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Juan Ángel Soto

Liberalism & conservatism. Friends or foes?

In recent decades, authoritarianism on the left has provoked an exodus of freethinkers who have found asylum on the right. Thus, the political and ideological right has adopted a position that looks closer to classical liberalism, conforming to a newly created liberal-conservatism. This conservatism, far from limiting liberalism, seems to have become its greatest protector, as a guarantor of both liberal democracy and the international liberal order. However, this new configuration of the political right is not a structural phenomenon, but a conjunctural one. It is a right of exception, but also exceptional. And, because of this, it deserves protection.

Juan Ángel Soto
Director of Fundación Civismo

It has now been approximately two decades since the turn of the century, and the millennium has brought with it yet another ideological-political shift. A change that has blurred some of the most representative elements of both the “classic” left and right, although these two are just a bit over two centuries old. These terms were born in the midst of the French Revolution, within the framework of the National Assembly of 1789. At the same time, this change has provoked a process of certain transmutation between these two antagonistic blocs, where some features of the left are now property of the right, and vice versa.

In the past, “the left” has had among its acolytes the most well-known thinkers; those who, over the past two centuries, have raised their voices and put their scholarship to the service of ideals that, either directly or indirectly, questioned the status quo which the scholarly literature has often referred to as “the right”. Conservatism, by definition, is about the protection and survival of ideas over time. And this, in turn, explains the proactive attitude on the part of the power structures to ensure their own self preservation. The term ‘political right’ has been used historically to refer to those who dominated such structures and represented the status quo. However, this definition and its counter position —which is defining of the left it opposes— is wrong. At least partially.

First, this dichotomy of the left as a force for freedom and right as one of authority confuses abstract ideas with circumstantial ones. It is true that the political right, —which, for the purposes of this article, we can also refer to as conservatism— has been the gatekeeper and the main beneficiary of power structures for almost all of its existence as an ideological-political bloc. However, these structures, such as economic pre-eminence, church structures, monarchy and nobility, among others, are not at the core of conservatism. On the contrary, this attests to a series of circumstantial conditions that, although there is no doubt that they greatly facilitate the emergence and prosperity of this ideology, they are neither necessary nor sufficient requirements for its existence. Therefore, although these circumstantial elements have been considered as innate to conservatism, it is fundamental that they be dissociated from its essence.

On the other side of the coin is the conceptualisation of the left as a liberal ideology that resists and defies the dominant one; one which sustains the discordant note in society, staging a discourse —very often accompanied by activism— which is certainly disruptive. Here, again, the circumstantial elements are confused with the ideology stricto sensu. However, as we will see below, political, ideological, and cultural hegemony is derived from the combination of these two elements: the essence and the context. And, as we will also observe, on occasions, the root of a political position is also the main engine of change in the context that surrounds it, with the aim of achieving political, economic, social and cultural dominance.

Second, this confusion is also based on another previous and even more serious association, which is the contemplation of political philosophy as a mere horizontal axis. Quite the contrary, to that abscissa axis we must add the vertical, the ordinate. Thus, if the left and the right personify the two extremes of the horizontal political spectrum, authoritarianism and freedom are those of the vertical dimension[1].

A thorough observation of the core and environmental factors of the political left and right reveals that, over the last two centuries, the left has been closer to ‘freedom’ —insofar as it has valued freethinking and rebelliousness to dominant ideas— while the right has lived —and flourished— in an ecosystem closer to authority. However, as I have pointed out already, this has changed substantially over the last three decades, as the right has oscillated towards a more freedom loving position, while the left has swiftly changed towards authority[2]. This is due to two phenomena. On the one hand, it is due to the changes in the circumstances of the left, which have allowed it to reach higher levels of government. On the other, and in parallel, it is explained by a greater tendency or authoritarian aspiration of the political left, to which —to the extent that some sectors of this bloc embrace today a Marxist spirit. In other words, the accommodation of environmental factors has not been but a consequence of the struggle of the political left to mislead them at will and create the environment conducive to their growth and development. At the same time, we have witnessed the abandonment of the political right, which that has fallen asleep for so long in dreams complacency and a false sense of preponderance, which it mistakenly took for granted.

