What makes a conservative? Right wing politics at LSE

by Sachin Jhangiani

My first impression of Oliver Paterson, President of the Hayek Society, is that he’s a guarded person. He’s accompanied for this interview by the Secretary of the society, Mike Salem. Oliver clearly understands the power that a specific choice of words has – when I ask him what it’s like to be a conservative at LSE, he’s quick to point out that he’s a libertarian, not a conservative. (It is, however, slightly confusing when he refers to himself as a conservative at points throughout our interview.) Mike, rather smartly dressed in a suit with a trimmed moustache and two-day stubble, is actually there to make sure Oliver doesn’t say the wrong things, he says. I get the sense he’s only half-joking.

The Hayek Society, according to its website, has four core values – liberty, individualism, capitalism, and progress. Oliver knows exactly what most people on the left tend to associate libertarians and conservatives with: anti-vaxxers, QAnon, Islamophobia and homophobia. He’s quick to distance himself from these controversies. “I believe in vaccines, I’m double vaccinated myself”, he says, while also emphasising how the Hayek Society is in favour of LGBTQ+ and minority rights.

The apparent contradictions seen in these statements and values by many on the left lead to some questions. Recent research and literature has argued that capitalism (and Western capitalism in particular) is built on colonialism and slavery, two notions contrary to liberty, individualism and progress. Given this history, doesn’t modern day capitalism leave behind these people who have been historically discriminated against? Shouldn’t the state intervene to take care of these people and others who suffer under capitalism’s flaws?

Oliver’s responses mirror those of a politician. He sticks to his talking points, highlighting that the “greatest liberator of the people is the free market”. It’s as though he’s had these sorts of conversations several times before and doesn’t even need a moment to consider his responses. He says that the mercantilist policies of the past which gave us colonialism and slavery “have nothing to do with capitalism”, and were fundamentally opposed to the capitalist ideas of consent and the no-harm principle. He acknowledges that capitalism has flaws, but believes the free market should be allowed to correct these flaws. Several of these flaws arise in relation to the state, he argues. “In 1950s America, you had the state barring minority ethnic individuals from purchasing homes”, he says, pointing out that slavery “was permitted by the state and in some cases, you could argue, encouraged by the state” (somewhat ignoring the fact that these policies had to have public support to be followed and that the state was not solely responsible for slavery). “There are always going to be inequities that arise whenever the state takes action”, he says. On further questioning, he acknowledges that the state isn’t to blame for all issues. “I completely believe in welfare payments for individuals when they are unable to work”, he says. He also emphasises the role that private charity should play in helping those who fall through the gaps of the free market, but doesn’t articulate what incentive a billionaire has to help the rest of us normal folk.

Before our interview ends, I bring up LSE Class War, a movement that came up this summer aimed at making LSE a private school free institution. The movement, which also criticised The Beaver for having a disproportionate number of privately-educated students on its editorial board, called for the dissolution of the Hayek Society on account of promoting ideas which “outwardly call for the oppression of working class people”. Oliver is quick to respond, and is considerably more assertive than he’s been for the rest of our conversation. LSE Class War is “totally illegitimate”, he says. They have, “no affiliation to the Students’ Union, no affiliation to the university and they’re not an official campaign of the Students’ Union”, and are now “little more than a kind of meme page on Instagram”. This ‘meme page’ clearly concerned the society enough to put out a press release in response to it, and they may have drawn the Adam Smith Institute’s attention to it. In a blog post, Madsen Pirie, the founder of the Institute (and coincidentally a former guest speaker of the Hayek Society), wrote that the group could be dismissed as, “a tiny, deranged group of fanatics” but that the Bolsheviks and Nazis “started as similar groups”.

The Edmund Burke Society takes a very different approach. Their President Marc Boixader, who is also Chair of the SU’s Charity, Campaign and Political Network, sometimes rambles during our conversation. In contrast to Oliver, he seems more intent on discussing his opinions rather than preaching them. The Edmund Burke Society exists to oppose “the hegemony of Hayek and the hegemony of social liberals”, he begins. He’s clear that his society has the true claim to the crown of LSE’s conservative society. In his view, both the left and right have been infiltrated by liberalism, and modern-day conservatives are not true conservatives: “To be conservative is to preserve certain things – family, community and nation.” These three pillars form the foundation of what the society is about.

Marc argues that our society is too individualistic. He paints a rather bleak picture of my future, telling me that I will have to slave away each day to rent a one-bedroom apartment in London (because I will never be able to own my home) with Ikea furniture (possibly the only bright spot) and a pet. “This is not a dignified society”, he says. Marc wants us to return to community values – “intrinsic truths which have emerged over time” – like being a good Samaritan. When I bring up the issue of social, cultural, and religious differences sometimes being too strong to bring together a community, Marc says that irrespective of where you come from, the economic experience of the 21st century is universal. He thinks that we’re all exploited by a morally and economically corrupt elite and are slaves to the economy – “efficiency [through the market] has destroyed the family, the community, and the nation”. He’s clear that this universal economic experience prevails over subjective individual experiences. In a suspiciously Marxist manner, Marc says that this common economic experience reigns supreme over all subjective individual experiences.

The Edmund Burke Society’s website features a powerful opening statement, pointing out that political discourse has been “hijacked by progressive radicals”. “Call them whatever you want”, Marc says in response to who these radicals are. They’re people, “within the liberal paradigm of thought”, he continued, “progressive radicals within the liberal left, and radicals within the liberal right”. The left is concerned with the individual and the state, and the right with the individual and the market. “Liberalism has evolved to one point of being authoritarian”, he says. ”If you break with that [the liberal paradigm], we [liberals] will try to destroy you.”

There’s a clear emphasis in Marc’s ideas that we need to turn away from the individual and move to the community. “There are certain things GDP can’t measure.” It’s clear that his ideas are based on his personal experiences. As a child, Marc’s family struggled for several years in Spain before moving to a small village in the UK in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Things got better after his family’s move, but Marc still remembers how when things were hard, his neighbours helped him out. How this small-scale community translates to a larger, global picture isn’t made clear during our conversation. Nor is how he would deal with the “imperfect” people who aren’t accepting of outsiders in their community.

The contrasts between the Edmund Burke Society and the Hayek Society are fascinating. At first glance, one would think two right wing societies would have far more in common. It isn’t clear which society is truly conservative though – Hayek claims to be libertarian and not conservative, and yet Oliver referred to himself as a conservative. Edmund Burke claims to be conservative but sounds suspiciously communist with their emphasis on economic superstructure, the community, the working class, and the common good. Marc even agreed with me, that if he were to sit down with a Marxist they would “probably come to the same agreement about the economic problem”. While Oliver frequently brought the discussion back to the benefits of the free market, Marc seemed more focused on intangible indicators like “dignity”.

There seem to be certain factions within right wing politics at LSE, which begs the question: who are the right wingers on campus? Who are the true conservatives?

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