The end of the conservative age
After fifty years of stasis, we are called to be radical again
Sometimes, a thing becomes visible only as it nears its end—or at least we may hope that the long, oppressive era of conservatism through which we have been living will soon breathe its last. The notion that ours has been a period of intense, almost universally held conservatism may seem odd to some readers, particularly those of a nominally conservative bent. Hasn’t the state grown as a share of the economy, for decades? Hasn’t the observance of traditional religion declined? Haven’t sexual mores and gender norms been turned on their heads? And yet if the animating spirit of conservatism is the desire to command history to stop, and to preserve traditional practices across the breadth of society, the past half century can only be seen as the handiwork of a conservatism in near-total mastery of the flow of events.
From 1870 to 1970, the world was racked by violent change, across all spheres of human activity. National borders were drawn and redrawn. The residents of these shifting states experimented with the most radical forms of social organization ever attempted. Technologically, the world lurched from stagecoach journeys to landings on the Moon, from mechanical calculators to digital computers, from a near ignorance of “germs” to the study of our DNA. In the richest economies, incomes tripled, creating a large middle class and moving its members from a position uneasily close to subsistence to one of historically unprecedented wealth. Social relations—between sexes, races and classes—were upended. Culturally, the world experienced perhaps the greatest efflorescence of art ever: in literature, music, architecture, and just about wherever else one looked. It was an almost unbearably frenetic period of creative destruction, and destructive creation.
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And then, around 1970, societies positioned at the frontier of human advance declared: enough. We went to the Moon; that was far enough. We grew tired of efforts to create utopia through our governments, and chose instead to enable the better heeled to consume the fruits of their labor by cutting their taxes. We began to freeze our cities in amber: by abandoning idealistic efforts to improve slums, prohibiting the replacement of the fine buildings of yesterday with the bold and the new, and shifting ever more of the population into the comfort and familiarity of suburbia. With rare exceptions, the energy and innovation bled out of our artistic endeavors. We lost interest in bold new political projects or grand reforming crusades; indeed we ultimately judged that we had found the best of all possible systems of social organization and declared that history had not only stopped but come to its very end. We made ourselves caretakers of a world built by our forebears—or less even than that: parasites upon it, draining what consumer comforts we can from it while they last.
The result has been a profound stasis, powered by a conservatism so deep and penetrating that we scarcely perceive it. To what do the ambitious among us aspire, today? To a structured life, repeating familiar steps: university, lucrative profession, comfortable retirement, modest thrills delivering anticipated rewards. We think our politics has become gridlocked because different factions have such different visions of the future, but that’s mistaken; our politics delivers very little, because even a little change is more than most of us are interested in. Seemingly radical shifts—in tolerance for same-sex relationships for instance—are achieved within an overarching social rigidity, in which power and class relations are preserved and the general order of daily life is undisturbed. Resistance to change has evolved into fear of the unknown; we have all been engaged in a paralyzing process of autoinfantilization, pursuing trivial comforts and eschewing risk.
How did we arrive at this place? One might look for the answer in a materialist explanation. The 1970s were a watershed because that is when the raw material needed to power rapid change—radical and underexploited new technologies and abundant energy—dried up. As productivity and income growth slowed, the scope for wholesale reimagining of society narrowed. And yet this is an incomplete account at best; in the context of resource scarcity and slowing growth, it was a choice to allocate available resources to increased consumption rather than an ambitious program of research and investment intended to alleviate constraints on rapid economic expansion.
Perhaps the issue was something like exhaustion, after a century of upheaval? Having come through revolutions, depressions, and wars—bitter ideological conflicts which threatened the very survival of humankind—maybe we chose to catch our breath, consolidate our gains, and live in quasi-peace. Maybe. Yet this, too, feels off. In the 1970s, the rich world was a very young place; indeed, the median age in America stood below the level of the immediate postwar years. Most of the country was too young to remember the Depression or to have fought in a World War; a large share of the population knew only the postwar years of breakneck growth. And more recently, of course, most of us have known only stasis; there has been little major change for us to have been exhausted by.
