So what does it mean that actual conservatism—conservatism that accepts the natural, historical and transcendent as substantive realities and so is distinguishable from the attempt to convert the whole world into a sort of rationalized industrial process—doesn’t exist in American public discussion? (I take it that paleo or traditionalist conservatism is not really part of the great conversation today.)
It might mean that modernity is a done deal: God, nature and man as once conceived and independent of our desires have been permanently abolished, so there’s nothing to which actual conservatism can relate. The future belongs to individual sensation and impulse on the one hand and universal formal systems on the other, so the only question is what mixture of systems and technologies—transnational bureaucracy, world markets, information technology, psychoactive drugs, therapy and re-education, genetic manipulation—will mediate between desire and satisfaction most efficiently, reliably and equally.
Some people, myself included, consider such an outlook lunacy. Modernists retort the charge and say that those who reject their position are irrational bigots and fundamentalists. The question, then, is what is truth and what is fantasy. Is reason far more perfect now than previously? Does the morality of today infinitely surpass pre-60s morality? Have we really awakened to the reality of things while men at other times and places were asleep and dreaming? And above all, does authoritative consensus define truth, or can success—the success of many aspects of modernity, for example—lead to madness?
It seems to me it has in this case, and that the modern age, supposedly so rational, has in fact cut itself off from reason. There are basic problems with the attempt to reduce all things to our measure and control them for our purposes. Is the world really that manageable, or does the collective determination to make it so just mean we ignore and lie about everything that transcends or otherwise escapes us? And even assuming we can control everything for our purposes, who is the “we” that will form the purposes and do the controlling when we control the things that make us what we are, like sex, culture, and basic social relations and understandings of the world? Does the modern project of multiplying power as such, without reference to goods that precede and transcend choice, even make sense?
Modernity continually perfects itself by paring down what is considered real, and when it has perfected itself sufficiently it stops working because it abolishes reality altogether. Having abolished God, it proceeds to abolish man—theoretically, in the form of settled conceptions of human nature, and then practically, through politics and now through medical technology that has abandoned the Hippocratic injunction not to destroy life. Advanced thinkers have given up on truth, and the most modern societies have stopped reproducing. What future can they offer?
Conservatism is recognition of the inadequacies of modernity. The end of conservatism in public discourse is therefore a sign of modernity’s madness and approaching self-destruction through lack of self-knowledge. Since conservatives always knew modernity would end in madness, the end of conservatism is its vindication, hidden in plain view. Or so it seems to me, but each must form his own judgment on a proposition so opposed to accepted reality.