Up from modernism

Settle in.

I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s weblog for a few months now, and he’s been on quite a journey. I first read Dreher a number of years ago on National Review Online, back when it was one of the few websites publishing online opinion pieces. Most notably he wrote a piece, which turned into a cover story for the magazine, about the phenomenon of “crunchy cons,” conservatives who exhibited social tendencies usually associated with liberal counterculture types—eating (crunchy) granola, recycling, gardening, shopping for organic vegetables at a co-op, etc. He made the case that these were actually conservative values, provided we see conservatism as a rejection of progressive modernity, and perhaps we ought to ponder the fact that mainstream conservatives join liberals in embracing modern progressive social values.

The article turned into a book in 2006 which received its due measure of buzz, and for awhile there was some talk that made me think movement conservatism might actually become a richer thing, encompassing a broader range of thought. Two years later, it all seems a bit quaint; the new great divide, I think, will separate the modernists from the traditionalists, with the liberal/conservative distinction being a matter of inside baseball within the modernist camp. Meanwhile, there will be modernists, both liberal and conservative, whose interest in crunchiness will lead them out of the modernist camp altogether.

(In fact, I think the main thing that is slowing this movement out is the fact that traditionalism, weirdly enough, is something that is barely alive right now and needs to be rebuilt from its foundations, meaning that there is no easy off-the-shelf political and social thinking that can be substituted for the liberal/conservative thinking being left behind.)

Because of his interest in crunchiness, Rod Dreher was particularly vulnerable when the modernist project began to fail last year. While times were good, it was easy to take a dilletante’s approach to pre-modernity, sampling and evaluating and appreciating from a distance, mixing daydreams of what might be with nostalgia for what we once had. But now crunchiness has to confront the crunch, and there is a decision to be made: retreat into modernity and hope that the ship of progress will somehow right itself; or embrace the traditionalism that crunchiness hints at by rejecting modernity—and figuring out exactly how much of modern progress needs to be jettisoned in order to put our community back on a solid footing.

Having only begun following his blog a few months ago, I feel like I’m coming in during the middle of the movie. He posts frequently, and his posts are an uneasy mixture, alternating hip, engaged observations about cultural and political material currently making the rounds of the blogosphere, with horrified reactions to the latest evidence of societal disintegration. At least the mixture makes me uneasy, perhaps because I’ve tried the same mixture in the past and ended up giving up on the hip, engaged observations, concluding that hip engagement was in direct opposition to the traditionalist attitudes I was trying to nurture in myself.

(This is one reason I’m having a difficult time commenting on Ken Myers’s book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. Myers takes the approach, which is certainly coherent, that the difference between good and bad culture is in the details, and by being careful of the details we can purify ourselves of dangerous degenerate cultural tendencies. I think the problem is much deeper, a structural problem in fact, and so I prefer rejecting modern culture outright rather than quibbling over the details that distinguish good and bad elements of modern culture.)

Just yesterday, but already many posts back at this point, Dreher wrote a very good post that jumped from a Peggy Noonan column about how the what-could-go-wrong delusions of the Masters of the Universe got us into this economic mess, to a piece in Foreign Policy about how the Masters take no personal responsibility for what has happened, to a piece by Sharon Astyk on how gardening isn’t always fun, to a New York Times article on newly unemployed Wall Street financial people, to the piece that actually caught my attention, an article by Matthew Crawford on the nature of manual work.

All these are tied together with some where-I’m-at-right-now reflections which might be boringly narcissistic but are actually good and helpful because Dreher is aware that he is putting off some hard decisions and is willing to say so in writing:

In other words, I think for all my theorizing, there’s something inside me that desperately—desperately—hopes that these hard choices can be avoided. I don’t like to face that reality, because it seems cowardly, but there it is. I wish I could think of a single meaningful sacrifice I’ve made recently, but I just don’t see it, even though it’s plain that I need to be saving as much as I can right now. That tells me that I have not really internalized the lessons of our times, and the logic of my own convictions. Damn. I really do believe that most of us will have to live poorer, but that we’ll live better, though it won’t seem that way at first, and may not for a long time.

I hope that is enough to encourage you to read the whole post. Meanwhile, I’ll move on to Crawford’s essay on manual work, called “Shop craft as soulcraft.”

What caught my eye initially was this opening paragraph:

Anyone in the market for a good used machine tool should talk to Noel Dempsey, a dealer in Richmond, Virginia. Noel’s bustling warehouse is full of metal lathes, milling machines, and table saws, and it turns out that most of it is from schools. EBay is awash in such equipment, also from schools. It appears shop class is becoming a thing of the past, as educators prepare students to become “knowledge workers.”

The reason it caught my eye is that Chris has lately become very interested in metal working, and although the series he is studying shows the reader how to build a complete metalworking shop from scrap, he could make faster progress if we could get him some basic equipment. A friend has already donated a small antique forge that needs some repair work.

