What exactly are we conserving? A response to Roger Scruton
by WILL DAVIES
Conservative thinking offers various necessary ingredients for any serious reflection on the meaning of ‘sustainable prosperity’. Most importantly, perhaps, it involves a more profound commitment to the welfare or rights of the unborn (as argued by Burke), seeing as conservatism anchors itself in values and goods that persist over time, including beyond any individual lifespan. In various forms and in various ways, modernity puts nature and humanity in peril, by respecting no fundamental conditions or limits of either.
Any commitment to sustainable prosperity must in some sense be a conservative commitment (or at least a conservationist one), simply by definition. The question is whether we should follow the logic of conservatism as far as Roger Scruton does in his essay, including such a strong suspicion of ‘top-down’ political interventions and a trust in ‘little platoons’ when responding to global emergencies such as climate change. No less pertinent in 2017 is the prominent role that Scruton gives to ‘oikophilia’ (love of home) in tackling environmental degradation, at a time when many people are being forced from their traditional homelands and being violently prevented from establishing new ones.
I suggest there are a couple of substantial reasons why we should question the adequacy of conservatism for delivering ‘sustainable prosperity’, given the sociological and historical conditions we are living with, rather than others we might wish for. The first is that devastating modernisation is now the norm of our economic system, and has been for some time – not only since the birth of the environmental movement in the 1970s, or even (as Scruton might argue) since the dawn of state socialism in the early 20th century, but for centuries (see Nick Taylor’s review of The Shock of the Anthropocene). This means that, while Scruton is clearly correct to highlight the problem of uncosted externalities and excessive consumption, we might logically conclude that arresting or reversing these practices surely requires a major transformation, and not simply a ‘settling down’.
It may indeed be that key elements of modernity have to be relinquished, including certain forms of mobility and consumption. But relinquishing them will be a progressive, possibly a very painful, form of political redirection. It will not simply occur through a rediscovery of tradition, even if traditions help to temper the process as we go.
Secondly, private capital and corporate power are absent from Scruton’s account. While he develops a defence of the market, as a conservative institution which knits together decentralised communities in an organic and unplanned fashion (drawing on Hayek), he does not acknowledge the way in which devastating aspects of modernisation are driven by profit-maximising, shareholder-owned corporations, who seem to be gaining ever greater influence over states, including the US government. Indeed, the merger of corporate power and state power, and the sudden development of surveillance powers by private capital (especially in Silicon Valley) represents a new phase of modernisation, which arguably renders the distinction between ‘the market’ and ‘the state’ obsolete.
Scruton’s critique of modernity is incomplete, while it ignores the contribution of capitalism to the various forms of upheaval he decries. Admittedly, his discussion of alternative property rights points towards a different type of economic power from the one exercised by capitalist corporations. But he is unwilling to then go as far as to suggest a different model of business altogether, and how this might scale up. Of course, ‘scaling things up’ is exactly what Scruton wants to avoid. The problem is that many of our dangers and risks have already scaled up, whether we like it or not.
The relationship between ‘sustainable prosperity’ and conservatism is, in my view, a paradoxical one. While a good life and a good economy must indeed preserve the conditions of friendship and mutuality, the conditions of sustainability can only plausibly be achieved thanks to considerable political effort and reform, almost certainly using the only available check on corporate capitalism left, namely the modern state. While anyone who values relationships (both to other humans and to non-humans) should respect and learn from Scruton’s account of temporality and of decentralised power, the fact that this vision is attractive as a destination does not mean that it is also a viable roadmap for how to get there.