What is to be done?

So what does a traditionalist conservative do when he becomes convinced that public life is proceeding on fundamentally bad principles? The usual resources of the extremist are unavailable to him, because traditionalism is adverse to dogmatism, conspiracy theories and cure-alls. On the other hand, he can no longer participate in what passes for the mainstream. The following, extracted from a longer piece I wrote, outlines one possiblity:
So what is to be done? Basic matters like following traditional morality in daily life are clear enough. More and more the world enforces other demands as the price of integrity. The situation of traditionalists is becoming that of religious minorities in Europe before 19th century emancipation. Technocracy makes traditional beliefs on matters such as relations between the sexes and the place of the transcendent in social life hopelessly opposed to the understandings now demanded. Official insistence on commitment to antitraditional views has begun to make it difficult for a traditionalist to accept a responsible job in a mainstream institution, or permit his children to be educated by the public system. In the coming years such difficulties are likely to affect more and more of life.

A radical traditionalist movement has thus become necessary. The immediate function of such a movement would be to make life as a traditionalist easier for those so inclined; the ultimate function to restore tradition to public life. The first goal can be pursued piecemeal and as occasion offers; the second is mostly a matter of maintaining principle. Pragmatic success on any large scale is likely to be slow, because the traditionalist outlook is so deeply at odds with modern public understandings. Nonetheless, the views of even a tiny minority can be influential, especially if they express durable aspects of human life that established views ignore, because they change the setting in which men act.

That effect can be cumulative; if the public outlook has gone radically astray steady maintenance of an alternative can eventually transform what views seem plausible. The traditionalist outlook has great long-term advantages. To say values are human creations, as technocrats do, is to reduce morality to a statement of what others want and make it utterly ineffectual. Rational hedonism can motivate only what is self-serving, and formal liberal principles like utility or the categorical imperative are insufficient for the concrete demands of life. Effective common action requires faith in something that encompasses and transcends us, so lasting success goes to those who care about something more substantive than winning. Traditionalism connects morality to the nature and tendencies of things, and so grounds the trust in the world needed to motivate a comprehensive system of action.

In any event, grand public success is ultimately not the point. Honesty and maintenance of principle is itself victory. Traditionalism means that politics depends on things more important than itself, that our purpose in life is not pragmatic success but living in accordance with spiritual and moral order. We must give our lives a footing in what is real; from that all else follows. At a time when good and evil are proclaimed the offspring of desire, and all the means of publicity and tricks of rhetoric are used to foreclose discussion, it requires thought, effort and independence of mind to do so.

Independence does not mean denial of our surroundings and connections; the world would have ended long ago if good were not more pervasive and enduring than evil. The point of tradition is not to fabricate anything but to secure and foster the good everywhere implicit. The means are at hand, since we learn to live well in attempting to do so. Natural feelings lead us toward right patterns and understandings. Living memory and recent history tell us of a way of life, much of it still available to us, that is far more explicitly at odds with technocracy than the one that now prevails. Formal study also helps: the history of modernism shows how we got where we are, and the classics put us in touch with what preceded. Discussions with others, those sympathetic and those opposed, help clarify and broaden our thoughts and provoke thought in others.

The current situation demands something different from each of us. The traditionalist movement is an alliance of traditions, each with its own doctrines and authorities, working together against a pervasive common enemy that would destroy humanity as such. Such a movement has its strains and paradoxes, since traditions oppose each other, but its necessity is clear. As it evolves it will come to have its own standards, although each tradition will see what is needed somewhat differently.

On some points unified action is called for. We are social beings, and as such must confront the new order together and publicly. Its nature tells us what weapons to use against it. The power of technocracy comes from an unquestioned acceptance that is not well-founded and in some ways is difficult to maintain. Nonetheless, the language and habitual assumptions of public discussion make it hard for those sympathetic to traditionalism even to articulate a position different from the one dominant. Objections stutter and fall silent before the confidence and seeming coherence of the technocrats.

The political battle today is therefore in men’s minds rather than the legislative chamber, the polls, or the streets. Men naturally revert to tradition unless it is continually disrupted and suppressed. What is necessary is less to enforce particular traditions than to weaken antitraditionalism. Those who are not against us are for us; our job is not to overcome our fellow citizens but to bring them to realize where their fundamental sympathies lie.

