The question before us is whether cultural conservatism is compatible with economic liberalism, the political philosophy of capitalism. Since the answer will depend, in the first place, on just what is meant by cultural conservatism, I propose to begin, not with an abstract definition of this term, but with an analysis of the way in which conservative values enter the current controversy about abortion—the best example of the cultural conflict that is polarizing American society.
Kristin Luker’s study of the abortion controversy shows that it originates not in abstract speculation about the rights of the unborn but in opposing views of life and more specifically in opposing views of the future. “I think people are foolish to worry about things in the future,” an anti-abortion activist declares. “The future takes care of itself.” Another woman active in the pro-life movement says that “you can’t plan everything in life.” For the pro-choice forces, however, the “quality of life” depends on planned parenthood and other forms of rational planning for the future. From their point of view, it is irresponsible to bring children into the world when they cannot be provided with the full range of material and cultural assets essential to successful competition. It is unfair to saddle children with handicaps in the race for success: congenital defects, poverty, or a deficiency of parental love. Teenage pregnancy is objectionable to advocates of legalized abortion not because they object to premarital sex but because adolescents, in their view, have no means of giving their offspring the advantages they deserve.
For opponents of abortion, however, this solicitude for the “quality of life” looks like a decision to subordinate ethical and emotional interests to economic interests. They believe that children need ethical guidance more than they need economic advantages. Motherhood is a “huge job,” in their eyes, not because it implies long-range financial planning but because “you’re responsible, as far as you possibly can be, for educating and teaching them . . . what you believe is right—moral values and responsibilities and rights.” Women opposed to abortion are not convinced that financial security has to be seen as an indispensable precondition of motherhood.
“The values and beliefs of pro-choice [people] diametrically oppose those of pro-life people,” Luker writes. Pro-life activists regard motherhood as a demanding vocation and resent the feminist disparagement of housework and motherhood. They agree that women ought to get equal pay for equal work in the marketplace, but they do not agree that unpaid work in the home is degrading and oppressive. What they find “disturbing [in] the whole abortion mentality,” as one of them puts it, “is the idea that family duties—rearing children, managing a home, loving and caring for a husband—are somehow degrading to women.” They find the pretense that “there are no important differences between men and women” utterly unconvincing. They believe that men and women “were created differently and . . . meant to complement each other.” Upper-middle-class feminists, on the other hand, see the belief in biologically determined gender differences as the ideological basis of women’s oppression.
Their opposition to a biological view of human nature goes beyond the contention that it serves to deprive women of their rights. Their insistence that women ought to assume “control over their bodies” evinces an impatience with biological constraints of any kind, together with a belief that modern technology has liberated humanity from those constraints and made it possible for the first time to engineer a better life for the human race as a whole. Pro-choice people welcome the medical technologies that make it possible to detect birth defects in the womb, and they cannot understand why anyone would knowingly wish to bring a “damaged” child, or for that matter an “unwanted” child, into the world. In their eyes, an unwillingness to grant such children’s “right not to be born” might itself be considered evidence of unfitness for parenthood.
For people in the right-to-life movement, this kind of thinking leads logically to full-scale genetic engineering, to an arrogant assumption of the power to make summary judgments about the “quality of life,” and to a willingness to consign not only a “defective” fetus but whole categories of defective or superfluous individuals to the status of non-persons. A pro-life activist whose infant daughter died of a lung disease objects to the “idea that my baby’s life, in a lot of people’s eyes, wouldn’t have been very meaningful. . . . She only lived twenty-seven days, and that’s not a very long time, but whether we live ninety-nine years or two hours or twenty-seven days, being human is being human, and what it involves, we really don’t understand.”
