Conservatives and reactionaries

Corey Robin’s new book The Reactionary Mind has attracted plenty of attention both favorable and otherwise. I don’t want to offer a full-scale review, but to respond to the central thesis. As I read Robin, his central claim is that the current situation in which people who call themselves “conservative” are in fact radical reactionaries is not an aberration, but the norm, and that this has been the case ever since the first self-conscioulsy conservative thinker, Edmund Burke.

I’d put this more broadly – conservatism (and, it’s opposites, progressivism radicalism) are, in essence ideas about process, but the most people active in politics are more concerned about pursuing particular goals than about the way they get there.

To illustrate the point consider the standard claim about conservatism put forward by Michael Oakeshott in 1956  (also cited by Robin)

“To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

Now consider how someone who actually held these views in the Britain of 1956 ought to have regarded trade unions. Of all British institutions, they were surely amongst the most familiar and factual, embodying the preference for actual present benefits over utopian projects. Yet that was not, as far as I can tell Oakeshott’s position at all (though his refusal of an honour from the Thatcher government may suggest some reconsideration later in life).

Robin’s thesis is that claims like Oakeshott’s about conservatism (and also, those of Hayek about classical liberalism) are nothing more than a mask for attempts to resist, and where possible, roll back the claims of the working class against their rulers.

I think this is broadly correct. Although there are people with the conservative disposition described above (and also, people who are attracted by radicalism as such), there is no inherent correlation between conservatism as a disposition and support for the political views commonly associated with conservatism. 

There is an accidental association reflecting the fact that, taking the last two or three centuries as a whole, the ruling class has mostly been losing ground. First, the aristocracy was forced to share power with the bourgeoisie, and, then for most of the 20th century, the working class gained ground against the power of capital. Under such circumstances, people of conservative disposition will generally be found in opposition to the progressive demands being put forward by workers and their supporters.

The crucial test comes in periods such as the Bourbon restoration, or the neoliberal resurgence of the last thirty years or so, when the direction of change is reversed. Genuine conservatives in these circumstances seek to preserve those advances that have been embedded in the way society works (such as the New Deal in the US).  Conservative politics on the other hand, is dominated by reactionaries seeking to restore (an idealised version) of the status quo ante, and gains the support of those with a radical disposition (Newt Gingrich is an ideal example).  It’s certainly possible to find examples of the first kind (the “Wets” who resisted Thatcher for example) but they are clearly in the minority.

Long ago, I planned a book based on Raymond Williams Keywords, and blogged entries on topics including conservative, progressive and reform, which made some of these points. Corey Robin has done a much better job, and his book is well worth reading.



45 thoughts on “Conservatives and reactionaries

  1. As a self-described conservative who can no longer vote for the Liberals (but votes Green more often these days), I fully agree there is no automatic link between being truly conservative and supporting right-of-centre goals or methods – especially today.

    The carbon price can actually be seen as a conservative act:
    *here we have a clear problem – climate change and environmental degradation – that is exacerbated rather than mitigated by society’s current practices;
    *to combat this problem, we will use existing institutional levers – market pricing in this case – so that human nature as we find it can deal with the problem as it deals with much else we encounter in our lives, and we don’t have to rely on creating a ‘new man’ for improvement;
    *over time and with husbandry (a good conservative word that), this measure can lead to other efforts – also not radical – that can ensure society becomes the ‘world we want’ (a great phrase by a Canadian philosopher, Mark Kingwell);
    *the one innovation is minor – creating a new tradeable product out of carbon pollution – and given ours is now a society of tradeable commodities (with a financial sector that is too fertile with new tradeable products) this innovation can hardly be called radical.

    I’ll be interested to see how Corey Robin keelhauls Burke to a description as a radical reactionary – most reviewers of Burke focus on his response to the French Revolution and ignore the rest of his strivings for (what he saw as) justice. However I can highly recommend Waleed Aly’s Quarterly Essay #38 ‘What’s Right?’ for an excellent review of conservatism vs neo-liberalism. He said in an interview somewhere about the essay’s genesis, I read the old conservative authors and still agree with them, but I almost never agree with anything the modern right-of-centre parties say and do. I find myself in the same position and I believe there are more than a few votes out there for a canny Green to force a wedge into the Liberals vote, between the actual conservative voters and their radical partisans.

  2. In Australia, at present, to be a conservative is to be someone who desperately wants to roll back all changes made while they are stuck in opposition. Or is that just Tony Abbott?

