Why Conservatism Failed

Jon Askonas

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October 6, 2022
Illustration: Scott Menchin

Since the rise of the modern conservative movement, its adherents have championed a Burkean respect for the hard-won wisdom of the organic social order. From William F. Buckley to Roger Scruton, conservative intellectuals have advocated for a defense of tradition under assault from the rationalistic, scientific pretensions of modern ideologies.

"A technological society can have no traditions."

“Tradition” enabled an alliance between disparate groups. It was a usefully empty category, evoking scriptural wisdom for religious conservatives, the Constitution for anti-Communists, and emergent market orders for libertarians. But the tensions between these factions—“whose tradition? which conservatism?”—aren’t the real problem today. Rather, it is that the conservative defense of tradition has failed—not because the right lost the battle of ideas, but because technological change has dissolved the contexts in which traditions once thrived. A technological society can have no traditions.

This insight was first articulated by one of conservatism’s great nemeses: Karl Marx. “The bourgeoisie,” as he famously wrote, “cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” Whereas in previous societies, the dominant class had had an interest in social stability that restrained technological innovation, the pursuit of profit removes social or political restraints on technology. Hence, the relentless “revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”

Modernity liquidates traditions for the same reason that a firm might liquidate an underperforming factory: to improve the allocation and return of capital. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations,” as Marx put it, “with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.” Technology, for Marx, is the true revolutionary principle, destroying traditions by shifting their foundations faster than they can adapt.

As new technologies enter a society, they disrupt the connections between institutions, practices, virtues, and rewards. They can render traditions purposeless, destroy the distinction between virtuous and vicious behavior, make customary ways of life obsolete, or render their rewards meaningless or paltry. If the institutions that shepherd traditions aren’t regenerated, and if no one adopts their practices, traditions will fade into nothingness.

Consider the practice of agriculture. For millennia, farmers seeking to sustain the soil employed crop rotation and animal husbandry that could produce the nutrients required by crops year over year. This exigency developed virtues of care and attention to the land, self-reliance, adaptive reuse, thrift, and disciplined work. These practices and virtues formed not just individual farmers, but their communities and economies, shaping holidays, religious devotion, legal contracts, banking practices, ideals of education, and more: in sum, forging a way of life.

Now consider the effects of a single technology on all of this. During World War II, the United States poured capital into the production of chemical explosives. After the war, these plants switched from making ammonium nitrate for bombs to making it for fertilizer. Overnight, the cost of chemical fertilizer plummeted, and farmers adopted it widely to boost yields. As the resulting production boom slashed prices, farmers who didn’t switch to chemical fertilizers were driven into bankruptcy. The new agriculture had no use for old-fashioned crop rotation, and farms shifted from exploiting complex mixtures of crops and animals to monoculture, growing row after row of the most lucrative crops.

The new agriculture shared some virtues with the old but discarded careful attention to the land as a whole, self-reliance, thrift, and adaptive re-use. Instead, it became of paramount importance to master the relationship between soil, fertilizer, water, and other inputs. The new environmental dangers posed by the misuse of chemicals led to an explosion of regulations and required licenses (not least to detect any disgruntled citizens intent on returning ammonium nitrate to its original use). As a result, successful farming came to require formal education, including a working knowledge of organic chemistry.

Meanwhile, the relative value of having a sizable brood of children around the farm as extra hands declined: The tasks they could perform were fewer and the dangers of mechanization and toxic chemicals greater. These shifts, alongside broader industrialization and urbanization, meant farmers had fewer kids, and more that they did have left for opportunity elsewhere. But having fewer children also meant having fewer young people to hire at harvest time, which meant a seasonal demand for an itinerant cheap labor force—and hence, a two-sided economic incentive for mass low-skill immigration.

In sum, then, the postwar availability of cheap ammonium-nitrate fertilizer dramatically reshaped what it meant to be a farmer, but also brought with it a host of other material and ideological changes. I don’t relate all of this to lament the loss of an older way of life, but to highlight how extensive the social impact of a single technology can be, and how little the conservative defense of tradition offers in response to this sort of change.

"Conservatives 'lost the culture' . . . because they lost the economy."

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.

