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December 06th 2010 print

Merv Bendle

A challenge for conservatives

“In Australia political philosophy is rarely discussed and political conservatism hardly at all.” So declared Luke Slattery, the editor of The Australian Literary Review, in its December issue.

“In Australia political philosophy is rarely discussed and political conservatism hardly at all.” So declared Luke Slattery, the editor of The Australian Literary Review, in its December issue. “We need to hear more from home-grown conservatives and their values and the policies that may give them meaning and force in a rapidly changing world, if only so as to subject them to scrutiny.”

While Slattery acknowledges that Tony Abbott “made a contribution [to this discussion] with his 2009 book Battlelines, in which he attempts to synthesise the twin traditions of liberalism and conservatism”, he apparently feels that Abbott was unsuccessful, because “there is a strong sense in which the forces of market liberalism have always been antagonistic towards the ideals of Burkean conservatism”.

Slattery holds this view because he believes that “war aside, there is no greater wrecker than the unbridled market”. Consequently, in his view, “if conservatives are serious about positive values – and are not just free-market nihilists – they will need policies that resolve these tensions”.   

This editorial invites several responses. (1) It appears literally to invite responses to the ALR from “home-grown” (‘free-range’? ‘organic’?) conservatives prepared to discuss and defend their values and related policies. (2) It appears to indicate a degree of ignorance or dismissiveness about the existing, quite vibrant, vehicles for conservative thought, obviously including Quadrant magazine, Quadrant Online, and Australian Conservative, News Weekly, The National Observer, and others, as well as The Institute for Public Affairs, which emphasizes liberalism and the free market. (3) It should nevertheless be welcomed because conservativism in Australia struggles to find a voice in the mass media and especially within academia.

For example, in 2009 The Australian ran an extended series of articles by leftist intellectuals on ‘What’s Left?’, but this was not complemented by a series on ‘What’s Right?’, and it was left to Quadrant Online and Quadrant magazine to respond systematically to this extensive exposure of progressivist ideology. As far as academia is concerned, conservatism (and liberalism) are actively marginalized, being regarded as little more than a symptom of mental incapacity or incipient Nazism, while the most outrageous ideological extremism of the left is actively promoted, and indeed is demanded, if one wishes to be successful in this rarefied realm. Some effort was made to expose this deplorable prejudice in a Senate Inquiry into academic freedom several years ago, but this was unfortunately hijacked by the victorious ALP and is now being used as a launch pad to introduce laws governing ‘academic freedom’, which, in true Orwellian style, are actually designed to make it possible for academics to persecute and prosecute colleagues who step out of line ideologically, while providing legal protection for those who engage in the promotion of terrorism and other forms of extremism.

(4) The next point that should be made about Slattery’s editorial concerns the claims that conservatism and market liberalism are incompatible; that, “war aside, there is no greater wrecker than the unbridled market”; and the regrettable reference to “free-markets nihilists”. This is not the place to argue the case against the first claim beyond observing that it has been recognized since Burke, at least, that conservatism and market liberalism both presuppose the presence of the spontaneous processes of order that Hayek called the Catallaxy, a concept that has entered a new phase of relevance as the Internet develops. As to the wrecking effects of the market, one need only point on one hand to its unprecedented empowering capacity, which produced modernity, as even Karl Marx readily conceded; and on the other hand to the horrendous atomization of Soviet society that was produced by rampant bureaucratic control (and described in detail in The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (2007), by Orlando Figes). Consequently, the true ‘nihilists’ are not those who advocate a free market, which at least empowers people, but rather those who would invite the state to intervene in every aspect of peoples’ lives, so as to fundamentally dis-empower them.

(5) The final point that must be made concerns Slattery’s interest in the development of conservative ideas in Britain, where he believes “the conservative ideascape is being redrawn”. Central to this is David Cameron’s advocacy of the ‘Big Society’ concept, with a stress on individualism and civil society, and more specifically the ideals of the ‘Red Tory movement’, which Slattery believes “Abbott’s conservatives” must address, because otherwise “the ideals of the Red Tory movement could easily be embraced by Labor as it moves to retrofit itself for the next electoral battle”. This seems unlikely, but nevertheless it is important to engage with the Red Tory thesis, as expounded, for example, by Phillip Blond, whose key article, ‘Rise of the Red Tories’, appeared in Prospect (Issue 155, 28th February 2009 ).

Hopefully, Slattery’s comments signal a new openness to the wealth of thoughtful analysis that continues to be produced amongst conservatives in Australia. As conservatives are only too well aware: time will tell.