Akron, OH. One of the more troubling things about the protests and demonstrations of this past year is the lack of sympathy they have garnered from conservatives. Consider the following demands that have recently gained traction: defunding bureaucratic police departments and using those resources to empower local communities; reparations for underprivileged Blacks that could be granted in the form of vouchers for better education and down payments for home ownership; breaking up the self-serving corporate culture that has been exposed by the “Me Too” movement; requiring public employees, especially police officers, to live in the communities they serve. All these things are harmonious with conservative values that favor local involvement over large bureaucracies.

Mark Clavier reaches for this common ground in an essay published here on July 24 in which he draws the conservative conclusion, from an argument that many progressives would nod along with, that we have become “disembedded” from our local communities. It is a well-written essay that uses a description of the 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. to frame the problem with the existing world order. According to Mr. Clavier, the most telling moment in the debate was when Buckley argues that the United States provides Blacks with a greater degree of material well-being “than that enjoyed by 95% of the other peoples of the human race.” Buckley’s argument was like the one that slave-owners made about how they were improving upon the lives of “savage” Africans. But what is more damnable, according to Clavier, is that Buckley’s claim may well be accurate.

That America and other western countries should find themselves in such an unimpeachable position of material dominance is no accident, nor is it straight-forwardly the result of hard work, at least not the honest kind. The standard of living Americans enjoy is the fruit of more than three hundred years of extraordinary racial injustices. Slavery, imperial conquest, colonialism, and the genocide of native peoples are the foundation stones on which western prosperity was built.

This jeremiad undoubtedly captures some truth and is fairly representative of progressive thought. More interesting is how Clavier connects this past with the present world order, where corporations “have stepped into the role vacated by slave masters.” Those of us whose ancestors benefitted from slavery and imperialism in the past, now benefit from the exploitation of cheap (mostly non-white) labor whether it is at home or “the southern Africans sweating out miserable incomes in mineral extraction, or the Asians working long hours for next to nothing to supply us with cheap clothing.” The old slave order has been reconstituted in a way that now enslaves more peoples and is destroying the planet. Can the solution to discrimination and injustice, Clavier asks, really be the fuller participation of minorities in a system that perpetuates injustice on three-quarters of the world’s population? Do we really want minorities to be like white people?

Fortuitously, Clavier looks to FPR hero Wendell Berry for a solution to our present conundrum. From Berry, Clavier gleans that all our values are being determined by the market because we are disassociated from our communities. But a proper community, Berry explains, “is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, and an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual of its members.” Communities thrive, Clavier concludes, when “people are confronted by each other face-to-face and find fulfilment in their mutual need.” This is an idea that is the very essence of conservativism. Roger Scruton called it the “romantic core of conservativism,” the belief that what has been lost through the scale of modern institutions can be regained but in reimagined form. Human cannot fully mature and realize their talents separated from the “little platoons” that give life meaning.

The problem with Clavier and Berry’s vision of restoring community is not the lack of ideas for what might be done. There are innumerable ways to make communities more resilient by strengthening local associations. The real question is how to make the political process work to effect such change. Berry and Clavier seem to think our political order is so broken that change will only come when government and corporate intransigence finally force people to reject the current order and fall back on their communities and families. Berry writes that if the system fails slowly the most necessary things may be preserved and “then it may fail into a restoration of community.” This seems like wishful thinking because power is never surrendered voluntarily. It will require the kind of participation that has energized Black Lives Matter, the Tea Party, and the “Me Too” movement. The life’s blood of our communities has been usurped by government and big institutions. When enough people recognize their emasculated state and demand change through the political process, then authority and resources will be given back to the local community so that people can again be responsible for their neighbors.

Unfortunately, much of our public discourse is of little consequence. It doesn’t matter whether slavery and discrimination enriched whites or diminished the entire nation’s material and spiritual wealth (especially in the South, which had always been our poorest region). It doesn’t matter that Clavier and progressives do not always understand the power of markets and how they can also dissipate power. It doesn’t matter that they seem to mock productivity and fail to appreciate the enormous material gains and reductions in famine that have occurred in the third world. It doesn’t matter if white people who think they are not racists are really racists. It doesn’t matter whether the British in India were more rapacious than the Moghuls. What matters is that many on the Left are starting to see that empowering local communities is the answer to our alienation from the things that give life meaning. Progressives are shaking society to its foundations in ways that are often compatible with conservatives’ core beliefs. Where are the conservatives?

