Oakeshott’s World View, Part 3

Michael Oakeshott

Oakeshott’s World View, Part 3

Noel O’Sullivan (ed), The Place of Michael Oakeshott in Contemporary Western and Non-western Thought, Imprint Academic, 2017; £19.95; pbk; 197 pages, reviewed in three parts by ALLAN POND

[This collection includes some of the papers given at the 2015 conference of the Michael Oakeshott Association held at Hull University plus some papers not presented to the conference but on the same theme of the conference which also lends its title to the book.]

Whence Oakeshott’s growing appeal? Clearly he speaks ‘to our condition’. Yet there are many thinkers who don’t speak ‘to our condition’ (such as Filmer, Bossuet, Albert the Great) who are studied and whose writings are still available to us, the first two at least in modern paperback editions; and there are writers who try to speak to us but do so in such technical or obscure language that they have little broad appeal.

But he speaks transparently, although he uses technical terms; cives, societas, universitas, nomocracy, convives, etc; yet  he is never wilfully obscure and his meaning is always clear and his use of technical terms aids his argument. There is a lapidary quality to his writing and though it frequently digresses it does so for a purpose, to throw fresh light on a subject, a feeling, a way of understanding that has become too habitual in many respects for us to notice its qualities or indeed its innovative or strange aspects. Though there are commentaries on his work, such as the essays under review here, and they are valuable, we do not necessarily need an interpreter and we can gain much by direct access for ourselves.

Second, his criticisms of rationalism, planning and the central rule principle, though a minority voice when he first made them, now chime much more with our current sensibilities. In the fifties, sixties and early to middle seventies, Keynsian demand management and indicative planning were regnant. There were counter voices but they were weak and seen as odd. Oakeshott (along with Hayek, and to a somewhat more muted extent Berlin) resisted this conventional wisdom.

At first sight the eighties might appear as a rejection of this conventional wisdom and a vindication of Oakeshott’s critical sallies against rationalists and central planners. But it was only a partial resile. There was a rejection of social democracy not only in the UK but in some more unlikely places, such as the New Zealand Labour Party. But instead of the dogma of Keynsian demand management, we now had the dogma of monetarism. When communism collapsed, the eastern block countries were flooded by men with plans, spread sheets in their hands and copies of Hayek in their pockets, determined to impose something called ‘capitalism’. The result was either chaos, the creation of a new class of plutocrats, or the collapse back into authoritarian rule-accompanied by plutocracy. An age that knew the price of everything but the value of nothing was almost bound to lead to a resurgence of otherworldly views, a disparagement of reason as well as rationalism, and to view the elites of any description as part of the problem. We are now not infatuated either by the state or by the market.

Barbaric government had been replaced by barbaric affluence, or in some cases the two merely joined hands. And this is the third reason why Oakeshott proves appealing. He rejected this ‘dark age’ of barbaric affluence, using that very phrase. (Mosley, in Abel (ed), 2010) An advocate of ‘modernity’ in the sense of individual choice who embraced our inheritance of political freedom and social tolerance, he was no fan of a modernity that saw nature as a stock to be pillaged or squandered, or which regarded the gewgaws of trash culture as the best we could aspire to. He shivered before the assertiveness of ‘barbarians’, those without memory, those who wanted to replace education with ‘training’ and culture with ‘transferable skill sets’. He also talked of the ‘plausible ethics of productivity’ which he saw as reducing us to slaves of needs and wants, making us malleable in the hands of snake oil salesmen from the worlds of commerce as much as ideology. Play, mere contemplation, delight in small things, all were regarded as of little use in a world of getting, spending, wasting. ‘Redundancy’ was not merely to be without work, it was a word that described a whole erasure of a set of actions/pleasures/values that no longer had any purpose in our world.

Connected to this was the fourth reason why he speaks to us so clearly; he identified the creeping growth of the managed world, which is not merely about physical control, surveillance, docketing, smoothing of the rough edges and wild places, but as much about corralling the mind and the heart, creating a barren landscape of order instead of a flowering garden of difference and delight. This is the darkening theme of the closing pages of his third essay in On Human Conduct, ‘The Character of a Modern European State’.  Not only does he attack state education as a way of inculcating indoctrination or servility in the guise of emancipation (Oakeshott, 1975b; pp.308-310) He also identifies the ‘therapeutic’ state as the modern successor to earlier incarnations of it first as  religious tutor and then as exploiter of the earth’s resources and distributor of its product. Instead of sinners in need of redemption, or supplicants in need of material rewards, the state increasingly comes to see its charges as children, or as patients, in need of ‘cure’. “Rulers are therapeutae, the directors of a sanatorium from which no patient may discharge himself by a choice of his own.” (Ibid., p.308) The image of the state he presents here moves from being that of a factory exploiting the earth’s resources through ‘estate management’, to one of a hospital or a clinic.

