Roger Scruton on The Disadvantages of Conservatism

I have read, enjoyed and been edified by many of Roger Scruton’s articles and essays, and have found his A Dictionary of Political Thought a continually useful resource, but until now I have never gotten around to reading one of his books. Now though, I have finally obtained a copy of his celebrated and seminal treatise The Meaning of Conservatism, and am so far thoroughly enjoying it. In its opening pages, I came across a passage that seemed to me sum up a great deal of the frustration that one experiences being a conservative in modern Western society:

In considering the relation between power and authority, it has to be conceded that the conservative suffers from a singular disadvantage, and this disadvantage makes it necessary for him to be stronger, more cunning, even more Machiavellian, than his usual opponents. For, lacking any obvious aim in politics, he lacks any offering with which to stir up the enthusiasm of the crowd. He is concerned solely with the task of government, and his attitude defies translation into a shopping list of social goals. He looks with scepticism upon the myths of equality and social justice; he regards universal political agitation with distaste, and the clamour for “progress” seems to him no more than a passing fad, serious only in so far as it constitutes a threat to the political order. What then can persuade the people to acquiesce in his ascent to power? It is well to say, with Burke, that the promises of revolution must be empty (since they can be understood only be presupposing precisely the social arrangement that it is intended to destroy). But what other promises can the conservative provide?

The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), p.26, Penguin.

            The principle task of Scruton’s book was and is to describe the essence of conservatism – not to make a philosophical case for it, nor for any particular policy or set of policies, but to create a work of dogmatics, setting out plainly what the conservative outlook is. Contrary to what we see in modern party politics, where conservative parties are often only identifiable as such by their commitment to one particular view of free-market economics, and are in many ways just as wedded to the progressivism that was introduced into Western political life by the rapid growth in popularity of socialism in intellectual circles, conservatism is essentially about conserving things.

To stand for the conservation of certain things in a culture which can be said to lie at the heart of that culture and give shape to its identity – its institutions, laws, customs, traditions, moral values, etc – is to place oneself at a disadvantage because, as Scruton writes, this will mean ‘lacking any obvious aim in politics’. To be a conservative is to wish to see preserved what is good about life in a given culture, and this ordinarily does not require having any ideological goals – it is an act of maintenance. When the ideals of others seeking to uproot or destroy the permanent things in a culture are brought to the fore however, what was an act of maintenance becomes an act of defence, and the person doing the defending is at a disadvantage – novelty is exciting, and it is not attractive to be the one saying we should keep things as they are.

Furthermore, socialism (in its various forms) has been able, because people are drawn to the surface ideals it proposes of increasing equality and lifting people out of poverty, to emerge relatively unscathed from the manifold disasters that have resulted following its full implementation. Despite millions of deaths and profound degradation of culture when and where socialism has been put into practice, it has managed to be absolved of these sins, largely on the basis that progressivism and equality are buzzwords that people routinely find appealing. Yet in any cases where conservative governments have had deleterious effects, it has had the result of confirming people in the belief that all authority and any commitment to tradition are therefore always bad:

The great intellectual advantage of socialism is obvious. Through its ability to align itself with ideals that every man can recognise, socialism has been able to perpetuate the belief in its moral purity, despite crime upon crime committed in its name. That a socialist revolution may cost millions of lives, that it may involve the wilful murder of an entire class, the destruction of a culture, the elimination of learning and the desecration of art, will leave not the slightest stigma on the doctrines with which it glorifies its action. And yet those lonely restorationists who have committed crimes in the cause of continuity, have – because they fought not for an ideal but for what they took to be a reality – often simply blemished the idea of authority which they hoped to serve.

ibid.

            The conservative is essentially for something – a way of life, a culture, a set of principles – and wishes to conserve it or them, whereas the progressive is always against things, particularly the established order. There is often talk from progressives of creating a bold new utopian future, but there is very little agreement as to what this utopia will look like, and it often seems to be characterised only by the elements of the status quo which will be rejected or removed from the common life. This fundamentally negative attitude – to protest against rather than to affirm – is also highly attractive to the modern mind, which sees rebellion and upheaval as intrinsically good things, simply because they are involved in progressing, and progress is itself taken as a good. Thus the conservative is again at a disadvantage in terms of his ability to garner popular support.

Ironically though, it is often only in circumstances when the existing order is being threatened that the conservative outlook is thereby able to be clarified and given more concrete expression. As conservatism is about maintaining what is good in a culture, it is therefore also in great part about being in favour of things which we simply assume as good; it is an affirmation of the complex mixture of things that human beings have always taken for granted as constituting the background to a well-ordered and happy life, and never taken the time to ask why. As noted before, conservatism is not really an ideology at all, but more accurately a cast of mind, which recognises the things that make for stable communal life, and the necessity of certain values and institutions in making that stability possible.

