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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

a note on Australian conservatism « Previous | |Next »
November 11, 2009

The recent conflict over an ETS in the Liberal Party raises a question about Australian conservatism. It currently celebrates itself as being healthier than it has been for many decades and usually understands itself in terms of the conservatism of Burke, who highly valued prudence, tradition (custom and habit) and civil responsibility. Or it represents opposition to the Labor party and political correctness in the form of a polemical cultural politics.

My stab at Australian conservatism is rather different. A core theme is that Australia is in peril from terrorists, refugees, the ETS, greenies etc) and that conservatism is the only reliable savior from the darkness that surrounds us. It speaks for mainstream Australia.

One strand of conservatism equates the welfare state with totalitarianism as the centerpiece of its ideology. Social Security is somehow akin to a gateway drug that first destroys self-sufficiency, then created dependence on big government, and finally results in a totalitarian state that destroys individual freedom. The government itself is an enemy and this is what lies at the heart of modern conservatism's hostility to centralizing sovereign government in the nation state. Think Hayek and the IPA.

The social conservative stand, based in Christianity, (the uglies) which has a narrative that Australia is Rome, the Huns are at the door, and instead of summoning strength, determination, and righteousness, we are wallowing in self-indulgence, decadence, and denial. The reason for this is modernity. It sucks. Think Cardinal Pell.

Thirdly, the modern conservative movement has always seen itself as a populist insurgency against both the chattering elites or classes (in Carlton, Fitzroy and Balmain etc) and the untrustworthy [Labor] leaders endangering the nation.The people (authentic or true blue Australians) are the saviours --they have commons sense --ie., wisdom and virtue of Australian to save Australia. Think Alan Jones.

These three strands-- and there may be more-- are pretty standard---ie the social conservatism vs economic liberalism assemblage noted by many commentators. I want to step away from this in order to start to explore how these coalesce around a critique of Australian liberalism. This different approach will help us to see the philosophical core Australian conservatism rather than a political movement based on conflicting strands.

One front of this critique is that conservatism favours homogeneity (an Australian ethos or a common Australian culture) and the eradication of difference or heterogeneity (multiculturalism) in the name of assimilation and restriction on unwanted immigrants through its immigration laws.

The charge against liberalism is that liberalism promotes a civically divisive pluralism and that the public sphere is little more than the chattering classes indulging their narcissism to unending discussion or ever lasting conversation. Decisive decisions on tough issues are what is needed--not endless chatter. This leads to the existential unavoidability of exceptional emergency situations (the state of emergency) and the necessity of an unaccountable sovereign defending/guarding the Australian people from external threat in unusual and threatening times.

Think Tampa and the war on terror with its existential friend and enemy distinction and the extension of ASIO and police powers to preempt terrorism. The actions of these guard dogs were accountable only to the executive (the sovereign). The executive is the guardian of Australian citizens and we owe our allegiance to the executive (the sovereign)--- not Parliament in exchange for this protection.

This is quite different from, and in opposition to, liberal constitutionalism. The buried assumption is that there is a need for an external enemy or a foe in order to secure a political order and the social cohesion (or homogeneity) within that order.

I explore deeper into the conservative critique of liberalism over at since it steps beyond the politics to philosophy that in turn opens up potent political territory around the Conservative understanding of society.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 5:18 PM | | Comments (17)


So... essentially... today's tories base their position (and popular support) entirely on existential fear?

And misinformation.

Love the gateway drug metaphor for the IPA.

If you read Pell's QuadRant essay on Constantine (or my review of it), it seems he is arguing for the desirability of a theocratic government... not unlike a Christian version of the Taliban. Of course, Pell wouldn't return to the best of the Roman tradition, the likes of Cicero (Republican) or the Antonines (Imperial).

Burke would HATE Howard, however much little Johnny used his name in vain (see a few citations I put together here), and Alan Jones, for being happy to bring about "the true danger ... when liberty is nibbled away, for expedients, and by parts" (from the wonderful Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol). Mill wouldn't be happy with Howard either. Nor would the sellout of the economy and speculators please Adam Smith ("being the managers rather of other people’s money than of their own, it cannot well be expected that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in a private copartnery frequently watch over their own. … Negligence and profusion, therefore, must prevail, more or less, in the management of the affairs of such a company." from the Wealth of Nations).

