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‘Cultural Value and the Contradictions of Modern Conservatism’ by Simon Ravenscroft

When the idea of starting this curated blog project started to take shape in my mind, about a year ago, my hope was to achieve two aims: Firstly, I wanted to create a space where questions of cultural value, authority and policy might be explored away from the oppressive influence of the economic ‘monoculture’. F. H. Michaels in an accessible and compelling essay makes the case that each historical epoch is dominated by a particular idea which frames and influences the culture, society, and thinking of the time. If in the past religion and then science were examples of those powerful ideas, Michaels argues that, today, the dominant narrative is economic in nature: we live, today, in an economic monoculture, where all the important debates are taking place within frames, in concepts and according to values dictated by the intellectual imperialism of economic thinking. She suggests that, recognising the monoculture in action is a necessary first step in the process of developing new stories and powerful ideas. This blog is a small attempt to workshop and crowdsource non-monocultural thinking on arts, culture and their place in society. Secondly, I hoped the blog might offer a meeting place for people with overlapping interest but different occupations, perspectives and disciplinary backgrounds who might not otherwise find one another and share their thoughts with each other. This post is especially welcome because it very much ticks both boxes: it is the second, thoughtful contribution to the #culturalvalue Initiative by Simon Ravenscroft (the first being a reflection on the relevance of Ivan Illich’s notion of ‘disvalue’ to the cultural value debate), and it makes a new, rich and fruitful connection between philosophical scholarship and cultural policy debates via the consideration of the way in which, regrettably, perceptions of what is valuable have changed (in ways that confirm the monoculture thesis), over the past 30-odd years within the political tradition of conservatism. Enjoy!



Since the 1980s, and what might be termed the “neoliberal turn” in Anglo-American politics, so-called ‘conservatism’ has overwhelmingly become associated with a particular kind of market-based ideology (we will ignore for now the further spread of this ideology to those on the ‘left’, such as Clinton and Blair, in the 1990s and 2000s). This is the case most extremely in the U.S. (see below), but also in the U.K., and increasingly so under the austerity agenda of the Tory-led Coalition. In its rejection of ‘Big Government’, this form of conservatism aligns itself uncritically with the economic individualism of the marketplace. This gives rise to certain contradictions and incoherencies within conservatism itself.

There are contradictions, firstly, on the level of political rhetoric. According to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, ideology does not subsist on the level of conscious opinions but, as for Marx, on the level of practices and the unexamined assumptions which inform them. Conscious opinions can, however, be symptomatic of underlying ideological capture, and may be interpreted as such for the purposes of ideology critique. Straightforward contradictions on the level of opinion or rhetoric are ‘symptomatic’ in this way. Advocates of free market conservatism will often make two such contradictory arguments against ‘Big Government’:

  1. i.  that ‘Government’ is an inefficient and inept manager of resources in comparison to the market (public services must therefore be privatised so as to effect the most efficient allocation of resources in society); and
  1. ii.  that ‘Government’ is an efficient oppressor of the rights and freedoms of individuals, able to subdue and pacify an entire population with great skill if given the license (public services must therefore be privatised so as to limit the scope of the all-powerful State… a kind of grand conspiracy theory).

In short, ‘Government’ is at once an incompetent oaf and an evil super-villain-in-waiting (the object of both disdain and fear). Such a rhetorical contradiction is, for someone like Žižek, evidence of an underlying ideological premise to do with the coercive power of the market.

Further incoherencies are evident on the level of actual policy. We see this in the way a free market policy agenda can undermine traditional institutions such as the family, which conservatives claim to champion. In the United States, for example, long-established conservative opposition to government regulation means that the U.S. remains the only industrialised nation not to mandate in law any paid leave for mothers of newborns. American mothers are permitted 12 weeks of unpaid leave without their job being at risk, but nothing more (contrast the UK where mothers are permitted 52 weeks of leave, 6 weeks of which is paid at 90% of full salary, and a further 33 at a reduced statutory rate). Similarly, the U.S. is the only advanced economy not to mandate in law any paid vacation or holiday leave, leading to a situation where 1 in 4 American private-sector workers receive no paid leave at all, and the national average is 12 days (contrast the UK where the legal minimum is 28 days). It is not hard to determine which of these policy agendas best supports the needs of families in society. And yet the conservative defence of so-called ‘liberty’ against the ravages of ‘oppressive’ Government, or of sheer economic productivity, leads to a situation where labour laws are so incredibly weak that workers (who are also mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, partners, etc.) are placed at the mercy of their employers in order to be able to participate adequately in a family life, including in the care of a newborn child. ‘Liberty’, here, is for the employer alone, it seems, and there is little protection for worker’s rights against the ravages of an ‘oppressive’ and inhospitable labour market.