When you descend from lofty rhetoric about “Traditions” and “Values,” it becomes apparent that a huge number of the actual practices and social institutions which built those virtues have disintegrated, not because of Progressivism or Socialism but because of the new environment and political economy generated by technology. For decades, sociologists have charted the decline of two-parent families, hobbies, local newspapers, churches, stable employment, women’s clubs, libraries, amateur sports, political rhetoric, neighborhood barbecues, Boy Scouts, small businesses, classical music, credit unions, and on and on. Even studies that catastrophize about the rise of loneliness, fatherlessness, economic precarity, and suicide, miss the bigger picture, which is that the social infrastructure conducive to human flourishing has shifted even for those fortunate enough to piece together a semblance of the average American life 50 years ago. A tradition is at an end when the wisdom of yesteryear no longer obtains.

A living tradition teaches its participants what it means to be good (a good farmer, a good policeman, a good violinist), aligning their own desires with what sustains the tradition. These virtues aren’t merely moral ideas: They are materially and socially rewarded, and their opposing vices are punished. As time goes by, a conversation within the tradition emerges about how best to achieve its purposes, whether to change its practices or adopt new ones, how to honor what has come before while embracing the best of new developments. But this link to the past is also a link to the future: To put in the years of effort and loyalty required to master a tradition, one has to believe that the institution will continue to live on and reward its disciples, changing in some of its particulars but steadfast in the pursuit of its ends.

The digital era has ushered in a further phase of the technological destruction of tradition. Whereas some kinds of automation create new demand for higher-skilled work, digital automation based on even rudimentary forms of artificial intelligence can instead increase demand for low-skill work pushing buttons. Training on the collective efforts of thousands of years of culture, machine-learning algorithms aim to supplant human performance for classification, writing, drawing, coding, driving, making music, and a host of other practices. While the best humans may always outperform computers, these technologies knock out the bottom rungs of skilled practice that allow for the development of mastery in the first place.

The increased power to simulate human culture goes alongside the increasing availability, searchability, and profitability of “intellectual property” (the detritus of past popular culture), such that continued production of new culture and art has become optional. The incentives for investors skew more every year towards the marketing, exploitation, and further development (aided by deepfake technology) of the old over the discovery of the new. For instance, while the advent of mass media in the last century weakened older musical cultures by undermining the need to make music within the home, it also produced wave after wave of new popular music forms: jazz, country, rock, hip-hop, electronica, and so on. But since the rise of instantly accessible, algorithmically recommended digital music, a strange quietude has settled upon the whole field. This combination of stasis, decadence, and simulation characterizes human culture after tradition.

A great philosopher once said that with modernity, the question of human nature was abandoned because it had proved too perilous to debate. Now, under the sign of machine intelligence, human nature has returned to center stage. The radical alteration of the social environment and the strange new potentials offered by technology have rendered received wisdom obsolete, such that translating it into the new environment requires a deeper prudence than mere reception of tradition. Because the tools for modifying and mimicking humanity are getting better every year, and because all traditional cultures have been consumed by modern dynamism, we must once again return to the question of what constitutes human flourishing, and what is required for it.

We can no longer conserve. So we must build and rebuild and, therefore, take a stand on what is worth building. We must be willing to exercise judgment over what constitutes the good life—over what our telos is—and to work to channel innovation in that direction and restrain it where it is destructive.

The modern conservative project failed because it didn’t take into account the revolutionary principle of technology, and its intrinsic connection to the telos of sheer profit. Decrying left-wing revolutionary politics and postmodern anarchy, conservatives missed that the real moral relativism was to believe that one could change the material form of society without directly affecting its substance or its ends.

In between great-books seminars, conservatives have decried any interference in what technologies the all-knowing market chooses to build, while taking no stance on what technologies we ought to build and accepting with equanimity massive research investment from the private economy and military-industrial complex, at most wringing their hands about the speed and direction of social change (while accepting its inevitability). Not for nothing did the Canadian philosopher George Grant, in an essay on “the impossibility of conservatism as a theoretical stance in the technological society,” describe them as “those who accept the orientation to the future in the modern but who want to stop the movement of modernity at points which touch their special interests.”

At the same time, the classless society envisioned by Marx is a technological dead end. He assumed that the proletariat would take over once technological development and capital accumulation had already reached their zenith. In reality, as one wag observed, revolutionary communism has proved to be a developmental stage in the shift from tradition-bound agrarian feudalism to free-wheeling capitalism. Brooklynite fantasies about “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” aside, actually existing Marxist party-states tend to be suspicious of the social and political transformations wrought by technology, though they have been enthusiastic adopters of technologies that sideline remaining cultural forces and enable surveillance and repression.

There is another way. 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.”

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.