Juan A. Soto

Burke and the breaking of the social contract

Consent from the governed is increasingly seen as the basis for political authority and political obligation. However, this notion of consent as the conditio sine qua non of political legitimacy ought to be rejected. If the West is to survive, we should follow the Burkean notion of gratitude and solidarity towards our fellow citizens, towards those who preceded us and towards those who will succeed us.

The West is today at a crossroads because of a series of circumstances that already plagued our civilisation, and the coronavirus has only accelerated this phenomenon at an alarming rate. Ageing societies, an increasingly rapid globalisation process that, despite its undisputed benefits, makes things much harder for many people within our open societies. And so does the rapid and growing displacement of population from different origins, but with a preferential destination: the West. There is no doubt that a pandemic has led to a syndemic, understood as a synergistic epidemic with numerous dimensions that add to its complexity. Thus, the main challenges facing liberal democracies today is not only health, but also of economic, political, and social nature. Challenges that were originated much earlier than 2020 but which are now substantially aggravated. As a result, our swift and correct response to these challenges is as important as it was before, but now it is also an urgent matter.

In a world where scientific and technological transformation mark the precision —and acceptability— of analytical progress, we often tend to overlook and even openly despise the teachings that History offers us. This disdain for history seems, however, entirely reckless. And it is so for at least two reasons. First, because the ignorance of History —specifically, of our own History— is one of the factors by which the West has become Heidegger's Dasein; a being thrown into the world, ejected into the world, devoured by the world... Second, and this is applicable whatever the challenge we face, the protagonist of the story is always the same: we, human beings, with our virtues and defects, with the same signs of identity that lead us to repeat deeds and wrongs with a notable ability for prediction. Hence, the disdain of so many towards the study of the past, which holds so many keys both for the present and for the future, is surprising to say the least.

This same review of history can be carried out at the level of political thought, since the second element referred to earlier is also manifested in the reflections that humans have made about society and the political structure that surrounds it. Perhaps one of the authors who have contributed the most to this task is Edmund Burke, the “official” father of modern conservatism but who should really be the father of a classical liberalism or liberal conservatism. And that is who he was in his time, which is how history, and its protagonists should be judged, instead of with the foggy and prejudiced gaze of the present. Let us recall that Burke was a member of the liberal party (Whig). He supported the colonial resistance to the abuse of the British metropolis and opposed the French Revolution, which led him to lead the more conservative faction of the Whig Party, which he called the Old Whigs. Thus, it seems that contemporary critics have preferred to remove Burke and his work to a certain periphery, perhaps blinded by the fallacious assumption that liberalism is synonymous with individualism, which has led on many occasions to obviate the rich tradition of the classical liberalism in relation to the importance of associationism, community and civil society. A tradition of which Alexis de Tocqueville is also a prominent member, also ostracised in the face of the pre-eminence given to anti-associationist authors such as Hobbes, Locke or Hume. Such a big mistake. Even Adam Smith understood that empathy or, rather, solidarity, is fundamental, contravening the heights of utilitarianism on the part of Hume, or Hobbesian selfishness. It is not trivial that he wrote his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) before The Wealth of Nations (1776).

Within the wide legacy of thought that Burke's works captures, his reflection on the social contract deserves special attention, especially in view of the fragility that it seems to have today. In the West, the generous welfare states shield the population segments of the elderly, net beneficiaries of this system, while younger generations hardly enter the labour market, can acquire a home, or develop their own life plans. A phenomenon that should warn us about an imminent generational war. On the other hand, the Marxist parasitisation of the feminist, environmental, racial, and so many otherwise noble causes, together with its historical revisionism has led to war among —and within— tribes and between all the above and our ancestors. We wage war against our past. At the same time, consecutive waves of immigrants coming to Europe and the globalist agenda have led to reaffirm the distinction between "us" and "them", more so than between "the West" and "the rest", as it has happened every time there have been population displacements of great proportions and at great speed. These are just a few examples of the many fault lines that have emerged and worsened in recent times within liberal democracies, which are becoming less and less democratic and less liberal. Thus, the concept of the social contract —which is not alien to a strong quasi-romantic, not to say mythological narrative— seems to dissolve rapidly without finding a lifeboat in which to weather the storm.

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke criticised Rousseau's notion of a social contract between the sovereign and the peoples. According to Burke, society is built on a contract, but not only between those who are alive, but also those who are no longer and those who are to come. And it is precisely this social arrangement, which is also intergenerational and, to a large extent, civilizational, that is on the brink of destruction. As noted above, the West is experiencing a climate of social tension and ideological polarisation that finds its most immediate precedent in time in the post-world war period[1]. This growing tension is the cause, and the consequence, of gross fractures within our societies. However, all this is a necessary but not sufficient condition to threaten the democratic consensus that has prevailed until now. Neither is it, despite its seriousness, the historical revisionism motivated by a radicalised left, which holds innate revolutionary conditions that makes any tacit, implicit, and even moral agreement with our ancestors invalid. Rupture is its hallmark of the revolution, without assessing whether normatively and instrumentally, any system, structure or agreement are worth safeguarding or respecting in whole or in part.

These are two necessary conditions to explain the collapse of the social contract, but a third element is fundamental since it acts as a catalyst for the previous two, and it is the erroneous consecration of consent as the basis for political authority and obligation. Thus, consent is today the main doctrine of political legitimacy. However, while Burke recognised that some sort of contract ought to exist as the basis of society, he rejected the dogma of consent. And this is something that greatly contrasts to what is defended not by the radical left, but by some currents of liberalism (more anarchist and populist) with exponents of the stature of Thomas Jefferson, for whom the revolution has to be periodically renewed, since “[T]he tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure”.

Burke, far from advocating any kind of authoritarianism, was a fierce defender of freedom. However, those who warn of the dangers to freedom that the perennial revolution entails, of the submission of basic questions of coexistence to plebiscites, fragile consensuses, etc., are often branded as authoritarian. The question does not lie in the choice between freedom or authority but in understanding that freedom, in a positive sense, needs certain conditions that are being taken from us today. And it is that, as Burke also pointed out, in our societies human beings have rights, but not in an abstract sense but because of being members of a specific political community, historically developed through complex and sophisticated agreements. A political community that is the result of a set of customs and value systems, of behaviours, prejudices, interests, and opinions, which have organically joined or entered synergies to maximise their interests. Characteristics that are worth preserving because they are instrumentally superior, as witnessed by the greatest economic and technological development and the greatest prosperity in history, and morally as well, as evidenced by the fact that, under this civilization, now in agony, has achieved the highest standards and the best protection of rights and freedoms than any other. Our current behaviour is a completely suicidal modus vivendi, based, as Jordan Peterson points out in 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018), in “overvaluing what we do not have and despising what we do have”, ignoring that “gratitude has a certain real utility, [ as] it is a good form of protection against the dangers of victimhood and resentment”, two of the main hallmarks of the West today. Gratitude and solidarity towards our fellow citizens, towards those who preceded us and towards those who will succeed us. This is the only way to save what has cost so much effort to build.


[1] Let us remember at this point that the Second World War was truly ideological while the First was a Great War of Empires in which all of them perished, except the American, who was born giving way to a new world of which we are heirs and that perhaps now see its decline.

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