And so I was floored when this article pointed out the obvious, namely that shop class is a thing of the past and schools are letting all that shop equipment go for little or nothing. I should have thought of this, since when I first wanted to buy an upright bass I was told that for a long while folks had great success getting upright basses for nothing from schools that had once had orchestra programs and were glad to free up the closet space they took up.

But of course it isn’t just the chance for some cheap/free equipment that interested me. At the same time that Chris is on a self-appointed mission to acquire manual skills (as are Debbie and Maggie, who have now added spinning yarn to their crafting repertoire), the article reminds me that modern society is deep into an experiment to see if a society can remain viable whose members pride themselves in their lack of manual competence:

A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is call
ed forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.

So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.

When I said far above that the traditionalists suffer from a lack of off-the-shelf political and social thinking, I meant in part that we have no settled response to the arguments against manual competence raised by Crawford’s economist and educator. It will take many articles like this one by Crawford (which fortunately will become a book this spring) to establish traditionalism as a credible, viable alternative to modernity.

Part of the reason that traditionalism suffers is that modernity has successfully purged the modern mind of things that were once well understood, such as this observation by Aristotle that Crawford quotes:

Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.

Once we knew such things, but we have forgotten them and now we have to argue them back into our collective knowledge of how the world works

At points Crawford’s article verges on eggheadism (or maybe I just wasn’t in the mood to think through some of the harder thoughts), but his thinking on this matter is anchored in real experience:

Socially, being the proprietor of a bike shop in a small city gave me a feeling I never had before, or since. I felt I had a place in society. Whereas “think tank” is an answer that, at best, buys you a few seconds when someone asks what you do, while you try to figure out what it is that you in fact do, with “motorcycle mechanic” I got immediate recognition. I bartered services with machinists and metal fabricators, which has a very different feel than transactions with money, and further increased my sense of social embeddedness. There were three restaurants with cooks whose bikes I had restored, where unless I deceive myself I was treated as a sage benefactor. I felt pride before my wife when we would go out to dinner and be given preferential treatment, or simply a hearty greeting. There were group rides, and bike night every Tuesday at a certain bar. Sometimes one or two people would be wearing my shop’s T-shirt. It felt good.

What has me excited about the potential of Crawford’s books are anecdotes like the following one about Henry Ford doubling the wages of his workers. Most of the pro-consumption history I’ve read, when it mentions this, hails it as a great innovation because it put Ford’s workers in a position to afford one of his cars, which led to the sale of more cars, which led to Ford’s success as a company, a win-win-win situation. Crawford adds a few facts that throw a very different light on the situation:

Given their likely acquaintance with such a cognitively rich world of [wheelwright] work, it is hardly surprising that when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913, workers simply walked out. One of Ford’s biographers wrote, “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”

This would seem to be a crucial moment in the history of political economy. Evidently, the new system provoked natural revulsion. Yet, at some point, workers became habituated to it. How did this happen? One might be tempted to inquire in a typological mode: What sort of men were these first, the 100 out of 963 who stuck it out on the new assembly line? Perhaps it was the men who felt less revulsion because they had less pride in their own powers, and were therefore more tractable. Less republican, we might say. But if there was initially such a self-selection process, it quickly gave way to something less deliberate, more systemic.

In a temporary suspension of the Taylorist logic, Ford was forced to double the daily wage of his workers to keep the line staffed. As Braverman writes, this “opened up new possibilities for the intensification of labor within the plants, where workers were now anxious to keep their jobs.” These anxious workers were more productive. Indeed, Ford himself later recognized his wage increase as “one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made,” as he was able to double, and then triple, the rate at which cars were assembled by simply speeding up the conveyors. By doing so he destroyed his competitors, and thereby destroyed the possibility of an alternative way of working. (It also removed the wage pressure that comes from the existence of more enjoyable jobs.) At the Columbian World Expo held in Chicago in 1893, no fewer than seven large-scale carriage builders from Cincinnati alone presented their wares. Adopting Ford’s methods, the industry would soon be reduced to the Big Three. So workers eventually became habituated to the abstraction of the assembly line. Evidently, it inspires revulsion only if one is acquainted with more satisfying modes of work.

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5 thoughts on “Up from modernism

  1. Thanks for the info. My son has been blacksmithing for several months and we’ve been trying to figure out how to get him his own forge — this gives us some idea of where we can look.

    For me, the hardest part of all this — living in a transition time — is that we see things coming that our parents don’t see, so we’re doing things differently than they did, and I get the feeling that they think we’re, in a way, rejecting them. We don’t mean it that way, but it’s a hard thing to be honest with ourselves about the inadequacies of our own upbringing, and to be honest with our parents about why we’re doing what we’re doing, while at the same time letting them know that we’re thankful for them and what they did give us in the way we were raised. In other words, it’s very easy for what we’re doing to be yet another rebellion against the previous generation, and we sure don’t want to pass that attitude on to our children!

    It’s a tightrope walk, going against tradition in order to be more traditional.

