POSTED: February 15, 2017

What exactly are we conserving? A response to Roger Scruton

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.

1 Reply
  • Steve Gwynne February 16, 2017 (1:17 pm)

    Im not sure if you are correctly understanding conservatism, at least from Scruton’s perspective. For example, references to externalities means that they should be internalized within the existing market framework. He most certainly does not advocate no state intervention at all, only that the state effectively mediates between private utility and public utility. Hence encouraging community owned power generation using renewable forms of energy does not require a top-down heavy policy, it just requires allowing individuals the liberty to participate in energy-markets. This approach has been most effective in reducing carbon emissions with private utility companies like Good Energy providing extensive choice driven public utility without radical state intervention.

    Then you move on to some ill-defined notion of tradition when Scruton was emphasizing the idea of home which in more liberal terminology is a thick network of localised civic relations which boosts social capital as well as providing the civic framework by which locals naturally become more caring of their local environment. Therefore what Scruton is arguing id that if all locals cared for their local environments due to a duty of care that naturally evolves from strong and integrated communities, then through a globally locally approach, ecological degradation would end without heavy top-down state imposition.

    However this means the population would have to adopt conservatism as opposed to liberalism which is perhaps what the author is really objecting to. However the simple fact of the matter is that conservatism does seamlessly incorporate the environmental dimension, e.g safeguarding green infrastructure and aspiring towards national resilience regarding food security through labour flows controls. Whereas liberalism is neither able to incorporate the rights of all life-forms – so is unable to mediate effectively between human rights and non-human rights -but is also unable to effectively incorporate responsibility with its emphasis on positive and negative human rights.

    Hence principles of free movement of labour are not only in direct opposition to environmental protection (since free movement seeks to reduce green infrastructure and food security by reducing land and food availability per capita within a given territory) but is also in opposition to principles of local self-determination which is the political means by which localities can strengthen their sense of home and as a result feel a natural duty of care towards their local environment.

    With regards private capital and corporate power, it is plainly obvious that this is a state driven enterprise since if local communities were self-determining to the extent that locals could vote on licensing, planning and development decisions, then corporate power would not be able to get a foothold in communities unless they actually democratically chose it. Essentially corporatism is a state-centric enterprise and in the vain of distributism, conservatism as a political philosophy is opposed to state-facilitated corporate monopolies. In this respect, it is the state that is trying to separate economic and political spheres of societal civic power, not the local civic communities or Burkean platoons that Scruton prefers.

    Overall then, you are confusing conservatism with both corporatism and capitalism and Scruron was advancing the many facets of conservatism as the means to achieve sustainable prosperity, not corporatism nor capitalism. From a conservatism point of view then, scaling up is paradoxically achieved by scaling down to globalised forms of localised self-determination.

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