ACT HAS A PROBLEM: one which it shares with just about every other Western conservative party; Climate Change. William F. Buckley, who founded, and for many years edited, the thoughtfully right-wing magazine, The National Review, described a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” All very well when the forces driving history are human; but not helpful at all when inhuman forces are driving events, and yelling “Stop!” will in no way slow them down.
At present, Act isn’t really addressing the Climate Change crisis seriously. Oh sure, it pays lip service to the reality of anthropogenic global warming, but its policies show scant evidence of serious thought about the problem that is going to dominate the economics and politics of the next fifty years.
Out in rural and provincial New Zealand, for example, the Act Leader, David Seymour, and his colleagues are attracting big audiences. Farmers, their families, and voters working in businesses associated with farming, are angry with the Labour Government, and disillusioned with their traditional electoral champions in the National Party.
Act understands that rural New Zealanders are feeling put upon and devalued by urban New Zealanders; that they are chafing under an ever-increasing number of government rules and regulations. Keen to draw these voters away from National, Seymour is not about to tell his audiences that life on the land is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.
Instead, he promises to abolish the Climate Change Commission and make a bonfire of the Government’s regulations and red-tape. The cockies, of course, applaud, and Act’s poll-numbers rise. For the moment, that’s all Seymour and his party care about. Their mission is to drag National’s numbers down to around 20 percent, and pump their own up into the high teens. At that point (as Labour discovered vis-à-vis the Alliance) the whole equation on the Right could very easily unravel – leaving Act as the runaway favourite of conservative voters.
All very well, but if the ultimate balance of political forces leaves the Right sharing 40-45 percent of the Party Vote, and the Left in firm command with 55-60 percent, then Act will find itself all dressed up, but with nowhere to go.
What’s more, without a coherent and believable policy response to the unrelenting pressures of Climate Change, Act could easy end up becoming the top-dog in a conservative kennel that gets smaller and smaller with every passing year.
In ten years’ time, the big political and economic arguments will have moved well beyond the Neoliberal shibboleths that defined the period between 1979 and 2008. In ten years’ time, Capitalism itself will be struggling to retain the support of a majority of citizens – even in the West.
Parties like National and Act will find themselves in the same unenviable position as the reactionary political movements that advocated for the return of absolute monarchy in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. It won’t be a case of them having no supporters, merely of having too few to count any longer as a serious force. History will have rolled right over them. Their last, unheeded, words will be: “It’s not stopping!”
Regarding the politics of the future, the lines of division are already becoming clear. The battle will no longer be between capitalists and socialists: comprehensive state control of the economy will be taken for granted. How else could humanity have responded with any degree of effectiveness to devastating floods and droughts; heatwaves and cold-snaps; rising seas and advancing deserts? No, the political battles of the future will be between those who still believe that science can and will rescue humanity from the ravages of Climate Change; and those who offer a new “green” paradigm for the way in which human societies interact with the natural world.
In the elections of the future, the followers of Scientism will contend for power with the followers of Ecologism. A meritocratic technocracy will find itself opposed by an anarchistic collectivity of simple-lifers. The technocrats, based overwhelmingly in the cities, will be trapped in a frustratingly symbiotic relationship with the simple-lifers – for the very simple reason that, overwhelmingly, it will be the rural simple-lifers who grow the food. Dependent upon one another, and united in their struggle to survive in an overheated world, the parties of Scientism and Ecologism will be constantly re-defining and re-negotiating the terms of their co-existence, while contending jointly with an increasingly hostile planet. Parties determined to rehearse the arguments for and against capitalism/socialism will have become utterly irrelevant.
Ironically, it was the recent “Groundswell” protests that anticipated the fundamental political proposition of the Climate Change-driven future: those Tractors bearing placards declaring “No Farmers, No Food” spoke more truly than they knew.
For Act, that fundamental division between technocrat and simple-lifer offers a straightforward path to political survival. Ever since the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, wrote Reflections Upon the Revolution in France conservatives have celebrated the slow rhythms of the seasons and the tiny, incremental changes that shape the world beyond the mad rush (and even madder ideas) of the city. A party that celebrated the stoic virtues of rural living and was content to be instructed by Mother Nature, would find many followers. Alternatively, as a party of libertarian individualists, an urban culture – based upon the unsentimental rigors of scientific expertise, might offer Act’s followers a better fit. As they used to say in the Middle Ages: “City air makes you free.”
The world to come: the world shaped by Climate Change; will not be a neoliberal, or even a capitalist, world. The state will offer and organise whatever defence still avails humanity. It will hold the ring while the children of Climate Change weigh the relative merits of the “technological fix” versus the simple life of the ecologically-friendly farmer.
William F Buckley’s peremptory demand that History stop in its tracks was profoundly unrealistic. The key conservative insight has always been that, while History cannot be stopped, it can be ridden.
While National resigns itself to going “gentle into that good night”, Act just needs to learn how to hold on tight.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 13 August 2021.