Does conservatism have a future? It might seem a curious question to ask. After all, a political platform of fiscal restraint coupled with resisting social change, recognizably “conservative” to us, is applicable to so many times and places as to be veritably eternal. Yet many, even conservatives themselves, fret over this question, and for good reason: while the bare bones of the conservative political platform will survive, even if not thrive, in the future, there is in fact ample reason to believe conservatism and the conservative movement, the meat on those bare bones, at least conservatism and the conservative movement as we know it, will not survive past the near future.
The Genesis of Conservatism
That might seem a strong claim to make, yet consider what the core social pillars are of conservatism. Conservatism emerged in the late 18th century as the party of the Old Order, the resistance against the threat to their power and privilege liberalism represented. In Europe this meant the rule of the nobility, the aristocracy.
In New World countries like America, which lacked an aristocracy, a true conservative ideological tradition never emerged, instead basing its native “conservatism” upon what Europeans of the era would recognize as moderated liberalism. While the ideological bases were different, the general theme of preserving the power and privilege of incumbent ruling elites was the same on both sides of the Atlantic. Also held in common as an ideological pillar was preserving the continued dominance of the Christian religion and traditional Western values.
And it is here that we approach the problem conservatism faces in our time. In Europe the nobility declined in the 19th century in the face of the rise of industrialists and “bourgeois” businessmen as the dominant economic elites, which is well analyzed as the rise of the capitalist class or the “bourgeoisie”.
The Challenge of the Bourgeoisie
With their base diminishing in power, conservatism to remain viable as a political force was compelled to bring the bourgeoisie into the ruling-elite fold, adjusting their policies and rhetoric to provide special privileges not just for the nobility but also to the bourgeoisie.
The tariffs, taxes, subsidies, licensing, wage controls, and price controls formerly used to privilege the post-feudal elites were now also employed to privilege industrial elites. Controls on society and culture that were formerly employed by the Old Order to enforce public propriety and quasi-feudal hierarchy were repurposed to purify sin not only out of public life but also the very souls of the population.
This latter development was driven not by capitalists’ own preferences but rather by the need to pander to the swelling middle class and their moralizing, conformist, and puritanical mindset, which with the politicization of the masses, precisely the development 18th century conservatives feared, had to be added to the movement so as to counter the mass movements of liberalism and increasingly also forms of leftism that sought to repurpose the right wing’s statist economics for egalitarian and liberatory ends.
Conservatism’s Century of Challenge
In Europe another serious challenge was the rise of nationalism, which threatened the power and privilege of the Old Order, which did not have as the basis of its legitimacy the claim to embody the wills of particular nations; indeed, local and regional nobles were well aware they would find their interests run roughshod over by their political holdings being subsumed into a nation-state.
Industrialization, nationalization, and mass politicization all decisively defeated conservatives’ opposition, so most turned from opposing these development to co-opting them, in some cases (such as Nazism) qualifying as “reactionary modernism” but in others a less-dramatic, and temperamentally conservative, evolution of reaching an accommodation with the status quo.
This might have led to a comprehensive victory for liberalism, but fortunately for conservatives their arch-nemesis had rotted from the inside out as a radical movement that held any mass appeal. Unfortunately for them, however, its role on the left was replaced by the radical movements that embraced rightist governing instruments for leftist ends: left-wing socialism.
With the Old Order’s authoritarianism, if not its end goals, now unchallenged in mass ideology it took only a great crisis, the First World War, to unleash what could only be described as a full-scale counter-revolution against liberalism, leading to the greatest orgy of death and destruction the world has ever seen, the golden age of mass murder by government, by the end of the 20th century resulting in a pile of corpses over 200 million strong, to the point where the leading cause of unnatural death worldwide was being murdered by your own government.
Out of this crucible came Red October in 1917, heralding the age of communism. The specter of a working-class revolution and the erection of a centrally-planned economy that didn’t serve the Old Order menaced conservatives for the first time ever, this existential threat inspiring them to jettison their statist economic rhetoric and join with what was left of the liberals in a coalition to defeat their new arch-nemesis: communism.
The same logic was extended to “democratic socialism”, “social democracy”, and even “modern liberalism” such as the New Deal. To the Old Order and its middle-class foot soldiers, such doctrines were too oriented toward the interest of ordinary workers for comfort. To liberals, they were a violation of their moral principles and a path to economic ruin, “the road to serfdom”, as one of their own, Friedrich Hayek, memorably put it in 1944.
The strategic alliance even inspired “fusionism”, a doomed attempt to turn conservatism and “libertarianism”, the latter in reality being liberalism reborn and radicalized from the ashes of the old ideology amid the right-wing authoritarian carnage of the World Wars, into a single coherent ideology.