The above factors, and others of a similar nature, may have nudged the rich world toward its era of conservative sclerosis. But ideas are powerful, and it seems likely that we can find the roots of today’s monolithic conservatism in the ideological currents of the 20th century. The 18th and 19th centuries gave rise to two ambitious ideologies that would guide social evolution in the tumultuous period beginning around 1870: a liberalism which viewed the autonomy and liberty of the individual as central to progress, and a utopian progressivism which reckoned that ever-better societies could be engineered into being through the application of reason and political force. These two currents interacted—working variously in conflict and cooperation—until eventually rich countries converged around a particular form of social organization: consisting of participatory democracy and market economies, minded by large and technocratic states which maintained generous social safety nets, all undergirded by a lattice of civic institutions that oriented society toward solidarity and progress.
But from the middle of the 20th century, two ideological offshoots of liberalism and progressivism became ascendent. The first was a market-oriented economism, which received a boost from the slowing growth and high inflation of the 1970s. It validated the pursuit of one’s narrow self-interest as an ethical norm, encouraged skepticism of utopian ideas, and contributed to an erosion of the legitimacy of centralized state action. The second was a progressive conservationism, which received a boost from an increased understanding of the environmental costs of modern economic growth and from revulsion at the effects of mid-century civic renewal. It validated preservation as an ethical norm, encouraged skepticism of grand plans of all sorts, and contributed to an erosion of the legitimacy of ambitious civic and private-sector action. Both were animated in part by concern about real social problems. Both achieved some worthwhile aims. But in concert, the two facilitated a slow dismantling of society’s capacity to pursue and achieve grand aims, while also helping to entrench a forbiddingly powerful interest group in the propertied middle class, with both the incentive and the means to stymie change.
From the interaction of these two movements there emerged a broad ideological consensus, spanning much of the left and the right, which shares as its core belief that things may not be perfect, but that dramatic changes of any sort are likely to yield more costs than benefits, particularly to those of some means and property. This uninspiring worldview has been sustained with help from the expansion and intensification of a consumerist culture, through which the public demands palliatives and status symbols from the market, with the resulting production providing the bulk of the motive power for our conservative age’s weakened growth engine. This culture is where we go to look for meaning and where we find the threads that continue to bind us together as a society, such as they are: the moth-eaten community of Marvel fandom and overproduced sporting events.
If we have thus become stuck, what reason is there to expect an end to the conservative consensus that has us trotting through the motions of the Good Life as our grandparents imagined it circa 1960? There are at least two that I see. One is the destabilizing effect of the internet. Over a remarkably short amount of time the flow of information around society has been dramatically rerouted, imparting a disequilibrating influence on the ideological environment. You can see this dynamic in operation in the rise and reaction to wokeness, and more potently in the emergence of an anti-democratic or neo-reactionary politics. Another is climate change: the inevitable result of a determination to avoid disruptive change which will ultimately force us out of our comfort zones, one way or another. One might argue that there are others: in the accumulation of potentially transformative technological innovations, or in the new openness to odd beliefs—in the wisdom of Q, or that aliens are among us—which could be interpreted as a yearning for something more spiritually meaningful than our spent consumerist religion is at present capable of providing. These things threaten the prevailing conservatism: because business-as-usual may no longer deliver outcomes which fall within an acceptably narrow range, and because arguments that the current order can only be preserved through radical action become increasingly credible.
