Not-Quite-Random Thoughts on Conservatism, Anarchism, and the Breakdown of Modern Civilization

Yesterday I found myself outlining an article entitled “Needed: A New Russell Kirk.” Russell Kirk (1918 – 1994) was a conservative philosopher & author of The Conservative Mind (1953), The Roots of American Order (1991) and other books including some gothic-style fiction. He laid out ten principles conservatives ought to believe. How many of those who presently call themselves conservatives are even familiar with Kirk’s principles, much less understand them, much less believe them, is open to debate. Conspicuously absent from Kirk’s list was support for the exclusively economic view of the world so prevalent today, which lends its support to what presently passes for capitalism. While endorsing the idea that freedom and property are inextricably linked, and while promoting voluntary interactions within the community, nowhere does Kirk endorse absolutely free markets or free trade, or say that because there is a demand for something, the market ought to supply it. This is because economic freedom presupposes social and ultimately moral responsibility. Without these, it breeds the massive accumulations of wealth we have seen in recent years at the top, with increasing dysfunction and misery at the bottom, and in the middle.

I do not know if that essay will get written or not. I have a lot on my plate these days (beginning with the stack of tests to grade sitting here). What I believe we really need is another Leopold Kohr. Kohr, as I noted in an earlier post, was a philosophical anarchist, not a conservative, although their views overlapped in crucial areas. Whether he believed in the “enduring moral order” Kirk defended I am unsure; it wasn’t his main focus. Kohr assuredly did believe in the necessity of a morality in which we respect life and each others’ space. He did not see the need for a mono-culture, and opposed globalization. He would have had no patience with what “neoconservatism” became in the 1990s, and even less with what it has become since: the biggest war machine on the planet. Kohr saw the fundamental problems of modern civilization as problems of size and scale, not structure. Kohr would look at situations such as the riots in Baltimore and their background in the combination of a failed progressivism and a burgeoning police state which aids and abets sociopaths. He would say that all these are products of a society grown too big, too centralized, and hence dysfunctional. Those at the top have no idea of the lives of those at the bottom, or in the middle.

The systemic logic of bigness and centralization began with a slow accumulation of wealth and power regardless of the specifics of ideology. This was well underway before the twentieth century even got here. Study the rise of the Rockefeller dynasty. Bigness and centralization led to dependency of various sorts. What it bred was not merely the familiar dependency of the welfare state. If an employee in a corporation cannot leave his or her job either because other jobs are not available or because his skills at doing other jobs have atrophied, and if he is paid too poorly to have saved enough to obtain more education, is he or she not dependent? From the 1800s to the 1900s, the U.S. went from approximately 90% of people being self-employed to around 5% being self-employed. Do the systems of industrial civilization itself not encourage this sort of dependence? This logic also coerces a specific form of secularization, as the workaday need for scheduling and a focusing on tasks to avoid chaos overwhelms any sense of what endures in time. One’s worship of God, if one worships God, is left for Sunday. The rest of the week is taken up by wheeling and dealing for the bosses and struggling for survival for the masses. Readers might find it interesting to examine this meditation on the true purpose and effects of the 40-hour work week.

As the twentieth century progressed we saw an undermining of crucial family systems (helped along by no-fault divorce), the developing of an urban environment of anonymity in which sociopaths can thrive, increasing societal dysfunction, and policies that only made the dysfunction worse because they often treated symptoms with quick fixes rather sought to identify and correct the real problems. Today, of course, we have the full corruption of a bought-and-paid-for political class that could still deliver a “choice” in 2016 between a member of the House of Clinton and a member of the House of Bush (two of the arguably most corrupt dynasties in American politics). There is massive denial that something has gone seriously wrong, and increasingly desperate efforts to avoid the truth. Add to all this the economic dislocations that really began decades ago when globalization was just getting started, but which worsened in 2008, and we have a collapse in moral sensibilities generally, and the increasingly repressive authority structures we have seen since the 9/11 attacks. Fundamentally good and decent people have withdrawn or retreated into the wilderness to “tend their own gardens” as it were. With real leadership gone, collapse becomes inevitable. All we can say is that we do not know when. Our present-day systems are extremely complex, at a level never before seen. What we can say: the U.S.’s massive debts, both the official national debt and other, off-the-books debts, are unpayable. Default will happen. It’s in the mathematics, which unlike politicians, never lies.

The U.S., and indeed much of Western civilization, is at the point where most moral sensibilities are gone from the public square, as opposed to a do-your-own-thing hedonism. Authority structures, unsurprisingly, are increasing without bound as those behind them know how to exploit moral subjectivism and hedonism for their own purposes. Violence increases both with authority structures and with undisciplined reactions to them. The independent-minded among us have already withdrawn our services, whether in becoming an expat or simply choosing to live on the margins of society. We cannot look to academia for solutions. It is mired in worsening problems of its own, from the microspecialization of most academics to the corporatization of university systems themselves, resulting in organizations whose very output, in terms of ideas, has grown less and less reliable over time.

A massive economic downturn is coming. Of this we can be sure. With civil unrest very likely, the federal government is already preparing for what will amount to instituting totalitarianism. No one in power will call it that, of course. They might not even suspend the Constitution! Semantics, too, has become the plaything of propagandists and deniers. Whatever is put in place won’t work in the long run, of course. It will only work for a time, and during that time it will bring about a huge level of misery. But the miserable won’t be able to say they weren’t warned.

What we are talking about is nothing less than the breakdown of modern civilization, and barring the development of a new source of energy able to power a technological society in the future, a lower standard of living. Such thoughts need not engender pessimism. Empires have risen, peaked, then gone into decline and collapsed many times before. We just happen to be in yet another period of decline now, with collapse likely to follow. Although the collapse of authority structures all around a population of hopeless dependents will mean a period of anarchy, those who can prepare properly and weather this period in their private wildernesses wherever they may be, may discover that freedom and the rebuilding of cooperative systems have again become possible. They may also enjoy breathing cleaner air, and drinking cleaner water! And if you are growing your own food (or purchasing it from someone who is), you have far less worry of what is in it!

Will we get it right next time? That depends on whether we humans ever really learn anything. We know the line from Santayana. History is not especially encouraging on this point.


About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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