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Study notes

Organic Society / State (Conservatism)

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

The concept of organic society / state holds that “society/the state is more important than any individual parts.” 

Key points

The conservative perspective upon society stems from their support of evolutionary change. 

They view society as an organism that emerges and evolves gradually over time in order to meet the needs of its members. 

For instance, society must develop institutions and mechanisms that protect us from harm (such as the armed forces). A cohesive society also requires a degree of hierarchy, and a sense of deference towards authority figures. Moreover, a successful society is one characterised by a strong emotional attachment to our fellow people. 

Conservatives also believe that society is in a constant process of evolution. As a consequence, adopting a revolutionary stance is both foolish and contrary to the lessons of the past. This is a key point of disagreement between conservatives and radical extremists.

Organic Society / State in more detail

In a particularly famous quote within conservative thought, Burke argued that:

“society is indeed a contract … not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” 

In essence, he claimed that society needs to reflect the past, consider the present and meet the needs of future generations. According to Burke, one of the fundamental flaws with the French revolution is that it completely ignored the past. Like many revolutions since, it sought to impose a Year Zero upon society. In its revolutionary zeal, even the calendar was altered to remove all royalist and religious influence.

The Burkean view of society can also be placed in the context of the environment. In the modern era, this has in part helped modernisers to rebrand the Tories on the slogan ‘vote blue, go green.’ In addition, Burke’s conception of society bears relevance towards the generation gap that exists within society. Many young people feel disenchanted and disengaged from a discredited political system. It seems grossly unfair that the next generation will have to pick up the tab for the national debt. Moreover, politicians from all the main parties have continually ignored the demands of younger people in favour of an older demographic. ‘Generation Rent’ may therefore feel marginalised and overlooked by a political process tilted in favour of older people and other vested interests. In Burkean language, we are failing to meet the contractual obligations to many of those who are living and those who are yet to be born.

Finally, Burke argued that “a state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation. This quote reminds us that a true conservative is not opposed to social change in itself. Indeed, society can only evolve via meeting the ever-changing needs of its population. However, unlike other ideologies, conservatives would never endorse social change based upon abstract notions. This is one reason why the Conservative Party is broadly Eurosceptic. Whilst some of those on the Remain side of the Brexit argument believe there are practical benefits to membership, a project with such an abstract goal is clearly inconsistent with an evolutionary attitude towards change. Moreover, the notion that a European identity can be constructed around an anthem, a flag and other symbols of nationhood is anathema to the conservative mindset.

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