Note:The following is the full text in English of an interview conducted by Moritz Schwarz for the German weekly periodical, Junge Freiheit. A full-page interview, it was conducted in English and subsequently translated into German and edited down to fit. The interview appears on page 3. The occasion is the publication by Antaios of a collection of essays by me in German translation, titled Warum Konservative immer verlieren [Why Conservatives Always Lose].
Mr Kurtagic, why do “conservatives always lose”, as the title of your new book, which has just been published in German, suggests?
We need to look at what conservatives are conserving. Generally speaking, conservatives want to conserve the status quo. Faced with the Leftward push for change, they want to slow down a bit, or take a few steps back. A few steps back usually means the previous election, or the last time they were in power. Sometimes it means going back a generation or two, by which point mainstream opinion considers them far to the Right, even within their own parties. Meanwhile, our current political dispensation, certainly in the Anglo-American world, has been liberal for the past three hundred years or so. In this context, a conservative today is a liberal, albeit a slightly antiquated, nostalgic, or backward-looking one. Like all political ideologies, liberalism has an inbuilt logic that sets the direction in which it fulfils its possibilities. The reason conservatives always lose is that while they seek to slow down, stop, or reverse the change that liberalism brings in the fulfilment of its possibilities, they still accept the fundamental premises of liberalism—and in modern times also some of the Left’s—so they have no arguments other than those based on fear, which means that they are effectively answerless whenever challenged. Besides fearful, it also makes them seem unimaginative, boring, cowardly, irrelevant, and anti-intellectual.
Since 1945, conservative governments have been in power in most western countries the majority of the time. In spite of this, “the dominant political outlook in the West has drifted ever ‘Leftwards’” during the post-war period, as you say – why do you think that is?
Alexander Dugin has pointed out that there were three political theories in modernity: liberalism was the first one, the oldest and most stable; Marxism was the second, which was a critique of classical liberalism; and fascism / National Socialism together were the third, which were a critique of the first and second. Politically, the third was defeated in 1945 and the second in 1989, leaving only liberalism.
Liberalism and Marxism are the ideologies we need to examine here.
Liberalism is the political philosophy and ideology associated with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Malthus, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, etc., etc., etc. It’s historical subject is the individual, who in liberalism is the measure of all things. The idea behind the liberal project is to ‘liberate’ the individual from anything that is transcendent or external to him (tradition, authority, religion, race, etc.); the individual is sovereign and makes his way in the world through the use of his reason. The liberal worldview is defined by individualism, egalitarianism, universalism, democracy, secularism, materialism, economism, and progress.
Marxism is a radically egalitarian ideology and its fundamental critique of liberalism was that it failed to deliver on its promises of equality—liberalism fostered a capitalist system that created self-perpetuating social hierarchies. Marxism attained political power mostly in the East, but it was always active in the West, as a constant pressure on liberalism coming from academia and political activists. In the East, Marxism was able to impose itself with brute force, but in the West it was forced to adopt a different strategy, and developed a moralising tone: Marxist critiques of liberalism in the West are invariably couched in ‘enlightened’ moralising language. This was effective because liberalism shares with Marxism the core idea that equality is an absolute moral good, and this makes it very difficult to oppose calls for greater equality. If equality is good everywhere and always, more of it can only be better, right?
Of course, the excesses of a particular government between 1933 and 1945, served as justification for moving further in the opposite direction.
Now, by the time Marxism died politically, much of its critique of liberalism had been absorbed by liberalism, which is why modern liberalism differs from classical liberalism. In absorbing this critique—a process mediated by the Frankfurt School and the New Left in general, with support from sympathisers in academia and the media from the 1930s through to the 1960s—classical liberalism, which had emphasised liberty, gave way to a form of liberalism that emphasised equality. Modern liberalism is radically egalitarian, just like Marxism. Against his background, it should not be at all surprising that the drift has been Leftward, and that conservatives have, despite electoral victories, proven ineffective as a force of opposition, and found themselves having (or preferring) to adapt and accommodate in the face of this drift, which is kept going on an issue-by-issue basis by the Left, in order not to rule themselves out altogether at the ballot box.
You consider the left and the right to be no more than variants of liberalism. If that’s true, is there any such thing as conservatism?
