The idealism of the paleoconservative cause is simply too burdened by the idealism of its vision. Politics is not a time machine and we are not ever going to travel back to whichever pre-modern, small government existence that many paleos envision. ~E.D. Kain

It’s true that idealism would be quite heavily burdened by idealism, but if we set this odd statement aside I’m still not sure what Kain means. Politics is not a time-machine, nor is anything else, and no one is more keenly aware of the impossibilities of undoing the effects of past changes than the people who lament so much of what has been lost. Central to most traditionalist critiques is the insistence that everything comes with some sacrifice, and that, as I believe Prof. Deneen said at Yale last fall, whenever something appears something else disappears. The two main questions we keep asking are: “Is this the world we want to have?” and “Is X worth the cost?” Typically, our answers are no to both, and because we say no we are said to be doing nothing more than pining for a lost past. It’s as if someone threw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, and then mocked you for your “idealistic” concern for the baby or, better yet, your nostalgic attachment to the bathwater as if the baby had never existed. This would be a mildly amusing diversionary tactic, if it weren’t so painfully obvious that we are almost always talking about the present predicament and what we owe to those who will live in the future. The strangest thing about the remark quoted above is that Kain knows all this.

Ortega y Gasset said, “The inability to keep the past alive is the truly reactionary feature.” (That is, the true reactionary–in a negative sense–is the one who treats the past as if it is completely dead and cut off from us.) Nothing here below lasts forever, every thing eventually wears out and breaks (unless it is repaired and restored), and everyone dies. Where some of us think that this truth should inspire fidelity, respect and mourning for what has passed, the general attitude today about practically every change seems to be one of celebration and satisfaction. No modern, much less post-modern, person can ever re-enter a world as if the last five hundred (or however many) years never occurred, and were anyone somehow able to do so he would be very confused and disoriented when he arrived.

Instead of silly idealism, Kain refers us to Phillip Blond’s Red Tory proposals, which are challenging and exciting and every bit as “idealistic” as any decentralist and traditionalist arguments here in America, paleo or not, and they are just about as likely to be adopted, which is to say not very likely. I mean, doesn’t Blond know that politics is not a time-machine? It is never going to take us back to the economically decentralized world Blond envisions. What could he possibly be thinking with all of his localist nostalgia and Post Office romanticism? So there!

That is what I might say to Blond if I wanted to dismiss everything he says and avoid seeing the bankruptcy of the vision of globalization he is criticizing, or if I wanted to use him as a foil for my own argument, as if it were somehow discrediting that he had been making these same “idealistic” arguments for years or decades before they became suddenly fashionable. In a pinch, I could also just turn off my brain and call him a socialist, but that is something better left to others. However, I agree with him on almost everything he has been saying over the last few months, so why would I do that?

Blond discusses local finance and subsidiarity at length in both his Prospect piece and his op-ed for The Guardian. Over the last thirty years, you could count on maybe one hand the American journals and institutions on the right that discussed subsidiarity, distributism, and their foundations in Catholic social doctrine, and you could count on probably one or two fingers the journals that discussed and embraced them as something other than historical curiosities and funny details in the life of Chesterton and Belloc. One of these has been, of course, Chronicles, but it is “paleoconservative” and so we can supposedly write it off just like that. This is now the term applied to most anyone who argues for ethical restraint, conservation, social solidarity, respect for and loyalty to place and sane foreign policy, which is not a bad summary of what paleoconservatives believe, but it is just as often applied to people who would never use it to describe themselves as a way of belittling and marginalizing their very relevant and challenging arguments. There’s no reason that someone couldn’t dismiss Blond in exactly the same way (“he’s a crazy Red Tory!”), and that would be a shame, because Blond is making a lot of sense.

Blond writes:

However the global trade in credit and finance became one vast private sector monopoly where all market tiers were abolished in favour of a single homogenous conduit down which all credit and capital flowed. The trouble is that as soon as the world’s supply of asset-leveraged credit was threatened by a group of people being unable to pay their debts, the entire system shut down and the present meltdown began. In point of fact it looks as though the path to globalisation merely exchanged one form of state-engendered national monopoly for an international private monopoly founded on extreme speculation [bold mine-DL].

It is here that a financial variant of subsidiarity could have kicked in and avoided both statist inertia and the casino of monopoly capitalism. For why can we not have a subsidiarity of capital? Surely the task now is to avoid the cartels of both market and state and create a genuinely autonomous range of intermediate associations that can hold intermediate amounts of capital that we need to have loans and a life [bold mine-DL]. Why should the house or flat that you or I buy in Clacton or Cardiff be securitised and risked at the highest level of the market? Far better to have a local system of credit that is attuned to the local economy, so that ability to pay and the asset value of what is purchased are both more acutely aligned to the local economic base.

