British Conservatives widely promote an economic vision of unfettered free markets and “small government” as the necessary pre-conditions that underpin any free, happy and above all wealthy society. They promote “business” as being both morally and instrumentally superior to government in distributing goods and services and maximising individual liberty.
It is true that many Conservatives do not promote the acquisition of wealth for its own sake (although many do), they simply regard economic growth and a dominant private sector as the only efficient way to provide the resources needed to provide universal employment, technological progress and the limited common goods they are prepared to acknowledge must be provided by government through general taxation.
However, it seems to me that Conservative beliefs about how “society” should be ordered are incompatible with their promotion of free markets and that this contradiction leads to a profound logical incoherence that almost entirely discredits the traditional Conservative loyalty to free-markets as the primary method of organising human society.
What I mean by “Conservative beliefs about how “society” should be ordered” might include the following:
• Conservatives (of the economic liberal persuasion) are generally suspicious of official state systems of regulation of both public and private behaviour, regarding them as coercive, bureaucratic and ineffective.
• Conservatives tend to profess a high regard for bourgeois values such as good manners, hard work, responsibility, self-reliance and playing by the rules.
• Conservatives traditionally have a very highly developed sense of patriotism and a belief in a traditional, hierarchical social order based upon the Monarchy.
• Conservatives tend to believe in a punitive legal regime in which harsh punishments and “short, sharp, shocks” are used to “deter” criminals from committing crime.
• Conservatives tend to express a vociferous loyalty to the coercive forces of state power such as the police and armed forces.
• Conservatives, and rural Conservatives in particular, have a highly developed sense of a historical community, which is again based in a traditional aristocratic social order, and in order to maintain that social status quo promote many forms of deferential, conformist and socially enforced, normative codes of behaviour.
Today many Conservatives live in a world in which they believe their treasured values have been undermined by Liberals and Lefties because they perceive that the do-gooders and apparatchiks have undermined the traditional hierarchical social order, have no respect for bourgeois values and have fostered a dependency culture where the hard-working middle-class (the squeezed middle) pay for the leisured lifestyles of the feckless working class.
But I think Conservatives are entirely failing to recognise the cause of their frustrations and the breakdown in the social order they seek to promote. It is not the Left who have undermined Conservative values – it is global free-market capitalism and the logical inconsistency of their own belief system.
Some of the contradictions at the heart of Conservative thought are:
• The desire for stability versus the brutal transformative force that is free-market capitalism.
• The distrust of “big government” versus a vigorous patriotism and a support for the police and armed forces.
• A belief in commercial self-reliance, autonomy & entrepreneurialism versus a love of an elitist aristocratic social system based in the monarchy.
• A belief in competition as the fundamental driving force of human psychology versus a belief in “playing by the rules”.
• A belief in the importance of family as the basic social unit versus a belief in a flexible work force.
But I would argue that the central contradiction in Conservative thought is illustrated when we draw a distinction between traditional supporters of the UK Conservative Party and those economic liberals who follow the theories of Milton Friedman, Robert Nozik et al.
I would suggest that there is in fact nothing Conservative at all about the theories of these free-marketeers, and that their theories when implemented (as they have been to varying degrees almost universally in The West since the end of the ‘70’s), inevitably lead to dramatic, rapid and perpetual social and economic change that undermine all traditional value systems – including, if not especially, Conservative ones. The free-marketeers are closer to anarchists than they are to Conservatives and it is the failure of traditional Conservatives to recognise that it is their own economic policies that are undermining their worldview – and it is this that is at the heart of their baffled fury.
Margaret Thatcher was uncompromisingly proud of her Greengrocer father, Alfred Roberts, who rose to be Conservative Mayor of the small Lincolnshire town of Grantham. By all accounts he was an honourable man who worked hard, played by the rules and was as a result rewarded by the system. But the unfettered, free market capitalism that was introduced under his daughter’s government has meant that out-of-town supermarkets have almost universally replaced independent small town greengrocers across the country. There are many advantages to consumers of out-of-town supermarkets (cost, convenience, product range) but they do clearly undermine community cohesion. Town centre shopping in numerous small stores is a significantly more social process than zooming round a supermarket. Yet many conservatives fail (or refuse) to see the connection between the Thatcher/Reagan version of Friedmanite economics that has so disrupted their world.