Perhaps it is the suggestion that “we really don’t understand” what it means to be human that most deeply divides the two parties to the abortion debate. For liberals, such an admission amounts to a betrayal not only of the rights of women but of the whole modern project: the conquest of necessity and the substitution of human choice for the blind workings of nature. An unquestioning faith in the capacity of the rational intelligence to solve the mysteries of human existence, ultimately the secret of creation itself, links the seemingly contradictory positions held by liberals—that abortion is an “ethical private decision” and sex a transaction between “consenting adults” but that the state might well reserve the right to license pregnancy or even to embark on far-reaching programs of eugenic engineering.
The uneasy coexistence of ethical individualism and medical collectivism grows out of the separation of sex from procreation, which makes sex a matter of private choice while leaving open the possibility that procreation and childrearing might be subjected to stringent public controls. The objection that sex and procreation cannot be severed without losing sight of the mystery surrounding both strikes liberals as the worst kind of theological obscurantism. For opponents of abortion, on the other hand, “God is the creator of life, and . . . sexual activity should be open to that . . . . The contraceptive mentality denies his will, ‘It’s my will, not your will.’”
If the abortion debate confined itself to the question of just when an embryo becomes a person, it would be hard to understand why it elicits such passionate emotions or why it has become the object of political attention seemingly disproportionate to its intrinsic importance. But abortion is not just a medical issue or even a woman’s issue that has become the focus of a larger controversy about feminism. It is first and foremost a class issue.
Lower-middle-class culture, now as in the past, is organized around the family, church, and neighborhood. It values the community’s continuity more highly than individual advancement, solidarity more highly than social mobility. Conventional ideals of success play a less important part in lower-middle-class life than the maintenance of existing ways. Parents want their children to get ahead, but they also want them to be good: to respect their elders, resist the temptation to lie and cheat, willingly shoulder the responsibilities that fall to their lot, and bear adversity with fortitude. The desire “to preserve their way of life,” as E. E. LeMasters writes in a study of construction workers, takes precedence over the desire to climb the social ladder. “If my boy wants to wear a goddamn necktie all his life and bow and scrape to some boss, that’s his right, but by God he should also have the right to earn an honest living with his hands if that is what he likes.”
Sociologists have observed, usually with a suggestion of disapproval, that working people seem to have no ambition. According to Lloyd Warner, working-class housewives set the dominant tone of cultural conservatism. They adhere to a “rigid” and “conventional” code of morality and seldom dare to “attempt anything new.” Proposals that seem to represent “departures from the conventional way of doing things” meet with their automatic condemnation. These housewives clearly have a “strong determination to do their tasks well” and derive “deep satisfaction from discharging their responsibilities to their families and to their friends,” but they take no interest in long-range goals. “Their hopes are basically centered around carrying on [and] take the form of not wanting their present routine disturbed—they want to continue as they are, but, while doing so, better their circumstances and gain more freedom.”
Anthony Lukas makes the same point, without censure, in his remarkably even-handed account of the Boston school wars of the mid-seventies. Lukas contrasts the “Charlestown ethic of getting by” with the “American imperative to get ahead.” The people of Charlestown, deserted by the movement of more ambitious neighbors to the suburbs, have renounced “opportunity, advancement, adventure” for the “reassurance of community, solidarity, and camaraderie.”
Upper-middle-class observers cannot conceal their contempt for what they see as petit-bourgeois fatalism. An essay attempting to explain “Underutilization of Medical-Care Services by Blue-Collarites” notes that social classes in America are divided by contrasting conceptions of the body. “It is as though the white-collar class thinks of the body as a machine to be preserved and kept in perfect functioning condition, whether through prosthetic devices, rehabilitation, cosmetic surgery, or perpetual treatment, whereas blue-collar groups think of the body as having a limited span of utility: to be enjoyed in youth and then to suffer with and to endure stoically with age and decrepitude.” One might suppose that working-class realism should be morally preferable to the upper-middle-class conception of the body as a machine requiring “perpetual treatment.” The authors of this article, however, draw the opposite conclusion. A stoic acceptance of bodily decline, they argue, reflects a “damaged self-image.”
