Conservatives and Technology
By Mark Wegierski
[An earlier version of this article appeared in American Outlook, Indianapolis, Indiana: The Hudson Institute, vol. 5 no. 3, Summer 2002, pp. 15-16]
Many of those who demonstrate against the various international and economic summits conventionally define themselves as anarchists or radical Left. Indeed, opposition to capitalism and globalization today is said to belong to the Left. However, all too many of the protesters seem to represent little more than an incoherent, almost aimless rebellion that invariably ends in hooliganism. They pose little substantive challenge to the glibly efficient technocrats of the incipient “Brave New World”. Notwithstanding the admitted idealism and insight of some of their mentors, notably Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky and Ivan Illich, the typical anti-capitalist activist appears to want ever more intensive “political correctness”, even more drastic social and cultural levelling, as well as some of the comforts and licentious lifestyles of the consumer society, with a global government to enforce their values.
Moreover, some of the profoundest critiques of capitalism, technology, and globalization have historically come from the traditionalist Right, from thinkers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and equally from “social conservatives of the Left”, such as John Ruskin, William Morris, George Orwell, and Christopher Lasch.
There is not, nor has there ever been, a consensus among conservatives in favor of unrestricted technological development and globalization. A person’s place on the left/right spectrum is not all-determining for their outlook on technological and globalization matters.
Yet certain conservatives remain unreflective about technology and globalization. They do not seriously consider their effects on society. They seem to assume that the massive explosion of technology (insofar as they notice it at all) can have only a limited impact on enduring notions of human nature, politics, and religious belief.
What is fallaciously take to be the typical conservative position on these issues is represented by techno-Republicans like Newt Gingrich. In an article in The Wall Street Journal, dated February 27, 2001, he wrote that technology “contains the seeds of a transformation that would dramatically reduce bureaucracies, expand freedom and shrink the role of government.” In a pithy article on “Types of Right” in National Review (October 11, 1999), John O’Sullivan characterized Newt Gingrich and those neoconservatives who think like him as “Free-market post-nationalists.”
The social and cultural impact of technology in the post-World War II period has ostensibly been “liberating” and “liberalizing.” Indeed, it appears to have efficiently swept away the eternal verities and pieties, as well as the many of the less positive aspects of socially traditional societies.
Conservatives like Newt Gingrich consequently see technology and globalization as invariably liberating and subversive of “big government.” They have no problem with the consumption society, or with the tendency towards the effective melding of “man and machine”, as in computers, cars, and popular advertising and science fiction imagery. They have evidently forgotten that technology was enthusiastically embraced by Nazi Germany, where it was believed not only that it was supremely necessary for the war-effort, but also invariably “disciplining” – that the embrace of ultra-hard-edged tech would promptly sweep away “humanism” and “sentimental rubbish.”
Another hypothetical conservative perspective is that technology is basically “value neutral” – a tool that depends on the user. A combination of the free market and social reform will hopefully help to cushion the negative effects of technology and globalization.
A more exotic variant of Conservatism is articulated by the forward-looking nationalists, the so-called “postmodern” Right, as in Japan and several Islamic societies, who seek to integrate technology within national and religious traditions. Their ultimate goal is “feudal values plus high-technology” – or so-called “archeofuturism.” Two fictional examples of a possible end-result of this kind of synthesis are Frank Herbert’s far-future epic Dune, portraying a heroic intragalactic struggle focussed on the desert-planet Arrakis, and George Lucas’ grand Star Wars movie series (especially the original trilogy).
The more pessimistic and less politically active variant of the “postmodern” Right, however, considers technology as generally “bad” – but possibly amenable to human control. Living in countries where the restoration of tradition appears inconceivable, they have little hope for the future but continue their efforts nonetheless, in the hope that something can be salvaged. They see technology, capitalism, left-liberalism and globalization as an intertwined “late modern” system destructive of all genuine cultural particularities and human identities. Western civilization is deemed to be treading a similar (but more extreme) path to that of the Athenian and Roman empires in their decline. But they retain some residual hope of an eventual cultural Spring, predicated on the cyclical nature of history and Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence.
But what if an escape from technology, or a reconciliation of humankind with technology, is impossible? What if history is generally heading in a negative, “downward” direction? The French critic of technology, Jacques Ellul, and the Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant anticipate a “universal, homogenous world-state”, a dystopian society in which cultural particularities and genuine human identities have been all but eliminated. This is a world like the one portrayed in Ridley Scott’s dark-future movie, Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, audaciously filmed by Stanley Kubrick; in William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, which depicts a heavily polluted planet ruled by mega-corporations; or in Aldous Huxley’s antiseptic but soulless Brave New World. The conservative response to such a scenario is a form of existentialism – “tend your own garden” – look after “the little things” – i.e., particularities.
Ultimately a critique of globalization constitutes a defence of the finer elements of traditional cultures – including those of European and European-descended societies in their pre-globalized forms. It represents a defence of rooted, reflective particularity and of real diversity and complexity, against all manner of abstract universals and single-factor ideologies, and the various pseudo-collectivities and pseudo-diversity of late modern society.
Sociologist Mark Wegierski writes from Toronto