E.D. Kain identifies a paradox in modern American conservatism that will be familiar to students of George Grant. Forty years ago, Grant wrote this in his essay, “In Defence of North America”:

It may be inded that, like most of us, the ‘right’ want it both ways. They want to maintain certain moral customs, freedoms of property and even racial rights which are not in fact compatible with advancing technological civilisation. Be that as it may, the North American ‘right’ believes firmly in technical advance. Indeed its claim is that in the past the mixture of individualism and public order it has espoused has been reponsible for the triumphs of technique in our society.

At the root of this desire to have it both ways, indeed to “have it all,” is the belief in progress. Crucial to sustaining the myth that progress is both possible and desirable is the intensified exploitation of nature through technology, which necessarily means the greater mechanization of life and the deepening dependence of everyone on this technology. In the end, this must eventually mean the exhaustion of nature and the discovery that we advanced as far as we did at the expense of later generations who will have to make do with even less. In truth, then, we have not made any permanent progress, but have prepared coming generations for a painful correction as they pay for the gains we already enjoyed. As ingenious as research into various forms of alternative energy undoubtedly is, the creation of these new technologies is an attempt to accommodate appetites rather than curb them and to evade significant changes in behavior for as long as possible. Equally important to keeping the myth alive is the obscuring or indeed denial of real costs, or indeed the celebration of devastation as proof of progress. As I said a few years ago in response to the mentality that we can “have it all”:

We know perfectly well that “material advancement” results from this system (at least for a while)–that is, if I may be so bold, precisely one of the things wrong with it. It assumes that endless material advancement is good in itself and that it has no serious, negative consequences for human life.

As Professor Deneen has argued elsewhere, the very habits we cultivate as consumers may in the end sabotage our economic and political life:

Yet, what if we were to widen our aperture a bit and consider whether a nation of self-defined consumers is a good thing? What if the very self-definition of ourselves as “consumers” – now used unselfconsciously as the one universally valid term to describe Americans (not “workers” and certainly not “citizens”) – is deeply damaging to the civic and moral culture of a nation? What if economic and political policies that promote consumption over good, hard work induce very bad habits that in turn lead to very bad economic outcomes?

As he observed again on Monday, all current policy debates are focused on how best to rehabilitate an unstable and unhealthy system and revive the bad habits that brought about its implosion, and all the while avoiding any responsibility ourselves for our role in any of it:

We are proposing – without any debate, discussion or reflection – to, as best we can, reconstitute the economic “engine” that now, and then, too, mercilessly displaces people from positions when cheaper labor can be found, and just as much has sought to collectively reshape the American and world landscape so that it is as uniform and commercially homogeneous as possible, an economy dictated by and trapped in the throes of short-term thinking. We are witlessly striving to shore up the massive concentrations of private corporate power by means of increasing concentrations of “public” power – “public” only insofar as it remains deeply beholden to, and enmeshed in, the success of those massive private entities. Rather than entertaining the possibility that a private organization that is too big to fail is perhaps for that reason too big to exist, we instead like narcotized adolescents accept that Big Daddy will take care of us in the end and we bear no special burden to consider our own complicity in what has befallen us. We are content to look elsewhere for the perpetrator of crimes against our innocence – if on the Left, to blame to greedy corporate interests (as if we have not been blithely shopping at Wal-Mart or Target or Home Depot while local shops have withered on the vine); or, if on the Right, to accuse the depredations of Government and especially Barney Frank. And, above all, we yearn to revisit our blithe state of unconscious belief that the good of life consists in getting what we want without cost, travail, or consequence.

No less important to maintain faith in progress is the false definition of freedom as the absence of restraint and restrictions. Concentrated wealth and power gain ground and are actually rewarded for their failures because they can provide “we want” (though not without cost), and for the most part we have ceased to want real liberty and independence. Lukacs observed in At the End of an Age:

Probably much more important and fundamental is something else: the decline of healthy appetites for freedom at the very time when, together with other phenomena of licentiousness, an immense coarsening of civilized life has risen all around us. In this respect–illustrated by their behavior–there is hardly any difference between conservatives and liberals, or between self-designated Rightists and Leftists.

Making a related point, Bacevich writes in The Limits of Power:

As individuals, our appetites and expectations have grown exponentially. Niebuhr once wrote disapprovingly of Americans, their “culture soft and vulgar, equating joy with happiness and happiness with comfort.” Were he alive today, Niebuhr might amend that judgment, with Americans increasingly equating comfort with self-indulgence.

And freedom has been deformed to mean self-indulgence. This brings us to prosperity, which is ultimately not a material state but a moral and spiritual one, which is to say that it is a state of happiness or flourishing. We cannot enjoy prosperity if we misunderstand freedom and if we forget this other point Lukacs made:

Freedom means the capacity to know something about oneself, and the consequent practice or at least the desire to live according to limits imposed on oneself rather than by external powers. This appetite for freedom is not extinct, not even in today’s world; but the present “cultural” atmosphere provides something very different, indeed contrary to its proper nourishment.

The task before us, then, is to create an atmosphere conducive to the proper cultivation of this healthy appetite for freedom and to make clear what liberty it is we are seeking to restore.

Cross-posted at Eunomia

9 COMMENTS

  1. Nice post. Is Kunstler a contributor to Front Porch Republic or just listed in the blogrole on the right? His opinions would fit right in with the viewpoints of this site and would be a welcome addition of someone who (for some strange reason given his views) identifies himself as being on the left.

  2. Thanks. I believe all of the contributors are listed at the top of the page, but I may be wrong about that. I think it is certainly the case that many of us who are contributing here pay attention to what Kunstler is saying and have taken his arguments into account in making our own.

