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Artillery Row

Why National Conservatism matters

It might not have solutions, but it has a chance to reach for them

There’s a new bogeyman in town. Criticised simultaneously as a reheated version of American pro-free market Tea Party style populism, quasi-fascist far right quackery, old-school dirigiste social democracy in disguise, and atavistic religious fundamentalism, almost every newspaper is running an obligatory “Why National Conservatism is a dead end for the Tories” piece this week, in anticipation of its conference in London next week.

Attacks from the left mix the smugly dismissive (“well, this is obviously a regressive low status import from those dreadful Americans — no chance of it catching on here!”) with the panicky-moralistic (“fascism is on the rise! The far right are coming!”). The fact that Jacob Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman and David Frost are speaking at the conference has given a pretext for painting National Conservatism as merely a collective term for the pro-Brexit right-wing of the Conservative Party, seen itself as a British offshoot of the worst excesses of vulgar, Koch Brothers-style US libertarianism. Who amongst the liberal-left doesn’t love another chance to have a crack at them?

A common thread amongst these critiques is that this is a silly American phenomenon rooted in the sort of hard-right “guns, Bibles and flags” politics that has been common currency amongst US evangelicals (and perhaps nowadays Catholics) for years, reaching its apogee in Trump. Of course this hard-edged brand of conservatism has no appeal to secular-minded, relatively liberal Brits! Commentators whose political education consists of reading Rawls as an undergraduate, watching endless re-runs of The West Wing, and following US presidential campaigns with breathless, obsessive excitement suddenly find taking inspiration from American politics to be terribly silly and déclassé. Suddenly this “fascist rainy island” is a beacon of liberal tolerance when it’s rhetorically convenient to bash the Yanks. Funny that it doesn’t preclude the same sorts of commentators from impugning British “systemic racism” and importing wildly incongruous US-style racial politics when it suits them.

Imposing US-style norms on Britain would defeat the whole object

Ironically, some of the leading figures in the National Conservative movement have taken inspiration as much from British political thinkers as American. Yoram Hazony’s book Conservatism: A Rediscovery cites figures such as John Selden, Richard Hooker and Edmund Burke as its intellectual godfathers. NatCon-adjacent Patrick Deneen’s new book Regime Change, due to be published this summer, takes Benjamin Disraeli as one of his key influences. In any case, the point of National Conservatism is to privilege the right of each individual nation to govern themselves in line with their own constitutional, cultural and religious traditions, which will be particular to each. Imposing US-style constitutional and cultural norms on Britain would defeat the whole object.

Part of the reason why commentators have attacked the NatCons from three or four opposing ideological perspectives simultaneously is because the NatCons are clearly divided and ambiguous. Indeed, the status of National Conservatism is fairly unclear. It isn’t a political party with a rigid party line, and there is a grey area of critical allies who may speak at their conferences but aren’t necessarily dogmatically allied with any specific NatCon programme. Yes, Braverman and Rees-Mogg are speaking at NatCon London next week — but then again so are thoughtful, considered postliberals of ambiguous ideological affiliation, such as David Goodhart, Mary Harrington, Louise Perry, Nina Power and others.

This ambiguity is probably most obvious in the realm of material politics and economics. In the nearest thing that NatCons have to a programmatic statement — a “statement of principles” — the passage concerning economics is very ambiguous. Whilst it adheres to principles of “free enterprise” and “private property” and rejects state socialism, it is also critical of free-market absolutism and argues that other principles — the national interest, public welfare, the need to promote virtuous habits — should regulate free enterprise. 

This could go in a very unradical direction — paying mere lip service to some vague ideas of the common good whilst really continuing with neoliberal business as usual — or a far more radical one that would sponsor domestic policies close to a sort of muscular social democracy. In general, however, it seems clear that the latter is a more accurate description of where the intellectual leaders of National Conservatism have been going: attacking liberal-conservative fusionism and the uncritical adoption of neoliberal economics has been one of the NatCons’ characteristic stances. Perhaps some more conventional “business as usual” free marketeers will try to co-opt National Conservatism for their own purposes — indeed, I suspect that is what someone like Rees-Mogg has in mind. However, looking at some of the practical proposals of prominent American NatCon figures like J.D. Vance, Patrick Deneen, Marco Rubio and Oren Cass, the deviation from free-market orthodoxy seems clear and considerable. These figures have woken up to the reality that a highly individualistic neoliberal political economy undermines many of the things that true conservatives value: strong families, the nation, habits of Christian virtue, and so on.

Many of the attacks on the NatCons are tedious and predictable: the liberal left are obviously going to hate anything that sees a positive role for the nation or religion; the libertarian right think that anything to the left of Ayn Rand is socialism. The most important opposition is from the postliberal left, represented by figures such as Adrian Pabst and John Milbank. The best of the NatCons and the postliberal left clearly agree on some things. They are both critical of untrammelled individualism, the abstract homogenising forces of capitalist globalisation, and the way that both cultural progressivism and neoliberalism undermine traditional sites of virtue and mediating institutions. 