An analysis of recent cultural conflicts reinforces the conclusion prompted by exposure to conservative traditions of political and social thought, that the essence of cultural conservatism is a certain respect for limits. The central conservative insight is that human freedom is constrained by the natural conditions of human life, by the weight of history, by the fallibility of human judgment, and by the perversity of the human will. Conservatives are often accused of an exaggerated esteem for the past, but it is not the moral superiority of the past so much as its inescapability that impresses them. What we are is largely inherited, in the form of gender, genetic endowment, institutions, predispositions—including the universal predisposition to resent these constraints on our freedom and to dream of abolishing them. What was called original sin, in a bygone age, referred to the most troubling aspect of our natural inheritance—our natural incapacity for graceful submission to our subordinate position in the larger scheme of things.
No doubt conservatives have been too quick to confuse submission to the natural limits on human freedom with submission to established political authority. The existing distribution of political power is not ordained by nature, let alone by heaven; but it does not follow, because our institutions can be modified by an act of collective will, that we can become anything we choose or even that we can alter the political conditions of our existence without paying a price. The value of conservatism lies in the understanding that those who seek to escape the past forfeit any hope of coming to terms with it and expose themselves to an unexpected return of the repressed; that we can never wholly overcome our origins; and that freedom, accordingly, begins with an acknowledgment of the constraints within which it has to operate.
Conservatism is not necessarily authoritarian and hierarchical in its implications. If conservatives are insufficiently critical of existing institutions and the traditions behind them, it is because their understanding of human fallibility makes them see the need for structures that discipline the rebellious heart and at the same time provide moral support in the midst of life’s uncertainties and disappointments. The same appreciation of human weakness and rebellion has egalitarian implications that can counter the tendency to equate social order with hierarchy.
Another countervailing tendency in conservative thought is the preference for local over centralized authority. Precisely because conservatives understand how easily we succumb to temptation, the temptations of power most of all, they try to see to it that power is dispersed as widely as possible. A sense of limits reveals itself, in another way, in the conservative belief that we love and respect particular individuals, not humanity as a whole, and that the seductive promise of universal brotherhood is a poor substitute for local communities in which the holders of power are immediately accountable to their neighbors.
If conservatism is understood to imply a respect for limits, it is clearly incompatible with modern capitalism or with the liberal ideology of unlimited economic growth. Historically, economic liberalism rested on the belief that man’s insatiable appetites, formerly condemned as a source of social instability and personal unhappiness, could drive the economic machine—just as man’s insatiable curiosity drove the scientific project—and thus ensure a never-ending expansion of productive forces. For the eighteenth-century founders of political economy, the self-generating character of rising expectations, newly acquired needs and tastes, and new standards of personal comfort gave rise to a form of society capable of indefinite expansion. Their break with older ways of thinking lay in the assertion that human needs should be regarded not as natural but as historical, hence insatiable. As the supply of material comforts increased, standards of comfort increased as well, and the category of necessities came to include goods formerly regarded as luxuries. Envy, pride, and ambition made human beings want more than they needed, but these “private vices” became “public virtues” by stimulating industry and invention. Thrift and self-denial, on the other hand, meant economic stagnation. “We shall find innocence and honesty no more general,” wrote Bernard Mandeville, “than among the most illiterate, the poor silly country people.” The “pleasures of luxury and the profit of commerce,” according to David Hume, “roused men from their indolence” and led to “further improvements in every branch of domestic as well as foreign trade.” Both Hume and Adam Smith argued that a growing desire for material comforts, wrongly taken by republican critics of commerce as a sign of decadence and impending social collapse, generated new employments, new wealth, and a constantly rising level of productivity.