It's hard to actually find a "liberal" philosopher that would be happy with the Liberal Party for a long, long time (which probably explains why classical liberals like Andrew Norton feel so lonely), however much the Libs try to invoke the liberal philosopher's name.

What is getting interesting is that those from both left and right who are big on liberties and governance are displeased with both major parties who hold to nothing but beating the other major player - by doing exactly the same thing with greater skill

existential fear is there --it can be traced back to Hobbes and its use by the centralizing power of the sovereign nation state. The misinformation is there --it can be traced back to Plato's noble lie.

However, if you dig there is a critique of liberalism buried within Australian conservatism that goes beyond Howard and Abbott's appeal to the liberal-conservatism of the Burkean tradition or to Christianity.

yes we do need to dig a bit deeper. There is a sense that behind John Howard's appeal to the lovely British political tradition and defence of a glorious and noble settler Australia and its destructive treatment of indigenous Australian is an acceptance that when you boil politics (the political) down to its molten core it pretty much comes down to blood, foundational violence and war in the name of self-preservation.

I've always reckoned that the hard edge of Hobbes lies buried deep in the Australian conservative tradition.

Conservatism as a coherent ideology doesn't really make much sense outside countries with centuries of stability in the social order. The argument that some kind of collective institutional wisdom has evolved in such countries which you disrupt at your peril at least has some intellectual merit with empirical support.

No such argument can be made about Australia, which is inherently dynamic. There is no established order to conserve outside indigenous communities (and of course with typical inconsistency the self-identified conservatives are the most vocal in demanding assimilation and the eradication of ancient indigenous cultures). It seems to me therefore that conservatism here is little more than a cynical defence of established privilege. It appeals to people's natural resistance to change, especially when coupled with deliberate fear-mongering, but it lacks any serious ideological underpinnings. It's essentially opportunistic.

Ken Lovel (2009-11-12 14:39) says of Oz conservatism "it lacks any serious ideological underpinnings. It's essentially opportunistic".

Actually, there ARE those who hold a philosophical leaning that has some defensibility (that I as a left-leaner might not agree with, mind you).

However, singling out the Liberal Party as opportunistic is a bit unfair, however much I enjoy it.

The majors might use historically-pertinent rhetoric to hold onto their traditional voters, but I cannot see much empirical evidence that there is any philosophical outlook that is a consistent underpinning of policy of either of them.

Instead, it becomes which party has the jolliest visitor to "Sunrise", which can most convincingly wear a cloak of probity, which can best use smoke and mirrors on those voters who are philosophically empty, which can exploit the fears, greed and ignorance of the majority of voters who might change their vote.

Apart from the minors (whether nice or nutter, doesn't matter), I cannot see ANY conviction in Australian parliamentary politics, and they have almost no impact anyway on what does and doesn't pass... and none on things that can be done at the stroke of a minister's pen.

Fukuyama wrote of "The End of History". It seems to me a similar "End of Australian Parliamentary Politics" happened some time ago.

In the 1920s Carl Schmitt, a radical Catholic conservative, made some important criticisms of parliamentary liberalism in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy with reference to the Weimar Republic.

He argued that political liberalism, like "classical" economics, is structured around a metaphorics of "balance", a balance between the separated powers that will "check and balance" each other, and "a balance of opposing forces" within the legislature, from which truth is supposed to "emerge automatically as in an equilibrium" or as from a machine.

He then argued that argument, in the real sense that is characteristic of genuine discussion, ceases in Parliament. In its place there appears a conscious reckoning of interests and chances for power in the parties' negotiations. Parliament has become, in this constellation, a mere "antechamber" to party rooms, committees and caucuses. It is behind their closed doors that the real work of decision-making gets done.

if Australian conservatism is understood as involving a critique of liberalism then it must have some core or centre that makes it different from liberalism. That is my starting point.

