June 11, 2008
Rear-view Mirror Conservatism
We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.
Dan Larison’s recent praise of George Grant reminds me of the reason that originally attracted me, as an undergraduate reader, to this Tory philosopher of the modern age. Grant persuasively associated the power of the United States in the twentieth-century with its relentless use of modern technology. America did not simply celebrate the employment of technology to address the problems of poverty, injustice, and inequality. The republic embraced the metaphysical assumptions of modern techne itself: the will to control, master, and reinvent nature to suit the changing and immoderate interests of man’s estate. The fact that Grant was also one of the few conservative political philosophers worth reading in Canada made his ideas even more attractive to me.
That said, I have often sensed that Grant’s critique of modernity, which underpins his critique of technology’s usage in the American imperium, is not the most promising way of advancing the cause of conservatism today. While readers can learn from Grant’s ideas on the defects of both liberalism and its correlative idea of progress, these seem secondary in importance to the real difficulty facing the western world at the moment”the tyranny of the leftist managerial state. Grant never seriously tackled this danger in his writings. Sadly, this is a shortcoming all too common in many conservative writers.
As readers of Grant well know, liberalism was the great menace in his eyes, not leftism. Liberalism advanced the idea of progress with greater sophistication than the crude economic determinism of its most serious rival, Marxism. The success of liberalism, particularly as the reigning ideology of the American elites, made it all the more difficult to expose and resist as a danger to traditional views of absolute truth and virtue, verities which only ancient authors like Plato truly understood, according to Grant. Liberalism threatened to demolish this ancient wisdom in favor of technocratic rationalism.
Liberalism was worse than Marxism because its more efficient practitioners did nothing to slow down the progress of technology. Indeed, liberals idealized technological progress as moral progress, when in fact technology was creating the tyranny of the universal homogeneous state. (One wonders what Grant would have thought of on-line essays which discuss his views on technology!) This understanding of modernity underpins the pessimism of his most famous book, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965), in which he predicted not only the death of his nation but the demise of conservatism as well. In his view, conservatism did not have a prayer in the changeable currents of the modern age. To conserve tradition against a relentless revolution of philosophical, social, and technical proportions was worthy of King Canute’s attempt to hold back the ocean’s waves. Conservatism could no more survive modernity than the autonomy of Canada could withstand the engulfing pressures of the American imperium.
Liberalism also threatened to kill Christianity. Grant predicted in Philosophy in the Mass Age (1959) the devolution of Protestantism into a secularized form of progress. By the end of World War 2, the Protestant elites of North America were losing interest in traditional Christian orthodoxy even as they were eagerly embracing technocratic rationalism, with only a hint of the old puritan work ethic that had historically initiated the rise of capitalism”all this Grant surmised long before the term “Protestant Deformation” was coined. In short, Protestantism may well have paved the way for the end of conservatism.
Finally, liberal establishments knew how to fight back against ignorant interlopers and outcasts from the hinterland. After witnessing the defeats of Diefenbaker in 1963 and Goldwater in 1964, Grant realized that conservative populism was the last thing which the beneficiaries of big government and big business desired. The business class which had opposed the New Deal in the 1930s had been replaced by large corporations whose elites were quite content to receive the largesse of statism. The voters themselves had no more interest in conservative causes than the elites; everybody had become a liberal, it seemed. The liberal ruling class had sold Canada out to American interests, and the people had cheered.
All of these insights have merit, and the study of these back in the 1960s might have saved many conservative populists from either underestimating the anti-conservative nature of big business or overestimating the people’s conservative instincts. In offering all of these valid insights, however, it seems that Grant missed the forest for the trees. Under the influence of Leo Strauss, Grant believed that liberalism was still the dominant ideology of the twentieth-century. Strauss in particular taught that liberalism was the foundation of relativism. The belief that morality was relative to history and tradition was the great scourge of modernity, and Grant sought to do battle with its liberal defenders.
What Grant missed, like so many other Tory writers, is that a new regime had emerged in the 1930s, which effectively displaced liberalism and bourgeois values as a whole. This new managerial state, in the famous terms of James Burnham, threatened the liberal traditions of responsible government, individual freedom, separation of church and state, and respect for bourgeois Christianity. This regime promised egalitarian leveling, a warfare/welfare state, and the centralization of political power in the hands of intolerant leftist mandarins. By the 1960s, the New Left, whose main representatives were the sons and daughters of the old New Dealers, was threatening to finish the revolution, armed with the toxically illiberal ideology of cultural Marxism. 19th century liberals like Goldwin Smith would have been aghast at these developments.
Grant, however, wrote nothing about these changes. Instead, in following Strauss, Grant blamed the defects of the political class in Canada and the United States on their commitment to liberalism. What Grant missed was the entire historical devolution of this political philosophy. He wrote about the liberalism of his time as if one could draw a straight line between Thomas Jefferson and Lyndon Johnson, without paying attention to the titanic changes that replaced laissez-faire individualism with the leftist collectivism of the Great Society. LBJ was simply on the leftist side of liberalism, while Goldwater was on the rightist side. It was liberalism, one way or the other.
Like many conservatives, Grant saw in “value conservatism” (not a precise term which he used) the only path of resistance to what he thought was the liberal hegemony. Judging from his essays on Nietzsche, John Rawls, and abortion in the 1970s, Grant was preoccupied with a crisis of values. Liberalism had allowed everything to be permitted; license had overtaken virtue. Even though the old Tory conservatism was as dead as the dodo, Grant in his post-Lament writings contended that opponents of the idea of progress could invoke Platonic political philosophy as the means to resist the relativism of the liberal regime. Somehow the reading of the classical works of western political philosophy could help shake the masses from their dogmatically relativistic slumber.
The irony of Grant’s embrace of value conservatism is that his suspicion of America did not deter him from embracing a late twentieth-century fashion on the American Right. Unfortunately, value conservatism never made a dent in the structure of the managerial state. As Paul Gottfried has persuasively documented in Conservatism In America: Making Sense of the American Right (2007), value-conservatives may have won elections but they didn”t change anything in the process. The VC movement (consisting mainly of neoconservatives) showed little interest in eradicating the managerial regime, at least beyond rhetorical flourishes about the evils of “big government” around election time.
It remains a mystery to me that an astute critic of the way ruling classes work could show no interest in the way the managerial state operates. For this regime is not an open society of license and relativism. Most ideas from the Right receive no fair hearing under this regime. As anybody who is familiar with anti-hate speech laws knows, leftists are not exactly paragons of easy tolerance and true intellectual diversity. The disappointing thing about Grant, along with most Tory writers (like Russell Kirk), is that he was caught in the time-warped assumption of believing that liberalism still existed, long past its prime. The leftists who run the Canadian and American managerial states today are committed to the eradication of bourgeois Christianity. Their rhetoric of sensitivity and tolerance does not require the old bourgeois idea of progress (which they likely see as chauvinistically western anyway). Nowhere in Grant’s writings is there any awareness of the new regime and its techniques of control.
As a rear-view mirror conservative, Grant was so preoccupied with the bourgeois liberal forces which had swept away his ancestral Tory ruling class that he had missed the true revolution which was unfolding before his eyes from the 1930s until his death in 1988. It is little wonder that Grant has so many admirers on the Left, otherwise known as “Red Tories.” Grant offered to the establishment a conservatism which poses no threat. Let us hope that conservatives, armed with a good dose of elite theory, can do better against their ideological enemies.