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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Egalitarian Conservatism? Yes, We Can

Contra Matthew McManus’s latest, conservatism is not necessarily a force of arbitrary hierarchy and oppression.

Edmund Burke statue at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland

The Political Right and Equality: Turning the Tide of Egalitarian Modernity, by Matthew McManus. Routledge, 265 pages

In a recent New York Times op-ed, the progressive writer and activist Naomi Klein warned against the “supremacist values” that “pose the greatest threats to our societies.” Not white-supremacist values, mind you, but supremacist values simpliciter. It’s an amusing, and revealing, choice of phrasing. Amusing, because all “values” as such imply valuation or grading and thus admit the possibility of supremacy: good, better, best. And revealing, because Klein’s construction shows how the most committed egalitarians can’t escape the problems of rank and distinction, even at the level of language. To condemn certain values for being supremacist, after all, suggests that there are other values that are, well, better.

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The political scientist Matthew McManus is keenly aware of these contradictions. Early on in his important new book, The Political Right and Equality, the University of Michigan political scientist and self-described liberal socialist concedes how some of the most celebrated figures in the radical tradition exploited slaves (Jefferson) or justified imperialism (John Stuart Mill), even as they proclaimed the fundamental equality of humankind. For McManus, though, these were merely accidental failings, not suggestive of deeper flaws in the tradition he celebrates. Liberals who take seriously their own ideals, he thinks, are bound to become socialists—whereas equality is and will remain a permanent stumbling block for the right.

The author’s central argument is that the modernist quest for equality is the thing that called forth the right as a distinct movement or sensibility in Western societies, where hierarchical social orders were once simply taken for granted. All conservatism, one way or another, boils down to a yearning to restore the edifice of hierarchy that was shattered by the birth of the modern. The “political right,” he declares, “is simply more comfortable with the idea that people are unequal, and so should be treated unequally.”

The opposite idea—that human beings are equal by nature and therefore deserving of equal rights and equal access to political institutions—is for McManus a modernist invention, albeit one faintly prefigured in biblical religion. Likewise—and here McManus makes his most interesting moves—conservatism is a modernist phenomenon, notwithstanding the right’s claims to ancient roots: When an Aristotle described an organically hierarchical social order, he was simply describing the classical world as it was, whereas a conservative pining for such an order in A.D. 2023, and citing Aristotle for support, is already conceding that some rupture has taken place, one he struggles to “get back behind of.”

Never mind 2023, this was already the case for, say, a Juan Donoso Cortés (a name only referenced once in McManus’s text): The brilliant reactionary Spanish diplomat, papal adviser, and social commentator no longer believed that right order would or could reconstitute itself over and against modernity’s pressures, not without the application of a reactionary counterpressure that would have been alien to the Christian statesmen of an earlier age.

It is this sense of tragic loss that lends conservatism its aesthetic gravity and, for McManus, generates the movement’s most “exciting” literary contributions, especially in the works of figures like Fyodor Dostoevsky and T.S. Eliot. But in the realm of concrete politics, especially in the Anglosphere, wrestling with modernity while pining for organic hierarchy makes for a self-contradictory posture: For example, Edmund Burke’s unbending defense of property, as McManus rightly notes, wasn’t exactly a conservative project, not when capitalism was revolutionizing property relations, enclosing the commons, and brutally dislocating the settled order of things.

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That contradictory posture is more or less what mainstream Anglophone conservatism has amounted to for a very long time. The movement’s protagonists lament the demise of meaning and belonging and “little platoons,” while upholding grossly unjust inequalities in economic power that only accelerate the loss. There has always been an ugly alternative path for the right, of course: one that would simply ratify inequality on the basis of racial and/or I.Q.-based hierarchies, or else seek to reconstitute lost organic social order on the basis of racial solidarity, shifting the blame for antagonisms inherent to modern economic relations to ethnic minorities, most notably the Jews. Much of McManus’s book is devoted to exploring these darker paths.   

Is there a third way? I should hope so. It would involve, as I have repeatedly argued in these pages, a politics devoted to taming hierarchies within the framework of the common good. What would be distinctly conservative about such a politics is the recognition, amply borne out by the experience of the bloody 20th century, that attempts to foist total equality on human societies are bound to yield new tyrannies, lorded over by hierarchies made all the more intolerant of dissent by their faith that they have abolished hierarchy once and for all. Likewise, in conservative (and, indeed, Catholic) fashion, such a politics would respect various “estates”—family, church, labor unions, clubs, etc.—whose governance must be left to themselves within a broadly egalitarian order.

At the same time, such a politics would absolutely reject racial hierarchies as artificial and critique economic inequality as the result not of natural or organic aristocracy, but mainly of political choices—choices that can be altered. The classical and Christian ideal of morally conditioning elites to be “better” elites would still have some utility, but the more pertinent lever would be power: the application of law to strengthen the hand of workers and the poor relative to those at the top.

Indeed, this was how the Catholic Church came to reckon with the problem of inequality in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, a tradition that McManus sadly elides, beyond vaguely gesturing that Christianity carries some worthwhile egalitarian impulses. Even so, The Political Right and Equality deserves serious engagement from its polemical targets.