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Green Philosophy. Roger Scruton. A Critical Left Review 07.07.12

“Enforced destruction. Old industries have to be harshly eliminated. New markets have to be forcibly claimed. Old markets have to be re-exploited. Destroy the past, make the future.” Cosmopolis. Don DeLillo. 2003. Andrew Coates reviews Roger Scruton’s Green Philosophy. Roger Scruton. How to Think Seriously about the Planet.

The Big Society is “waffle”. Dr Rowan Williams, a specialist in what Roger Scruton has called a branch of learning “surrounded with fictitious scholarship”, and “secured against disproof”, speaks with authority. (Page 170 The Uses of Pessimism. 2010)

Should we dismiss the Conservative thinker’s latest book in the same vein? To the casual reader Green Philosophy bears the hallmarks of David Cameron’s Big Idea. Scruton extols the virtues of “oikophilia”(love of home) as a way of thinking about ecology. “I defend local initiatives, against global schemes, civil association against political activism, and small-scale institutions of friendship against large-scale and purpose-driven campaigns.”(Page 3) He is rooted in “conservative ideas about the ‘respect for the dead, the little platoons’ and the voice of tradition” (Page 215).

Those “subdivisions”, by which “we proceed towards a love of our country”, as Edmund Burke put it, were summoned by David Cameron to help out with reduced public services. Their success has not been widely noted. Could they deal better with global ecological crises, with climate change, with the degradation of environment, population growth, species extinction, with over-exploitation or natural resources? Lacking Scruton’s sense of “piety, humility, morality” (Debate with Dawkins and Hitchens 2009) we might be inclined to describe the conservative philosopher’s writing as, following the Archbishop, more flannel.

But that said, Green Philosophy goes to the root of many issues. As Jonathan Reé says, “if you think Scruton can be dismissed as a churlish little-Englander you’re in for a big surprise.” “Read his books without prejudice (against Scruton’s own view that such pre-judging can contain the sediment of good sense – A.C) and you will find him lucid and informative, companionable, learned and urbane.” (Guardian 28.12.11).

The owner of a Wiltshire farm may always tend to divide the sheep from the goats. The long war against the left, those who “‘struggle’ with the hierarchies and structures”, is not over. Yet he expands his camp by the observation that “environmental problems are problems of morality not economics”(Page 85). That they are grounded in universal human desires, “the existential condition and self-identity of the subject”(Page 185) And that, “love of the oikos, which means not only the home by the people contained in it, and the surrounding settlements that endow that home with lasting contours and an enduring smile. The oikos is the place that is not just mine and yours but ours.”(Page 227) The former Professor of Aesthetics talks, rightly in our view, of the “Centrality of beauty to home-building and therefore to establishing a shared environment. “(Page 263) He offers a hand of companionship from the right to the left “The real evil against which both sides should be united is the habit of treating the earth as a thing to be used but not revered. Instead they are fighting over competing claims to use it.”(Page 81)

Green Philosophy is published in a very particular environment. Green politics are in a set of multiple dilemmas. The values of decentralisation, community, diversity, promoting the “health of the biosphere” and “human well-being” have not been easy to translate into practice. A critique of “productivism, consumerism and statism” sits ill with a major economic downturn. Capitalist creative destruction looks anything but a welcoming home. A past is being destroyed with no secure future in sight. With Europe in turmoil, public services slashed to pieces, mass unemployment, and rising poverty, attacks on over-consumption have limited attraction. But if anybody doubts the reality of continuing ecological degradation then they only have to look at the dying marine life of the North Sea, planetary deforestation, or the building over of the South of England.

A Right Left Alliance?