I suspect that this referenced the abuse of psychiatry in Soviet hospitals to deal with opponents of the communist regime, but also constituted an acute premonition of developments in western democracies as well. Today, with the rise of political correctness and liberal bigotry under the guise of ‘respect’, the following rings increasingly true – “Just as Bacon understood everything (religion, poetry, work and play) in relation to the enterprise of exploiting the resources of the earth, so here everything is understood in relation to ‘sanity’; that is a uniform so-called normality. In short, whereas the subjects of ‘enlightened’ government were identified as somewhat doltish children, sunk in ignorance, prone to folly, and in need of instruction, discipline, and management, here they are understood to be ‘disturbed’ patients in need of ‘treatment’” (Ibid., p.310). The arrival of the ‘nanny state’ is identified and specified. There is almost an ‘anarchist’ tinge to Oakeshott’s argument here, which recalls, or even mirrors,  those critiques of the society of the spectacle made by the situationalists (Debord, 2002; ist pub., 1967) or later anarchist critiques of globalisation. (Negri & Hardt, 2000) And that might not be so far-fetched. Oakeshott had kind words to say about Proudhon – “by far the most intelligent  explorer of the idea of ‘anarchy’ in modern times” – praising his work for its sustained critique of the idea of the state as a purposive association. (footnote on p. 319, Ibid.)

And finally, there is a fifth reason for his appeal, and that is the ‘green’ inflections in his writings. We have already noted his hostility to seeing nature as a stock to be exploited (the Baconian legacy he referred to a number of times in his work) and ‘the plausible ethics of productivity’ that resulted. There is also of course that famous capsule definition of the conservative disposition in his essay On Being Conservative – preferring the near to the far, present laughter to utopian bliss. He also mentions the conservative preferring the limited to the unbounded, and, perhaps most significantly, “To the conservative, to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy.”  (Oakeshott, 1991, p. 409)

This seems to be a pretty fair summary of a ‘green’ disposition as much as a ‘conservative’ one, particularly the preference for cultivating what we currently possess rather than wanting more and more. And surely central to his whole critique of ‘the rationalist’ is the latter’s expressed preference for the manufactured, the made, rather than the natural, summed up in his critique of Bentham, who believes “that what is made is better than what merely grows.” (Oakeshott, 1991, p. 139) And it is surely not insignificant that other conservatively inclined thinkers have also seen some affinities between conservative and green ideas, in the case of Gray specifically citing Oakeshott in support. (Gray, 1993; Scruton, 2012)

Of course there is much in the contemporary green movement, especially its political wing, that Oakeshott would not find appealing; notably its joyless puritanism and an inclination to think that fear of future ecological collapse rather than a wish to conserve our present world of nature is the best way of getting people involved. But an emphasis on the virtues of tradition, preserving our shared inheritance, and a preference for renovation not innovation, conservation not demolition, are dispositions both share in abundance.

Allan Pond is the author of a forthcoming book on conservatism. He writes from Northumberland

*See maxpanksart.com

References (to all 3 parts)