    Fact is, Australian conservatives have a set of ideals that they strive for, ideals that can only be reached through major reform/upheaval of existing systems. For example, an Australian conservative wants to disband collective bargaining, unions, etc. They want a private health system, not a public one. They want unregulated (ie free) markets. When it comes to institutions of relevance to them, however, they stick their feet in the mud and refuse to budge—how often the law of “unintended consequences” gets invoked whenever someone suggests cleaning up pollution, or the disbanding of our constitutional monarchy in favour of a republic, or addressing AGW (anthropogenic global warming), or improving the means of assisting those who are socially/physically/mentally disadvantaged; the list goes on for pages! [We could add the various “wars” of choice, waged by conservative intellectuals: “war on terror,” “the culture wars,” “the history wars,” and then the various unsaid discrimination wars, the dominion of which is hazily evocative of Andrew Bolt as the final arbiter. No gay marriage is only the most recent relic that Australian conservatives have fought hard against; refusal to acknowledge the existence of “The Stolen Children” is yet another recent disgrace. Not saying “Sorry” to the Indigineous people is the follow-up to “The Stolen Generation” report on the taking of mixed-descent (ie half-white, half-indigineous, and even quarter-caste and eigth-caste) children from their homes and placing them under “Christian-family” care. It destroyed families for no good purpose, and the aftermath is to deny its practice as ever taking place, or at least as not being officially condoned.]

    In other words, the fundamental meaning of conservative in Australia has become so diminished as to be an epithet from another age. This dimunition is quite probably mirrored on the left by the term “communist”, in that the depiction of someone as communist in today’s society seems anachronistic rather than apposite (whether as a fact or as a slur).

    At the end of the day it just sounds nice and fluffy to believe that modern conservatism is about limited change within existing institutions, and not of radical change. A mask, as you state. Where are the Sir Humphrey Appleby’s of the modern day? He was the master of process, and a true conservative, I volunteer.

    Personally, I have always been befuddled by the notion of political leanings running along a line from Left to Right. Although politics is so often easily characterised as one-dimensional, it isn’t necessarily the case that political groupings can be consistently spread out along a line, as is incorrectly implied by the terms “left” and “right.” In modern Australia, I suspect that many Green voters did so—at the last election—because the Greens actually capture political leanings that do not conveniently fit the left-right classification scheme. If that is so, then the Greens may in fact increase their margin at the next general election, rather than have it drop away as an anomaly. Their current existence in Australian politics has certainly made the electioneering much more difficult for the two major parties, ie Australian Labor Party on the (supposed) left, and the Liberal/Nationals Coalition on the (supposed) right.

  3. I suppose you could view “Conservatism” as an anachronistic misnomer. The French monarchist parliamentarians who opposed the revolution in the late 18th century were the original conservatives. After the revolution the same people sought a return to the status quo ante – and so became the reactionaries:
    Edmund Burke – who also opposed the French Revolution – helped define the term in the British Isles, where Conservatism evolved from Royalism:
    The political meanings of Left and Right also arose during the French Revolution: supporters of King sat to the president’s right; supporters of the revolution sat to his left:

    If “Conservative” refers to the maintenance (or restoration) of anything, it would appear to refer to an 18th century view of the world.

  4. Justin & Donald,

    Well put, both.

    And precisely the reason (in my view) the two party franchise and corporate media (collectively the “political class”) work so hard to belittle, demonise, defame, disparage and misrepresent the greens.

    That ‘Political Class’ is absolutely terrified of the Greens and the fact that a slowly increasing number of voters “they” believe belong to “them” are voting green for the very reasons you both mention.

  5. The tories in the uk can be much more assertive with institutions they regard as servants, the shining example being the Ministry of Defence, which they have taken on in a way no labour government would ever do.

  6. Big C Conservatives have never supported democracy, constitutionalism and genuine equality under the rule of law. They prefer autocracy (or plutocracy) and a heavily biased and oppressive rule of law backed by murderous force. Conservative means the conservation of privilege; the special entitlement to wealth, power and immunity to law that is granted to a very restricted and self-defined group. This has never changed.

    To them , democracy is an aberration which must be rolled back. Instead of the justification being the Divine Right of Kings (and autocracy), it is now the Divine Right of Money to rule.

  7. The supreme voice of conservatism in Australia is Andrew Bolt, and last year, 2011, was Bolt’s year. It was the year that gave us The Bolt Report, the only TV show that I can remember besides Bob Santamaria’s little weekly tirade that has been dedicated to conservative politics. Bolt got the idea for his show from someone close to Rupert Murdoch. Bolt realized that there was an opening in Australia for a right-wing show like Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News. The Bolt Report was deliberately right-wing. Yet on several occasions, when accused of his show being right-wing, Bolt has objected, and has insisted instead that it is “conservative.”

    There is apparently something distasteful about the term “right-wing,” and Bolt appears to be on a crusade to rebrand right-wing politics under the banner of “conservatism.”

    The term “conservative” is an equivocation. It encompasses both economic and cultural meanings, which are quite separate. The economic conservatives are those who want less government spending and less taxes, but there is a better word for these types, and that is “libertarian.” Then we have the cultural conservatives, and these are comprised mostly of fundamentalist Christians who embrace such causes as opposition to abortion, gay marriage, secular education and the science of climate change. (In fact, opposition to the science of climate change is an area common to both libertarian and Christian AGW denialists.)

    The modern tea Party movement is an amalgamation of these two forces, the libertarian “economic conservatives” and the Christian “cultural conservatives,” under the banner of the single term “conservative.” But these forces are quite different, and there is an opportunity for the progressive left to drive a wedge between the two forces of the right.

