Cory Bernardi’s Conservative Revolution: In His Own Words

Cory Bernardi has finally taken the brave decision to leave the Liberal Party and create his own party Australian Conservatives. The brand new party’s website conservatives.org.au has now gone live with information on the new party’s beliefs, principles and its constitution. There is already a portal to sign up for membership and also donate.

Cory Bernardi has been an outspoken conservative for many years, he is often portrayed in the media as a crackpot, bigot and even a troll. Nothing could be further from the truth, Bernardi doesn’t consider himself a conservative flippantly, his beliefs are underpinned by a deep appreciation for and understanding of conservative principles.

He outlined his conservative principles and their application to modern Australia in his book The Conservative Revolution published by Connor Court Publishing in 2013. The Unshackled has been granted the privilege of publishing an extract from his book. Even though it was published over three years ago it provides an insight into the values that will underpin Australian Conservatives.

The following extract outlines Bernardi’s interpretation of what it means to be a conservative and then applies these beliefs into four pillars about how to bring about a conservative revolution in as he calls it.

 

Only by returning to conservative principles can our nation confidently confront the challenges that face us, endure times of hardship and prosperity with equanimity, and work towards an Australia which is dynamic, confident, and growing in international stature.

However, before one can advocate for a philosophically conservative framework to be restored as the cornerstone of our national governance, one should at least attempt to define what it means to be a conservative. This presents the first difficulty, for there is no one conservative doctrine or ideology.

To complicate matters further, many conservative thinkers have argued that conservatism is not (or should not be) a doctrine or ideology at all. Michael Oakeshott wrote that conservatism “is not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition.” Likewise, the late Kenneth Minogue suggests that ideology is the natural ‘trade’ of “the pedagogic, the communicative, and the administrative classes” who are isolated and therefore ‘detached’ from the ‘direct’ experience of routine life.

This reinforces the view that ‘progressive’ politics is based on abstract concepts and contrasts this with the grounded, practical orientation of conservative thought. Conservatism, therefore, is a way of life; in the words of US conservative thinker Peter Viereck, it is a sentiment where the “fruitful nostalgia for the permanent beneath the flux” guides reform. Another theorist, John Kekes, writes that “the source of conservatism is a natural attitude that combines the enjoyment of something valued with the fear of losing it” and that: ‘Natural conservatism values and aims to protect the tried and true; both together, because the tried alone may have little in its favor and much against it and because the true needs to be tried, and tried again, to be shown to be indeed true’.

Yet others, such as Roger Scruton, have found that articulating a ‘doctrine’ is necessary to “outline a system of belief” to counter modern theoretical leftism. “The reality of politics is action” writes Scruton, “but action derives, however covertly, from thought, and consistent action demands consistent thought.” It is this ‘consistent thought’ that we must define if we wish to confront the modern left with a robust system of ideas and policies for cultural restoration.

Of course, conservatism is a body of opinion that has been professed and developed by prominent writers and public advocates for over two centuries. It is built on principles established far earlier than that; but the great works of Anglo-Australian conservatism (indeed the conservative traditions of all British derived political systems) began with Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

In Burke’s writing, we see that conservatism is a state of mind that reflects and honours the importance of stability and structure. This attitude has been reflected in later conservative thinkers across the Anglosphere, as illustrated briefly above. It recognises that the historic continuity of human experience offers a better guide to policy than the abstract, utopian propositions of those who seek to reinvent the human condition in their own image (or that of Rousseau, J.S. Mill, Marx, Freud and their acolytes). Yet conservatives know that “prudent change is the means of our preservation, and the great statesman is one who combines with a disposition to preserve an ability to improve.”

Indeed, there is no model conservative due to the inherently variable nature of the human condition and the particular traditions that it creates. This will naturally result in a wide and greatly varied multiplicity of different communities, social systems and structures across the globe. Conservatism reflects the character of an individual and his rejection of any particular abstract ideology. This is because it is sustained by fluid sentiments rather than rigid dogmata. This is reflected in the accommodation of the diverse views on any number of subjects by those who identify themselves as conservative. There is perhaps no better proof of this than the fact that many of these conservatives will frequently argue among each other, almost as often as they do against the left, and sometimes with great passion and vitriol.

