A Brief History of Conservatism (V): Society

As is usually the case, this article begins with ruminations on Baroness Thatcher’s contribution to the legacy of conservatism. Margaret Thatcher once (in)famously declared that there is "no such thing as society". It earned her the enmity of the Left permanently, whose very philosophy is built around the primacy of society and the subjection of the individual to its will. The forgotten second half of the declaration, however, is telling; "there are only individuals, and their families"[1]. What Thatcher maybe misunderstood of her own philosophy, was that there is no monolithic society; instead, ‘society’ is merely a collection of associations and traditional communities, overlapping constantly with one another, brought and held together under the banner of government and politics, national identity, and (perhaps) some quirk of geographic boundary. Indeed, the Conservative Party’s 2010 Manifesto stated, as some leading members of the Party had in the 2000’s, “there is such a thing as society, it is just different from the state”. An observer would be forgiven for being confused here; “so what do conservatives think about society?” The answer, if there is one, is varied and complex (as usual – nothing is ever easy).

The first thing I think needs addressing is the concept of Knowledge. Kieron O’Hara predicated his defence of conservatism on the twin principles of Knowledge and Change, both pertinent to conservatism’s continued relevance and revivals, and distinctly connected[2]. The issue of change is always a difficult one; the assumption that conservatism is the “desire to conserve” is misguided in that it ignores one of Burke’s most fundamental observations, that “a society without the means of change is without the means of conservatism”. Hogg makes this point more lucid in his claim that “if conservatism meant ‘no change’, then the only truly conservative organism would be a dead one”[3]. Here is revealed the distinctly organic view of society that conservatives take; that it changes of its own accord, it is a living thing, and must be respected as such. So why is Knowledge relevant? Put simply, the knowledge of how society could change and alter can only be found in society itself. As argued in the article on free markets, the myriad knowledge of all the quirks and facts about society cannot be distilled into a single formula, and the goals and ends of human existence similarly cannot be distilled into a single end; or, as Isaiah Berlin referred to it, ‘monism’[4].

In other words, even if it were a good idea to do so, government cannot possible know how to direct society towards a final goal, because the knowledge required to do so is so dispersed and unintelligible that it cannot never be held, all at once, by one institution. Similarly, as society is the primary repository of knowledge, it is also the primary producer of identity. Where postmodernists seek to tear down the categorical boundaries of social identity to strip us back to the bare bones of our animal state – and thus remake us into New Humans that can live in the utopias of tomorrow – conservatives are enamoured with those social identities that have been produced and fostered over time, and which shape us indefinitely. The significance of institutions – from families to schools, from friendship groups to sports teams – in shaping our behaviour, and by extension our identities, cannot be overstated. But it is this shared identity that provides society with the unique means by which we can bridge the gap between individual identities and see ourselves as members of the “first-person plural – the ‘we’”, and so we must cherish these identities as providing us with a sense of belonging with one another.

Another view of the social bond that conservatives possess is akin to the Social Contract theory. As discussed in my article on property, the Social Contract theory presumes each signatory to be perfectly rational in his capacities; Hobbes’ proposed understanding of social obligation was that we engage one another to decide on rules for harmonious living, due to his perception of the ‘state of nature’ as being a ‘war of all against all’, where life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’, but the essential proviso was that “there can be no obligation on any man, which arises not from some act of his own”[5]. In essence, every citizen gives his consent to be ruled.

But how can this consent be understood? Briefly, the theory suggests each member of society tacitly agrees to the rules by which he is governed through membership, and in doing so metaphorically signs the social “contract”. This is a compelling argument for obligation; after all, you have had a say in the way you should be governed, meaning you have rational cause to obey the laws, and also you have ration cause to disobey the law where it is used to abuse you.

However, the error made in understanding Social Contract theory is to assume the contract precedes the association of the signatories. John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ theory, for example, assumes the future signatories of the contract are assembled for the pure purpose of signing the contract, that they may live together in future, in harmony. However, Scruton has highlighted the mistaken assumption here; the signatories of the contract have associated with one another before the issue has arisen. It is hard to phenomenologically deconstruct exactly when the issue of harmonious living may have arisen, but Scruton employs a Schmittian argument[6] to demonstrate that the group, who is now called upon to sign the contract, had a reason to associate in the first place. We cannot say for certain what that reason was for this specific group, but it must have been strong enough to encourage a persistent association following the issue leading to the signing of the contract: maybe it was the basic survival instinct; maybe it was familial obligation; maybe it was love. Regardless, “the social contract requires a relation of membership, and one, moreover, which makes it plausible for the individual members to conceive the relation between them in contractual terms”[7].

Following Oakeshott’s argument that rationalisation of existing knowledge can destroy the knowledge base upon which it rests, the social contract, if it exists, is simply the rationalisation of existing knowledge of interpersonal behaviour. For example, in our hypothetical group, they may have tacitly never stolen from one another, until one member takes another’s possession believing it to be rightly his; the violation of an implicit manner of behaviour would lead to an explicit rejection of such behaviour, thus codifying the behaviour of the society. There is a paradox, therefore, in the Social Contract theory; the contract implies consent, but your options in the creation of the contract to which you and your fellows are now signatories, are limited by your experiences with them. If you fail to reach an agreement over the issue, clearly such a gulf exists between you and your fellow signatories that signing the contract would only succeed in forcing people who disagree vehemently in living together, which would only embitter both parties.

So, what is the conservative response? Well, it combines elements of previous published articles: as argued in the article on property, we only inherit the products of society, the institutions it has fostered, the behaviours they promote, and the stability this combination has produced; as the question of free speech has shown, we must listen to the wisdom of those that came before us, and decide the limits to our own speech alone, and seek to predicate those limits on experienced moments of insult, rather than rational deductions of what ‘someone’ might consider ‘offensive’ based on real or imagined oppressions; the resistance to the rationalisation of the market economy should illustrate our resolve against the rationalisation of the behaviour of individuals, and the goals they choose themselves; and government must be kept at an arm’s-length from society and refrain from forcing goals and ends to be pursued on those who do not care for them, and only guide society where the social fabric looks to be tearing itself apart.

Society is a fragile organism, and it must be respected as one; protected from harm, but given the room and freedom to develop as it so organically wishes.

This article is the fifth in the ‘Brief History of Conservatism’ series by Jake Scott. The topic for the next article shall be ‘Rights’.



[1] In a 1987 interview with Women’s Own.

[2] See Kieron O’Hara’s Conservatism

[3] See Quinton Hogg’s The Case for Conservatism

[4] See Isaiah Berlin’s essay, ‘Does Political Theory Still Exist?’ in The Proper Study of Mankind

[5] See Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan

[6] For a full explanation of Carl Schmitt’s theory of associational politics, see The Concept of the Political, especially section four.

[7] See Roger Scruton’s essay, ‘The Social Contract’ in The West and the Rest.

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