June 05, 2004


I had a long long meeting with some heavies from Canberra yesterday about energyand environment policy. After work I went had a drink at my local pub--the Kings Head-- with a friend, we got talking about Australian conservatism after some political jokes about Foucault, sovereignty and cutting off the king's head.

I used to understand conservatism as a critique of the Enlightenment and the abstract notion of human rights (Burke and all that) and an assault on instrumental rationality. That is the traditional sense of conservatism.

We discussed the way that conservatism in Australia has changed. It used to be that traditional variety, but that rarely exists. It has changed, thanks to neo-liberalism and its uncompromising commitment to globalisation and the free market. This new conservatism now defends the Enlightenment.

Are we still talking about conservatism? Or is this a conservative liberalism? My judgement was that neo-liberalism, with its uncompromising commitment to globalisation and the free market, is a form of liberalism. However, that economic liberalism is often coupled with a social conservatism that protests the ABC showing lesbian mothers on Play School. Hence we have a blurring of the boundaries.

However, John Gray thinks the conservative leopard has changed its spots. He says:

"With the disappearance of traditional conservatism, political and intellectual boundaries have become rather blurred, and it would be a mistake to imagine that neoconservative ideas are found only among people who think of themselves as being on the right. On the contrary, they have been taken up by a number of old-left thinkers as part of a rancorous campaign against postmodernism. It seems a sort of moral panic has swept through sections of the left, finding expression in a pervasive nostalgia for the unquestioning belief in Enlightenment values they imagine existed some time in the past."

As an example he mentions Richard Wolin:

"Richard Wolin's new inquisitorial tirade appears to belong in this category. In The Seduction of Unreason, he insists that the catastrophes of the 20th century were the result of malicious intellectual attacks on the Enlightenment and the pervasive mood of doubt that ensued from them. The clear implication is that if only we had stuck to the truths of the Enlightenment, the worst horrors of the past century could have been avoided."

This is a familar meme in Australian academia. Gray gives the right response:

"One problem with this thesis is that the worst regimes of the 20th century were shaped - largely or in part - by Enlightenment ideas. The Soviet Union was not dreamt up in a Russian monastery, nor Maoist China in a Taoist hermitage. They were genuine attempts to implement ideas drawn from the heart of the European Enlightenment. The crimes these regimes committed were not inspired by the writings of Joseph de Maistre or Friedrich Nietzsche - two names that recur time and again in Wolin's roll call of intellectual infamy. They were embodiments - distorted in many ways, no doubt, but still authentic - of an Enlightenment political theory that Karl Marx had developed using the works of other Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and Hegel. The simple fact - which Wolin somehow manages to avoid mentioning in the course of his catalogue of 20th-century intellectual villainy - is that the largest mass murders of the 20th century were done by regimes committed to Enlightenment ideas of progress."

He then highlights what is problematic about the way Wolin argues:

"Wolin passes over the Enlightenment roots of 20th-century totalitarianism in silence, and this is partly because if he had taken the trouble to examine it, he would have soon discovered that the Enlightenment was never the spotlessly liberal movement he nostalgically imagines. Many, if not most, Enlightenment thinkers were anti-liberals, and a good number were out-and-out racists. But these facts are really irrelevant to Wolin's purpose. His aim is not intellectual but nakedly political - to prosecute the postmodern left by representing its chief thinkers as lineal descendants of fascism and Nazism."

It is a familar meme in Australia academia: the postmodern left are a part of European irrationalism as they have got swept away with Nietzsche and Heidegger.

As Gray observes, academic junk like this has less to do with intellectual history and more to do with academic shots fired in the unending culture wars.

So I will stay with the traditional understanding of conservatism.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at June 5, 2004 11:55 PM | TrackBack

As we see all around us and especially in politics and fast food chains, globalisation is homogeonisation. so it is not suprising that one political imperative takes on the characteristics of its direct opposite...
Chomsky, Habermas and Foucault were all right! And here we are rather not in the post modernist age but the post enlightened age!!!

Posted by: andrew kindon on November 7, 2004 10:36 PM
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