Russell Kirk suggested that it is not possible to outline a concise catalogue of conservative convictions. However, he did offer general principles, to which most conservatives would subscribe, even if some may stress the greater importance or significance of one or another.

I offer my interpretation of Kirk’s original principles below. It should be noted that since the publication of his opus, many of them have undergone various stages of development and interpretation. What follows is my own understanding of their meaning, particularly in the context of an Australian conservatism. Where I believe it is necessary, I have made slight digressions to develop a point which will be important to bear in mind while working through the chapters that follow. I acknowledge that my observations are based closely on his original work and should not be considered original thought.

  1. An enduring moral order

Order and stability are at the very cornerstone of functional society. Without order there is chaos, and chaos is not a state conducive to human achievement and happiness. Indeed, without order and stability one could argue there is no society as such because society requires some form of consensus as to the moral and legal framework within which people live and interact with each other. However, conservatives question what limits should be placed on achieving order. Coercive force, for example, would be anathema to most conservative thought and policy. It is more often a product of leftist initiatives that lead to tyrannical government which subverts the individual conscience with a collective dogma. Far better for order to be achieved, not at the barrel of a gun, but as a product of an enduring moral code innate to every individual and which percolates naturally through the structures of society. When men and women are internally governed by a clear sense of right and wrong, government coercion is simply not necessary and society will naturally flourish and prosper.

Whatever political system a given society inherits, it will always do better where citizens have a belief in justice, honour and private morality. Where individuals are reduced to the satisfaction of personal appetites society will decline. The need to preserve society is at the very heart of conservatism and the absolute moral truths that are required for this preservation are not subject to change. This is why we need a conservative revolution.

  1. Custom, convention and continuity

Custom and convention are an intrinsic part of our law and they enable us to live together peaceably – what we sometimes call ‘tradition’. They are enduring systems that have been passed through the ages, allowing successive generations to maintain a linkage with the past, and to preserve hard won moral capital: what G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”.

While appreciating that past practice is not always appropriate to changing times, it is the knowledge accumulated over generations of fruitful living, the consequences of persistent customs which form our particular traditions over time, the wealth and wisdom that these represent, that is attractive to the conservative mind. The conservative is therefore not against change itself. This can be traced to the legacy of Edmund Burke, who advised that conservatives welcomed prudent change as a means of building on the achievements of our forebears.

Essentially, the conservative rejects the radical overthrow of the institutions and interests that have guided society through the centuries and cautions that necessary change should be gradual and discriminatory. This is why we need a conservative revolution.

  1. Principle of prescription

The conservative accepts that we are able to see further than our ancestors because we stand on their shoulders, having learned from their mistakes and their successes.

While welcoming the discoveries and advances made in the modern era, the conservative also accepts that the very core of human nature and the moral code through which mankind is internally governed is fundamentally immutable.

Thus the acceptance of the principle of prescription, which Kirk describes as “things established by immemorial usage,”12 is a key part of allowing society to progress and develop in a sustainable manner.

Unfortunately, it seems that most politicians and policy analysts today treat anything that claims to be ‘progress’ as a desirable thing irrespective of where its ideas may have come from and where they may lead; this means that anything that is correspondingly juxtaposed as ‘old’ is devalued. This narrow-minded approach to national development is another reason why we need a conservative revolution.

  1. Principle of prudence

Plato claimed that prudence was chief among the virtues. Burke, as the father of modern conservatism, agreed. Decisions should be judged by their long-term consequences, not short-term results or the momentary and necessarily fleeting popularity among a restless and intemperate populace. Imprudent action, so often advocated by radical reformists, often results in the curative change being far worse than the ills that preceded it.13 The conservative believes that action should only be taken after sufficient reflection and assessment of the consequences to future generations, rather than the immediate benefits to the present one. This kind of thinking is lacking among our political class and this is why we need a conservative revolution.

  1. Principle of variety

The preservation of society requires healthy diversity, but not in the subversive sense in which the word is often (and mischievously) used by radicals, ‘progressives’ and other leftists. The quest to remove all inequality is the deadening hand of socialism and results in social stagnation. Where there is true variety, there will be inevitable ‘inequality’ – that is simply the result of human nature and the pluralism that defines us as a people. In striving to remove all forms of natural and institutional differences in pursuit of a utopian society (outside of the rule of natural law), the radical wrecker allows one form of inequity to be replaced by another.