Doomed because the fundamental premises of conservatism and libertarianism are incompatible, a truth obscured by the “folk libertarians” that provide much of modern conservatism’s mass support base but much more obvious at the intellectual level. Nevertheless, the anti-communist coalition was bound together by their common enemies tightly enough to still be around to witness the Fall of Communism in 1989, when 20th century conservatism’s arch-nemesis was at long last defeated.
One might have expected free-market conservatism to have leaped from strength to strength after the Cold War, perhaps eventually challenged in the 21st century by libertarianism as it diverged in its identity from its place in the anti-communist coalition. But it was not to be, for the social bases of conservatism as we knew it were already rotting from the inside out in the face of new and unsung challenges that were even more vexing than communism.
Conservatism in Twilight
“What? More vexing than communism?” you might ask. Consider that the Old Order, which in one form or another is the raison d’être of conservatism as we know it, has as its pillars the Christian religion and traditional Western values. Without a social orientation toward those there is no Old Order, be it the original noble version, the revamped industrialist version, or a yet-to-be-born version perhaps revamped from tech elites, in any meaningful sense. If there were, if conservatism were solely defined by serving the interests of incumbent elites whatever their social orientation, we’d have to call political projects serving the interests of Communist Party elites in the Soviet Union part of “conservatism”.
As it happens those two pillars, the Christian religion and traditional Western values, are both eroding away within both the ruling class and the middle class. Losing Christianity by itself wouldn’t be too bad a blow to conservatism. Christianity as Europe and its diaspora knows it was already very Westernized to begin with; although the Church would have to adjust to being a part of Western heritage under the protection of the new faith much like pagan survivals before it, it would survive as part of the conservative power base. Traditional Western values, which owe far more to the ultimately pagan tradition of the classics than the teachings of Jesus, would live on. Unfortunately for conservatives, however, they are losing not only Christianity but also traditional Western values.
Among the ruling and especially middle classes, across every institution that holds power, a new ideology is spreading that expressly repudiates traditional Western values: Intersectional Social Justice, better known as Wokeness. While all previous incarnations of the Old Order located their legitimacy in their fealty to the virtues of the classical Western tradition, the new incarnation heralded by Wokeness locates its legitimacy in the inversion of that tradition.
The true Genesis of Wokeness
The causes and evolution of this movement within the elites could easily fill a full-length book, but essentially my view is that the trauma of the World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust shattered the confidence in the virtue and future of Western civilization previously enjoyed by the classes who led the West into these horrors, replacing it with a guilt-driven lust for inverting tradition. It’s no coincidence that the “aesthetics of guilt” rise toward dominance starting in the First World War. I believe it also caused what we know of as Wokeness.
However, Wokeness didn’t arise immediately after the war. It’s likely that the first stage of elite reaction was the counter-revolution that overthrew the relatively liberal order that prevailed before the World Wars, but one after another the political projects of the period, which David D’Amato labels “political modernism”, failed to deliver on their promises of delivering a better world. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that early forms of Wokeness arose at around that same time, roughly the mid to late 20th century.
Bereft of a sufficiently authoritarian ideology that could transcend the traditional West and replace it with something new, the cutting-edge ideologues within the Old Order, or if you prefer the elite, settled for deconstructing the traditional West without a coherent end goal. This could be thought of as the second stage of the counter-revolution, complementing the broader shift from modernism to postmodernism.
Wokeness: Christianity inverted?
Some have likened it to communism or to the Jacobinism of the French Revolution, but as even a cursory examination of the Wikiquote pages of Maximilien de Robespierre or Louis Antoine de Saint-Just will attest even the most radical and vilified characters of the Revolution possessed, in addition to a coherent and well-considered philosophy, a basic confidence in mankind that is the opposite of what we see today from Wokeness. If this is a descendant of Jacobinism it is twisted beyond recognition, so fighting the ghosts of the French Revolution won’t be very helpful.
Many have linked or at least likened Wokeness to Christianity, and some have been very puzzled by their ties. The explanation, as it turns out, is simple. As an inversion of the traditional West as it stood before the 20th century, Wokeness must also invert Christianity. Inverting something, however, doesn’t mean you repudiate it; on the contrary, it retains its hold over your mind. Critically, its logic, its frame, its way of viewing the world, remains.
Thus we see Wokeness adopt the same totalizing, militant, puritanical, and moralistic mentality as the most crusading varieties of Protestant Christianity. Notably, both have a view of original sin that makes one guilty merely for existing as a natural human being, a view of human existence that permits no sphere beyond ideological scrutiny, and a view of virtue that raises the demand for self-sacrifice (in its Randian sense) in the service of expurgating that guilt to a level no reasonable man could meet.
What Future for Conservatism?
