26 August 2013

John Gray on Thatcherism: when disposition becomes ideology

Frequent readers will remember John Gray (the British author, not the Albany news anchorman) as an intellectual curmudgeon who's made the philosophical journey from conservatism to pessimism. He remains conservative to the extent that he rejects the idea of unlimited progress, but since most professed conservatives also profess some idea of progress -- fueled by free enterprise rather than the state -- Gray is somewhat off the grid. He reviews a biography of Margaret Thatcher in the current New Republic and reflects on how the Iron Lady transformed conservatism. You can infer from his comments that what usually gets called "conservatism" now is really Thatcherism, which for Gray is conservatism turned into an ideology. Thatcher was just one of the figures on the right in 1970s Britain who were trying to "break with previous Conservative thinking." Only with them, Gray argues, did British conservatism become "a systematic body of belief." Previously...

For most in the [Tory] party and the country at the time, Conservatism was not any kind of theory at all, but instead -- as the skeptical conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott liked to put it -- a disposition, which featured an enduring attachment to familiar institutions and practices. 'A propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or may be.' Conservatism in that sense was not a notable trait in Margaret Thatcher.

While Oakeshott's ideal sounds complacent, there's also a note of pragmatism (Gray writes that he "stressed the importance of practice over any kind of theorizing") absent in ideological conservatism. Oakeshott's conservatism, which Gray implicitly admires, is opposed to an idealism that defines Thatcherism. Hers was specifically the idealism of "spontaneous order" in a free-market economy as popularized by Friedrich von Hayek. But as Gray notes, Hayek explicitly denied being a conservative. Gray himself characterizes Hayek as a sort of social darwinist. More importantly, he attacks Hayek directly for failing to acknowledge (or recognize?) that even if a spontaneous order once existed, restoring it could not be a spontaneous event.

Neither [Thatcher] nor Hayek considered the fact that ... the claim that law evolves spontaneously, without anyone designing it -- was inescapably flouted in circumstances when law had to be deliberately created, as was the case when Thatcher came to power. The nub of Thatcher's first administration was the assault on trade unions, which required the construction of a new legal framework to curb their activities. A similar contradiction appeared in Thatcher's treatment of local authorities, which she regarded as a bastion of socialism; in order to limit their powers, she had to expand those of central government. The pursuit of Hayek's idea of a 'spontaneous order' in society required a major expansion of state power.

Gray may think it inevitable that Thatcher failed in her ultimate purpose, if that's understood to be the restoration of some idealized bourgeois Britain. Her legacy, he claims, is "a society in which a conservative disposition has no place." If Thatcher meant to restore traditional values -- if, as she said, "Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul," -- Gray notes that her presumably ideal society "based on lifelong marriages and careers cannot co-exist with an economy driven by unfettered choice and the pursuit of short-term gains." In plainer terms, he claims that "The free market that Thatcher promoted acutally worked to undermine and to dissolve middle-class values."

Conservatism may inevitably take an ideological form in a post-revolutionary era. It may even be possible to divide history into pre-ideological and post-ideological eras, the latter a state in which dispositional conservatism of the Oakeshott sort becomes, if not impossible, then so relative as to be unrecognizable to today's dogmatists. Dispositional conservatism can resist a revolution, but reversing a revolution requires ideology and, as Gray notes, state power. If radical revolution has transformed the social order from the root, restoring the old order (real or imagined) requires equally radical action. It also requires a kind of argumentation unnecessary to dispositional conservatism. Once the case has been made for a welfare state or a workers' state, a case has to be made against it. This is the starting point of Thatcherism, based on the perception that by the 1970s unions had gained too much power in Britain and were abusing it to the detriment of the overall economy. If a dispositional conservative might argue that things can always be worse than they are now, or against throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the ideological conservative is out to prove specific points: that the welfare state is wrong; that the regulatory state is wrong; that too much power for unions is wrong. While the dispositional conservative argues from experience or caution, the ideologue argues from abstract principles like those formulated by Hayek. The ideological conservative becomes the radical, as some American "paleoconservatives" have recognized when listening to neocons. But in the 21st century the core "conservative" demand, the culmination of nearly two centuries or arguments against socialism and organized labor, is inescapably radical, whether made by neos, paleos or anyone in between, so long as it requires fundamental upheaval -- and inescapably dependent on the state so many affect to despise. None of this is meant to suggest that no one can argue for a radical dismantling of the welfare state, or against the principle of collective bargaining. But if Gray is right in his implicit claim that dispositional conservatism is the authentic kind, then those making more radical demands are not conservatives in this place and time. It would be more honest of them not to hide behind the adjectival noun and identify themselves explicitly with the things or ideals they actually stand for. We might all see the issues more clearly if we took off our polarized lenses and gave up thinking in terms of "liberals" and "conservatives." For all we know, some people who assume that they agree on nothing because one calls himself conservative, and one a liberal, may find common ground on specific issues where ideologues see none. Or so we can hope.


Anonymous said...

"that the welfare state is wrong; that the regulatory state is wrong; that too much power for unions is wrong."

Wrong for who?

Samuel Wilson said...

Ideological conservatives wouldn't recognize the relevance of that question because whatever they dislike is wrong "on principle."