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Book Review: How to be a Conservative (Roger Scruton)

English traditional conservatives today exhibit a depressed passivity.  They ruminate, probably with a glass of claret in hand, on how good the past was and how little can be done about today.  Doubtless this enervation has to do with living in The Place Where Great Britain Used To Be, which is, like most of Europe (other than Hungary and Poland), a den of thought suppression and self-hatred, cursed with leaders who are mealy-mouthed, emasculated men and women of no use or value.   Caught with wine glass in hand, the prolific Roger Scruton, who somehow manages to combine the highest quality thought with constant output, offers us a combination of worthwhile philosophy and worthless enervation.  At best, this combination is unsatisfying.  More importantly, this book is not timely, because it is inwardly focused and passively philosophical, in an age when too much focus on philosophy, and too little focus on brute action, has, like Judas Iscariot, betrayed conservatism into the hands of its enemies.

Much of this book is a defense of the conservatism of hearth and home—English and Burkean conservatism.  In its day, such a conservatism was powerful, for it came from below, preceding and underlying politics, and represented society as it was.  It was descriptive, not prescriptive.  But it does not work as prescription in the age of liquid modernity.  Now, the conservatism of hearth and home is like Shelley’s head of Rameses, a colossal wreck encircled by a bleak wasteland to which it has no relevance and over which it has no power.  Scruton’s work is a work of backward looking history, fit for men with pipes sitting by a coal fire, but not for much more.

To be fair, Scruton is here, as in all his works, a fantastic writer.  No word is wasted.  Innumerable clever phrases that also communicate important truths abound:  “The post-war British establishment . . . addressed the nation’s problems by appointing committees of people who had caused them.”  Or (though here quoting Matthew Arnold), “I hold that ‘freedom is a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere.’ ”  But all this polished prose, like the horse, needs to go somewhere, that is, somewhere useful, and it doesn’t.

Scruton begins with “My Journey”; he is today 73, so that’s a fairly long journey.  His father was a socialist with strong Burkean leanings; Scruton personally began his journey to conservatism after personally seeing the destruction and nihilism on display by leftist students (“middle-class hooligans”) in 1968 Paris, when he was in his mid-twenties.  After getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, he struggled professionally due to discrimination against him because of his conservative views.  His journey to conservatism became complete upon first-hand viewing of Communist countries in 1979, and his academic career was forcibly ended after the magazine he edited, The Salisbury Review, published the heroic Ray Honeyford’s famous 1984 complaints about the negative consequences of so-called multicultural education (an episode covered in another lament by another enervated English conservative, Peter Hitchens).

As many English (and some American) conservatives, Scruton is of very mixed mind about Margaret Thatcher and the unfettered free market in general, and given his background and age, her career looms large in his thinking.  He honors Thatcher for restoring some degree of prosperity and strength to Britain, but criticizes her for undercutting the little platoons of British society.  Scruton, though, more than others critical of Thatcher, seems to recognize that given the precipitous decline of British society, which has accelerated since Thatcher, she was both a temporary respite and a necessary measure to prevent total British collapse.  He primarily criticizes her for lacking her own coherent philosophy, although one can legitimately notice that as with carpenters, hammers, and nails, that’s likely a gap Scruton sees in every politician.

Before discussing specific philosophical issues, Scruton discusses where he begins, in “Starting From Home.”  This is crisply defined Burkean conservatism.  “In discussing tradition, we are not discussing arbitrary rules and conventions.  We are discussing answers that have been discovered to enduring questions.  These answers are tacit, shared, embodied in social practices and inarticulate expectations.”  “To put it in the language of game theory, [traditions] are the discovered solutions to problems of coordination, emerging over time.”  Social contract theories that regard the contractor as the individual Homo oeconomicus are dumb.  John Rawls is dumb, too.  Various actual thinkers are adduced and discussed, from Michael Oakeshott to Adam Smith to Stefan Zweig.  The result is a sound framework for Scruton’s general approach to conservatism.

Scruton’s first specific matter is nationalism.  As an increasing number of American conservatives are realizing, in a return to the thought of a more confident American time, Scruton regards pride in the nation as both good and essential for society, and failure to have pride in the nation as fatal.  Nationalism means not, of course, the “nation” as an ideology, as a substitute for religion, in the way leftists from 1789 onwards have often presented it.  Nor does it mean a national shared religion (Scruton is Christian, but favors religiously neutral government).  Rather, the nation consists of the “historical identity and continuing allegiance that unites [citizens] in the body politic.”  However, this is necessarily a belief tied to territory, and there must be a shared identity (though one that can be adopted by newcomers).  Scruton criticizes the European Union, both in itself and as it relates to British citizens, because it lacks this shared identity, yet presumes to be superior to British law.  He wrote this book in 2014, before Brexit, so the angle he takes perhaps is a bit different than he might write today.  Nor does Scruton really address, among much talk of shared values and identities, what happens when those disappear within a nation-state, such that fragmentation is the major characteristic of the polity—arguably the condition of the United States today.

