Comfortable and relaxed with conservative populism

This piece first appeared in Meanjin (Autumn 2018).

The last time identity played such an outsized role in Australian politics, then opposition leader John Howard famously stated his ambition for a country in which people should feel ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about the past, present and future. Howard’s phrase has been remembered because, for detractors and supporters, it captures something deep and resonant in the conservative idea of government. It is an idea worth revisiting now, more than 20 years later, as our politics again breaks down over claims of institutional and historic unfairness, and a conservative response that is, depending on how you look at it, either wilful complacency and disregard or an entirely understandable desire to be left in peace.

The purpose of this essay is not to rehash the meaning of Trump and Brexit, to muse about the collapse of the conservative establishment, or to declaim against any specific issue on today’s activist agenda. Instead, I propose to examine the philosophical debate that underlies the political back-and-forth. I will explore the struggle for recognition that animates identity politics. In the concept of recognition, progressives have found a cause to rally behind: differential institutional treatment of members of historically oppressed groups that enables those individuals to participate fully in society, thereby securing their dignity as truly equal citizens. Its absence is held to cause real harm. This is a strong claim that, if correct, implies a justification for the coercion, both state and cultural, of those who contribute, by act or omission, to the continued marginalisation of others.

The question, then, is whether anyone can in good conscience believe that the existing political and cultural institutions of our liberal democracy (which together I refer to as the social order) are preferable to a politics that prioritises the recognition of difference. Or, alternatively, whether such conservatism, indulging in comfort and relaxation not available to all, is an ongoing threat to equal citizenship and individual dignity, and must therefore be excluded from our politics and our society.

The politics of recognition

There are a number of related ideas in political philosophy that attempt to capture similar phenomena: the politics of recognition, the politics of difference, identity politics and multiculturalism are all concerned with how the institutions of the liberal democratic social order are prejudiced against those who were excluded from their formation, including racial minorities, women, immigrants and LGBTIQ persons. Members of disadvantaged groups, no matter what they do or achieve in life, are subject to unequal treatment by institutions that judge them by the standards and expectations of others. This institutional disrespect causes real psychological harm; it is even sometimes characterised as violence. Removing this bias is the highest goal of social justice, described as the maximum freedom that each person can enjoy equally.

This claim about justice should not be confused with formal equality, meaning a relationship between individuals and institutions that is always the same, no matter the attributes of the individual. The appearance of any institution as neutral in this way is illusory or deceptive. Neutrality perpetuates the bias encoded in the institution. Participation in society is vital to the formation of the self, and institutions, whether state or cultural, that do not recognise difference create homogeneity, preventing individuals from expressing their authentic selves. It is only differential treatment that can enable free identity formation and equal social standing.1

Moreover, because institutions can only be legitimate if they accord with each person’s authentic self-expression, they can only be legitimated by consent. The politics of recognition, then, turns on a particular conception of the value and practice of democracy.

Recognition rests on an ontological claim that descends to us from Rousseau via Hegel, Marx, the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School and communitarianism.2 The claim is that the self is constituted in society. The individual self is not a pre-political fact but, always and everywhere, an artefact of the culture in which it emerges. The autonomy of each self in society is dependent on all the others.

The freedom of this socially constructed self depends on there being a consonance between its preferences and those options that are present in society, brought about by the democratisation of the social order. On this account, structural oppression harms people by impeding their authentic self-expression. This is the self’s highest end, and enabling this expression is the goal of society. Radical democracy, then, is purposive, and rests on a normative claim about what is good for people.

Crucially, autonomy in this sense is not limited by the social order, but enabled by it. The distinction between negative liberty and positive liberty is eliminated. This distinction holds that we can conceive liberty negatively in the sense of freedom from the obstruction of our individual wills, or in the positive sense of being able to act in ways we choose.3 On the radical view, this distinction is untenable, since negative liberty is pointless, even impossible, without the conditioning and information contained in a culture. To make use of our ability to choose, we must have some means of exercising our will, some options among which to choose, and some reasons for choosing among them. Where it exists, negative liberty is a product of the social order, and constrained by it.4

It follows from this that there is no inherent distinction between private and public. The negative conception of liberty implies a space in individuals’ lives in which they are sovereign. But if freedom is a cultural artefact then that sovereignty is constrained by the general will from which it emerges and with which it must align. The private is a concession of the public. Autonomy comes not from having some space in which to act unimpeded, but from participation in the creation of the structures within which the will is exercised. The interplay between self and social order is dialogical, as is the relationship between the empirical reality of society and the norms by which it should live. This is why citizenship is the highest good: individuals necessarily live in society, and participation in the polity is the only way to secure justice, meaning autonomous individuals living in a society of their own choosing.