    One way of driving a wedge through the right is on the issue of the role of religion in politics. There is currently a Hight Court decision pending on the constitutionality of the funding of chaplains for public schools. The Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, has anticipated the ruling going against him, so he has quietly made the decision to open up the programme to non-religious counsellors. When the ruling comes down this year, progressives can use this as an opportunity to expose the way the government panders to the “conservative” vote. The issue is an embarrassing one for the conservatives because, following the lead of the Tea Party in the U.S., conservatives here want to be seen to be obeying the constitution. The issue of religion in general is embarrassing for the conservatives, because the libertarians amongst them, who hold true to the teaching of Ayn Rand, are atheists.

    The other area that loosely binds the Christians and the libertarians together is climate change denialism. The area is vulnerable to wedging because these two groups deny the science for different reasons. Christian conservatives deny climate change because it means otherwise that God is not in control of the world, while for the libertarians the science of climate change is a threat to their corporate masters. There is a strong strand of anti-corporatism in Christianity that could be exploited as a wedge. In fact, within the evangelical movement itself there is a split between those who deny and those who accept the science of climate change, and the need for climate activism. I think this science-affirming bloc within evangelical Chrianity should be sought out and nurtured by the progressive left.

    Of couse the third plank of our wedge could be the rebadging of conservatism under its true name – right-wing politics. In fact, Australian conservative politics shows very little innovation over its American counterpart, right down to the opposition saying “No” to everthing, in imitation of the way the Republicans operated in Congress in 2009-2010.

    There has been a rather deliberate attempt to copy the Tea Party antics in Australia. The anti-carbon tax rallies are the most obvious sign of this. Now that carbon pricing legislation has passed the Senate, the rallying point for Australian “conservatives” has also passed, and it remains to be seen how Tony Abbott can rally “conservatives” again in 2012 without the focus of the carbon tax. But if they do rally around some new cause, we should be prepared to drive a wedge through their arguments, pointing out their religious differences, and how they stand on serving corporate masters.

  8. Happy New Year.

    The distinction between disposition and goal is helpful to me.

    Conservatives by disposition are presumably not totally opposed to change and Progressives by disposition presumably do not wish to live in a permanent state of social and institutional upheaval.

    I’d be most interested in getting your opinion, JQ, and those of others on how the dispositions and goals play out in a dynamic context. For example, did Keating have some intuition on this matter when he said to his opponent: “I’ll cook you slowly”?

    PS1: An idle thought crossed my mind. Suppose the revolutionary conservative (goal) movement had not occurred during the past 30 years, would JQ now classify himself as a conservative by disposition who favours incremental changes

    In any case, I look forward to another year of gentle education in Politics on this blogsite.

  9. @silkworm

    You’ve alluded to the key fissure in conservatism, which is that free markets and small-town values are not merely uneasy bedfellows,; they are, as John Ralston Saul says, enemies.

  10. The other thing to note I suppose, is how few conservatives are also conservationists. They seem to want to continue doing things that are literally unsustainable. How unconservative is that!

  11. I feel that we should also object to the way “libertarian” has been hijacked by the right. Long before the sociopathic Randian libertarians came along there were libertarian socialists opposed to the reactionary social politics that plagued the Leninist-Stalinist communist left.

  12. Speaking as someone known on the web as having an especial interest in word usages, I’m going to start from usage in context.

    It’s a banality, but apparently worth repeating here, to note that meaning is always contextual. Words don’t have a life of their own, but are instantiations of the collaborations and conflicts of humans. This is particularly easy to see in the morphemes that compose the contemporary political lexicon. Words exist only in their utterance and they are only uttered for purpose. In politics, the principal usage of words is to create coalitions and/or decompose those standing in one’s path. The names and symbols one uses — the nomenclature — are an overt claim to political identity — drawing to one’s side those one sees as allies and ‘othering’ one’s rivals. Most of us know the term shibboleth and it’s worth recalling that ‘shibboleth’ — a Hebrew word for an ear of corn or a stream or a flood — was used to distinguish the Gileadites from Ephraimites, since reputedly, the latter apparently could not pronounce the sh dipthong. There are other examples of this but I won’t further digress

    It would be foolish indeed to insist that the ‘meaning’ of shibboleth was simply an ear of corn a stream or flood. Clearly, it was also an exercise in identity politics, much as words like c*mmunist, soci@list, f@scist, liberal, radical, reactionary, left|st, rightwinger and of course conservative are today. These words, when first uttered pointed to political contests in play at the time. Even then, they referred not merely to specific complexes of ideas, but to the bearers of those ideas. When first I started to learn of matters of history and culture, I came across the term art/culture term ‘pre-raphaelite’ and assumed that it referred to some movement existing before the mediaeval artist Raphael Sanzio, when in fact it turned out to be a movemet of the 19th century to return to naturalistic usages in art said to exist before Raphael. Its bearers — people such as Hunt, Millais, Rosetti and Ruskin — did not stand still but continued to develop and split in sharply different directions — much like the scene in Life of Brian when Brian’s quite literal followers began diverging over which symbols to use and what they meant. The question arises of course — what is the ‘essence’ of being pre-Raphaelite. If it is bound up in who takes it up, then the meaning is hostage to the whims of those once uncomplicatedly associated with it.

