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
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