First published April 4
The ad of the 1950s urging all to be “happy and gay the Laxette way” is charming because it points to a quaint migration of meaning and a value inversion.
Similarly gay friends of that time, struggling out of the closet, saw marriage negatively as a conformist bourgeois convention. The frocks were gorgeous but the institution was ghastly. Now same sex marriage is a sign of social arrival and gays in grey suits line up for membership of the Liberal Party.
It’s all a bit perplexing but more so for the political inversion that has also taken place over the same period. Traditional conservatives have become Alt-Right and Radical, iconoclasts of the current social and economic order. The traditional Left on the other hand have become the new conservatives shoring up a social order long in its formation.
The Left Libertarianism of the 1950s and 60s with its advocates of unrestrained freedom like Sartre has migrated to the Right Libertarianism of the new millennia, still with an ideology of narcissistic unfettered freedom. Its moral egocentrism wasn’t nice then and it is even uglier in its morphed form now.
As in any era pundits of the past are mined for renewal and perspective because as the bible adjures there is nothing new under the sun. In the 1960s the hippy Counter Culture disinterred Rousseau and this era of a resurgent Right tempts scrutiny of conservative narratives of the past for clues to understanding the present. The doyen of conservatism past, one of its revered founding figures was Edmund Burke.
Burke, an Irish patrician and parliamentarian, was an orator whose contrarian ideas shaped no systematic doctrine yet formed a fervent counterpoint to the new doctrines of the Enlightenment and its bastard offspring, Revolution, manifest in America and France.
The Enlightenment proclaimed a new vocabulary of inalienable rights, of equality, freedom and the pursuit of individual fulfilment. It was a heady mix that eschewed social stasis and embraced Change and Progress as given goods. The language is so embedded in our thought as to be self-evident axioms yet it radically inverted the values of the time.
That inversion was eloquently portrayed at Yorktown, when Cornwallis surrendered British forces to the Americans. The band, it is said, piped “The World Turned Upside-down”. It was a sardonic reflection but it summed exquisitely both the event and the era. And Americans have had difficulty with irony ever since.
Burke observed the American Revolution with sympathy and the French Revolution with horror. He loved Liberty as much as Authority but he saw in the spirit of the colonists, legitimate aspiration. His view was pragmatic. Enforced compliance ultimately fails. It’s obvious. What he saw though, in British leadership, was a dogged determination to persist in the face of obvious calamity. A sort of Brexit pre-visited.
It was a denialism similarly seen in events that cascaded towards revolution in France: leadership persisted on a path utterly at odds with emerging reality. It was said of the Bourbons they had learned nothing and forgot nothing but this is frequently found in leadership caught in the crossfire of events.
Ours too is an era of rapid alteration, of a “World Turned Upside-down” and with it comes the same denialism. We live in a unique historical conjunction of multiple concerns: the challenge of climate change, environmental overload, demographic pressure, energy demands and a freewheeling economic ethos. The response is not just to deny the problem. The new conservative response is making a manic tilt at change and social reconstruction whereas in the past they would have retreated to the safety of familiar formulas.
And here the conservative Burke would find a familiar field of analysis. What turned him so vehemently against French radicalism was not just the prospect of a “swinish multitude”. Whereas the American Revolution consolidated a traditional social artifice of well-worn Liberties, France tore itself apart to make itself anew. Burke saw in the new radical ideology of change what few perceived, division and the seeds of tyranny.
The newly minted vocabulary had an authoritarian certainty that made division and repression inevitable. Burke’s social panacea is odd to our ears: a “mannered” society. But when he said, “Manners were more important than laws” he was alluding to those deep-seated shared values, the threads that bind rather than divide. Not just a civic but a civil society.
Burke would find the modern punitive conservatism remote from traditional roots in civil ‘manners’. Today’s Alt–Right conservatism invokes neither a civic nor a particularly civil society, rather it projects a vile, abusive and partisan division with a tinge of tyranny.
*Dr Michael Powell is Adjunct Researcher University of Tasmania