Guy Debord (2002) The Society of the Spectacle (New York, Zone Books; first pub 1967)
George Feaver (2010) “Being English; The Conservative Witness of Michael Oakeshott” in Corey Abel (ed) The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott’s Conservatism (Exeter, Imprint Academic)
Andrew Gamble (2012) “Oakeshott’s Ideological Politics; Conservative or Liberal?”, in Efraim Podoksik (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Oakeshott (Cambridge University Press)
Steven Gerencser (2000) The Skeptic’s (sic) Oakeshott (London, Macmillan)
Robert Grant (1990) Thinkers of Our Time: Oakeshott (London, The Claridge Press)
John Gray (1993) “An Agenda for Green Conservatism” in Gray, Beyond the New Right (London, Routledge)
Michael Minch (2009) The Democratic Theory of Michael Oakeshott  (Exeter, Imprint Academic)
Ivo Mosley (2010) “A Dark Age Devoted to Barbaric Affluence: Oakeshott’s Verdict on the Modern World” in Corey Abel (ed) The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott’s Conservatism (Exeter, Imprint Academic)
Antonio Negri & Michael Hardt (2000) Empire (Harvard University Press)
Edmund Neill (2013) Michael Oakeshott (London, Bloomsbury)
Michael Oakeshott (1975a) Hobbes on Civil Association (Oxford, Basil Blackwell)
Michael Oakeshott (1975b) On Human Conduct (Oxford, Clarendon Press)
Michael Oakeshott (1991) Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis, Liberty Fund)
Michael Oakeshott (1993) Religion, Politics and the Moral Life (New Haven, Yale University Press)
Michael Oakeshott (2006) Lectures in the History of Political Thought (Exeter, Imprint Academic)
Luke O’Sullivan (ed.) (2014) Michael Oakeshott: Notebooks 1922-1986 (Exeter, Imprint Academic)
Allan Pond (2016) “An Opaque Ideology?”  Quarterly Review 19 June 2016 (online edition; available at; www.quarterly-review.org/an-opaque-ideology-2/  )
Karl Popper (1957) The Poverty of Historicism (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul)
Roger Scruton (2012) Green Philosophy; How to Think Seriously About the Planet (London, Atlantic Books)
Dana Villa (2012) “Oakeshott and the Cold War critique of political rationalism” in Efraim Podoksik (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Oakeshott (Cambridge University Press)
Jeremy Waldron (1990) “Politics without Purpose?”  Times Literary Supplement, July 6-12. pp.715-716.

© Allan Pond, August 2017

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12 Responses to Oakeshott’s World View, Part 3

  1. David Ashton says:

    An excellent account, and useful bibliography. I would add Kenneth Minogue and Roger Scruton to “modern” English conservative philosophers of clarity; unfortunately not as influential as the innumerable “texts” attributed to a “dead author” named “Derrida”.

  2. Stuart Millson says:

    I can remember – in 1984 – an excellent symposium on conservatism at Conservative Central Office. Present were T.E. Utley, Minogue and Sir Roger Scruton – to name but three. Sadly, the Conservative Party has now lost its intellectual and doctrinal background and hinterland. Perhaps if there was more thought and sense of history, the Government and the Brexit process would have more wind in its sails….

  3. David Ashton says:

    Not much left of “conservatism” or “England” to conserve: a radical restoration is needed. The “right wing” Daily Mail – which the Left attacks without reading it – has been, for instance, running an almost daily vendetta against the Heir to the Throne for decades. The chief problem for us all is the Equality Act and its Marcuse-Gramsci-Mielke effects.

    Conservatives dislike the phrase “doctrinal” but there are a few bits still floating about, from Conservative Women, Sir Roger, Peter Hitchens and those who do not regard them as Evil, the non-Zionist pages of “Standpoint”, and least but not quite last “The Salisbury Review”, whose Editor has automatically spammed any communication from me (except sub money) for several years past, after I complained about the insertion of a gross howler in an essay and the unauthorized mangling of an article about Ayn Rand which had required extensive research and careful composition.

    I have been banned permanently also from posting on the atheist website “Vridar”, for pointing out more than once the currently relevant difference between Jesus and Muhammad in the matter of violence; and the debate-averse “Occidental Observer” has told me to “f— off for ever” because I questioned posts that were quite outlandishly insane (e.g. Jews from outer space) and/or counter-productively brimming with genocidal rants (e.g. quotation illegal in the UK).

    May I here and now, therefore, express my gratitude for the publication on this forum of my comments however tedious.

  4. Stuart Millson says:

    Beyond the Euro-flag-flying, latte-drinking Leninists in London; and the skewed world as portrayed by the anti-Brexit Broadcasting Corporation in Portland Place (once the home of Sir John Reith and his cultural custodians), a real England – and Britain – thrives. Irrespective of today’s pc commissars, the ordinary English and British people flock to all manner of authentic events in their shires and non-urban localities: St. George’s processions in April; English music in Oxfordshire in May; Christmas services and festivities at their mediaeval churches and village halls and greens; and – out in Wales – folk events, singers, festivals dedicated to and honouring dead poets and Welsh composers. And don’t forget the Union Jacks that flutter in Northern Ireland, and the onward march of the Scottish Conservatives and Unionists – something not much liked by the once-smug, separatist “elite” in Edinburgh.

    I do agree with David: our country (and the West) face erosion. But still, we hang on – and as the Brexit/Brentrance vote showed, there are still enough of us who have that view that our country can be saved and is still worth saving. (I hope!)

  5. David Ashton says:

    Never in the field of English history has so much been damaged by so few. But my motto is: never give up, and never give in. So if we pull together rather than hide under the bedspreads, we have a chance.

