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The Intransigent Right in the Middle of the Century (Part Three): The Purpose of Conservative Intellectual Thought
What should intellectual conservatives be doing?
In my previous two posts in this series (here and here) I described how progressive discourse constructs a sinister, moustache-twirling ‘conservative intellectual’, who deploys his (always his) immense cunning to influence public policy in ill-defined and unevidenced ways. I suggested that this is not a sensible way to look at the subject, and that in order to get to the bottom of what the conservative intellectual project is actually all about we need to clear quite a bit of rubbish out of the way - mostly concerning the largely irrelevant distinction between being ‘left’ versus ‘right’ wing.
I then argued that the thoughts of two very different contemporaries - Michael Oakeshott and Michel Foucault - taken together give us a set of conceptual tools to understand what Foucault calls ‘political reason’ more effectively. This allows us to see the chief distinction in political thought as being between those who understand the purpose of the state as simply to stably preserve a civil way of life, and those who see its purpose as to improve the population’s material and/or moral conditions in view of enlightened ends.
I closed in observing that we are everywhere seeing these two visions of the state in a heightened state of tension, and that the latter of them is becoming increasingly dominant and assertive. We are being made ever more subject to an ‘all-encompassing, intrusive, regulatory and totalising mode of governance, which seeks to enjoin the entirety of society together in the realisation of ends’, and this tendency is becoming more aggressive and authoritarian: you may well have noticed.
This calls to mind an important passage from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which Adam Smith describes the dangers of being governed by the ‘man of system’. Such a man, ‘apt to be very wise in his own conceit’:
[Is] often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess–board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess–board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess–board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.
This character has become very familiar to us, in diffuse form; we see him everywhere, and it is no exaggeration to say that his approach has become the dominant style of Western government - again, you will no doubt have noticed this.
What is important about the critique of what we can call ‘technocracy’ that Smith offers in this passage is his keen awareness that it is unstable. This is so for two reasons. First, the man of system, for all his purported rationality, is fundamentally driven by an aesthetic concern: the ‘supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government’. He has a lovely, tidy, ordered vision of how the world is ideally to be arranged. And he therefore becomes very emotional when the irritating chess-pieces that he is bossing around do not conform with this vision. They are messing things up, and this is not to be tolerated. The man of system ‘cannot suffer the smallest deviation’ from his plan, and the consequence, as Smith goes on to say, is that the chess game ‘goes on miserably’ - with the pawns becoming increasingly surly and the man of system becoming ever more grumpy and authoritarian. This, again, is a phenomenon with which we are now very familiar: technocracy breeds contempt into the technocrats for their would-be subjects, and imbues the population with rebelliousness. This is not a recipe for long-term political stability.
Second, though, as Smith is keen to point out, it isn’t just that technocracy makes people miserable (which is bad enough, of course). It’s that it doesn’t work: when put into effect against the population’s natural instincts ‘society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder’. As I wrote a few weeks ago, leaving aside any deep philosophical critique of technocracy, perhaps its least appealing characteristic is that it can only ever fail even on its own terms. For all that it purports to improve the material and moral conditions of the population, it can only ever in the long run serve to make them worse. Men of system make bad decisions, because they always lack the necessary information to be fully informed, and because the application of pure rationality to public policy is to commit a category error. Again, we see this all around us. And, again, this is not a recipe for long-term political stability.
The picture of technocratic governance that Smith paints for us is therefore now playing out before our very eyes. As ‘system’ (Foucault’s ‘shepherd-flock game’) becomes the dominant mode of government, people are becoming miserable and life is getting worse - and things are becoming less and less stable as a result. Our elites become more irritable; the people become more fractious; we are not happy bunnies. And at the risk of repeating myself, you will no doubt have seen this for yourself.
Clearly, as you will by now have guessed, I am of the view that to be a political conservative means (or ought at any rate to mean) orienting oneself broadly towards nomocracy and against teleocracy; towards ‘the city’ and away from the ‘flock’; and towards the maintenance of social order and the preservation of settled norms of conduct against the impulse to achieve societal ends. For all that conservative political parties and the UK’s Conservative Party in particular do not in fact do this, at least we know that is what they should be doing. That’s political conservatism, though. What contributions can intellectual conservatives make?
There are, I think, three points to be made here. They are as follows:
Without wishing to be too Kierkegaardian (or ‘blackpilled’ as the saying now goes) it is important in some respects to counsel despair. The temporary triumph of a technocratic iteration of the shepherd-flock game is, I think, inevitable, for the simple reason that - to go back to the subject of my first post in this series - things have already progressed too far in a technocratic direction among the degree-holding sections of society for a change of course to currently be feasible. The people whose views most matter in the general sense - civil servants, teachers, journalists, university lecturers, and so on - are all thoroughly convinced Rawlsians, in that they can no longer even conceive of a form of political arrangement in which clever people aren’t supposed to shape society along more rational lines (generally in order to make it more distributively just). This does not mean that practical politics is not useful: there are important battles to be won; real people matter. But it does mean that we ought to be realistic about what is possible, and ‘regime change’ and the founding of new political parties (at least successful ones), for example, are not. We can save an awful lot of energy and wasted time by recognising this.
The point made above would be true even if it were desirable to launch some sort of conservative counter-revolution to recapture the institutions, but nor do I think is it desirable to do so. When the problem which we face is teleocracy itself (i.e., government’s organisation of society in order to achieve purposes), successfully solving that problem will not come about through the imposition of a teleocracy of a different sort. The arrogant presumption of a conservative man of system would be no better in the long run than his progressive counterpart; to take us back to Oakeshott, in the only respects that really matter, the project of those two figures would be largely the same. The conservative intellectual project cannot therefore be to supply conservative-minded politicians (I emphasise the use of the small ‘c’) with some sort of blueprint for reshaping society. More reshaping of society is the last thing any of us need.
Smith predicted misery and disorder as the man of system cemented his hold on what he imagined to be the chess-board of society, and misery and disorder is what we are going to get as our technocratic mode of governance follows itself through to its conclusions. We can already see this beginning to happen all around us as society both physically and psychologically deteriorates, and we can expect things to get much worse. This may go on for a long time. To resort to another hoary old Smithian line, there is a great deal of ruin in a nation. But people will not tolerate misery and disorder forever, and at some point the fever can be expected to break. When it eventually does, people will be hungry for good ideas, true ideas, eternal ideas. And it is therefore critically important that the Western intellectual tradition, which, for all of its flaws, values the search for such ideas, is preserved and maintained - or, if you will, conserved - so that it can feed that hunger and thus help society to sustain itself as it rebuilds.
The project of intellectual conservatism, and the role of the conservative intellectual, is therefore I think obvious. The main thing is our awareness that conserving is indeed really what we ought first and foremost to be doing. That is our calling. Somebody needs to keep the lights on and the fire burning as night draws in, if that isn’t too melodramatic a way of putting it - because dawn is a long way off.