In some way we are all conservative. To be conservative there is something in our lives that we appreciate and wish to preserve, protect, and keep unchanged. Being conservative is a philosophy of love – of the individual that loves that which works and wishes to improve that which does not.
It is possible to be too loving, to smother and to obsess. In some circumstances, to conserve too much can lead to becoming dogmatic and traditionalist. Being conservative does not mean to be illiberal or to be motivated by disgust or to be resistant to all changes.
If this seems off to you, and it will to many people, consider your life – what would you keep? What or who do you love? In his book, Home, archeologist Francis Pryor talks about the wonders of home – that feeling of a place, of a rootedness, of love. That is conservatism. And I am sure there are things in your life that you love and wish to preserve.
In this article I will look at the nature of conservatism, on change vs tradition, on liberal vs illiberal, and how it relates to political conservatism. These are mostly my own thoughts and I welcome a good discussion on the topic.
What does conservative mean?
One of the biggest takeaways I’ve had from reading J.R.R. Tolkien is the importance of words. I’ll probably never reach his level of knowledge or precision, but I agree with him that the meanings of words are vitally important. This could be why few people truly get the meaning of orcs and read all kinds of strange theories into them, but it is something we can apply to conservatism.
Therefore, from the premise of conserve, we can deduce that a conservative is someone who wishes to protect and keep something from change, waste, or damage.
Roger Scruton: Does conservatism come from love?
This is a simple definition. The English philosopher, who passed away recently, Sir Roger Scruton defined conservatism as being an act of love. And in many ways he’s right – you conserve and preserve that which you like, you need, you love.
In this sense, I view conservatism as part of my philosophy on appreciation – see Way of the Runari and appreciation. We appreciate good things in the world – systems that work, freedom, beautiful art, good people, nature, good food, and so on and so forth.
Now, Scruton also defined conservatism in a political sense too and did not define it based 100% on this definition and not 100% on the perceived version (see below). In his sense, conservatism was built on the individual not on the state or the collective. This does follow on from the definition of conserve and conservative as outlined because it seeks to show that which is being preserved is unique to the person wanting to preserve it.
However, we cannot get away from the idea that institutions and collectives can be conservative too. We can treat humans as individuals, but each institution and group is in itself an individual entity, and they too wish to protect and keep things be it power, money, culture, art, and so on.
Is conserving passive or active?
Perhaps a common view of the conservative world is an inactive world without change. However, that’s not necessarily true because if left alone things change. We are subject to the laws of entropy. That is to say everything withers and decays unless actively preserved and improved.
Therefore we can argue effectively that conservatism is an active phenomena. Not just in the mind through appreciation which needs to be active, but in working to preserve that which is loved. We workout and eat well to preserve our bodies, we work on relationships to keep them well, and we maintain buildings to stop them falling apart.
Do we get more conservative with time?
There is an old phrase that says if you are not socialist when you are young you have no heart and if you are not conservative when you are older you have no brain. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. If we build on the above premises about conservatism being of love, then it is possible we accumulate more things we love as we get older, just as societies that gather more things want to conserve them until they possibly turn into living museums.
If conservatism is of love then it is of the heart. That means we can want to conserve at any age though perhaps when we are younger and are still learning about the world, we want to experience new things and innovations. We are finding the paths in life that may lead us to a state of wanting to preserve and protect.
Let’s look at the reasons why young socialists turn into older conservatives. This happens generation after generation. When does the change happen? It usually begins with paid work. You work hard and then a significant slice of your money is taken, with the threat of violence, by the state. This is especially felt by those who work in the private sector rather than for a branch of government.
Over time, as we work, we begin to accumulate things as well as people – if we’re lucky we get a house, furniture, books, cars, and so on. We like having these and we appreciate their value, and we don’t want to go into a situation where these can be lost. It is natural, therefore, as we age and accumulate, we want to conserve.
Is it possible to be too conservative?
However, yes, we can become too conservative. The notion of an extreme conservative is often based on the political notion (as laid out below). I’d argue that’s based on the extremes of dogma and traditionalism rather than the extremes of conservatism per se.
So what does being too conservative look like? This is the clinging to things when change would be better. Conserving does not preclude evolutionary change, but if we are too conserving, we may be blind to the need to improve or to better options. This can lead to a dragon-like desire to hoard our precious items. In that sense we could become Smaug or perhaps Gollum.
What is the opposite of conservative?
The opposite of a conservative is a change agent. That is someone who wants to make changes to the existing paradigm. Now, if we define conservatism as coming from love in the Scrutonian model, then the opposite of a conservative is someone who wants to change that which works and that which is loved.
In my piece on appreciation as part of my Runari philosophy, I have defined such a person as a nihilist. This is best seen through the modern prism of postmodernism. In my experience, best shown by institutions such as the Turner Prize and Goldsmiths University in London.
