Fiddling While Rome Burns, Introduction
A version of this essay as delivered at the Abbeville Institute conference on "Who Owns America?" in October 2020.
In 1935 there appeared, to no great acclaim, a book of essays whose title asks a question that is still of vital importance to the dwindling remnant of Americans and Europeans who wish to think for themselves: Who Owns America? In rereading the volume after many years, I imagined, for a, moment, that some of the the authors Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and Hilaire Belloc, could be reanimated in some secret laboratory owned by Elon Musk on the dark side of the moon, and sent down to the United States of 2020. What would they say about the condition of the American Republic? Probably something to the effect that things are even worse than they had predicted.
To back up their claim, they might cite the American embrace of the COVID panic engineered by political interests, the riots and insurrections that have engulfed New York and Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland, and Seattle, the nomination of Joe Biden in a virtual reality spoof of democracy that could have been written by Mike Judge as a sequel to his film Idiocracy.
We should not be surprised if the corpse of the American republic is beginning to stink. The Agrarians were aware that nearly every advance in modern civilization was a step in the wrong direction. Automobiles, radio, television, packaged foods, fast foods, frozen dinners, pop music, and public schools have been sucking the juice out of human life for 100 years. I once asked Andrew Lytle about the effect of the automobile had on American life. He told me that if he and his friends had anticipated one small fraction of the damage these infernal machines would do, he and his colleagues would have traveled to Detroit and blown up the factories.
Mr. Andrew and his friends and collaborators were secular prophets. A prophet is not someone whose business is to foretell the future—that is only a sideline. The prophet (the word is Greek) does not declare in advance but speaks forth. His real job is to reveal the meaning of the present, to make manifest the reality in which we live. Hilaire Belloc, who understood the evils of his own day, had no trouble in foreseeing the terrible consequences that would follow.
In his conclusion to Who Owns America?, Belloc calmly observed that modern man, by which he meant primarily man since World War I, had “lost the old doctrinal position on transcendental things.” As a consequence, he said, modern man “has lost his economic freedom or, indeed, the very conception of it.” This loss of economic freedom, coupled with the loss of the old religious doctrines creates an interior conception of himself which molds all his actions. This conception has necessarily jettisoned the old “moral code” including the conception of property as a right and—not as a mere institution.
Belloc’s argument interconnects three basic aspects of the human condition: economic freedom, political liberty, and the moral sense. Their loss is one cause of the fear and insecurity experienced by modern men and women who seek protection and safety from the plutocrats who control the organs of government. Every healthy young man who puts on a mask in a park is wearing a badge of servility and blind obedience.
Power, he goes on to say, is evermore centralized and simplified, and the servile subjects of government experience an ever-narrowing range of decisions, as a uniform culture is spread from city to small town to country, from region to region, from country to country and continent to continent. The result, he observes, is that….
“… the zest for living declines or disappoints…” and confused minds accept “universal statements when they are flatly contradictory to his own experiences. Any man may note by looking around him how this or that object is proposed for hatred or for affection and then—since there is no spontaneity in the emotion—a contradictory object may be imposed in place of the first: and so on indefinitely…”.
The press, which now includes television, radio, and the internet, is a principle instrument of managing the masses, who are easily manipulated into maniacal hatred against designated enemies, as the Kaiser was during WWI and, in more recent years, the growing membership list of what I used to call “the Hitler of the Month Club” includes Manuel Noriega, Moammar Qadafy, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Bashar-al Assad, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and all the religious fanatics who oppose infanticide, the frightened bigots who cling to their guns and their religion, or, simply, Southerners not ready to commit suicide.
Belloc is careful not to fall into the trap of conspiracy theorists who put the cart before the horse by blaming the media or the politicians: “The press in its present degradation (And though that may seem impossible today, it will probably get worse) is but a function of the modern mind …. The chain of cause and effect is not first the press and then the mentality of the modern urban reader thereof, it is first the modern urban reader thereof with his modern mind, and then the press which is consonant with such material.” The members of the Media are not creative or independent actors: They—like professors, teachers, and billionaires—are merely agents of the postmodern mentality
Belloc concludes that only a philosophical or religious revolution will make it possible to restore the our liberties and the rights of private property. He was not sanguine about the prospects: “The difficulty is increasing,” and “those who those who attempt a creative effort at reform” must realize that they ”will probably fail.”
