Conservatism in South Africa is a Misnomer

If you think you’re conservative, you probably aren’t. This isn’t your fault. Well, not completely. You are, like most people under the American cultural hegemony, a victim of the assertion of American political language on contexts that are unrelated to it. Most South Africans with...

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Abantu Book Festival Books Library Books Words Library Conservatism

If you think you’re conservative, you probably aren’t. This isn’t your fault. Well, not completely. You are, like most people under the American cultural hegemony, a victim of the assertion of American political language on contexts that are unrelated to it.

Most South Africans with some political know-how will recognise that American politics tends to damage our understanding of ideology and politics. Years back, I witnessed fallist protesters refer to black South Africans as a minority in South Africa, because the fallists had been following BlackLivesMatter protests in the US, absorbed the rhetoric, and not actually known what it meant.

Fallists aren’t the only ideologues guilty of such misappropriation. Many otherwise intelligent South Africans import political ideas from the US and then apply them where they are totally irrelevant.

A big example of this is people thinking that liberal means opportunistic, mass-party socialist – as it is used in the US. But in the sane world, liberal has a specific and alternative meaning. A supporter of liberty, reason, and the importance of the individual spirit.

But this article isn’t about defending the term liberal. There are many articles on the Rational Standard that do just that. Rather, this article aims to critique the use of the term conservative in the South African context, and hopefully usher in a day when we don’t use it anymore.

What is Conservatism?

So, what is conservatism? In the US, which has informed many of our local so-called conservatives, a conservative is someone who upholds individual liberty, reform over revolution, and free markets. But this definition comes from a particular context. In the US, the political orthodoxy created by the Founding Fathers was one of limited government, free markets, and individual rights.

People who want to conserve this orthodoxy are called conservatives.

Conservatives in the US are conserving the ideologies of classical liberalism, constitutionalism, and (in some cases) the idea of a Christian society. But this is all specific to the United States.

A South African conservative is none of these things. We do not have a political orthodoxy of individual rights. We have colonialism, Apartheid, and ANC opportunism. There is no decent political heritage to uphold in this country.

The essence of conservatism is about conserving either an existing status quo, or a recently abolished status quo (even though, technically that would make them reactionaries by definition).

Conservatism is not an ideology. It’s a temporal position. There are no universal principles that bind, let’s say, an Afrikaans and Zulu conservative together. Because the principles of conservatism are not based on principles. They’re based on a preference for a particular time and place.

And that is why there are no real South African conservatives. Unlike the US, South Africa has no united political or cultural origins. Even an Afrikaans conservative could be anything from desiring a decentralised system of cultural communities, to wanting to bring Apartheid back.

The dangers of the conservative label is that there are no true definitions to define what you believe. From person to person, conservatism is different. And that diversity isn’t a virtue. It eliminates any use the label of conservative can have in this country (and many parts of the world, for that matter) or in discourse generally.

Conservative Critiques of Liberalism

Despite the fact that they do not exist, many local conservatives who would otherwise be sympathetic to classical liberalism have a lot of critiques of liberalism. As one of the core goals of this article is to convince these self-identifying conservatives to identify as classical liberal or libertarian instead, I will be pre-empting the critiques.

“Liberalism is Against Community”

A common attack that local conservatives have against liberalism is that it is apparently anti-community. Many conservatives have started to identify as communitarians, an ideology that purports that cultural groups should have their own rights. Many local conservatives have started to identify community as a rallying part of their ideology.

The problem with this critique is that liberals are not anti-community. Almost no ideology is. Political ideology, for the most part, is a guiding principle for group action. No half-way sane ideology condemns community. Liberals identify community as an important bedrock for society, and an important tool to defend individual liberty. We are stronger together. And there is no free market without other people to trade with.

Liberals have no problem with communities. But unlike collectivists, we believe that communities exist for the betterment of the individual, and not the collective itself. The individual is the essential component of community, and without the individual, there is no community. So, we rather view community as a sum of individuals than an independent entity itself. This is not to say communities aren’t organic or extremely important; it is simply an observation of factual reality.

Communitarians see it differently. They posit that cultural groups are important as an entity with an independent existence, and they must be protected and granted their own political rights to practice their culture without intervention.

This has resonated with many minority groups in South Africa, who see it as a way of escaping the absolutism of South Africa’s central government.