The major sticking points relate to the nation and religion. For Milbank and Pabst, the nation-state is the problem, not the solution: it is a liberal confection of the 19th century that helped fashion a world of capitalist globalisation. It undermined the family, universal Christian ideas of love and fraternity, and those non-market, non-state institutions that form us in virtue. Valorizing the nation is an error rooted in both Protestant and Jewish particularism. The universal rule of truly catholic values of universal brotherhood and friendship, mediated through non-national institutions, is where we will find salvation from both mechanistic “progressive” leftism and neoliberalism.

It has to be said that Pabst and Milbank are not necessarily typical in their denigration of the nation even amongst the postliberal Left, of which Blue Labour is the characteristic embodiment. They would vaguely claim that they aren’t dismissive of the nation. In practice however, there seems to be little or no role in their worldview for the nation-state: whenever we get away from generalities, its role is always as the iron fist in the velvet glove of liberal capitalism. This is in contrast to the more positive role for the nation-state that one finds in the thought of other Blue Labour thinkers like Maurice Glasman and Paul Embery.

The problem for the postliberal left — (and I speak as someone who has identified with such a label for a long time) — is twofold.

The postliberal left is little more than the ghostly aura of a real political movement

Firstly, it’s not clear what Pabst and Milbank’s politics can possibly mean in practice. What is the chief practical vehicle for taming globalisation and promoting substantive visions of the common good, if it isn’t the most powerful tool at our disposal: the nation-state? Mere localism is never going to be enough to protect people from the ravages of global corporations, important as it is in its place. The only supranational institution that seems to be a viable candidate for what they have in mind would be something like the EU — and indeed, Milbank and Pabst depart from most other Blue Labour thinkers in their pro-EU attitude. In their view, the best hope is the EU re-imagined as some sort of postliberal instrument of Catholic Social Teaching, promoting subsidiarity, true democracy, pro-worker values and the common good. To anyone who looks at what the EU actually is or has any realistic chance of becoming, this is moonshine. The EU is the absolute embodiment of technocratic neoliberal governance and cronyistic anti-democratic managerialism. 

For the very reason that the nation-state was so powerful in helping shape globalised, amoral capitalism, it is also one of the few instruments powerful enough to help tame it. Of course individual nation states cannot hope to tame globalised capital in isolation — co-operation on practical issues between self-governing nation states is obviously needed. The aim of that cooperation, however, is to open up the “policy space” for self-governing nation-states to create the conditions for a more humane economic, cultural and social order. 

The most powerful, sane force for taming global capitalism — post-war social democracy — was always an implicitly nationalist movement. It relied on the blend of democratic legitimacy and power vis-à-vis the forces of global capitalism, represented by the nation state, to stand any chance of promoting the interests of workers. It’s a civic nationalism, yes, but it’s still a form of nationalism. The nation-state isn’t the only part of the solution — local association and international cooperation are important too. Nonetheless, as the primary tool of taming both global capitalism and “woke” progressivism, it’s the only game in town. No amount of blithering about a Catholic European order or subsidiarity is going to change that brute fact in a world of massive global corporations, not to mention the existential threat posed by the cynical realpolitik of China and Russia.

Glasman and Embery get this, and it’s why their postliberal leftism is far more realistic than the Pabst-Milbank version. However, and it pains me to say this, the postliberal left’s problems go far wider than this.

As a practical political proposition that can hope to influence policy and be more than simply an intellectual movement that writes articles in the New Statesman, the postliberal left is basically dead. All of the institutional and political organs of the Left are totally hostile to postliberalism. They are completely dominated by a mixture of cultural and social progressivism that is highly individualistic, inhuman and alienating, and a sort of technocratic utilitarianism that sees human beings as cogs in a rationalistic game of manipulation and deculturation. You could count the number of Labour MPs who are sympathetic to Blue Labour not on the fingers of one hand, but on one finger. Labour’s membership, leadership and staff are fully signed up to the holy trinity of social progressivism, technocracy and Rawlsian liberalism. This is not easily reversible, because Labour’s social constituency has irreversibly changed. Its membership, activists and increasingly its committed voters reflect liberal graduatedom: the ranks of the deracinated university-educated middle class. Red Wall voters know that such people despise their values and culture. They may vote Labour from time to time if they feel that the Tories are even worse, but their party ceased to exist a long time ago. I think that even some leading figures in Blue Labour are aware of this themselves.

As a result, the postliberal left is howling into the wilderness, with no obvious route to put any of its values or policies into practice. Hoping, against all evidence or realistic possibility, that Keir Starmer is going to suddenly read The Politics of Virtue or Maurice Glasman’s recent book on Blue Labour — then be converted away from ID politics, technocracy, untrammelled immigration, social liberalism and reheated Blairism — is not so much wishful thinking as utter self-delusion.

Do the NatCons have a better chance of influencing our politics for the better? That is certainly unclear. They could hardly be in a more hopeless state than the postliberal left, which is little more than the ghostly aura of a real political movement. Maybe we should at least listen to the NatCons. It’s not like we have any better options.

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