Response to Waleed Aly’s Essay “What’s Right?: The Future of Australian Conservatism”

Below is a analysis of Waleed Aly’s essay for Quarterly Essay “What’s Right?: The Future of Australian Conservatism”. I found the essay a good starting point for thinking about trying to define the political split between left and right. The major problem with it was that it seemed to make the old mistake of taking a tendency for an actuality. Although not developed in this response I feel that this mistake is connected to the habit on the part of the left to shit on democracy in favour of expert opinion from designated representatives of a particular field – women, climate change, welfare gay whales demanding land rights etc etc etc. I find this a lamentable habit because it overvalues the opinions of a single person by something close to a factor of infinity. The connection is most clear for me in Waleed Aly’s discussion of climate change.

Aly’s Essay makes the argument that the language of left and right is meaningless and that a certain confusion in Australia conservative politics is evidence of this. He then proscribes a direction in which he hopes the Liberal party of Australia will go. I suggest that this direction is actual for the right to become the left and that the meaningless that Aly sees in the division between left and right is actual a product of his thinking that the right does not offer anything. I understand his argument as being driven by this opinion and facilitated by an over enthusiastic use of the terms organic and ideology. The use of these terms is a symptom of the habit spoken of above.

All page references are refer to the Autumn edition of Quarterly Essay in which Aly was published.

Waleed Aly’s essay ‘What’s Right? The Future of Conservatism in Australia’ has reminded us of a tendency in politics for ideas about the pursuit of justice to be clouded by less dignified motives. It is thoughtless ‘team spirit’ that Aly attacks, but he goes too far. Neither the language of left and right is meaningless nor is the Australian right, and the conservative philosophy that defines it, suffering some sort of crisis of historical consistency. At the root of Aly’s hyperbole is his use of the concepts ‘organic’ and ‘ideological’ and in the end his conclusions can be seen as motivated by his leftist sympathies.

The term organic is deployed by Aly in order to positively differentiate conservatism from its opposite, progressivism, so as to demonstrate the thoughtlessness of the grouping designated by ‘the right’ and the principled direction that adherents of conservatism should proceed in.

For Aly, conservatism is defined by an appreciation of the organic qualities of human society, qualities beyond conscious human knowledge. He interprets this appreciation as an understanding of good governance as being “open to the merit of any idea, provided it can be incorporated gradually, organically, with minimum disruption and with respect for traditional forms of life.” (p15)

But, just as all political philosophies are interested in good governance are not they also all interested in the good implementation of policy. To deploy policy with a minimum of disruption and on the basis of merit is surely something that all politicians do. A good idea implemented with too many ‘unforseen consequences’ becomes a bad one, no matter where one sits on the political spectrum. If the war in Iraq is something that is fundamentally outside the domain of conservative political philosophy, and I don’t believe it is, it is not simply because it was waged ineffectively.

The use that Aly makes of the term organic does not readily distinguish conservatives from progressives, or any other political disposition making a claim to good governance. This problem is also evident in his use of the term ideological, a concept that is twinned to ‘organic’ as it’s opposite.

For Aly, progressivism is ideological whilst conservatism is “an approach to politics”. Conservatism is about managing “the diverse currents and counter-currents that inevitably flow within an organism as complex as human society.”(P14) The fact that an ideology like neo-liberalism was to feature in the manifestos of the political right is therefore evidence for Aly of the sinister confusions of modern conservative politics.
It is hard to envisage a way in which even “an approach” could be styled as non-ideological. Conservatism, according to Aly’s insightful exploration of its philosophical foundations, is premised upon the idea that we need to find the best way of governing and that way is to defer to those social institutions that together make up tradition, because “they capture the sorts of intangible wisdoms that philosophy cannot.” (P 9)

Contrary to Aly’s presentation, conservatism is ideological in two senses. Firstly, it is opposed to those that argue that philosophy and reason, abstract theory, have a greater ability to answer questions regarding good governance than social institutions that make up our tradition. Secondly, it is open to ideological warfare around the question of which social institution should be privileged over others in a given circumstance. It is ideological warfare within its role, as described by Michael Oakeshott, of “resolving some of the collisions which this variety of beliefs and activities generates”, the variety, that is, that is inherent in any society and that taken together constitute tradition. It is ideological warfare that occurs for instance when social institutions such as the family, nation, church or market come into conflict. It is ideological warfare between neo-liberalism and nationalism.

Aly is able to create a distinction on the basis of ideology by deploying a very narrow definition of the term. An acceptance of a multitude of opinions by conservatism constitutes its non-ideological nature for Aly. But, if there is a question over what good governance is then at least some form of plurality of beliefs and values is presumed, this applies across the linear political spectrum. Those that hold positions that favour abstract theory do not rule out a belief or activity as unjust simply because it has a history and there is never just one abstract theory. It is only when respect for a multitude of opinions is denied that ideology in Aly’s sense emerges.

Thus, Aly equates ideology with totalitarianism. Neo-liberalism for instance is ideological because it becomes “an organising principle for politics and society” (p30). It is only so far as neo-liberalism is taken up as a dictation of absolute truth regarding the organisation of society that it can be described as ideology in Aly’s sense of the term and thereby stand as evidence for the confusion he laments. It is not all clear that this has occurred within the liberal-conservative tradition.
He pursues this difficult argument by suggesting that the adoption of neo-liberalism by conservatives has forced them into a corner defined by defence of neo-liberalism with the aid of a reactionary cultural politics dubbed neo-conservatism. Neo-conservatism in this construction plays the role of gulag and concentration camp to the totalitarianism of the neo-liberals.

