Allan Pond assesses a thought provoking thesis
Peter King, Keeping Things Close: Essays on the Conservative Disposition (Arktos, 2015; ISBN 978-1-910524-42-8; pp.95 )
The author of this slim volume of essays is described on the back cover as an ‘anti-radical’ and he is certainly a member of that rare species, the conservative social theorist in higher education. (He is reader in Social Thought at De Montfort University, Leicester). A couple of years ago he wrote a book called Reaction: Against the Modern World which put in a good word for reactionaries. But feeling perhaps that that was too strident he has now produced a work that advocates an altogether more homespun conservatism, to use his own expression, which he takes to mean not one that is unsophisticated, crude, mundane or lacking in polish so much as one that starts and finishes close to home. To express the obligatory declaration of interest in reviewing, Peter King and I are ‘friends’ on Facebook although we have never met in person and we both have posted on the wall of the ‘Traditionalist Conservative’ Facebook discussion group from time to time. I find his ‘take’ on conservatism hugely congenial and any criticisms I make here of this book are merely ones of emphasis rather than fundamental dissent.
In these discrete essays, albeit linked by a strong common theme throughout, he channels the thoughts of two leading conservative thinkers, Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton. From Oakeshott he adopts the idea that conservatism is a disposition, a relaxed and tolerant yet also sceptical approach to life, rather than a check-list of ideological principles or detailed policy prescriptions. He takes from Scruton the idea that conservatism is about love of home and being comfortable with the everyday and the familiar. This book advocates a small c conservatism that completely eschews doctrinal argument. Indeed not only does he argue that his form of conservatism is not, properly speaking, particularly political at all (p.viii) he actually lambastes the current Conservative Party for celebrating aspiration and change for changes sake thus falling in with the contemporary zeitgeist. (p.83)
King adopts what might at first glance seem to be a rather risky strategy which is to accept those epithets thrown at conservatives by their opponents, that they are complacent, unadventurous, stick in the muds and so forth as a valid description of the nature of the conservative disposition. His argument is that most of us live quiet and ordinary lives not of desperation but of contentment and that is what makes us conservative. We are creatures of regular habits and known routines and above all we need to protect that feeling that we belong somewhere and know our place.
This is of course often the picture that radicals will have in their heads about conservatives, whether small or big c, that they are insanely wedded to hierarchy and immobility. But King provides a considerably richer picture of this sense of ‘knowing’ ones’ place, where knowing is actually a feeling of contentment rather than frustration and satisfaction not striving. Being in, or knowing, one’s place is to be located, bounded, contained within a network of significant others, both people and particular places, shared memories and common loyalties. Knowing our place is to feel comfortable. The author contrasts this sense of being ‘in place’ with what we feel when we are ‘out of place’. Of course we are always in some place but when we feel out of place we feel embarrassed or insecure, perhaps threatened, certainly not at ease. Above all it is where we are not accepted and therefore it is not home. For those genuinely homeless, who cannot find acceptance anywhere, they are never secure because never properly located and rooted.
Our sense of place is not inevitably fixed to a single spot. King uses the example of rambling where the purpose is not necessarily to get to a particular place at the end of the walk, though undoubtedly we will baring unforeseen events, but to enjoy the activity of walking and taking in the scenery itself. He describes how he likes to take his camera with him on walks and take pictures often of the same places but at different times and seasons. So in a sense the same place can also become different places, as different aspects, perspectives, are highlighted; “I do this because I continue to see new things; or rather, I see the same things in new ways”. (p.6) What matters about a place is not merely its location but more its meaning for us, or what he calls (following the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor) its atmosphere. That is how we ‘lock on’ to a place, by recalling the associations it has for us and the feelings it evokes in us when we remember it or recall it when looking at a picture of it. Through those evocations we both locate ourselves and others we share those memories of atmosphere with. Snatches of music can have of course a similar effect, and as Proust memorably noted, smells. King notes that Zumthor describes this pull of atmosphere attractively as a ‘seduction’; it pulls us into and back in time to the place or person, and like sexual attraction this is not a rational so much as an intuitive or visceral feeling. It need not depend on any one physical attribute. A place does not have to be particularly beautiful or noteworthy to have this effect on us. What is far more important is the sense of familiarity, its continuity even in difference that the place has for us. This is what makes a place, or a person or activity, ‘feel right’. It is unique, irreplaceable. Another place might look ‘just the same’ but it does not ‘feel right’. It is this distinctive feeling that makes it ‘home’ for us, a place we can always return to and know it from the inside.