Roger Scruton has often, very often, told the story of how he came to dislike the left. His life was marked by Paris 1968. When his “contemporaries were manning barricades, smashing care and shops, assaulting policemen, and dressing in the obligatory denim uniforms of the new proletariat on the march” (Page 55 The Uses of Pessimism). The young Scruton, Wikipedia cites, was “was disgusted by it, and thought there must be a way back to the defence of western civilization against these things. That’s when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.” Ever since he has tried to explain the left’s “failure of reason”, in terms of a “deep mental aberration” “the utopian fallacy.” As Editor of the Salisbury Review, he opposed “the peace movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, egalitarianism, feminism, foreign aid, multiculturalism, and modernism.”

Yet now Scruton calls for a common front of left and right against consumerism. This would be an “alliance on behalf of the environment that would also heal the rift in our civilisation” (Page 247). If that appears a bold move, there are, he argues, deeper alignments. Scruton has time not just for left-wing ‘patriots’, such as George Orwell, or Richard Jeffries, who could perhaps be enrolled into with Burke’s squads but for Anarchists like Kropotkin and Colin Ward. He praises this tradition’s “small-scale initiatives, outside the purview of the state, in which ‘mutual aid’ takes the place of legislative edicts, to bring about goals that are both environmentally friendly and in conformity with social justice. “(Pages 79 – 80) These no doubt can be “situated constrained by place, time and community, by custom, faith and law.”(Page 18. The Uses of Pessimism).

Markets and the Environment.

Roger Scruton is best known for his jeremiads. We now inhabit a world in which people find themselves “in the midst of a culture of widespread desecration, in which human relations are voided of the old religious virtues…”(Page 135. A Political Philosophy 2006). He has continually gnawed at the predictions of Enoch Powell that immigration has brought into Europe people whose loyalties are to their religious identity and not to the country of settlement. In the West meanwhile a society based on membership of a faith, has been replaced by territorial allegiance. And, “Democracies owe their existence to national loyalties – the loyalties that are supposedly shared by government and opposition, by all political parties and by the electorate.” (Page 1 A Political Philosophy) Green Philosophy is deals with this, the “love of the English people for the place that is theirs, for the landscape, the way of life and the institutions that hallowed it, has been the greatest single cause of environmental stewardship whereby an overcrowded island has been maintained as a viable habitat for its population.”(Page 249) We might ask how those who retain their primary bonds to a transcendental doctrine can transfer their support to a nation. But it is surely easier to imagine everybody as a potential lover of the countryside.

Patriotism is not enough. Scruton has vigorously defended market economies. He is not an absolutist believer in individualism, the strand of thought associated with Ayn Rand, but in “an easygoing belief in choice as the precondition of a free society.”(Page 13) “Markets are homeostatic systems; so too are traditions, customs and the common law; so too are families, and the ‘civil associations that make up the stuff of a free society.”(Page 11) With some bravado he asserts that there is no “tension between a defence of the free market and a traditionalist vision of social order. For they have put their faith in the spontaneous limits placed on the market by the moral consensus of the community”(Page 127). This of course flies in the face of all known evidence, as shelves of books bewailing the harmful effects of the free circulation of people (Scruton passim) and the universal access to pornography (Scruton passim) and the manufacture of kitsch (Scruton passim) illustrate.

The major causes of pollution and over-exploitation of resources lie in the “tragedy of the commons”, where nobody has ownership, or overweening bureaucrats dictating the slightest detail of the economy and society according to a ‘plan’. The Soviet utopia outlined in Red Plenty (2010) of state provided abundance for all, failed at the expense of catastrophic natural destruction and depletion of resources. Any modern green policy of social ownership, however participative and decentralised, will not work. As Scruton has laid down as a golden rule, “Abolish the market economy, however, and the normal result is enterprises that are just as large and just as destructive but which, because they are in the hands of the State, are usually answerable to no sovereign power that can limit their predations.”(Page 33. A Political Philosophy 2006)

But private ownership has its problems. In reality, Scruton remarks, market equilibrium and ecological equilibrium are not automatically in balance. Companies can externalise costs and make the state and the public pay. As a remedy he talks of how we need to make “homeostatic systems” by restoring order, law of tort for example, which are severed by the state. Put simply this would mean polluters paying. Clean energy needs government funding, though he accepts nuclear energy, a “temporary solution” within this bundle of resources. Above all we need to be “stewards” of our common home.

