The Forgotten Currency of Politics | Tom McKenna
One of the great quarrels to be had with modern politics is that it is often obtuse in its focus and prescriptions.
The modern battleground of politics is a messy affair. Political labels are thrown about as if they were meant to describe recesses of thought, not schools of thought in and of themselves. What results is confusion about what truly constitutes a conservative or a liberal in the modern age. One can attribute this phenomenon to the misguided Thatcher-Reagan revolution of the 1980’s, which opened up the gates of confusion to neo-liberalism and the nature of conservatism. However, the more contemporaneous echoes of Middle Eastern conflict, the global financial crisis and the rise of quasi-populism have a larger part to play in the muddying of these waters. This modern atmosphere results in the obfuscation of genuine political purpose, culminating in the denigration of the higher ideals of politics.
One of the many follies of the post-Enlightenment era is that it has made economics the main currency of political purpose. Suddenly redistributive tax schemes and foreign trade deals have become the main focus of political discourse, driving forward both the discontents of the masses and the solutions to our worldly problems. Typically, the spectrum of views on these issues is presented linearly – from left to right – all the while failing to detail what these distinctions actually mean. It is here where I see the importance of looking at the evolution of political philosophies, dating back (but not limited to) the inception of the Enlightenment.
If one is to properly understand politics and escape the knavery of modern discourse, one must cut through the economic dogma in order to reach the soul of politics itself. We begin to see this elusive soul begin to take shape in the 18th century. John Locke (1632-1704), frequently heralded as the “father of liberalism”, is a fundamentally important figure in the development of modern politics. Locke conceived of the State as a body by which we gain assurance for the protection of natural law. This conception of natural law is predicated on the overarching idea that humans have an innate set of natural rights. This conception of rights is most commonly associated with the right to life. Such rights are to never be impinged upon, as they are accepted by reasoning beings and exist independent of civil society. As a result of these ideals, liberalism emerged from its infancy and drove forward as a legitimate means of political advocacy.
Locke opined that the State can only gain its legitimacy as a result of a consenting citizenry. The chasm between our naturally secured rights and a State-governed society is bridged by a pool of consenting individuals. This body of individuals must accept the restriction of their “lesser” rights in exchange for a place in civil society, all the while ensuring the protection of their fundamental, or rather “inalienable”, rights. Here is where the heart of liberalism lies; in its conception of rights, popular sovereignty, individualism, free association and equality.
The conservative thinker Edmund Burke (1729-97) espoused these classical liberal virtues early in his career as a statesman, before transforming into what we now call a conservative. It is crucial to understand this because liberalism and conservatism, properly understood, are two sides of the same coin.
Burke passionately supported the American struggle for independence in the 1770’s, before repudiating the excesses of the French Revolution over a decade later. The American Revolution was fundamentally a cause for popular sovereignty (a value more or less shared by conservatives and liberals), resulting in an autonomous nation of freely associating individuals. The Revolution’s French counterpart offered unstructured convulsions of violence which led to the desecration of France’s landscape, religion and institutions. Burke saw this as a horror and predicted that this would lead to further disenfranchisement and terror, to which he was met with scathing indignation (he was correct of course). In this revolt, those involved were motivated by a liberal instinct, an instinct to rebel against inequality and the subjugation of rights. This process ushered in a brand of utopianism that saw the individual as a creature of liberty who can shape society to his needs, provided they are in line with the whims of the masses.
It is here where the liberal side of this ideological coin differs from that of the conservative. For the conservative, it is not liberty which grants the State with authority, it is the State which grants civil society with liberty. For Burke, civil society isn’t legitimised or gained through a contract, but through an undying marriage between the dead, the living and the generations to come. Put simply, Burke sees the enduring institutions of society as a result of trial and error, greatly improved by generational reform to which we become the inheritors of certain liberties, customs and institutions. This is a top-down approach to politics, where authority is legitimised not through contract, but through tradition. Moreover, Burke treated the concept of natural rights which Locke espoused with contempt, going as far as to facetiously ask:
“Am I to congratulate a highwayman and murderer, who has broke prison, upon the recovery of his natural rights?”
Burke believed that rights, deprived of one’s duty, are futile. A child may be born with rights, but they are useless unless they are indebted to the dutiful atmosphere in which the child is brought into. This sense of duty can be created by something as simple as the place of one’s birth, or one’s duty to their siblings. Burke saw rights as abstract notions that were only mandated through the State and its institutions. In his particular circumstance, he spoke of the inheriting of traditions, liberties and rights afforded to the British people by the Magna Carta (1225) and the Bill of Rights (1689). Burke abhorred the “speculative” rights that were perniciously produced during the French Revolution, as he believed that rights can’t and shouldn’t be plucked out of thin air. It is society, characterised by its institutions, common law and communities, that affords liberty. Out of this notion, the conservative tension between individualism and communitarianism is born.
Throughout the history of conservatism, the community plays a deep part in the heart of a nation and its localities. This is where I believe the conservative instinct has been lost due to the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In modern times, conservatism has become so preoccupied with reacting against socialism that many nominal conservatives perpetuate the individualistic tendencies of a libertarian or classical liberal. Burke believed that society starts from the “little platoons” of freely associating individuals, a notion that the late conservative philosopher Roger Scruton (1944-2020) passionately defended. These “little platoons” are found in various institutions; local districts, the family and the church. These are central to society and central to conservative thought, which occasionally reacts against the democratic “tyranny of the majority” if these institutions are to be hurt. Liberalism sees less value in this system.
Liberty, individualism and equality take precedent when forming a society for the liberal. The ubiquitous association between rampant individualism and liberalism isn’t unwarranted, and it’s something that the conservative abhors if they are to defend tradition, social order and community. The liberal (and even libertarian) side of this coin typically advocates for social and economic policies which tend to harm traditional institutions, as seen in the case of no-fault divorces. This idea is important if one is to understand why conservatism doesn’t necessitate a defence of unfettered capitalism, but I digress.
To me, the conservative emphasis on community, institutions and faith naturally leads to the love of culture and art. Conservatism is hardly bereft when it comes to its love for the preservation of culture and art. For the conservative, culture and art not only nourish the soul, but bolster civil society itself.
This all-encompassing approach to politics is virtually non-existent in modern times. The grand ideals that made conservatism and liberalism come to light are cast aside in favour of the immediacies of economic politics. The corrosive properties of modern political discourse have all but destroyed the original relationship between liberalism and conservatism. As political chasms open, the masses seem to forget that the two ideologies belong to the same coin. We must bear witness to a restructuring of our discourse, including our very understanding of politics. If nothing changes we risk further whittling down politics, creating a politically homeless class with no aim in sight.
Rekindling the lost essence of politics may hold the key to a better future, in which our problems can be solved not only with bank notes, but with the structuring of politics itself.
Photo by Richard Kendrick on Flickr.