Waleed Aly on conservatism

Waleed Aly, What’s Right: The future of conservatism in Australia (Quarterly Essay 37)

In the 1950s my parents subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post. I habitually started reading it from the back, because there were no cartoons in the front half. There are no cartoons at all in Quarterly Essay, but I usually start up the back here too, because that’s where I find responses to the previous issue, in this case 30 pages about Mungo MacCallum’s essay on Kevin Rudd, Australian Story. Katharine Murphy, national affairs correspondent for the Age, wins the Me Fail I Fly ‘I Wish I’d Said That’ Award for this:

The problem with Mungo is you can’t read anything he writes without feeling the need to agree with it on the spot, and wish you’d written it yourself. Reading Mungo is like resisting the pull of a great seducer.

That’s so much more grown-up and articulate than my own post-reading ‘Hmmm … But I enjoyed the ride.‘ Indeed the opening sentence of Mungo’s response to the correspondence does command assent:

The most interesting thing about all the correspondence my essay has provoked is the hugely different ways in which different people see Kevin Rudd.

[Editor Chris Feik and his Board apparently agree that the multiplicity of views on Kevin is interesting: QE 38 promises to give us yet another essay on the man, this time by David Marr.]

He then goes on to characterise each of the respondents: one ‘presents the standard view from the Right’, another is ‘a Labor insider’, a third speaks ‘from his position on the ideological Left’. This mode of analysis is fortuitously held up to a harsh light on page 1 of Waleed Aly’s essay, which of course I read after Mungo’s page 140. According to Aly, the terms Left and Right, ‘in spite of their ubiquity … are utterly meaningless and should be abandoned by anyone interested in having a substantial political conversation.’ The great seducer interrupted in flagrante?

Waleed Aly’s rejection of Left and Right as terms for political debate is not of course in response to Mungo MacCallum’s use of them. As he says:

For a long time I have been intrigued by the fact that I find myself in agreement with much conservative political philosophy, yet in consistent disagreement with politicians and commentators who call themselves conservatives.

The essay sets out to reclaim the ground currently occupied, one might say infested, though Waleed Ly is far too polite and reasonable to put it like that, by  neo-liberals and neo-conservatives. These politicians and commentators, he argues, have moved a long way from the conservative philosophy first articulated by Burke, and are in fact progressives in the sense that they are committed to moving towards an ideal world, albeit one from which most people who actually think of themselves as progressives would recoil in horror. I won’t try to summarise the argument. Much of it might be either glaringly obvious or obviously specious to anyone who has studied political philosophy, but to the general reader (that’s me!) it’s an education, and a pleasurable one.

Aly does a job in this essay that has needed doing for some time. He exposes the contradictions and fallacies in the utterances of the likes of John Howard, Tony Abbott, Nick Minchin or Kevin Andrews, but from a conservative perspective. He hoists them, as it were, on what they claim to be their own petard. ‘The conservative, ‘ he writes for example,

would certainly not run immigration at record levels (as the Howard government did) and then lecture its migrant population on what their values should be. That is especially true when it is done pursuant to a neo-liberal plan, where individuals are encouraged to use their mobility for entrepreneurial reasons, not cultural ones. The conservative takes the world as it is, not as she or he wishes it to be. And it is a world in which pluralisms in culture, politics and identity within a society are an inescapable and irreversible fact of life.

After taking his scalpel to the neo’s on multiculturalism, he moves on to the climate change ‘debate’, which he describes as ‘a fight to the political death’:

Of course, it is possible that climate-change activists are motivated more by their ideological commitments than by their trust in the scientific consensus. It is conceivable that staunch opponents of capitalism may leap on the opportunity climate change provides to argue for the destruction of the market’s political dominance. But it is also conceivable – and probably much more common – for climate-change believers to take their position based on trust in what they perceive to be conventional wisdom. Climate-change denialism on the part of non-scientists, by contrast, is always an ideological or an emotional process. The intellectual lengths required to sustain it are only feasible for those who have pre-existing reasons for wanting to deny it. That may be because its implications are devastating for one’s present livelihood – as might presently be true of certain farmers, or people working in high-emissions industries – in which case the response is probably emotional. Or it might be because it counters one’s deeply held views of the world, in which case the response is ideological.  … The simple fact is that neo-liberalism is incompatible with the politics of climate-change response. In order for neo-liberalism to be preserved, climate change must, in the first instance, be denied.

As you see, Waleed Aly is not a great seducer. He’s not out to win our assent by charm, or standover tactics, or appeals to team loyalty. On the contrary, he invites us to think with him.

It’s a quick read – just 105 pages. I recommend it.

Added on 30 March: Irfan Yusuf has an excellent review of this Quarterly Essay on New Matilda.

One response to “Waleed Aly on conservatism

  1. I really enjoyed Aly’s essay – a great read that illuminated a lot of current and recent past politics for me.


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