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Review: “Conservatism: A Rediscovery” by Yoram Hazony

“In my own life, being disabled and living with an acute example of life’s predicament means that the worldview Hazony describes and prescribes has made far more sense and has offered far more consolation than liberalism ever could.”

Everything seems against the possibility of a conservatism that goes beyond simplistic economism and vague gestures at “values” and “principles,” which all seem conveniently to entrench the interests and dominance of a managerial corporate and administrative structure while undermining the ability of the common man or woman to pursue that which makes life meaningful. Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery is a much-needed vision of what it means to conserve in a society and culture where conservation seems increasingly impossible. While Hazony understandably writes in a mainly American context, the substance of Hazony’s arguments is relevant to British conservatives, both on its merits and because the United States’ influence means that we on the imperial periphery must pay attention to changing ideological currents.

Hazony’s book faces these questions of life and politics head on, providing a post-liberal vision for an increasingly chaotic and unstable world of a modernity all the more liquified by the solvent of liberalism. This is expressed in clear, eloquent writing that avoids overloading the reader with niche philosophical jargon. At the same time, it refuses the condescension of the shallowness rife in political writing today. The point of this book is that our culture requires restoration. And, for that, we must rediscover conservatism. As Hazony writes, conservatism means that “when faced with the disastrous consequences of a particular course of action, we must retrace our steps and restore, as much as possible, the conditions that existed prior to setting out on this course.

Hazony lays out his thesis in four parts, beginning with “History,” moving to “Philosophy” as the core of the book, followed by “Current Affairs,” and ending with a reflection titled “Personal.” The order the parts are presented in might seem a little strange to some: Should not philosophy be first, with history coming afterward? However, having read it through, the structure and the order in which it is presented lends a coherence and a feeling of connection. Each part builds on the preceding section, providing a sense of argumentative force that aids in convincing the reader of Hazony’s central argument: that the vision of conservatism he presents is true, right, possible, and indeed vital for the rejuvenation of our societies.

The form of conservatism under discussion is what Hazony calls Anglo-American conservatism,  which “can be identified with the words and deeds of a series of towering political and intellectual figures, among whom we can include Sir John Fortescue, Richard Hooker, Sir Edward Coke, John Selden, Edward Hyde (Earl of Clarendon), Sir Matthew Hale, Sir William Temple, Jonathan Swift, William Murray (Lord Mansfield), Sir William Blackstone, Josiah Tucker, and Edmund Burke in Britain; and George Washington, John Jay, John Adams, Gouverneur Morris, and Alexander Hamilton in America.” These thinkers and political figures are considered in the historical section, and their ideas and writing provide the basis for the philosophical section.

The part titled “Philosophy” that follows the historical account is the most densely written part, which is understandable given the foundational concepts and ideas under consideration. Even so, it avoided dryness and retained clarity of style. Hazony summarizes conservatism as a philosophy that views men as “born into families, tribes, and nations to which they are bound by ties of mutual loyalty.” Attendant on this, “individuals, families, tribes, and nations compete for honor, importance, and influence, until a threat or a common endeavor recalls them to the mutual loyalties that bind them to one another.” This competitive impetus is matched by “families, tribes, and nations [being] hierarchically structured, their members having importance and influence to the degree they are honored within the hierarchy.” On a broader level, “language, religion, law, and the forms of government and economic activity are traditional institutions, developed by families, tribes, and nations as they seek to strengthen their material prosperity, internal integrity, and cultural inheritance and to propagate themselves through future generations.” These hierarchies and traditional institutions are reinforced by “political obligation [that] is a consequence of membership in families, tribes, and nations.” Finally, “these premises are derived from experience, and may be challenged and improved upon in light of experience.”

Individual liberty is bounded by tradition and the constraint of our relational existence. According to Hazony, our inborn nature is elevated by the precepts of the Mosaic law and Christian faith, enabling us to attain a degree of virtue essential to maintaining the bonds of mutual loyalty that sustain society and allow transmission of culture across the generations, leaving the imprint of our lives on our descendants as our ancestors left theirs on ours.

This view of men and women and their place in a world of families, communities, and nations is all too aware of the imperfectability of the human condition. It acknowledges our propensity for surrendering to base drives and impulses and how they must be restrained and channeled toward the common good by the borders and boundaries of communities within which the good life can hopefully be achieved. The epistemic humility of the conservative view extends to humility regarding our social and political limits, while grand plans deriving from abstract rationalist universalism are destined for disaster.