The same story is repeated across the range of Conservative values. Patriotism as traditionally defined by Conservatives is surely undermined by the globalisation of capital and the dominance of the multi-national company. Even if the UK were to withdraw from the EU as many Conservatives advocate the ability of the UK government to act autonomously to defend UK interests would be severely limited by the global currency and stock markets. Increasingly, UK domestic policy is determined not by the UK electorate but by the few thousand hugely wealthy gamblers known collectively as, The City. For some reason many Conservatives seem to regard the imposition of policy by The City as legitimate while imposition by the EU or the UN as illegitimate. However, the ability of even the EU to act on behalf of European Citizens is also largely determined by The City and/or multi-national corporations who can, and often do, simply pack up and move from one country to another if they don’t like the economic policies of the country they are in [Incidentally they very rarely move because a government is totalitarian or oppressive of ordinary citizens].
It is hard to see how the interference in UK domestic policy by non-elected commercial organisations is morally or politically more legitimate than interference by the EU or Un? In either case the ability of a legitimately elected UK government to act in the best interests of our citizens is usurped.
Where is the place for Patriotism in all this? Theoretically multi-nationals have no loyalty to any country, city or region; there only concern is with maximising profits for global capital investors. [I say theoretically because in reality many multi-nationals retain a sustained and direct connection with the country in which the controlling company was first established.] How is it patriotic for a US based multi-national manufacturer to move tens of thousands of jobs from the US to the Far East in order to save money?
To be wary of the coercive powers of the state but also unquestioning supporters of a hierarchical, pre-democratic, aristocratic and monarchist social order seems strange to say the least? To be such vigorous supporters of a punitive prison system and of the police and army does not seem to correspond with a supposed abhorrence of “big government”. One can be certain of one thing – that Conservatives would no longer be supporters of the police and army if an elected government used them to enforce a communist regime
I would suggest that Conservative support for the coercive forces of state power come about because in the UK almost always those forces are used to bring about outcomes Conservatives would support, i.e. controlling demonstrations, breaking strikes and protecting property. I would also suggest that this Conservative support for the hierarchical monarchist social order and for the police & army indicates that most UK Conservatives are not actually opposed to “big government” at all; that they are actually opposed to a particular type of “big government” i.e. they are partisan.
Similarly, any concept of community, tradition and social stability is undermined by flexible capital and the flexible labour market. Conservatives are very fond of suggesting that workers “get on their bikes” or “get on a bus” to find work. But simultaneously they bemoan the breakdown in community values!? Over a third of the UK work force has now been casualised, reducing costs to employers and undermining employment protection for workers. This “freelance” work force is now working all over the country on short-term contracts, often staying away from home during the working week. Can Conservatives not see the inevitable negative impact all this has on any sense of community people may have?
But the most important social impact of the casualisation of the work force and the geographical instability of contemporary working lives has been on that great Tory shibboleth – the family. Since 1979, under both Tory and Labour government’s, wages and real-life spending power have decreased to the extent that in order to maintain anything like even a lower middle-class standard of living, both partners in a marriage have to work. This has always been the case for the industrial working class but it is now the case for almost everyone. This situation is a direct result of the Conservative policy of deregulating business and limiting trade-union power. Again Conservatives seem to be unable to understand that if both partners have to work family life will be affected and that if you destabilise the work force you destabilise communities, families and society in general and that this is the cause of much that Conservatives find so abhorrent in contemporary society.
The free-marketeers value innovation and entrepreneurialism almost above all. Yet by definition innovation is the antithesis of tradition. Innovation by definition requires a continual overthrowing of the established technical, social and normative rules. Conservatives seem to think that technical and commercial change can be achieved without social change; that business can develop innovative and revolutionary products while the social order remains static. Yet even the most cursory examination of the history of the last 2 hundred years shows us that revolutionary technical innovation can, and almost always does, revolutionise social relations. Factory-based mass production destroyed the vestiges of the rural feudal social order of the 18th Century, the steam engine and the internal combustion engine revolutionised our ability to travel (to work) and led to the development of the suburb – the heartland of UK Conservatism. The Internet is in the earliest stages of revolutionising both working and social relationships in ways we cannot yet determine.
The free-marketeers emphasise competition above all other human psychological attributes. Logically this inevitably leads to the celebration of “winning” – at all costs? This fetishisation of aggressive competition and success above all other considerations undermine traditional Conservative values of playing by the rules, hard work, honesty and responsibility. If “winning” is the only objective then why work hard if you can win by cheating?
The type of radical free-market capitalism proposed by Milton Friedman et al, has nothing at all to do with Conservative values; indeed it fundamentally undermines them. No wonder so many British Conservatives are so furious all the time; their own theories and policies are destroying the things they value the most. They just haven’t recognised it yet.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society