Smith did not hesitate to call attention to the morally problematic features of the new order. Because he was so confident that the beguiling prospect of universal abundance would sweep aside any lingering objections to its ethical implications, he could afford to acknowledge that liberal capitalism was fueled by ambition, vanity, greed, and a morally misplaced respect for the “pleasures of the vain and empty distinctions of greatness.” In the “languor of disease and the weariness of old age,” the moral insignificance of worldly goods appeared in its true light, according to Smith, since neither possessions nor even the beauty and utility so widely admired in “any production of art” proved capable, under conditions of adversity, of bringing true happiness. Man seldom looked at the matter in this “abstract and philosophical light,” however; and “it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner,” Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in a passage that alluded for the first time to the “invisible hand” that leads men to accumulate wealth and thus inadvertently to serve as social benefactors in their pursuit of deceptively attractive but ultimately empty possessions. “It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.”
The philosophers of plenty, even if they remained untroubled by the “deception” at the heart of their system, could not entirely suppress the more practical reservation that a social order founded on the promise of universal abundance might find it hard to justify even the minimal sacrifices presupposed by an otherwise self-regulating economy. Hume pointed out that an ethic of abundance might weaken even the residual inclination to defer gratification. Human beings “are always much inclin’d to prefer present interest to distant and remote,” he observed; “nor is it easy for them to resist the temptation of any advantage that they may immediately enjoy.” As long as “the pleasures of life are few,” this form of temptation did not pose a great threat to social order. Commercial societies, however, could be expected to intensify the pursuit of “feverish, empty amusements”; and the “avidity . . . of acquiring goods and possessions,” Hume warned, “is insatiable, perpetual, universal, and directly destructive of society.”
In the nineteenth century, the hope that commerce would make men “easy and sociable,” not acquisitive and rapacious, came to rest largely on the institutionalization of deferred gratification supposedly provided by the family. Nineteenth-century philanthropists, humanitarians, and social reformers argued with one voice that the revolution of rising expectations meant a higher standard of domestic life, not an orgy of self-indulgence activated by fantasies of inordinate personal wealth, of riches painlessly acquired through speculation or fraud, of an abundance of wine and women. That a commercial society fostered such ambitions troubled them no end, and it was to counter this tawdry dream of success, this unbridled urge to strike it rich, that proponents of a more orderly economic development attached so much importance to the family. The obligation to support a wife and children, in their view, would discipline possessive individualism and transform the potential gambler, speculator, dandy, or confidence man into a conscientious provider. By tying consumption to the family, the guardians of public order hoped not only to stimulate but to civilize it. Their confidence that new standards of comfort would not only promote economic expansion but level class distinctions, bring nations together, and even abolish war is impossible to understand unless we remember that it rested on the domestication of ambition and desire.
In the long run, of course, this attempt to build up the family as a counterweight to the acquisitive spirit was a lost cause. The more closely capitalism came to be identified with immediate gratification and planned obsolescence, the more relentlessly it wore away the moral foundations of family life. The rising divorce rate, already a source of anxious concern in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, seemed to reflect a growing impatience with the constraints imposed by long-term responsibilities and commitments. The passion to get ahead had begun to imply the right to make a fresh start whenever earlier commitments became unduly burdensome.
Economic development weakened the economic as well as the moral foundations of the “well ordered family state” so highly prized by nineteenth-century liberals. The family business gave way to the corporation, the family farm—more slowly and painfully—to a collectivized agriculture ultimately controlled by the same banking houses that had engineered the consolidation of industry. The agrarian uprising of the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s proved to be the first round in a long, losing struggle to save the family farm, enshrined in American mythology, even today, as the sine qua non of a good society but subjected in practice to a ruinous cycle of mechanization, indebtedness, and overproduction.
Capitalism’s relentless erosion of proprietary institutions furnishes the clearest evidence of its incompatibility with anything that deserves the name of cultural conservatism. There is obviously a good deal to be said, from a conservative point of view, for the institution of private property, which teaches the virtues of responsibility, workmanship, and self-subordinating devotion to humble but indispensable tasks. Twentieth-century capitalism, however, has replaced private property with a corporate form of property that confers none of these moral and cultural advantages. The transformation of artisans, farmers, and other small proprietors into wage-earners undermines the “traditional values” conservatives seek to preserve.