Another way of saying that we feel at home is to say that we have put down roots. This is often however regarded as something of a limitation, a restriction of movement and therefore of personal freedom. It’s something we do when we have done roaming. But again King flips over this clichéd trope and argues that in fact freedom is fixity, anchorage in a secure foundation. He contrasts the conservative idea of the root with the once fashionable post-structuralist idea of the rhizome, popularised by the radical anti-psychiatrists Deleuze and Guattari in their two books Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. Unlike the root which was about fixity and therefore represented authority and hierarchy, they counter posed the notion of the rhizome (which actually also means a root but never mind) which represents fluidity, lack of a structure, no central authority, an automatically self-generating and spontaneous order rather than a pattern imposed from a centre. This idea appealed to the playful, post-modernist mood of the 1980s when it first appeared and was appropriated by a number of different political as well as academic viewpoints ranging from anarchism to cultural geography.
But as King rightly notes, the idea that a tree or its root represents some kind of hierarchy and lack of difference is nonsense. Every tree is distinct with its own particular set of roots that fit it to the soil in which it is rooted. To be rooted is not to be the same, not to be undifferentiated or under the sway of a ‘central automaton’ whatever that is, but is to be a distinct and particular individual. No two trees are exactly the same.
But this discussion of roots leads onto the no less interesting notion of ‘ruts’. He concedes that conservatives will be happy to be stuck in a rut. But again he employs this idea in a much more fecund way. After all a road began as a rut; a track gradually worn bare and widened over time by long usage by many travellers. We can follow a rut without having to clear our own fresh path, and it helps avoid the bogs on either side. Leaving the direct physical metaphor aside, King argues that the idea of a rut, the familiarity of a settled and repeated routine, enables all of us to concentrate on more important things without thinking of where we are putting our feet. To follow a well-trodden route, a rut, gets us there considerably quicker because we do not have to forge a fresh track, i.e. adopt an entirely new and unfamiliar way of doing things. It also gives us a useful way of resisting unnecessary change.
Farmers of course know the value of the rutted track and while writing this I was reminded of a passage in Adrian Bell’s The Budding Morrow, his account of a year farming in Suffolk during the second world war. “Well, why stick to the ruts ? For two good reasons. One is that last autumn I carefully ploughed the field we pass through to reach the kale, and I could not bring myself to mar those crested winter furrows…Two, that nothing would have been spared but my personal mud-bath, for that fresh earth would have clogged up the wheels, whereas the water in the ruts keeps them clean. In farming with horse and cart the motto is not ‘get out of the rut’ but ‘get into a rut and stay in it’”. (The Budding Morrow, Bodley Head, 1946, p.13)
King argues that what most of us actually wish for is not variety and endless change but blandness and banality, but again he gives to these seemingly negative words a positive connotation. To be banal is less to be trite or shallow than to be merely ordinary and unexceptional; indeed to be in a common place. Actually, to be banal is a highly appropriate conservative expression since it was originally a feudal term meaning that the use of the lord’s mill was compulsory for all his tenants (banal mill) from whence we derive the expression common to all. To be banal therefore is to share in a common inheritance. And to be bland is less to be boring than to be balanced and not over excited or carried away by passing fads or fashions or idees fixe. He adopts the expression and the wider argument from Francoise Jullien’s 2004 book In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics in which Jullien argues that blandness derives from the Chinese concept of shi which he translates as detachment. To be bland is to be able to hold a variety of different emotions or attitudes in balance; to be essentially a harmonious or rounded person. To be bland is, he argues, to be like a sponge, soaking up influences from our environment and assimilating them through the strength and regularity of our habits.
Indeed so keen is the author to insist on this aspect that he italicises what he describes as the most important fact of how we live; “we live in the banality of the ordinary”. (p.37) This is a salutary thing to insist on since so many seem to regard the world as a puzzle that needs to be deciphered and these people are quite often not only deluded but positively dangerous. The obvious example is the follower of Marx who uses dialectics as a sort of magical incantation. But the allure of superior gnostic insight appeals across the political spectrum, where a cabal or a cell are identified as the manipulators of the scene, the hidden hands that make the world go round. Indeed the idea that there is some hidden reality beneath the appearances, that some secret fingers must be pulling our strings, is merely the dystopian version of that utopian dream that wants to remake the world as perfect.