Caroline Lucas, Britain’s leading Green Party politician has observed that Scruton is unable to say, “how much state action is too much” (Indpendent 13.1.12.). If companies have to pay for ecological damage, and we are “stewards” of our the environment, then other aspects of the way they affect the environment can also be decided by the public power, as he advocates in his campaign to ban plastic.

But in other respects he abhors using the law to regulate conflict. Better to let a gamekeeper, intimately linked to the fields and woods, take charge of managing an estate and its wildlife than left a state agency decide on what he should do. But this cannot be extended too far. It is unlikely that Scruton considers that corporations and smaller businesses will automatically “internalise” environmental costs and adopt his style of oikophilia. His relentless Europhobia casts doubt on European Union regulation, which would appear to most people to be the most rational place to begin within our geographical context. But there is plenty of space for ‘interference’ with the natural liberty of the market.

La Terre, les Morts et la Beauté.

Green Philosophy cites Edmund Burke’s description of society as, “an association of the dead, the living and the unborn..”(Page 215) The “attachment to home and country as presupposed by any free political order” is built on the contracts between generations, as an “entailed inheritance” (Burke). This sentiment of being rooted of Heimatlichkeit gives a sense to who “‘we’ are, why ‘we’ are acting in this way or that, why; we have behaved rightly in one respect, wrongly in another…”(Page 239) There is no state in which we are ‘born free’ of this primal sticky material that seeps into our inner being. Patriotic support for a territorial nation state weaves together Self and a larger creation. This is not only sumptuous reality; it is shapes a “we’ that can show care for others without submerging the individual into the collective. Nationality “is the only form of membership that has shown itself able to sustain a democratic process and a liberal rule of law.”(Page 240) This is, he asserts, the only desirable glue that keeps together a “society of strangers”

What are the alternatives? Scruton may well be justified in his hostility to a political culture based on an exclusive form of religious ‘law’ which tires to force society onto the Procrustean bed of, for example, the Sharia, based on the (unknowable) mind of god. The Islamist “advocacy of brotherhood (Ikhwan) as the true alternative to nationality and the nation-state” looks decidedly threadbare in the light of inter-Moslem fighting Page 213) Equally a reversion to an (imagined) primitive undifferentiated ‘tribal’ ‘hunter-gatherer’ state of stifling collectivity, where the ‘I’ of the leaders rules is not appealing either – though the ‘history’ supporting this in The Uses of Pessimism is uncertain.

Both observations appear to echo the words of Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago, (1958). His character Sima says that the modern world, (he dates this to the advent of Christianity) is about “personality and freedom”. What, then, is the place for the “duty, imposed by armed force, to live unanimously as people, as a whole nation..”? That, “If all this rhetoric about leaders and peoples had the power to reverse history, it would set us back thousands of years to the Biblical times of Shepherd tribes and patriarchs.” But out of what building blocks is the modern nation made? This suggests an anti-communal basis for modernity, that something at the heart of its religious inheritance saps way at the communitarian ethics that Scruton believes faith provides substance for. Could the development of individuality and liberty, and the global circulation of peoples and cultures, not also undermine the fundamental cohesion of the Nation?