As some of us noticed during the inane “debate” over the bailout last fall, local and regional banks had by and large not fallen prey to the overleveraging that was destroying many of the major financial institutions, they complained that their irresponsible, larger competitors were being rescued from their own mistakes, and they wanted no part of the bailout because they didn’t need it. Of course, the idea that we should (gasp) interfere in The Market to build up a system of local and tiered finance rather than an overly concentrated, globalized one would be met with the same dismissive response, “Don’t you know that times have changed?” George Grant observed a long time ago that if small-government conservatives in America succeeded in shrinking the federal government and restoring state sovereignty, this would clear the way for domination by corporate oligarchy unless it was accompanied by economic decentralization. Of course, anytime someone suggests creating a more decentralized economy, he is dubbed a socialist who wants to meddle with the glorious Market, as if the current predicament resulted from anything other than collusion between centralized power and concentrated wealth. This is the false choice that defenders of the status quo love to present as a way to paralyze and halt any attempt at making sane reforms, and it is enormously helpful to them to write off as “idealists” those few who have been arguing for political and economic decentralization for decades. Since we are not going back to “an agrarian society or a totally localized economy,” and since we all know this, why are we spending any time successfully demolishing strawmen that represent the views of virtually no one alive today?

Cross-posted at Eunomia


  1. Daniel I think you misinterpret what I’m saying here (and yes, the quotation you draw from my piece is abominably phrased. I hit publish too soon and have been quoted now twice from that one awkwardly put sentence).

    Look, what I’m doing in this piece is trying to find fault with my own writing, with my own Utopianism and theories. I know you’ve been reading at least some of my writing because you’ve linked to it and I’ve been unendingly critical of globalization,free trade, etc. and writing positively about distributism, subsidiarity, agrarianism, localism, and so forth.

    So what I wanted to do was to lay bare what my own feelings were regarding the shortcomings of where my own writing was going. Why is localism, paleoconservatism etc. not gaining more momentum? Because it sits so often in the realm of idealism rather than practicality. This is what I like about Blond, who tries very hard to put forth practical (albeit UK-centric) policy prescriptions to the problems we face. You do this as well, as do many of the FPR crowd. This is one reason I’m so excited about the Front Porch – finally some real, focused discussion. But then again, even there, and often as not in my own writing the idealism and wishful thinking can blind us a bit to the real problems these theories hold – namely, what’s right and good about modernity, and how the alternative vision can be applied without necessarily abandoning those things. Deneen was on to this in his “Free Riders” piece.

    I certainly did not mean to ridicule or call out as “silly” the entirety of the localist cause, of which I consider myself to be a part, only to admit to some of my own failures (and the failures of those I hold common cause with) in critiquing modernity and in providing a sensible alternative. Why? Because since Chesterton there has been a steady stream of critics of modernity who are too easily cast aside by the mainstream, and often as not this is due to their inability to provide a pragmatic alternative. We localists are too easily written off as daydreamers.

    For all his perceived failings as a “conservative” this is one area in which I think David Cameron really “gets it.” Call it compromise if you will. I titled my piece “Working with what we’ve got.” It is, to some degree, a matter of compromise. It must be. It always is.

    More than anything this was an exercise in humility, and I see that it has been read as an exercise in contempt. This was not my intention. (cross-commented at Eunomia)

  2. Quote of the Day…

    … The two main questions we keep asking are: “Is this the world we want to have?” and “Is X worth the cost?” Typically, our answers are no to both, and because we say no we are said to be doing nothing more than pining for a lost past. It’s…

  3. Thanks, Erik. I may have over-reacted to your post a bit, and I understand now what you were trying to do. I do hope this post also makes a more important point than the narrow polemical one, which is that you and I know that we’re not engaged in some vain effort at time travel, and we know that we’re not simply pining for the good old days, but that we are absolutely engaged in the present and are interested in finding ways out of our predicament. I know that we are in agreement on many points, so what set me to criticizing your post is that you seemed to be endorsing a caricature not just of all paleos but of yourself and the arguments you want to make. I appreciate the self-critical approach and the wariness of engaging in a lot of empty talk unmoored from practice and the realm of the possible, but without abandoning that self-criticism and realism I think the (very) few of us who are making these arguments could do without making too many apologies for taking our own side in an argument.

