Peter King - Reactionary politics and what they can, or can't, teach us about the future - Conference talk
by The Editor
Peter King's recorded talk - 'Disdain of the Past' - at the 'Another Country - is there a future for Tradition?' Conference - organised by the Traditional Britain Group and the Quarterly Review.
By Dr. Peter King - the author of Reaction: Against the Modern World (Imprint Academic, 2012)
I spent a great deal of 2010 and 2011 writing a book on reaction and seeking to understand what it meant to be a reactionary. But despite my best efforts I struggled to come across anyone who actually positively referred to themselves as a reactionary. It is much more common to be labelled a reactionary by others. People and institutions so named included the Pope and many in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church; the Prince of Wales; those who write for journals like The Quarterly Review and their readers; as well as large parts of the Conservative party. But I have also come across the label being attached to trade unionists in both the US and Britain who have taken a stand against government spending reductions and job cuts; English students protesting against increases in university tuition fees; street protestors in France arguing against changes to the retirement age; as well as senior Islamic clerics in Iran and ostensibly socialist dictators in North Africa. It seems that ‘reaction’ can be used to demonise anyone regardless of their beliefs or whether they might have anything in common with anyone else so labelled.
This recent usage is interesting because it has been more common for reactionaries to be taken as figures of fun. They are people who ignore the direction of history and insist on holding onto a bygone age. They refuse to accept things as they are. If we look at a thesaurus for cognates of reactionary, we find words such as blimpish and obscurantist. Reaction is seen almost entirely as negative. It perhaps conjures up images of old men in tweeds fulminating against the world. For those brought up on popular culture they might be reminded of the ridiculous racist bigot Alf Garnett, or more recently Al Murray’s creation of the ‘Pub Landlord’, who refuses to countenance the possibility of women drinking pints. Reactionaries are bores and bigots and there is the tendency to assume that all they do is to indulge in splenetic, spittle-flecked diatribes against the world as it is, their fists bunched and blood pressure rising as they stand by ineffectively watching the modern world carrying on regardless.
They may be something in these images: there is undoubtedly some who act just like this over their gin at the 19th hole or in their local after a pint or two. However, these are caricatures and this is not how the word is more frequently used now. Instead it applies to anyone who is opposed to change and progress. Importantly it need not matter what the changes proposed are. They might involve cuts in public services leading to job losses. But to oppose these is to be accused of reaction. It is where one places one’s own interests and worldview above all else and tries to hold onto them tenaciously and without compromise.
But I would suggest it is not the case that trade unionists or Iranian clerics are becoming more intransigent, but rather it seems that everyone now wants to be considered a progressive. So when the UK Coalition government announced its long term spending plans in October 2010, which consisted of £80 billion in cuts, the key argument that they wished to put across to the public was not that the spending plans were sensible or even workable, but that they were progressive. Indeed nearly a third of the accompanying document was taken up with an impact assessment crammed with statistics purporting to show that the wealthy would pay disproportionately more than the poor. Needless to say, the Labour opposition put much of their effort into trying to prove that the opposite was the case. The belief was that if the plans were shown not to be progressive they would somehow be seriously impaired, if not totally invalidated.
Progress is the word that everyone seems to want to own, and accordingly the insult de jour is reactionary. This instantly damns one’s opponent: they are accused of rejecting progress; instead of wanting the bright shiny optimism of the future they cling to the soiled past. How could anyone be so blinkered as to oppose change?
This generalisation of progress means that anyone can be a reactionary, whether it is ostensibly left wing trade unionists who oppose their members losing their jobs and Christians not prepared to accept changing attitudes to marriage and sexuality. Both these groups might argue that they have merely stood still and would like to continue doing what they have always done. But the situation is even more complicated than this. There are those who have stood up for what they see as enduring Western liberal values, in the face of what they see as reactionary threats, who find themselves condemned as reactionaries: one can be a reactionary because one opposes reactionary ideas, or rather, one does so in the ‘wrong’ way.