To be ordinary is inevitably to be limited but as Peter King observes, we are constantly preached at to be always striving for more, to be high achievers, to aspire to be better. We seek a limitless and ever expanding cornucopia or as he puts it and the key idea that animates our contemporary culture appears to be ‘boundlessness’. (p.75) Instead he advocates the Greek idea of ataraxia which means being happy with what we have got, knowing our limits and the limits of a good life, being content with enough. This is the old Stoic teaching which is at the core of any small c conservatism worth the name.
The penultimate essay, appropriately titled ‘Enough’, is to me the most appealing in the book and one that not only small c conservatives, but adherents of all political doctrines across the spectrum should inwardly digest. The argument is not exactly new. In some ways those who see themselves as ‘greens’ are temperamentally closest to taking seriously this viewpoint but green politics in its radicalism denies its caution. But somewhere we have to find an alternative to the politics of limitless desire, not least because as Burke reminded us, men of intemperate minds cannot be free. King’s own solution is to suggest that we are best focusing on our own backyards rather than trying to change the whole world.
Is he right? This is clearly a herbivore’s conservatism rather than a carnivore’s. It is gentle and ruminative and is a refreshing change from a lot of other conservative writings. For where is the paean to free markets? Where is the denunciation of cultural Marxists and other assorted pests undermining the fabric of our civilization? Where is the longing for moral certainty and the condemnation of those who are deviant? Where is the patriotic banging of drums and cymbals, the waving of flags, the insistence on national loyalty above all else, a nation one and indivisible? Where is the crude anti Americanism?
In my view there is far too much of this excitable lumpen conservatism around and King’s refusal to indulge in it is refreshing. Nevertheless I do have a few reservations about his case. First I wonder if it true that conservatism appeals only to those who live comfortable and uneventful lives, or the complacent as he himself puts it. Does this not imply that conservatism is fine if you are comfortable but definitely not for those whose lives are characterised by threat or upheaval? Maybe it is the latter who need conservatism more. None of us relish chaos, but those of us with resources can weather it better than those without. And indeed I wonder whether it is correct, as he claims, that “life for most of us most of the time is not a struggle…Most of us find that we can just get on and do much of what we want…Life is not always, or even often, difficult.” (p37) We are indeed fortunate to live in a country where this is certainly true for most if us. But even here not all of us can be quite as equanimous as he seems to be and this is certainly not true for many in other parts of the world. I think conservatism must be about more than appealing to the comfortable. On occasions it might also have to afflict the comfortable.
My other reservation concerns his whole notion of conservatism as disposition. This has an impeccable pedigree I know and in one sense it is obviously true in so far as we can quite properly talk of people having ‘conservative’ tastes in, say, clothes or music or art and architecture. But I feel uncomfortable with the idea that conservatism is somehow a general view of the world, a whole way of life, rather than merely a view about the public realm; just as I feel uncomfortable, because it is a related confusion, when he supports the argument made by Pierre Hadot that philosophy is a way of life rather than an academic pursuit. I believe that conservatism is not metaphysical, a view of the world in general, but political, a view about what arrangements work best in politics. So conservatism is a public doctrine rather than a private passion. Small c conservatism is less about possessing certain habits or tastes (hating rap, preferring plainchant) than about having certain views about politics and its limits.
The danger of seeing conservatism or indeed any other doctrine concerning res publica as a way of life is that it moves quickly on to saying that the personal is political and the political is personal thus denying any notion of a limited politics and in this regard conservatives and liberals can unite and make common cause. What in fact is distinctive about small c conservatism is not that it is a total view of life but rather that it is a limited view of politics. Conservatism appeals, I would suggest, precisely because of the limited nature of its ambitions to remake the world. Nevertheless it is a political doctrine not merely a preference for comfortable shoes or home fires. But these are mere caveats and overall I regard this as an important and engaging statement of the conservative position.
Allan Pond if a former member of the Green Party and writes from Northumberland