    One need go no further than the popular press to see this problem played out again and again. Once upon a time — a very long time ago — the terms ‘social democracy’ and socialism were seen as largely referring to the same thing. From August 4, 1914 the connections between these terms were problematised as social democracy split over the issue of the ‘First Imperialist War’ (usually in bourgeois discourse “World War 1”). By 1918, Lenin had decided that his party — which had overthrown not merely the Menshevik-backed liberal Provisional Government of Kerensky but had sought to reassert the global mission of world wide proletarian revolution — needed a new name — and dumped “social democracy” — a soiled shirt in his view due to S-D support for the imperialist war — in favour of the term “c*mmunist”, in order to allude to both the C*mmmunist Manifesto and the the Communards of 1871. At that point, it was clear that c*mmunists were those who adhered to worldwide proletarian revolution and Lenin’s “21 points” for membership of the C*mmunist International (CI or Third International). When Stalin took over after Lenin’s death in January of 1924, he inherited the CI and thus became, at least for the purposes of the popular press, the definer of all things c*mmunist, even though point by point his parties abandoned everything that distinguished the CI positively from Social-Democracy. Similarly, the term ‘soci@lism’ came to be applied almost exclusively to the parties and figures of the Second Indernational even when, the inheritors of the title abandoned the conceptions of Kautsky and Hilferding. Today, in Australia, the office bearers of the ALP — a party still formally associated with the Second International — expressly disavow soci@lism as a goal, yet its supporters continue by association with this atrophied identity — to be descibed as ‘soci@lists’. In America, the situation is even more bizarre — with supporters of the Democratic Party — which was never even nominally soci@list and was for a time expressly r@cist — frequently described as soci@list. In America, the term in bourgeois usage seems to describe anyone who favours a greater emphasis on state intervention in social and economic policy than do Friedman-style monetarists. Those favouring expresslt liberal-communitarian solutions can then be labelled ‘extreme-left c*mmunists’, ‘eco-n@zis’ or for the bourgeois press, some such other term of abuse.

    This paradigm — the constant semantic goalpost shifting between idea, context and office-bearer — is also played out over the term ‘conservative’. One may say that a conservative is in broad terms, someone who favours the maintenance of existing arrangements of social power, and therewith, privilege#. That’s not very useful though because ‘existing arrangements’ are themselves under continual pressure. The existing arrangements cannot ignore the constant flux caused by technological and structural change, but must adapt to these things in order to protect existing privileges. Sometimes of course, existing privileges cannot be accommodated, new groups of privilege holders are authored, sometimes one assumes as an unanticipated consequence of attempts by conservatives to preserve the status quo. Much of the argument over ‘globalisation’ for example, reflects just this tension within the privileged — and indeed, in America, within conservatives, one notes the existence not merely of ‘neo-cons’ but ‘paleo-cons’ and ‘neo-liberals’. Indeed, even the mainstream ‘liberal’ project is in a sense, an attempt to preserve what is capable of being preserved of existing arrangements or privilege. If it succeeds, it may well amount to a more rational conservatism than most of the other iterations of conservatism. Perhaps we will need to start calling left-liberals ‘lib-cons’. Justin and perhaps Donald above might be standard bearers.

    The basic problem I see is that the terms we want to use are rather like flotsam and jetsam. When one looks into the figurative water and sees them floating about, one may discern something of their origin and provenance, but one forgets that these things lack an anchor, and are constantly shifting about as the medium within which they exist wells-up, settles and swirls. These days, the mere association of James Hansen — a Reagan appointee who in 2000 declared his support for McCain — is seen by the right as a radical liberal merely because he is a ‘climate hawk’. The existing privilege holders regard his work as a threat to their privilege — and that suffices. The old connection between the broad notions of right and left, conservative and socialist and private versus common property has been abandoned by the privileged users of the language. I’m reminded here of an eloquent passage in The German Ideology. It summarises well the scope and contours of the usage problem above:

    The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.


    # this is also why the term ‘conservative’ used in the last years of the USSR referred to people who were nominally c*mmunist, and ‘progressive’ to those winking at a neo-liberal reconfiguration of the USSR.

  13. @Fran Barlow

    Ripper post – you’ve set the bar high for 2012!

    I would like to add, though, that of course while words certainly organically shift meanings against a shifting background, it is perfectly possible to use language in malicious or irresponsible ways that debase it. Calling Obama a ‘c*mmie n*zi’ or similar at once clouds opportunities for sensible debate and furthermore means that when someone actually does hold revolutionary s*cialist or national s*cialist views, there’s more limited scope for debate than would otherwise be the case. Do Fox anchors really think that Tim McVeigh, Barack Obama and Leon Trotsky are politically aligned? No? Then why be silly about it – unless your business is disinformation?

