The Delusions of Modern Progressives

Roger Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope, Atlantic Books, 2010, 232 pages.

Roger Scruton’s conservative thinking might be labelled “High Toryism for Common People”. While his work has much of its genesis in English traditionalism, Scruton’s 2005 memoir, Gentle Regrets, is hilariously scathing of those who carried its banner in the second half of the twentieth century. This former grammar school boy turned against the Left after witnessing the 1968 student uprising in Paris and the arrival of “institutionalized nihilism”, but found little solace in his subsequent engagement with the British Conservative Party. Horrified at the inanity of upper-class Party stalwarts whose attachment to Tory doctrines in the mid-1970s was less a reasoned exercise than an “inherited disability”, Scruton nevertheless refused to accept Thatcher as the solution to moribund Toryism. Instead of enlisting as an intellectual Conservative, Scruton became a conservative intellectual, a particularly thankless and unpopular vocation in the 1970s.

Scruton’s recent book The Uses of Pessimism refutes unprincipled optimism. It dissects the delusions that animate the modern-day progressive, from the Utopian Fallacy to the Aggregation Fallacy. At the end of The Uses of Pessimism any logically inclined Leftist would re-examine his assumptions. Therein lies the problem. The idealist—a more polite way of saying the fantasist—is addicted to unreality. When his various illogical fictions are contested he will be driven by a “desire to cross out reality, as the premise from which practical reason begins, and to replace it with a system of compliant illusions”. Our political visionary, moreover, can be counted upon to react with fury whenever the supply of his favourite narcotic is threatened, Marxism (and anti-bourgeois polemic in general) being the opium of the Left.                          

One of Scruton’s starting points is Marx’s insistence that the accruement of “surplus value” by the employer defines the relationship between a company or institution and its employees. A moment’s reflection tells us that Marx’s view is for the most part untenable because a mutuality of interest characterises an immense array of jobs, and yet lurking within every progressive analysis of capitalism is the Zero Sum Fallacy, the belief that social arrangements in a liberal democracy necessitate a winner and a loser. “Who? Whom?” is the great Leninist (and radical feminist) question asked whenever two or more people are gathered together. In other words, who is doing the exploiting and whom is it he exploits? Scruton posits the eradication of grammar schools in England as an example of the Zero Sum Fallacy. Social justice warriors in the 1960s converted grammar schools into comprehensive schools so that some working-class and lower-middle-class students did not receive an unfair share of the educational pie at the expense of others less fortunate. As a consequence, today virtually all working-class and lower-middle-class children in Britain are starved of a quality education unless their hapless parents pay for it.            

The Uses of Pessimism rightly identifies the Utopian Fallacy as one of the great motivating ideas of the Left. Even so, Scruton argues that Marx wrote little about the practical and technical details of “full communism” because the whole concept is riddled with contradictions: “a state in which all the benefits of legal order are still present, even though there is no law; and in which all the products of social co-operation are still in existence, even though nobody enjoys the property rights that hitherto have provided the sole motive for producing them.” Utopia is literally “Nowhere”. The traditionalist strain of conservatism that Scruton explicates must necessarily disavow utopianism because it is “an abstract condemnation of everything around us, and it justifies the believer in taking full control”. Unencumbered with fantasies about Volksgemeinschaft, Year Zero or even The Light on the Hill, conservatives can accept the world as it really is and make a worthwhile contribution to the world accordingly. If nothing else, the Christian belief that the kingdom of God is not of this world can have the sobering effect of suggesting to us “that any attempt to build Heaven on earth will be both presumptuous and irrational”.             

In The Culture Cult, Roger Sandall argues that the latter-day Left draws its inspiration from anti-bourgeois bohemianism as much as (or even more than) it does from conventional Marxism or Fabianism. While Karl Marx was unapologetically dismissive of non-European cultures, the bohemian socialist romanticises everything that is foreign and tribal. The result is a kind of Doublethink in the minds of the Left, advocating (for instance) libertarian feminism on the one hand and tolerating female genital mutilation on the other. In doing so, contests Scruton, they are committing the Aggregation Fallacy of indiscriminately combining one “good” with another “good”. In an earlier era the Jacobins fervently promoted liberté and égalité without appreciating the conflicting nature of the two concepts, and so ended up with Robespierre’s “despotism of liberty”. Faced with an equally insurmountable contradiction, our modern-day egalitarian is liable to defend female genital mutilation in terms of respect for a group or custom at the expense of respect for the individual.     

