At first sight and on primordial prejudice, social conservatism is coded as a right-wing, sectarian position focused obsessively on marriage, the nuclear family, and abortion. It is held to be contrary to human freedom, liberalism, and all the other goods we take to be self-evident. As such, its opponents see social conservatism as an illegitimate (and no doubt patriarchal) imposition of authority and power on people and cultures that would be better freed of it. Such are the contemporary cosmopolitan mores of today.
Such prejudices are clearly liberal in nature and origin and they dictate the current orthodoxies of our time. After all, social and economic liberalism are clearly desirable, are they not? They promise us liberty upon liberty, choice upon choice, and wealth endlessly augmented. Illegitimate authority is proscribed and the only absolutes are the self-evident rights that we accrue in contest and agreement with ourselves. As such the only authority to be submitted to is that which we give to ourselves. According to this (admittedly odd) logic, this is not a circular validation but an extension of the rights I possess to you—as long as you are like me. These rights in turn licence and permit economic and social exchange and the results, be they good or ill, are the consequence of justified merit or unforeseen circumstance. And provided coercion of our wills is absent, injustice is impossible, save what the flaws of nature and the joys of natural selection have bequeathed.
Such, albeit polemically put, are the basic beliefs of contemporary liberalism, to which any properly figured conservatism or socialism will be rightly opposed. So in their opposition to liberalism, socialism and conservatism are allies. But what exactly are the two great “reactionary” and “progressive” traditions of modern political life opposed to?
The best way to answer this is to make explicit what liberalism is fundamentally committed to and why that differs from traditional forms of both left and right. This difference is simple but profound, to whit: that there is a good that extends beyond individual goods. For the left, that good is expressed horizontally in society through the flourishing of our fellow human beings (for example, in democracy). For the right this good is expressed hierarchically in the good ordering of the society of humans (by distinguishing between good and evil, for example).
Liberalism in its modern form is committed to none of this. As a second or third order philosophy, liberalism is entirely concomitant with either conservatism or socialism, forming spaces of mediation or discernment between the ideologies’ goal and the means employed to realize it. One can create political toleration between different left/right discernments of the universal as long as one believes in such. In this respect, liberalism has its proper place in the western canon as a guard against an unwarranted absolutism.
But now liberalism conceives of itself as a first order philosophy, as setting the foundations for all other faiths, social theories, and economics. This is dangerous because liberalism as first order philosophy is both uniquely hegemonic (in that it denies or misrecognizes the ascendant place it both seeks and occupies) and markedly and formally nihilistic. By “hegemonic” I mean that liberalism is what almost always rules and does so ruthlessly while denying that it represents anything other than a neutral position. By “nihilistic” I mean that liberalism has become uniquely corrosive of all settled hierarchies because it denies the necessity or desirability of hierarchies as such. Liberalism is nihilism enthroned.
Modern liberal politics views all hierarchy as illegitimate because historically its origins lay in the critique of illegitimate hierarchy. From the enlightenment on, critiques of illegitimate authority became critiques of authority as such, creating a new authority: the self-legislating self. Betwixt Rousseau and Kant, the new liberal self recognized that solipsism was not really an option, so in a particularly pernicious move it aggrandized itself and claimed that rationality and the public good would be secured if autonomy was universalized. Humans were all re-described as disconnected from any good except that which they themselves authored. So we produced in the political realm Rousseau’s general will and Kant’s ontological claim that the origin of all external integrity was the action of the human mind. The result: any source of objective goodness, truth, or beauty was rendered subjective and drained of any external content or impact. All that was left of the objective structure of the world was the self and its will.
Now, I lack the space to describe in proper detail the historical descent from liberalism to neo-liberalism, but broadly put, the model of the self described above gradually freed itself from its prior embedding in other social practices, codes, and beliefs. As a result, liberalism gradually moved from a third order philosophy that rightly argued for freedom and mediation as commonly accepted universals to one that, in its new position as first philosophy, argued that the new universal was the liberal self and its will, wishes, and wants.
