What Hurts Helps

Right-wingers hated her too. London, April 2013.

If you think the right stands for freedom, you’re wrong. The right stands for misery and oppression. It’s the left that stands for hope. This is true in more than one sense. But it’s also somewhat misleading.

There is plenty of gloom and doom on the left. Fascism is around every corner, it’s even under the bed. Victory is short-lived or impossible. Yet somehow there are gains every so often. But this misses the point.

The right lives to lower expectations. We’re supposedly in the best of all possible worlds, and any attempt to improve it will inexorably lead to totalitarianism. So we just have to expect our lot in life. It’s our own fault after all. This is the core of the right’s message to the world.

“What hurts helps, what helps hurts!”  far-right American journalist John Derbyshire reminds his readers. And this might just be the best way to sum up the conservative outlook.

Recovering Thatcherite John Gray warns us not to have too many big ideas because ideas lead to the gulag. It’s better to invest your politics in unthinking gut instinct, common sense and reality. Theories are dangerous, yet are inescapable. The right has its own theories and ideology. It just prefers to disavow the concepts.

This is the complete opposite of the left, where the utopian impulse is strong. Progressives wants to remake the world. This desire is what the reactionary pessimists want to extinguish. Revolutionary waves sweep away the limits of old thought. The theory itself is often a source of strength and even clarity.

Conservatives feel the need to raise strong barriers to critical theories because it doesn’t want its institutions and assumptions examined. After all, you can’t tear things down if you don’t think there is anything wrong with them in the first place.

No wonder Big Tobacco’s favourite philosopher Roger Scruton preaches pessimism. Scruton advocates lower expectations, less theory, less planning and more prudent hopes based on what has come before us. This is an old story really, but there has been a new turn in recent years.

Scruton, Gray and Derbyshire are a part of a set of reactionary pessimists. We might add paleoconservatives Peter Hitchens and Pat Buchanan to the same list. Hitchens calls himself Britain’s ‘obituarist’ against waves of mass immigration and a left-wing cultural putsch. Just as Buchanan bemoans the coming demise of ‘white America’.

There is a certain kind of cultural conservative that sees the left as triumphant everywhere because the social and moral battles of the 1960s and 1970s cannot be restaged. The right lost many of these battles in much of the Western world. This has left some old-fashioned reactionaries in a state of mourning.

Yet these right-wing stalwarts are no fans of neoliberalism. Many of these conservatives deplore globalism almost as much as they hate Marxism. Buchanan pioneered ‘America First’ populism long before Trump ever ran for high office. It was based on a full-hearted rejection of free trade and open borders, and the embrace of the nation-state and its sovereignty. Others go even further.

When it comes to the economy Hitchens has said that he is for a robustly social democratic model, which would include a safety net and universal healthcare. It would also include strong employment rights and social housing. He opposes the right to buy scheme which has wiped out so many council houses and inflated the housing market. On top of this, Hitchens routinely criticised the privatisation of the railways.

Hitchens sees the United Kingdom as being threatened by a leftist cultural putsch against the vestiges of an organic social order. However, it is very clear that he is no friend of right-wing politics. He speaks of Tories with nothing but disdain. Hitchens even seems to respect the radicals of the left much more for their honesty.

On an ABC panel with Dan Savage and Germaine Greer, Hitchens was asked what he thinks of Tony Abbott. He immediately laid into the Australian premier, deeming him a ‘fake conservative’ for his phoney moralism, his pro-market economic agenda and connections with Rupert Murdoch. Hitchens wants nothing more than the British Conservative Party to be annihilated.

It’s no coincidence that Hitchens was once a Trotskyist. He still speaks in hyper-sectarian tones, fixating on small differences and itching to fight with his own side.

This is where traditionalism becomes a form of ultra-orthodoxy. The cultural right may be so reactionary it’s actually subversive to mainstream conservatism. The battle is over the future of society.

Just like Hitchens, Buchanan and Derbyshire loathe America’s Republican establishment. They embrace Trump as a battering ram against cultural liberalism and globalisation. Ironically, the reactionary pessimists might be more dangerous to the right than the left. Conservatism has always been a tension between market liberalism and the bedrock of traditions, culture and authority.

What happens when the former set of social forces want to overturn the latter? In the end, cultural conservatives might end up becoming ultra-rightists – so reactionary, they undermine the politics they seek to advance.

Photograph courtesy of IDJ Photography. Published under a Creative Commons license.