  14. It’s certainly interesting the way some things can be defined as a deficit increasing a debt that will need to be repaid, while others are a cost that is justified by preventing a catastrophe. Without there actually being any functional difference between the two situations.

    On the other hand, I heard the other day that someone had estimated the net value of the earth’s atmosphere to be 4.94 quadrillion dollars. Which strikes me as some kind of fundamental category error.

  15. @online diet program los angeles

    The value of a biosphere consistent with civilisation as we humans expect it, is the same as the value of life itself. Without humans, there is no value, so by definition, any cost we had to bear to protect it would be worth paying.

  16. @Dan

    Thanks for the bouquet. 🙂

    Calling Obama a ‘c*mmie n*zi’ or similar at once clouds opportunities for sensible debate

    Indeed. At its best, language and its symbols enable a meeting of the minds. One can discuss data, model and abstract, learn from others and so forth. What we humans regard as progress depends on our ability to avoid “groundhog day” — to not repeat endlessly prior errors. To debauch the language (typically in order to gain an illegitimate advantage) is culturally parasitic though in many cases, ignorance and Unsinn along with existential angst are key drivers of the usages to which you refer.

  17. A bit hard on Oakeshott, Professor, perhaps? Oakeshott did after all say caustically, in 1947, apropos Hayek (The Road to Serfdom was then only a few years old): “A plan to end all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.” (Oakeshott’s disciple Kenneth Minogue mentions this quote in The New Criterion‘s May 2002 issue.) Is the Robin book – which I haven’t read – maintaining that Oakeshott was a conscious hypocrite?

  18. @Justin Kerr
    The ‘conservative’ political parties need to hear what the sane conservatives think about the anti-climate science position of their leaders. I’ve given up on wanting those with “Right” leanings to abandon their party and change allegiances. Instead, I urge them to make it clear to their local MPs and party leaders that the short term electoral gains from giving credibility and authority to climate science denial are not worth it. It’s dangerous and irresponsible and will hurt our future security and prosperity in profound and permanent ways.

    Only political bipartisanship, from the middle ground of politics, can get the minimum policy response happening. Whether The Greens can move themselves more into that middle ground will be up to them but bipartisan acceptance of the problem could easily see them marginalised if they don’t.

  19. I’ve no desire to see The Greens try occupying “the middle ground”, (assuming we don’t already). In practice, that’s a call to shift to a sharply reactionary position.

    Such a development would deprive secular, humanistic folk of any place in active politics and lead again to uncritical acceptance of parochial, misanthropic and often xenophobic politics.

  20. @Robert (not from UK)
    Robin doesn’t really cover Oakeshott in the kind of detail I would like, and it’s hard to be confident about the nuances of political positions taken in the 1940s and 1950s – I wasn’t around, the Internet is not very useful and the history books don’t seem to have caught up.

    OTOH, I have no difficulty in placing Minogue as a reactionary of the kind I’ve been fighting with for decades, the kind who venerate Thatcher while posing alternatively as conservatives or classical liberals. So, to the extent that we can project his political line back onto Oakeshott, I think, if anything that I’ve been too generous.

  21. @Fran Barlow

    The key challenge for the Greens is whether they position themselves as a party of government or continue as an activist party. The latter is less risky (less danger of tarnishing the brand) but also means their influence is limited to giving the Overton window a bit of a tug to the left.

    In any event, with Adam Bandt in the House of Reps I think events have already overtaken this position. I’m interested in the Greens contributing to policy that actually gets implemented, eve if that means greater risk, compromise, political heat, etc. – which I believe puts me in the ‘right’ faction, heh.

  22. @Dan

    I’m interested in the Greens contributing to policy that actually gets implemented, eve if that means greater risk, compromise, political heat, etc. – which I believe puts me in the ‘right’ faction

    Not the right faction but the wrong faction. 😉

    Puns aside, I’m also interested in The Greens contributing to policy that actually gets implemented rather than mere Overton pressure. I think we’ve seen that in carbon pricing. We may yet see it on the secularisation of marriage rights and on asylum seekers and perhaps even on mining revenue recovery policy. I don’t think the Overton pressure and policy development are as mutually exclusive as you imply.

    No rational person can, I think, oppose compromise. I recall Lenin saying that everything this side of world revolution and classless society on a world scale is a compromise. What is wrong is not compromise per se, but unprincipled or self-defeating compromise. Worthy compromises are faithful to principle, reflect the actual balance of forces and preserve the freedom of the activists to press forward towards the desired objectives. Rotten compromises trade principle and leverage for superficial success or reflect an underestimation of one’s own political resources or unreasoning fear of the elites, and empower those resisting progress.

    Sometimes, the boundaries between a principled compromise and a sub-optimal deal are unclear, but rotten compromise is nearly always plain.

  23. Fran Barlow :

    I don’t think the Overton pressure and policy development are as mutually exclusive as you imply.