We suffer from a confusion in terminology. Our political language comes from the French Revolution, the terms Left and Right reflecting the seating arrangements at the French National Assembly. Left meant supporters of the revolution (i.e., liberalism), Right meant supporters of the ancien régime. With the Leftward shift of our political system, in conventional terms Left has come to mean Marxism (a form of anti-liberalism), liberalism has come to mean modern (i.e., radically egalitarian) liberalism, and Right has come to mean conservatism (classically leaning liberalism). Liberalism is, in our time, in the centre. Run-of-the-mill conservatives often use the terms “the Left” and “liberals” interchangeably or almost interchangeably. This is certainly the case in the Anglo-American world. I suspect that by ‘conservative’ you mean something other than liberal. In this sense, from the point of view of electoral politics, the answer is probably a qualified no, in the sense that any genuinely anti-liberal party not on the Left will be tiny and little more than a protest vote or a sort of pressure group. For the reasons that I will get into later on, to be engaged with a genuine, non-Left alternative to liberalism, one has to be involved at the level of metapolitics. The latter level offers many options, however, from discussion groups and theoretical academic work to involvement in popular culture, which is today an important theatre in the culture war.
In Germany, many people currently support the new Euro-critical party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD, Alternative for Germany). Just to give you an idea of their political agenda, party leaders say their objective include leaving the Euro and stopping the transfer of national sovereignty to Brussels and they refer to David Cameron’s EU policy as a model for their own policies. – What would these conservatives need to do to make sure they don’t “lose”?
The AfD looks to me like a conventional conservative political party, in the modern sense. David Cameron is notoriously liberal, it has to be said, and is committed to radical egalitarianism. It bears thinking that David Cameron’s Conservative Party has been governing in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and that 16 to nearly 20 years ago the then Liberal Democrat sought to work closely with Labour. All three main parties here agree on the fundamentals, which are liberal fundamentals. That’s why they are called ‘centre Right’ or ‘centre Left’. The Conservatives today may wish to be more fiscally conservative and may be less keen on centralised state regulation, but its philosophical principles are the same as the parties nominally to the left of it.
There is no real answer to your question because the AfD seems a perfectly acceptable option for someone who is committed to liberalism, but who simply disagrees with some of the economic policies of the other liberal politicians, and would like to make a mild protest without disagreeing fundamentally with the status quo. As is typical in liberalism, economics has a central role.
According to you, “anyone dreaming of 'taking back his country' by supporting the conservative movement … is wasting his time.” Does that mean any enterprise such as the AfD is doomed from the start? Why would you say that?
As you have described them to me, and as I see them described, such a party may have a perfectly adequate role in the current political landscape, but that role is within a liberal framework, and is not what those who talk about ‘taking back their country’ mean by it, which is more radical than simply leaving the Euro. Those who talk about ‘taking back their country’ think in terms of anything from returning to the conditions of 50 years ago—or an imagined idealised version of them—in terms of values and the ethnic composition of the citizenry, to a return to a more classical form of liberalism, to the wholesale deprecation of liberal politics (classical or modern). Aspirations depend on who is using that vague catch-all phrase.
You also claim that “triumphant liberalism is made possible by conservatism, while triumphant conservatism leads eventually to liberalism.” Can you explain?
Conservativism offers no real opposition to liberalism, only a temporary attenuation of its more radical forms. This allows people time to adjust, or become accustomed to, change that has already occurred. However, the processes instigated by liberalism don’t stop; they continue, only a little more slowly. Overtime, however, these processes have add up to noticeable change, causing the existing categories and ways of doing things to seem antiquated, no longer fit for purpose, or simply irrelevant. Sometimes people simply get bored. This gives rise to a desire for ‘modernisation’, which means a temporary period of mildly radical liberalism. So we get a pattern in politics of centre-Left, centre-Right, centre-Left, centre-Right, with a continuing Leftward creed, and no real change in the fundamentals.
If you are right, conservatives lose because they deserve to lose, even though they don’t do anything wrong. That sounds as though you think conservatism itself is a political error. Please explain.
Not an error if you are a liberal, as I have defined it above. If you are not a liberal, however, then conserving the status quo, or wanting to slow down a bit or go back a step or two is indeed a political error, because that is not opposition to liberalism, but rather support for it.
You reject conservatives and reactionaries, and instead champion what you call “traditionalism”. Where is the difference between them? What would distinguish a “politics of traditionalism” and “traditionalist” parties from conservative politics and parties?