More successful is Scruton’s next chapter, on “The Truth in Socialism.”  If democracy requires a functioning nation-state with a sense of nationalism, as Scruton argues, every citizen has to have the opportunity for meaningful participation for the nation to function.  (Scruton does not address whether democracy in today’s world is a good idea at all.)   He explicitly rejects the Nozickian night watchman state, “since civil society depends upon attachments that must be renewed and, in modern circumstances, those attachments cannot be renewed without the collective provision of welfare.”  “A believable conservatism has to suggest ways of spreading the benefit of social membership to those who have not succeeded in gaining it for themselves.”  The truth in socialism is that we are, in society, mutually interdependent, not, as Thatcher tended towards, and many American conservatives believe fervently, independent operators.  Sharing is caring.  That doesn’t mean that our current welfare systems aren’t grossly defective and often creators of the “poverty trap.”  Nor does it mean that the nation’s wealth belongs to the state, to be redistributed as it sees fit (on this point, Scruton again skewers Rawls, though attacking Rawls is like shooting fish in a barrel).  Nor should class-based resentments be encouraged—“duties of charity are not duties of justice,” and we do not wrong one person by giving him no charity while we do give to another.  Thus, the English destruction of the grammar schools because they led to elitism was both wrong and stupid.  Inequality, though, depending on its source, can be problematic for social unity, and should be considered and addressed.

Similarly, there is “The Truth in Capitalism”—or, as with socialism, some truth.  The free market does work best—but, following Adam Smith and, to a lesser extent, Friedrich Hayek, “Those who believe that social order should place constraints on the market are right.  But in a true spontaneous order the constraints are already there, in the form of customs, laws and morals.”  Legislation cannot create or replace such organic constraints.  The “moral consensus of the community” is just as much a part of the invisible hand as the price-setting mechanism, a truth lost on most American conservatives, and sometimes the moral consensus will overrule the price-setting mechanism.  We do not allow children to be sold, and traditional sexual morality is “a way of taking sex off the market.”  And imposing externalities on others violates both the moral consensus and creates an inaccurate price-setting mechanism.  These are not just classic externalities such as pollution; they similarly include those offloaded by many large businesses, such as giant grocery chains with centralized distribution, who offload both obvious costs and less obvious ones, such as the destruction of small, local shops and their associated communities.  “In short, global capitalism is in some respects less an exercise in free market economics, in which cost is assumed for the sake of benefit, than a kind of brigandage, in which costs are transferred to future generations for the sake of rewards here and now.”  In these days of evil led by giant corporations such as Google, this is more true than ever.  None of these criticisms are new, of course, but they are well-written, and Scruton is in many ways here aligned with new voices and new ways in American conservatism, of which Trumpism may be a caricature, but one with truth and possible future heft.

Other chapters cover “The Truth in Liberalism” (liberty and freedom are good, up to a point, Lord Copper, and that point is excessive egalitarianism, embodied in the “search for empowerment” and the creation of positive rights, not to mention that Mill’s harm principle is mostly incoherent and not a plausible basis for evaluating rights), and “The Truth in Multiculturalism.”  As to the latter, I would say there is none, at least as the term is used today, and Scruton says much the same, citing and trashing Richard Rorty and others for their celebration of everything that aligns with leftist ideology, and only of those things, which is the true meaning of Rorty’s “pragmatism,” and taking sideswipes at Edward Said for the obvious fact that he and his acolytes believe all cultural values are relative, but claim at the same time Western culture is objectively bad and worse than any other.