As the decades and even years pass Wokeness and inverted values comes closer and closer to replacing Christianity and traditional values as the basis of the ruling class’s legitimacy and the middle class’s sense of virtue. What then is to become of conservatism, the creed whose raison d’être is burnishing the power and privilege of a ruling class and institutions that promote Christianity and traditional Western values, when such a ruling class and such institutions no longer exist?
The short answer is that conservatism as we know it ceases to exist. The long answer is that there are essentially three paths they can take: surrender to wokeness, turn to reaction, or surrender to libertarian populism.
Three Paths for Conservatives
The first path is simple enough, even if it would fill the hearts of today’s committed conservatives with horror. All that needs to be done is to stop conserving traditional Western values and start conserving their opposite instead. Stigmatizing those below the middle class for having too many out-of-wedlock babies and not putting in the work to get a decent job would give way to stigmatizing the same people for daring to have a traditional marriage and not putting in the work to expurgate their privilege.
To a large extent this has already happened! In the areas that are most advanced in the transition middle-class grandfathers who voted for right-wing parties by three to one in their youth now have middle-class grandsons who vote for left-wing parties by equally lopsided ratios, and chances are the grandfathers’ views have evolved leftward too. These are the people who have provided the manpower for Wokeness’s romp through the institutions.
The second path is to turn to reaction. Reaction, in the true sense, is the desire to roll back the Revolution, to return to the Old Order before liberalism, before the industrial revolution. Obviously such a program is not politically viable in our time, but the reactionary spirit of burning down today’s institutions to recreate the world of the past in their place will likely find a new relevance on the right wing in the future, as those who used to be conservatives and have escaped the woke maw will yearn to go back to a time when society’s powerful institutions were on their side and progressively come to realize there will be no salvation through reforming these institutions in the foreseeable future.
The third path is to turn to libertarian populism. This might seem the odd man out. Why libertarian? Why populist? Populist is perhaps the most obvious component of this option, and indeed has already been embraced by right-wing parties the world over. The reason is not a recrudescence of a fascist mass movement or some such as is often claimed (to the extent we live under fascism its imposition comes not from the masses but from elites), but rather the very development detailed in option one: the turn of the ruling class, powerful institutions, and the middle class against the pillars of conservatism.
As it turns out this is reflected in voting habits, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for conservative or right-wing parties to get the margins of victory among the professional-managerial middle class they traditionally needed to win. So votes have to be found elsewhere.
The Working Class flees to the Right
It so happens the working class is waiting in the wings. With the collapse of organized labor as a social force and the utter failure of not just communism but also socialism, social democracy, and the welfare state to deliver either liberation or equality for ordinary working people, the working class by the late 20th century (and even more so by now) became politically rudderless.
At the same time, the recession of a worker-led revolution overthrowing incumbent institutions and erecting a centrally-planned economy as a threat also eroded the terror-born allegiance of the ruling and middle class to “free market capitalism”, always more rhetoric than reality to begin with, allowing them to return to their old economically statist ways.
Working-class resentment of woke middle-class elitists dictating how they live their lives thus started to become an animating force behind the “conservative movement”, a process that continues today. A somewhat contradictory mish-mash of the new working-class trend and the remaining middle-class traditionalists currently makes up the right wing in most developed Western countries.
The Conservative Populist Dead End
Conservatives will, by becoming more and more “right-wing populist”, muddle through the near future, shedding middle-class and institutional support and picking up working-class support. The trouble with this over the long term is that due to the aforementioned factors the working class can’t truly support a movement that’s actually conservative in the way we’ve hitherto understood the term.
Such a movement will be “conservative” but it won’t seek to conserve any institutions, special privileges, elite powers, or social norms; indeed, it will seek to dismantle and destroy them. It won’t seek to conserve any traditions either. The working class might not like Wokeness but they’re not a bastion of religion or traditional values either.
The idea that there’s a huge dormant population of family-oriented “blue-collar patriots” out there waiting to vote for actually-existing conservatism is in my view nothing more than wishful thinking. Fighting wokeness and freeing the market are genuinely popular, but there’s little interest in a politics rooted in a conservative way of life.
Politics abhors a Vacuum
Thus the working-class movement of grievance yearns for a new ideology. As the situation stands today grievance is unmoored from any ideology, leading to the promotion of conservatism’s hitherto-somewhat-restrained thuggish and bigoted streaks to the forefront in place of actual substance by politicians, movement leaders, and “post-liberal” intellectuals alike, and to entire political platforms consisting of little more than aggrieved-sounding word salad. J.J. McCullough in 2018 noted this trend in his interesting article “The Changing Conservative Disposition”, and there’s every reason to expect this to continue.
Thuggery, bigotry, and grievance-mongering alone make for a rather empty political platform even for a mass audience, let alone intellectuals or activists. Aside from the derangement it induces in its own adherents, a disturbing trend perhaps most obvious within the “Trump movement”, it also is not enough to motivate the working class to form a mass political movement.