Even the “family wage,” the last attempt to safeguard the independence of the producing classes, has gone the way of the family business and the family farm. It is no longer an unwritten law of American capitalism that industry will attempt to maintain wages at a level that allows a single wage to support a family. By 1976, only 40 percent of all jobs paid enough to support a family. This trend reflects, among other things, a radical de-skilling of the work force, the substitution of machinery for skilled labor, and a vast increase in the number of low-paying unskilled jobs, many of which, of course, are now filled by women. It also reflects the triumph of a consumerist ethic that encourages American males to define themselves not as breadwinners but as sybarites, lovers, connoisseurs of sex and style—in short as playboys, to use Hugh Hefner’s revealing term. The idea that a man has an obligation to support a wife and family is just as distasteful to the editors of Playboy as it is to militant feminists, who have their own reasons for rejecting “family values.”
The family wage was itself a poor substitute, even when practice conformed to theory, for proprietorship. In the early nineteenth century, it was almost universally agreed that democracy had to rest on the widest possible distribution of property ownership. After the Civil War, the emergence of a class of wage-earners—men and women with little hope of acquiring property—raised serious questions about the future of democracy.
Even those who had no quarrel with capitalism, like E. L. Godkin (editor of the Nation and the New York Evening Post), admitted the justice of the working man’s aversion to “wage slavery.” “The receipt of wages,” Godkin noted in 1868, “ . . . is regarded by the world as a badge of dependence, of social and moral inferiority.” A man who worked for wages became a “servant, in the old sense of the word—a person who has surrendered a certain portion of his social independence.” The objections to wage labor, Godkin added, were “very similar to those which may be alleged against the exclusion of a large proportion of the population from participation in the work of government . . . . Until the working classes take an intelligent and active part, that is, participate with their heads as well as their hands, in the industrial operations of the day, our social conditions must be pronounced unsound.”
Godkin, a nineteenth-century liberal whose social instincts were thoroughly conservative, did not flinch, at least at first, from the implications of his position. The only way to preserve the moral advantages of individual proprietorship under modern conditions of production, he argued, was some form of cooperative enterprise. Otherwise “the owners of capital and the owners of labor must form two separate and distinct classes,” each with its characteristic pathology—a snobbish and unwarranted sense of superiority in the one, servile habits of dependency in the other.
Godkin’s only mistake lay in supposing that cooperative enterprise could flourish under a fully developed system of capitalist production. When hard-pressed farmers formed cooperatives in order to hang onto their land and avoid sinking into tenancy, the banks crushed their movement by withholding credit. The embattled farmers, organizing themselves as the Populist party, then sought credit from the federal government. This initiative too was defeated with the help of conservatives like Godkin, who were horrified by the suggestion that the state could legitimately interfere with the laws of supply and demand-the first step toward communism, in their view.
What conservatives did not seem to understand was that the laws of supply and demand had already been abrogated by a whole series of policies that discriminated in favor of large business corporations at the expense of every other interest. In effect, governmental policy, not only in the United States but in other industrializing countries as well, subsidized one form of cooperation—the multi-million dollar corporation—while discouraging others. Neither small-scale property ownership nor its moral equivalent, cooperative enterprise among small producers and craftsmen, could flourish without the support of state policies far more radical than anything conservatives were prepared to consider.
Most conservatives, in fact, did not pursue the matter even as far as Godkin did. They did not admit the need for cooperation in any form. They thought of the corporation itself as if it were an individual under the law. They individualized workers as well, refusing to concede the need for working-class organization in any form. They clung to the delusion that wage-earning was only a temporary condition and that any worker could easily become a capitalist if he was determined to succeed. The pretense that proprietorship was still open to anyone with the requisite ambition discredited conservatism in the opinion of serious thinkers.