Given the same opportunities, any two people will not achieve the same results due to their inherently different qualities, talents, capabilities and desires. This is celebrated by the conservative as representing part of Man’s collective wealth; it is also a means of encouraging individuals to strive to achieve to better themselves by investing in their unique qualities. The rewards will be theirs to reap. In turn, society will benefit by having its constituents drive to excel in their given fields of expertise and enterprise.

One of the most blatant examples of leftist social reengineering has been the ‘affirmative action’ agenda. This is the prescriptive practice of redressing one form of institutional bias or disadvantage with another under the guise of providing ‘equal opportunity’. In effect it simply swaps one form of alleged discrimination for bureaucratic and administrative injustice, and removes merit and suitability as the pre-eminent decision-making criteria in favour of other factors such as race, gender or religion. Ironically, it discriminates against a target group on exactly the same basis as that target group’s alleged discriminatory conduct itself, even while the alleged discrimination is merely presumed for ideological reasons.

History has shown us time and time again that the radical pursuit of justice leads to injustice. This is why we need a conservative revolution.

  1. Principle of imperfectability

The conservative knows that there is no ‘utopia’, which, ironically, is a double negative; given that utopia means ‘no place’. The idea of the perfect state is a figment of our imagination just as surely as we know that human nature is in itself imperfect. Thomas More, lawyer, statesman and martyr, coined the word ‘utopia’ in 1516 in an allegorical work based on a perfect island society. ‘Progressive’ types didn’t quite understand it then, and they don’t understand it now. Unfortunately, in every society there will be injustice, suffering and maladministration. To expect perfection in our political or social being, and to coerce it when it is not realised, is to risk disorder and chaos. This is because such pursuits seem to lead to the breakdown in the structures that have been established through the experience of past generations. Our forefathers discovered which conduct and what ideas were capable of mediating the imperfect and fallen nature of man. Ignoring their lessons has led to moral anarchy and system failure, and only further highlights the impossibility of forcing Man to be perfect through the coercive fist of executive power.

At its very core, the utopian ideal can never be sustained. Mankind is too restless in spirit to accept the status quo for any length of time and will always yearn and advocate change. This change, the conservative argues, should be prudent and considered, lest the solution be worse than the perceived malady.

Too much damage has been done to society and the individual through ‘progressive’ wishful thinking. This is why we need a conservative revolution.

  1. Freedom and property

Property rights are at the very centre of the civic ideal. The unbridled growth of the State invariably and ultimately results in various restrictions on the private ownership of property. This is because there is a heightened temptation for the State to obtain more power and influence over its subjects. This effectively means that executive powers increasingly prevail on the personal affairs of men. Great civilisations are built on the foundation of private ownership as an incentive to encourage economic progress. It is central to the creation of wealth. The centralisation of political and governmental authority is therefore a direct threat to this.

There is a fundamental moral dimension to the principles of the freedom connected to property rights. Private property ownership supports the acceptance of personal responsibility and the importance of pursuing long-term goals. It lifts Man above the day-to-day needs of his own existence and gives him cause to consider the future legacy he will leave his heirs and successors. This is a responsibility that is attached to private ownership and welcomed by those who engage in this basic tenet of freedom.

Those who draft state policy seem to have forgotten these truths. This is why we need a conservative revolution.

  1. Uphold voluntary community

A sense of community is pivotal to conservative thought. There is little point talking about ‘tradition’, ‘culture’, ‘heritage’ and a people’s ‘legacy’ without reference to a sense of community, a sense of peoplehood. Such things do not exist in a vacuum.

However, the conservative acknowledges that the concept of community cannot be enforced by centralised rule from ‘on high’. Community is best fostered when decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are taken locally and voluntarily. Sometimes these are decisions of a political nature but often they are decisions that can be best made by private organisations or families. Whenever these decisions are subsumed within a larger government, the collective decision is often misguided, ill-informed, and in extreme cases, hostile to personal freedom and human dignity. More often than not, it will lack any depth of commitment precisely because centralised decisions made by some impersonal bureaucracy will most likely disenfranchise and therefore enfeeble communities, organisations and individuals. This is naturally resisted by the conservative as incompatible with local autonomy and individual self-respect. It is resisted because it is, simply, incompatible with reason and human dignity. This is why we need a conservative revolution.