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18 COMMENTS

  1. The blogger “Maximos,” who used to post at the What’s Wrong With the World? site, summed it up nicely more than a few years ago (quoting from memory here):

    “The left wants ‘cultural liberation’ with economic solidarity, but the former subverts the latter; the right wants ‘economic liberty’ with cultural traditionalism but the former subverts the latter.”

    In the main conservatism has never grasped the second half of that sentence. To put it very briefly, and in symbolic form, conservatism is where it is today because it failed to listen to Christopher Lasch, even when he spoke directly to it.

    Today we hear various complaints from the right about crony capitalism, woke capitalism, and surveillance capitalism. On the whole the complaints are valid, but one would wish that more conservatives would wake up to the possibility that the problem with each of those things doesn’t lie solely in the adjective, but also in the noun.

    • “the problem with each of those things doesn’t lie solely in the adjective, but also in the noun.”
      Only in the sense that the noun was something coined by socialists to mean bad things.
      Scale really is the problem. Corporations want to be big (“efficient”), governments was them to be big (easily “regulated”/taxed/extorted from), and conservatives are only now starting to wake up to the things you talk about. And of course they’re being completely savaged for it by the “elites” of society, and by one and a half of the two parties we’re stuck with.

      • Scale has been a problem with corporate capitalism for at least a hundred years. The argument can be made that bigness is a feature of it rather than a bug, just like cronyism.

  2. The Left is shifting toward empowering local communities? That’s interesting; I must have missed that shift in emphasis in Portland and Atlanta, for example, where the Left (Antifa and Black Lives Matter) has been burning down local businesses,destroying neighborhoods, and literally shooting children.

    This article is probably one of the most absurd I’ve ever read on Front Porch Republic. It’s utterly foolish and tone deaf to think that Black Lives Matter, which evinces a certain agitprop rhetoric, is all about building and sustaining local communities when they are systemically seeking to — not merely defund — but destroy policing. I can’t think of a better way to destroy community than to prevent police from arresting and removing the very worst actors from said communities. Have you seen the national spike in violent crime? I suppose we should blame conservatives for that?

    So much to criticize with this essay, resting as it does on a series of false assumptions. But I suppose I’ll leave it here. Black Lives Matter has morphed into a domestic terrorism organization.

    • I think there’s a lot of eliding being done in this comment, eliding that doesn’t take into account the dissonance between official organizations (the loudest, most visible on social media, prominent journalists, etc.). Yes, the BLM organization itself demonstrates a commitment to destruction and not construction, but the everyday person, who may not know that’s what the organization stands for, is very much concerned with building and sustaining local communities. But, the *people* who mainly refuse to exist on the internet have been doing good work to make their communities better. I would argue that that kind of work isn’t seen as much because 1) it doesn’t get the likes and the retweets and 2) it’s intentionally not performative—they just do the work and don’t signal about it. I see it every day in my community when I’m out and about (yes, this is an anecdote and doesn’t have empirical verifiability, but I would argue that others would say the same).

      Furthermore, if I may, I would respectfully suggest that your response doesn’t actually engage with Mr. Renuart’s argument on the terms the argument sets out. Rather, by deflecting the claims of the argument (which is more a response to Berry and recent pieces in FRP than anything else) onto some “what-abouts” there’s not really much being contributed here. Might I also suggest that while there’s some initial cognitive dissonance we might experience from Mr. Renuart’s claims, he’s actually attempting to begin some pretty big conversations about what’s happening in the world and how we can till common ground between the various groups acting in the world today? Might I suggest that while initial reactions might be something akin to yours (I believe that mine was), there’s something here that could be true and that we should test it rather than dismiss it by pointing to the most visible examples of exactly the opposite of what Mr. Renuart is talking about and seeing?

      It’s un-generous to read Mr. Renuart’s piece without understanding that he’s talking about what’s beneath the rhetoric—what he’s seeing locally in terms of behavior. Many of these organizations have in fact mobilized a resurgence of localism. In my city, for example, the loudest (and most ignored) people who advocate for the worst of what has been seen online are academics, but the people who actually are doing good work under the banner of, say, BLM? They don’t align themselves with anything the academic stands for—and frankly may not even know that the academic exists. And I also think it’s safe to say that Mr. Renuart’s understanding of what a “conservative” is is quite different from what I think yours might be. Mr. Renuart appears to be evincing a much more Burkean/DeMaistre-an/Berryan conservatism and not the Reaganite liberalism pretend to call itself “conservative” (and nothing could be farther from the truth).

