A Finnish correspondent sent me some questions about the current overall situation, where it’s likely to go, and what to do about it. I thought others might find them of interest, so here they are with my responses:
Q: How do we know that faith in the omnicompetence of technique will give way to anything else? What it means to live rightly is exactly what there is (at best) disagreement about. The ethical, philosophical and spiritual disarray of our time makes it a forlorn hope for the masses to live rightly and the liberal will grope about in the dark when he has finally seen that technique will save his society no more than it will save his soul.
A: People have tried to treat technique and expertise as omnicompetent and it hasn’t worked. They don’t keep beating themselves over the head forever. So eventually they’ll get fed up and stop believing in it. The collapse of socialism was a lesson for a lot of people. Not enough of a lesson, but it was a beginning. It raised some issues, and laid the groundwork for raising more issues.
Also, expertise to some extent is debunking itself. A few examples:
- Scientific studies of various types are suggesting severe limits on the usefulness of expertise and on various projects of social rationization. I recently discussed a couple of aspects of the situation (Sim City social science).
- Architecture and urban planning is another field in which recognition of the uselessness of modernism is making headway even among some experts. Nikos Salingaros is doing good work on those issues and has posted a lot of his work to the web.
- Telos, originally a New Left publication, has been a useful focal point for efforts to deal seriously with the failure of the modern project in a way that puts the necessary critiques and proposals for new departures in a form in which they can affect the discussions of the experts themselves.
So the counterrattack is gathering force, both at the level of popular disillusionment and at the level of organized thought that takes the form of legitimate expertise and so can’t easily be shrugged off. As an organizational matter liberalism continues to sweep all before it. Its hollowness though is increasingly evident even to its own proponents. That is one of the lessons of postmodernism.
Your big question is what comes afterward. Once people stop worshipping technique and their own desires they have a choice: they can drink themselve to death, fall back on various superstitions, or ask broader questions about how to live and try to recover what they’ve lost. Not everyone will take the first two choices.
I think the key is that expertise can never suppress informal knowledge altogether because action can’t be coherent without informal knowledge. Tradition can’t die because its death would mean utter idiocy. It would be like the final pages of a late Samuel Beckett novel. The human tendencies that give rise to tradition don’t die either. Feminism and other forms of radical egalitarianism require constant propaganda and policing.
Ilya Ehrenberg said that if the whole world were paved with asphalt a green shoot would break through somewhere. Eventually the propagandists get tired, the police get inefficient and corrupt, the experts stop believing in their own expertise, people stop taking in what the authorities tell them, and natural tendencies start reasserting themselves, guided by memories of a time when they were given freer rein and by the inherited habits that had been making a more-or-less-ordered social existence possible all along. Green shoots spring up and spread, and when people see something better than what they have they imitate it. The future belongs to the ways of life that work. Those ways learn to be what they are by looking at what’s worked in the past and drawing on what goods have survived.
So I see a restoration less as something to be planned by sorting out the good and bad in some organized way, and then propagandizing and instituting the good, than something that grows up as people abandon what they have come to hate, pick up on what they begin to love, and stick with what gives them solid rewards. Each of us can further the process by rejecting the bad and furthering the good himself as best he can. We can’t control the timing or details or even be completely aware of what’s happening. That’s an old point though—“the Kingdom of God cometh not by observation.” ( Luke 17:20 )
An additional point: something is needed that isn’t quite captured by the simple notion of traditional ways. Tradition can’t be understood as simply the self-organization of human life based on memories, natural impulses, and the experience of what works. It has to point to something beyond itself that validates it. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of rules that turn out to make things good for “society”—that is, for other people—but have no personal hold on someone who’s thoughtful and has come to see them as the merely conventional arrangements they are. That’s been a problem, e.g., for Roger Scruton.
