The Problem With Conservatism | Edward Howard
In a Substack piece by writer Brian Almon he noted that, in modern politics, conservatism as a philosophy had failed because, among many reasons, that ‘[r]ather than trying to return society to a place of sanity, conservatives instead simply defend the progressive gains of the previous generation.’ He continued: ‘Herein lies the fatal flaw of conservatism: they can only defend the status quo. They have little will or ability to advocate for a return to a better time, because they agree with the left that the past was racist, sexist, exclusionary, and bigoted. By adopting the premises of the left, conservatism failed before it ever began.’
Harsh though it may be, it is one of the most honest, blunt and comprehensive analyses of the failures of the right, in America and beyond.
After all, who hasn’t looked back on the past two years and noted that in terms of politics, much of the right has completely failed to do anything useful in the postwar period? Our heroes have had their statues toppled, the idea of ‘limited government’ now seems like a distant dream in a post-COVID lockdown world, mass immigration seems more out of control than ever before, and in response the Right has focused on more money to elongate the Russo-Ukrainian war at a time of record inflation and viciously gatekeeping those who they deem too cranky for their own ends (who ironically are more in line with the conservative base than the elites are).
So, for all the concern of the postwar Right on cutting regulations and making sure that remaining non-aligned tenets of society stay in place as oppose to protect them from the ‘long march through the institutions’ by the left has bore little fruit. The Left has decisively won much of the cultural narratives, and those it hasn’t has been tellingly because of grassroots revolts rather than their intellectually bereft and pretty content leadership, like those of Brexit and Donald Trump. Conservative writer Ed West’s latest book discussing this in greater detail is titled Small Men on the Wrong Side of History – perhaps the perfect sentiment for a good chunk of the political right during this time.
But where has conservatism been going wrong for the past few decades? What can be done to fix it for the future? There are several elements to it, and all of them perhaps highlight not only why conservatism has failed, but because of how in its modern form – hollowed out and unable to fight for itself, among other things – is in no fit shape or form to fight the left in the culture wars.
The main problem is obvious. There is a distant lack of thinking when it comes to political discourse from the right, of which has undoubtedly given the left free rein to control much of the narrative when it comes to cultural and political matters. One of the reasons that the cultural revolution of the 1960s and beyond has been so successful is not only because of the aforementioned ‘long march’, but because of the magnitude of ideas and planning conducted by much of the left among their intellectuals and outlets when it came to pushing theories and obtaining specific policy goals.
Whether one agrees with them or not, many of the theories and ideas of the left are at least interesting to read about, and in some cases have some element of truth within them (they wouldn’t be able to win much support without that, at the very least). Stuff like ‘cultural hegemony’, ‘multiculturalism’, ‘queer theory’, ‘critical theory’ and ‘the propaganda model’ are just some examples of this – to many these ideas are highly questionable and outright objectionable. However, they are also useful tools and plans to any movement wanting to seek institutional and political power, especially one that doesn’t have religious fervor as its moral basis. Through such ideas, the left can deconstruct and rebuild society and its institutions as they see fit through the lens of such theories that may baffle ordinary folk, but to the 1950s and 1960s generations of leftists who initiated such a cultural revolution, were able to justify such moves under these guises – it no doubt helped that given that such theories were defended on the ideas of ‘protecting minorities’ that those on the right didn’t fight back against them, fearing of certain accusations that would inevitably come their way. It is no coincidence that one of the proponents of critical theory, the Frankfurt School scholar Max Horkheimer, claimed that it would ‘liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them’.
By contrast, similar ideological framing by the right has been thin on the ground, mainly due to a complacency by much of them, feeling as though that such institutions would remain secure and wouldn’t be one day used as knives against them in the culture wars. It is telling therefore that whenever such framing came to pass, like in the cases of ‘anarcho-tyranny’ or ‘the managerial state’, it either came from fringe circles, or was dismissed by much of the mainstream right as charged language, who would prefer to make common cause and unity from a left that despised them than get involved in disunity and anguish by acting on such warnings from their own side.