“Our Tribal Past” is the most speculative chapter in The Uses of Pessimism. Here Scruton traces the fallacies underlying modern-day follies all the way back to our ancestors in the Pleistocene age. For instance, in the life-and-death struggle of a tribe of hunter-gatherers existence really was a zero-sum game, and a frantic, unthinking aggregation of “goods” would have been inevitable. Similarly, top-down planning, so beloved by Leftists, from Reds to Greens and every hue in-between, would have gone unchallenged in the Pleistocene age, except for the occasional dissenter and sceptic who might have tried “to moderate the one-dimensional thinking of the leader”, having recognised “the fleetingness of the tribe’s emergency-fuelled goals”. Because “enforced optimism” represented the only serious modus operandi for hunter-gatherers, our prehistoric sceptic or pessimist would have likely ended up a scapegoat whose ritualised death assuaged “the accumulated doubts” of the tribe.                             

Scruton’s (almost satirical) point is that optimism, in the guise of so-called progressive theories, should stop trying to “defend itself against the new, post-Pleistocene realities” in which we now find ourselves. A useful first step would be to acknowledge the paradoxical proposition that the world is “a much better place than the optimists allow”. There is, for instance, no need to resort to top-down planning, since we are citizens of modernity rather than members of disparate and desperate hunter-gatherer tribes. Human communities have evolved into “societies of rational beings, bound to each other by accountability, friendship and respect”. Millions of human beings continue to roam the planet in search of their place in modernity, which is an advanced way of existing “that confers security and freedom in exchange for consent—an order not of submission but of settlement”. Scruton notes that although millions of individual Muslims have embraced modernity in (say) America, Islamists are tormented souls in open revolt against an evolving post-tribal paradigm, a development that threatens them at every turn. In this sense, at least, Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden are brothers, their respective ideologies all demanding submission rather than allowing for settlement.                       

Modern civilisation is a world of “compromise and half measures”. What else can account for the peaceful cohabitation of strangers? Flexibility and a capacity for negotiation and forgiveness are the hallmarks of “truly cheerful people”. All of this, of course, strikes our progressive with his “rainbow of resentments” as bourgeois accommodation—compromise, for him, is a sell-out, a manifestation of false consciousness. It is, again paradoxically, the idealistic optimist who seethes with fury because, as Scruton says, he “seeks revenge against reality”, not to mention the destruction of all those who are the enemies of “hope” and every tradition that represents an impediment to his vision. Considering the foolishness that continues to be inflicted upon the world by progressives, conservatives have a duty “to target the follies that surround them, which otherwise poison their joys”. A digestible dose of pessimism, argues Scruton, has the capacity to help us counteract the lure of false hope.                                 

All of this is fine as far as it goes, but in Australia alone there are millions of people now scratching their heads in disbelief that the Rudd–Gillard governments have managed to foist on the public an unbroken (and unending) series of ill-fated schemes, almost all of them based on fallacious thinking. How was each successive plan secured—or at least initiated—despite a growing unease among the electorate that the leaders of the ALP are, to use the polite terminology in The Uses of Pessimism, “unscrupulous optimists”? A brilliant piece of thinking comes to the fore in a chapter titled “Defence Against the Truth”. Here Scruton goes a long way towards demystifying the process in which optimistic schemes are launched on an unsuspecting public, addressing the dark arts of false expertise, transferred blame, hermeticism and scapegoating.       

The most powerful chapter in Scruton’s book is “Our Civil Present” because it lucidly articulates his appreciation of Western civilisation and the joy of being part of such an enterprise. I am not surprised that he places a special emphasis on the delights of irony and insists on distinguishing it from sarcasm:

Irony is not free from judgement: it simply recognizes that the one who judges is also judged, and judged by himself. And it clears the space in which a collective rationality—one that acknowledges others even while knowing nothing of their desires—can grow in the heart of things.

On reading this passage for the first time I experienced the shock of recognition that more often than not irony really is the lingua franca of conservatives, even more so when they are still strangers to each other. A sophisticated lightness of touch is one of the hallmarks of a civilised person, a person at ease with modernity and unfamiliar faces. Scruton offers a rereading of Yeats’s famous lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The best, in the sense that they accept and appreciate the reality of our Western liberal democratic inheritance and harbour no desire to kick the whole thing in, do lack conviction. The worst, on the other hand, are absolutely brimming with passionate conviction but not, sadly, too much irony.

The Uses of Pessimism is a book of considerable importance. While I would recommend it for virtually everyone, those who are drawn to the politics of common sense and equanimity and yet become unsure and hesitant at the sound of the word “conservative” might find the book of special interest.   

The Uses of Pessimism was also reviewed in the November issue.

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