In our modern Western societies, liberals do all the laughing, and conservatives do all the crying. Liberals may find this an extraordinary assertion, given that over the past century their preferred political parties have spent more time out of power than their conservative rivals, and, indeed, no radical Left party has ever held a parliamentary or congressional majority. Yet, this view is only possible if one regards a Labour or a Democratic party as ‘the Left’, and a Conservative or a Republican party as ‘the Right’—that is, if one considers politics to be limited to liberal politics, and regards the negation of liberalism as a negation of politics. The reality is that in modern Western societies, both ‘the Left’ and ‘the Right’ consist of liberals, only they come in two flavours: radical and less radical. And whether one is called liberal or conservative is simply a matter of degree, not of having a fundamentally different worldview. The result has been that the dominant political outlook in the West has drifted ever ‘Leftwards’. It has been only the speed of the drift that has changed from time to time.
This is not to deny the existence of conservatism. Conservatism is real. This is to say that conservatism, even in its most extreme forms, operates against, and is inevitably dragged along by, this Leftward-drifting background. And this is crucial if we are to have a true understanding of modern conservatism and why conservatives are always losing, even when electoral victories create the illusion that conservatives are frequently winning.
It would be wrong, however, to attribute the endless defeat of conservatism entirely to the Leftward drift of the modern political cosmos. That would an abrogation of conservatives’ responsibility for their own defeats. Conservatives are responsible for their own defeats. The causes stem less from liberalism’s dominance, than from the very premise of conservatism. Triumphant liberalism is made possible by conservatism, while triumphant conservatism leads eventually to liberalism. Anyone dreaming of ‘taking back his country’ by supporting the conservative movement, and baffled by its inability to stop the march of liberalism, has yet to understand the nature of his cause. The brutal truth: he is wasting his time.
Defeating liberalism requires acceptance of two fundamental statements.
- Traditionalism is not conservatism.
- Liberal defeat implies conservative defeat.
Much of our ongoing conversation about the future of Western society has focused on the deconstruction of liberalism. Not much of it has focused on a deconstruction of conservatism. Most deconstructions of conservatism have come from the Left, and, as we will see, there is good reason for this. It is time conservatism be deconstructed from outside the Left (and therefore also the Right). I say ‘also’ because neither conservatism nor traditionalism I class as ‘the Right’. Neither do I accept that ‘Right wing’ is the opposite of ‘Left wing’; ‘the Right’ is predicated on ‘the Left’, and is therefore not independent of ‘the Left’. Consequently, any use of the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ coming from this camp is and has always been expedient; I expect such terms to disappear from current usage once the political paradigm has fundamentally changed.
Below I describe eight salient traits that define conservatism, explain the long-term pattern of conservative defeats, and show how liberalism and conservatism are complementary and mutually reinforcing partners, rather than contrasting enemies.
Anatomy of Conservatism
Proponents of the radical Left like to describe the politics of the Right as ‘the politics of fear’. Leftist propaganda may be full of invidious characterisations, false dichotomies, and outright lies, but this is one observation that, when applied to conservatism, is entirely correct. The reason conservatives conserve and are suspicious of youth and innovation is that they fear change. Conservatives prefer order, fixity, stability, and predictable outcomes. One of their favourite refrains is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. There is some wisdom in that, and there are, indeed, advantages to this view, since it requires less effort, permits forward planning, and reduces the likelihood of stressful situations. Once a successful business or living formula is found, one can settle quite comfortably into a reassuring routine in a slow world of certainties, which at best allows for gradual and tightly controlled evolution. Change ends the routine, breaks the formula, disrupts plans, and lead to stressful situations that demand effort and speed, cause stress and uncertainty, and may have unpredictable outcomes. Conserving is therefore an avoidance strategy by risk-averse individuals who do not enjoy the challenge of thinking creatively and adapting to new situations. For conservatives change is an evil to be feared.
We can deduce then that the reason conservatives fear change is that they are not very creative. Creativity, after all, involves breaking the mould, startling associations, unpredictability. Conservatives are disturbed by change because they generally know not how to respond. This is the primary reason why, when change does occur, as it inevitably does, their response tends to be slow and to focus on managing symptoms rather than addressing causes. This is also the primary reason why they either plan well ahead against every imaginable contingency or remain in a state of denial until faced with immediate unavoidable danger. Conservatives are first motivated by fear and then paralysed by it.
Unfortunately for conservatives, the world is ever changing, the universe runs in cycles, and anything alive is always subject to unpredictable changes in state. Because they generally have no answers, this puts conservatives always on the defensive. The only time conservatives take aggressive action is when planning against possible disruptions to their placid life. They are the last to show initiative in anything else because being a pioneer is risky, fraught with stress and uncertainties. Thus, conservatism is always a resistance movement, a movement permanently on the back foot, fighting a tide that keeps on coming. The conservatives’ main preoccupation is holding on to their positions, and ensuring that, when retreat becomes inevitable, their new position is as close as possible to their old one. Once settled into a new position, any lull in the tide becomes an opportunity to recover the previous position. However, because lulls do not last long enough and recovering lost positions is difficult, the recovery is at best partial, never wholly successful. Conservatives are consequently always seen as failures and sell-outs, since eventually they are always forced to compromise.
