A radical conservatism

Jon Askonas writes that conservatism failed because it failed to perceive that technology, when at the service only of markets and profits, reorders our homes, communities, and economies in ways incompatible with tradition:

What defined modern conservatism was its attempt, against the onslaught of revolutionary ideologies, to set aside foundational questions in order to make common cause in defense of the actually existing human order. But the movement failed because it neglected the true revolutionary principle: technological transformation. Conservatives “lost the culture” not because they lost the battle of ideas, but because they lost the economy. Communists sought to transform society by transforming the organization of the household (the oikonomos, the etymological origin of “economy”)—but in the end, the efforts of political revolutionaries and party apparatchiks paled beside the impact of the Pill and the two-income trap. …

Conservatism failed because it didn’t consider how to build technologies to fortify tradition and advance human flourishing, or understand that it needed to. A technological society is incompatible with a blithe conservatism, but not with the furtherance of human flourishing and the transformation of wilderness into garden. As Grant notes, before we recover a human way of thinking, we may first need to address a more practical question, first posed by Nietzsche: “Who deserve to be the masters of the earth?” Corporations? The Chinese Communist Party? The National Institutes of Health? The Department of Defense? Or human beings living according to their natures?

If we believe in a human future, we must build it, not with kind words or tax credits, but with a serious program of technological development. Marx showed how a material transformation of the economic order could have enormous social and cultural effects. Forging the human order anew means building technologies that make it easier to live well. In some places, the renewal, revival, and reoccupation of the human order of things requires a return to what was done within living memory. In other places, however, it will need to be far more radical in the literal sense: It must return to human nature rooted in man’s bodily dwelling upon the earth. Simone Weil called this process enracinement—actively putting down roots where none exist.

To further the agricultural metaphor, in some places the topsoil of tradition is strained but not exhausted, such that a return to practices of conservation might make it flourish again. In other places, the soil has been decimated and the traditional practices no longer work. Here, the recovery or reinvention of a heirloom or now-extinct variety may do the trick; it may even be necessary to find new non-native species that provide what the native no longer can. Lastly, we must not fear the forging of wild new technological practices, the equivalent of vertical farming or hydroponics, if the result is revitalizing.

Realizing what time it is, that we are living after tradition, isn’t a counsel of despair. Those who look to build a human future have been freed from a rearguard defense of tradition to take up the path of the guerrilla, the upstart, the nomad. We can bid farewell with fondness to the modern defenders of tradition. But we must heed the words of the Lord: “Let the dead bury their dead.” Come with me if you want to live.

Now that the “actually existing human order” has been almost wholly reshaped by technology, human and political projects designed to actually govern technology and markets alike are in order—not for the purpose of recovering traditions for their own sake, but for obtaining what traditions existed for: the good life.