  3. “Rather than entertaining the possibility that a private organization that is too big to fail is perhaps for that reason too big to exist, we instead like narcotized adolescents accept that Big Daddy will take care of us in the end… ”

    This is simply not true. If one take the time to actually follow the crises in detail, the realization that banking consolidation is a problem is not new. I guess this would not have given Mr. Deneen the literary chance to say “narcotized adolescents”…

    “And, above all, we yearn to revisit our blithe state of unconscious belief that the good of life consists in getting what we want without cost, travail, or consequence.”

    BAH! Give me a break. As a traditional conservative, and have never understood the agrarian, crunchy con, etc. tendency for gross exaggeration. This sentence is pure straw man…

    “No less important to maintain faith in progress is the false definition of freedom as the absence of restraint and restrictions. ”

    Look around you, this is a central problem of the left, not the right. Property rights has always been a check on unfettered materialism (as counter intuitive as that sounds). It’s your leftist friends who will make human beings an object of manufacture.

    As to the proposition that there is no difference between right and left, that is just silly. I think you are confusing Big Business Libertarian GOP with the conservatives of various flavors. It’s a common mistake…

  4. …someone who (for some strange reason given his views) identifies himself as being on the left.

    I assume you write this, Empedocles, because you assume that the political left couldn’t, or shouldn’t, hold views friendly to cultural conservatism and localism? And that therefore anyone who holds said views ought to consider themselves on the right? But that’s simply incorrect–incorrect because, first, while “left” and “right” remain at least minimally useful broad ideological categorizations the sort of specific viewpoint packages long associated with them have completely broken down and apart, and because, second, there are entirely legitimate “leftist” arguments of conservatism out there. Some of us, in fact, find them a lot more persuasive than those which label themselves as coming from the right…

  5. Great piece. Although I do have one objection:

    “As ingenious as research into various forms of alternative energy undoubtedly is, the creation of these new technologies is an attempt to accommodate appetites rather than curb them and to evade significant changes in behavior for as long as possible.”

    I’m not sure this can be a blanket statement. It is true that there are some capitalists and those in the “Green Revolution” that see renewable energy and sustainable technology as a way to evade changing behavior. But there are significant amounts of people investing and pushing for sustainable technologies that are trying to make it easier for changes in behavior to happen. It is difficult and impossible for a large amount of people to live truly sustainable lifestyles with the technology options available. But as new sustainable technologies develop, more and more people will hopefully have the resources for a sustainable lifestyle. I think now is the best time to educate people on what a sustainable lifestyle is and how to achieve it, so that their behaviors will change (over time), and they will embrace and use the new technologies in “good faith.” Like I said, your position is true, but only partially. And the other side to the argument is crucial to help facilitate the true behavior change we all seek.

  6. Well I think that just as there are neo-cons and paleo-cons I think there are paleo-libs and neo-libs. The traditional left found it greatest support among labor groups which required the existence of big business for their own existence. They might have been against management, but they were comfortable with big business as long as it played by certain rules. The neo-libs are interested in economic localization. There many reasons for this movement: environmentalists support how localization reduces energy costs and protects local farmland from development, anti-corporate activists support local independent small businesses from corporate chains, economic activists argue for keeping dollars on the local community rather that going to Wall Street or China. Although all of these movements are associated with the Left, the Democratic party is the party of strong centralized government, not decentralized local government. The localization movement on the left still seems to love centralized political power. It is the Republicans who are mostly associated with Federalism, although through the neo-cons the Republican party has become the party of big government conservatism. Most of those who champion localization have not yet taken the step from local business to local government, but there is an opportunity for a new political coalition of the paleo-cons and neo-libs seeking decentralized government and to push power as far as possible to localities and to demand the ability to make decisions concerning the course of their communities. I used to think that if the Republicans can break the grip of the neo-cons, and re-brand their philosophy “localization” rather than Federalism, they have the best chance of attracting those interested in localization. Now I think that this is probably not ever going to happen and sites like Front Porch Republic need to exist to bring paleo-cons and neo-libs together into something new.

  7. Oh, and as far as Kunstler goes, he’s artistically conservative in his painting and support of traditional small towns, he’s socially conservative in his attacks on “tattood barbarians” and baggy pants, he’s economically conservative in his protectionism and like for small business, he’s politically conservative in his desire for localization. He’s also a non-interventionist, and anti-immigration. He gets a %100 rating on the archconservative paleo-con scale 🙂

  8. This article is like water in the desert. I think the critique is spot on and the philosophical position regarding work and excess is spot on. I wish I could simply say that without reservation but I can’t. For a free market to work there has to be some type of match between the need for goods and services and the need for labor. Even the rabid, undignified consumption spree that has characterized this country for the last 25 years or so hasn’t created enough demand to employ people who want to be useful in useful positions.

    We appear to be in the position of a slave culture. Big and growing gulf between rich and poor… disappearing middle class… labor costs set by people who live in abject conditions with few rights…. Right now we can still point to exploited human beings in this slave relationship but every year we add more sophisticated automation. The day is practically upon us when the work of human hands will not be required for necessities. I understand and respect that you’re talking about a far deeper philosophical problem regarding work and consumption but eventually an ideal must have an implementation path or its a dead end.

    I for one believe that automation is often a good thing and that automata can do things in sustainable ways where groups of humans never could. I just fear that this rocket ship of increased efficiency will simply leave most people permanently behind.

  9. I rather like Kunstler, but the evidence of his non-interventionism is speculative at best.

    Very good essay Daniel. I have written about the links between Richard Weavers anti-categorization and John Zerzan’s anarcho-primitivism before. That may be a bridge too far for some, but these sort of strange parallels run across a broad spectrum, which is one of many reasons they ought to be taken seriously.

    If you haven’t read Jerry Mander’s “In The Absence Of The Sacred” you ought to.

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