      What, I believe, Mr. Renuart has been arguing is that while there are clearly elements of these kinds of groups that are indeed truly violent and whose behavior is truly at odds with stated goals, there is still an unseen element that does indeed care about building something better—even if that’s from the ashes of what has been burned down (might I suggest reading A Canticle for Leibowitz?). I don’t know where you live, and I don’t know what kinds of people you meet physically or what ideas you run up against in your daily life, but I would argue that if we all pulled back the ideological wool from our own eyes, we would be able to see people working for the good of their communities—even if they unfortunately attach themselves to a slogan that may have been co-opted by a trademarked organization that stands for something that’s ultimately destructive. In other words, don’t give in to the motte-and-bailey but see these people as real people who have experienced a lot of historical pain and who simply want better lives; see these people as individuals instead of as groups—it’s too easy to simplify, which I’d argue creates more division than helps. Wendell Berry has much to say about that issue, I might add.

      In other words, may I respectfully suggest that your reading here is overly simplistic and appears to evince several layers of ideological assumptions that, it could be argued, are “false assumptions” just as you suggested that Mr. Renuart’s were

      • One must also differentiate between the economic left and the cultural left. Although there is some overlap the groups aren’t coterminous, and in my experience it’s more the former who are interested in “localism” than the latter, inasmuch as the cultural left includes a fair number of left-liberals/progressives who tend to be less critical of centralization.

  3. I wonder if the political process would be better pushed upon through movements that actually model the goals of restoring local communities where we have to face our neighbors’ literal presence on a day-to-day basis. I.e., movements need to put into practice what they actually believe instead of shouting it and then behaving differently.

    Some writers have begun to notice a deep disconnect between the practice and the stated goals of many of these movements, BLM being the highest profile one, where the organization describes itself on its website as a Marxist, anarchist group but the vast majority of people either don’t know that or don’t buy into that. The same thing I think is pretty evident with groups like the so-called “anti-fascists” whose lived practice might actually align with those they claim to be against.

    All that to say, from the porch where I sit and watch, is that the kinds of work being done to make the political process effect change has been often rather violent, displaced (rather than emplaced), and focused on destruction rather than construction or restoration. Which is not to say that the work is irredeemable. Let me emphasize that.

    I wonder then if the best possible solution for putting restoration of community into practice is something along the lines of slow-growth or degrowth—not just applied to economics & politics but also applied to the arts and to people’s perception of relationships between people. Slowing down not just economies but also (importantly) the language and speech of the political process itself (especially sloganeering) would do much to help people see where there are commitments to be made and common ground to be cultivated. (FPR ran an essay about degrowth & limits last year: https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2019/11/heaven-hath-limits/)

    Because I think, honestly, it is the sloganeering that is keeping conservatives by and large disdainful of the calls to reallocated public funding, expansion of school choice for the poor, trust-busting and so forth. From where I sit (tangentially to the production factory of a lot of the ideology that has collected much social capital in recent days), most people don’t actually mean “defund” the police; they mean reallocated public funding, better conflict resolution training, demilitarization, and so forth while still retaining a clearly define police force in cities—all of which gets clouded and glossed over by the catchy slogan. The same I think is true of reparations—the ideas of channelling those into school choice vouchers & down payments for home- and property-ownership are ideas I support. But these by-and-large get lost in the sloganeering of the loudest speakers in the discourse.

    This is a long-winded way to say that I disagree that Berry is guilty of wishful thinking. Especially in The Art of Loading Brush, Berry gives a clear articulation of the problems and a clear articulation of solutions, and his diagnosis is mournful but also correct—indicting the worst of academia/academics as well as those elements in the Democrat party that created the conditions for Mr. Trump to be elected. I still think Berry is the best guide we have to devolving political power and emphasizing localism & decentralism.

    I don’t know the best way forward though, but I do know that if we don’t hold ourselves (and the loudest, most prominent movements) to embody and practice what they actually believe, we can’t ever make the political process effect the change that we need to see. Which is to say, we should work to prune and redeem the work of these large groups attempting to do good rather than dismissing them.