Dave makes the valid point that Australian conservatism cannot be a coherent critique of liberalism because the latter does not itself possess a coherent ideology any more. How can you critique something that lacks substance? I tend to agree that there is little ideology now in Australian politics; pragmatism (or more usually opportunism) is the order of the day.

European conservatism as a coherent ideology precedes liberalism by about a century. In New World countries on the other hand it is nothing more than a set of reactive positions whose purpose is to frustrate efforts to unseat privilege.

I cannot see any core or centre in Australian so-called conservatism beyond the wish to protect and if possible enhance the interests of the ruling elites.

So... no Conservative "leadership" then?

"In New World countries on the other hand it is nothing more than a set of reactive positions whose purpose is to frustrate efforts to unseat privilege."

This is what I was trying to get at when we were discussing left and right with Andrew Norton. I agree that neither side has a coherent ideology, but some vague kind of utopianism seems to run through the left - the left of both parties.

The problem then for conservatives is that their vision for the future is to maintain the past, or return to the past. Time must really annoy them, the way it keeps going forward.

Ken + Dave
re the argument:

Australian conservatism cannot be a coherent critique of liberalism because the latter does not itself possess a coherent ideology any more. How can you critique something that lacks substance?

I am not arguing for coherence in terms of ideology or critique. Politics is not about intellectual coherence. It's about articulating raw responses such as fear, hope, desire, particularly at a times that are dark and full of threats .

Still it is possible to discern an underlying "principle" that unifies the bits and pieces to some extent. For example, in liberalism there is the assumption that it is only through the competition of multiple private perspectives that the best outcomes are achievable in social or political life. That's good enough for me to get a grip on liberalism.

It is more difficult with conservatism ---but I have put my finger on four or five bits ---other than the standard appeal to Burkean ideas of tradition and political prudence. These are homogeneity, an acceptance of foundational violence, the friend enemy distinction, the need for an enemy to secure the political order, and the unaccountable sovereign in a state of emergency.

A fair start.

re your comment "neither side has a coherent ideology."

That refers to left and right presumably. I'm not using left and right--I'm arguing about conservatism and its critique of liberalism. I have given some indications of what each looks like.

Though a homogeneity (common culture or an Australian ethos) can be traced back to Burke as Howard and Abbott claim, the other characteristics---an acceptance of foundational violence, the friend enemy distinction, the need for an enemy to secure the political order, and the unaccountable sovereign in a state of emergency--- suggest something other than Burke. I've suggested Hobbes. That's much darker.

How is what Howard did around the Tampa crisis or the war on terror "nothing more than a set of reactive positions whose purpose is to frustrate efforts to unseat privilege."?

Howard was proctive on Tampa not reactive. He defined it as state of exemption and suspended the normal rules.

Dave + Ken,
this account of NSW Labor is grist for your mill. The bit I love is about a report, Building a Modern Labor Party, recording ALP members calling for democratic reform of the party, then this:

But the union secretaries are like vodka-soaked commissars on the Politburo who cannot allow the introduction of democratic reforms because it would mean the end of their personal power. Accordingly, the report does not contain a single "modest proposal" for democratic change.

Love it.

the bog standard conservative critique of liberalism is directed at economic liberalism and the free market. The argument is the free market principles that neo-liberals let rip destroyed the traditions, social relationships and communities that are the core of Conservative values and tradition.

Mind you, those Conservative values and traditions when unpacked place the emphasis on the community and the need for the individual to subordinate their own ends to the greater good. We are only a few steps away from authoritarianism--eg., Cardinal Pell.

People may find an article on the renewal ofBritish conservatism by Madeleine Bunting on Philip Blonde in The Guardian interesting. Bunting says Blonde has:

achieved that rare feat of producing a set of linked ideas which are historically rooted and yet have a real contemporary resonance. A rightwing critique of big business has been long overdue and is particularly apt now. There is profound weariness with a technocratic, utilitarian New Labour-managed welfare state. There is growing anxiety about liberalism's promotion of "excessive individualism"... and its manifest failures in promoting forms of social solidarity.

It's worth having a look at. Conservatism, it appears, is alive and well in the UK.