As previously stated, conservatism seeks to conserve the status quo, and I reject it for that reason: it is museological and necrophiliac. A reactionary reacts against change that has already occurred and wants to return to the state prior, and I reject it because I prefer action to reaction—action puts you in control, because you are the initiating agent; reaction puts the opposition in control, because the opposition is the initiating agent. I prefer to think in terms of tradition. Firstly, because it represents a point in a continuum that stretches into the past but also looks towards the future, since the tradition is no tradition unless it is actively continued. Secondly, because it is open to innovation—when you work ‘within a tradition’, you are not necessarily always repeating a ritualised procedure: you can add to it, or further develop what is there. Thirdly, because it links past and future, and offers dynamism and possibility, while still maintaining a framework within which one can find meaning, purpose, and direction.
At this point I’d like to stress that when I use the term traditionalism, I mean it in a broader sense, which is not restricted to Guenonian or Evolian traditionalism (although these critiques of modernity are useful).
Why do you think that thinking in terms of left and right stands in the way of tradition coming into to the fore? Why do we need to challenge it?
I think the answer to this question is contained in my reply to question 3, but the topic deserves elaboration. The Left-Right paradigm was defined by a revolution in which liberalism achieved political power. Therefore, the paradigm, the political landscape, was defined by the establishment of a liberal dispensation, which has left the opposition defined negatively—as a negation of liberalism, rather than as the proposition of something else. We will never get anywhere by adopting a negative identity, because people generally despise negativity and what it signifies: weakness, naysaying, tediousness, depression, lack of energy. People prefer vitality, dynamism, energy, creativity, sense of purpose. Hence, we need to think in terms of what we are for rather than what we are against. (Of course, defining what we are against is also necessary, but it is only one side of the equation). We will not have escaped liberalism until the Left-Right paradigm, and the terminology associated with it, has become meaningless and irrelevant.
The AfD is attempting to fight the left v. right logic as well. But the truth is that this concept of right v. left works – that’s why it is still in use today. And any party that tries to avoid conforming to it risks confusing and alienating the voters, who tend to think in exactly these categories. How would you be able to communicate successfully with the voters if they can’t identify where you stand politically?
Modern political philosophy, and thereby electoral politics, remains founded on egalitarian ethics, and has been since the 18th century. That ethics sets the parameters of what is politically possible, so it any party seeking to win elections today would be ill advised to step beyond those parameters. This is why we cannot vote ourselves out of the current system. The system perpetuates itself. Change has to begin in the periphery, on the outside, and it has to occur first at the abstract theoretical level—at the level of ethics, or moral philosophy; at the level of first principles.
Now, because we live in a time of triumphant liberalism, to the point that, in the absent of any serious political challenger, liberalism is no longer political, but rather a practice that everyone takes for granted, it is common for liberalism and the West to be treated as nearly synonymous. In a broad sense, and often from the perspective of non-Westerners, to be liberal is to be Western, and to be Western is to be liberal. This leads many to assume that, when I speak of a change at the level of moral philosophy, I am advocating the wholesale overthrowing of Western ethics in order to replace it with something else. What they forget is that liberal egalitarian ethics is but one possible expression of Western ethics (and a very recent one, in the broader sweep of history), and that the West has had a succession of ethical systems throughout its history. What is really needed—if fundamental political change is desired—is a radical critique of egalitarian ethics. As suggested earlier, this critique needs to begin outside of electoral politics, obviously, and would only work its way in once it has been successfully articulated at the metapolitical and philosophical level. Once egalitarian ethics is faced with a serious challenge, once it is brought into question, once its adherents begin to question themselves and to engage in soul-searching, new political possibilities will begin to open up. It will not be until a non-liberal position can be articulated in moral terms that change will become possible.
The AfD is already being accused of right-wing extremism. If contemporary conservatism is, as you say, nothing but a variant of liberalism, or even just an old-fashioned strand of liberalism, why then is it frequently linked to right-wing extremist groups such as the BNP or its German equivalent, the NPD?
