There’s a project afoot to take Trump, Brexit and all that populist jazz, and build a post-facto rationale for them. It’s called National Conservatism, and Yoram Hazony, an Israeli philosopher, is one of its brightest thinkers. Conservatism: a Rediscovery can be read as a primer for a movement: cogent and compelling, it seeks to explain what conservatives have historically believed and why. It’s also occasionally eccentric.
Critics dismiss Anglo-American conservatism as a reactionary impulse: angry men standing athwart history, shouting “stop”. Hazony believes it is a coherent school of thought that emerged in 15th-century England in defense of a constitutional settlement threatened by civil war. Our little island was different from the continent because it wasn’t authoritarian or arbitrary but consensual and limited by custom. Europeans routinely descended into barbarous revolution. England resisted the temptation to rip things up and start again because we were guided by “historical empiricism”: when deciding what to do next, we asked, “what worked before?”
The United States flourished, says Hazony, because it was modeled on this sensitive constitution, and its early leaders created a nation state that was “God-fearing”, with a cautious foreign policy, a tariff to protect trade and limited migration. We can infer from this that Trump is not only an authentic conservative but closer to the great tradition than free traders such as George W Bush or even Ronald Reagan. When Trump said “a nation without borders is not a nation”, he put his finger on what the Right is really about: history and belonging. The individual is born into a family, the family is part of a clan, the clan a tribe and the tribe a nation. From this web of relationships flows order and responsibility, and because this phenomenon is not global but particular to place, traditions are rarely the same from one country to the next.
Given that Hazony is such a fan of historical empiricism, it’s odd that he often falls back on myth. We read, for example, that the English Reformation was “the first modern movement for national independence”, that by divorcing us from the Vatican, it restored “ancient freedom”. But the destruction of the monasteries – centuries-old repositories of charity and education – was pure vandalism, not conservatism, and one of Henry’s core aims was to crush the liberties of a church that threatened his own brand of tyranny (Hazony does acknowledge the irony that Anglo-American conservatism was born from a violent rupture, but he insufficiently accounts for it).
Of course, for Hazony’s theory of conservatism to hold, namely that it is inherently nationalist, he you have to discount European Catholic history, because Catholicism is universalist and generally spread by empire. Hazony prefers the Protestant nation state and compares it with ancient Israel, a parallel that certainly flatters the Anglican Church but is obviously flawed. In his excellent book Dominion, Tom Holland demonstrates that the ancient Jews did indeed believe they had a unique relationship with God that could be expressed through geography, ie worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. But they were also convinced that Yahweh was the one God of all mankind, that his teachings had universal significance – and their culture survived constant migration because their customs were not limited by borders but ingeniously portable. To turn Theresa May on her head, one might say that the ancient Jews proved you can be both a Somewhere and an Anywhere at the same time.
The National Conservative movement wants to put Judeo-Christianity back at the heart of the nation state, but why assume, as Hazony does, that the outcome of a revival of public faith will be politically conservative, let alone nationalist? Jesus was absolutely part of the Jewish tradition; I came to “fulfill the law”. He was, however, also a revolutionary who rejected tribalism, asked his followers to leave their families, and threatened to turn “a man against his father.”
Christianity is driven by “love”, yet when a group of National Conservatives, including Hazony, recently signed a “statement of principles”, the word love only appeared once – in relation to patriotism. There’s a danger in Hazony’s thought that faith is reduced to utility, that it is encouraged because it promotes conservative ends, rather than because the individual, by their conscience, believes it to be true and beautiful. This is what became of many European churches at the turn of the last century, when stripped of their radicalism and packed with bourgeois hypocrites, they blessed guns and sanctioned the First World War.
If you asked someone to describe the essentials of their political philosophy, let alone their faith, you might expect them to list a series of moral propositions: care for the poor and sick, or to build a just society. The “conservative paradigm” outlined by Hazony is closer to a list of anthropological observations, noting, rightly, that no individual is born completely sovereign but part of families and clans, and that “traditional institutions” help to pass on their culture to future generations . This is all quite obvious, but what if that culture is corrupt?
While reading Hazony, I found myself imagining an island, a very sovereign and conservative island, where the people are faithful to their gods, rich and happy – it just happens that every spring, they toss a virgin into a volcano. I struggle to detect anything in the National Conservative philosophy that would condemn this on the uncomplicated grounds that it is evil. Traditions might become more moral through evolution or encounter, Hazony reassures us – but if that pretty island were perfectly stable, and if no empire ever landed upon its shore, why shouldn’t the volcano ritual go ahead? Hazony insists that he is not a cultural relativist, and to prove it he denounces slavery, demonstrating that the early American nationalists were against it, too. That might be true, but the Southern planter establishment was all for it, and are we going to pretend that they were unconservative, that they didn’t have a sense of tradition or history?
I admire Hazony’s efforts to put populism on a sounder philosophical basis, but if we’re going to go down this road then we need to encourage a system of thought that gives us the language to distinguish between good and evil, and which has some sympathy for the “brotherhood of man”, if only to keep the nations from turning on each other. Historical empiricism teaches us that movements that distinguish unashamedly between “us” and “them” can wind up in some very dark places.
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