Technological and Cultural Change

This leads me to another point, made in another newsletter from a National Review writer.  In his February 27th “Goldberg File,” Jonah Goldberg referenced an exchange of letters between Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley, and highlighted the following statements from Chambers:

 …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. Wesentlichen[essentially], 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.

In response, Jonah writes:

What Chambers is saying is that while principles may (or may not!) be eternal, their relevance and application is ever changing. That change is driven less by ideas than by material changes in how we live. The conservative who adapts to the times will invariably be declared the enemy of the conservative who stands his ground. That should sound familiar enough these days. More interesting to me is his contention that the war with liberalism is really a proxy war for the war with machines…

Now, I love — love! — how conservatives focus on ideas and principles. But that dedication often causes us to forget that not all problems stem from ideas. Rather, problematic ideas often stem from stuff, my technical term for technological innovation. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but inventions are the mother of opportunities. The car did more to make “free love” and promiscuity possible than any French novelist, German philosopher, or Hollywood director ever could. Those things were brothels on wheels.

Often the revolutionary ideas that everyone loves to discuss are simply cheap marketing promotions for revolutionary technologies….The challenge for conservatives is that while we love to argue with Nietzsche,we’re ill-equipped to argue with a Buick, particularly if everyone wants a Buick. …Anyway, I think this stuff is fascinating and if you have any thoughts, suggested reading, etc., I’m all ears.

Chambers wrote this letter about 100 years after Parkman penned The Oregon Trail and roughly 60 years before today.  Mass production was the main technological fact of life at the time, and in many ways those machine-oriented, industrial technologies represent a half-way point between the simple tools used by settlers on the frontier and cutting edge, 21st century IT.  “Machines” clearly utilize advanced scientific and engineering knowledge, but they are also overwhelmingly involved in transforming material inputs into higher-value added, but still physical, goods that are sold in the marketplace.  Unlike the IT-centric office where most Americans currently work, the factory floor and machine shop were tightly linked to resource extraction and processing, production techniques where human labor (rather than human capital) played a vital role, and the ultimate manufacture of tangible products.

In spite of these similarities, Chambers was arguing that people experienced and understood the world differently in the machine age than they did in the agrarian era of frontier settlement.  He claims that conservatives must come to grips with this change and ensure that their ideas resonate with and are relevant for the machine age.  Indeed, Chambers claims that “our fight…is only incidentally with socialists or other heroes of that kidney…essentially, it is with machines,” and until conservatives face that fact they will be doomed.  Goldberg seconds this point in the G-File, claiming that “problematic ideas often stem from technological innovation” and “often the revolutionary ideas that everyone loves to discuss are simply cheap marketing promotions for revolutionary technologies.”

Goldberg’s last claim is not a new one, but unfortunately it’s usually delivered inside a thick bubble wrap of Marxist malarkey.  In fact, Marx was the first to argue that ‘revolutionary ideas’ are merely the epiphenomena of revolutionary technologies.  Marx believed the primary building block for economics, politics, and history was the means of production.  The means of production naturally gives rise to relations of production, which under capitalism is the relationship between labor and capital.  The “superstructure” of society builds directly on, and is designed to protect, these relations of production.  Family, religion, law, education, media, art, essentially everything outside the workplace – in Marx’s analysis, it has all been constructed to protect the means of production and those who control and profit from them.

Now, Marx’s economics was execrable and profoundly flawed.  His view of the superstructure was also too sweeping and reflects a risibly simplistic view of human nature.  Despite these intellectual deficiencies, contemporary echoes of Marx’s ideas are all too common in universities, post-modern cultural critiques, and countless opinion pieces and Democratic talking points that dismiss market-oriented policies as stalking horses of “the rich” and corporate puppet-masters secretly pulling the strings.  The Right needs to keep all this baggage in mind before it gives credence to the notion that “revolutionary ideas come from revolutionary technologies.”

On the other hand, conservatives and some libertarians have not given enough attention to understanding how the material world can impact the world of ideas, and culture more generally.  Given its importance and the amount of time it occupies in our day-to-day lives, it would be surprising if our economic selves were hermetically sealed off from the ideologies we develop.  It is important to think carefully, and rigorously, about the ways that economic and technological change interacts with the world of culture and ideology.  Tomorrow’s post will consider this relationship with respect to one particular, and important, dimension.

Tomorrow:  Technology and the Conflict of Visions