Magazine | June 25, 2018, Issue

Second-Person Politics

Roger Scruton
Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, by Roger Scruton (All Points, 176 pp., $24.99)

For our intellectual and cultural elites, conservative ideas can never win. When the Cold War ended, conservatives got little credit; they supposedly had nothing left to fight against and now had to “invent” enemies, such as terrorism, to avoid their fall into irrelevance. When Barack Obama was president, conservatives were on the losing side of history, as the “arc” bent toward justice. Now with Trump, liberals are crowing again, about how his election shows that conservatism is incoherent and in disarray.

Roger Scruton will have none of this. As the preeminent exponent and defender of Anglo-American conservatism, he has spent his career explaining why conservative ideas endure. Author of books on topics ranging from fox-hunting to wine, Spinoza to sex, Scruton has perhaps done more to create the vision of a conservative way of life than any writer in English other than Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr. As with those authors, reading Scruton is an aesthetic as well as an intellectual revelation; conservatism becomes much more than political positions or arguments to own the liberals, as fun as those are. Drawing on the work of David Hume, Michael Oakeshott, Pierre Manent, and Kirk, as well as lesser-known writers such as the Hungarian economist Peter Bauer, Scruton explicates the major lines of what he calls “philosophical” and “cultural” conservatism. Scruton argues that conservatism is about home, how we figure out what home is and how to create and sustain one.

Although the book is designed as an introductory text, even those who have followed Scruton will find it full of insight and a handy overview of the conservative tradition. Of particular note is how Scruton defends the relational aspect of conservative thought. Conservatism is not the unbounded “I” of the progressives (and some libertarians), but neither is it the undifferentiated mass of the socialist state. Rather, Scruton posits that the essence of conservatism is the I–thou, the “second person” perspective “in which the ‘we’ of social membership is balanced at every point against the ‘I’ of individual ambition.” This tension therefore allows for communication between people of differing views to whom we owe an obligation, which allows for society and political organizations. In contrast, to posit an endless array of fully autonomous individuals — as, for example, Rousseau did — is to render civil society impossible.

The problem with understanding conservatism is that it has two creation stories. Liberalism really has only one: The French Revolution combined a political ideology of overthrowing the old European order with the vision of a new man unencumbered by religion or tradition. Although this vision has antecedents in Western history, it was the French Revolution that cemented the “liberal person” for the next two centuries through today. Political conservatism, too, was born in the French Revolution’s aftermath, as a reaction to its excesses; we can see this birth most prominently in the work of Edmund Burke (who receives much attention in this volume).

Scruton recognizes that “we will understand modern conservatism as a political movement only if we see that some elements of liberal individualism have been programmed into it from the outset.” Political theorists, including Locke, and social and political movements have rendered “reaction” obsolete; but that does not render conservatism itself unintelligible. That is because conservatism did not have only a political birth. Conservatism is older than the 1789 revolution, and built into the human condition. “Modern conservatism is a product of the Enlightenment. But it calls upon aspects of the human condition that can be witnessed in every civilization and at every period of history.” The most important is what can be called the physicality of conservative belief in the person. The person is not self-created and limitlessly changeable, subject only to the individual will. A conservative believes in contingency; individuals do have choice, but our identities are shaped by loyalties and communities not of our own choosing. Society must balance “the need for custom and community” with “the freedom of the individual.” Scruton sees that “extreme individualism” is a myth; it ignores “the indispensable part played by social membership in the exercise of free choice.”

This social membership is in part what we call tradition, which, echoing Oakeshott, Scruton defines as a kind of knowledge. Tradition helps us to know how to act in accord with our human needs and relational obligations. Political bonds among liberal individuals are weak, because there are no other bonds. For Scruton, this is a category mistake in understanding how political societies come into being and how they remain stable, even under great pressure. For the basic bond is pre-political. That is, legitimacy precedes consent, not the other way around. We recognize a political authority as ours, made by a particular people at a particular place for goals we share. This is why people continue to live peaceably in a society even when the vote might go against their wishes. The recent liberal mantra that Trump is “not my president” is therefore a breakdown of democratic order, not a sign of its health.

So when conservatives say they defend “freedom,” it is not some abstraction: “What they mean is this kind of freedom, the freedom enshrined in our legal and political inheritance, and in the free associations through which our societies renew their legacy of trust. So understood, freedom is the outcome of multiple agreements over time, under an overarching rule of law.” How this happens, how a society maintains the balance between freedom and order, is conditioned by history, religion, custom, and tradition. Without these things the only option is some kind of reactionary authoritarianism, or its left-wing counterpart, political correctness. That is to say, the alternatives to conservatism replicate the very weaknesses liberals say they find in conservative thought.

Now one can already hear the liberal reaction: This view of political life is exclusionary, in that it deliberately cuts out of political society some who are not “like us.” Scruton disagrees. Where we live matters, and every modern society is in some sense a society of strangers. Therefore, we have to find common bonds upon which to build, and we must start with the ones right in front of us: our neighborhood and nation, and our rights as citizens of a particular polity to which we give our consent. This is not a racial or religious concept, as those are false bases on which to build a modern political society. Because conservatism incorporates a respect for the individual, it can accommodate both political freedom and societal coherence. “The language of politics is spoken in the first person plural.” We the People rule and should decide our own destiny.

In a concluding chapter, Scruton describes the current state of conservatism, which he places as a bulwark against both the “culture of repudiation” on the left and the rise of Islam within Europe. As a transnational “pre-political loyalty that is defined without reference to territory,” Islam threatens the European nation-state system in ways that echo international socialism. Western-style tolerance is no defense against such a challenge, because such tolerance assumes common goals. Conservatism has an initial organizational disadvantage because it is local, concerned with particular communities, and so sometimes cannot see a threat until it is almost too late. Here, Scruton argues that European Christian civilization gives us a resource to “find credible alternatives” to extremism, in the injunction to love one’s neighbor. The nation “is the means to reconcile people of different faiths and lifestyles.” For progressives or religious extremists, there is no such thing as a nation, no obligation to understand and defend your neighbors simply because they are your neighbors and not try to change them into socialist man or “woke” citizens. Neighborliness at its best means peace, and conservatism is a necessary strand of any political practice wishing to attain it.

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