The Next Conservatism: Stuff and Nonsense

Some people think conservatism is just about stuff: materialism and consumerism. Whoever dies with the most toys wins.

That is not the conservatism of Russell Kirk, nor is it the next conservatism. Conservatives have seldom admired the “lifestyle” of the nouveau riche. It is understandable that the generation which grew up in the Great Depression of the 1930s was focused on accumulation. But the younger generations of today, who grew up in perhaps too much abundance, are not attracted to materialism. Neither are we.

In our book, The Next Conservatism, Paul Weyrich and I suggest conservatives adopt an intensive rather than extensive valuation of material things, i.e., that they put quality over quantity. A small number of beautiful things, made by hand by craftsmen and passed generation to generation, have meaning that cheap store-bought stuff (often made overseas) intended to wear out quickly and be thrown away can never have.

Does this conflict with the present notion of basing our economy on consumerism? Yes. Conservatives value saving over spending. We believe it wise for families to accumulate wealth over generations (which is why we oppose inheritance taxes). Often, “old money” fortunes built that way yield dividends to society as a whole, in beautiful buildings, patronage of art and music, and philanthropy. One need only think of the libraries Andrew Carnegie built all over America to see what wealth can do.

This leads the next conservatism to embrace author and writer for The American Conservative magazine Rod Dreher’s “Crunchy Cons Manifesto”. Some of its main points are:

  • Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff.
  • Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.
  • Culture is more important than politics and economics.
  • Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.
  • Beauty is more important than efficiency. (We would add that efficiency has never been a conservative virtue.)
  • The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our sense to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.
  • We share Russell Kirk’s conviction that “the institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

The next conservatism amplifies Dreher’s warning about popular culture. It is now so destructive of everything true, everything good, and everything beautiful that it may have become the greatest threat to our civilization. It succeeds commercially by pandering to the worst human instincts in a downward spiral that must accelerate to retain its market. Violence, pervese sex, and human degradation in every form are its staples. It rivals and in some ways surpasses the horrors of the Roman arena.

Popular culture also injects messages into its victims, those who allow it into their lives. The most powerful is instant gratification. It could be argued that delayed gratification is the first requirement of civilization, which suggests instant gratification is civilization’s worst enemy. We need only look at the black inner city to see what a culture of instant gratification does to communities. The white lower class is now following the same road, as the death rates from heroin and other dangerous drugs show.

The next conservatism’s answer to all this is simple: return to the old ways. The old ways worked, the new ways that emerged from the 1960s do not work. Teach and practice delayed gratification. Spend less than you earn. Value the old and handmade over the new and mass produced. Want only what you have.

Previous generations knew these things and lived by them. The challenge of our time is to recover them, teach them to our children, and re-create the good world we had and have lost.

10 thoughts on “The Next Conservatism: Stuff and Nonsense”

  1. Completely agree with this. We are a household of “Crunchy Cons” and live by this manifesto. It’s a tough sell in this world though. At times we feel pretty alone.

  2. •Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff.
    •Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.
    •Culture is more important than politics and economics.

    “Popular culture also injects messages into its victims” literally sounds like Adorno talking about “The Culture Industry”.

  3. “Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its
    artificial framework begin to show through. The people at the top are no
    longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes
    more open, so its power grows. Movies and radio need no longer pretend
    to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an
    ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They
    call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are
    published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products
    is removed.”

    “Those who spent their
    money in the nineteenth or the early twentieth century to see
    a play or to go to a concert respected the performance as much
    as the money they spent.”

    “As is well known, the major reorganisation of the film industry shortly
    before World War I, the material prerequisite of its expansion, was
    precisely its deliberate acceptance of the public’s needs as recorded at
    the box-office – a procedure which was hardly thought necessary in the
    pioneering days of the screen.”

    “This raises the question whether
    the culture industry fulfils the function of diverting minds which it
    boasts about so loudly. If most of the radio stations and movie theatres
    were closed down, the consumers would probably not lose so very much.
    To walk from the street into the movie theatre is no longer to enter a
    world of dream; as soon as the very existence of these institutions no
    longer made it obligatory to use them, there would be no great urge to
    do so. Such closures would not be reactionary machine wrecking. The
    disappointment would be felt not so much by the enthusiasts as by the
    slow-witted, who are the ones who suffer for everything anyhow. In spite
    of the films which are intended to complete her integration, the
    housewife finds in the darkness of the movie theatre a place of refuge
    where she can sit for a few hours with nobody watching, just as she used
    to look out of the window when there were still homes and rest in the
    evening. The unemployed in the great cities find coolness in summer and
    warmth in winter in these temperature-controlled locations. Otherwise,
    despite its size, this bloated pleasure apparatus adds no dignity to
    man’s lives. The idea of “fully exploiting” available technical
    resources and the facilities for aesthetic mass consumption is part of
    the economic system which refuses to exploit resources to abolish

  4. “Signification, which is the only function of
    a word admitted by semantics, reaches perfection in the sign.
    Whether folk-songs were rightly or wrongly called upper-class
    culture in decay, their elements have only acquired their popular
    form through a long process of repeated transmission. The spread of popular songs, on the other hand, takes place at lightning speed. The American expression “fad,” used for fashions which appear like epidemics – that is, inflamed by highly-concentrated economic forces – designated this phenomenon long before totalitarian advertising bosses enforced the general lines of culture. When the German Fascists decide one day to launch a word – say, “intolerable” – over the loudspeakers the next day the whole nation is saying “intolerable.” By the same pattern, the nations against
    whom the weight of the German blitzkrieg was thrown
    took the word into their own jargon. The general repetition of
    names for measures to be taken by the authorities makes them,
    so to speak, familiar, just as the brand name on everybody’s lips
    increased sales in the era of the free market. The blind and
    rapidly spreading repetition of words with special designations
    links advertising with the totalitarian watchword. The layer
    of experience which created the words for their speakers has been removed; in this swift appropriation language acquires the coldness which until now it had only on billboards and in the advertisement columns of newspapers. Innumerable people use words and expressions which they have either ceased to understand or employ only because they trigger off conditioned reflexes; in this sense, words are trade-marks which are finally all the more firmly linked to the things they denote, the less their linguistic sense is grasped.”

    “Today the culture industry has taken over the civilising inheritance of the entrepreneurial and frontier democracy – whose appreciation of intellectual deviations was never very finely attuned. All are free to dance and enjoy themselves, just as they have been free, since the historical neutralisation of religion, to join any of the innumerable sects. But freedom to choose an ideology – since ideology always reflects economic coercion – everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same. The way in which a girl accepts and keeps the obligatory date, the inflection on the telephone or in the most intimate situation, the choice of words in conversation, and the whole inner life as classified by the now somewhat devalued depth psychology, bear witness to man’s attempt to make himself a proficient apparatus, similar (even in emotions) to the model served up by the culture industry.”

    “The most intimate reactions of human beings have been so thoroughly reified that the idea of anything specific to themselves now persists only as an utterly abstract notion: personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions. The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.”

  5. The problem with all this is that this next conservatism can only be for a small number of people.

  6. It’s all very attainable, but it requires drastic personal changes, to say nothing of the greater society.

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