Herbert Croly, the founding editor of the New Republic and a guild socialist of sorts, summed up the whole question of proprietorship very clearly in 1914, at the same time that he explained what was wrong with the conservative answer. In an earlier America, “pioneer or territorial democrats,” as Croly called them, “had every promise of ultimate economic independence, possessed as they were of their freeholds.” But the private “appropriation of the public domain rapidly converted the American people from a freeholding into a wage-earning democracy” and raised the central question to which modern societies had not yet found the answer: “How can the wage-earners obtain an amount or a degree of economic independence analogous to that upon which the pioneer democrat could count?” Welfare programs, Croly argued—insurance against unemployment, sickness, and old age; measures enforcing safe and healthy conditions of work; a minimum wage—represented a very partial answer at best. Conservatives objected that such reforms would simply promote a “sense of dependence,” and this criticism, Croly admitted, had a “great deal of force.” The conservatives’ own solution, however—“that the wage-earner’s only hope is to become a property owner”—was so deeply inconsistent with the whole trend of modern industrialism that it was difficult to treat it “with patience and courtesy.” The claim that saving and self-denial would enable workers to become proprietors was utterly unconvincing. “If wage-earners are to become free men,”and “the most important single task of modern democratic social organization” was to make them free men—something more than exhortations to work harder and spend less were going to be required.
That most conservatives have contented themselves with such exhortations provides a measure of the intellectual bankruptcy of twentieth-century conservatism. The bankruptcy of the left, on the other hand, reveals itself in the left’s refusal to concede the validity of conservative objections to the welfare state. The only consistent criticism of the “servile state,” as it was called by Hilaire Belloc, came from those who demanded either the restoration of proprietorship (together with the drastic measures required to prevent the accumulation of wealth and property in the hands of the few) or the equivalent of proprietorship in the form of some kind of cooperative production. The first solution describes the position of populists like Belloc and G. K. Chesterton; the second, that of syndicalists and guild socialists, who briefly challenged social democrats for leadership of the labor movement in the period immediately preceding World War I. According to Georges Sorel, the superiority of syndicalism to socialism lay in its appreciation of proprietorship, dismissed by socialists as the source of “petit-bourgeois” provincialism and cultural backwardness. Unimpressed by Marxian diatribes against the idiocy of rural life, syndicalists, Sorel thought, valued the “feelings of attachment inspired in every truly qualified worker by the productive forces entrusted to him.” They respected the “peasant’s love of his field, his vineyard, his barn, his cattle, and his bees.”
That Sorel spoke of these possessions as things “entrusted” to man shows how radically he differed from Marxists, who shared the liberal view of nature as so much raw material to be turned to the purpose of human enjoyment. But he differed also from conservatives, who made a fetish of property ownership as such, not seeing that its value lay only in the encouragement it gave to craftsmanship, which could be encouraged in other ways. “All the virtues attributed to property would be meaningless without the virtues engendered by a certain way of working.” It was not ownership so much as the opportunity for invention and self-reliance that made work interesting, and the same advantages could be recreated in factories, Sorel thought, once the workers themselves began to exercise responsibility for the design of production.
The syndicalist critique of capitalism carried real authority, because it rested on the insight that capitalism could not deliver on the promise that made it morally attractive in the first place—the promise of universal proprietorship. Syndicalists and guild socialists saw that slavery, not poverty, was the real issue, as G. D. H. Cole put it. They saw that the reduction of labor to a commodity—the essence of capitalism—required the elimination of all the social bonds that prevented the free circulation of labor. The destruction of the medieval guilds, the replacement of local government by a centralized bureaucracy, the weakening of family ties, and the emancipation of women amounted to “successive steps in the . . . cheapening of the raw material of labor,” all achieved under the “watchword” of progress. Whereas Marxists accepted the collectivizing logic of capitalism and proposed simply to collectivize production more thoroughly, syndicalists, populists, and guild socialists condemned modern capitalism for profoundly conservative reasons—because it required (in the words of A. R. Orage, editor of New Age) the “progressive shattering to atoms of our social system.”