But what is really relevant in this paradigm shift is that the authoritarian drift of the political left has caused a massive exodus on a global scale of genuine freethinkers, who have ceased to feel identified with that new hegemonic, intransigent, intolerant idiosyncrasy... The left he has devoured its own children, as Saturn did in Goya's famous painting, and personalities of various kinds; from the academia, media, etc., such as Eric and Bret Weinstein, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker or David Rubin, have said enough is enough.

The dissent and desertion of a postulate or political or ideological position is not at all new; in particular, the abandonment of the political left after the realisation of its current philosophical configuration, based on Marxist thought and, therefore, antagonistic to freedom. This has happened since the mid-twentieth century, as reflected in the publication in 1950 of the book The God that Failed; a compilation of essays that collect the testimonies of six famous former communists who apostatised from that secular faith. Similarly, there are many well-known personalities that have awakened in the past from the dream of the left such as David Horowitz or, in the case of Spain, Federico Jiménez Losantos. What is new today, however, is that having been orphaned, many former militants of the left —thinkers and ordinary people alike— have found refuge in a political right weakened in every way —in the rigor of their theoretical-philosophical arguments, in the power that they retain, in the will and capacity to stand up to the left in the cultural battle, etc.—, which, in a vast majority of cases, has received them with open arms. Thus, the once hermetic political right has been permeated by freethinkers and stateless intellectuals of diverse origins, which have transformed it into a heterogeneous, open, tolerant group where one can found honest discussion. This does not mean that there were no prior exponents of freedom of thought on the right —again, it is paramount to dissociate the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the philosophical-political spectrum— but that the right of the last century has undergone a metamorphosis[3]. A transformation by virtue of which, as Niall Ferguson pointed out to me a little over a year ago[4], conservatism resembles today an Anglo-Saxon-inspired classical liberalism, which finds its main reference in the writings of Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and John Locke.

But what does this new liberal conservatism really consist of? It should be noted here that this concept is not new in contemporary political philosophy, especially in some Western European countries such as my own, Spain, where modal liberalism, in statistical terms, has always had the surname of “conservative”. A first conceptualisation of this set of postulates in our country can be found in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic invasion, when a strong traditionalist moralism integrated some liberal elements of French provenance. But this is not the political ideology to which I am referring here. Neither did its subsequent division, also during the 19th century, by which a theological-political current closer to authoritarianism split from liberal conservatism inspired by French doctrinarians. Finally, it does not identify with the current liberal conservatism advocated by others such as Francisco J. Contreras[5], who, ultimately, advocates for a rather perfectionist political philosophy which can easily become paternalistic. By contrast, the phenomenon that I believe to bear witness to is of much more humble pretensions, since it only seeks the survival of these two views of the world, fused in a melting pot of pragmatism that brings to mind some characteristics of the Reagan or Thatcher legacies.

The need for this new symbiosis between liberalism and conservatism attests to the enormous pragmatism of the latter, both in the protection of liberal democracy and in the preservation of the international liberal order, since conservatism is the best safeguard of both. And this is much needed because nobody is (or should be) unaware at this point that it is because of liberalism within the current liberal democracies, as well as in the international system of which they are the backbone, where the highest levels of freedom, justice and prosperity in history have been achieved. Hence its protection is vital. For this reason, we must look at the dynamics of this odd alliance in the face of the challenges that liberalism faces today.

There are many external threats to liberalism, very few of which are of recent origin. The rapid recovery of China —economically and otherwise— after the Covid19 pandemic has put the Asiatic dragon back in track to what has been a trend for over twenty years. Similarly, Russia has always been combative both literally and figuratively. And both phenomena contribute to undermine the integrity of the international liberal order.

