… and in a spirit of pyrotechnic recklessness worthy of the early days of the Royal Institution, we gave Paul Graham Raven a spare copy.
There are two sorts of people in the world, as the old gag goes; the ones who divide the world into two sorts of people, and the ones who don’t.
“It is easy to identify the targets of resentment and to pull them down; harder to work towards a world in which people will live in peace with those who do not share their opinions or who are more fortunate than themselves.”
Now read it again, paying particular attention to the structure of the last part. In it is contained everything you need to know about how Roger Scruton apparently sees the world.
“Conservatism is the politics of delay, the purpose of which is to maintain in being, for as long as possible, the life and health of a social organism.”
Green Politics is served well by its austere jacket; such a refreshing change from the lurid covers of books called things like Emergencies, Bullshit and How The Other Lot Are Eating Your Kids’ Gerbils, and You DON’T EVEN CARE! Wouldn’t it be great if we could dump all the polarised rhetoric and political brinksmanship and just get the fuck on with fixing what needs to be fixed? It surely would.
Scruton’s book, however, does nothing to move us any closer to that.
Nope, posh jacket aside, this is polarity politics as usual. Well, perhaps not quite as usual, to be fair. Scruton’s project here is to set out a cogent explanation of how small-c conservatism, far from being ideologically opposed to ecology and sustainability, is actually optimally placed – by temperament and morality alike – to do the job of fixing the planet, and do a far better and fairer job of it than the Large-L Left, thankyouverymuch.
“The Roman Empire lasted because it schooled its citizens in sacrifice; and the principle that governed […] was not ‘to save everything, risk nothing’, but ‘to save the best things, risk everything’.”
Scruton’s Large-L Left is, of course, a carefully compiled straw-man of the small-l left’s worst failings and flaws, and it dutifully falls over at just the right places. His small-c conservatism is an equally careful and irreal construct, drawing as it does on such quintessentially British institutions as the Women’s Institute for its exemplars of locally-minded free associations who take a pride and responsibility in the part of the world that they believe they are leaving in bequest to the generations to follow. Leftist institutions are goal-driven and hierarchical, and hence prone to corruption, bloat and bureaucracy; those things just don’t happen with real small-c conservative people, you see.
“Conservatives see politics as an agenda-free brokering of rival interests, whose goal is peace.”
It might surprise Scruton to find that I fully agree with a number of his basic premises. Or maybe it wouldn’t; he mentions early on that his philosophy actually draws heavily on what is referred to in the literature as ‘classical liberalism’. (This bears little resemblance to anything going under the liberal banner today, and is also the soil from which anarchism grew.) And Scruton’s hardest truth is the truest of them all: no matter who’s in charge, we’ll never get this shit fixed until we all stand up and accept it as our personal responsibility to do so.
Difference is, he seems to think hierarchy will solve that problem, whereas I contend that hierarchy is the very root of the abrogation of responsibility Scruton so deplores.
Scruton may not be in thrall to the delusions of the left, but his book contains a raft of the usual rightist dogmas, its sail billowing with barely-sublimated contempt for (and fear of) the inferior types whom democracy empowers. Go back to that opening quote again: see how he recognises the scale of the struggle required to keep one’s boot on the necks of those who should be pleased to help maintain your privilege!
“[W]e look with suspicion on those who are unwilling to risk death in defence of a shared way of life, and we recognise sacrifice as a fundamental component in the resilience of human communities.”
He talks of the toxicity of lobbying and NGOs, penning this screed against the International Fund for Animal Welfare:
“IFAW is accountable to no one other than its leadership, exists purely in the realm of politics, and cannot debate the long-term effects of its short-term purposes. It requires nothing of its supporters other than their money, and acts as an uncompromising single-issue pressure group in all the places where it enters the fray.”
In doing so, he skims over his (presumably remunerative) senior fellowship at the arch-conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.a big-ticket Stateside think tank.
Like a compilation of empty platitudes and sweeping statements compiled from decades of jeremiad editorials in the Torygraph, everything in this book eventually boils down to the necessity of preserving the “established moral order”, which in itself is the lingering imprint of some unspecified Golden Age recent enough to include all the benefits of industrialisation but early enough that the bloody proles haven’t gone and got any funny ideas about their worth as human beings — and where, by the way, there were never, ever, any plans for a windfarm that might spoil the view:
“[T]he urge to haste leads to vast schemes, the effect of which on the climate is far less knowable than their effect on the prosperity, and therefore the capacity to act, of those who adopt them.”
This from a guy who spends a whole later chapter trashing the precautionary principle.
It’s all well and good climbing outside of your filter bubble once in a while, but once you’ve read more than a few of these free-market evangelist types, you start to think that they must hand out crib sheets every year at Davos, just to make sure all their parrots are squawking in the same key. How anyone can still talk with a straight face about how markets are magical homeostatic self-correcting systems is quite beyond me; perhaps the local paper-boy won’t take the FT all the way out to Scruton’s farm any more? (That’s probably due to minimum wage legislation or something. Funnily enough, most things turn out to be caused by something like that.)
“[T]he traditional Islamic societies observed in North Africa and parts of the Middle East […] achieve equilibrium only when families enjoy spheres of private sovereignty, under the tutelage of a patriarch whose social standing is constantly enhanced by evidence of his reproductive powers.”
Scruton would doubtless tell me that the left is just as bad, just as entrenched in its rehearsals of dogma and catechism, just as focussed on ideology to the exclusion of all else.
And you know what? He’s right.
Sure, the left’s brand of ideological bullshit has its own unique characteristics – the perpetual purges, witch-hunts and internal schisms, for instance (which the right adore, because they make you such an uncoordinated opponent), and the relentless boner for legislation, bureaucracy and the nanny state (which the right doesn’t understand at all, because the class system used to do a much more efficient job of keeping people in check, and without any of the tedious paperwork).
But Scruton’s tedious rehearsals of the fact merely reveal the tawdriness of his own argument. No matter the topic, no matter the seriousness of the problem, everything, everything is brought back – often in mere seconds – to how The Other Lot said they were going to do it years ago, or how The Other Lot would have got it just as wrong but more so, or how they’re terribly sorry it’s broken and they really are trying to fix it but it’s not their fault because The Other Lot did it and ran away–
“… it is no longer possible to have the kind of childhood that we read about with such longing and wonder in children’s classics like Huckleberry Finn and Swallows & Amazons.”
This is the mentality of those who rule the world, or who aspire to rule it: they’re so entrenched in their dogma, dialectical oppositions and centuries-old political clubs that they have forgotten how to think, let alone how to do so beyond the confines of a rapidly shrinking box. It’s like watching two teams of fat middle-aged former public schoolboys doing a tug’o’war on the village green for the rights to decide which way the stripes should go on the cricket pitch while the entire fucking village is burning down.
Right and left are only references so that the chauffeur can park the car. – Subcomandante Marcos
The left-right political axis is ancient, rusty with spilled blood, and warped out of all recognition by years of systematic distortion. It’s unfit for purpose, an anachronism, a windsock on a space station.
Either we end this, or it ends us.
Paul Graham Raven wrote about the collapsonomics crowd for Arc 1.1.