Whether you believe that Cameron’s Conservatives are tight-fisted Gradgrinds or financial geniuses, there is more to a party and to a country than its economic policy. Widespread prosperity is the cornerstone of any civilised society, but what use is a few more quid in our pockets if our culture is contaminated by poisonous assumptions about how the world works?
The way we think, act and relate to others is shaped by the dominant culture of the day. Unless you control the culture, it’s difficult to recommend ideas that fly in its face – which is why the Tories, despite their modest victories, are careful not to offend the liberal-left consensus. And is why all we have to look forward to from another Conservative government is more the same don’t-frighten-the-horses fudgery.
Conservatism lost the culture war precisely when it should have seized victory. When the Cold War ended, socialism was humiliated; but leftists get their kicks where they can find them and took refuge in identity politics, which satisfied the old urge for command and control, while avoiding the prickly issue of economic competence. This should have presented the Right with an open goal, but it fluffed its chance and put the ball in row Z.
Without an evil to define themselves against, conservatives struggled to sell their virtues to an electorate increasingly taking comfort and security for granted. People were content to register their moral worth through the politics of niceness, rather than the time-tested values of personal endeavour and self-restraint. Instead of challenging these assumptions, the Right responded by sliding leftwards, cravenly accepting many ‘progressive’ arguments and painting itself into a corner.
Having successfully defended its freedoms against the Communist threat, Britain surrendered them in the name of feeling good about itself. The Thatcherite revolution gave way to the ideology of ‘social justice’, which says that whenever anything bad happens, it’s the fault of someone more powerful and privileged than you. The person with the upper hand will always use it to slap you in the face and take what he wants, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
If you have a grievance, however slight, however irrational, it makes you part of a victim group, whose enemies enjoy advantages obtained at your expense. Got no money? Some rich dudes have taken your fair share. Haven’t made the grade? You’re a victim of elitist standards. Lonely and unpopular? Only because bullies decide what’s hot and what’s not. Unhappy with your lot in any way whatsoever? You’re probably a victim of sexists, racists, homophobes, big business, or one of the other oppressors in the ever-growing axis of evil.
There’s an obvious appeal to this delusion. It shifts the blame for our dissatisfactions onto those who have what we lack. It pardons our mistakes and turns our self-pity into righteous anger. It absolves us from even trying to succeed, because what’s the point when the system is skewed against you? It’s like the old excuses of ‘the Devil made me do it’ and ‘the dog ate my homework’ rolled into one.
This is a profoundly egotistical philosophy. It encourages us to do what we like and demand what we please, because the rules governing conduct and reward are assumed to be unjust. It allows us to take pride in the idealised image of what we might have been had the odds not been stacked against us. We can kid ourselves that, while we might not be successful by the standards of our tormentors, our refusal to collaborate in their corruption shows that we’re better people where it matters.
By this criteria, our grievances become proof of victimhood and, therefore, moral superiority. Prestige is found in failure and suffering, or in simply holding the right opinions. The more vulnerable you show yourself to be and the more solidarity you have with other vulnerable people, the more praiseworthy your are. Being a spokesman for the weak against the strong becomes a hassle-free substitute for accomplishing anything of value.
Behaviour that is likely to give you a competitive advantage, such as assertiveness and probity, is actively discouraged, because it upsets those who don’t want their perfect self-image embarrassed by other people’s achievements, and who don’t want their quest for inner freedom complicated by other people’s arbitrary standards.
But there is no freedom to be found here, because when vulnerability is our defining condition, freedom becomes a threat to our wellbeing. By trumpeting our helplessness, we invite the authorities to protect us from our weakness and from the whim of other people. We lose the ability to fight our own corner, confront harsh realities, or cope with opinions that differ from our own.
The most enthusiastic advocates of this ideology probably consider the destruction of personal liberty as a worthwhile end in itself. As Eric Hoffer put it, “People who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find a worthwhile purpose in self-advancement”, so they want to destroy the individualism that makes it possible. They see the state as an extension of their own egos and through their support of expert ‘solutions’, achieve a vicarious sense of power and wisdom.
Suffice to say, it is precisely these people who seek employment in high office and in the institutions that guide its policies. When we declare our helplessness, we invite them to frogmarch us through life, ostensibly for our own benefit, but actually to satisfy their lust for power.
Fortunately, most people aren’t like this. They don’t want to plot society’s downfall or be cogs in some municipal machine. They want to be ‘good’, though, and think this can only be achieved by going green, striking pro-underdog poses, and supporting a certain level of taxation. They have accepted the Left’s arguments and facilitated a society that rewards those who who satisfy them.
We now know where this leads: not to a happy-clappy Shangri-La, but an illiberal dystopia, full of prickly egotists, who think nothing of bulldozing hard-won freedoms, trashing important institutions and giving comfort to our enemies to protect their precious self-image and serve their bloated sense of entitlement.
It doesn’t have to be like this. There is another way. It doesn’t involve big, dumb initiatives that we can feel good about supporting, and it doesn’t promise to shower us with handouts and excuses. It means leaving people to their own devices, so they might reach accommodations with others and establish shared values. It calls for painful trade-offs, personal responsibility and living within our means. It’s not sexy or cool, but it works.
Until the Tories are willing to stand up for these values and strike a blow in the culture war, all they have to offer is a slightly slower descent into madness.