Kieron O’Hara is an associate professor and senior research fellow in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton. He has also written extensively on conservatism and the Conservative Party.
The US Presidential Election is, amazingly, poised on a knife-edge. Hillary Clinton, the mandarin’s mandarin, is still just about favourite by the merest hanging chad, but incredibly we could still wake up tomorrow to find Donald Trump, who makes Silvio Berlusconi seem like Lord Salisbury on Mogadon, preparing to make the move from New York to Washington.
How could this happen? No doubt it has much to do with the specific and appalling state of US politics, but we should also see it in the global context as part of a pattern that includes the Brexit vote, the near-certainty of Marine Le Pen’s appearance in the second round of the forthcoming French Presidential election, and the wounds that Angela Merkel has received from AfD this year. Italian Prime Mibister Matteo Renzi may struggle to win his own referendum in December. Further East, the Poles and Hungarians have elected some pretty grim characters to high office.
This is often seen as a resurgence of the far right, and to the extent that racists, authoritarians and incompetents have seized the reins of power, it is certainly worrying. But I do not think that this is the real story of the general uprising of the sans-culottes against the bien-pensants. Rather, we are seeing severe strains on the liberal order.
The liberal order is a set of ideals and institutions that, broadly speaking, are generally accepted amongst political elites in the rich capitalist democracies as the political furniture. It is often written about as inevitable, as something that cannot be shifted except at great cost. It is a vision of an open, connected world, enabled by technology, trade links and high connectivity; we no longer talk of the wealth of nations, but of the wealth of networks. Citizens are neither individualistic monads nor determined by their social class. They are seen instead as ‘networked individuals’, characterised by many relatively weak ties to lots of other people. These connections are voluntary, often transactional, and can be easily renounced once they outlive their usefulness. This is the social contract writ small, an aggregation of Facebook friends and Twitter followers.
The liberal order is attractive through its commitments to freedom, prosperity and tolerance. Its economic vision is market-based and flexible; the gig economy (Uber, Airbnb) is a corollary. Politics has morphed from its 20th century basis as a set of loyalties to various institutions, interest groups and fixed ideologies, to a new type of self-expression. The 21st century political actor aligns him- or herself promiscuously with causes, personalities, trends and campaigns in a chaotic pluralism.
But this liberal order peopled by weakly connected individuals is under pressure from outside. This force, hardly a ‘movement’, is rooted in a feeling of being left behind and alienated by a vision of the world that it neither endorsed nor voted for. The rebels feel vulnerable in open economies, and maybe are more easily characterised by what they are against. A tentative list of bêtes noires might include: globalisation, free markets, big business, inequality, capitalism, technology and the Internet, immigration, multiculturalism, social liberalism, welfare, political correctness, greenery and feminism.
Such people are not technologically-enabled, and are not self-consciously organised, but they feel ignored, indeed despised, by mainstream politicians (one remembers Emily Thornberry’s white van man tweet in the Rochester by-election, dripping with contempt for the people she purported to represent). They are often viewed with astonished incomprehension (this account of an academic ethnographer’s field research in Shagaluf is perhaps the most unintentionally comic article ever published in the Times Higher Educational Supplement).
This group’s lack of representation has long been a scandal; mainstream politicians are much happier co-opting its members, buying them off, suppressing them, patronising them, ignoring them and marginalising them. The financial crisis seems to have been the tremor that broke the dam and released their pent-up energy, and the euro crisis and the refugee crisis no doubt played their part. But I think this goes beyond mere dissatisfaction with a dodgy economic model and broken promises of wealth, and beyond mere xenophobia.
We are seeing a bottom-up rejection of the liberal ideal of a connected, open society with many weak ties between citizens, by people who cleave to a more traditional ideal of a smaller number of stronger ties with others, ties that are not necessarily chosen and which are not necessarily easily removable. It is a local view, focused less on prosperity than on identity, belonging and a world that is familiar, meaningful and comprehensible. This desire for fewer, stronger ties is what I read into similar movements around the world, opposing the liberal consensus, the networked individual, the gig economy, and the constant need to reinvent oneself.
Obviously, the Tory Party’s switch from Cameron to May has changed the British political dynamic. Cameron’s project of detoxifying the Tory brand was aimed very much at urban liberals disaffected with the so-called nasty party. Hence all the stuff about greenery, gay marriage, devolution, tech startups on Silicon Roundabout, Remaining in the EU and so on. Theresa May is pitching for the provincials. Hence the talk about inequality, the crackdown on the gig economy, immigration, grammar schools, Hard Brexit, as well as airbrushing Cameron from Tory history. It’s fair to say, I think, that Cameron’s project was hard for ordinary Tory members to take, rather as Blair’s was for Labour, and that the party is rather more comfortable with Theresa. Labour, meanwhile, cannot get itself out of Islington.
The anti-establishment rebellion has its perils even for May’s self-consciously provincial conservatism. I don’t sense much enthusiasm for Thatcher’s great liberalising projects, such as the Single Market or the Big Bang, in this revolt, for example. The major political parties, in the US, the UK, France and elsewhere, will all struggle to adapt themselves to this less liberal, less connected world (even if they choose to do so, which is not a given). It is an opportunity, but a threat too – all governments have acquiesced in liberalisation, globalisation and technological determinism, and it will be hard to row back. It will certainly be harder to generate much economic growth. This is why the unsavoury right (I include Trump) is benefiting from the resulting political vacuum.
In my writings, I have tried to argue that conservatism of the Burkean tradition still has the resources to be relevant in our weakly connected liberal order. Yet if the liberal order is under threat, the philosopher you would reach for would be Roger Scruton, who for many years has defended home, community, ‘terroir’ against utilitarians, internationalists and faceless liberals. He has championed diverse forms of cultural value, including music, the church, the environment and booze, against the bean counters who want a financial justification for everything. As political elites struggle to come to terms with peasants armed with pitchforks, conservative philosophy of this peculiarly British kind might help provide the concepts to understand what is happening, and to prevent the nihilists of the far right from tearing down the temple.