes, loaded with misconceptions. In his Socratic wisdom, a kernel of truth is excavated from each idea's accumulated follies. Not so much a rejection of the enlightenment, but a turning of its tools against itself. 

The very mannered, English climax is a defence of conservatism, defined by its love of the sacred things it finds in a flawed world. "Conservatism is the philosophy of attachment. We are attached to the things we love, and wish to protect them against decay. But we know that they cannot last forever." This pessimism, found throughout Anglo-Saxon philosophy, is pitched particularly high in its conservative politics. There is a hard-to-define accord between the scepticism of Anglo-Saxon philosophy and its rigidly conservative high politics. Conservative thinkers as varied as Burke, Michael Oakeshott and John Gray have built whole political philosophies out of this scepticism, attaching a deep moral pessimism to its epistemological tenets. 

Naturally this pessimism extends to the "deep psychology of the human person", which conservatism takes as its basis. The question of human nature, though, is not whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about it, but whether to elevate its obvious limitations into an ethical imperative not to engage in collective political action, as collectivism implies surrender to irrational impulses. It is not uncommon for conservatives to invoke the name of Immanuel Kant in this connection, though Scruton prefers Hegel when it comes to it. "The process whereby human beings acquire their freedom also builds their attachments," he says approvingly. We are limited in our loyalties - restricted to our immediate 'oikos' - and so political ambition should be similarly modest. 

Although Scruton may like Hegel, he owes more to David Hume. It was Hume who, while valuing reason, felt that "custom" was the "great guide of human life." Scruton also values reason, but feels most people are incapable of being guided by it most of the time. In Hume's case, scepticism regarding abstract rationality led to the conservative political conclusion that good sense was guided by experience and history. Against rationalists and utilitarians, the conservatives would argue that existing arrangements might be good or useful precisely because they had endured great lengths of historical time. Hume, satisfied with the utility of great institutions, was then put off by the conflictual stuff of party or "factional" politics. Tradition, custom, sentiment, and the build-up of good institutions could keep the civil balance. Democracy was, even at this early stage, an "enthusiastic" extravagance.

Scruton's adaptation of his various sources is endearingly personal, based as it is in the first person: "Common-law justice spoke to me of a community built from below, through the guarantee offered by the courts to all who came before them with clean hands. The vision stayed with me thereafter as a narrative of home." This feeling for individual rootedness makes no bones about its rejection of universalism."To be conservative ... is to prefer the familiar to the unknown," Oakeshott wrote. Political localism follows, as in Scruton's vision of how "we construct enduring associations, with their rules, offices, ceremonies and hierarchies", from the (state-run?) libraries to the inevitable cricket clubs. The equally civic, communitarian hierarchy of the madrasas does not get a look in. Oakeshott's opposition of universitas (enterprise association) to societas (civil association), the goal-oriented and the organic, quietly plays itself out across Scruton's book. Home - the oikos - is developed from below, spontaneously and organically, without an organising principle. Scruton finds in English common law the accumulated outcome of this spontaneous activity. As with all true conservatives, the best sort of society just happens to be Scruton's own. 

It is on these grounds of civic localism and community bonding that Scruton rejects the great contract theories of modern philosophy, insisting that some pre-political ur-we underwrite the social contract if it is to succeed: "Unless and until people identify themselves with the country, its territory and its cultural inheritance - in something like the way people identify themselves with a family - the politics will not emerge." Here he criticises multiculturalism on the grounds that it negates the majority culture in deference to that of the minority. "Political order, in short requires cultural unity, something that politics itself can never provide." There are multiple ironies here. Scruton cites Mill's phrase the "tyranny of the majority" whilst neglecting the fact that those most threatened by majorities are precisely the immigrants who, he alleges, refuse to adapt to "our ways". How could there be any defence of the majority culture from minority interests without broad state-backed coercion? His defence of some imagined, static majority culture would contradict his conservative love of the organic and the spontaneous results of civil association. In other words, civil association is great as long as it is his kind of civil association. 

Multiculturalism does not mandate the erasure of majority cultures but rather seeks the interaction of multiple cultures and, through that interaction, their mutual enrichment. How on Earth to define British majority culture without its historical minorities - from the Scots, to the Celts, to West Indian communities? Scruton rejects fascistic concepts of national purity; yet his forcible defence of a single, unified British identity would obliterate all that he loves in British culture.

Scruton's oikophilia throws up other problems as he elaborates on the content of the enlightened values we get from Western civilisation. The central problem is in his concept of cultural possession. What is western culture really and who is the "we" laying claim to it? He says, "It is not arbitrary cultural imperialism that leads us to value Greek philosophy and literature, the Hebrew Bible, Roman law, and the medieval epics and romances." No indeed, it is not. For western culture, insofar as such a thing has some internal unity, is decidedly mongrel. It is defined by cross-pollination of sub-cultures, each of which, in the bigger picture, belongs to a minority. He goes on: "[The classics] are ours, in just the way that the legal order and the political institutions are ours: they form part of what made us, and convey the message that it is right to be what we are." What would it mean, in effect, for Britain or even modern Greece to claim ownership of Classical Hellenic literature? More disturbingly, what would it mean for modern Germany to declare the Jewish Torah "ours", part of "our" heritage, proof of who "we" are? Who is this "we" Scruton seeks to construct (for it is, despite his claim to the contrary, plainly a political construction), and what are the implications for those who are not or are no longer part of this "we"?

