Class and Clerisy

Some ruling classes in history, more than others, deserve pitchforks.  If plumpness is an invitation, then it is easy to understand the unpopularity of those who have fattened themselves on globalised gluttony and by feeding at the trough of government bailouts.

Porchers’ better natures dissuade us from a literal pitchforking of the plump.  But those who preside over a disordered world, along with the vast swathes of the global upper middle class whose worldview aligns with them, are often and deservedly pitchforked figuratively in our columns.  An anti-élitism of sorts runs through FPR.  Against rampant capitalism and top-heavy statism, it affirms an earthy common sense, a humility grounded in small town life and its spiritual offshoots.  Such populism is undeniably attractive, especially when put up against those whose hubris, in each of the last few generations, has swollen and spilled over ever more unaccountably in all directions.

Class gets a rather skewed and selective treatment here on the Porch.  The vertical problem, the moral bankruptcy of today’s ruling class, gets reduced to part of the horizontal problem, the rootlessness of modern life.  Porchers usually take Christopher Lasch’s approach to the matter.  Lasch called himself a populist, and set a lower middle class ethic of limits in contrast to the effete cosmopolitanism of the new professional strata.  Russell Arben Fox admires Lasch’s vision of a “rough equality of decent communities.”  And Jeremy Beer draws on Lasch to point out what is wrong with modern meritocracy.  Because individual ambition trumps all else, people move away from their birthplaces and leave communities hollow.  Such a  brain drain, Lasch argued, deprives traditional communities and neighbourhoods of natural leaders.  Meritocrats also feel little obligation to those left behind by the rat race.  The old aristocracy, for all its drawbacks, had more sense of noblesse oblige, both because it put down roots and because it knew its privileges were rather arbitrary.

These indictments of modern life are fair enough on their own terms.  It is only natural that, in all countries, populism is the usual idiom in which one criticises the squires of the global village.  Traditionalism today is a bottom-up proposition, because tradition lingers most in humble places.

We should be careful not to frame the problem too narrowly, however.  What does it mean to find a tradition worth defending?  For the populists, tradition is a cluster of placebound habits, stiffened by a distinct awareness of what it means to belong somewhere.  That sort of traditionalism has some strengths, I admit.  It can foil, for a time, those enthusiasts of modernity who impose progress against common sense.  It can slow the corrosive effects of lucre-lust.

But it is also a very incomplete kind of traditionalism.  According to an older view, a tradition is a heritage that demands a peculiar sort of excellence.  It transmits over the generations among a minority the nuances of that excellence and the methods of cultivating it.  By its very nature, such a tradition exists in layers and is bound up with class.

To grasp the logic of this older, more aristocratic traditionalism, we must revisit two thinkers: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and T.S. Eliot.

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