The problem of liberalism—of the ontological, epistemological and ethical primacy of the naked ego—will be with us until people understand themselves more definitively as part of a moral order greater than themselves. It’s the primacy of the naked ego that makes the goal of liberalism—abstract equal freedom—seem so compelling. I am convinced though that some day people will once again understand themselves as part of a moral and spiritual cosmos. It’s the natural way for people to view things, and the alternative doesn’t work in the long run, philosophically, socially or personally.
A practical consequence is that the process of rebirth, rejuvenation, return, restoration or whatever has an essential religious component. The things tradition reveals can’t be understood as simply rules that happen to work, but as a revelation of realities that transcend us and make us and the world what they are. That’s another reason to think that a worthwhile future can’t be altogether planned. It’s not simply a matter of developing the right ideas and putting them into effect. The things at issue touch us too closely and are too comprehensive to be handled that way.
Q: Isn’t this to say that conservatives have no answers to current political problems? When a parliamentarian asks if you have any wishes, it does not do to say that he should be pious and reverent.
A: In a sense principled and coherent conservatives have no answer to current political problems because they think current political discussions, which identify problems and the sorts of things that would constitute solutions, is misconceived. Current discussions assume the world can be run by plan to bring about whatever purposes are chosen to a greater extent than it can.
Conservatives do have political goals though, primarily restricting the scope of government attempts to displace traditional institutions like the family with bureaucratic arrangements and to reconstruct social and moral reality. I think though that what’s needed most is an attempt to live better here and now without special reference to what government is doing. Political action would then be treated as mainly ancillary to that attempt.
Q: Perhaps groups like Amish and strictly orthodox communities are the hope for the future.
A: It’s hard to know. Such groups are in fact thriving. The strict orthodox have lots of kids and they get converts. The Amish don’t get converts, but they have lots of kids and maybe 80% of them stick with it.
It seems to me that at worst such groups will survive, find imitators, and eventually replace a liberal civilization that can’t reproduce itself socially or even physically. Then we would end up with a sort of neo-Levantine society of inward turning ethno-religious communities, probably in an overall setting weakly ordered by corrupt dynastic despotisms.
I say “at worst” because I’d much rather have a society of the Western type with more of a substantive public life. Science, philosophy, free government etc. are all good things and it’s upsetting to think they might all go. I don’t think though that liberal civilization will survive long-term. Right now it’s all-victorious, and other possibilities seem extremely speculative and even flaky because liberal civilization has basically defined itself as equivalent to reason itself. That self-definition though leads to a tendency to derive more and more compulsory social practices and even compulsory thought from universal abstract requirements. That makes self-criticism and dealing with fundamental problems impossible. It’s not really a strength in the long run.
Q: Conservatism traditionally calls for an elite. Obviously, a distinction between aristocracy and elite is crucial, otherwise the notion becomes void and we end up defending the liberal new class. But how do we distinguish these phenomena?
A: An aristocracy I suppose would be a legitimate elite, one that is constituted by its role in a social, moral and spiritual order that is superior to it in the same way the order is superior to the people generally. That order determines what the function of the aristocracy is, and both grants and limits its authority. It also imposes obligations that match privileges. An aristocracy is therefore not simply self-interested. If need be it’s capable of self-sacrifice.
A problem with the liberal new class is that everyone’s supposed to be equal so there really isn’t supposed to be an elite. That means everybody has to lie about the situation, and since there are no legitimate privileges and no legitimate personal authority no special personal obligations can be recognized either.
Q. Traditionalists, especially Catholic traditionalists, speak of the importance of liturgy. Even the journal Telos has picked up the theme. It seems unclear to me though how the liturgy conveys transcendent truth except in a vague and general sense.
A: It’s not liturgy in general, something put together by liturgists, that conveys transcendent truth. That’s more likely to be used to misrepresent or obfuscate transcendent truth. It’s particular liturgies—the inherited liturgies of Catholic and Orthodox Christendom—that convey it. A liturgist is almost by definition stupid or evil—stupid, because he has no idea what he’s doing, or evil, because he wants to manipulate the sacred in the interests of what he wants.