To contrast the conservative and liberal views, Hazony uses the concept of paradigms (patterns of knowledge) to demonstrate the differences between conservatism and liberalism. In contrast to the conservative paradigm, rationalist Enlightenment liberalism holds that “1. All men are perfectly free and equal by nature. 2. Political obligation arises from the consent of the free individual. 3. Government exists due to the consent of a large number of individuals, and its only legitimate purpose is to enable these individuals to make use of the freedom that is theirs by nature. 4. These premises are universally valid truths, which every individual can derive on his own, if he only chooses to do so, by reasoning about these matters.”

Hazony argues that liberalism suffers from acute “paradigm blindness,” being unable to see our lived reality and what makes life worth living. We are certainly not born free, and freedom as the highest political good is a fantasy. Living with a  disability as I do tears the veil from the insidiousness of this liberal obsession, which ends up leaving us trapped in increasingly unfree lives, alone before the ever-growing managerial state. This worldview ignores that we may be equal in sight of God and the law, but are not so in talent or temperament. Consent and transactional contract as the basis for political obligation erase unchosen obligations and duties whose substance and validity are not undermined just because we did not specifically consent to them. Meanwhile, government arises not out of a social contract among consenting individuals but, rather, from historical agreement between conglomerations of tribes, banding together and cultivating mutual loyalty. The purpose of government is balancing rights and duties in furtherance of the common good. All of this arises from a world of families, tribes, and nations—not rationally-choosing, free-floating individuals operating according to universal axioms akin to a mathematical formula.

This paradigm blindness also extends to parts of the Right. The sections on “Cold War conservatism” and its faults are well done, speaking to the frustration many on both sides of the Atlantic have with a senescent but still dominant form of right-liberalism that occupies the institutional networks on the Right of the American overclass. The advent of “fusionist” conservatism, an alliance between libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-Communist hawks was uneven from the start and swiftly side-lined any semblance of the Anglo-American conservative tradition as articulated by the figures cited above. It quickly became apparent that the economic libertarians, led by Frank Meyer, one of National Review’s founders along with William F. Buckley, were in the driving seat where domestic policy was concerned, while foreign policy was the purview of the hawks.

There was much talk of conservative values and of timeless truths on which the United States could base its creed for the Cold War struggle. Hazony analyzes the thinkers F.A. Hayek and Leo Strauss as emblematic of Cold War fusionism, and his demolition of Strauss’ political philosophy along with his smear of Edmund Burke as the relativist forerunner to 20th century totalitarianism is particularly enjoyable. As Hazony writes, many post-war conservatives based their thought in a rationalism detached from any material and empirical reality. As others have argued, the values talk that arose from this disconnection was often (or even mainly) used to legitimize the favored pro-corporate policies of large donor foundations, policies laundered by well-funded think tanks, academic and public policy centers.

Indeed, as Patrick Deneen recently argued, echoing Hazony’s diagnosis, “The Founding…[became] largely reducible to a set of philosophical ideas whose most distinct appeal lies in their liberal grounding as timeless and placeless principles. America was cast as an idea, a theory. Like the state of nature of the liberal philosophers who were of particular interest…the Founding came to be understood as a set of principles that transcended place and history and which were advanced as self-evident and universal.” This “highly theoretical, philosophical, and even ideological explanation of what America is” was a reaction to the United States’ new superpower status, as well as a response to Communism abroad and Progressivism at home, where “the American project was necessarily conceived as a competitor universalist set of ideas that were ahistorical and de-linked from any geographic place and particular set of cultural or historical conditions.”

These universalist abstractions and ahistorical approaches to “timeless truths” were perfectly suited to the post-Cold War dispensation with liberal democracy as the inevitable endpoint of political evolution, and neoliberalism in economic relations was the way to the promised land of endless growth to keep restive populations quiescent. It would not be too harsh to say that, due to its fundamental premises, post-war American conservatism has been the handmaiden to a steadily liquifying modernity, the momentum of which is driven by the internal logic of liberalism itself.

But it was in the chapter titled “The Challenge of Marxism” that I found the most to disagree with in Hazony’s argument. He contends that we in the Anglo-American West are now facing a newly resurgent Marxism, seen in the attack on everything not deemed to cohere with modern values of so-called “wokeness,” which Eric Kaufmann defines as “the sacralization of historically disadvantaged race, gender and sexual identity groups.”

Hazony’s essential argument is that because liberalism is based in rationalism and individualism, it throws out old traditions, hierarchies, and the institutions they birthed, all sustained by honor, loyalty, and authority. Liberalism, therefore, lays the philosophical and structural groundwork for Marxism. Liberalism’s premises prevent a defence of liberal institutions and positions of authority by undermining any appeal to hierarchy and closing off tradition as something to fall back on. Marxism uses the same rationalism simply to point out the hypocrisies and discrepancies against which liberals thus have no defense.