    The reason I’m hesitant is because even just accepting that you might wish to compromise is itself a compromise! And one that a few Greens (and, for that matter, hardcore libertarians) I know seem quite unable to countenance; my take on things is that they would prefer to preserve their ideological purity – whatever that might mean – with some hope that down the line radical changes will somehow manifest than take opportunities that are worthwhile and good but less than optimal in some way (as indeed the real world tends to be). I think it can be summed up as ‘revolutionaries’ versus ‘reformers’ – and I should be clear that the desired endpoint of both processes could be the same, it’s just whether the process of getting there is perceived as being necessarily and extensively iterative and imperfect.

  24. @Fran Barlow
    I think The Greens have been a good thing for Australian politics, showing more moral fibre than the media or their political opponents credit them with. I’d like them to continue to thrive. But I’d also like to see a lot more genuine efforts from the whole of the political spectrum to come to grips with science based reality – not only about climate but resource management, sustainability and towards effort to preserve our environmental heritage.

    I’m not convinced that many of the prominent members of Labor, Liberals or Nationals have that moral fibre but I live in hope that some do and will regain their nerve. That it took a hung election for Gillard to make some moves on climate has to be to the credit of The Greens because I’m not convinced she and Labor would have pushed on the issue otherwise. Not that we are getting anything like the minimum needed.

    Commerce and Industry has it’s criteria for deciding whether to back action on climate and has tools such as lobbying, PR, tankthink and threats to people’s jobs to push their choices, but I suspect even within those circles there is some disquiet at the choice to undermine public trust in science. Still, it’s a choice that seems to be working for them and the politicians who push their agenda – the Right. So, rather than back away and rethink that choice to promote denial of science based reality, they are going to continue with those bad choices but do what seems to be working and do it even harder.

    Where the turning point is, that causes the captains of commerce and industry to reconsider that choice in light of the long term risks from promoting BS – perhaps in terms of their own families and kids and grandkids if not in terms of harm to global prosperity and security – I don’t know. Ultimately it has to be from the choices those people make that gets real action on climate onto the agenda. The Greens alone aren’t going to be able to do it.

  25. With respect most of the posters here have misunderstood conservatism.

    First some of my credentials, former member and minor official of the National Party ( I resigned because the parthy supported Workchoices-more on that below); Evangelical Anglican active in my local parish and formerly (before the birth of my disabled daughter made attention to home issues even more important) in the wider church, as a synodsman and delegate to other church bodies; country person by choice; solicitor.

    Second those who have referred to Edmund Burke have misunderstood him. Firstly Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was to the radical nature of the revolution; to its tearing down of the whole society and its replacement with something entirely new. Burke first noted that the English constitution contained means for change writing (paragraph 32 of the Reflections on the French Revolution found here
    “A state without the means of some change is without the means of itsconservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part ofthe constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve. The twoprinciples of conservation and correction operated strongly at the two criticalperiods of the Restoration and Revolution, when England found itself without aking. At both those periods the nation had lost the bond of union in theirancient edifice; they did not, however, dissolve the whole fabric”

    He refers to many other examples, from Magna Carta to the then relatively recent Act of Succession
    Second Burke did not oppose, indeed he advocated, some changes in French society-( paragraph 58) He addresses the French directly in saying
    “YOU MIGHT, IF YOU PLEASED,have profited of our example and have given to your recovered freedom acorrespondent dignity. Your privileges, though discontinued, were not lost tomemory. Your constitution, it is true, whilst you were out of possession,suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls andin all the foundations of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repairedthose walls; you might have built on those old foundations. Your constitutionwas suspended before it was perfected, but you had the elements of aconstitution very nearly as good as could be wished”
    The constitution to which he refers as suspended was that of France before Louis VIV who suspended it- the former Estates General; Burke suggests that if that constitution had been revi ved
    “ You would haveshamed despotism from the earth by showing that freedom was not onlyreconcilable, but, as when well disciplined it is, auxiliary to law. You wouldhave had an unoppressive but a productive revenue. You would have had aflourishing commerce to feed it. You would have had a free constitution, apotent monarchy, a disciplined army, a reformed and venerated clergy, amitigated but spirited nobility to lead your virtue, not to overlay it; youwould have had a liberal order of commons to emulate and to recruit thatnobility; you would have had a protected, satisfied, laborious, and obedientpeople, taught to seek and to recognize the happiness that is to be found byvirtue in all conditions; …”

    Third and most importantly Burke believed in Society. Here let me first quote from a review of Robin’s book (to be found here eview: the conservative view
    “Burke believed that, since human beings are born into a functioning world populated by others, society is—to use a large word he wouldn’t—metaphysically prior to the individuals in it. The unit of political life is society, not individuals, who need to be seen as instances of the societies they inhabit.

    … Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights.”

    And then let me say from that follows the need to preserve our world (Christians would call that stewardship and its a good word), to make sure children are nurtured and educated properly, the sick and poor are looked after (no man is an island is a great conservative rallying point) and so on some issues we look similar to the left.But w come at it from a different view: we are responsible to society (and Christians -again like Burke) would say that is because we are responsible to God.