    On a related point, I am reminded of the Kinsley-Douthat argument over ESCR, the debate we were having with Mark Thompson over protectionism and an older criticism of Chronicles. Ross made the reasonable point that pro-lifers are trying not to be completely unrealistic by pushing to eliminate fertility clinics, which makes them practical and not inconsistent or cynical. Mark kept complaining about protectionist measures because they were being imposed by a centralized nation-state, which seemed inconsistent with an emphasis on localism. A few years back, Chronicles had a cover with a picture of someone plowing a field that merged with the picture of a generic Main Street somewhere, and it was mocked for being both nostalgic and contradictory, which missed the point on both counts. That cover expressed the tension in all of these arguments. Just because we, or at least some of us, may find agrarianism to be more ideal and more desirable, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to make arguments in contemporary debates aimed at shoring up our local and regional economies based around different kinds of manufacturing. Just because we would ultimately like to have a more decentralized political order doesn’t mean that we’re going to embrace policies that work to the detriment of large parts of this country. To the extent that economic dependency on employers and banks is not going anywhere, Blond’s proposals to localize and bring these things down to a smaller scale are the best we can do for most people.

  4. Absolutely, Daniel. I’ve expounded a bit more on this at the League. I certainly see how some of my initial post came off as too harsh, and indeed adopting (ironically but not clearly so) the caricatures of the paleo cause…

  5. Those who are intent upon repeating the mistakes of history are always quick to disdain the lessons of history. In between serial mistakes, they call the conservative a hopeless romantic and run as fast as they can from the image in the rear view mirror as though it was the scene of a crime. The future, ludicrously, will somehow be a kind of victory in a war against the past. This ethos of poverty reaches it’s apotheosis now when popular concepts of history are reduced to edited snippets whose only remaining purpose is to reinforce a sentimental and supremely superstitious world view of hee-haw triumphalism. It is verboten to consider past and future simultaneously. Incredibly, the slavish devotion to a perfect future insures that even the present cannot be treated with anything more than passing amusement. It is a get out of reality free card because without past nor present, one is free to fail with bored cheer.

  6. the handicap and empowerment of paleoconservatives relies on not understanding history.

    whatever success their favorite slice of history had was largely enabled by the physical and logistical constraints of running businesses at the time. And in America, additionally, tariffs, too much abundant and affordable land, distance and isolation, etc.

    If the present “collapse” of our leading financial institutions is blamed on people defaulting on debts, it must be understood that their success for years depended on proactively loaning money to people who would obviously not pay it back to the terms of the loan.

    Just as America’s great depression resulted from the big east coast trading firms enticing local and regional banks across america to pour money into speculative markets like they never had before, so too has the recent modern mobility of savings and capital guaranteed our present balloon and bust.

  7. My experience of Localism in the form of Municipal and County Government is one of idiocy, tyrannical small mindedness and corruption. But perhaps inspired by the spirit of Distributionism they would behave differently.

    Much of what we don’t like about our society is the consequence of moral/cultural decay and the collapse of the Wasp ruling class. Freed of Calvinist cultural norms, it was inevitable that the newly wealthy would create a culture they can understand based on models they relate to. That is, peasant hedonism and gluttonous consumption.

    A Distributionist government run by such people will inevitably use the tools of downsizing to create many small rackets where once there was one. Voltaire said “Better to live under the paw of the lion than under the thousand teeth of the rats who are my fellow citizens.” I tend to agree.

  8. “Voltaire said “Better to live under the paw of the lion than under the thousand teeth of the rats who are my fellow citizens.” I tend to agree.”

    Had Voltaire lived to see the 20th century and made acquaintance with Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China, I think he may have reconsidered. The cretins on my city council have only a limited power to make mischief for me, plus I know where they live (and they’re not all cretins, by the way). The faceless, all-crushing centralized bureaucratic state’s power to wreck and destroy is infinitely greater. I’ll take my chances with the rats, thanks.

  9. This is a very smart conversation, and much enjoyed. However, is it possible that in the examination of the problem(s)at hand we have not only failed to fnd the answer but lost the question as well? Perhaps we are experiencing the effects of our own, unique Western deculturation; the distortion of language and related phenomenon.
    The problem, seems to me, to be established on whether as human beings we exist in the movement between immanence and transcendence or, as Sartre noted, we are existentially moi.
    Perhaps, the first conversation should be centered on the “question;” What is the nature of our humanity?

  10. Steve K. Voltaire was referring to the rule of kings not the rule of the masses. The rule of the masses followed soon enough and with it the horrors of the guillotine and mass murder. My point is that even a Christian King is more benign than any popular plebiscitory government of the people. This applies to Socialist, National Socialist or so called Liberal Democracies.

    But of course I was being a bit cute in that I really don’t have a choice unless I want to defect to Lichtenstein.

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