While there can be a pathological desire to conserve something, there is also a pathological desire to change and to deconstruct. In postmodernism this is born with the notion that there is no value or meaning to anything. It’s sad to see such a world where love and beauty are so dismissed, diminished, and destroyed.
Perhaps a nihilist is the opposite of an extreme conservative. If unthinking they can be the anti-traditionalist (sew below) but if conscious then they are active destroyers rather than creators.
What is a milder form of this? Below, I reject the notion of liberal as being the opposite of conservative. I would also argue that progressive is not exactly the opposite of conservative, because if it were, then all change is for the better and we know this not to be the case.
Some forces of change are accidental/misplaced
Change can be misplaced rather than born of hate or nihilism. During my 5 years in Japan I became desolate at the destruction of its beautiful heritage. Societies change and modernize, but some are able to modernize while keeping their traditional crafts and beauty. Britain has kept a lot and lost a lot. Japan too.
After World War 2, Japan set about trying to become the most modern country yet it was piecemeal and often surface level. In his book Dogs and Demons Alex Kerr looked into how traditional Japan was replaced with soulless monstrosities and boring, modern architecture. Sometimes I feel this is the origin of the pathos found in Murakami Haruki novels.
The theory was that what existed in Japan before was old fashioned and backward. It became the trend to want modern amenities, but there was no thought to the possibility that traditional architecture could be modernized. They were two separate mental constructs – old and backward, new and modern.
Kerr set out to prove otherwise and bought a small house in Shikoku and set about creating a modern-traditional blend. Chiiori is a beautiful house and worth checking out if possible, even if it is to look at photos.
These examples are to say that not all rejections of conservatism are thought out or from a need for innovation or progress, but can be born out of misconceived ideas and nihilism. At the same time, rejecting conservation does not have to be a bad thing either. Sometimes we love things which are not actually good for us and which need to be changed – the important thing is to consider what replaces that which is torn down.
Tradition vs Conservatism
In a later book (to me anyway) called Lost Japan Kerr looks at Japan in the sense of its traditional culture. While its architecture has been ruined, many traditional arts remain and some of them have not been ruined by staid tradition. A common issue in Japan from financial policy to ikebana is traditional forms. That is to say, it has always been done like this and so always shall be. Yet it’s not true. These traditions, set patterns and forms, are barely a century old if that. During the Edo period, these forms were free and fun, but now they are rigid.
This reminds me of John Stuart Mill’s reasons for free speech. The third and fourth rules are based around the need for challenge to keep a truth true and fresh. The same is true for conserved things. If something is not challenged, then it becomes stale and then it becomes either dogma (an idea) or tradition (a practice).
Dogmas and traditions are unthinking whereas conservatism is based on the idea of preserving that which works and improving upon it or building on it. Appreciation requires a thoughtful mind and active engagement.
Why is the popular view of conservatism different?
There are two issues here. The first is that the term conservative is wrapped up with politics – in the UK we have a Conservative party and in America there’s the dichotomy between liberals and conservatives (see next section). For Sir Roger Scruton, conservatism built on the individual and a love of well-established institutions that helped hold up society, culture, and the nation. It’s possibly an English notion, but consider also the American conservatives and their love of the Constitution.
The second issue is an abuse of language; especially seen by those on the far left. While Marxists make up for a tiny fraction of society, they have a strong hold on it. This comes from being found in high numbers in universities, schools, the civil service, and the media.
These two factors play together. The far left like to change the meanings of words to suit themselves. For example, racism used to mean the hatred of a different race, but they are trying to ally that hate with power. This allows for some hate to be ok if from someone perceived to be weak, but not ok for someone perceived to be powerful.
Another example is the poisoning of the left-right paradigm and the shifting of bad actors from one side to the other. In its conception, fascism was an evolution of socialism. National Socialism (Nazism) was too. Both were left-wing until Stalin decided that anything opposed to him was right wing. This began a slow shift in describing these left-wing ideologies as right-wing which accelerated with the discovery of the Halocaust.
Furthermore there has been the creation of terms by the left which are used to mis-frame right wing ideas or conservative ideas in order to give the appearance of the left being correct. A good example is the term capitalism which is a socialist construct. The real term for capitalism as outlined by Adam Smith et al… is freedom (or liberty).
Over the decades there has been a slow drip effect where the meaning of conservatism was equated with certain quasi-fascistic forms of capitalism; especially crony capitalism and corporatism, with traditionalism, racism, and so on. It all comes across as an effective attempt to poison the well.
Liberals and conservatives: a false dichotomy?
One of my favourite thinkers of modern times is social and cultural psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In his book, The Righteous Mind, he set out the dichotomy of liberals and conservatives, and how this spectrum defines the left-right paradigm (see below). His definitions can be summarised as:
Liberal: open minded to new experiences and ideas.
Conservative: likes to stick to the known, disgusted by the unknown.