The Hidden Liberal Alliance of Left and Right
In terms of contemporary politics, we are confronted with this dominant orthodoxy on a daily level. This would not be quite so troubling were it not for the fact that what seems opposed on the political field is, at this philosophical level, in profound and explicit agreement. Simply put, the right extols economic liberalism while the left eulogizes social liberalism, and each compounds the other. Strange as it may initially seem, both left and right in their modern form are profoundly liberal (in the first order sense) as they pursue autonomy as if that was their true foundation and the proper ideological goal of their philosophy. As peculiar as it sounds I do not believe that capitalism would have attained the particular destructive form it currently has (destroying prosperity and stability for the many) without the social and sexual liberalism long advocated and championed by the left. Similarly, the ruination of the working class family, which the social autonomy eulogized by the left has as its main unacknowledged legacy, would not be as advanced as it is without the complicity of the liberal economic right.
As a first order philosophy advocated by both the left and right, what does liberalism achieve in social and economic life? Well, part of the way to answer this is to ask what the consequences of such liberalisms are. Autonomy writ large in social and economic life has advanced the liberation of people, say the plutocrats and relativists, that rejoice in liberalism’s advance—but in many ways liberty has suffered at the hands of liberalism. Social liberalism presents all ties that impinge on the self as constraints that harm true fulfilment and personal advancement, yet such a liberation is nothing but a disaster for the poor, for women, for children, and for those not adroit enough to succeed in the new paradigm (these being, more often than not, working class men). In terms of family life, we know that family breakup is hard on women and worse on children; we know that one-parent families are strongly correlated with poverty and that family breakdown helps propel people into it. We know also that for the children of these broken families, low educational attainment and various forms of addiction and crime are far more likely to occur. We also know that isolation is a social evil that kills: in some circumstances it has a higher level of lethality than cancer.
If society, community, and family are such a fortress against manifest social ills, why then has the post-sixties left had such a concentrated drive against “normal” family structures? In part this was justified since social stasis is not a good in itself, and regarding it as such is an ill that should be mitigated by new thinking about how to achieve the social good for all, including both women and men. It was, however, the contemporary Maoism of the 1960s that led to the revival of Engel’s idea that the family was essentially a structure of bourgeois oppression with women little more than indentured sex slaves. As laughable and tragic as this view is, it is still common currency amongst social progressives.
This perhaps helps to explain other calamities like the disastrous path of modern feminism. As a principle of solidarity, society is in desperate need of a properly figured feminism; we have at various stages seen and heard it but it has rarely touched policy or legislation. Once again, however, the most consequent legacy of the feminism of the 1960s has been a patriarchal feminism that sees men and women as essentially the same and so favours abortion and denies pregnancy and childbirth as the real locale for the social liberation of women. This tradition has now metastazed into some dreadful ideology for upper class women who are already doing very well to advance even further. Those left behind by this neo-liberal capture of feminism are, of course, poor working class women and the children who depend on them, as well as all women (and men) who abandon autonomy for the sake of having and loving their children. In this regard, feminism, like rights-based discourse and the other nasty little separatisms of the left, all conspire against the wider principle of human solidarity and affection. This liberal pluralism creates a world where there are no universals arching through our society and orchestrating the good for all, but only a world in which each particular fights for its own corner and its own unique ascendency. In this sense, we are always and only governed by forces that make minorities of us all.
Any analysis of the current annihilation of the working class family must also take into account the role of the state. Through claiming to stand proxy for all social goods, the state has in many ways sought to nationalize the family and make civil society and its wider remit wholly unnecessary. Its rights and welfare programs all too often isolate people from their household and confer on individual claimants a putative autonomy that they would not otherwise enjoy. By making autonomy its social goal, vertical rights and entitlements were awarded over and above any horizontal or social claims that otherwise might have helped augment or prevent the various collapses of society that the state both incentivises and then claims to redeem. By isolating any recipient from their social and economic situation and by centralizing anything from healthcare to education, the universal state has ensured that everybody gets the same thing and so nobody gets what would truly advance them. Paradoxically, collectivism and individualism collide in a state that universalizes beyond any particularity and so condemns those whom it purports to save to a state of permanent atomisation and isolation. Now, the state need not have this function and it could and should be turned inside out and refashioned on a place-based basis such that budgets and priorities could be locally determined and state expenditure could help advance rather than undermine society, but that has not been the story and legacy of state action.
Moving beyond the family into communities and wider society, we can see the breakup of the normative structures so vilified by the left as leading to a social desert in which common care, courtesy, and concern are simply absent from social life. Instead, in our worst neighbourhoods, authoritarian state architecture has replaced the family and community; as a result, abandonment of people by people and a peculiar street level libertarianism has replaced common norms and the codes of everyday meaningful life. All of these problematic factors and many more compound and create among the “unsuccessful,” a world where the pejoratives mount up to create a social virus that mitigates against any social change or attempt at the recapitulation of a good life. Such is the glorious legacy of the left’s pursuit of social liberalism.
