Conservatives and change
March 5, 2016 3 Comments
Change happens, it is a permanent ‘given’, and one of the reasons capitalism has brought more people out of poverty faster than anything else have ever done, is that the pace of change is fast – very fast. So fast that it leaves many conservatives behind. Those of us who grew up, as I did, near a mining community and near steel works watched as those industries declined and fell. In the UK we had systems of state subsidies, but these reached the point at which money was being poured in simply to keep, we were told, inefficient producers in a job; so they closed – and the public purse ended up having to support men and their families. I wasn’t sure then, and don’t have the economic background now, to know if that was a good deal – it looked then, and does now, like simply transferring public money from one place on a budget line to another. But it meant the destruction of the life of these communities. Although these places voted for the Labour Party, in defence of their jobs they were behaving like good conservatives – what’s the good of some abstract concept like ‘the economy’ prospering if me and my kind are impoverished and damaged. The hand-loom weavers of old London felt the same when the new steam and water powered mills came in and undermined their business model. Economic and social change on the scale our economies have seen since the late eighteenth century has been unprecedented – and shows no sign of stopping.
There has always been a conservative critique of free market capitalism, which, after all, at least here in the UK, originated in liberal circles. Where landowners owned something you could touch and required good working relationships with your tenant farmers, the early capitalists owned buildings and processes and could regard workers as dispensable resources; it was, after all Conservative Governments in the UK which brought in laws restricting the number of hours that could be worked and which prevented young children being exploited; the capitalists regarded these things as dangerous restrictions on their freedom. It was regulated capitalism, especially after the Second World War, which presided over the huge boom in prosperity which has latterly begun to stall. That’s one reason why here and in the USA, middle class people are angry – capitalism has not delivered, not enough has ‘trickled down’, and the bankers, who caused the crisis, have not suffered, but the people who had to bail them out have.
The French historian and social commentator, de Tocqueville, said the real revolutionary moment in society came when people saw there was a chance of things getting better, but then they stalled. Prosperity created a class of educated young people who, deprived of the sort of employment they had expected, would turn to agitation and revolution instead. That revolution might even be cast in conservative form – a call to protect the past from an uncertain future. There is much the ‘Green Movement’ and in the ‘feel the Bern’ surge which speaks to these kinds of conservatism disguised with radical slogans. Stop the world, we want to get off is an understandable reaction – we have, perhaps, all been there. But it won’t stop, and if the course of change continues to deliver not enough opportunities from bright young people, and for that matter, brighter older ones, then the seeds of political instability will sprout.