In short, the left over the last century or so has been much more interesting ideologically than their right-wing counterparts. This is mainly because those who intellectually championed the left-wing cause may have undoubtedly been wrong, but were also quite interesting. Many of these champions were smart, capable people, who despite being off the mark politically, are still fascinating to read about nonetheless. Case in point, the Marxists Internet Archive is a very fascinating insight into much of the writings and works of such theorists. There is no right-wing equivalent of such a site, and those that come close are too brash and blunt to be intellectually stimulating, such as that of Conservapedia, which has much more in common with neoconservative thought than anything else (more on that later).
The left also has a seeming monopoly on the amount of intellectuals they have on the public square, with right-wing ones being an anemic minority by comparison. Take a look at some of the most important intellectuals of the past 100 years, and note how many of them are left-wing as opposed to right-wing. Antonio Gramsci, Simone de Beauvior, Herbert Marcuse, Jurgen Habermass, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, David Graeber and Slavoj Zizek among many others constituted some of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, especially in its later period, and have shaped much of the modern world we live in. By comparison, the right only has the likes of G. K. Chesterton, Roger Scruton and (even if he himself would probably deny the label of intellectual) Peter Hitchens along with a few others here and there – and needless to say, they aren’t shaping much of the modern world at all, with it sneering at them as relics of an earlier age.
And that isn’t even counting what happens to some of those intellectuals either, especially the career paths that they take. Take for example Douglas Murray. During his peak of the 2010s, he used to write about thorny issues concerning the existential fate of our country, like mass immigration, radical Islam and demographics – and did it in a sophisticated and intelligent way few could match, so much so that his Spectator colleague Matthew Parris noted that when Murray was wrong, he was ‘dangerous’. However, since the release of 2019 bestseller The Madness of Crowds, he turned his attention to more issue of the moment topics like snowflakely millennials and parroting Intellectual Dark Web talking points long after the movement had its heyday, and when some of its champions happily supported government tyranny, thereby discrediting much of the movement as they did so. Case in point, his latest book The War on the West, with its aggressive title, tone and marketing (see the US cover as proof of that) seems more akin to something Sean Hannity or Mike Parry would write than the likes of Roger Scruton or Christopher Hitchens, both of whom he was a protégé for.
To make matters worse, many of those classical intellectuals which would be considered right-wing are only done so because of how contorted the definitions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ have become, given that their modern definitions date back to the 1960s more than anything else – hence why lifelong Labour supporter J. K. Rowling can be considered right-wing for holding views on the trans issue that were mainstream literally a decade ago.
In short, there is little thinking done by much on the right, and that can be a huge problem in the public arena.
This idea came to me recently during a debate on Jeremy Vine’s eponymous Channel 5 show, when the panelists were discussing a UK council changing to synthetic meat in the name of climate change. Now, the right-wing panelist (the aforementioned Parry) could have used this opportunity to make a profound point: that major corporations, big business and much of the elite are pushing such stuff in order to justify lowering the standard of living of much of the West’s citizenry and increasing their profits with cheaper produce and have cynically co-opted much of the left by claiming it is for ending climate change, similar to how they push eating bugs and buying expensive electric cars made with literal African slave labour, something of which others on the left have done previously with elegance and intrigue.
But no, instead Parry claimed that the council was practicing ‘food fascism’. Wow, he really destroyed the left there and owned the liberals!
Yet again, something like that does nothing for the right-wing cause. It may entertain partisan brains and get a laugh out of some sure, but at the same time, doesn’t make anyone think – not to mention it relies on fighting on the left’s terms, using their language and accusing them of being ‘fascists’. To make matters worse, when it comes to political punditry, while there are some left-wing equivalents to such dross, there aren’t many, and it is far more common on the right than it is on the left, especially in the UK, where thought-provoking right-wing commentators are rare. There is no harm to such punditry in small doses, but making it representative of your entire movement is not a good or healthy thing, as it further alienates independents and normies to your cause; the overly partisan and simplistic rhetoric a seeming blaring example of preaching to the choir.