How the Liberalism of the Right Has Remade Serfdom
But in the same manner, we should also investigate the economically liberal right. I do not criticise them because I believe in state collectivization or the nationalization of all private property. I don’t. I criticize the neo-liberal right for delivering the absolute opposite of what they argue for—economic freedom. Under the watch of market liberalism, markets have become ever more concentrated and ever more monopolized. Wealth has not been distributed to the many, it has become the province of the well-leveraged few who, with the aid of the state, have effectively captured assets and established everybody else as wholly wage-dependent. The liberal economy, if it is to truly work, must distribute property to all and ensure mass-market access to trade and exchange. Instead, working class people (and the middle classes are shortly to join them) have been deprived of any meaningful property—except for the sole avenue of debt-fuelled residential housing.
While I can’t undertake a whole critique of the modern economy in this space, we need to at least point out that part of the pressure on families is clearly and demonstrably economic. Wage stagnation, especially for the unskilled, is well known, and for some workers their wages have been falling since the 1970s. It was this destruction of the family wage that has propelled poor women into the workforce, often (though of course not always) against their choice. Unheralded by modern feminism, we are now in a situation where we are compelling poor women to leave their families and young children before they would wish, in order to work for low wages to secure a life and living standards that previously just one wage could obtain. Not only does labour earn less and less as a proportion of GDP while capital gains greater and greater ascendancy, the corporate carriers of capital can in effect pay whatever tax rate they decide, forcing up tax rates on ordinary working people. The capture of most mature markets by fewer and fewer firms has destroyed the economic possibility of the self-starter and the bottom up entrepreneur, and the current despoliation of our high streets by the internet has cut off retail from fulfilling its traditional role in charting another path to working and middle class security. A dependent and economically insecure class has developed at the bottom of society, and this paradigm is gradually becoming true for the middle classes as well.
The impact of globalization, the financialisation of our economy, and the rise in both public and private debt has created a world economy that is uniquely hostile to the economic security of the majority in the developed world. This is reflected in both lower wages and reduced welfare. In terms of economy, what people need now is a recovery of familial and community approaches to securing assets and advancing trade. So many assets are now beyond the reach of individuals that only communities or families can purchase or access them. We need financial infrastructure to advance foundational units such as families—be this transferable tax allowances, recognizing childcare as work by equalizing the tax rates for families with one partner who works with those in which both do, or creating equality between sole traders and the advantages enjoyed by corporate structures.
From Social Conservatism to Social Conservation
The reason I outline all of the above is to make both an economic and social case for the argument for social conservatism, understood as the defence of the family and of human permanence and human relationship. Given all of the above, how could any self-respecting leftist not be a social conservative?
After all, the family is the site of uncommodified unconditionality; it is where we learn to stand for each other in a state of forgiveness and human love and affection. Moreover, the human family is where we do or should learn that the ultimate value of life is life itself, it is where we find the origin of all objectivity and truth in human discernment of what people could be with sustained loving support. That some families are dysfunctional and some few are violent indicates a corruption of the right order not a corrupt order itself. After all, those who suffer such a situation often find that the only path or route back to health is a recapitulation, not a rejection, of the family. All of this shows, I think, why social conservatism is not just the possession of the right but also a vital and necessary aspect of any left project that would seek the wider common good. That both a properly figured conservatism and a correctly construed left must be opposed to liberalism as first philosophy shows that they have more in common than they would suspect. And if the good that social conservatism seeks to conserve is also common to any truly transformative project on the left, then what this suggests is that social conservatism is fundamental to human concerns and the wish to proscribe it is to be viewed with deep suspicion.
It is a tragedy of the first order that something as foundational as the family has been captured by one part of the political spectrum, when it should be endorsed by all points on the political scale. Since culture is upstream of politics, what is needed is for those on the right to tell those on the left that they do not own the family—that the left should see that the family is part of their foundational human inheritance. It is a ruinous thing that the shared normative goods that any decent society needs to maintain and understand itself have become the political property of right. To paraphrase Pope Francis, there is no “conservative” family or “progressive” family; there is just the family. And since we do indeed suffer a crisis of social and economic ecology, it is perhaps time to rename social conservatism as what it is: social conservation. And who on the left could be against that? Do you not believe in social conservation? I do.