This is evident in the response to what might be termed (with a due nod to the irony of the term) ‘liberal reaction’. This is the view that Western societies, with their liberal democratic traditions based on human rights and tolerance, should not accept those elements within their society that would seek to overturn these traditions. The most significant examples of liberal reaction are the Dutch politicians Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders, who have argued against Muslim immigration on the grounds of Islam’s supposed intolerance to Europe’s post-Enlightenment values. These politicians have argued that the Dutch should not accept migrants who reject sexual and gender equality. Yet, so-called progressives on the left have taken the view that Fortuyn, an openly gay former sociology professor, was a fascist, and that Wilders was a right-wing extremist. Wilders was accordingly banned from entering the UK in 2009 on the grounds that he was a ‘threat to one of the fundamental interests of society’, namely ‘community harmony’, and that his presence might post a threat to public safety. Both these politicians have been seen as reactionary because of the manner in which they have sought to protect western liberal values by opposing multiculturalism. Indeed Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002 as a result of his public statements. Wilders, who has to have 24-hour security because of threats against him, was described in a BBC documentary in 2011 as the “most dangerous man in Europe”.
What this suggests is that there is no stereotypical reactionary. Some might indeed prefer tweeds, as well as the odd glass of something, and others might be angry at the world and fulminate against it. But there need be no commonality between reactionaries, and different commentators and thinkers will emphasise certain issues rather than others. There may be considerable disagreement between people who appear to be reactionary, and there may be little obviously in common with intellectual and populist reaction. We might suggest that fundamentalist Islam is reactionary, in terms of its attitudes towards modernity, but this does not mean that it is supported by British and European reactionaries who wish to protect what they see as a threatened Christian tradition, and nor is fundamentalism likely to be highly regarded down the pub.
But if this is so, just what does reaction consist of, and is there anything that ties these different views together? We might suggest that they simply oppose, and this would be true: reactionaries, almost by definition are against things. But this will not do as a definition. Many individuals and groups are against things – nuclear power, the death penalty, eating meat, global warming – and are as a result taken to be progressives. So we cannot just assume that simply one who opposes is a reactionary. We need to look elsewhere.
But in doing so we are faced with an immediate problem. One cannot, properly speaking, be a reactionary on principle, in the way one can be a liberal or a socialist. There is no set of readily identifiable principles marked ‘reactionary’. Reaction is not an ideology or set of beliefs (and it is this quality that allows the label to be used against so diverse a range of people and ideas). This does not mean, however, that reaction is unprincipled, opportunist or an unthinking response. We most certainly can say that it is possible to be a principled reactionary, in that we react because of the principles we have. Clearly if these particular principles were dominant then we would not be a reactionary, in that we would be in agreement with, rather than seeking to oppose, the status quo. One is a reactionary, therefore, because one is in a minority. But one is also reactionary by experience and through circumstance: we are turned into it because of what faces us, not because we are a priori reactionary. Of course, we might point to people who we know to have reacted in the past and who might well, conditions willing, do so again. But even here, this is because of a reason, not because they are reactionary per se.
One means of understanding reaction further is to appreciate what it is opposed to, namely the idea of progress. As I have intimated progress is now all around us, and even the Conservative party espouse it as one of the guiding principles. The argument in British politics is not been progressives and reactionaries, or even left and right, but over who is the most progressive.
We can portray progress as the belief that we can – and therefore should – create a better world for ourselves and those who follow us. A better future is always possible and it would cruel of us not to seek to attain it. The present is flawed, and its problems are all too manifest, and so we have a duty to remedy the faults and make something better. This might mean sacrifices now: we may have to forego some things for more and better in the future. But this, we are told, will be worth it.
Such a vision has an obvious appeal: the flaws of the present are already known, the everyday is dull and boring, but the future can be painted as exciting and full of promise: the sky is cloudless and blue and the barns are always full. Hypothetical futures have no flaws unlike the all too real present. This means that progress will always have a ready appeal and progressives can parade the more alluring arguments. Those wishing to argue for the status quo are left with the prose of the present rather than the poetry of an imagine future: like President Obama, progressives can call on hope and change, while their opponents only have the reality of daily life.