Because of such a lack of thinking on the right, there is no surprise that it is a movement very easily coopted time and time again. In the 1980s it was done so by the neoliberals, which made conservatives support big businesses and economic deregulation as it would free us all and make our countries richer. In the 2000s and early 2010s, it was done so by the neoconservatives, leading the movement to support an ever expanding managerial and security state, on the grounds that it would keep us safe. In turn, these forces in recent years have turned on us in the worse way imaginable.
Big businesses and corporations are perfectly happy to play along with the left when it benefits them in terms of globalisation on issues like mass immigration and encouraging consumerist habits, turning a movement of which as recently as 2003 would produce documentaries like The Corporation into toadies for billionaires like Jeff Bezos and George Soros. It’s no surprise, given that they find themselves in lockstep in support for the likes of Hillary Clinton and overturning Brexit, among other things.
Meanwhile, the security state which was despised by the left who in turn defended the likes of whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have now embraced it – after all, when the NSA spies on Tucker Carlson for going against what the Biden administration wants and the Prevent program has been criticised for overly focusing on right-wing extremism as opposed to Islamist terrorism, why wouldn’t the left do so? Power and ideological compliance are far more important to the modern left than integrity or doing anything good or just.
Which in turn, leads us to the final problem with conservatism in the modern day: namely, what is left to conserve in this day in age? Canadian conservative commentator J. J. McCullough made a good point about this in his criticism of the political philosophy, whereby he noted the absurd contradiction between the supposed principles of the movement, and then it defending stuff like the inherently socialist Canadian healthcare system. Such logic can extend to other areas too.
In short, much of the institutions of Britain to give just one example are not worth conserving in their current form – much of it is in control of the left of who flex their ideological muscle to maintain hegemonic power, with such institutions either being infiltrated (i.e. the universities, the education system, the media, the BBC, the police) or self-immolation (the Church of England being a good example of this). These institutions are not worth conserving or saving in their current form, of which makes pleas to use them to our advantage (such as that of Mark Levin in his latest book American Marxism) all the more futile. These institutions need to be willed to our own end, not treated with kid gloves or ignored as their influence continues to grow.
Such institutions would ideally either be stuffed with people ideologically sympathetic to our aims and beliefs, such as in the case of the managerial state (of which to be fair, this Conservative government does seem to be doing) or those that won’t need to be threatened, either with defunding or dissolution, with the latter half being important to the devolved regions of the UK. All of this would benefit the right immensely, but it is definitely not a conservative act, but a revolutionary one – as writer Glenn Ellmers has noted on this subject ‘[p]ractically speaking, there’s almost nothing left to conserve. What’s actually required now is a recovery, or a refounding’.
All of this, and so much more, is why conservatism as a political philosophy has failed and will continue to fail if its attitude is, as Chesterton noted, being the retrospective person ‘who admires the ruins’. If being a conservative is, as National Review founder William F. Buckley put it, to ‘stand athwart history, yelling stop’ that cannot do – we need to go on the offensive, whenever and wherever possible, otherwise conservatism is not worth having. It’s for such reasons someone like myself no longer identifies as a conservative – for someone like myself, I would identify as an old fashioned Tory or a English/British nationalist, something which has inherent meaning and shows what you stand for, as opposed to the watered idea of being ‘conservative’ these days. For all being a conservative means in this day in age is fighting on the left’s terms, focusing on minutiae details and coming up with new names for their left-wing opponents – ‘political correctness’, ‘social justice warrior’, ‘the real racist/fascist’ and ‘snowflake’ (a term in a fitting way coined in such a manner by the most unconservative voice imaginable, the ‘former’ Trotskyist Claire Fox) – than actually thinking of ways to defeat them, either morally or culturally.
To conclude, the words of the Mallard chairman Jake Scott will suffice:
“The Right didn’t fight this war because it refused to accept its existence. Well, the sad reality is, this war is over, and the Right lost. What was worth conserving has gone, and the conservative’s raison d’etre went with it. There is nothing left to conserve. Maybe now it is time for a counter-revolution.”
Such thinking is going to be needed if the right wants any chance of succeeding. To quote Pirates of the Caribbean, ‘The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.’ The right needs to start developing an offensive attitude towards the current socio-cultural problems that we face, if we want any chance of returning to normalcy.