There is much debate about whether conservatism is a fully fledged ideology or merely disposition, a way of looking at the world that looks to the past to inform the present and carefully guide the future. This is the argument, always presented as a question in textbooks or other material on conservatism but is never answered, and it is adopted by conservatives themselves to justify or explain their positions on political, cultural and social arenas. I think there is merit to the disposition argument, but more often than not it is used as a shield against genuine criticism.
A Conservative Disposition
Put simply, conservatism as a disposition is indistinguishable from liberalism – and we are using the actual ideas and definitions in this part, not the meaningless modern labels – with one key difference. Conservatives were not opposed to progress, nor inherently against some of the more “radical” changes presented during the 18th and 19th Centuries. But rather than leap into revolutions, radical reforms, or abstractions like one’s rights being declared by a State document, theirs is a more cautious approach, one deeply tied to tradition and institutions that they believe work, having stood the test of time.
Rather than, as the more radical elements would, call for the abolition of certain institutions or societal structures and units, they would call for considered and careful reform, making changes based on evidence and the logical march of a particular civilisation. If a liberal or, god forbid, a socialist opposes something, it is not up to the conservative minded to defend the institution necessarily, but for the progressive to justify the validity of their stance. Some major examples are things like capitalism, the “traditional” family unit, or the nation-state – these things have “worked well” – why should we remove or disturb them?
While from the perspective of a radical – I have called for the abolition of those three things – it seems obvious, these are questions we do need answers to. It is not enough to simply oppose something, even if it is worthy of opposition. Not only do we need to ground ourselves in solid reasoning, we also need to have sound structures to replace or reinforce what came before. For instance, we can oppose capitalism, but if your opposition entails replacing one ruling class with another ruling class, a “representative vanguard” like many ostensibly communist revolutions and parties have been, then it lacks legitimacy. Not only does nothing fundamentally change, but the turmoil and violence is destructive merely for the sake of destruction. That there are those who would glorify this on the “left” is disturbing.
Where a conservative will defend power structures and institutions from a stability and tradition standpoint, a true progressive and radical will demand these structures justify themselves or, if they are unable to do so, be dismantled. But these two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, something that I’ll explore below. First, however, one must contend with modern conservatism.
The Modern “Conservative”
I recently read The Conservative Revolution by Cory Bernardi, a former Liberal Senator who left his party for “abandoning” conservative principles, attempted to have his own party (the Australian Conservatives) with fun people like Lyle Shelton, and now seems to spend most of his time peddling Covid-19 and vaccination conspiracies while blaming the nebulous “left” every time he stubs his toe. But the book itself, behind all the buzzwords and transparently hostile rhetoric, did a decent job at explaining what his conception of conservatism was and how he used it to approach politics. His four pillars, faith, family, flag (patriotism to a nation), and free enterprise are all familiar tenants of what we’d consider conservative.
However, it is clear reading the book that while he is at pains to prove he isn’t against “progress”, almost every example or issue he brings up is either a stalwart defence of the status quo – his status quo – or an aggressive tirade against the “radical left’s” agenda to destroy Western society. Complete with references to “cultural Marxism” and the Frankfurt School. He was ardently opposed to same sex marriage (ironically something his party finally legalised a few years after the book’s publication), citing religious journals to prove children needed a mother and father, implying that gay men were paedophiles and rapists (so sayeth the religious man), and blaming single mothers for all kinds of things.
It was also heavily focused on race, more so through omission than inclusion. Radical Islam and other ‘others’ were condemned or dismissed, and Australia’s Indigenous people are not mentioned once. Conservatism was also framed as inherently Western, something that only the West could have come up with and carried to fruition, as it’s bloody and vicious history can seemingly attest to – although that side of the story is, again, unmentioned. Instead, the only real mention of racial issues is that due to “leftist” and government interference, white people with merit are supposedly the ones being neglected in an effort to appease minorities in both the job market and in the collection of welfare.
On the environment, he just does not believe climate change is happening, calling the whole thing a “green cult” that has infected our education system, where science (that he doesn’t like) becomes unquestionable dogma forced on children and the university system (again, so sayeth the religious man, and one of free enterprise). He doesn’t even try make a scientific argument, doing what he accuses the world of doing and politicising it beyond recognition. Given climate change is the most pressing existential threat to humanity that I don’t think we will overcome, this politicising of it is insane and terrifying, more so from the denialist side.
As for the State and capitalism, he’s the typical neoliberal/neoconservative: free enterprise, meaning the free movement of capital and other countries’ resources for our benefit, and a State system that exists solely to defend itself against anyone – domestically or internationally – who dares to question it. For all the talk of community, if you can’t succeed in the “meritocracy”, or are born in the wrong place, then that is just your problem.
Viewing conservatism as a disposition rather than as an ideology of its own is a good historical lens, and a worthwhile academic exercise for those studying political science, but in the modern internet and information age, it, like many other labels, are practically meaningless. Conservatism today has a very clear ideological angle to it, set on preserving whatever they must to maintain control, and crushing whatever they must to do the same. That is obviously on the extreme end, and probably very much informed by my recent exposure to both the Bernardi’s of Australia and the… whatever the hell the US is embroiled in.