It is specifically a denial of the second sense of ideological warfare in conservative politics mentioned above that becomes crucial for Aly’s argument. Without neo-conservatism as debased running mate to neo-liberalism the succumbing of the political right to ideology, understood as total dominance by a particular idea, is challenged by the competing influence of John Howard’s social conservatism.
Supporting Aly’s argument is a notion that the true, non-ideological, conservative path lies in deference to some harmonious body of tradition. Thus, Aly criticises John Howard’s claim that the liberal party’s electoral success in the years surrounding the arrival of the 21st Century as being a result of balancing “the principles of liberalism in economic policy with a fairly conservative social agenda”. For Aly, “It is not a matter of balance; it is a matter of contradiction. And partly for this reason there is little about this cultural politics that is truly conservative.”

That a conservative position might be constructed between the contradictory dictates of different social institutions such as the market, family, nation and church is foreign to Aly’s brand of conservatism but not that of the Liberal Party of Australia.

Whilst Aly depicts such conservatism as practised by John Howard as a debased form of principled conservatism is not this ‘neo-conservatism’ just the dirty underside of the pursuit of conservative principle. What does one suppose the processes of that organism called human society, processes that capture the intangible wisdoms conservatives hold dear, look like if not violent exclusion and the rallying around fictional narratives.

Is it possible to have a “narrative of national unity” that is not at the same time “a narrative of exclusion”? For there to be Australians don’t there have to be un-Australians and a policing of the border between?
Being happy with such “nostalgic fictions” and violence done in their defence as emerged during John Howard’s Prime Ministership is part and parcel with respect for the ability of tradition to “capture wisdoms that philosophy cannot.” The hard, and thus crucial, aspect of Edmond Burke’s political philosophy surely lies in justifying such unreasonableness out of respect for such processes that will, despite their ugly appearance, bring forth “wisdom” inaccessible to us via rational thought.

A quick consideration of the definition of conservatism as something that opposes progressivism on the basis of an attitude towards tradition and that accepts that total knowledge is impossible and thus that the organic, as something not subject to knowledge, is important is useful here. Such a consideration reveals Aly’s concern for a harmonious body of tradition as a prejudice for progressive politics.
On the right are conservatives who posit that the processes of society, the “diverse currents and counter currents” of identity politics, hold some sort of organic logic that is conducive to providing the delineation of the just society. On the left are progressives who posit that the just society is a product of reason. For progressives some organic aspect about people means that their direct interactions can be reasonable and based on the search for justice and not self-interest. For the right, tradition is the chance for justice; for the left, tradition is the obstacle to rational discussion.

In laying down his hopes for conservatives into the future Aly states: “[t]he challenge globalisation throws up is to articulate national identities that are broad and inclusive in a way that they have often not previously needed to be.”(p101) The means to do this, he suggests, are found in aspects of project America: such national identity “is best constructed on civic ideals and an ethos of participation, not cultural assimilation.” (P103)

I would agree with this, but I am a man of the left. A national identity that is truly all embracing of individuals is one that regards tradition as secondary to reasoned discussion amongst individuals. A polity that places philosophy and abstract theory agreed to by individuals, qua individuals, over tradition and social identity is possible because I believe that people can directly participate in reasonable discussions about what a just society is, despite self-interest. Both Aly and I are calling for the pursuit of civil, not cultural, institutions that best facilitate such discussion – the task of separating traditional prejudice from reason. In submission to reason tradition can be become the single harmonious body Aly yearns for.

But for liberal-conservatives in Australia to pursue this would distance them from principled conservatism far more than any reluctance to act strongly against climate change. It is highly dubious to suggest that such abandonment of conservatism is made necessary by a decline in the relevance of geographic place as the root of social institutions. Despite the marvels of Twitter and Facebook one must ask: what decline?

Aly arrives at his conclusion not only through the use he makes of the terms ‘organic’ and ‘ideology’ but also through an overly zealous interpretation of the adoption of liberalism by the liberal-conservatives in Australia. The idea that this tradition is about defending individuals as individuals and not as consumers against the mainstream is a conclusion that is only possible by ignoring the qualifications of the liberal-conservative adoption of the ideas of people like Mill.

Perhaps the greatest evidence for the left wing motivations of Aly lies in the very thesis he was pursuing. He stated: “I have argued that by embracing neo-liberalism, conservatives have backed themselves into an ideological corner that has forced them to violate the philosophical tenets of both liberalism and conservatism and to adopt a thoroughly reactionary form of politics.” Is not the only principle of conservatism to abandon philosophy and principle in favour of the social institutions that make up tradition – to give up, as Burke puts it, the Rights of Man in favour of the Rights of Englishmen?

The language of left and right as a means of understanding modern politics is only meaningless if one has decided strongly for one side over the other. Despite a proclivity for politics to seem like a meaningless turf war between left and right this division remains fundamentally defined by ideas not habit.


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This author is just another fucking dickhead.

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