  1. Prudent restraint on power

The two extremes of governance are tyranny (illegitimate governance through overregulation and autocracy) and anarchy (illegitimate governance through negligent and reckless policies that exacerbate Man’s fallen nature and encourage social chaos). Neither are acceptable states of being to the conservative mind.

Where a small group of people are allowed to dominate the decision-making process there is risk of tyranny. Conversely, when every individual is a law unto himself, free to indulge in his own appetites without consideration of others, the result is something approaching anarchy.

United States paleoconservative theorist Samuel ‘Sam’ Francis has even suggested that the two trends can exist in parallel. He refers to this phenomenon as “anarcho-tyranny”. According to Francis, in a state of anarcho-tyranny, authorities crack down on the lawabiding citizen with ever intrusive laws and regulations while they become impotent to deal with social dissolution and the very real and much more threatening problems it poses. Perhaps this is because a political elite that has become morally bankrupt and unable to deal with real problems will try to overcompensate by focusing on secondary, perhaps even trivial issues, or invent controversies so as to be seen to ‘do something’.

Whatever the reason may be, Francis’ anarcho-tyranny concept may have a deeper cause. As early as 1953, Robert Nisbet wrote about how individualism would naturally lead towards centralisation. In general terms, this was because the power of the state would replace local authority (family, guild, etc) once that local authority dissolved. The reason was not so much because of the need to maintain order, but because a people’s desire for a sense of belonging and community would incline them to seek out the authority where it was more likely to arise.

Thus the two parallel trends, statist centralisation and individualistic moral anarchy can actually feed off each other, amplifying their worst effects. This can be witnessed when moral anarchy gives state authorities ‘reason’ to be ever more intrusive in the private affairs of individuals; the intervention itself further demoralises the people, and therefore further encourages the growth of the moral anarchy which the intrusive state seeks to suppress.

It is not surprising that we witness this vicious cycle in the West as our local communities shed their moral traditions. It is the quest of every conservative to pursue a path that will ensure that neither condition, tyranny or anarchy, will develop. Men and women will always strive to gain more power for temporary gain and the conservative knows a limit must be placed on the attainment of such power. This can be achieved through decentralisation of government, checks and balances within the constitution, the enforcement of law and in the maintenance of society’s agreed norms and codes of behaviour. These are the conservative’s instruments of choice for balancing freedom and order whilst maintaining a prudent progression of society.

How these tools are to be used and the degree of their use may be debated, but what is undoubtedly true today is that the present path we have chosen as a society is leading us towards the kind of anarchotyranny which is not conducive to human dignity or social cohesion.

This vicious cycle must be broken if we are to retain a sense of pride and dignity as a nation which is confident with its place in the world. This is why we need a conservative revolution.

  1. Permanence and change recognised and reconciled

Radicals will claim that the conservative is opposed to change yet nothing could be further from the truth. The conservative recognises that progress is vital for the ongoing development of civilisation and society. Indeed, a society that is inflexible or which fails to renew itself when necessary is a society doomed to fail. Where the radical and the conservative differ is in their concept of what progress means. Indeed, taking a step forward over a cliff is progress of sorts. But it is not the progress that interests the conservative politician or voter.

The desire for change must be reconciled against the need for the enduring structures, interests and convictions that give us stability and continuity. Protecting these permanent interests is a foil against the threat of society descending into anarcho-tyranny. This timeless wisdom comes to us from ages past: Marcus Aurelius wrote that “to be in the process of change is not an evil, any more than to be a product of change is a good.” Thus, whatever is ‘new’ should be based on proven wisdom rather than idealistic speculation. As is often said: before one moves to knock down a fence, wisdom asks why someone thought to put it there in the first place. Most people identifying themselves as conservatives will support a number of the principles outlined above. Some may agree with all, most or even just some of them. The fact that such differences exist reinforces the proposition that conservatism is not dogmatic or doctrinaire, but a philosophical state of mind, a disposition, an attitude, a way of being.