But the cult of progress does have a history. It is a key element of what we might call modernity. This I define as the idea that we can strive to attain human perfectibility. Human societies are improvable and that a utopian vision of the future is not only attainable but also necessary. Human beings, as they are currently, are just not good enough, but we can see what they might possibly be if only they could be changed in the right way. This idea of modernity, of course, dates back to the Enlightenment and was seen first in its full glory with the French Revolution. Likewise we can date the birth of what we might call reaction from this period.
The first great reactionaries – Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre – arose out of this milieu as critics of revolutionary change. Burke, in his great argument against the French Revolution and in defence of the English Constitution, stated that we should only change to correct, and that we should use those efficient parts of the Constitution to mend those that are defective. We should not seek changes from outside of our traditions, and nor should we think we can improve our lot. Burke argued that, human nature being what it is, we should not expect any improvement in morality, and that it is hubristic of us to believe we can do better than our ancestors. De Maistre argued that the Enlightenment was based on an ill-founded optimistic view of human nature. Like Burke, he saw human beings as flawed and fallen creatures who, if left to themselves, would create disorder and anarchy. Human societies depended on natural hierarchies and a strong sense of order.
Both these great thinkers argued that revolution would lead to terror and the breakdown of order and, of course, they were right. Accordingly, in place of revolution and the promise of a utopian future we should look backwards in order to understand what made us into what we are, and then to preserve those institutions. Political action should therefore be contemplative and reactive and not based on abstract possibilities. As Burke stated, a society is made up not just of the living, but the dead and yet unborn. We who are here in the present merely hold the institutions of our ancestors in trust for the next generation.
Both Burke and de Maistre were overt elitists and sought to defend hierarchy and the established order. But there is another form of reaction I wish to look at that instead of being intellectual relies on common sense. This is often inchoate and hard to discern and takes the form of a disaffection or distrust of elites and the belief that there is a disjuncture between our interests and those of our rulers.
Common sense reaction tends to be piecemeal, where individuals react not because they see a general malaise or some pattern to which they object, but rather because of something specific. It might be a particular policy of government, or a single event that causes a reaction and a sense of disaffection. This feeling might be temporary and quickly dissipate or if might grow just as the tea-party movement in the USA has grown.
But common sense reaction can equally take the form of a refusal to engage in active politics. It is quiet in the sense of an acceptance of the situation around us even as we complain of it. We know that there is not much that we can do to make any difference, and so along with our complaints goes a sense of impotence. We complain but without the readiness to challenge the way things currently are.
The views that are expressed as part of this form of reaction are entirely conventional. It is to adhere to the common sense critique of politics and the ruling establishment. There is no originality here: indeed it is the very lack of originality – the fact that we all seem to agree – that is the strength of this position. We are not seeking to be unique, but the very opposite. We feel we are part of a majority who are excluded, not listened to and not appreciated by those who dictate the political and economic direction of the country.
This view can be articulated, and will be when the circumstances allow, as shown by the tea party movement in the US or the reaction to the Parliamentary expenses scandal in the UK in 2009. But more frequently this sense of reaction does not coalesce around anything so specific. It is a common sense reaction to a world that cannot be understood or controlled. There is no sense here of organised resistance, or of any movement to force change or to replace the establishment. Even with the Parliamentary expenses scandal there was no mass movement, no uprising to replace those legislators who filled us with disgust. Instead most of the disaffected could be seen merely standing in the wings and shaking their heads in disbelief that things have turned out as they have. All they could find to do was to chunter and complain amongst themselves.
So we can point to two forms of reaction: one based on an opposition to political events and forming a direct challenge to progress and modernity; and another more inchoate form that is based on a more generalised sense of elites being out of kilter with the popular view of the world. However, there are some common elements between these two forms. Indeed I would point to four propositions that unite these two forms of reactions. First, there is a general sense of disaffection and disquiet with aspects of the modern world, which will be more or less manifest depending on particular circumstances. Second, many people feel that they are not being listened to and that their views are of no account. If they are heard then their views will tend to be discounted as bigoted or ignorant. Third, many feel that their traditions and accepted ways of life are being threatened and changed without their direct consent and without seeking any agreement from them. Fourth, what might be seen as the ‘establishment’ – which, by definition, is always distinct from them – does not seem to have the same interests as they do. These four propositions, I would suggest, can apply to Burke and de Maistre’s critique of modernity and to the populist disaffection with elites that characterises common sense reaction.
