In some respects, it is the right who are Marxists and we leftists who are conservatives.
Take for example, this characterization of Marx:
The dictatorship of the proletariat…is characterized by majority rule, extra-legality, dismantling of the state apparatus and revocability of the representatives. (Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx, p448)
This is pretty close to Douglas Carswell’s position: support for referenda and the recall of MPs. By contrast, we lefties are more cautious about change. We no longer envisage the move to post-capitalism* as arising through one-off events but rather as a longish process of what Erik Olin Wright calls (pdf) interstitial transformation or Williams and Srnicek call accelerationism.
Accelerationists want to unleash latent productive forces. In this project, the material platform of neoliberalism does not need to be destroyed. It needs to be repurposed towards common ends. The existing infrastructure is not a capitalist stage to be smashed, but a springboard to launch towards post-capitalism.
Our vision of change is quite a conservative one. Like Oakeshott and Burke, we are sceptical of grandiose rationalist blueprints but instead see the move to socialism as much like the market discovery process - a process of trial and error, building on what works. And we distrust snap decisions taken in the heat of the moment and favour instead gradualism and cool scepticism. We now leave Leninist talk of “crushing saboteurs” to the far right. As we are less arrogant and cocksure than them, we’re more tolerant.
Carswell’s right to say he’s “pretty unconservative”. In fact, he’s probably less conservative than me.
There’s another sense in which I’m to the right of many on the right. My support for worker democracy rests perhaps as much upon my Hayekian influences as my Marxian ones. Hayek opposed central planning because he thought that economic knowledge was necessarily dispersed and fragmentary and so we needed some better mechanism than top-down planning to aggregate that knowledge. He thought the price system did the job. However, many economic decisions are taken not in the market but within organizations. They too need an information aggregation mechanism. That mechanism is workers’ voice.
One reason why I suspect this will work is that workers have skin in the game. Those with job-specific human capital or loyalty to the firm have skin in the game; they have a greater incentive to ensure the firm succeeds than do managers who jump ship or walk away with big pay-offs after lousy custodianship. Worker democracy is incentive-compatible. That’s a pretty conservative idea.
It’s right-wingers who support bosses and top-down planning who are out-of-date crude Marxists. We lefties have moved on.
In fact, there’s another reason why I at least am conservative. It’s that the things that conservatives profess to admire – sometimes I fear insincerely – can be best achieved under egalitarian modes of production. If you want real (pdf) freedom, you need a citizens’ income so that people are empowered to choose different kinds of lives, and you need to destroy corporate tyrannies. And if you want a proper-functioning dynamic market economy, you need to loosen capitalists’ power over the state and to overcome the coordination problems which retard innovation and investment under capitalism.
Many on the right have forgotten the virtues of old-style conservatism: an awareness of bounded knowledge and rationality, an appreciation of decentralization and a cherishing of freedom. We lefties, though, have now learned them.
* I avoid the word “socialism” so I don’t confuse those braindead right-wing bigots who equate socialism with central planning.