In Scruton's telling, the culture of the enlightenment is a shared inheritance: "This kaleidoscopic culture [of Europe] is still one thing, with a set of inviolable principles at its core" - a fixed thing, guaranteed in law, to which new arrivals must submit. Until actual European law is less alienating for those under it, we must remain agnostic about Europe's cultural unity (unless of course its unity consists in the shared barbarism of fascism and imperialism). 

Scruton recycles Isiah Berlin's distinction between positive and negative freedom in his opposition of  "freedom rights", which veto what one can do to another or take from them, to "claim rights," which demand actions be made by others or possessions relinquished by them. These "freedom rights" - the right to be left alone - are expressed in the type of laws which permit a free market. Conservatives, Scruton tells us, are in a position to favour the free market because markets are spontaneous achievements of uncoordinated action (no ink is spilled on the often violent making of markets by states). So freedom rights (which have a Bushian cadence, somewhat in the lyrical vein of "freedom fries") are the legal expression of an organic, accumulated order. This is not quite the market of simple, rational self-interest, of Homo oeconomicus, but that of Friedrich Hayek's "catallaxy": a spontaneous order of mutually interacting and self-adjusting markets; an gift from one generation to the next.

Among Scruton's freedom rights - those we preserve intact simply by minding our own business - is the apparently uncomplicated issue of going where one pleases, "my right to move freely from place to place." Except Scruton is ready to revoke such a right where it intrudes on the "cultural unity" of whatever territory a stranger wanders into. Scruton would, it seems, claim freedom of movement for his own, apparently benign purposes, whilst revoking it for others. In reality there are no such things as rights which do not make some kind of claim on others, and in practice any system of rights will require balancing the claims of different groups.

Scruton's straw men are omnipresent "egalitarians" who base their theory of justice on minority claims made against a supposedly privileged majority. He sees in their desire for redistribution a "zero-sum fallacy" in which the gains of the privileged are perceived as thefts from the disadvantaged which must be legislated against. Marxism, he argues, is the philosophical apex of this ressentiment, a political economy centred on the notion of "surplus value", the wealth stolen from workers by capitalists. The pursuit of equality is the abiding goal; the centralised, bureaucratic state the supposed mechanism for achieving it.

Yet, as analysed by Marxism, capitalism is more than a vast engine for generating inequalities. As Marx acknowledged capitalism is a great leveller of ancient social rank, in which "all that is solid melts into air." Surplus value is not simply the transfer of the value produced by the working masses to the possession of the owning class. Instead surplus value provides the key structural pivot in explaining how capitalism as a social system is reproduced without collapsing on itself. By reinvesting part of the accumulated capital in improvements and new techniques, the cycle of capital can proceed on an expanded basis. Some amount of this reinvested capital finds its way into society in the form of greater wages given over for consumption. Marx's theory of capital is not really about inequality but about the social and legal nature of ownership, power and control - it concerns questions of who exercises power in society. Despite the economic form, then, Marxism is a political theory of justice and democracy. It is as sharply critical of the state as the overarching coordinator of the power of capital as it is of the market. Socialism is not about redistribution via the state but about democratising both the market and the state. Today the state and the market elude popular controls - and nowhere do these two combine more systematically than in the European Union, which is rightly criticised by Scruton and other conservatives.

In a neat twist to all this, Hayekian conservatism's grand prize has been the neoliberal turn of international institutions since the 1980s. Despite conservative protests to the contrary, no market-oriented order in the world more closely resembles Hayek's daydreams of a constitutional order safely elevated above the whims of public choice, than the hated European Union. With the smallest bureaucracy in the world and practically no internal democratic initiative, the European Union presides over a coagulation of markets sapped of political life. That conservatives do not like the result hardly effaces the similarity.

The larger point is this: Scruton's political philosophy results in the erasure of politics proper from public life. His hatred of the state is not fully a hatred - after all, he would have it police sexuality and migrant populations. It is not the big state he dislikes but its intrusion on those like him - the famous "we" of his political imagination. Scruton celebrates Classical Greece but is quite uncomfortable with the agonism - the struggle or contest of ideas - characteristic of its democracy. The "we" he constructs results in a conformity every bit as dull as the Communism he despises. It is hard to escape the feeling he doesn't really like democracy because it involves people noisily disagreeing with his prejudices. In his utopia, the raw stuff of politics - disagreement, dissent, dissensus - is abolished in the name of good manners. To this suffocating primness a sharp retort is necessary: true politics depends on collective struggle.

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