Their lack of creativity leads conservatives to look for answers in the past. This goes beyond learning the lessons from history. Averse to risk, they mistrust novelty, which makes their present merely a continuation of the past. In this they contrast against both liberals and traditionalists: for the former the present is a delay of the future, for the latter it is a moment between what was and will be. At the same time, conservatives resemble the liberals, and contrast against traditionalists more than they think. One reason is that they confuse tradition with conservation, overlooking that tradition involves cyclical renewal rather than museological restoration. Museological restoration is what conservatives are about. Their domain is the domain of the dead, embalmed or kept alive artificially with systems of life support. Another reason is that both liberals and conservatives are obsessed with the past: because they love it much, conservatives complain that things of the past are dying out; because they hate it much, liberals complain that things of the past are not dying out soon enough! One is necrophile, the other a murderer. Both are about death. In contrast, traditionalism is about life, for life is a cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and renewal.
Fear, resistance to change, lack of creativity, and an infatuation with dead things makes conservatives boring. Dead things can be interesting, of course, and in our modern throwaway society, dead things can have the appeal of the exotic, particularly since they belong to a time when the emphasis was on quality rather than quantity. Quality, understood both as high quality and possessing qualities, is linked to rarity or uniqueness, excitement or surprise, and, therefore, creativity or unpredictability. Conservatives, however, conserve because they long for a world of certainties—slow, secure, comfortable, and with predictable outcomes. Granted: such an existence can be pleasant given optimal conditions, and it may indeed be recommended in a variety of situations, but it is not exciting. Excitement involves precisely the conditions and altered states that conservatives fear and seek to avoid. It thus becomes difficult to get excited about anything conservative.
There are good reasons why conservatism is associated with old age. As a person grows old he loses his taste for excitement; his constitution is less robust, he has less energy, he has fewer reserves, he has rigidified in mind and body, and he is less capable of the rapid, flexible responses demanded by intense situations and sudden shocks. It makes sense for a person to become more conservative as he grows old, but this is hardly a process relished by anyone. Once old enough to be taken seriously, the desire is always to remain young and delay the signs of old age. Expressing boredom by saying that something ‘got old’ implies a periodic need for change. Conservatives oppose change, so they get old very fast.
Preoccupation with the past, resistance to change, and mistrust of novelty eventually makes conservatives irrelevant. This is particularly the case in a world predicated on the desirability of progress and constant innovation. Conservatives end up becoming political antiquarians, rather than effective powerbrokers: they operate not as leaders of men, but as curators in a museum.
Sooner of later, through their refusal to adapt until they become irrelevant, conservatives are constantly left behind, waving a fist at the world with angry incomprehension. Because eventually survival necessitates periodic surrenders and regroupings at positions further to the Left, conservatives come to be seen as spineless, as people always in retreat, as, in short, losers. The effective function of a conservative in present-day society is to organise surrender, to ensure retreats are orderly, to keep up vain hopes or a restoration, so that there is never risk of a revolutionary uprising.
Liberalism’s Best Ally
With the above in mind, it is hard not to see conservatism as liberalism’s own controlled opposition: it may not be that way, but the effect is certainly the same. Conservatism provides periodic respite after a bout of liberalism, allowing citizens to adapt and grow accustomed to its effects before the next wave of liberalisation. Worse still, conservative causes, because they eventually always become irrelevant, provide a rationale for liberalism, supplying proof for the Left of why it is and should remain the only game in town. Liberals love conservatives.
Conservatism and Tradition
Conservatism does not have to be liberalism’s best ally: conservatism can be the best ally of any anti-establishment movement, since it always comes to represent the boring alternative. Conservatives defend the familiar, but familiarity breeds contempt, so over time people lose respect for what is and grow willing to experience some turbulence—results may be unpredictable and may indeed turn out to be negative, but at least the turbulence makes people feel alive, like there is something they can be actively involved in. In the age of liberalism, conservatism is fundamentally liberal: it does not defend tradition, since liberalism has caused it to be forgotten for the most part, but an earlier version of liberalism. In an age of tradition, conservatism could well be the best ally of a rival tradition, since conservatism always stagnates what is, thus increasing receptivity over time to any kind of change. Thus conservatism sets the conditions for destructive forms of change.
By contrast, tradition is evolution, and so long as it avoids the trap of conservatism (stagnation), those within the tradition remain engaged with it. This is not to say that traditions are immune from self-destructive events and should never be abandoned: hypertely, maladaption, or pathological evolution, for example, can destroy a tradition from within. However, that is outside our scope here.