Nearly a century later, Belloc’s faint glimmer of hope that something might be done, now seems naive. As the scenario has played out, resistance to the material, cultural and spiritual enslavement of the human race has grown ever feebler. In 1936, there were still independent thinkers such as Belloc and his friends, also T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the Southern Agrarians and Northern writers like Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, and Louis Bromfield who kept alive the Jeffersonian ideals of limited government, economic freedom, moral responsibility, and regional culture. Despite the eloquence and brilliance of these prophetic voices, the slide into postchristian and posthuman savagery not only did not slow, but it increased precipitously. The old humane traditions championed by Agrarians and Distributists have been inexorably steamrollered by the engines of mass production, mass society, mass education and mass culture.
There have been diverse attempts on the right and even on the left to halt the Blitzkrieg, but they have met with little or no success. Leftist proposals either depend on government coercion and tax money to support the arts and literature, community and the family, or they relied on utopian assumptions about human nature and opposed all forms of hierarchy and authority. In the 1960’s, Hippies, Yippies, and SDSers rejected government and big business and the religion of their ancestors, but they merely exchanged one sort of conformity for another. In college I had friends, reared in stable decent families and communities whose traditions and moral principles they had been taught to conform to. A few years of mass entertainment, professorial indoctrination, Beatles records, and televised protest events turned most of them into obedient little leftwing conformists, and we see their spiritual grandchildren in the streets today, rioting, burning, and murdering for principles that could not entice a 12 year old boy of a hundred years ago.
To the end of their days, these perpetual adolescents suffer from sentimental delusions. Remember the late Dennis Hopper’s commercial for retirement? To the pulsing organ beat of Steve Winwood’s “So Glad we Made it,” Hopper recited the capitalist revision of the Hippy creed: “Your generation is definitely not headed for bingo night…”. “Dreams are what make you say ‘When I’m, 64 I’m gonna start my own business.”
Libertarian and Capitalist proposals have been no more effective. At least communitarian leftists said they dreamed of restoring community, while the libertarians and their fellow-travelers suffer from the delusion that individuals can stand up against the armed forces of the global power monopoly. Libertarians and Liberal Conservatives, as Marx rightly complained 150 years ago, were destroying everything that connected man with man, leaving only the cash nexus. They are still operating at the same old stand.
There were some small-scale movements that did not make any sweeping claims: In no particular order, We could mention: home schooling, the restoration of religious traditions among both Latin Mass Catholics and serious Protestants and the flight to Orthodoxy, small presses, regionalist cultural movements, the revival of the classical curriculum, string band music, podcasting, and some of these small-scale movements aimed at restoring humane learning, reviving the churches, invigorating regional identity. Nonetheless, these attempts, fruitful as many were, represent little threat to the bulldozers knocking down ancient buildings, the steamrollers paving the highways on which the tanks would roll, and the vast Gulag of the mind we call public schooling.
Leftists and Conservatives cannot solve the problems they have created, because they do not understand what Belloc and the Agrarians both understood: There can be no political freedom that does not rest on economic freedom; and no economic freedom that does not rest on the freedom of social beings living in a coherent society, but these social freedoms cannot exist except in a context of moral freedom and responsibility, whose sources lie, as Friedrich Hayek realized late in life, beyond the opinion of mortal men. Under the surface of every agrarian argument is concealed a theological conception of the person. As my late friend, the philosopher Pier Luigi Zampetti, once wrote, two centuries of capitalism and socialism have made it clear that these materialist movements, in separating humanity from nature and sectioning the human person into functions—economic, social, political, domestic—has succeeded in corrupting and destroying the essential conditions for human existence. The environmental crisis, like AIDS, he argued, derives from pollution of the spirit: Man himself is dying along with society and nature.