  6. Stuart Millson says:

    ‘Now all the youth of England are on fire,
    And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies.
    Now thrive the armourers, and honour’s thought
    Reigns solely in the breast of every man.
    They sell the pasture now to buy the horse,
    Following the mirror of all Christian kings
    With wingèd heels, as English Mercurys.
    For now sits Expectation in the air…’

    Dominic Grieve MP, Jean-Claude Junker, ‘Sir’ Vince Cable, the latte-Leftists of Labour – are you listening?

  7. David Ashton says:

    Let all the youth of England arise, from clubs and drugs, to repeal the Equality Act 2010, prevent Corbyn-McDonnell-Abbott from coming to power, save the Monarchy (from itself too), improve our defences, protect our countryside, stop Afro-Asian colonial settlement, rescue our infrastructure from Chinese and Arabs, restore freedom of speech and association, suppress criminal gangs, make classes in school smaller and ability-set, clean up our cities. make patriotism the chief “British value”, follow Spiked Online and join The Royal Society of St George.

    Today East Malling, Tomorrow the Western World!

  8. Stuart Millson says:

    Whatever happened to all that wonderful Chamberlainite conservatism, as espoused by Theresa May when she became PM – “we are the Conservative and Unionist Party”/”… if you are struggling and just managing, we are on your side”/”…we believe in people and communities rather than markets” etc? If Mrs. May regained this agenda, it would show the electorate – particularly younger voters – that you don’t have to be a pensioner-aged, North London Marxist posing on the cover of the capitalist GQ to have a social conscience.

  9. David Ashton says:

    Norman Tebbit said that when the Conservative & Unionist sign on the then Party HQ was changed to remove “Unionist” he was told this was just an architectural convenience; May needs NI, Scot and Welsh support.

    But who are these “communities”? One guess allowed.

  10. allan pond says:

    thanks to you both for your interesting and thoughtful comments. I have always found it slightly odd that in some forums at least ‘traditionalists’ and ‘modernisers’ are seen as antithetical wings of conservatism. It was Oakeshott’s insight to see that tradition is always about adaptation, which is what gave it its tensile strength and endurance. As something of a ‘Chamberlainite conservative’ myself I agree with you Stuart its time to revive much of that fervor for genuine social reform in the interests of the many not the few !

  11. David Ashton says:

    Adaptation to what precisely?

    The party careerist machinery can keep going by dumping its remaining “pale, stale & male” membership, adopting a left-liberal policy, and lying yet again to the electorate. Young Conservatives have been attacked for being….”right-wing”. Some of them may even had read the “Daily Mail”.

    Kieron O’Hara identified “scepticism” as the key feature of the Tory-Conservative “tradition” or (better) “national management”, including hostility to ideological blueprints. The Disraeli motto had to be dropped from the party card after the Empire was discarded, but a nationalist interest remains – which requires resistance to internal and external dangers.

    We cannot just “go with the flow” if it’s a deluge of corrosive poison.

    How about some scepticism towards the”evil inclination” of ideological legislative “equality, diversity, inclusion” aka the “race, gender, class” revolution of Marcuse. A pity the PM’s party address was mocked because of a cough, an interrupter and a crumbling slogan, because the text was pretty disturbing to anyone who wants anything left of what people regarded as Britain only 25 years ago, let alone what Chamberlain would have recognised.

  12. Stuart Millson says:

    For me, conservatism (and the Conservative and Unionist Party) should stand for the traditional bedrock culture of Britain (that which was made over centuries, since the time of the ancient Britons and Anglo-Saxons, and left to us in trust); a settled social order (Orwell’s “invincible green suburbs”); and a free nation – where thought and ideas are not regulated by a pernicious, politically-correct thought-police – operating chiefly through the licence-fee funded media. I believe very much in a sovereign Britain, within a European community of self-governing but friendly nations – in which our museums, art galleries and concert halls transmit a common thread of Europe’s (pre-EU) cultural achievements. And the great Tory idea of free enterprise – let us have manufacturing, craftsmen, shopkeepers, inventors, small-scale makers and producers, and – as William Morris said – a society where “all men have work, but none too much”. Quite a difference concept from a faceless consumer society, awash with discarded plastic packaging.

    I wonder how many modern Conservatives grasp this? And I wonder, too, how many in the Labour Party or Liberal Democrats understand the true traditions of their parties, and the feelings of their voters? The Brexit referendum result showed that the majority of people want an alternative to being dictated to by a know-all political class, obsessed with (as Enoch Powell put it) “the cries of the age”.

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