So it is ever easier to contemplate radicalism of various sorts, and as radical actions by some groups seem an increasingly real possibility, others which might otherwise constitute a powerful anti-change bloc will begin to consider radical action or reaction of their own. The world begins to wobble off its course, each lurch in one direction invigorating forces which propel a lurch in yet another. For us, the children of the conservative age, it is a terrifying moment. The future is wildly uncertain. The fledgling movements vying to explain our troubles and offering new ideologies and institutions as replacements for the old seem threatening, repugnant. Some clearly are, but on the other hand how could anything disruptively new not look that way to us? Conservatism is all we know. The things we have been told to want, that we have learned to value, are all bound up in a time and a society that is nearing its end. That credential. That house. That career. That income. Those markers of social respectability. That sense of ourselves, of who is like us and who is not, of what is good and what is bad. That safety.
But seeing the conservatism around us for what it is, and then seeing beyond it, will enable us to think new thoughts and, eventually, to realize new possibilities. The world we grew up in was a good one, certainly, compared to those which came before it, but has it really been so wonderful that we should be prepared to fight to preserve it? Billions of people remain poor; they don’t need to be. We remain yoked to the burning of fossil fuels; that is absurd. Generations before us reveled in the creation and experience of thrilling new art; shouldn’t we want to know that sensation? We can reimagine what it means to be human, what we all deserve and owe to each other; are we so content with the way we treat each other now? Should we not try to conceive of ways in which the world becomes much better, soon, instead of hoping vainly that it becomes a little better, eventually?
If we do, we will make mistakes, including some big ones. That is how it goes. But this order that we are so violently committed to maintaining is the fruit of wild risk-taking and repeated mistakes. If we see value in it, then we should also recognize that we have an obligation to take some risks which ensure that we make our own errors. We have a duty to make ourselves uncomfortable, to gamble on change, to bet that we can bring into being something substantially better than this dear but shabby comfort-blanket of a civilization.
What is important to recognize, though, is that the critical choice has in many ways already been made. We grasped the world and did our utmost to hold it in place for as long as we could. We yelled Stop, and it did, curiously, for decades. But we are losing our grip, and there is no getting it back. There are two camps now: those who prefer not to see this reality and those working to make a different one. Those of us who value liberty and democracy, who care about the dignity and welfare of all people: if we aren’t helping to build something radically new, then we are leaving the future’s construction to others.
It would be nice, or easier at least, not to have to do this work. It would be much more comfortable to just relax at the barbecue and watch the game and assume that the opportunity to enjoy those same things in more or less the same way will be there, undisturbed, for our children. That feeling is the essence of this age of conservatism. It is high time that we grow out of it. We will have to, whether we like or not.
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Remove zoning and building code constraints. Let people build. In my country (Spain) the average population density of any kind of urban area - from small towns to big cities - is equivalent to Brooklyn NY, and supports very high quality of life with far fewer cars and less infrastructure.
In the 60s and 70s housing was abundant, cheap, and rundown. It was easy to be eccentric and live an offbeat lifestyle. Those same outsiders later founded Silicon Valley.
When the rents are too damn high there is no room for creativity or risk taking.
"How did we arrive at this place? ..."
all the factors you mention played a role, for sure. But I would add that the absence of a major war actually fought in the rich world, and the following lack of focused investments, disruptions, destructions and following reconstructions, also played a big part. Or to put it differently, world wars were maybe the biggest change-spurring events of last centuries. I also think that another big facilitator was that the median age was much lower back then.
"what reason is there to expect an end to the conservative consensus ..."
an additional destabilizing factor is that the low birth rate in the rich world is leading it to a place in which an ever shrinking working force will have to sustain an ever growing number of old people. I don't think this is a problem technically or even economically, but it seems to me that we might have to rely on the public sector playing a much stronger role (at a time in which a campaign to dismantle it is arguably making strides, at least in the US).
Alas, I tend to agree a lot with the comment by Tim Lee above that all these factors are too slow to cause any dramatic change anytime soon. In other words, things will have to go worse before serious change can happen. It might be something that the next generations (our sons and daughters or even more down the line) might face (while supporting a bunch of 90 year olds and adapting to climate change at the same time).
I know it might sounds a bit like I just want to relax at the barbecue and watch the game :) , but this is where logic leads me for now.