The Hipster Conservative and the Future

Douglas Haddow writes in Adbusters Magazine, “The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.” Conservatism often inspires similar spite from modern liberals, technologists, and neo-conservatives. In The Future and its Enemies (1998), Virginia Postrel characterized people of a conservative disposition—“reactionaries” and “stasists” she calls them—as opposing the increase of knowledge and improvement of human life (“progress”).

Postrel, while critical of conservatives, made a number of surprising observations in which she was ahead of her time. We hipster conservatives can only turn green as we imagine how soon we might have hopped that bandwagon, if only we had not been in middle school at the time. Postrel observed various instances of individuals on the political Left finding common cause with others usually considered “right-wing.” During the 1995 inaugural program of TV’s Crossfire, for instance, Jeremy Rifkin (an “antitechnology activist”) and Pat Buchanan unexpectedly discovered shared concerns over the technological society and the destiny of the common man, to the chagrin of the producers who assumed each would hue to the platforms of their respective political parties. Republicans, whom Buchanan represented, were thought to be the party of unrestrained technological development—“pave the planet” types. But:

Buchanan and Rifkin turned out to be soulmates. Rifkin answered Buchanan’s opening question with a fearful description of “this new global high-tech economy” as a cruel destroyer of jobs. “You sound like a Pat Buchanan column,” replied [Buchanan]. “I agree.”

Both men were deeply pessimistic about the future, upset about changes in the world of work, and desperate to find government policies to restore the good old days.

(Postrel, 2)

Postrel observed earlier than most pundits that the conservative movement, which for decades had admitted any fellow-travelers in its preoccupation with the Soviet threat, had widened its circle of concern; or rather, had begun to return to its original character. Although by no means dominant, more voices within the Republican party are now beginning to be skeptical of large national initiatives such as Bush-era “compassionate” conservatives were fond of. This may be due to the spectacular failure of these initiatives. Americans are pragmatists, and once they see enough Federal programs fail to deliver the goods, they might become skeptical. The “No Child Left Behind” program, for instance, left plenty of children behind and worse off for Federal involvement in their education. Americans are beginning to see their constitutional freedoms of speech, movement, privacy, and due process of law abridged or ignored by a wartime government gone mad with plenary powers. An increasingly perceived callousness toward American laws and institutions on the part of the Federal government has led to the development of the Tea Party movement and now a sustained surge of Catholic anger over intrusive health insurance regulations. But these are reactions to government over-reach, not ideological shifts. What may also be starting to happen is that more conservatives are questioning ideals and political programs that were never truly conservative.

This is not to say that “crunchy cons” will soon be ranging the halls of power in Birkenstocks, transforming Detroit into a locavore’s Eden, or redeveloping the Houston suburbs as walkable communities. “Forty acres and a mule” will not be revived as a welfare-reform program. But conservatives are becoming more skeptical over the size and extent of government powers and programs. One very good argument, advanced often from the libertarian side, is that these powers and programs just cannot be sustained, no matter how good they may be; there is not enough money to do it. But many who warm to this reasoning for practical political reasons also feel that even were it possible to sustain the current economic footprint of government without risking overreach, many powers and policies would still be intrinsically wrong; the current extent of government as a whole is bad for the nation’s soul.

Since conservatives stand, by definition, athwart “history” and “progress,” we assume that in most circumstances their opinions run counter to the prevailing cultural mode. It is no easy task to convince one’s hearers that the course of the industrialized world has not been one of significant progress toward a better life for humanity. But the specifically hipster element of conservatism—suspicion of the mainstream almost because it is the mainstream—also prevents hipster conservatives from becoming too sanguine about the Right’s few political successes. Unlike reactionary European conservative parties, hipster conservatives are not likely to fall in behind fascists. Xenophobia is for the masses; nationalism is boring and gives rise to bad art; American Exceptionalism is unexceptional.

Everyone knows that hipsters indulge in ironic nostalgia and self-aware snobbery while being often amusingly ignorant of the past. They imitate the Ray-Bans of the 1980s, the flannels of the 1970s, and the Polaroids of the 1960s. But the stereotypical hipster arranges his kitschy utopia without acquiring any interest in the historical or cultural context of his artifacts. By contrast, the young hipster conservative practices the discipline of “the backward glance,” submitting himself thereby to the tutelage of all past ages. Thus, in an example of true irony, he is actually less of a snob than the futurists who call him so, as they themselves ignore the past. N.W. Smith covered some of this ground in his recent essay “The Irrational Religion of Future-Worship,” published here this past March, in which he argued that the worship of the future is detrimental to living in the present or learning from the past. To invoke “the future” or future events as a reason for anything is to reference a nullity; it is to appeal to an unknown, unprofitable, and unpropitiable god—something like Cthulhu. By contrast, as Smith observed, the past can be known and serves as a guide of human action—what to pursue and what to avoid.