  4. “What matters is that many on the Left are starting to see that empowering local communities is the answer to our alienation from the things that give life meaning.”
    Delusional. Your statement, I mean. No one on the left actually believes this.

    “Where are the conservatives?”
    Not sure what corners of the interwebs you hang out, but what I see is conservatives saying that people saying “defund the police”, etc., in NYC, Seattle, Chicago, etc., should in fact get what they are chanting for, good and hard. Just leave the rest of us alone, and let us control our own communities.
    Where are the progressives who will actually do that?

    • Your summary judgement here is flat-out incorrect. The “no one” on the left you refer to is actually quite a large element of people who choose to primarily keep themselves off the internet and actually do the work of building strong communities and caring for the world in which they live. I believe that your response is derived from what you’re seeing *nationally*—the loudest and most extreme (necessarily hand in hand) elements of an ideology that is shared by a much smaller group than might at first appear. Additionally, it’s overly simplistic to lump millions of people into a singular political term (“the left”) that has no real operative value in the discourse today.

      Too your judgement elides the language of the piece into an absolute statement. Mr. Renuart hasn’t said that “all” on the left are starting to recognize this but that “many” are starting to recognize this. I would wager that the people he’s talking about are people like himself, people he encounters daily, and yes, some folks here at FPR. There is a profound rediscovery of place and emplacement happening in our world—yes, it’s piecemeal; yes, it’s imperfect; yes it’s finding hard to let go of technological and political crutches but it’s there for anyone who cares to look deeply at the place in which they are.

      Might I suggest that before you join the ranks of the “shruggers” (you deserve to get what you ask for) that you turn your gaze away from the screen and look into your community to see real people doing the real work of making their community a whole and better place? The work is being done—even if we can’t clearly delineate whose politics are whose.

      • “Might I suggest that before you join the ranks of the “shruggers” (you deserve to get what you ask for) that you turn your gaze away from the screen and look into your community to see real people doing the real work of making their community a whole and better place?”
        Might I suggest that you be generous enough to think that perhaps I’m already doing that? I am quite active in my small town, thank you very much. I don’t have the time or the energy or the inclination to try to “fix” Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, NYC, etc. I’m happy to let “them” experiment with ways to fix themselves, but it’s been generations now since “they” have been willing to do the same.

  5. Thanks Willis for this every thoughtful engagement with my piece. My own quibble with Berry’s essay (indeed, with a possibly too romantic strain in his writing as a whole) is that he over-estimates the goodness of local communities. The Jim Crow South was fundamentally a regional network of small communities. I now live in the kind of small community (pop. 8000) in Wales that America can only dream of these days, and it’s filled with all the same problems rooted in fallen human nature that one finds anywhere else…though he is correct to highlight the social benefit of knowing ones neighbour and having to look him/her in the face. But I certainly think Berry is on the right track.

    I am, though, guilty as charge about my pessimism (and I’m known as an incurable optimist). I think the combination of affluence, mass-marketing, distance from the means of production, and plain old human selfishness are too powerful a combined force for us to challenge it seriously. Moreover, consumerism has done a masterful job of eradicating the local, if that word is understood to include landscapes and memory. Again, where I now live and work, I’m surrounded by 800 years of built history with ruined reminders of a history that goes back 5,000 more. But people have by and large become utterly disconnected from that local identity–they now inhabit a social imaginary found the world over and accessed through TVs, smartphones, and laptops–the foundations for that imaginary arose in part through the exploitation of people of colour and necessarily remains out of the reach of mostly non-white people today (because the world can’t sustain 7 billion people living as we do). I’ve written more extensively about this in my books and essays such as https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2019/08/19/technopolis/ (which also speaks to your observation about progressives and conservatives).

    As I’m a Christian (not to mention a priest), I don’t believe our job is to bear witness to an alternative narrative/reality/vision amidst all this. But we must bear witness persuasively As I’ve argued elsewhere, we need to rediscover an eloquent wisdom that can provoke people to foster what is true, good, and beautiful in the world while challenging all that makes this world ugly. I think Berry captures this beautifully with his idea of conviviality. Such communities of delight leave no space for the kind of anger and enmity that dominate our world, encouraging instead a kind of healing and reconciliation that connects us more strongly to our ancestors and to the stories, places, and ideals we share with them.