The fact that revolutionary liberalism and communism succeeded where other working-class movements failed shows that for a movement without much in the way of ruling or middle class support, the situation conservatives will be in in the not-so-distant future, a radical, ideally revolutionary, ideology with intellectual heft that promises liberation, equality, and a new world is required to effect political change.
The Rebirth of Revolutionary Liberalism
Libertarianism, being a radicalized and updated version of revolutionary liberalism that has some measure of popularity, is the leading candidate for such an ideology. If the ruling and middle classes will embrace statism again, only with Wokeness and inverted values taking the place of Christianity and traditional values, then why wouldn’t the working classes embrace liberalism again?
As I have pointed out in my post “Lockdown, the Culture of Fear, and the Politics of the Future”, over the long haul this is in fact the most likely development, a return to the 19th century in terms of the political spectrum: authoritarian versus libertarian. For a variety of reasons I explain a bit in that post the same sectors of society who push Wokeness also don’t believe individual liberty or human autonomy is morally desirable. Until now this has been lurking in the background, but in the near future it will become the foremost battleground in politics.
This is an ideal development for libertarians, since if populist and radical libertarians wait in the wings the explicitly authoritarian ethos of the ruling class will drive a backlash toward an embrace of individual liberty by the aggrieved working class. At that point they will be very receptive to having their consciousness raised and becoming activists, intellectuals, ideologues, and voters for the libertarian movement. This will be stoked even more by the emergence of new technologies that are driving decentralization, privacy, and individual empowerment, taking us closer and closer to a condition of crypto-anarchy.
Diversity against Wokeness
The movement won’t just attract the white working class, either; ethnic minorities and a disproportionate number of immigrants will be drawn into the fold too. By the time this era dawns immigrants’ impulse to turn to the party of Wokeness to protect themselves from oppression or assimilation by a conservative power structure will be forgotten, having transformed into a desire for protection from a woke power structure oppressing the traditional cultures they came from and pressuring them to assimilate into its own norms.
The Woke won’t be able to resist the temptation to homogenize newcomers, and this is already happening in some settings. On the other hand, encouraging assimilation or restricting immigration will have become pointless for conservatives. Why even bother, when they will likely assimilate into being homogenized foot soldiers of Wokeness?
The self-defeating Demand for Assimilation
If anything it might be in the remaining conservatives’ interests to discourage assimilation in the future. American conservatives love to hate Ilhan Omar, but the striking thing about her is how thoroughly her politics is assimilated to Western ideologies such as Intersectional Social Justice. In the final analysis, which is a better ally for Western traditionalists in the struggle against Wokeness: an unassimilated Somali Muslim, or someone like Ilhan Omar?
This very factor, of assimilation trending toward Wokeness rather than conservatism, is likely why right-wing parties aren’t doing much worse with immigrants and ethnic minorites than they used to, despite their unfortunate turn toward xenophobia and opposition to immigration as the centerpiece of their politics. The drive to resist nativist domination isn’t working in left-wing parties’ favor as much as it used to.
The whole working class in all its diversity, not merely a particular ethnic segment of it, will need to be included if any working-class populist movement is to prevail in the future. This will especially be true if it is to be a libertarian populist movement.
The Benedict Option and Beyond
My brand of politics would flourish in this future, but what is the place of the conservatives and Christians who stay loyal as conservatism recedes from the center stage of politics, leaving only various minority groups and the hardcore ideologues to navigate a new world?
The restoration of their preferred social order necessarily involves reaction triumphing, which even optimistically will take some time. To nurture a base for future victory a strategy at least resembling Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, ideally a constellation of “Benedict Option” communities of a broader group of “culture war losers” as proposed by Handle’s Haus, will need to be employed.
In the meantime, ensuring the survival of a reactionary cultural orientation will depend upon a libertarian political orientation. Liberalism has always held the most appeal to the outsiders of society, those under threat from the power structure, and this will be as true for (former) conservatives, reactionaries, and Christians in the 21st century as it was for progressives, radicals, and Jews in the 19th century. This is already happening; those who embraced Donald Trump to protect themselves from persecution may well join the libertarian populist coalition in the future.
That might be the nearest to fusionism the politics of the future will get, and the kindest it will be to conservatism as we know it: a constellation of Benedict Option communities under the protection of a radical-libertarian crypto-anarchist populist movement, resisting a puritanical moralizing Woke power structure that explicitly seeks the diminution of human moral autonomy in favor of paternalistic authoritarianism on the grounds it makes a presumptively vulnerable constellation of communities traumatized, oppressed, and unsafe.
The future is a strange place, isn’t it? This is far from the only possible future, but I think it’s one of the likeliest, and certainly much more likely than people seem to think. People of all political orientations would all be served well by readying themselves to encounter it.