Many readers of The Quarterly Review will naturally find the intellectual form of reaction more amenable to them. They will be avid readers of Burke and de Maistre as well as many of the other great reactionary and conservative thinkers of the past and present. However, within the current conditions we find ourselves I would suggest that it is common sense reaction that presents the most immediate prospect of achieving any success. Whether we like it or not we live in the era of mass democracy, and so we might argue that a populist version of reaction might have more traction that its more elitist versions. Accordingly, in the final part of this essay I want to suggest a way in which common sense reaction might be bought to bear against the progressive elite.
We all have a sense of fairness and as a result politicians tend to resort to the concept as a means of garnering and maintaining political support. However, what is meant by fairness is not consistent across the political spectrum. The left has tended to see fairness in terms of inequality and the difference between rich and poor. Accordingly, the former Labour government, particularly under the influence of Gordon Brown, sought to create a ‘fairer’ society through redistribution. New Labour appeared to see fairness as a matter of how much government spent on certain groups and on the measurement of certain outcomes for these groups compared to others higher up the income scale. Getting more equality between groups in terms of spending and income was therefore seen as achieving fairness.
However, this took no regard of a more common sense view of fairness, which was concerned with what was reasonable and proper for people to receive in terms of the contributions that they had made. Accordingly, households receiving over a £1000 per week in Housing Benefit, without having to do anything to earn this other than prove their ‘need’, was seen as being grossly unfair by those having to pay for this benefit through their taxes but who could not afford similar quality housing granted to those apparently in ‘need’. This form of provision was consequently very unpopular and became hard to justify in a period of fiscal retrenchment. Accordingly, in 2010 when the Cameron government proposed to cap Housing Benefit to £400 per week this was widely supported by the public, even as it was seen as controversial by opposition politicians and some parts of the media. Indeed, there remains a common view that the reforms have not yet gone far enough in that, even after the Coalitions reforms, households would still be able to claim a total of £21,000 a year in Housing Benefit and so live in a manner beyond the means of many working people. It has been calculated that a household would need a salary of around £70,000 to comfortably afford to fund annual mortgage payments of £21,000 per annum.
This form of welfare provision seems to breach a common sense notion of fairness based on proportionality and reciprocity. Of course, the situation has been made worse by the effects of the recession, which has hardened attitudes and made the general public less tolerant of what are now seen as excesses. They may have been tolerated before, although the scale of payment was perhaps not then so widely known. It was the recession, and the decision to cut spending as a result, that sparked the resentment and created the support for reform. But importantly it needed a government prepared to consider reform: the situation of excessive payments existed before 2010, but was ignored by politicians and the public. It took politicians to raise and develop the issue, and only then did the public sense of resentment at this unfairness became manifest. This, in turn bolstered the policy.
This suggests two issues pertinent to our discussion on reaction. The first is that, unlike the more intellectual form of reaction, the common sense version needs a spark in order to turn it from a murmur to something more active. It needs something to generate it and give it form. Second, the issue of Housing Benefit shows that while this form of reaction is often latent, once it does become active it can quickly find a voice and a set of arguments to articulate. Once there is an issue to focus on, there is no lack of argumentation to support it, and these arguments might have a spontaneity and naturalness that matches that of the movement itself.
What this suggests is that there is a role for intellectuals in awaking and arming a more populist revolt against progressive elites. Intellectuals should seek to articulate the sense of disaffection that otherwise remains unarticulated. If intellectuals are able to turn what are common sense notions such as those on fairness into a coherent narrative then it is possible that reaction has a future and that the nostrums of modernity can be challenged.
Now this might be seen as opportunist or as pandering to an ignorant and bigoted populism, and one can certainly expect those accusations to be made by progressives. But what the debate over fairness in welfare shows is that there is a ready connection between intellectual and common sense notions of reaction. The intellectuals are doing nothing inconsistent with what they themselves believe. What matters then is whether the two parties are capable of talking to each other. It may be that the opportunities of doing so are not always obvious, but I believe here there is an historic opportunity to bring the two parties together. In doing so, we can show that, as perverse as it may otherwise appear, there is indeed a future for reaction.