The meaning of conservatism

By Roger Scruton, 1980

One of the snares for a conservative movement—and one into which they have repeatedly fallen—is to forget what conservatism actually is and to embrace some kind of liberalism (e.g. “small government” or “free market”) in its stead.  It’s quite depressing.  One never sees a liberal party embrace conservatism in a fit of confusion.  I suppose this is because real conservatism is so unpopular:  there are a hundred idiots determined to advance “freedom”, “equality”, and “democracy” for every man willing to defend the things that make actual life decent.  Regardless of the cause, by the late 1970’s, the English Conservative Party had definitely drifted into liberalism.  In response, the philosopher Roger Scruton wrote this book to recall English conservatives to their true principles.  He failed as far as the official Tory line goes—it’s as asinine as ever—but he succeeded in establishing contemporary conservative political philosophy.

Scruton gets to the heart of the matter.  Conservatism is not about freedom, but about authority; its main preoccupation is not the freedom of individuals but the health of the social organism.  The state is not a means to the end of social justice or maximum freedom or anything else; as the representation of the community to itself, the state is an end in itself.  In some of the best parts of the book, Scruton considers a whole range of institutions that have this character:  they are not means to external ends; rather, their purposes are internal.  Examples he gives include the family, schools, and organized sports.

The most important insight of this book is the appraisal of social “surfaces”, by which Scruton means roughly what Marxists mean by “ideology”—the way an institution appears from the inside to those who are part of it.  Marxists use the idea of ideology disparagingly.  For example, the ideology of authority is said to be a “mask” which hides the reality of raw power.  Marxists regard the surface as a lie, as something one must see through to deal with the true (economic) realities.  Rather than deny the Marxist distinction between “surface” and “depth”, Scruton accepts it but switches the focus.  Conservatism, he says, is concerned with the “lived surface” of social life.  That is, it is concerned with how things appear to those living in society.  Does power seem legitimate to them?  Does its exercise seem rational?  Can each see himself as having a meaningful place in the social order?  The Marxist would, of course, be exasperated by this—surely what matters is not how things seem, but how things are?  By making such an insistence, the Marxist would betray his limitations as a materialist.  The way people see things is a real fact about the social order, too; often it’s a more important one than some purely material facts.  A person’s sense of his place in the community may have more to do with living a good life than the ultimate truth (if there is such a thing) about the nexus of economic power.

This “affirmation of the surface” was a huge advance in the intellectual articulation of conservatism.  It has had a profound effect on my own political thought.  Unfortunately, Scruton’s subsequent thought has taken what I regard as a dangerous turn.  It appears in the appendix added to later editions of this book.  Here, Scruton introduces what he thinks of as an anthropologist’s viewpoint for evaluating social surfaces.  For example, a primitive tribe performs a ritual dance to appease the fire god.  The observing anthropologist regards the idea of a fire god as silly, but he realizes that the real purpose of the dance is to increase group cohesion in the tribe.  However, this is a truth that must remain hidden from the tribesmen, or the ritual won’t work—it depends for its effectiveness on the false understanding.  Realizing this, the anthropologist would be careful not to disillusion those he observes.  Scruton proceeds to identify the conservative view with that of the sympathetic anthropologist.  He claims that the liberal is the one who can’t adopt this “third-person” viewpoint but demands that society justify itself in ways that are impossible for it.  Now it is the conservative who is fixated on the “depths”, though now sociological rather than economic.  I think this line of thought, which has grown in importance in Scruton’s later works, has unfortunate consequences.  It implies that our conscious motivations for engaging in traditional practices are not only poorly expressed, but actually false.  They would be forms of manipulation.  This would effectively reduce surface consciousness to a means, which is just the fate Scruton had originally intended to defend it against.

4 Responses

  1. […] antiliberal philosopher since Eric Voegelin.  I’ve recently added reviews to his books on conservatism, modern culture, and beauty.  In them, I explain why Scruton is such an important, but in some […]

  2. […] The Meaning of Conservatism by Scruton […]

  3. […] of it.  They are both to be found in Roger Scruton’s brilliant but deeply conflicted book The Meaning of Conservatism.  The odd thing about this book is that Scruton offers two contradictory (indeed, almost polar […]

  4. […] demand freedom and equality.  Roger Scruton was that voice in the late 1970s, and his great work The Meaning of Conservatism reminded us that conservatism is not about freedom but about authority, the authority not only of […]

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