Hazony is correct that there has been an upsurge in a form of left-wing radicalism that peaked in 2020, entrenching a new regime in the corporate and political worlds, pushed by the left-wing of the overclass. And yet, saying it is a Marxist defeat of liberalism feels slightly off, given that this ideology has been adopted by all the leading corporations, hedge funds, banks, tech firms, non-governmental organization, foundations, and charities.

This revolutionary ideology is fine with the oligarchic market, whose effects on social bonds, traditions, and institutions perfectly fits Marx’s description of “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” As David Rieff argued back in 1993, capitalism and leftist ideologies like multiculturalism go perfectly well together, with culture and traditions commodified and monetized and deemed no better or morally superior to one another.

In my view, Hazony is not quite there in this specific regard, and the Italian thinker Augusto Del Noce is a strong supplement. Del Noce argued that it is not so much that Marxism defeated liberalism but, rather, that liberalism and Marxism fused together in a specific way from the 1960s, producing the whirlwind currently ripping our societies apart. Marxism lost its radical materialism that drove its class analysis but retained its millenarian idealistic impetus. As Deneen writes, Del Noce argued that it was “not the ‘eschaton’ that would be immanentized, but a ‘total revolution’ now instantiated in, and limited to, the material order. This revolutionary order would exist not for the sake of a future utopia, but for the sake of revolution itself—the means becoming the end. It would advance not through class conflict, but through affluence, technology, and scientism.”

Presaging Roger Scruton’s diagnosis of a “culture of repudiation,” Del Noce predicted that what “would remain of Marxism was a ‘spirit of negation,’ directed against any remnant of limitations imposed by previous ages—particularly the ‘metaphysical’ inheritance of Christianity. Marxism would culminate not in a worker’s paradise, but rather ’emancipation from authority and traditions in the spirit of the Enlightenment.’” We would witness an ideology “aimed at the perpetual destruction of the antecedent order,” that would ineluctably result in a “totalitarianism of disintegration,” with any person, tradition or hierarchy cancelled to advance a “total revolution.”

This revolution turbocharged the liberal erasure of limits in favor of maximal autonomy and individualist hedonic liberty. As in Del Noce’s day, our “woke” revolutionaries are bent on “a destructive attitude towards every tradition” nurtured by the “millennialist expectation for the absolutely new.” What one might say in light of this is that we are seeing an already radical liberalism given ideological rocket fuel by a debased Marxist millenarianism.

In opposition to this, Hazony calls for a recovery of “Conservative Democracy.” This would mean a reaffirmation of the importance of national identity and national belonging; renewed support for the public role of religion, something we in Britain never lost, but which is now a ghost of a faith; a recovery of the Anglo-America legal tradition, rooted in the common law and descended from Mosaic precepts; the acceptance of the importance of family and community for social cohesion through social norms; education oriented to the Anglo-American tradition and history; an economic vision invested in broad-based material prosperity, freed from libertarian and neoliberal dogmas around free trade and state intervention; immigration in the interest of national cohesion first and foremost; a realist foreign policy with nations as the prime fact, intervention only undertaken to prevent heinous crimes like genocide; retrieval of sovereignty from transnational bodies like the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and others.

These are all sensible policy prescriptions, but they cannot succeed without the attendant shoring up of our own lives. In this regard, I would like to have seen more mention of economics and the impact of technology, the materialist base that we build our lives on. However, our individual existence is inherently historical, with our lives’ threads in the weave of time. As such, the ending in the personal pairs well with the beginning in the historical, both of which serve to ground the abstract in the concreteness of life and ideas thought about and fought for with and against others in the swirling dance that comprises the human experience.

Hazony describes his conservative awakening at Princeton University, where he began a cultivation of a conservative life lived with fidelity to an honored past with his wife-to-be, Julie, and the Jewish community at Princeton is both moving and gives greater impact and depth to what might otherwise have been written off by some as an abstract philosophical treatise. Both Hazony and Julie’s family backgrounds, full of heartache, give weight to the ideas by showing the reality of the struggle we all face in a fallen world.

Principle only means something when linked to practices that embody those principles. Otherwise, those fine principles remain merely nice words on the page, their substance drained by repetition with no intention of acting them out. In his own life, subject to the vicissitudes attendant to our place in a broken world, Hazony acts out the principles he describes and affirms.

In my own life, being disabled and living with an acute example of life’s predicament means that the worldview Hazony describes and prescribes has made far more sense and has offered far more consolation than liberalism ever could. Hazony’s book is a reminder that for us in a world riven by tragedy, hope is found in and through the limits that constitute our lives. Conservatism after liberalism means a philosophy of the home one starts from and where one returns to. In a world where so many feel homeless, this book offers a path to finding our way home again

Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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