    Second from Mrs Thatcher who is not a conservative in the Burke sense at all- indeed she and other libertarians derive their views from the Liberal tradition of Tom Paine :
    “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first”

    Enough of Burke. I turn (briefly) to Sir Robert Menzies who in his broadcast talks (of which the most famous is “The Forgetten People” said
    In other words, the choice is not between an unrestricted capitalism and a universal socialism. We shall do much better if we keep the good elements of the capitalist system, while at the same time imposing upon capital the most stringent obligations to discharge its social and industrial duty.
    The old conservative doctrine that the function of the State was merely to keep the ring for the combatants has gone forever. The grim picture, dear to the heart of the Yarra Bank orator, of a capitalist system in which there is unrestrained and cruel competition, in which employees are sweated and workers treated like cattle, no doubt had some truth in it – and still has too much to satisfy humane minds. But we have learned a great deal about how to use private enterprise for our own social and national ends. Price control and Government regulation have been limiting factors. Arbitration courts and industrial laws have abolished sweating, except in one or two places where the award-evader has yet to be chased out of his burrow. National insurance, our unsuccessful attempt at which, just before the war, was most disappointing to many and caused my own resignation from a cabinet, must come again. As early as may be, and if possible during the war when employment is high, unemployment insurance should be introduced. After the war, the obligation of industry to maintain employment on a steadier basis must be increased to the limits of practicability; we must become better economists in our attack upon the problem of boom and depression; we must aim at a proper provision of food, clothing and shelter for our citizens. In these and many other ways the duty of each of us to his fellows and to the State must be defined and enforced.
    As Burke wrote in the quote above Conservatives do not oppose change, rather they look to remedial changes, one further example will suffice: The slave trade was abolished by the Tory government of William Pitt the Younger under the influence of the anti slavery league whose most famous members were William Wilberforce (a Tory MP) and the Revd Mr Clarkeson (who was the secretary and an Anglican clergyman)
    Now let me turn to the libertarians, such as are in America and -to a lessor extent here they want to destroy the present institutions.they want a total change in society, they want to remake the world in their own system.
    In short the libertarians are not conservatives. It should come as no surprise to people that the libertarian’s hero von Mises was the economic advisor to Dollfuss the Austrofascist who imposed von Mises ideas on Austria by force (the army shelled -yes not just rifles but artillery) the working class quarters of Vienna.
    I apologise for the length of this and in particular of the quotes.

  26. Bother, I did something silly, my apologies. I meant to explain why I left the National Party over Workchoices. First because it was not needed -and as Lord Acton said “When it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change” far simpler means (not so destructive of the social fabric) would have achieved Howard’s end (though Workchoices did indeed achieve Howard’s End). Second, because it was destructive of the social fabric, already we have too many people working low paid, we are turning into an economy like America’s- which I have seen and detest (and urge people to read Deer Hunting with Jesus for an explaination of how American rural people vote Republican when it is so against their self interest and an explanation of how the States got into the current mess; already we have too many people working at times when traditionally we did not work- Sunday trading has so ruined family life- instead of families doing things (even going to church) on Sunday, individuals might shop or go to the pub or club or work at one of those places. Thirdly (and here I’m pragmatic -just as Burke was in his opposition to the taxation of the 13 colonies) because I was then sure it would (and I believe it did) lead to the defeat of the government at the 2007 election.

  27. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the interesting posts.

    Why WorkChoices rather than other radical-reactionary projects of the Howard years? (Demonisation of asylum seekers; sending Australian troops to an irrelevant – in several senses – and illegal foreign war.)

  28. Also I’m curious as to whether ‘big government’ is on your ideological radar at all. I have no trouble imagining circumstances in which a move from ‘big government’ (however defined) to ‘small government’ (however defined) is radical, though concurrently ‘small government’ is an article of faith amongst self-proclaimed conservatives (though whether that actually gets operationalised when they’re elected is, of course, quite another matter).

    The libertarians I know are the worst of all on this cognitively dissonant count – being in favour of pretty much the abolition of government (because tax is coercive, the utterly stupid corollary being that people deserve exactly what they earn, social infrastructure be damned – but I digress) while simultaneously holding that coercion is deplorable in all its other manifestations as well (environmental damage, etc.) – which implies a radically far-reaching level of regulation (and the concomitant strong arm of the law)!

  29. Dan,

    If we cut a swathe back through history to a time at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Britain – a time when “libertarian capitalism” was off and running before the government even heard the starter’s pistol. We can glean some idea of the state of play for the general population of a system unfettered by state intervention and regulation.
    Conditions were abominable in the mills, factories and mines; in the overcrowded hovels and in the putrid state of the urban conglomerations that sprang up in industrialism’s wake (where infrastructure was all but non-existent) All this offers a stark picture of unregulated capitalism.
    It was only when hard won “Factory Acts” were instituted by the government that these diabolical conditions began to be remedied – and the Acts were fought against tooth and nail by the factory owners and the entrepreneurs…..

    We’re along way from those times, and hopefully have developed a more ethical practices in worker relations – yet human nature doesn’t really seem to alter. The trick is finding the right balance of government intervention verses freedom. The libertarian utopia of newly industrial Britain was anything but for the general population.

