BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
There has been a tendency on the Left to purloin useful words and to try and rob them of their meaning. We have seen this with words like progressive and liberal which – once crucial – are now reduced to a blancmange. And when words have proven difficult to pinch there has been an effort to dilute them by adding a modifier. So it is that recently the word postmodern, wholly indecently, has been bound to that purest of words, conservatism.
Like worship your prophet day or Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, it seems the relativists still wish to park their tanks on the lawns of both their greatest foes in an attempt to dilute veracity – what they see as hostile, static and overarching structures. Could it be that the illuminating nature of conservatism itself is now threatened?
Edmund Burke talked of conservatives having an ability to perceive truth, argue for justice and combine a disposition to preserve with an ability to improve. How sound is that? One and all should be conservative – forget missionary, it’s still the best position in town. Why wouldn’t you want to protect the best of what’s around you – the countryside, heritage, effective offices of state, civilisation and traditions – while embracing new technologies, positive cultural metamorphoses and improved versions of existing structures as and when they become available, desirable and assessed? The tired critique of the socialist Left – that conservatives are weighed down by some wistful yearning to hold onto the past and its structures regardless of tenability – has been exposed as untrue, as many conservatives, whilst living up to the term conservative, have proven themselves some of the most radical and effective reformers in history.
(Its actual name is poststructuralism but POMOs prefer postmodernism presumably for its artistic high plane cloak) Postmodern theory and its attempt to tie capitalist democracy into a Gordian knot through identity politics should never – can never – be fused with conservatism as long as guardians of conservatism are honest and true to the precious tradition of conservatism itself, modernising sagely. Attempts at dilution by opponents are frequent and only to be expected, such is the enduring power of conservatism – alongside its associations with democracy and capitalism – as a political approach.
Truth – something the postmodern movement willingly morphs into subjective jelly patterns to get on by – is essential to conservatism. Deconstruction does not come naturally to pragmatic conservatives who more readily trust the meaning of words, facts and ideas at face value – aware that those who deny static, underlying structures and see the fragmented, contradictory nature of all things tend to go mad and make for hopeless administrators. Working from the general to the specific, from macro to micro – as Burke declared, “don’t look for the needle in the haystack, just buy the haystack” – runs counter to postmodernists’ focus on the marginal. The association of conservatism with a strong commitment to epistemic and moral truth is certainly current and has never gone away. Truth as “contingent upon” specific circumstances and pasts is postmodern blather, not from the tongue of true conservatives, who see through the cynical blackmail of the POMOs’ relativist appeal to heart not head.
Chipping away at conservatism is ingrained in the postmodern psyche yet the POMOs – relative newcomers to political philosophy – have failed to damage the conservative bastion significantly, merely refreshing its core. Instead all the POMOs can do is offer up examples of where those who professed to be conservative strayed from the ideal – the likes of Joseph De Maistre – and claim that by the error of these miscreants conservatism itself somehow mutated. It didn’t. This is preposterous – truth is still truth – a diamond is still a diamond even when speckled with mud. Is the catechism less Catholic because of the BBC’s Jimmy Savile or Labour’s Tony Blair? More pertinently, is queer theory more or less postmodern because Foucault derived sexual kicks from children?
It is true that recently, by mistaking big C Conservative Party for small c conservative of conservatism, postmodern commentators can point to endless Conservative politicians hoodwinked by the vagaries of identity politics, from Cameron to May. (There is a good argument for all Conservative politicians spending an away day being warned of POMO traps and pitfalls – the sooner they see they are dancing with a bitter and resuscitated Marx the sooner the music of identity politics they contribute to will stop.) Yes, it is distressing for conservatives to hear Conservatives claiming to be conservatives when their actions betray their locus so far from conservatism’s truth.
Still, it is not necessary to be at all absolutist to be conservative (or Conservative for that matter).
At the heart of conservative philosophy is the Sowellian trade-off – an admission that humans are imperfect. Conservatives like all humans will stray from the truth but that in no way dilutes conservatism. The fact is that it is easier to abolish good things in the name of a so-called enlightened ideal – as Rousseau, Marx and other Utopians have urged – rather than to preserve and improve them while admitting to humans’ imperfections, differences, and inherent prerequisite for trade-off. It takes ten times as much energy to turn water into steam as it does to bring it to boil. The conservative position may be more pragmatic and mature but that does not imply it’s dull – just wiser and needing more hard work to meet caution. Collectivist planners may start off meaning well but historically they have ended up strangling government with superfluous red tape – their restrictive ideologies rendering previously effective offices of state impotent.
As for the POMOs what do they have to be proud of? Strangling and stealing language so people no longer feel free to speak? Creating divisions where they never existed? Failing at every turn – just like their communist comrades – to overthrow capitalism. Just as nobody will buy a Lada Rolls Royce, stop trying to mix oil and conservative holy water. There can never be any kind of a mix.
Dominic Wightman is Editor of Country Squire Magazine.