Dreams of supremacy, and of these regional hegemonic power —together with other revisionist states such as Iran— puts the liberal international order in serious danger, by painting a multipolar landscape in which there are several actors who try to impose their dominance through competition —at best— and confrontation —at worst, taking a rather realist approach to international relations. Likewise, the existence of cultures very different from the West causes real collisions, as Huntington brilliantly exposed in Clash of Civilizations (1996). However, the warmongering of China and Russia, or these clashes of civilisations, cannot be explained without an evident expansionism of this liberal international order that, although it cannot be strictly branded as cultural imperialism, far from strengthening it, ends up weakening it. Therefore, liberalism’s survival, as we know it today, seems to go hand in hand with conservatism. The international liberal order will be conservative, or it will not be[6]. This was also pointed out by Josef Joffe, who notes that “liberal democracies are needed to create a liberal order. In Europe, the paradox is that the liberal order of open borders threatens the liberal state (…). This is the paradox: Europe must apply non-liberal means (…) to preserve liberal democracy at home”[7].

However, if liberalism is doomed it will not be because of its external enemies, but internal causes that pose a greater challenge to liberalism than China, Russia and other hostile actors. These internal problems are embodied, for the most part, in three -isms. Namely, populism, nationalism and authoritarianism. These are undoubtedly problems with which every single country struggle, but they are particularly harmful within liberal democracies where, ironically, the most pervasive of them —populism— finds a particularly fertile ground to take root.

These three internal diseases are also aggravated by the permissiveness of open and tolerant societies such as those that thrive in liberal democracies. Liberal political theory has extensively studied these self-inflicted wounds and, in particular, the so-called paradox of tolerance[8], which is already a classic problem, coined by Popper in the first volume of The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), in which he concluded that liberal societies could not be unlimitedly tolerant, since their capacity to do so would ultimately be limited or eliminated by the intolerant.

However, in today's liberal democracies, the prevailing thesis is not Popper’s, but that of Rawls, who, in his Theory of Justice (1971), advocates for a society characterised by tolerance even of the intolerant[9]. And it is precisely the embrace of this type of postulates that has put in serious doubt the survival in the medium and long term of the political systems and the freedoms that we enjoy today in the West. In light of this, a more conservative stance would serve well as a protection mechanism for the liberal state, as it would ensure the safeguard of a society of free and equal citizens, and tolerant of the ideals of the good life of others, provided they are reasonably liberal.

In short, a couple of decades ago, conservatism was conceived, both by the defenders of a more “historical” liberal conservativism and by its detractors, as a brake on the action of liberalism, which was relegated to the sphere of politics or economics, while conservatism shielded moral issues. However, in this newly created account of it —which I am merely describing—, conservatism does not represent a limit to liberalism. Quite the contrary, it is but liberalism’s greatest ally. It is worth preserving the identity of liberal democracies and protecting both their normative and instrumental value. And in the spirit of preserving certain structures and characteristics, conservatism deploys the best tools, because that’s its raison d’être.

However, this alliance of exception is not immune to considerable challenges either. The first of them, of a temporary nature, as this particular symbiosis is about something conjunctural, not structural; and not only punctual, but unlikely —hence its exceptionality—, given that the response to authoritarianism by an ideological rival usually takes shape in the search for power, in order offer resistance. As a result, there is rarely a response to authority based on freedom and not authority. Especially in light of the authoritarian drift of today’s political left. After all, what defines the essence of politics is ultimately power and confrontation is its dynamic, as noted by Carl Schmitt. However, at this particular moment in time, we witness this rara avis which is worth protecting, both from the political left, currently installed in power and victorious in the cultural battle, and from a rearming political right on the rise, which was first reflected in Trump, Brexit and today on the rise of national-populist movements across Europe and other parts of the world. It should be remembered that the political right, perhaps with a less innate tendency to authoritarianism, handles power structures with special —and worrying— ease, as a result of its historical predominance. Thus, regardless of the direction from which authoritarianism comes, we must always side with the freethinkers who today find shelter in the political right making it the greatest safeguard of individual freedom, of equality before the law, and of the rule of law.