  30. Wooster,

    Yes, as a political economy masters student I am familiar with that history (albeit I would nuance it a bit by saying that more perceptive capitalists saw the race to the bottom for what it was – Engels being by far the most obvious example.)

    However, I reject your dichotomy of government intervention versus freedom. Oftentimes, government is freedom’s guarantor (something that never really sunk in in the US).

  31. Dan,
    to which war do you refer? The intervention in Iraq was -at the time considered to be in accord with UN resolution (see

    I am not sure how “Demonising of asylum seekers” resulted in actual policy- in so far as the Nauru/Pacific solution is demonising, there is a substantial argument to be made that it is in fact a humanitarian solution in that it stopped boat people and then all the casualties that those boats have caused.

    The conservative is a pragmatist,disliking abstractions (Burke again, see Russel Kirk- himself a renowned American conservative thinker- Burke and the Philosophy of Prescription and to the extent big or small government is an abstraction then its something that I don’t like to talk about. Deal with some of the issues that result from a big or small government and we can discuss them, deal with the abstraction and you just waffle.

    Having said that let me set out some ideas of my own:
    1 Government should provide national works -infrastructure (to use the horrid expression everyone seems to like today). No traditional conservative denied this: Alexander Hamilton wrote of the importance of National Works, Thomas Jefferson authorised the construction of the National Road (see Eisenhower started the US Interstate Highway system.

    The National PArty was oft accused of pork barrelling with the provision of national works, but that misunderstands the position. The railways (At least in this state) while state operated were expected to (And for more than 100 years) did pay their way they also opened land for settlement.

    Electrictiy was run by county councils and extended the power supply to farms.

    In each case private enterprise had failed to provide the needed works. So in relation to our railways: the railway companies in NSW never operated railways, being bankrupted during construction (see ch 1 The Great Northern Railway 1857 -1982 R G Preston Everleigh Press); in Victoria they operated a few suburban railways and then failed those that tried to build a country system collapsed during construction or went bankrupt within months (see chapter 3 Railways of Victoria 1854-2004; Robert Lee Melbourne University Press) in Western Australia the Midland Railway operated for quite a while but ultimately failed. The only exception was the Silverton Tramway which was a short haul mining line connecting Broken Hill with the South Australian border (and with the South Australian State Railways)

    2 Government should be as local as possible to allow as much direct participation as possible. So that there seems to me to be no reason why the NSW RTA could not be abolished, local roads built by councils, motor registries incorporated within councils (so that for example in my own town Maitland, the motor registry which is about 6 km from the city centre could become a ‘satellite’ council office offering most council services and the council office could also become a motor registry). That is one example, I don’t see any real reason why the same could not happen with centrelink and other government services.

  32. @Ken Fabian
    I did that, let me quote from a letter to Malcolm Turnbull
    Thank you for your principled support of emissions trading, the best solution to the problems of climate change. I have been a long time coalition supporter (until the introduction of Workchoices- a dreadful policy with no redeeming features) a member (and former branch president ) of the National Party. But I cannot vote for a party which opposes all constructive solutions to climate change. Continue your advocacy for proper answers to this problem that will affect our children’s world even more than it will affect our own. If you need to cross the floor you will be in the good company of people like Winston Churchill who voted against his party on an issue of similar importance – appeasement and the Munich Crisis. Again I thank you for your stand.
    PS how does one get those nice quotation marks and blocking on this blog?

  33. @Peter Kirsop

    You use the blockquote tag. The tag is the word “blockquote” enclosed in the less than and greater than ascii characters. When the quote is terminated, insert the forward slash “/” between the less than character and the string: blockquote.

  34. Peter@35 – thanks for your response. I guess I was just trying to gauge if there was anything before WorkChoices that you found the Coalition’s take on to be deeply wrongheaded and depressing. I figured Iraq and the Tampa were (some of) the most egregious examples I could think of, but… okay, no worries. But may I add that it’s good to see your words on climate change.

    Wooster@36 – thanks for that, I look forward to reading.

  35. @Wooster

    The trick is finding the right balance of government intervention verses (sic) freedom.

    Actually, the trick is to decide what freedom entails, what arranegments will support it and whether everyone should have an equal share of it. Your last sentence was better than the penultimate, but failed to develop the thought.

    State intervention does not necessarily exclude freedom, and indeed, it may well support it, by preventing someone else imposing upon yours and those of others.

  36. oh and again I did something silly, my apologies, I will have to learn more about bloggging. The Tampa was a stupid and most annoying thing-the pack of lies about children overboard was disgusting but what did it tell us: politicans lie? they seize isssues for wedge politics?

    We already know that. Keating’s campaign on GST was like that (And it was false his own Minister for Finance said so- read Walsh’s Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister where he shows that Fightback was a more progressive (in the technical sense) package than was Keating’s answer.

  37. @Peter Kirsop
    I for one think it’s a good move, however it’s those in the Coalition who are opposed to action on climate that most need to know that their position is seen as irresponsible and unacceptable to many Coalition voters.

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