Confusion of Tradition and Conservation
In the age of liberalism, because it has forgotten tradition, tradition is confused with conservation. Thus some conservatives describe themselves as traditionalists, even though they are just archaic liberals. Some self-described traditionalists may erroneously adopt conservative traits, perhaps out of a confused desire to reject liberalism’s notions of progress. Tradition and conservation are distinct and separate processes. Liberalism may contain its own traditions. Liberalism may also become conservative in its rejection of tradition. Likewise for conservatism, except that it rejects liberalism and does so only ostensibly, not in practice.
End of Liberalism
Ending liberalism requires an end to conservatism. We should never call ourselves conservatives. The distinction between tradition and conservation must always be made, for transcending the present ‘Left’-‘Right’ paradigm of modern democratic politics in the West demands a great sorting of what is traditional from what is conservative, so that the former can be rediscovered, and the latter discarded as part of the liberal apparatus.
In doing so we must be alert to the trap of reaction. Reactionaries are defined by their enemies, and thus become trapped in their enemies’ constructions, false dichotomies, and unspoken assumptions. Rather than rejection, the key word is transcendence. The end of liberalism is achieved through its transcendence, its relegation into irrelevance.
Given the confusion of our times, it must be stressed that tradition is not about returning to an imagined past, or about reviving a practice that was forgotten so that it may be continued exactly as it was when it was abandoned. There may have been a valid reason for abandoning a particular practice, and the institution of a new practice may have been required in order for the tradition successfully to continue. A tradition, once rediscovered, must be carried forward. Continuation is not endless replication.
The measure of our success in this enterprise will be seen in the language.
We know liberalism has been successful because many of us ended up defining ourselves as a negation of everything that defined liberalism. Many of the words used to describe our political positions are prefixed with ‘anti-‘. This represented an adoption by ‘anti-liberals’ of negative identities manufactured by liberals for purposes of affirming themselves in ways that suited their convenience and flattered their vanity.
Ending liberalism implies, therefore, the development of a terminology that transcends liberalism’s constructions. Only when they begin describing themselves as a negation of what we are will we know we have been successful, for their lack of an affirmative, positive vocabulary will be indicative that their identity has been fully deconstructed and is then socially, morally, and philosophically beyond the pale.
Developing such a vocabulary, however, is a function of our determining once again who we are and what we are about. Without a metaphysics to define the tradition and drive it forward, any attempt at a cultural revolution will fail. A people need a metaphysics if they are to tell their story. If the story of who we are and where we are going cannot be told for lack of a defining metaphysic, any attempt at a cultural revolution will need to rely on former stories, will therefore lapse into conservatism, and thus into tedium and irrelevance.
One cannot be for Western culture if one is not for the things that define Western culture. A metaphysics, and therefore ‘our story’, is defined through art. Art, in the broadest possible sense, gives expression to values, ideals, and sentiments that a people share and feel in the core of their beings, but which often cannot be articulated in words. Therefore, the battle for Western identity is waged at this level, not in the political field, even if identity is a political matter. Similarly, any attempt to use art for political purposes fails, because politics, being merely the art of the possible, is defined by culture, not the other way around.
In the search for ‘our story’, we must not confuse art with craft. Craftmanship may be defined by tradition, and a tradition may find expression in crafts, making them ‘traditional’, but the two are not synonymous. Similarly, craftsmanship may improve art, but craft is not art anymore than art is craft. Art explores and defines. Craft reproduces and perpetuates. Thus, art is to tradition what craft is to conservatism. This is why contemporary art, being an extreme expression of liberal ideals, is without craftsmanship, and why art with craftsmanship is considered conservative, illustration, or ‘outsider’.
Those concerned with the continuity of the West often treat reading strictly non-fiction and classics as proof of their seriousness and dedication, but ironically it will be when they start reading fiction and making new fiction that they will be at their most serious and dedicated. If tradition implies continuity and not simple replication, then it also implies ongoing creation and not simple preservation.
No tradition has eternal life. Ours will some day end. Liberalism sees its fulfilment as the end of history, but that is their cosmology, not ours. Therefore, liberalism does not—and should never—indicate to us that we have reached the end of the line. The degeneration of the West is tied to the degeneration of liberalism. The West will be renewed when the liberals come crashing down. They will be reduced to an obsolete and irrelevant subculture living off memories and preoccupied with conserving whatever they have left. Once regenerated, the West will continue until its tradition self-destructs or is replaced by another. Whatever tradition replaces ours may be autochthonous, but it could well be the tradition of another race. If that proves so, that will be the end of our race. Thus, so long as our race remains vibrant, able to give birth to new metaphysics when old ones die, we may live on, and be masters of our destiny.