Finally, it is the task of both liberals and conservatives to preserve this exceptional political right, with as much zeal as with which we must advocate for a more comprehensive, tolerant and de-dogmatised political left. At least at this point, presenting a common front is essential, since discussing the purism of the ideological postulates of one and the other does a disservice to oppose the current drift of the authoritarian left, which is very much united in the destruction of freedom, justice and prosperity.

 

Footnotes

[1] This vertical philosophical-political axis resembles, in the field of psychology, the F Scale; a personality test created in 1947 by Theodor Adorno and others, whose purpose is to measure the predisposition to fascism (F), understood as authoritarian personality. In this case, the measurement applies exclusively to the political right, but a similar methodology could also be used in the study of left-wing authoritarianism or radicalism. These horizontal and vertical dimensions are also represented in the Nolan Chart (1969) also includes the horizontal and vertical dimension divide in the political spectrum diagram.

[2] I am referring here to activism and the pursuit (and achievement) of explicit power by the political  left, as well as the conquest of institutions. In the theoretical and ideological field, the authoritarianism of the left has been a process that began more than sixty years ago.

[3] One of the most representative examples of this phenomenon is perhaps the creation, spontaneously, of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web: A group of public personalities, ideologically and intellectually diverse, but who oppose the political correctness and identity politics of the left, where they find their main adversary.

[4] This a brief conversation we held at the end of the presentation of his book The Square and the Tower (2018) at the Rafael del Pino Foundation.

[5] That being said, I must note here my admiration for Professor Contreras’ work in defence of liberal conservatism in, among other writings, his books La fragilidad de la libertad (2018) and Una defensa del liberalismo conservador (2018).

[6] Lind, J. y Wohlforth, W.C. (2019). The future of the liberal order is conservative. Foreign Affairs. March/April 2019. [online] Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-02-12/future-liberal-order-conservative (last accessed on 1 May 2021).

[7] Joffe, J. (2018). Crisis del orden liberal internacional. FAES: Journal of Political Thought, 60. October/December 2018, p. 12.

[8] It should be noted here that the paradox of tolerance warns about the danger of those “violently intolerant”. However, the exercise (and call) to action is under siege from the free speech and political correctness armies, among others. There is a rather large trend that refers to offensive speech as harmful and violent speech. However, that is antithetical to free speech, which was precisely shielded as a right to prevent us from using violence to one another. Furthermore, if we equate speech and violence, then one possible response to a speech that is deemed violent by some people, can be a violent response. And all these considerations invite us to take a broader perspective on Popper’s paradox of tolerance.

[9] At this point, we shall note something which is often forgotten by Rawlsian followers: the fact that Rawls concludes that liberal society also has a reasonable right to survival; which supersedes that of tolerance. As a result, Rawlsian liberal political philosophy subscribes to a great extent Popper’s solution for the tolerance dilemma.

 

References

Contreras, F. J. (2018). Una defensa del liberalismo conservador (Madrid: Unión Editorial y Centro Diego de Covarrubias).

Guide, A., Silone, I. Koestler, A. Fischer, L. Spender & S. Wright, R. (1996). El dios que fracasó (Buenos Aires: Editorial Plaza & Janés)

Joffe, J. (2018). Crisis del orden liberal internacional. FAES: Cuadernos de pensamiento político, 60. October/December 2018.

Lind, J. & Wohlforth, W.C. (2019). The future of the liberal order is conservative. Foreign Affairs, March/April 2019. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-02-12/future-liberal-order-conservative

McClosky, H., & Chong, D. (1985). Similarities and differences between left-wing and right-wing radicals. British Journal of Political Science, 15 (3), pp. 329-363.

Popper, K. (2010). The Open Society and its Enemies. (Barcelona: Paidós)

Rawls, J. (1997). A Theory of Justice. (Madrid: Fondo de Cultura Económica)