The objection might emerge that it is too strong a claim to link, via these steps, the politics of recognition with an essentially radical departure from liberalism as practised in Australia and other Western democracies. It might be proposed in the alternative that recognition does not depend on this account and can be reconciled with the less ambitious democracy that we have. Remember though that recognition is a response to the faults of that structure, and so naturally does not cohere with it. Even if we retain a pre-political liberal account of the self, as soon as we allow that the state has a role to play in enabling the dignity of each person—that is, we shift from negative to positive liberty—it follows that we must abandon a theoretically neutral state and adopt a more comprehensive idea of liberalism. After all, a liberal society requires liberals, so liberalism cannot be neutral towards itself.5 For recognition to do the work that activists want it to do, which is to convince people that it secures a vital interest, dignity, and therefore requires radical change to our social order, then it must be supported by a claim about the good that it secures.

This means that social justice is a prescription for how we are to interact with the state and with one another in everyday life. When activists say ‘The personal is political’, they really mean it. There is no distinction between law, custom and even rhetoric, and all parts of the social order, from the family to religion, to business and the state, must be remade in the image of justice, continually checked against the general will as manifest in activist democracy. Since the harm of misrecognition is conceived as violence, and since every action is political, the law should be used wherever possible to impose the desired outcomes upon people, but also norms and customs must change too. So, above all else, the politics of recognition requires omnipresent politics. Every act of every person is part of some grand discourse overseen by the state, the point of which is the realisation of social justice. History becomes a project of the bureaucracy.6

There is something dispiriting in this. Hegel’s children have abandoned the dream of transcendence; though words such as emancipation, liberation and justice redound down the centuries and into the politics of today, they are but husks. There is no eschaton, much less one that is immanent. We are all engaged in a never-ending remaking of the social order, with the only rules not subject to democratic revision being the rules of radical democracy. A rolling revolution, but one always contained in the same closed system of justice, like soft drink being shaken in a bottle.

The conservative response

The democratic vision is of a society with purpose: the realisation of social justice. Political reform (or revolution) can be justified rationally by deduction from the normative assumption that social justice is desirable, and progress against its attainment can be measured.

For as long as this rationalist agenda has existed, an anti-rationalist alternative has—with less and less success, it must be said—argued for an organic understanding of the social order as emerging from trial and error over several centuries. Rationalism is an intervention in this process, and substitutes the value of social justice for the preferences of individuals. Just as central economic planning fails for lack of information—market prices convey information about what people value—central social planning likewise suffers a knowledge problem: justice is revealed by the choices people make as they negotiate life with one another, and is therefore something known from observation, not from reason alone. The empiricist tradition holds that the social order contains valuable information about how people can cooperate with one another and the choices individuals should make to have good lives. Institutions that survive over a long period of time, such as the distinction between public and private and the corresponding right to exercise negative liberty, have been revealed to meet real human needs.7

On this traditional conception of the origin of the autonomous self, meaningful autonomy depends on access to a stable and unchosen social order.8 If every institution and every possible choice is an arbitrary product of the general will, then it is not possible for an individual to discern a difference between his own will and that of others. The concept of tradition, which imposes authority upon the existing arrangements, makes society an end in itself, not simply the means by which individuals achieve mutual liberation. This in turn enables the individual to separate him or herself from others and act autonomously. And it is this distinctive autonomy that engenders the empathy upon which moral equality is founded.

Radical democracy, with its goal of a consensual social order designed to support individual authenticity, makes each person of functional value to the others. It is only by mutual recognition that we each can live authentically. Moreover, we are called upon to recognise one another as we say we are. The politics of recognition, then, is not about empathic engagement with one another but merely about sympathy, the commiseration of our common struggle for authenticity. This should not surprise, as the words ‘consent’ and ‘sympathy’ have similar derivation, the one from Latin, the other from Greek: ‘feel with’, the preposition implying a separateness between subject and object. The divisiveness of identity politics, as conservatives see it, comes from the reification of identities through recognition of difference: the act of recognition creates estrangement, not unity.