The City a “community of neighbours” working by “consensus”, if it is a condition of nation states is not identical with it. Urban life, both its first forms in Ancient Mesopotamia and in the tiny republics that sprang up at the end of late Antiquity, precedes them. These places of strangers can function, has historically functioned, without profound sense of belonging to a larger Home. Its population may not even have the time to contemplate the, no doubt warm, feelings of care and affection for the Land that Scruton acquaints us with. References to Hölderlin’s poetry (Die Heimat) and Heidegger’s reflections on the unfolding of the “constellation of Being” in the modern world may well be moving. But they also remind us rather that most people have little inkling of how their communion with their ancestors and the future unborn. Growing up in North London I had little idea that I was walking in the steps of my forefathers, and not even because most of my Borough was built in the early 20th century. The turmoil of the City has proved hostile to the worship of graves and sacred sites, except as artificial grafts promoted by romantics, nationalists or metropolitan nature enthusiasts. This kind of ‘attachment’ if fragile at best, even if stridently affirmed. Indeed Scruton would no doubt be one of the first to point to the fragile connection between the ideology and politics of the urban ‘Bobos’ (bourgeois-bohemians) who make up a good part of the Green electorate and the ‘real’ land.

Nations, adept as they are in manufacturing an identity, do not then monopolise it. They exist alongside other divisions. National and internationally aligned clashes between classes, or between masses and states, based on a different and opposing set of loyalties to the heritage of the particular clan of the Dead that Scruton evokes. We might talk of another tale, of those E.P.Thompson spoke of, “the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian artisan. And even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcoot” (The Making of the English Working Class 1968) Would they have been ‘at home’ in the “Classical and Gothic building (which) speak of another age, in which faith, honour and authority stood proudly and without self-mockery in the street”? (Page 147. The Uses of Pessimism)

A large and growing percentage of the world’s population are migrants, “nomads” in Toni Negri and Michael Hardt’s term (Empire 2000) This might be, to Burke, the “swinish multitude”, but to these authors they form a radical new political agent, a “real productive force” made up of diverse exploited and oppressed people, resistant to the “caging of capital and states.” They write of, “The multitude’s resistance to bondage the struggle against the slavery of belonging to a nation, an identity, and a people and thus the desertion from sovereignty, and the limits it places on subjectivity – as entirely positive. Nomadism and miscegenation appear here as figures of virtue, as the first ethical practices on the terrain of Empire.” (Page 362 Empire) If this figure has any ‘home’ it is a constructed, not inherited, one. If it has any ecological interest it is universal, in the common human conditions of the planet.

Migration is unlikely to be reversed. But that does not stop people trying. Europe has experienced a terrific wave of xenophobia, with far right parties becoming major political players in countries like France, Holland, Austria, Denmark, Hungary, and elsewhere. Global culture is an incoming tide bringing in its wake further diversity and fragmentation. People have been able to insulate themselves inside their identities, and physically separate themselves through new patterns of urban dwelling on ethic lines. Both multicultural and republican-egalitarian nation states have indeed faced enormous problems with both this intolerance and the rise of anti-democratic forces amongst a minority of migrants, the movements collectively known as Islamism. These are unlikely, however, to be solved by hauling up the drawbridge and praying to the shrines of noble ancestors.

Here Scruton makes a hard to sustain distinction between “cosmopolitanism” and “internationalism”. In a lengthy passage he states that “Cosmopolitans are at home in any city; they appreciate human life in all its peaceful forms, and are emotionally ain touch with the customs, languages and cultures of many different people. They are patriots of one country, but nationalists of many. Internationalists, by contrast, wish to break down the distinctions between people; they do not feel at home in a city since they are aliens in all. (Page 321 – 2) Those breaking down distinctions for commercial ends are clearly guilty of using people as “things”. But are cosmopolitans, on this account, any better? Scruton talks as if, in the approximate words of D.H. Lawrence (The Plumed Serpent), only the cultured people at the “tops of the trees” can mix as equals, while the branches and roots remain national.

It could also be the language of a member of UKIP. A typical member of that party proclaims love of the peoples, cultures and languages of Europe, while spouting visceral hostility to the only actually existing cosmopolitan political institution on the continent, the European Union.

And so it proves. The EU has been taken over by “internationalists”, “who have no affection whatsoever for the identities on which it had been built.”(Page 322) “Eurocrats” are the enemy of the peoples. They are the source of “regulations that cannot be corrected.”(Page 316) Griping about Brussels has always been a sign of political impotence. UKIP is the British wing of the xenophobia already described. It faces the simple fact that. as with global culture, global governance is unlikely to melt way.