  2. I read that Crawford article in the summer of ’06. We were still officially living in the suburbs but commuting to the farm on weekends and spent the summer there. I immediately identified with his feeling of competency, discussing the high regard others in his community held of him b/c he could repair bikes. It is like that, too, for us as we grow our own food. The friends and neighbors back in the city speak (almost) glowingly of our ability to raise vegetables and chickens, like it’s magic. They make big efforts to buy from us when the market opens and they tell their family and friends. Not in a patronizing way, not like it’s quaint, but admiringly (unless, like Crawford, I’m deceiving myself).

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on this subject. We, too, are trying to made the jump from modern to traditional, and thinking it through philosophically helps me. That’s where you are held in high regard by me and mine!

  3. I have enjoyed the Crunchy Cons blog for several years now. I remember when I first read his book, I saw much of my own attitudes about life looking back at me from the pages. I realized I wasn’t alone in my ways of looking at the world, that were so different from your average”conservative}”. Another author I like is Bill Kauffman, who writings on localism, really hit home with me. Allan Carlson is another. All of these writers have a rather agrarian view of the world. I grew up thinking like this, but didn’t know that it had a name until about 3 years ago. I read Crawfords article a year ago. I still think it’s one of the best articles about this subject ever written. I am waiting for the book.
    I’ve wondered for years, who was going to make anything, when we all can design it on a computer. So what. It’s just a pretty picture if you don’t know how to make it. As far as “hardheaded economists”, well, we’ve seen how THAT all worked out, didn’t we….. I do think we have been separated from real manual craftmanship for so long, that we have forgotton, just how fulfilling it can really be. And how much skill is really needed to create things. I still get amused by James Kunstler telling of how he went to Googles headquarters to give a talk, and having all the company brass, young men all, come down dressed like high school boys. He was not amused. He pointed out, while discussing Peak Oil, that all these guys had made millions pushing pixels around on a screen, and they had way too high an opinion of themselves. None of them actually ever made anything. Yet they were just so sure that they could create the technology needed to deal with the shortage of energy. They simply didn’t understand how hard it is to create things, because they had never done it. They just assumed someone would do it. Great post.

  4. Rick, I did print out and read the entire New Atlantic article, and it’s a keeper! It sort of encapsulates all sorts of thinking that I’ve been doing for the past ten years. And it reminds me a lot of John Taylor Gatto’s writing on schools.

    Kelly, I agree totally about the tightrope we walk when we veer from the way we were brought up. I try to let my mom know, for instance, that I homeschool at least partly because I was listening, while growing up, to her critiques of the changes the school system over the years. She was a third grade teacher and lost more autonomy every year. I try to find continuity with my upbringing wherever possible, but the truth is, when you’re not brought up traditionally, it sometimes feels like you have to make a choice about every little thing. And it seems like a contradiction.

    I’ve followed Rod’s Crunchy Con thesis since he wrote the first article in National Review. That was the first time I’d ever heard of other people who seemed to think like I did about these issues. But I think Rod’s main role is that of a journalist *publicizing* traditional ways of life. He’s a smart guy, and so the inherent contradictions of being a modernist who favors traditionalism will almost certainly occur to him repeatedly (like it does to me in my own city life). He’s admitting something that I know to be true about myself.

  5. Rick wrote:

    “I meant in part that we have no settled response to the arguments against manual competence raised by Crawford’s economist and educator.”

    Just bought our farm in May, moving here in August. Kids and I raised in the suburbs. We need cross fencing on our farm for rotational grazing, so just bought 4000 ft of high tensile wire. Was going to shell out add’l $60+ to buy a “spinning jenny” to roll the wire out orderly and prevent tangled disaster. But my 15 year old son asked if he could make one. I’m impressed with it’s balance and functionality, from “junk” we inherited on the farm, junk we have been encouraged to “clean up”.

    Where did he get such vision? Two books have been major enablers: ‘Alex Stewart, Portrait of a Pioneer’ and Reader’s Digest ‘Back to Basics’. Would either of these books have made the CHEC list of approved curricula? (see Sonlight Curricula post) Certainly not the first book, and doubtless the second. But if our vision is to train our children to thrive in a home centered life, moving toward a non-cash economy, these books are invaluable. The first chronicles a time when folks were so isolated in southern appalachia that manual competence with local materials was a matter of survival.

    My wife is now reading “The Long Winter” to our kids, a series (along with Ralph Moody’s) that celebrates manual competence.

    My children choosing to make mechanical items over purchasing them, that’s my argument for manual competence.

    One more: learning manual skills from locals is a way to honor local knowledge, and preserve this heritage. We have been given a large calf, then later a cow, if we were able to butcher them at home. Put a lot of meat by, enough to share with two other families. Enabled by two older men who were willing to teach us the manual skills. Same two also taught us how to make maple syrup from trees high on our ridge, a high value item for raising cash in winter. Out now to add more sap to the pan. Some folks worry how our family of 8 will survive with me only ‘working’ in town one day per week. I sleep well at night, thankful for the quality and quantity of the food gracing our pantry below, and for the folks willing to teach us how.

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