In the twentieth century, conservatism has incongruously allied itself with the free market, including the free market in labor. What passes for conservatism, in other words, has allied itself with the very forces that have brought about the “progressive shattering to atoms of our social system.” The defense of conservative values, it appears, cannot be entrusted to conservatives. If conservatism implies a respect for limits, localism, a work ethic as opposed to a consumerist ethic, a rejection of unlimited economic growth, and a certain skepticism about the ideology of progress, it is more likely to find a home in the populist tradition than in the free-market tradition of mainstream conservatism.
It is suggestive that the American right owes much of its recent success to its claim to stand in the populist succession. Spokesmen for the new right present themselves, like the populists of old, as the enemies of wealth and privilege, champions of the “average man on the street,” in the words of George Wallace: the “man in the textile mill,” the “man in the steel mill,” the “barber” and “beautician,” the “policeman on the beat,” the “little businessman.” The right’s attack on the “new class” invokes social classifications steeped in populist tradition, appealing to the “producing classes” to rise up against a parasitic class of professional problem-solvers and moral relativists. Thus William Rusher refers to the emergence of a “‘verbalist’ elite,” “neither businessmen nor manufacturers, blue-collar workers or farmers,” as the “great central fact” of recent American history. “The producers of America,” Rusher says, “ . . . have a common economic interest in limiting the growth of this rapacious new non-producing class.”
The importance of “social issues” in the rise of the new right—abortion, affirmative action, busing, education, the media, liberal “permissiveness”—has often been noted. These issues dramatize the conflict between the family-centered culture of the lower middle class and the enlightened culture of upper-middle-class professionals. No doubt racial resentments have also contributed to the rise of the new right, but to see nothing more than a “white backlash” in the rejection of liberalism is to miss the class antagonisms underlying the cultural civil war. What is being rejected is not just racial liberalism but the whole “culture of critical discourse,” as Alvin Gouldner has described the outlook of the new class—the impatience with constraints imposed by the past, the belief that personal and intellectual growth demands a repudiation of our parents, the eagerness to question everything, the habit of mockery and irreverence. Petit-bourgeois values, as we have seen, are directly opposed to the enlightened ethic of personal liberation and self-discovery. They are the product of experiences that are more likely to foster an awareness of the limits that thwart human aspiration than a sense of endless possibility. It was these petit-bourgeois values that informed the populist tradition in the past and now find expression in the cultural politics of the new right.
The cultural populism of the right is a populism largely divested of its economic and political content, and it therefore does not address the issue that ought to engage the imagination of conservatives: how to preserve the moral advantages of proprietorship in a world of large-scale production and giant organizations. This question poses such formidable difficulties that attempts to grapple with it can easily lead to frustration and a sense of futility. Nevertheless, it is an inescapable question, and not only for cultural conservatives.
The dominant ideology in the West, the ideology of progress, has always rested on the expectation that economic abundance would eventually give everyone access to leisure, cultivation, refinement—advantages formerly restricted to the wealthy. Luxury for all: such was the dream of progress at its most compelling. Even if this were a morally desirable goal, however, it is no longer a feasible goal, since the resources required to sustain universal affluence, hitherto imagined to be inexhaustible, are currently approaching their limit. A more equitable distribution of wealth, it is now clear, requires at the same time a drastic reduction in the standard of living enjoyed by the rich nations and the privileged classes.
Under these conditions, the old ideal of a competence—a piece of earth, a small shop, a useful calling—becomes a more reasonable as well as a more worthy ambition than the ideal of abundance. In the populist tradition, “competence” has rich moral overtones; it refers to the livelihood conferred by property but also to the skills required to maintain it. The ideal of universal proprietorship embodies a humbler set of expectations than the ideal of universal consumption, universal access to a proliferating supply of goods. At the same time, it embodies a more strenuous and morally demanding definition of the good life.
How to revive it, under social conditions that make it more desirable than ever but institutionally almost inconceivable, ought to be the main subject of contemporary political debate. Our grandchildren will find it hard to understand, let alone to forgive, our unwillingness to raise it.
Christopher Lasch is Watson Professor of History at the University of Rochester. He is the author of The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self.