Perhaps something stronger than nationality, or this simulacrum of ‘cosmopolitanism’, can hold us together, in the first instance in a common stand towards the environment. In the most interesting of all Scruton’s works he discussed Beauty, a common feeling that can be rationally discussed and evaluated. “Since the Enlightenment, aesthetic taste and natural piety have stood vigil over our surroundings, and held back the hand that was raised to destroy them. In recent times the beautiful has been exalted above the sacred. But we should bear in mind, that for thinkers like Burke, Kant, Rousseau, Schiller amend Wordsworth, the beautiful and the sacred were connected, to be rescued together from the human urge to exploit and destroy.”(Page 253 Beauty. 2009) Green Philosophy glows when it comes to this. Scruton is a keen admirer of the ‘transcendental’ and makes no secret of his deep religious belief. A few years go and he defined religious observance as a pillar of a moral community. But he is prepared to say that adherence to these values may lead to an attempt to “reconsecrate the earth without the help of any god,”(Page 290) Moreover, “The mastery over nature, its conversion into a safe and common home for our species, and the desire to protect the dwindling wilderness, all fed into the impulse to see the natural world as an object of contemplation, rather than as a means to our goals.”(Page 61) This is an ideal that can be truly shared.

Conclusion: Green Politics and the Common Future


Roger Scruton defines conservatism as the maintenance of the social ecology. This claim is doubly contestable on the grounds of inherited experience. No Conservative government (or the present Coalition) has protected intact the social organism from the ravages of capitalist destruction, and no Tory politician has ever embraced green causes without ending up making compromises with anti-environment forces. Zak Goldsmith, MP for Richmond, claimed to embody both strands. His record speaks for itself.

But what of the pure Green parties? In Germany, the country where a formal Green party has enjoyed influence and – coalition tempered – power, Die Grünen, appears to have become a socially liberal centrist party based on the “eco-middle class”. The country has not become the ecological wonder of Europe. In coalition with the Social Democrats they backed a draconian reduction in unemployment benefits and the introduction of Workfare. At present they are havering over new collation partners, including the Christian Democrats, with whom they have worked in local government (Hamburg). The French Greens, the EELV, who in Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault’s Government, owe their electoral success entirely to an agreement with the President Hollande’s Parti Socialiste. They risk being sidelined as standard-bearers for causes such as opposition to Nuclear power, and opponents high-speed train links. Whatever effect they have had and whatever electoral support they have gained in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the direction of Green parties is now in question. Exactly what constituency do they intend to represent? Perhaps it is not surprising that “Post-materialist” politics (free-ranging protests) have recently made headway in another direction, with the rise of free speech “Pirate parties”.v

By contrast politics based on the “overarching vision” of “liberty, equality and fraternity”, infused with either moderate democratic socialism or its more radical variety, has reappeared on the European scene. In France the ‘hard’ left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon gained 11% of the vote in the Presidential elections, and in Greece, the non-dogmatic Marxist Syriza came close to winning the last elections. Both these political forces have tried to meld socialism and ecology. Both appeal to the ‘internationalist’ principles of…liberty, equality and fraternity. In the conditions we have outlined, they appear better placed to capture universal aspirations and give them a home, one more welcoming than a nationalist one. Illuminated perhaps, by the appreciation of beauty, they would not just ‘reflect’ class interests, but ‘express’ a passion for change. The care of the environment that Green Philosophy places within the term “oikophilia” could be extended outwards not inwards. We suspect that, faced with a rewed threat from this kind of left, Scruton will turn again, and move inwards not outwards.

This article first appeared on Andrew Coates blog, Tendance Coatesy and is reprublished with his kind agreement

Get this book from any public library, the old reactionary has enough money

Peter Shield

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