Nature, on the other hand, in “The Truth in Environmentalism,” comes in for much praise from Scruton, and here his analysis shines.  “[The] conservative cause has been polluted by the ideology of big business, by the global ambitions of the multinational companies, and by the ascendancy of economics in the thinking of modern politicians.”  Environmental problems are a prime demonstration of our interconnectedness, something around which Scruton’s conservatism revolves.  But just as easily, environmentalism becomes a substitute, and false, religion.  And it is also true that “the truth in environmentalism has been obscured by the agitated propaganda of the environmentalists and by the immensity of the problems they put before us,” such as global warming, which has no national solution and will never have an international solution.  Not that we need even more government control.  “The solution is to adjust our demands, so as to bear the costs of them ourselves, and to find the way to put pressure on businesses to do likewise.”  (As in his Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, Scruton is a big believer in that the Lord helps those who help themselves, and future societal happiness depends on individual virtuous actions.  That this will happen on its own is not a bet I would take.)  National sentiment can help in this process, and local sentiment even more.  Environmentalism is a topic that clearly very much concerns Scruton; he has written an entire book on it, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet.

Scruton sees a little bit too much of “The Truth in Internationalism” for my taste.  It is not true, as a historical matter and far less so now, that “The EU has benign origins and noble intentions that can bear no comparison with those vanished agendas [of Communism, Nazism, and fascism].”  In fact, the EU has much in common, philosophically and practically, with all of those, and a rapidly increasing amount in common.  It is true, though, that the EU’s lip service to Pius XI’s and Wilhelm Röpke’s “subsidiarity” (also beloved of Yuval Levin and other recent thinkers) is a twisted version of the real thing, involving dribbling a few unimportant powers from the central government to the peasants underneath the ruling class, not the reverse, which is how subsidiarity is usually understood.  In any case, Scruton ultimately judges, as he began the book, that “National sovereignty is a precondition of democracy,” which obviously implies that any body whose sole raison d’être is erosion of that sovereignty erodes democracy.

The last quarter of the book turns more explicitly philosophical, with a recap and expansion of what Burkean beliefs, noting the absorption of the civil society into the state, with its fatal effects for a nation.  He muses on Schiller, Hegel, and Marx.  Religion gets more focus, again with Scruton’s emphasis on the importance, in the West, of the rule of law independent of, but underpinned by, Christianity. He offers a fairly long, though I think deliberately opaque, criticism of same-sex marriage.  Scruton objects to the state undermining the norms of marriage, for reasons he explains, but then seems to say the state shouldn’t be prevented from doing so, but rather, “The correct response is to set an example, by living in another way, and by acknowledging the underlying spiritual truth.”  Well, maybe, but two pages before Scruton notes the hatred and violence brought to bear on those who do exactly that, which pretty much undercuts his suggestion that “living in another way” is going to have any impact.  In the same chapter, he talks about need for “accountability . . . to stand judged in another’s eyes, to come face to face with another person, to give yourself in whatever measure to him or her, or to expose yourself to the risk of rejection. . . . Without [accountability] we can never acquire either the capacity to love or the virtue of justice.  Other people will remain for us merely complex devices, to be negotiated in the way that animals are negotiated, for our own advantage and without opening the possibility of mutual judgment.”  I have read that in the past, Scruton used similar reasoning, along with the premise that same-sex couples are too similar to each other to act in this fashion, to attack the morality of homosexual conduct.  But he appears to be no longer following this forbidden line of thought.  Finally, he has a lengthy and worthwhile discussion of art and beauty, rejecting the “tedious culture of transgression” and the dogma of pure relativism in the worth of art.

Scruton ends with “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, But Admitting Loss,” in which citing Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” he notes the loss of English faith, “comfort, membership and home.”  Christian culture is mostly dead, which Scruton seems to think is a logical consequence of modern rationality (a very Eurocentric and narrow view, from an American perspective).  He muses on Anglican churches, village greens, and beauty as it is mediated through pondering loss.  All fine and true, I suppose, but to what point?  “We should live in the spirit of our Remembrance Sundays, seeing our losses as sacrifices that have purchased the reprieve that we still enjoy.”  Bah.  This is the counsel of a dotard in his cups, or of an organ grinder’s monkey, dancing for peanuts thrown by the master who calls the tune.  I much prefer the approach of Sean Connery as King Arthur in the not-very-good 1995 movie First Knight, who, when compelled by his captors to order his people to submit, pliantly begins a meek speech to that effect—and ends it, “I command you all to . . . . FIGHT!”  Of course, he immediately gets two crossbow bolts in the chest for his act, but the spirit is correct, and Arthur achieves his immediate and his larger aims.  I am not sure what precisely such action looks like in this current age; I expect it will be revealed to us, and that right shortly.  But maudlin talk of dead Victorians and immanentizing our losses isn’t going to achieve anything, and if that is the path we choose, our reprieve and our memories die with us.  No thanks.  I’ll stick with less navel-gazing and more aggressive movement toward a politics of reaction.


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