Such contradictions emerge because, in being co-opted by a neoliberal ideology which equates a free society with a free market, contemporary conservatives are blind to the very real way in which the market can undermine society’s non-economic institutions, including those (like the family) which conservatives have traditionally defended. By reducing that which is deemed ‘valuable’ to that which makes money, market ideology ignores and potentially devalues those spheres of human activity which have no direct economic benefit. This is regardless of what most people, and perhaps especially conservatives, might see as the social, cultural or even religious benefits of such activities and institutions (a publicly-funded art gallery, a public library, an undeveloped green space, a church, the family). It is of course here that our discussion impinges on the question of Cultural Value, and of social goods which perhaps cannot be measured in straightforwardly economic terms, but which nevertheless enrich the life of society as a whole, when understood in less reductive terms. While the contemporary political environment implies that such an agenda, which must in the present context appeal to Government intervention of one sort or another (in terms of funding, regulation, protection of cultural artefacts from certain kinds of commodification, etc.), is the concern of the political Left, I want to suggest that this needn’t be the case. And I speak here, for the sake of full disclosure, as a particular kind of socialist myself.

Indeed, it was not always the case that ‘conservatives’ were so infatuated with the market. Just one 19th Century example will suffice, here, that of John Ruskin. Ruskin was of course a Tory and a Victorian aristocrat. He was also, however, an art critic and champion of the working classes. His book Unto This Last was a vigorous conservative assault on the same kind of free market liberalism which conservatives today frequently champion. This was on the basis that to reduce the definition of ‘wealth’ to the merely economic is to have an impoverished conception of life, to reduce man to the status of a productive machine. Ruskin’s aesthetic sense showed him that the value of art and beauty, for example, does not lie in their profitability, but in the way in which they enrich human existence in less material ways. He criticises the political economists for setting their minds solely on “money-gain”, and remarks that “they are like children trying to jump on the heads of their own shadows; the money-gain being only the shadow of the true gain, which is humanity”. He continues with the famous dictum, “There is no wealth but life. Life including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings…”. That conservatism which seeks, like Ruskin, to conserve what it regards as the true, the good and the beautiful for the sake of society as a whole, will always be opposed in the final analysis to an exclusively economic ideology and policy agenda, and should be aligned with an initiative looking to defend cultural value. The incoherency of contemporary conservatism, both in the U.K. and U.S., is due to its forgetfulness of this heritage. The U.K. may have stronger labour laws than America, but the policies of the current coalition government are facing in the same direction as the American Right. Osborne’s austerity agenda recognises only material economic value, and supports only those activities which are profitable according to the logic of the market. In doing so, it risks undermining those cultural institutions which require public support, whether by way of direct funding or of market regulation, if their contribution to the life of the nation is not to be lost or diluted. He may bill his policy agenda as a necessary pragmatism (‘There Is No Alternative’), but mere economic expediency has only recently become the sole measure of value for ‘conservatives’, and it needn’t remain so, as Ruskin shows us. The question Ruskin would surely ask is whether the nation can ‘afford’ such an impoverishment of its cultural life, if it is to consider itself truly ‘rich’.



Simon Ravenscroft is an AHRC-funded doctoral student at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. He studies Philosophy of Religion in the Faculty of Divinity, where he is writing a dissertation on the social theory of Ivan Illich. His research is interdisciplinary, taking in theology, continental philosophy, political and social theory, economics, and social anthropology. He has previously had work published on Dante and scholastic economics, and the politics of American Evangelicalism.


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