But certainly there is a future. To claim to know it is arrogance; but to act prudently with it in mind is wisdom. The folly of future-worship is not in claiming that there is a time to come which present actions will affect. The folly is to attempt to root one’s identity in a conception of future perfection brought about by human will. Borrowing from a related theological concept, the political theorist Eric Voegelin called this gnosticism; the pursuit of perfection through knowledge. He quotes Irenaeus: “For since sin and affliction resulted from ignorance (agnoia), this whole system originating in ignorance is dissolved through knowledge (gnosis)” (Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism 9). The Gnostic heretics believed they could achieve salvation by attaining hidden knowledge. Voegelin uses the term to describe a variety of political ideologies which hold in common a belief that the current state of things must be replaced by a new and more perfect order: “the aim always is destruction of the old world and passage to the new” (Voegelin 8). Futurism is a kind of political gnosticism in that it also seeks the knowledge of events and outcomes hidden from all but God, and in this it is escapist and ultimately destructive:

The structure of the order of being will not change because one finds it defective and runs away from it. The attempt at world destruction will not destroy the world, but will only increase the disorder in society. The gnostic’s flight from a truly dreadful, confusing, and oppressive state of the world is understandable. But the order of the ancient world was renewed by that movement which strove through loving action to revive the practice of the “serious play” (to use Plato’s expression)—that is, by Christianity. (Voegelin 9)

The hipster conservative approaches some of the most difficult and dangerous subjects in just such a spirit of “serious play.” Indeed, no other disposition will do. Affection for friends, sympathy for everyone, even enemies, and laughter at our own foolishness and the folly of humanity at large, form the only disposition suitable for such a pursuit. For ballast we add contempt for lies and suspicion of any and all programs for rebuilding the world.

So far this has all been rather negative. What is the hipster conservative’s positive plan for prudent action regarding the future? It must be rooted in a non-progressive ideal, to begin with, since the purpose and object of any effort must be defined before success can be measured or even achieved. It is fine to say that you want to make the world a better place in the future, but you must begin by not making it worse now.

Charles Edward Perugini (1839-1918), “A Backward Glance”

The question with which all inquiries in classical philosophy begin is “What is the good?” Political philosophy begins with a similar question: What is the political good, or what, precisely, is the end or purpose toward which people’s public actions ought to be directed? The classical answer to this question is more or less that the political good is a situation in which people are most at liberty to act virtuously and for their mutual benefit. Political philosophers value peace and order highly because they tend to create space for the exercise of this freedom, while limiting opportunities to act unjustly or in ways that damage the community. Traditions, especially those of ritual and law, guard the political community against impulses which would tend to disorder and unrest. Maintaining and passing on these traditions therefore becomes a critical task in which all of society participates. This kind of a political community may be understood by analogy to the family. The best families are those who maintain and pass on an intergenerational family culture. Each member of the family feels that he accrues honor from the reputation of previous generations (just as he might feel shame for an ancestor’s misdeeds). His social standing is improved by his birth. By the same token he feels that to act dishonorably would bring shame not only upon himself but also on the family, and so he avoids such actions. In short, being part of an honorable family moves him to act virtuously and avoid dishonorable pursuits. Similarly, a person who feels himself to be bound to the existing order by family, social, economic and cultural ties will tend to act in ways that align with that order and seek to preserve it, since it gives him the greatest opportunity to act justly and the least hazard of being unjustly acted upon. The strength and order of a society, and its ability to preserve the peace that peaceable people desire, are for classical political philosophy its best features.

Modern political theories, by contrast, begin with an ideal autonomous individual who enters into political society (by means of the theoretical mechanism of the “social contract”) primarily for the protection of his own interests from the competing claims of others. According to this theory, man’s fear of death drives him together when necessary for mutual pacts of self-preservation. However, modern political theories do not see that the rituals, customs, and laws of a society are necessary elements in the pursuit of the political good, because they do not admit the ancient definition of virtue or of the state. Mankind is to them primarily a rational but concupiscent animal who seeks material pleasure and shuns sensory pain. By contrast to older political models which recognized a host of influences and sources of power, modern theory has room for only two, and these two are absolute: the sovereign individual and the absolute State, which represents the interest of the whole. This theory was first expounded by Hobbes, and although subsequent liberal theorists have added to or adjusted it, the liberal theories of Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Rawls, and their disciples continue to be predicated on the view of man as a basically appetitive creature, and of the individual and the state as the two fundamental institutions. This mode of thought redefines ethics so that it revolves around “enlightened self-interest,” that is to say, shrewd hedonism instead of virtue.