Point being, when we hear these terms – conservative, liberal, radical, socialist, etc. – they are distorted beyond recognition. The more you read actual philosophers, scholars, or even just the ideas and convictions of ordinary people, the more the mediatised version is revealed to be a farce. So I would draw a distinction between conservatism as a disposition and what is called conservative today. One can have a conservative disposition and be entirely opposed to those who call themselves modern conservatives, like Bernardi, and many modern conservatives seem fine with radical global change and intervention, so long as they benefit and their bubble remains isolated from the consequences.
With that distinction made, then, what would a conservative disposition look like today? Further still, could that disposition or worldview be tenable within a radical framework?
A Conservative Anarchism
Just writing the words conservative anarchism seems rather absurd, but hopefully with the above definition of the conservative disposition (and perhaps those who have read previous pieces of mine here will see some recurring arguments) it will make sense. I mentioned above that conservatives defend structures of power and institutions for a number of reasons, namely societal stability and tradition as a connection to the past. In isolation, these are worth pursuing, and they don’t have to be approached through an aversion to change or, perhaps contradictory to those goals, a reversion to a tumultuous past.
Take, for instance, the family unit. While Bernardi and others like him will point fingers at the queer community or single mothers for familial breakdowns, their argument in favour of a family unit itself is compelling. We can examine the historic, cultural, and evolutionary reasons for how the “traditional” family structure came to be, and even critique it for its heavily patriarchal setup and the roles women and children play within them. We can, through our moral reasoning and growth as a social species, surpass these now outdated concepts and build our own futures. But that is only half the story.
The traditional family served a purpose, and while we can reject its current form, it is important we don’t lose sight of why it came about. What we replace the traditional family unit with should maintain the positive aspects that it provided, such as a sense of community and belonging. Both parents and children, regardless of their family make-up, need a strong and healthy network of support to ensure the best outcomes for all involved. Whereas modern conservatives point at deviations from tradition as negatives, the “left” has for some time now been showing how that is not the case. We acknowledge their concerns about a lack of community and stability, and can show ways of remedying it – and how some of their own methods are detrimental to their own goals.
Religion and church is a similar example, one of the reasons religion was originally formed being as a catalyst for social activities and rituals that strengthened community bonds. From experience, that is true, but there are other ways to build communities without all the baggage that religious institutions tend to provide and the damage that it has and can impose on individuals and groups. I recall seeing a talk by Richard Dawkins suggesting there be science classes on Sundays, which, while a bit on the nose from a global militant atheist, is one possibility. Not that religious faith or institutions ought to be opposed outright, but it is entirely possible – and absolutely necessary – that alternative community structures be created to allow people to connect on a local or even global level.
Our economic system is perhaps the largest structure, and as we have seen throughout history, simply toppling one set of rulers for another changes little, and leaving a vacuum can lead to even more chaos and inequality than what came before. If we are to critique capitalism with the aim of dismantling it, we need to have a clear path forward. Anarchism is careful, correctly, to not prescribe any particular model. Much of its theory and ideas are to be taken as inspiration for people to use and build their own forms of organisation. There are many groups out there, from cooperatives to autonomous regions, that are not explicitly anarchist, but which anarchism and anarchists have influenced, or been influenced by.
I certainly have no illusions that I can answer these questions, let alone for others. But that does not mean we cannot collectively imagine and picture the society that we wish to belong to and discuss ways of achieving them. If, as anarchists say, we can’t just abolish the capitalist system, we must abolish the state as well lest we repeat the vanguardism of the 20th Century, then we necessarily need alternatives either already in place, or at least within the collective conscious. Spontaneous action can work, but in the long-term we need solutions that will avoid the pitfalls of previous efforts.
This will entail further pitfalls and failures for sure, and given the current trajectory of global affairs (in particular global warming) I have little hopes for the survival of humanity as a species, let alone an organised society. But deep pessimism aside, that does not mean we should attempt to keep striving for that ideal, regardless of how long it takes.
That, to me, is how I imagine a “conservative” anarchism. The ability to recognise the flaws and inequalities of the current system, a conception of the ideal society we wish to reach in the long-term, and a rough but not prescribed roadmap to achieving that over a period of time. It takes what is useful from what came before and reshapes it or removes it with adequate alternatives in place to carry things forward.
I would never call myself a “conservative anarchist”, partly because it would be a nightmare to explain to most people, and the implications of conservative in the modern discourse renders it a laughable phrase. But mostly because I think it does not need stating. Much of what I have read about anarchism talks about dismantling structures, but it is followed by more talk of the means of organisation after that. It looks to the future while remembering the past, just as conservatives proclaim to do. It sees the value in what was and, rather than fight to maintain it, works to improve and progress it. Most of all, it is a process. It will take time, and often slow steps are required to reach an end goal.
But we can get there.