Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Whittaker Chambers. Conservatism in the Age of Machines.

September 1954

Dear Willi:

History tells me that the rock-core of the Conservative Position, or any fragment of it, can be held realistically only if conservatism will accommodate itself to the needs and hopes of the masses-needs and hopes, which like the masses themselves are the product of machines. For, of course, our fight, as I think we said, is only incidentally with socialists or other heroes of that kidney. Wesentlich[Ed:fundamentally], it is with machines. A conservatism that cannot face the facts of the machine and mass production, and its consequences in government and politics, is foredoomed to futility and petulance. A conservatism that allows for them has an eleventh-hour chance of rallying what is sound in the West......

[Ed: Chambers here discusses some contemporary aspects of rural socialism]

The machine has done this. But every one of my indicted neighbors has sold off his horses and rides his tractor, and sends soil samples to the state college to learn how to up his yields. And not one of them has the slightest intention of smashing his machines or going back to horses and moderate yields-because machine farming is one reality that he can see and feel. Moreover, each knows how absurd it would be for him alone to buck the trend-he would be ploughed under by those who would not go along. The mass of farmers will keep their tractors, and milk more and more cows, until they drop of heart attacks. Only, they will not cut back. Therefore, the machine has made the economy socialistic.

A conservatism that will not accept this situation must say: "We are reactionary in the literal sense. To be logical, we must urge you farmers to smash your machines (not sell them off, but smash them, and buy no more). For, otherwise, you will always get what you wanted; while what you do not want (restrictions, the end of the private domain) will be the literal reaping of what you sowed." But a conservatism that would say that is not a political force, or even a twitch: it has become a literary whimsy.

.....[Ed:Chambers makes some more comments on rural Socialism in America].........

As you know, most factory workers are farmers manques. Moreover, they rocked to the factories in the first place because even the industrial horrors of the nineteenth century seemed preferable to more than ten hours of haying in a shriveling sun, or cows going bad with garget. I worked the hay load last night against the coming rain-by headlights, long after dark. I know the farmer's case for the machine and for the factory. And I know, like the cut of hay-bale cords in my hands, that a conservatism that cannot find room in its folds for these actualities is a conservatism doomed to petulance and dwindling-first unreality and then defeat. Let the conservative fill barley sacks behind the moving combine for even eight hours in a really good sun, and then load them, 100 , 150 lb. bags, until midnight and he will learn more about the realities of rural socialism (and about the realities of conservatism) than he could ever glean from the late, ever to be honored Robert Taft.
and in a letter to William Buckley(not in the book Cold Friday) he wrote.
The Republican Party [and by implication the conservative movement) will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure some oddments of cloth (weave and design of 1850). Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel. As your eyes become accustomed to the dim kerosene light, you are only slightly surprised to see that the old man is Frank Meyer.
(Rather apropos with respect to this article at the Front Porch republic which deals with some of the problems of contemporary conservatism. (Intelligent comments thread there) Hat tip, Throne and Altar)

Just as modern life support machines and transplant technologies raise new issues with regard to medical ethics, so did the social changes bought about by technological invention bring forth new social pressures, which may have existed previously but became concentrated to new levels by the massive urbanisation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.