One of the reasons Waleed Aly’s ‘Future of Conservatism’ essay goes wrong is that he thinks of political ideologies in absolute rather than relative terms.
To think of an ideology in absolute terms is to take a principle or idea its adherents support and make that its foundational principle or idea, from which all else must derive or be deemed philosophically inconsistent.
To think of an ideology in relative term, by contrast, considers these principles and ideas relative to the status quo and other political ideologies.
So relative to the status quo and social democracy, ‘neoliberalism’ could be considered the ideology of markets. ‘Absolute’ opposition to any other organising institution than markets is a non-existent political force in Australia. But compared to where we are, the ‘neoliberals’ are those most in favour of using markets more.
People on the left are most sensitive to ‘neoliberalism’, because ‘neoliberals’ target the left’s relative priority – increased use of state powers of taxation and regulation to create a ‘fairer’ society.
Conservative clashes with the left are more common than conservative clashes with ‘neoliberalism’ not because markets can’t have destabilising effects, but because left and conservative relative priorities cover more of the same territory of identity politics, which lends itself to anxiety and anger.
Relative to the current feelings of leftists and some members of ethnic minorities, conservatives are not sufficiently enthused by cultural diversity. In absolute language, Aly converts this to support for ‘monocultralism’. But in absolute terms that isn’t the case. Compared to Australia’s past, the past of Australian conservatives, and the status quo in other countries, Australian conservatives are tolerant multiculturalists.
By thinking of Australian politics in relative rather than absolute terms we can focus on areas of actual disagreement, rather than arguing about contested definitions. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that liberals, social democrats and conservatives in Australia are really part of the one Australian political tradition looked at from different angles. All three emphasise different things, but none are fundamentally against markets, a large state by historical standards, or ‘traditional’ institutions such as the family. The relative differences that spur debate hide the similarities and continuities behind them.