Thus modern conservatism, while perceived as a counterweight to the political left, is much more than what popular commentators will label ‘right-wing’ politics. Indeed, the conservative may even reject the ‘right-wing’ label as being incompatible with freedom, order and the interests of society for the simple reason that conservatism eschews ideological tendencies be they of the left or the right.

Yet there are other, equally valid points of view, which may incline even those of conservative disposition towards reaction. This is mostly because the radicals of yesteryear seem to have made such progress in reshaping society that these traditionalist conservatives see little in contemporary popular culture worthy of conservation and wish to return to a lost order. For example, M.E. Bradford wrote that a reactionary is “a sensible man who wishes to restore familiar arrangements that worked rather well and have been recently disrupted” and that reaction “is a necessary term in the intellectual context we inhabit late in the 20th century because merely to conserve is sometimes to perpetuate what is outrageous.” It is difficult not to have some sympathy with this view, as we look at the extent of leftist vandalism committed against our culture and civilisation over decades past. Nevertheless, perhaps the most accurate distinction between the two major political actors today was given by Kirk in a lecture to the U.S. Heritage Foundation in 1986 ‘‘great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.’’

In other words, the conservative believes that there is something greater over and above himself, and this greater force plays an important role in everyday life, shaping our culture, outlook on the world, our attitude to our neighbours, and our politics. Such a view, such an attitude, is greatly lacking in political discourse today, somuch-so that perhaps it is indeed reactionary to seek its restoration. Anything less than this risks “perpetuating the outrageous” in Bradford’s terminology. This is why we need a conservative revolution.

The challenges ahead

As we face the challenges ahead, there will be an increasing need to ensure that the battleground on which we stand to fight for the things that really matter is solid and dependable; for nothing cruels the opportunity for success as assuredly as a rotting foundation. A fearless and robust conservatism, its actions and beliefs provides for that stability.

Of course, in fighting for these matters of substance, we are not necessarily simply advocating for the status quo. In fact, this volume is an exploration of why we actually need to change the existing order; to restore the principles, the virtues and values that have served mankind so well over the centuries.

The conservative battle is to restore the foundation of our society by promoting the essential pillars that have given us a national identity, a just and orderly society and confidence in the future.

As illustrated above, conservative policy works to promote these vital pillars by ensuring the wisdom of experience is shared through successive generations. The application of these principles is especially vital in key aspects of our lives.

The chapters in this volume seek to explore these vital pillars and how the resurrection of conservative principles and their application in these key areas can help forge a stronger, more culturally confident as well as politically and economically stable Australia.

Our shared Faith, built jointly on the rich heritage of our Greco-Roman philosophy and Judeo-Christian traditions, connects all members of our community in a unique and precious manner. ‘Precious’ because this legacy is the source of much of our culture, our ideas about what is right and wrong, our concepts of what it means to be human and the ethics of our civil society. The principles faith has provided continue to guide many of our most critical and important decisions. Faith promotes the vital relationship between the individual and society as a whole.

The Family is central to most Australians’ lives. Strong families are the cornerstone of our communities. They are responsible for raising the next generation and incumbent upon them is the need to act as conduits for the wisdom, the values and the virtues that have allowed society to progress through the ages.

Australia’s Flag represents our sovereignty, rule of law, Constitution and democracy: the maintenance of which is the government’s primary responsibility.

The prosperity we enjoy is not a result of government interference but a direct result of the application of Free Enterprise within our economy. By rewarding effort and accepting the consequence of failure, we have established a nation rich in ideas, populated by an industrious people capable of innovation and invention. We can no more afford to stifle that enterprise and expect enduring wealth creation than cease to breathe and expect to stay alive.

These four pillars represent the foundation of an enduring Australia. Without an ongoing commitment to their preservation, the Freedom of our citizens and the Future of our nation will be at risk.

It is my view that only the traditionalist, conservative approach to public policy properly values these ideas, allowing them to be expressed though responsible governance. This is why we need a conservative revolution.

  • Möwe

    I think government should be like a Toyota Yaris: Small, cheap, economical, not flashy, a bit boring actually, with a good reputation, not that powerful, and something that you’d be happy to give to your kids.

    • Karin White

      Yes. Agreed. I like that analogy. Well said!