These are partly inspired by what he calls ‘the omnivore dilemma’ that is the balance between sticking to what you know best and trying new foods. Omnivores have, in theory, a richer diet than other animals, but only if they are open to new experiences.
When we are children we go through phases with our diets. One of those phases is the rejection of all green foods (maybe this manifests later as a psychological disorder as shown by Fiona Apple). It is easy to put this disgust down to fussiness on the part of the child, but actually it’s part of the development where the body learns or activates lessons from evolution that some green things are not good to eat and can be dangerous. The child usually gets through the phase and goes back to eating their greens.
Haidt argues that the omnivore dilemma is manifested in left-right politics through the differentiation between those who are open to new experiences and those who are not. The conservatism of Haidt is rooted in fear and disgust, but as he discusses with Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, the manifestation he sees is when this is mixed with purity and loyalty. Is it possible purity and loyalty are bigger drivers of the disgust mechanism?
It is true to say that to be liberal, one needs to be open minded, but does that preclude conservatives? The answer is too simplistic perhaps. As I’ll outline below, conservatism is not necessarily left or right wing and is not necessarily an opponent of liberalism. It is also not necessarily driven by disgust – it is driven by love.
I dislike using the term, but a disgust driven sense of preservation mixed with loyalty and purity elements would seem to be more reactionary than conservative. I’m actually struggling to find a better word to describe it and the only one that comes to mind is reactionary – as in a person who reacts to stimulation. In this I’d take a negative slant on what the reaction is – disgust.
Conservatism and the left-right paradigm
The left-right paradigm is not fit for purpose – it tries to put too much on a simple line and fails to adhere to logic; especially when we allow malignant forces to misapply ideas they don’t like to their opposition. Haidt and Peterson, in their discussion (above) look at how the left is liberal and the right is conservative. However, this is to misapply the meanings of the two terms.
One nature of conservatism not noted by Haidt and Peterson is its tendency to preserve and how that which is preserved is not the same around the world or from time to time or group to group or person to person. Once someone gets something they want, they seek to preserve it. This is conservatism.
We see this all the time. In the 80s and 90s we could argue that so-called conservatism held sway then we began to shift culturally and politically. The left won the culture war during the 90s and 00s and it was politically dominant as the slow march through the institutions finally bore some fruit.
Yet, these people were faced with a dilemma – to continue to evolve or to preserve what you have. There are those who seek to continue to change – they often have a nihilist postmodernist feel of there being no culture, no meaning, and that it can all be burned down, or they seek the next cause, but others realize they have what they want and begin to conserve it.
Conservatism depends on the dominant paradigm
Now consider this – other people grow up in the new paradigm and others come to power during it. Now those who are minded to conserve are not looking to conserve the past because it’s already gone. Some may seek to conserve the few things which remain, but that’s not the mindset.
A conservative does not innovate nor do they regress, they like to keep things the same. Therefore if the left is dominant, then the conservatives are of the left, and the innovators/agents of change are on the right. This may explain why the Conservative party in the UK leans so far to the left at the moment when there is such an opportunity and a yearning for more freedom coming from the right.
In short, this is to say that like racism, conservatism can be on the left and on the right. If we have a left-right paradigm then it is to define other values beyond the preservation of the status quo or beyond the ideas of openness versus disgust.
How do we process the conservatism of English Liberalism?
This is why language matters. In a world of balance, we have two ideas – liberalism and conservatism. They are forces of balance that produce a better world whereas disgust, tribalism, and nihilism are negative forces. In my philosophy – The Way of the Runari, I discuss the balance between appreciation (conservatism) and creation (liberalism) – the good old and the good new.
English liberalism is based on the idea that we preserve that which works and is loved, but we slowly evolve through trial and error to become better. This requires toleration and promotion of the factors which lead to positive change while acknowledging the institutions and positive foundations on which we stand.
The disgust dimension discussed by Haidt is not found in English Liberalism. As Scruton laid out during his life, it is one of love – love of the positives of England. Those things which have been eroded and built up and destroyed over 1,000 years.
It is a conservatism built on the enlightenment, on a glorious landscape, of strong, independent institutions, and of a quiet, unspoken English yearning for freedom which Stenton would put back to the very migration of our people in the 5th and 6th centuries. We came as free people and we try to preserve that freedom where it exists and we try to regain it where it’s been taken away.
Haidt, Jonathan, 2012, The Righteous Mind, Penguin, London
Kerr, Alex, 2015, Lost Japan, Penguin, London
Peterson, Jordan B., 2018, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Allen Lane, London
Pinker, Steven, 2018, Enlightenment Now, Penguin, London
Pryor, Francis, 2015, Home, Penguin, London
Scruton, Sir Roger, 2014, How to be Conservative, Bloomsbury, London
Stenton, F.M., 1971, Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford University Press, Oxford