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Red, Pink and Blue

In “The Enemies of Roger Scruton”, published in the April 21st issue of The New York Review of Books, Samuel Freeman reviews Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left , a book whose main target is the postmodern philosophes of the academic left. While Freeman is himself no fan of postmodern theory and reminds his readers that writers such as Said and Derrida have been criticised in the pages of the NYR, he is not impressed by Scruton’s thesis, which he finds to be contradictory.

If Freeman largely concurs with Scruton’s passionate (and often witty) excoriation of Lacan, Badiou, Žižek, Habermas et al he baulks at his inclusion of  US philosophers of the soft left such as Rawls and Dworkin, and indeed of the New York Review of Books itself, in the general denunciation.

Further, Scruton alleges that for over fifty years, The New York Review has been the primary agent of the liberal left, contributing to a “bleak relativism” and “repudiation” of Western culture. The Review’s “disdainful overview of the American cultural wilderness has been such a powerful force in shaping the oppositional stance of university teachers and journalists.”

Back in 1980 when Scruton published The Meaning of Conservatism his idea of the conservative was that it was situated in an intellectual tradition that derived from the much drawn upon Irish Whig Edmund Burke. Back then Scruton argued against the new direction British Conservatism was taking under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, favouring instead a strong state capable of enforcing social norms.

In those days Scruton saw conservatism in these terrms: “allegiance to what is established is…a given, from which social criticism departs. It is … a form of immersion in the institutions to which one’s identity is owed.” Clearly this is quite different from liberalism, which, by contrast, whether free market or progressive, regards individual freedom and individuality as fundamental values and thereby threatens to undermine the institutions that are the source of the individual’s identity as well as the bonds of their community.

It could be said that the timing of Scruton’s 1980 book was unfortunate in that political conservatism was about to move sharply in a liberal direction, albeit it in many cases behind a smokescreen of enthusiasm for “family values”. Old conservatism required a strong government to enforce social norms and protect established institutions. New liberal conservatism desired a weaker government, one which would not hamper the individual. Freeman tells us that Scruton has since managed to reconcile both forms of conservatism. This is a formidable achievement, or at least it would be formidable if achieved at the level of sustained argument.

Anyone who has been even vaguely attentive to political news over the last forty years knows that multiple voices on the right have no difficulty in entertaining contradictory conservative impulses and beliefs. As Freeman tells us, many Americans who believe they are conservative can condemn government action in the area of tax collection and welfare but demand it to ensure religious instruction in public schools.

Most conservatives are untroubled by the contradictory jumble which comprises their political outlook. Scruton is perhaps no different but as a philosopher he has to attempt an intellectual reconciliation. In his efforts to blend the two conservatisms, he skirts the obvious problems but stakes out some common ground between the two through promoting the role of the courts at the expense of the institutions of democracy. Freeman describes the change of line, telling us that Scruton sees in common law and its slow development a reflection of the underlying  values of society.

This slow evolution of the common law warrants the label “conservative” since, like the free market, it is “a network woven by an invisible hand” and not the product of anyone’s intention. Legal rules and institutions arise from innumerable actions and decisions that individuals and courts make, and, like free market outcomes, form a beneficial “spontaneous order” that is not the product of government planning. The gradual evolution of common law, which eventually takes on the form of legislated law, preserves individual liberty, which otherwise is threatened by “social engineering” by activist democratic legislatures.

This clever conceit entails a quite small cheer for representative democracy, whose power to pass economic legislation is curtailed and whose right to interpret society’s needs and interests is effectively given over to unelected judges. Scruton seems to envision a dynamic economy resting on barely moving social institutions, a model with echoes of the Chinese experiment and which is hardly a credible vision for the West, where intervention, which took off intellectually in the eighteenth century, is now a core element of political identity.

Calling off his attack on radical liberalism, now rebranded as conservatism, freed Scruton to exclusively direct his fire towards his real enemies, the left, whose origins he somewhat unoriginally traces to the great misfortune of the French Revolution. His assault gains an edge from a personal dimension. Scruton, it seems, believes his university career suffered owing to the power of the left in academia. His 1985 book Thinkers of the New Left , he says, was met with so much “derision and outrage” from academics and journalists on the left that his publishers withdrew it.

In Fools, Frauds and Firebrands he returns to his critique. Whereas some, including political practitioners on the left, feel the real political influence of the New Left and associated theorists has in fact been modest, if not negligible, Scruton sees massive influence and power. Freeman himself notes that the influence of left theory never extended to history or philosophy in the academy and believes it is now waning in literature, a process which for some is devoutly to be wished.

As Scruton sees it, the radical left, which once hoped to end capitalism, retreated to the universities after the Second World War. Ensconced in the academy they lost interest in the proletariat, concentrating instead on undermining bourgeois culture. Scruton sees their work as destructive of “ the conversation on which civil society depends” and effectively advocating the principle that one can believe in nothing.

Scruton, it should be noted, regularly acknowledges the impressive abilities of academic luminaries from the hard left whose remarkable cleverness he sees as ultimately serving a destructive nihilism. But Freeman, who agrees, rejects as illogical the inclusion of progressive liberals (the soft left) as part of the intellectual malaise. He is undoubtedly correct in this criticism of Scruton.

After all politics across the spectrum of social democracy rests on moral principle, the very idea of which is rejected as politically empty by the hard left. (This is not to deny the existence of strands within social democracy – especially in the twentieth century ‑ whose thinking was affected, not to say confused, by exposure to the muscular rhetoric of the communist left) .Freeman points out that philosophers such as Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls  have  developed  philosophies of social justice which they  have based progressive critiques of the  conservative institutions which  Scruton values. In this they are quite unlike the Marxists of the academy who have no use for moral concepts. 

Freeman sees Scruton’s rejection of concepts of social justice as indicative of contradictions at the heart of both forms of conservatism. Scruton believes that citizens should be regarded as "civic equals" which means that  ultimately his difference with progressive liberals becomes a "matter of degree".

The major source of disagreement then becomes the specific rights and liberties that are required by social justice and the degree of legitimate inequality, if any, that is permissible with each of them. The real dispute between conservatives and liberals is not whether there is such a thing as social justice but how we are to understand what it requires. Scruton’s argument that the very ideas of social justice and social equality are illusory is a distraction, belied by his own position.

Neither form of conservatism over the past forty years has shown much interest in the civil liberty to enjoy what might be termed the freedom to achieve freedom, preferring instead an elaborate aesthetic of power dressed up in moral precepts which remain always unexamined and unpursued. It is refreshing to see Scruton called out on this as Samuel Freeman has decidedly done.