Because it is all relative to where the criticism is coming from. The most vociferous criticism tends to come from the radical elements of Left-liberalism and from the Left. And the accusation, explicit or implicit, is that the target is insufficiently egalitarian, in some way or another. Remember now that equality is an absolute moral good, according to liberal and Marxian ethics, so to accuse someone of being insufficiently egalitarian is to accuse him of being morally deficient. In respect to egalitarianism, we live in puritanical times, so there is real fervour on this issue. It is, therefore, very difficult, if you accept that equality is an absolute moral good, to provide a moral justification for policies that don’t lead to maximalising equality, so these conservatives are left with few options but to lose themselves in lengthy explanations and self-justifications that no one believes, because they often seem disingenuous, self-serving, and hypocritical. All the Leftist has to do is enunciate a simple egalitarian slogan, loudly and proudly, or to accuse the conservative of Right-wing ‘extremism’ (i.e., of having a serious moral defect), to have the conservative mumbling, stuttering, and grasping for a polite way out of his sudden discomfort.
Do you consider the National Socialism of the 1930s and 1940s to have been another form of liberalism?
On the other hand, the nation, freedom and the rule of law – values right-wing/conservative/traditionalist movements subscribe to – have their origins in liberalism. Does that mean that if you reject liberalism, you have to reject these ideals too?
In The Fourth Political Theory, Alexander Dugin explains that liberalism is the sum of its constituent elements, and that once you consider them separately, or partially, or partially in combination with elements that are rejected by liberalism, that’s no longer liberalism. Therefore, it would be entirely possible for us to choose which parts we want to keep, and which parts we want to reject, and how we want to combine those with other ideas, when thinking of a new political theory. In the aforementioned book, Dugin suggests areas of possibility for the construction of a post-liberal political theory (he doesn’t offer one, he only suggests areas political theorists may or may not want to explore, based on what liberalism has discarded or left in the periphery). Dugin is not a Westerner, so he may prefer a solution that will be unsuitable for us. Nevertheless, the methodology is valid, and it is up for us Westerners to determine how a post-liberal political theory will constructed, and what a post-liberal West needs to look like—to determine who we are and what we want to become. I think it will have to be in accord with our collective soul and cultural traditions.
I would like the West to remain powerful, wealthy, independent, and technologically advanced, and for us Westerners to value our uniqueness, be free to do what we want in our part of the world, and feel pride in who we are. The fact that we feel as if we have reached the end of time, as if everything has already been said and done everywhere, as if there is nothing original left to imagine, is symptomatic only of the death of liberalism. It means liberalism has nothing left to offer except an endless re-statement of the same, an endless re-iteration. That is why we say we are in ‘post-modernity’: if liberalism was an ideology of modernity, post-modernity is the time of liberalism on life-support, brain dead and ready for the post-mortem report.
How would you describe the “traditionalist” values you are advocating?
Is there any particular type of party that might offer a better hope of success than others? Or is it a mistake to engage in party politics in the first place?
I wrote an article about the role of counter-propositional political parties last year, which has since been re-posted on various websites, including Western Spring (http://www.westernspring.co.uk/the-role-of-party-politics-in-the-culture-war/). I think these parties do have a role, but it is not the same as that of the conventional parties. With conventional parties the aim is to win elections in order to be able to exercise political power from political office. With counter-propositional parties the aim is to broaden the debate. Conventional parties would rather restrict debate to minor issues of methodology or procedure within the broad political consensus; they don’t want that consensus challenged. The counter-propositional parties are there to disrupt the consensus, to cast doubt on establishment positions by making it clear that there is no consensus when conventional parties would like everyone to think that there is.
Would you say that the current party system is geared towards advancing the interests of liberal parties, and that therefore conservatives are playing a game they can only lose?
. . . unless, of course, by ‘conservative’ you mean something other than what I have described as a conservative. If you are thinking of something more radical, then the current party system can be defeated by discrediting the morality of its underlying propositions—by discrediting the morality of the existing consensus.
You talk about metaphysics, about transcending liberalism. Does that mean that any political commitment is pointless, that what we really need is a cultural revolution? If so, what kind of revolution?
Ultimately, the aim is political change, so we have to remain politically engaged. What I am saying is that since the 18th century the dominant ethics in the West, or at least in the Anglo-American world, has been liberal ethics, which is egalitarian ethics: equality is treated as an absolute moral good, worth pursuing for its own sake. This needs to be subjected to a radical critique.
You may want to ask how. I have written several essays in which I advance various arguments attacking the morality of egalitarianism from a deontological perspective: ‘Equality as an Evil’, which was published in April last year; ‘Equality: The Way to a Meaningless Life’, which was published in February; and ‘Equality: A Justification of Privilege, Oppression, and Inhumanity’, which followed soon after. Currently, I am working on a book-length treatment of this topic.
