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Broadsides against The Way We Live Now
on 23 February 2012
It has often been said that conservatives have a basically pessimistic view of idealistic schemes, while radicals of all kinds believe that they their ideologies can make the world a new and a better place. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton here fleshes out idea out. He distances himself from what he calls "systematic pessimism" (the word pessimism actually makes relatively few appearances in this book) and he sometimes calls his attitude "scrupulous optimism" - trusting in piecemeal but organic improvements - as distinct from the "unscrupulous optimism" which entertains false hopes and which he attacks.
Unscrupulous optimism, he believes, is based on a number of fallacies (each a chapter heading) and is incapable of listening to arguments or logic. It is not confined to ideology. It is seen, for example, in the financial world, where people believe that they can go on borrowing, and deal with debts by borrowing more etc, and simply will not realize that such a system is bound to collapse. They are like speculators and gamblers who trust that their activities will succeed and who regard failure as strokes of fate for which they are not responsible and which will be compensated for by upping the ante.
Scruton regards Keynes as one of the villains in the piece (reminding us, for good measure, that he was a "flippant aesthete" and a homosexual), and has qualified good words to say about Islam's condemnation of interest, of insurance contracts, of corporations ("from a moral point of view mere fictions"), and of limited liability, "a device for evading responsibility".
He describes utopian ideologies, based on hatred of the existing world, with the actual utopia (naturally) always out of reach because of the machinations of its enemies who must therefore be invented over and over again and be destroyed; and he illustrates this convincingly with examples, especially those taken from the French Revolution, from the Soviet Union and from Islamicist terrorism.
Far less convincing is Scruton's theory that other enemies are invented simply out of envy: socialist envy of the rich, Third World envy of the West, Islamist envy of the United States - in each case Scruton says (incredibly) that the resentments have "little or nothing to do" with what the rich, the West, or the Americans actually do! Again this is then weakly qualified with the admission that "this does not mean that the Islamic radicals are never right in their accusations"; but then there will always be some abuses wherever there is freedom. He says that the modern conception of justice is in fact its opposite, when it assumes that the rich who have worked have become rich at the expense of those who have "lounged in voluntary idleness". It destroyed the old grammar schools "for the simple reason that [they] divided the successes from the failures". He is against affirmative action because the drive for equality is not compatible with liberty.
He extols the efficiency of the free market against the inefficiencies of central planning and bureaucratic regulations - without discussing the powers and tactics of monopolies and big business to make sure that the market is not in fact free. Many readers will agree with his extensive broadside against the European Union: its web of regulations, its unaccountabilty, its ostensible commitment to subsidiarity a mockery. True subsidiarity is not something that is conceded from and limited by the top, but arises organically from localities and is in accord with local traditions. Scruton frequently and approvingly cites Burke's defence of tradition and of the "small platoons". Throughout he is critical of all "top-down" legislation (which includes commandments validated simply by the assertion that it has been handed down by God), and he extols the common law principle of piecemeal extensions of existing law.
Next he goes for the notion of the Zeitgeist that is supposed to tell us that all our cultural manifestations betoken that we live in an Age of Progress. There may be progress in science, but there is nothing like that in the "modernism" prevalent in the arts. He judges that Picasso was a real artist but that Tracey Emin is not. (I agree, but he is not at all clear on the criteria that lead him to this judgment.) He is, however, quite clear on why he hates modernism in architecture: it is soulless and inorganic and imposed on us top-down by architects and town-planners. He sides with Prince Charles.
He is opposed to the optimism that puts its faith in multiculturalism; this, too, is imposed from the top down, and leads to tensions that are avoided by the earlier assumptions by both majorities and minorities that the latter should acculturate themselves to the prevailing culture. And of course he thinks that immigration on the scale that has been permitted militates against acculturation: "the silencing of Enoch Powell has proved more costly than any other post-war domestic policy in Britain."
Scruton's general attitudes should now be clear, and it suffices to list his other targets: "experts", especially educational ones; women's studies, gender studies, gay studies; the "delegitimization of the family" by the state, which no amount of bureaucracy-ridden social work can remedy; peace movements which teach that "to deter attack is actually to invite it"; the ready accusation that arguments warning against excessive immigration are racist, those defending traditional family structures are homophobic, those critical of certain aspects of Islam are Islamophobic.
Scruton puts forward the theory that all the deplorable fallacies he has listed were, in man's primitive tribal existence, necessary for survival, and they remain deeply rooted in humans even as they emerged from primitivity and developed societies that no longer needed mechanisms which now are positively inimical to "societies of rational beings, bound to each other by accountability, friendship and respect".
There are many sound observations in the book, but, not being of his persuasion, I think that he often goes way over the top, generalizes and exaggerates.