By contrast, empathy requires each of us to take the perspective of the other, and that requires us to abstract from our experiences, past our differences, to that which we share. It is for this reason that the national identity is important—it represents a heuristic of what we have in common.9 We can imagine ourselves in each other’s places, and we can project that imagination into the past, to understand where our social order comes from (consider, for example, originalist jurisprudence), and into the future to address the needs of our children. This is the key idea of conservatism, that politics is, or should be, about unifying our identities as individuals and as communities, across the full temporal spectrum.10 In this way, tradition forms the background conditions against which we can live our own lives, coming together to help one another as we see fit. Democracy and its expansion of the idea of ‘public’ is damaging to social cooperation. It is precisely the private nature of people’s preferences, not presuming to choose for another, that enables a meaningful social order.

Populism and recognition

The conservative populism of recent years is a particular manifestation of conservatism. The populists’ concern is with maintaining the background conditions of their lives, meaning their ability to rely on their culture and values being shared by enough people across society to make day-to-day interactions more efficient and pleasant—in short, to be comfortable and relaxed. This is the content of their nationalism: to the extent that as individuals they benefit from the partiality of the social order to the historical national identity, this is fair enough so long as that is an identity anyone can adopt and share. Conservative populism defends the traditional social order, separating support for liberal institutions from any broader normative theory and its logical commitments. This explains why, for example, populists have rallied to the cause of free speech (a liberal institution) but have been suspicious at best about free trade (liberal economics).

Progressives have confused this idea of nationalism and common culture with racism and other forms of oppression, sometimes labelling it just ‘right-wing identity politics’. This misses a fundamental difference. Conservative populism is a claim about what we all share, or can share. Identity politics is about what we do not and cannot share.

Seen properly, conservative populism is the opposite of the politics of recognition. The normative claim underlying recognition is that it is necessary for equal participation in society and the good of individual dignity. But empirically, it seems that this is not true. Everyone who is not actively pursuing social justice, conservative or otherwise, has revealed other preferences, their own conceptions of the good. If participation in the formation of just institutions is not a social good that people prefer, it is not essential to their dignity.

This refusal of social justice is visible in the backlash against political correctness. In response to the deconstruction of old taboos and the creation of new ones, conservatives say, if we do not want to say the words, or ‘wear the ribbon’, you cannot make us. Defiant anti-PC reveals two important factors in conservative populism: that there are limits to people’s willingness to be implicated in enabling the positive liberty of others and a growing awareness that, in the age of easily coordinated activism, we always have minority rule in effect, a tyranny of the motivated.11

It does not follow, however, that all struggles for recognition can be rejected out of hand, just that differential treatment is not the proper remedy. Consider, for example, the extraordinary rate of incarceration of Indigenous Australians. One way to address this problem is to treat Indigenous Australians differently, through the use of specialist courts and requiring agencies to consider offenders’ cultural backgrounds. Alternatively, universal reforms can be implemented that nonetheless benefit Indigenous offenders to the same extent that existing policy settings disproportionately affect them. Similarly, focusing on access to justice rather than differential justice can likewise improve results without compromising on universal principle. The latter kind of reform reinforces our relationship to one another as expressed in the criminal law and its norms, and in turn does not disturb the background conditions of our shared social life.12

The conflation of conservative populism with racism, sexism and other forms of structural oppression is therefore misleading. It rests on the assertion that populists deny any problem of representation peremptorily, when really they may simply not like the proposed remedy, differential treatment.

Here the populists have the stronger argument. Structural oppression is demonstrated through statistical disparities. But the averages that these statistics produce may be meaningless. Someone can share the superficial characteristics of the supposedly privileged class but none of their advantages in reality. To attribute blame to those individuals for a statistical spread that is defined a priori as evil is, rightly, received by them as an insult. Contrary to the demands of social justice, it is more likely that, absent evidence of specific malice, disparate impact is not morally important at the individual level.

The combination of a normative claim about the positive social good of radical democracy combined with the empirical claim that revolution is the only solution to social disadvantage makes the social justice agenda dangerous. It relies on a notion of dignity that is wrong in principle and promotes coercion, justified by an association fallacy. Add to this that progressive rationalism is a form of central planning, such that our society is increasingly governed by anonymous bureaucrats whose purported expertise makes their preferences irreproachable, and conservative resentment is not just understandable but utterly vindicated.

