The anti-rationalism of modern socialism | Jake Scott

In the second half of the twentieth century, the famous English conservative Michael Oakeshott delivered his powerful polemic against rationalism in politics. In this, he claimed the projects of rationalism that littered Europe had been generated by the false belief that the rich complexities of human society could be – and should be – reducible to formulae, as universal indicators of human behaviour. Oakeshott, who attributed this belief to the ideologies of socialism and liberalism, saw an inevitable connection between socialist governments (of course, fashionable at the time, less so now) and the destruction of peculiar national cultures, that the remnants of national identity would be swept away as anomalous elements that obstructed a transcendental human identity.[1] The conservative, on the other hand, held valuable those ways of behaving we immerse ourselves in; yet the great challenge of conservatism is to defend that which we take to be natural. It’s like asking fish to explain what water is. As such, conservatives shy away from great theories (it’s why we’re often called the “stupid party”) about human nature, and instead immerse ourselves in cultural and political realities, taking things to be as they are.

Globalism both challenges and enhances this; as global society expands and brings populations of different nations into contact with one another more often, we learn what makes us different through what Hegel termed the “labour of negativity”[2] – the French learn that they are not German by seeing what the Germans do; and Europeans learn that they are not Asian by seeing what the Asians do. There is of course inherent pluralism in those societies, and they are very rarely Schmittian homogenous groups[3], but it speaks to a fundamental truth of mankind; we know what we are by knowing what we are not.

But as this knowledge becomes more concrete, it is important to remember an adjoining argument made at a very similar period in time by Hayek[4]; knowledge of society is diffuse and hard to formalise. Hayek was of course attacking planned economies, but his argument is true of all societies and all attempts to formalise them; no single body of organisation, save the entirety of a people, will know that people’s desires (and even then, they may not have perfect knowledge of their desires).

Take these three principles together (immersion in culture; labour of negativity; diffusion of knowledge) and you begin to understand conservatism’s philosophy, and why conservatives resist socialism so fervently. socialists tried, historically, to change the cultures of the countries over which they ruled; some less aggressively, and with a degree of respect for the existing cultures of that country (Attlee’s Labour Party, for example); some more stridently, with no regard for actual people’s desires (Stalinism). And the reason these cultures were changed was for (they would argue) altruistic impulses; it was to improve the lot of everyone involved, and uncover a universal human identity in which everyone could share. The truth was, of course, very different.

But now, things have changed for some reason; socialists, or those attached to traditionally Socialist causes, seem to reject this rationalism, this ability to stand apart from circumstance, observe the entirety of human experience, and thus gain an objective understanding of human nature. Instead, they argue for the complete opposite; only those in a specific circumstance can understand what is good for them (notice any similarities to my previous article, “the curious conservatism of the student Left” yet?). If you would like an example of what I mean, consider the Women’s March, and similar feminist arguments that take place these days; want an opinion on abortion? You better have a uterus to prove your credentials to take part in this argument. Or how about race relations; want to comment on minorities’ cultures? You better have the prerequisite skin colour/religion/ethnicity required for this discussion.

The dangerous game of identity politics that the Left is playing these days groups people along demographic lines and creates iron-clad categories that people must fit into (despite what they actually want). A working-class Tory shocks them to their core, for example, never mind the historical precedent. But it belies a deeper problem that left-wing politics has developed; the “stay in your lane attitude” to social problems that closes down discussions and removes debates from the public realm.

Left-wing politics has come to reject the notion that anyone can speak on behalf of the oppressed, and valourises instead the opinion of the vocal element in that community, as representative of the entirety of that collective. Clearly, the Left has not abandoned that belief that wide and diverse knowledge can be distilled, but has re-engineered it to fit an ideological agenda of closed-off communities that feeds straight into the hands of extremists on the Right (against which conservatives must also be prepared to guard ourselves) who desire segregation. It is in this way that modern socialism has become anti-rational and, under the misguided belief that they are speaking on behalf of multiculturalism, propagates the view that cultures must be water-tight vessels exclusive to a few, and only a few. Consider “cultural appropriation”.

[1] Roger Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism

[2] Georg Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit

[3] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, and Chantal Mouffe, The Challenge of Carl Schmitt

[4] Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom

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