When presented with a threat to that way of life though, the principles held to be of value by conservatives have to be brought into focus, refined, and articulated with clarity, much as heresy causes the Church to refine and clarify her doctrine. Perhaps then it is the particular task given to conservatives to be at the disadvantage they always are in situations of revolt or upheaval because, as the ones zealous for the guarding of what is good, true and beautiful in life, they must also be the ones who have to bear the brunt of the attack against those very same things. To be a conservative is a disadvantage at times, but that very predicament, when it occurs, also reminds us of what an honour it is to be the ones standing firm for what has enriched our culture, and in defence of what seeks to destroy it.

Also, as Scruton noted in an interview with Orthodoxy Today, many of the things that conservatives are in favour of are of a non-negotiable character, and support of them will involve taking the criticism that we are simply stating obligation as opposed to arguing for our position (with the implication that what is absolute and has enjoyed long-standing acceptance is unreasonable, whereas what is novel is the result of unfettered reason beholden to nothing but the ideal):

…the most important obligations governing our lives as social and political beings — including those to family, country and state — are non-contractual and precede the capacity for rational choice. By referring to them as “transcendent” I meant to emphasize that they transcend any capacity to rationalise them in contractual or negotiable terms. They have an absolute and immovable character that we must acknowledge if we are to understand our social and political condition. The refusal of people on the left to make this acknowledgement stems from their inability to accept external authority in any form, and from their deep down belief that all power is usurpation, unless wielded by themselves.

When standing up for things that, by their very nature, are of a non-negotiable character and often rest on acceptance rather than protest or argument then, we will often be accused of being ‘backward’. Similarly, when defending positions long held by a culture, but which do not fit the new and exciting moral innovations proposed, we will be called ‘bigoted’. Both these tactics, particularly the use of the term ‘bigot’, are designed to silence the conservative opponent by labelling them as someone whose opinion does not even need to be listened to – by describing someone as a bigot, the progressive makes it plain that they need not engage with their opponent’s opinions, as they are morally reprehensible. Thus the conservative is also up against an extreme self-righteousness which cannot countenance any opinion at variance with its own, and will use smear tactics to avoid actual engagement with the other.

Conservatives then are at a number of disadvantages, but the one thing we have on our side is what I have alluded to a number of times already – we stand for something, and the things we stand for are precisely what many people instinctively know, even if they cannot articulate them, make for the health and happiness of their culture. The ideas of the Left may well have a perennial ability to excite and instil a spirit of rebellion, and an amazing knack for avoiding any long-standing bad press despite countless failed and bloody campaigns waged in their favour. However, that progressive ideology is always essentially something negative, that at its core it is about tearing things down, is its biggest weakness, and the reason why its implementation has always involved a top-down imposition of its doctrines onto the populace.

Contrariwise, people know deep down what has made their culture what it is and thus what is worth conserving, and so whilst the spirit of rebellion will always re-emerge, gaining supporters because of the inherent appeal of novelty, the conservative outlook will, despite its disadvantages, always win the hearts and minds of the people. We were made to create, not to destroy, and we know what is good when we see it – what has worked to enrich and assist a culture is worth holding on to, and this is not only the essence of the conservative spirit, but the heart of humanity. It is a great honour to suffer calumny or to be ostracised when it is for the things that make us what we are, the things that make for fulfilment at work and happiness at home.

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2 thoughts on “Roger Scruton on The Disadvantages of Conservatism

  1. The text book assessments of conservatism by the authors may have efficacy in academic circles but in no way related to American conservatism in action. I know. I worked in the Goldwater ’64 campaign here in Miami everyday for 9 months. Patriotic people, self sustaining, hard working with a sense of common decency as opposed to the liberal Hollywood agenda element. We are not immobilized by the alleged gray area but have a clear sense of right and wrong and can smell nonsense a mile away.

    • Thanks for your comment Carl. It is interesting you cite Barry Goldwater as an example of traditional conservatism, as I would have thought that the represented an extreme libertarianism which is actually antithetical to the classical conservative position (to the point where he supported the ‘abortion as a personal choice’ view and clashed with traditional moral values on a number of other points).

      Neverthless, the point you make here about normal, hard-working patriots with a strong sense of common decency is a good one, and is part of what I’d hoped to capture in my post above. Being able to ‘smell nonsense a mile away’ is a virtue amongst the voting populace that conservatism can always count on in its favour 🙂

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