Being Postmodern and Conservative

by Peter Augustine Lawler

It’s an honor and a privilege to write my first postmodern and conservative post for our new home at the National Review Online.

There is, as there is for every genuinely innovative and disruptive idea, a dispute over who invented the brand “postmodern conservative.” Well, I naturally think I did, with the publication of my Postmodernism Rightly Understood (1999). I have to admit I didn’t actually use the phrase “postmodern conservative” until later. The idea of being postmodern and conservative can be found in the work of John Courtney Murray, Walker Percy, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Vaclav Havel, and it is a characteristic feature of indigenous American Thomism and anti-Communist dissident thought.

To be postmodern and conservative is to deconstruct other uses of “postmodern” by beginning with the obvious. To be postmodern means to be about conserving what’s true and good about the modern world, as well sustaining or restoring what’s true and good about various premodern forms of thought and life. It is also, as Solzhenitsyn explained, about criticizing the modern world for its excessive materialism and its replacement of God and virtue with legalism, and the medieval world for its excessively single-minded focus on spiritual life or the soul at the expense of the body.

One of our conservative criticisms of purely modern thought is its prejudice in favor of endless innovation, which can be seen, for example, in its overly technological view of science. Maybe the purest sources of modern thought these days is the hyper-libertarianism of some economists and Silicon Valley technologists, which points in the direct of transhumanism. The false hope is that through techno-innovation we can become better or freer than human, a hope that depends on ungratefully misunderstanding how stuck and how blessed we are to be beings born to know, love, and die. That’s not to say that we believe, as do those existentialists, that death is the final word about who each of us is.

So to be postmodern and conservative is to take our stand somewhere between the traditionalists and the libertarians. The traditionalists focus is on who each of us is as a relational being with duties and loyalties to particular persons and places. The libertarians — or, to be more clear, the individualists — focus on who each of us is as an irreducibly free person with inalienable rights, a person who can’t be reduced to a part of some whole greater than himself or herself. A postmodern conservative is about showing how a free person with rights is also a relational person with duties. The truth is that each of us is a unique and irreplaceable free and relational person. 

We don’t agree with some traditionalists that the cure for what ails us is somehow a return to a way of life that corresponds to a different or earlier form of the division of labor. We’re not for going back to Wendell Berry’s farm or Alasdair MacIntyre’s medieval village (or polis). There’s no reason that modern technology can’t serve dignified human ends, and we should, as Solzhenitsyn said, embrace its challenge as yet another trial of our free will. We even can talk up what’s good about shopping at Walmart (a godsend for a large family in which both parents earn modest incomes) or eating at Waffle House.

We can also see, however, that the progress of the division of labor in our time might be at the expense of  opportunities for worthwhile work that supports a loving relational life for many or most Americans. And the libertarians are wrong that there are techno-deregulatory fixes for all the negative effects of the global competitive marketplace on ordinary lives. (The progressives, of course, are also wrong that the fix can come from better and more omnicompetent government.)

The libertarians are right that things are getting better in many ways. There’s much to be said for our meritocracy based on productivity, for our thinking of persons less than ever as members of races, sexes, classes, religions, and sexual orientations. There’s a lot to be said for the view of justice that has allowed women to become free and equal economic actors with men. People these days don’t ask who you are, but only what you can do. People are living longer than ever, especially those with the sense to prudently attend to what we now know about the various risk factors that imperil one’s very being. There are also the democratizing effects of the various screens that surround us, which are smarter and cheaper than ever. Everyone now has access, it seems, to all the information and all the wisdom and all the entertainment that the world has produced. Globalization in many ways has expanded each person’s menu of choice. Meanwhile, the family lives of very sophisticated and prosperous Americans are getting more stable and even somewhat more child-centered.

But the traditionalists focus on the many relational ways that things are getting worse. The families of ordinary Americans are getting pathological; the number of both single moms and lonely old people is rapidly growing. Add jobless recoveries, our failing schools, and the decline of the work ethic and we have lots of reasons why the increased dependence on government has made our welfare state unsustainable.

Men have no idea how to treat women (and vice versa), and more and more people actually believe that being safe and consensual is the whole of sexual morality. We are more death-haunted than ever, and the result is that we’re becoming ominously Puritanical and prohibitionist when it comes to health and safety. We have a birth dearth that would be worse if it weren’t for the being fruitful and multiplying of our observant religious believers.  As our population ages, we’ve lost all sense of what old people are for, and so we feverishly try to look and act young as long as we can to remain productive. Unproductive caregiving is less valued or honored, and it seems less possible to detach personal dignity from productivity. Our excessive concern with personal autonomy has been at the expense of the relational contexts in which it’s possible to find real personal significance.

Language is becoming more vulgar, techno-one-dimensional,  and we often lack the words that correspond to being moved by love, death, and God or his absence. The omnipresence of the screen diverts us from who we really are and robs us of the pleasures of both being alone in our rooms and being in love with real persons in the present. Liberal education in both its Christian and Stoic-classical dimensions is withering away, and in the name of the administrative project of “diversity” we’re surrendering the real diversity that has been the saving grace of our educational system.

As technology makes us more powerful, we personally get smaller, as courage declines, loyalty and gratitude become countercultural, leisure becomes indistinguishable from recreation, enduring friendship is displaced by convenient networking, and honor becomes merely a word. We’re wrong enviously to criticize our meritocrats for their money; money is what’s they’ve earned. Our real problem is that we lack common standards of merit or virtue that show us what our money and power are for; our “cognitive elite” is pathetically weak in connecting privileges with the responsibilities of being magnanimous, generous, and charitable. Liberty is too often understood as freedom from the relational responsibilities we have in common as creatures and citizens.

Well, I could go on. But one postmodern and conservative insight, which we learned from the comparative analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville, is that it’s typically the case that things are getting better and worse.

We postmodern conservatives also flatter ourselves that we are as stylish and contemporary as the first loud and proud postmodernists were not so long ago. We have no discipline. We have opinions about everything — philosophy, science, theology, education, the various forms of pop culture, real literature, and, of course, all the pressing issues of public policy. Prepare to be entertained and amused by our undeniable diversity of concerns. I admit I’ve indulged myself and needlessly tortured you by not starting with a provocative post about, say, why HBO’s Girls is really a conservative morality tale.

Meanwhile, if you want to know more about me, start Googling. And in case you missed the irony of my use of the Nietzschean “we,” by “we” I’ve pretty much meant me. My fellow bloggers will have different views of what it means to be postmodern and conservative.