It displeases the hipster conservative that these assumptions exert strong influence on American government and society. He is in a certain sense an egotist, but he recognizes the importance of other institutions besides the State existing to exercise influence and place limits both on the State and the individual, and he also bears an affinity to classical (or Christian) virtue ethics. And he finds, much to the gratification of his counter-cultural bent, that these ethical systems are almost entirely foreign in their presuppositions even among Christians and conservatives. The hipster conservative is actually a cultural person; he defines himself in contrast to an anti-culture, and the extreme and irresponsible nationalism of the right is one manifestation of that anti-culture. Recently on National Review Online Mark Krikorian criticized Michelle Bachmann for acquiring dual-citizenship in Switzerland. He called it “civic bigamy” and said, “People obviously have have multiple connections — church memberships, community groups, fraternities, ethnic associations, professional societies, etc. But one’s chief political allegiance is expressed through citizenship, through being a member of We the People . . .” On the contrary, allegiance cannot be expressed by the mere status of citizenship. The actions of a citizen are what show her allegiance, and Mrs. Bachmann is in fact known for acting with the good of her country in mind. Krikorian’s concern over her dual-citizenship shows more regard for an arbitrary symbol than for Mrs. Bachmann’s actual work on the behalf of the American people, in particular those whom she represents in Congress. All the “multiple connections” Krikorian mentions do in fact influence a person’s political actions. What happens when a person’s religious, family, community, ethnic, or ethical allegiance comes into conflict with his national allegiance? It is foolish to say “that would never happen,” because it happens all the time. Patriotism does not trump all. The soldier who believes his country is fighting an unjust war; the activist who opposes his country’s forcible abortion policy; the naturalized citizen with family in the home country; the patriot of the losing side living in exile; the religious martyr; these are only the most extreme examples of the conflicts many people experience between national allegiance and allegiance to other groups. The conflict is inescapably political; there is no “private sphere” expansive enough to include these allegiances while excluding the State. They cannot and must not bow to the State; rather, the State ought to bow to them collectively and back off.

As one expression of his rebellion against statists and their fellow-travelers on the right, the hipster conservative expands his allegiance to include the dead, his ancestors and forerunners. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” It is very proper, for instance, that Americans should study, honor, and emulate our Founding Fathers. If a person is fortunate enough to know stories about his own great-grandparents, he should cherish them, especially if they are honorable. To honor the dead is to honor oneself, and the opposite is also true. Furthermore, honor for the dead is a gift to the unborn. The hipster conservative honors the past for the sake of the future. The stories and ways of the dead are preserved not primarily for the sake of those who are now alive, nor for the sake of the dead themselves, but for those who are yet to be born. Traditions are forward-looking. They seek to preserve good and precious things for future generations of people.

The hipster conservative shows reverence to the human body in life and in death. Gnostic scientism imagines a future in which life is increasingly lived by means of technology, until nature itself is conquered by science. “Transhumanism,” for instance, is a gnostic movement seeking technological interventions in human biology to bring about a kind of eternal life. The preoccupations of transhumanists reveal little interest in biology except as something to be improved upon or transcended; there is much made of the idea of achieving immortality by “downloading” the consciousness into hypothetical advanced computer programs. The immortal soul is not even considered. Instead, what transhumanists seek is strictly an immortality of the mind. By contrast, the hipster conservative views bodily life as sacred and unable to be reduced to the separate constituent categories of mind and body. He does not judge people’s worth by their intellects, but by their innate, irreducible humanity. If he is a Christian, the hipster conservative places his ultimate hope in the bodily resurrection of the dead on the last day, and eternal life in a new creation.

In these ways, the hipster conservative’s approach to the future is constructive, not merely skeptical or negative; and hopeful, the opposite of cynical. He trusts not in the shifting promises of technology or utopian ideology, but in the time-tested traditions he preserves and passes on in his actions. Preservation, not Progress, is his aim and purpose. At his most radical he rejects revolution in favor of renovation.

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