  6. Willis: “What matters is that many on the Left are starting to see that empowering local communities is the answer to our alienation from the things that give life meaning.”

    Russell: [nods his head in agreement, thinks about multiple local efforts by BLM activists, historical preservationists, doctors, pastors, and others here in Wichita to democratically demand justice and force change in regards to health mandates (a county commission that for weeks disregarded or made light of coronavirus warnings), police violence (a department that retained without discipline an officer who, in response to a swatting call, killed an unarmed man with his arms raised in the door of his own apartment), and much more]

    Brian: “No one on the left actually believes this.”

    Russell: [raises his hand, shows Brian his Democratic Socialists of America membership card]

    • Do you think that small towns in Kansas should be given back the political power that was stolen from them 60 years ago?

      Of course you don’t.

      Until you do, take your laminated card and pretend localism and stick it back in your pocket to try to impress someone else.

      • I think your error here is that you are viewing “the left” as monolithic, which it isn’t. This is the same error that many liberals (and leftists, truth be told) make about the right. All you need to do to witness both sides of this in action is spend about a half-hour on Dreher’s blog reading the comments.

  7. Rereading this piece, I thought I ought to clarify a couple of things:

    First, contrary to the author’s assumptions, I am a conservative–indeed, in some areas rather antediluvian in my outlook–and an admirer of much of Burke’s thought, though my own political and social views are rooted more in Augustine, Richard Hooker, and the Catholic tradition.

    Second, I believe that our so-called liberal society (in it’s philosophical sense) continues to fail to see it’s indebtedness to the exploitation of the non-white world, past and present. There could not have been our much praised post-Enlightenment progress without slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. The vast riches that poured into maritime European countries and North America helped to fund the cultural, scientific, technological, and social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

    To take an obvious example, there would not now be all the insights and achievements of the United States had the New World not been conquered and it’s indigenous population largely eradication (in some places 90% of the original population). Or take our dominating consumer society, which was largely bequeathed by the availability of sugar (and thus sweets, cakes, sweetened drinks, and rum), tobacco, and tea made available in vast quantities through slavery, monocropping, and/or incredibly cheap labour (not to mention the conquest of lands that could support such agriculture). One could go on.

    Yes, our economies have been rebuilt in the US following the Civil War and the Depression and in Europe after the two World Wars. But almost any book on the New South will show how much that depended on Jack Crow laws, big bosses, and destructive farming (I write this as a proud Southerner). European economies were partly through economic access and advantages gained by empire. We simply can’t begin to imagine what our world would be like without the gains from slavery and imperialism and the damage each did to the peoples most affected.

    Now, my own view is that it’s a waste of time wringing our hands about much of this. It happened. There’s not much we can do about the abuses of the past today…except to try to learn lessons. One of the chief lessons (as Berry is fond of arguing) is the violence of hubris: the belief that the world is our oyster and conformable to our will. Slavery and imperialism were both colossal acts of will bent against the other for the advantage of those with most power to impose that will. We have yet to learn the lesson, I believe, that hubris backed by technology leads only to the destruction of humanity. Thus, we need Berry’s humility rooted in local communities that limit our reach and teach us to find the good life not through the satisfaction of our wills but through mutual love and an abiding delight in the world and our neighbours.

  8. “Do we really want minorities to be like white people?”
    Who is the we and what kind of white people at what point in history?

    “the fuller participation of minorities in a system that perpetuates injustice on three-quarters of the world’s population?”
    Indeed. One is tempted to modify the slogan to Black Lives Matter Only If They’re American. Ferdnand Braudel ages ago presented the image of interconnected bell jars (all the more accurate now in the age of the internet) to describe how elites of all races in various countries communicate and connive with each other while remaining oblivious to their own populations (national and local).

    However, I agree with Mark C’s note about “lessons learned”. A key to the way forward is to raise awareness beyond the presentism of merely pointing out flaws in the past the way a young child might point at cows, trees, buildings, etc. while riding in a car to exercise his/her newfound ability to verbalize. Progress occurs when unity emerges from widespread recognition, not from fiat by teachers or governments, nor from cancelling by mobs.

    To paraphrase Barry Stevens: Don’t push the river, it’s already flowing by itself.

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