But they haven’t thought it through. Communitarianism isn’t an ideology of freedom. It’s an ideology of cultural elites who use the privileges of granting rights to something as vague as a culture to oppress its members.

Communitarianism isn’t merely decentralised community. It’s the idea that Muslim communities should be allowed to practice Sharia, that the Amish can disallow their members from leaving their archaic practices, that Hindus can reinstate Sati (a ritual where widows are burnt on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands).

Communitarianism allows cultural groups to get away with atrocities, at the expense of the individual and at the expense of other communities within that community. It lays the foundation for the South African “community” to get away with oppressing minority communities, “for the greater good”. Communitarianism is not an ideology that should be defended by any rational individual.

“Liberalism is Vapid and Progressive”

A lot of local conservatives criticise liberalism as being vapidly forward-thinking and embracing trendy ideas like progressivism. The problem with this critique is that, like conservatism, progressivism isn’t a real ideology either. It’s fully contextual. A progressive in Iran could look like a full-blown American conservative. As such, conservative and progressive are useless terms in describing universal ideologies with transcendent principles.

Liberalism can be a universal ideology because it has such principles. Individual liberty, the notion of rights, reasonable and just society. This has nothing to do with an inevitable march to some sort of preordained future. It is completely to do with the principles that guide what we believe society needs to function. The communitarian idea that the community should be sovereign is also a transcendent principle, so the usual conservative criticism against liberalism for being universalist is also a non-starter.

But the negative rights and duties of liberalism are insufficient for a lot of conservatives. They want meaning. They want to be told what to do. This misses the point of liberalism. Liberalism is an admission of the fallibility of humanity. That none of us know the right way. And even if we did, that we should not give anyone the power to impose that right way upon others still trying to discover it for themselves.

Liberalism acknowledges that it is a slippery slope down the road to serfdom, and that it is more important to allow people to seek their own virtue than it is to impose universal virtue on the masses.

“Liberalism is weak”

It’s ironic that liberalism is seen as weak by almost all ideologies, when all ideologies have collapsed once upon a time. Nothing is indestructible. Everything falls. But despite this, liberalism persists. It falls, and gets up again, proving a resilience that cannot be boasted by monarchism and many other reactionary ideas.

The weakness of liberalism is its tolerance of its enemies. But no reasonable conservative will openly support throwing non-conservatives in jail either. Because liberalism has been so pervasive that it has taught us to use our words, rather than our guns.

This doesn’t mean that liberalism can’t protect itself, however. And it does. I do believe that liberals need to be more vociferous in our defence of our principles and attacks on our foes. We should consider being more aggressive against those who are openly threatening harm to innocents. Liberals should rediscover the fact that the right to bear arms, and the right to overthrow oppressive governments through violence, are historically liberal phenomena.

As we prosecute people on the basis of planning to commit a crime, we should expand that to political crimes. If we knew someone was planning to steal our property and kill us, we’d get them arrested. The same logic should be applied to fascists and socialists. They can entertain their ideologies in a theoretical sense, but when they become a practical threat to our freedom, they cease to merely be academics. They become criminals.

Liberalism doesn’t need to be weak. It was confident and self-assured before. And it can be so again.

Conclusion on Conservatism

Many South African conservatives and liberals have more in common than not. Usually, the debate is over misunderstandings and matters of technicality more than actual disagreement.

Being a liberal doesn’t mean you have to give up your personal religion or beliefs. On the contrary, liberalism is the perfect ideology to protect your rights to believe those things.

Like the left/right paradigm, we need to abandon the idea of conservatism in South Africa. It doesn’t really mean anything. Rather, identify your actual political beliefs and use that label. There is no shame in being a liberal in the classical sense, or a libertarian with a conservative personal outlook. Call yourself one and become a part of one of the most prestigious and positively influential political movements the world has ever seen.

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  2. Williamson M. Evers Reply

    But see sociologist Robert Nisbet and also the pluralists (who were a kind liberal communitarians)

    1. Nicholas Woode-Smith Reply

      Interesting. I wouldn’t consider pluralists as communitarians, though. Separation of powers, multicultural associations, a free market and other ways of decentralising power and ensuring a non-supreme state are much better than allowing the impunity of cultural-community elites.

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