Many of those who call themselves conservatives, for lack of a better label, know that egalitarianism is wrong. Unfortunately, they don’t have the arguments with which to oppose it as an ethics. They don’t have the tools with which to deconstruct it, destabilise it, and put in doubt. My project is to make available those arguments, to provide those tools, and start an in-depth discussion about egalitarianism as an ethics.
To my mind, egalitarianism is fundamentally unfair, because equality cannot be achieved without being unfair to someone, because it justifies an unfair distribution of rewards, because it justifies an unfair distribution of resources, whereby the deserving is penalised in order to reward the undeserving. Egalitarianism also justifies a system of oppression, because equality cannot be achieved without curtailing freedom (in fact, equality and freedom are in various ways incompatible), and requires constant monitoring and regulation, as we have seen with the advent of state-sponsored multiculturalism in the West. Egalitarianism also robs life of meaning, because meaning arises from difference and hierarchy—difference is what enables definition and self-definition; hierarchy provides you with direction and purpose. The elimination of difference and hierarchy represents also the elimination of quality, both in the sense of superiority and distinction, so egalitarianism tends to rob life of everything that makes it good and worth living. To my mind, this is not an absolute good, but a moral pathology.
Most people don’t have the option of starting a cultural revolution, all they can do is support a party of their choice. What would you advise these normal people, who are neither intellectuals nor artists, should do?
There are other ways besides supporting a political party, although, as I said, there is a role for counter-propositional political parties, provided it is understood that the aim when supporting these parties is not the same as when supporting conventional parties. The culture war offers unlimited possibilities, because any person desiring change can apply his own talents, his own skills, and his own experience in their particular area of expertise. You can wage the war as a musician, as a painter, as a novelist, as a financier, as an industrialist, as a conversationalist—as anything you like, so long as you are pushing in the right direction, and pummelling the right targets.
What if your analysis of conservatism and its “eight salient traits” is incorrect? It bears a lot of similarity to the defamations the left likes to hurl against conservatives. You say conservatives are not creative. Would you say that the left is creative as such? As soon as left-wing and liberal parties have achieved their political objectives, they become equally uncreative when it comes to changing these objectives – in fact, they start clinging to them in a very conservative way. On the other hand, conservatives have always shown great creativity in intensifying their ideas. – Wouldn’t you agree that this historical overview challenges your description?
I think your question confirms my description. And yes, the eight salient traits are similar to the criticisms the made by the Left: the reason is that there is truth to all of them. In both cases, the criticism is a lack of radicalism. The Left is egalitarian and progressive, and Leftists fault conservatives for not being egalitarian and progressive enough; whereas I am an elitist and I fault conservatives for not being elitist enough. Now, if you are using the word ‘conservative’ to designate individuals or groups of individuals who are anti-liberal and anti-Left, individuals who think in terms of quality rather than equality, then I would agree that these are creators, whereas the liberals are debasers and the Left are destroyers.
Is liberalism really as powerful as you claim it is? Isn’t it possible that the ruling elite is only defending liberalism because it facilitated their rise to power? In other words, isn’t it possible that the power of liberalism is little more than a by-product of the battle between different social milieus, which resulted in the domination of one of these milieus and the dominance of liberalism as its intellectual superstructure?
Liberalism is a zombie. With the implosion or absorption of all serious challengers, liberalism has ceased to be political, since the political requires an enemy, an existential threat. Liberalism has become a practice, a way of thinking, of seeing, and of doing that is taken for granted, but which is no longer dynamic. It remains powerful because since its absorption of the Marxist critique its morality has not been successfully challenged.
Since we can’t go back and change history, conservatives have no choice but to engage with liberalism as the dominant reality. You accuse them of blindness – but isn’t this proof of their sense of what is realistically achievable?
In electoral politics, yes, because conservatives (as I define them) aim to conserve the status quo. That’s their only choice, which is why they always lose.
Having said this, and as I mentioned earlier, there are many who call themselves ‘conservatives’ simply because they lack a better label, but who are not proponents of the status quo. These need to embrace a radical tendency, a heroic ferocity, that builds something new from first principles. The Left continues to thrive because it is in touch with its radical tendency. Conservatives continue to retreat because they have cut themselves off from their radical tendency. A radical tendency is necessary, because that is the raging furnace where creative fury can occur.
Thank you very much for your time!