All utopias begin in hope and end in despair. Marx’s vision of a world where you could hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening and criticise after dinner collapsed into Orwell’s image of boot stamping on a human face. At the hands of its critics, every utopia disintegrates into brutality.
For years conservatives attacked the left’s utopian naivety — it’s preference for reason and ideology over experience and tradition. But as leftist intellectuals entrenched themselves in the media, the universities and the public service, some classical liberals wondered whether they ought to have a utopia of their own. As Friedrich Hayek wrote:
The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote (pdf).
"What we lack is a liberal utopia" he said, and his allies and followers soon set about constructing one — a vision of a better world where individuals are free to make the best use of their abilities and government meddles as little as possible. Liberated from the stifling mulch of bureaucracy, a thousand flowers bloom. Family and civil society re-grow and the welfare state withers away in an explosion of wealth and opportunity.
But just as Hayek’s followers settled into their arm chairs for a bit of after dinner criticism, the critics arrived. And again utopia disintegrated. The critics quoted English conservative Michael Oakeshott who attacked Hayek for the same reason he attacked socialists — for being theory-driven and ideological. "A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite," he wrote, "but it belongs to the same style of politics." Now, nobody in Britain wants to repeat the ideological excesses of Thatcherism.
With their own ideologies in tatters and their utopias in ruins, Australia’s radical left has now discovered conservatism. Ten years ago ex-Maoist Humphrey McQueen led the charge by attacking John Howard‘s faith in "a Utopia of market forces" and quoting Oakeshott on irony.
References to Oakeshott and his sceptical approach to politics seems to be everywhere these days. Andrew Sullivan wrote his PhD thesis on Oakeshott. John Gray abandoned Hayek and Thatcherism for Oakeshott and green conservatism. And in Australia, David McKnight invokes Oakeshott in a critique of consumerism and neoliberalism.
More recently, opposition leader Kevin Rudd wrote: "Contemporary British conservatives such as Michael Oakeshott have starkly warned against a ‘brutopia’ of unchecked market forces." This ‘brutopia’, says Rudd, is the work of the utopian neoliberal ideologist Friedrich Hayek.
Oakeshott has long ceased to be a thinker critics actually read and has instead become a symbol. When a critic wants to attack neoliberalism as a ideology that wants to radically remake society, they invoke Oakeshott. And where thinkers like Sullivan, Gray and McKnight interpret Oakshott’s work with care, the new wave of critics just attach his name to their own ideas.
The truth is, Oakeshott’s vision for government was not radically different from Hayek’s. Both believed that government should have no purposes of its own. As Oakeshott explained:
…the office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, not to tutor or to educate them, not to make them better or happier in another way, not to co-ordinate their activities so that no occasion of conflict shall occur; the office of government is merely to rule. This is a specific and limited activity, easily corrupted when it is combined with any other, and, in the circumstances, indispensable. The image of the ruler is the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game, or the chairman who governs the debate according to known rules but does not himself participate in it (pdf).
The real conflict is not between Oakeshott and Hayek, but between Oakeshott and America’s neoconservatives — conservative activists who believe that government’s role is to promote virtue among the citizenry, lead them on heroic quests, and promote national greatness. While critical of Hayek’s earlier polemical work in The Road to Serfdom , Oakeshott approved of some of his more considered arguments in The Constitution of Liberty.
Oakeshott is a fascinating thinker. But nobody in the Australian media seems too interested in his work. The debate today is over the term ‘brutopia.’ Did Oakeshott really use the term, or was Rudd’s reference just a clumsy use of a secondary source? Andrew Norton finds it hard to believe that Oakeshott ever used the term ‘brutopia’ while the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Mark Davis seems happy to take Rudd’s word for it. Surely the more important question is whether Oakeshott’s work really does warn against unchecked market forces in the way that Rudd claims.