The lesson from all of this is that conservative populism is not a vehicle for the perpetuation of privilege and oppression, but rather an expression of a basic human need, which is a stable social order that secures meaningful individual autonomy. This is what Howard was driving at all those years ago. The progressive, rationalist social justice agenda conflicts with this need by requiring positive participation by everyone in the remaking of all state and cultural institutions. This is not to say, however, that recognition, in the sense that individuals should be sensitive to one another, is worthless, only that it is not sufficient grounds for the radical agenda of which it is part. Put another way, it is not recognition that is the problem; the problem is, as always, rationalist coercion. No-one can force anyone else to feel a particular way. This is, both empirically and normatively, undeniable. •

  1. See Charles Taylor, ‘The politics of recognition’, in Taylor et al., Multiculturalism and ‘The Politics of Recognition’, edit. Amy Gutmann, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, pp. 25–73, especially §II; and Iris Marion Young, ‘Polity and Group Difference: A Critique of the Idea of Universal Citizenship’, Ethics, vol. 99, no. 2 (January 1989), pp. 250–74.
  2. There are meaningful distinctions to be drawn between the liberals, republicans, democrats and others who emphasise the importance of consent to the justification of the social order, but what is important for present purposes is the connection between recognition and a consensual social order.
  3. Isaiah Berlin, ‘Two concepts of liberty’, in Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, rev. edn, Oxford University Press, London, 2002.
  4. See Axel Honneth, ‘Negative Freedom and Cultural Belonging: An Unhealthy Tension in the Political Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin’, Social Research, vol. 66 no. 4 (Winter 1999), pp. 1063–77; and Jürgen Habermas, ‘Constitutional Democracy: A Paradoxical Union of Contradictory Principles?’, Political Theory, vol. 29, no. 6 (December 2001), pp. 766–81.
  5. See for example Brian Barry, ‘How not to Defend Liberal Institutions’, British Journal of Political Science, vol. 20, no. 1 (January 1990), pp. 1–14. We might want to temper the effect that a self-enabling liberalism has on non-liberals, in which case we need to grant them differential rights: see Will Kymlicka, ‘Liberal Individualism and Liberal Neutrality’, Ethics, vol. 99 no 4 (July 1989), pp. 883–905.
  6. In a recent discussion with Jordan Peterson, Camille Paglia bemoaned that following the radicalism of the 1960s, the activist left had become captured by those of a bureaucratic mindset, whose interest was in capturing and running public institutions such as universities, and not liberation. Available at <> (accessed 20 November 2017).
  7. For a good recent discussion of the empiricist tradition, see Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony, ‘What is conservatism?’, American Affairs Journal, vol. 1, no. 2, 2017. Friedrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty claims empiricism in the name of liberalism, not conservatism, but his description of tradition (pp. 107–32) will be familiar to conservatives, and is referenced in Scruton: F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2011; Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism: Third Edition, St Augustine’s Press, South Bend, 2014, p. 32.
  8. The radical democrat view still implies that at any given moment people will be living in a social order not entirely of their choosing, since the coordination between institutions and changing individual preferences cannot be instantaneous. The consolation presumably is the knowledge that one is engaged in the collective pursuit of a more perfect union. On the conservative view, you would do better just to get on with your own life. See Habermas (2001), where he discusses ‘constitutional discourse across the centuries’, p. 768.
  9. In economic terms, identity is an efficient way of facilitating exchange: if I can trust in who you are, then it is easier for us to trade.
  10. This is the meaning of Burke’s famous formulation of society as a partnership between the living, the dead and the yet to be born. One philosopher whose project is to develop a similar idea is Patrick Deneen, Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents, St Augustine’s Press, South Bend, 2016, chapters 6 and 7.
  11. Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that asymmetry is ever present in our society, and a motivated minority can impose its preferences on everyone else if the cost of that preference is lower to others than would be the cost of opposing the change. Since the cost of activism is highly dependent on one’s subjective tolerance for political effort, those for whom community organising is enjoyable or even tolerable have a distinct advantage: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, ‘The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority’,, 14 August 2016 (accessed 20 November 2017), <>.
  12. I discussed this issue in greater length in my paper Indigenous Australians and the Criminal Justice System, Institute of Public Affairs, Melbourne, August 2017, <>.