Nick Timothy is the author of Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, and a former Downing Street Chief of Staff.
What Timothy is talking about is similar to the critique of Classical Liberalism that Patrick Deneen and other Christian thinkers have advanced. Liberal theory derives ultimately, as we recently discussed, from the philosophical skepticism that has become--beginning in the late Middle Ages--the default public philosophy of the West. Basically, the chain of thinking is simply this: If Man is unable to definitively know reality--and especially not the objective reality of human nature--then the ultimate reality can only be each atomistic individual, who creates for himself his own reality. The "state of nature", then, is every man for himself against all others. That being the case, human life in a "state of nature," is likely to be, in the famous phrase of Thomas Hobbes, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Out of sheer fear, then, civil society arises through a "social contract": to avoid the unpleasant consequences of the state of nature, men band together in a contract to maintain order and peace. But note well: this solution has nothing to do with human nature as such, which remains an essential unknown. It is an artificial contrivance that happens to suit most people, but it is not in and of itself a moral good, because in a philosophical skepticism there can be no objective moral laws. (As a brief aside, the truth of all this can be seen also in the increased politicization of science generally, as Liberalism ever more explicitly works out its presuppositions in actual practice.)
By contrast, the Christian view is that Man is able by reason to arrive at an objective knowledge of reality, therefore of the essential attributes of human nature, and then to work out an objective moral order that is based on the good of human nature. Morality and human society are "natural," based on the objective order of human nature, and are good in and of themselves. There is no such thing, in the Christian understanding, of a state of nature based on individuals because we are able to objectively know that all men share a common human nature. Civil society arises from the objective reality of human nature, beginning with the basic unit of the family--not the individual. In as state of nature man exists in solidarity with others.
Since Liberalism rejects this Christian understanding of reality on principle--both the left liberalism that we know, generally as Socialism, and the right liberalism that is known as Classical Liberalism or Libertarianism--it comes as no surprise at all that the cultural hegemony of Liberalism in the West increasingly refuses to attach meaning to the realities of human life, of male/female complementarity, and of the family. Thus we find even "conservatives" led down the same slippery slope of moral relativism as "liberals," even to the point this past week of espousing the astonishing notion that our sexual identity is whatever we choose to make up.
Now, with that introduction in mind, here is Timothy pointing out that the crisis of the West cannot be pinned solely on the Left. True, the Left has historically been more inclined toward a radically explicity abolition of human nature (think of C. S. Lewis' classic, The Abolition of Man), but Right liberals are now in a race to the bottom as well. "Conservative" theory, as we have been led to believe it to be, has contributed greatly to our crisis. Timothy's article may lack something in theoretical rigor (e.g., what exactly does he mean by "conservative", etc.) but I think he's painting a picture of our current state that may sharpen our own understanding of what we're faced with in this crisis. Of what paths may lead us out of our current dead end, and which will relegate us to digging our way into a deeper hole.
One additional thought--any resemblance between what Timothy is saying and the policy path Trump has chosen is surely no coincidence.
Liberal theory starts by imagining a state of nature: a world that never existed, could never have existed, and leads liberals to a wholly unreal view of human nature. And yet as we reach its logical conclusion, ideological liberalism is causing the fragmentation of society, the emasculation of government, and a life, for many, that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and increasingly short. Liberals are bringing about the state of nature their theorists invented and sought to escape.
In other words, the liberal state of nature is, in reality, a state of anti-nature--an artificial construct that works against the good of human nature, and thus devours human individuals by forcing them to live outside a natural solidarity with his fellows.
Across the West, mass protests, demonstrations and acts of public disorder have ended the lockdowns and social distancing rules established to protect us from the pandemic. In America, the Black Lives Matter movement is campaigning not to reform the police, but abolish it. In Seattle, the Capitol Hill Organised Protest has created an alternative and autonomous community covering several blocks of the city. In Britain, left-wing thugs have attacked the police, desecrated war memorials and pulled down statues, while right-wing mobs have hit back. In Dijon, France, heavily armed gang members took control of the city before specialist, armed police units drove them away.
This is more than a response to the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We are experiencing the consequences of decades of liberal policy – economic and cultural – that have brought about inequality and social dislocation and destroyed the institutions and traditions that forge a common identity and purpose beyond our differences of ethnicity, age, class and gender.
On the right, market fundamentalists, following Hayek and Friedman, insist we must wait for the invisible hand of the market to bring relief to communities benighted by deindustrialisation and economic decline. But those who live in the struggling towns and cities of the North and Midlands of England, or America’s Rust Belt, would be forgiven for retorting that the invisible hand might well be invisible because it does not exist.
Of course market economies are superior to their socialist, planned alternatives. But economic decline and division shows us that the pure, unregulated market isn’t always right. Just because the market usually is the most efficient way of allocating resources does not mean it is the fairest way of doing so.
Markets often suffer from a lack of information available to sellers and buyers. Just like with the financial crash, traders might not understand the complexity of the product they are trading. Businesses might not comprehend the negative externalities of their actions. Companies might be able to exploit the absence of competition in a market to fix prices. And with international trade, the market price might not account for state support and subsidies enjoyed by foreign competitors.
And yet market fundamentalism has dominated economic policy for decades. In both of our countries, manufacturing jobs have been transferred east, mainly to China. Workers receive a lower share of the gains from productivity improvements compared to decades gone by. The labour market is becoming hollowed out, with mid-skilled and middle-income jobs disappearing. In Britain and America, income inequality has widened and economic insecurity, even for those in work, has increased. In the words of a British economist, “inheritance is probably the most crucial factor in determining a person’s overall wealth since Victorian times.”
On the left, meanwhile, cultural liberals are turning Western society upside down. Under the influence of postmodernist thinkers like Michel Foucault, they believe that discourse is oppressive: language, customs and traditions all exploit the weak and prop up the powerful. Even victims of the powerful participate in their own oppression through their own language, stories and assumed social roles.
And so the old ideal of equal political and civil rights is not enough. Cultural liberals believe oppressive discourses perpetuate exploitative hierarchies, so they end up penalising people who share the characteristics of those at the top. Because power lies with white men, whiteness and masculinity must now be attacked. Because we do not understand how our social roles are constructed, we do not understand even our own words. So those who hear us, especially oppressed groups, understand better than us the true meaning of what we say. And because discourse is a form of violence, violence is a legitimate response to language.
As a result, the customs, norms and institutions that once brought us together are no longer venerated, but assaulted as bastions of oppression. And so the bonds between us are destroyed. In place of a cohesive society, with common habits, symbols and traditions, we are reduced to membership of fragmented groups defined by racial and gender identities that inevitably conflict with one another.
And so from both right and left – and the so-called moderate centre too, which manages to combine a belief in market purity and individualism in social matters, while accepting the reductive and destructive premise of cultural liberalism – our sense of community and solidarity is under attack. Thanks to liberalism, the war of all against all described by the state of nature theorists is, ironically, becoming our reality.
Yet this slide into chaos is not inevitable and it is not too late to make a stand. Conservatives – bewitched for too long by liberal philosophy and liberal economics in particular – need to rediscover the essence of their own creed.
True conservatives, liberated from liberalism, understand that there is more to life than the market, more to conservatism than the individual, and more to the future than the destruction of cultures and nations. If we accept this reality, and confront the destruction brought about by unchallenged liberal policy, we can start to make the world a better, if not perfect, place. We can discover the solutions to our problems, and we can – like generations of conservatives before us – rebuild our communities, remake our nations, reimagine our futures, and succeed and prosper.