The overwhelming public success of the technocratic outlook makes it an easy target. The ability to break its spell by forceful and repeated questioning and by providing an articulate alternative is an enormous power, one possessed by traditionalists right now if they would only use it. In spite of New Class dominance, Western polities allow anyone to participate in public discussion. There are ways of suppressing discussion , but also a thousand forums — dinner table conversations, local meetings, letters to editors and public officials, Internet discussions, little magazines, campaigns of minor political parties — that permit any of us to present almost any view he thinks right. A few intelligent and forthright voices in each forum arguing against the new order and for traditional ways would have a powerful effect on the balance of intellectual forces and eventually the social order itself.

The language of public discussion must therefore be contested. Technocratic rhetoric must be deflated, modernism deprived of the appearance of moderation and its brutal implications displayed. The possibility of social technology must be disputed, the failures of the new order driven home, and traditional understandings justified. Man must be shown to be a creature that lives by blood loyalties and transcendent goods, human life a compound not only of impulse and appetite but of essences — man and woman, Confucian and Christian, Turk and Jew.

Confronting technocracy, of course, is only preparatory. As men our main goal must be to put our own lives in order, and for that something more definite is necessary than clearing obstacles and indicating general directions. Truth exists for us in concrete forms, one of which each of us must accept as authoritative. To establish a life better than the one offered by individualistic liberal choice — in practice, by experts, advertisers and popular entertainers — it is necessary to accept and submit to a specific community and its traditions. That is not easy when social practice is too diffuse to make the authority of any tradition a given, but in times of dissolution each of us has no choice but to find his way to something to which he can give himself wholly.

At bottom, the answer to today’s confusions lies in faith, the realization that we do not make the world, that we recognize rather than create the Good, Beautiful, and True, and that to do so adequately we must draw on a wisdom greater than our own. Our acts can be fruitful only as part of an order for good founded in the nature of things. In spite of its apparent strength technocracy is based on fear of anything greater than ourselves and refusal to face obvious human limitations. It must fail because it has no way to deal with realities. Success is far more likely than appears. The world is ours: we need only throw off the chains of illusion.

Posted by Jim Kalb at June 09, 2002 10:34 AM | Send

What do you mean here by good? Good is defined by an individuals perspective seemingly , a person with a particular opinion say, sees good as different from another person. a part of their own particular nature rather than a general human nature. How can I participate in an order for good if my fundamental sense of what is good differs from the majority, if i dont have a general sense but an individual one? I’m not a super-smartie obviously but actually why is technocracy bad? Is it simply that it is presenting incomplete solutions as a way to live or is it more?

Posted by: stephen on June 9, 2002 6:56 PM

“Good” just means a goal that makes action reasonable. For example, if it’s reasonable to try to get a jar of peanut butter then a jar of peanut butter is a good. If it’s reasonable to sacrifice life and reputation for the sake of getting a jar of peanut butter then a jar of peanut butter is a greater good than life and reputation. From these examples it seems clear that a jar of peanut butter is a good, but it’s not the greatest good!

You’re right that people believe different things about what is good. Still, they believe a lot of different things, whether IBM stock will go up or down for example. Some beliefs are right and some are wrong. From the peanut butter example it seems clear that some beliefs about what is good are wrong - for example, a man who really thought a jar of peanut butter worth sacrifice of life and reputation would simply be crazy. He would have a belief about what is good that is plainly wrong.

Also, to act thoughtfully, to discuss with other people what to do and come to a decision, requires an idea of what goals are reasonable - that is, of what is good. For that reason any social order has to be based on common understandings of what is good and bad. Without that common understanding no common action is possible, because unless people can agree on what goals are reasonable they can’t agree on what to do.

So you ask a question that applies to every possible society - what happens to someone who disagrees with the beliefs about good and evil that the society is based on? It’s a very good question, and not one that has an answer that can be applied in all cases. Sometimes a peaceful arrangement is possible, sometimes it isn’t, sometimes you can persuade people to your way of thinking, sometimes you can’t, and sometimes if you’re odd man out that’s just too bad for you. The world can’t be set up to suit everyone, and it’s quite possible you’re just wrong and if so then it’s better if things don’t suit you.

In my view technocracy has several problems. One is that its understanding of the good, that it simply means people getting what they want, doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense because people do not in fact understand good that way. When I say for example that it is good for my children to be healthy and happy I do not at all mean simply that I want them to be healthy and happy, although that is true too. I mean that even if I went crazy so I wanted my children to be diseased and miserable it would still be good for them to be healthy and happy - that the goodness of their well-being is independent of my feelings or anyone’s feelings about the matter, so even if I died and the whole world hated them and they were depressed and didn’t care any more it would still be good for them to be healthy and happy.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on June 9, 2002 7:48 PM
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