The future of conservatism looks uncannily like a return to its recent past. On both sides of the Atlantic the right is doubling down on libertarian economics and culture wars – a curious blend of Truss and Trump. But this is driven by panic and the failure to learn from errors in office, and it is self-defeating: the chaos unleashed by reviving libertarian economic policies will strengthen the case for technocratic solutions. Right-wing populism endorses the same broken market model that leaves millions of people disillusioned and alienated from politics. Mixing economic liberalism with social illiberalism intensifies what I have previously described as our anti-political age.
This right-wing revolution is not wholly new. Its origins can be found in the converging conservatism of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who in the 1980s extolled the virtues of the free market while insisting on traditional morality – faith, family and the flag, in the face of secular communism. Yet now, as then, the right fails to grasp that free-market economics undermines social customs and traditions.
Free-market capitalism is more destructive than creative, as both an ideology and economic system. By seeking everywhere to turn everything and everyone into a commodity, it disrupts the social order that Republicans and Tories used to conserve. Marriage, community and nation are subordinate to the free circulation of capital and the value of private choice in the global marketplace. This individualism undermines social solidarity. As Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Contemporary conservatives call that liberty.
Thatcher and Reagan’s capitalism, with policies of deregulating finance, liberalising trade and privatising public utilities such as water or the railways – is fundamentally promiscuous, as Maurice Glasman, the Labour peer and thinker, argued. Milton Friedman’s pursuit of short-term profit is in reality the quest for the highest possible rate of return at the fastest possible pace. As Glasman writes, “Once the returns begin to slow, [capital] seeks new partners that can deliver higher returns more quickly. When there are no constraints on the relationships it can initiate, and end, and when capital is the fundamental organising principle of the economy, the consequence for society is ruinous.”
Indeed, after decades of Thatcher and Reagan’s model, we are left with the deep scars of increasing inequality of income and assets. Regions like the North East in England and the Rust Belt in the US are devastated by the destruction of industry as well as unprecedented levels of loneliness; 18 per cent of British adults report that they feel lonely “always” or “often”.
Both British and American society are more diverse yet more fragmented, freer yet lonelier, more connected but less attached. Membership of local groups, volunteering, attendance of a church or engagement in community activities has been declining for decades. This reduction in social trust and communal cooperation is amplified and accelerated by people trying and failing to imitate connection online, and the echo chambers on social media. We are, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “alone together”.
The collapse of mass-membership organisations, from political parties to trade unions and religious groups reduces civic ties. This disconnection from democracy and society can be seen in support for strong leaders. Last year the British centre-right think tank Onward found that three-fifths (61 per cent) of the 18- to 34-year-olds agreed that “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections would be a good way of governing this country” while 46 per cent afreed that “having the army rule would be a good way of governing this country”.
Which brings us to the right-wing fascination with figures such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. On the economy, both Tories and Republicans offer little more than the prospect of tax cuts for the wealthy, spending cuts for the poor, and a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The Trump administration erected protectionist walls and engaged in a technology and trade war with China. For all the rhetoric about the people and a pro-worker economic agenda, Trump’s project is “neoliberalism in one country” that benefits the ruling class on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley.
On culture, the Anglo-Saxon right blames migrants and minorities for the breakdown of family and community when in reality poorly paid jobs, extortionately expensive childcare and austerity are to blame. Even the “New Conservatives” led by the Tory MPs Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, who are arguing for pro-family policies, end up siding with self-declared traditional Tories such as Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg or Lord Frost who are really culture-warriors-cum-free-marketeers. Farage and Priti Patel, doing the conga together at last week’s Conservative Party conference, have already won the ideological battle for the future of the Tories.
Defeat in the next election will hasten the Conservatives’ slide into market nationalism. “Thatcherism in one country” is no future for conservatism. And it would strengthen the very technocratic forces that prevent a robust political contest – our democracy depends on the latter.
[See also: Labour can’t prop up a crumbling settlement]