Progressives Against Progress
The rise of environmentalism poisoned liberals’ historical optimism.
by Fred Siegel
For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, American liberals distinguished themselves from conservatives by what Lionel Trilling called “a spiritual orthodoxy of belief in progress.” Liberalism placed its hopes in human perfectibility. Regarding human nature as essentially both beneficent and malleable, liberals, like their socialist cousins, argued that with the aid of science and given the proper social and economic conditions, humanity could free itself from its cramped carapace of greed and distrust and enter a realm of true freedom and happiness. Conservatives, by contrast, clung to a tragic sense of man’s inherent limitations. While acknowledging the benefits of science, they argued that it could never fundamentally reform, let alone transcend, the human condition. Most problems don’t have a solution, the conservatives maintained; rather than attempting Promethean feats, man would do best to find a balanced place in the world.
American liberalism has remarkably come to resemble nineteenth-century British Tory Radicalism, an aristocratic sensibility that combined strong support for centralized monarchical power with a paternalistic concern for the poor. Its enemies were the middle classes and the aesthetic ugliness it associated with an industrial economy powered by bourgeois energies.
Like the Tory Radicals, today’s liberal gentry see the untamed middle classes as the true enemy. “Environmentalism offered the extraordinary opportunity to combine the qualities of virtue and selfishness,” wrote William Tucker in a groundbreaking 1977 Harper’s article on the opposition to construction of the Storm King power plant along New York’s Hudson River. Tucker described the extraordinary sight of a fleet of yachts—including one piloted by the old Stalinist singer Pete Seeger—sailing up and down the Hudson in protest. What Tucker tellingly described as the environmentalists’ “aristocratic” vision called for a stratified, terraced society in which the knowing ones would order society for the rest of us. Touring American campuses in the mid-1970s, Norman Macrae of The Economist was shocked “to hear so many supposedly left-wing young Americans who still thought they were expressing an entirely new and progressive philosophy as they mouthed the same prejudices as Trollope’s 19th century Tory squires: attacking any further expansion of industry and commerce as impossibly vulgar, because ecologically unfair to their pheasants and wild ducks.”
Neither the failure of the environmental apocalypse to arrive nor the steady improvement in environmental conditions over the last 40 years has dampened the ardor of those eager to make hair shirts for others to wear. The call for political coercion as a path back to Ruskin’s and Mishan’s small-is-beautiful world is still with us. Radical environmentalists’ Tory disdain for democracy and for the habits of their inferiors remains undiminished. True to its late-1960s origins, political environmentalism in America gravitates toward both bureaucrats and hippies: toward a global, big-brother government that will keep the middle classes in line and toward a back-to-the-earth, peasantlike localism, imposed on others but presenting no threat to the elites’ comfortable lives. How ironic that these gentry liberals—progressives against progress—turn out to resemble nothing so much as nineteenth-century conservatives.
More at City Journal.
This article interested me since it points out the leftist ruling class' environmental statist ideology. Written by a leaning-lefty, he seems somewhat dismayed by the constant push for statist rule by "liberals". This ideology quickly summed up:
1. Nature is god (whether the left believes it or it's just to get to #4 is up to the individual lefty)
2. The masses ruin nature
3. Therefore masses must be controlled (or exterminated)
4. The leaders know best and are exempt from rules for the masses
Fred Siegel's politics seem to lean left (without doing too much research into the guy), and this is shown in his ending statement.
19th Century British "conservatives" are not the same as US conservatives. Look at the top of the blog here. See where it says " helping to conserve American libertarian values"? That's US conservatism.
Conservatism within the US is often viewed as traditionalism - which is associated with religious and family groups, and while often laudible in their non-governmental efforts, conservatism is adherence to the Constitution and adherence to those principles of the Constitution. It's a document of classic liberalism - as in liberty for all, tolerance for all, and the ability for each man (and woman) to live his live how he chooses free of all but the fewest govt. restrictions.
The US is a nation of free men who came together to establish a nation of free men. They took pride in their traditions, but did not want to impose on one another. The most unifying tradition is that of a reverence for freedom.
Conservatism - as in conservation of one's original values - in other nations is a different animal. Conservatism in England may represent groups like the British National Party, which has a very pro-Anglo/pro-white/anti-everybody-who's-not-a-white-Brit bias to them. They are conserving old values of the UK, just values that are rooted in nationalism and white British ethnic supremacy.
Until a 2009 court order, they restricted their membership to "indigenous caucasian". Presumably to keep any smart-ass Chechens from joining just to fuck with them.
Conservatism in Japan may represent hard nationalist policies that are very pro-Japanese and frequently anti-Korean, anti-Chinese. Conservatism in France or Iran may represent laws that preserve the language against any change or modification, or variations against traditional morality of those nations.
Pictured: elastic loaves.
The United States, unlike most nations in the world, is a collection of different ethnic groups. The US is not represented by one cardinal national group. There is no "American" ethnicity. There is a group of people who are irish, a group who are german, a group who are russian, congolese, brazilian, mexican, japanese, chinese, etc. There is no ethnicity nor ethnic culture to match the United States.
Thus Siegel makes a big mistake in assuming that this leftist enviro-statism has anything to do with actual conservatism. The difference between British monarchists in the 19th century and American conservatives is vast. The left, which are emphatically illiberal and intolerant, despite their nom de jour "liberal", are far from American conservatism. That they may want to conserve monarchical dictatorial rule is not a surprise to those who've seen the effects of disagreeing with a "liberal." (Liberal-on-liberal violence, especially.)
That some use environmentalism and some use ethnic supremacy are simply different means to the same end: power. Some are naked in their power grab based on what they perceive as an ethnic right, some grab for power by determining that they alone can save the world from an environmental apocalypse - and that all others be damned. Neither is remotely like American conservatism. Both are statism, autocracy, and dictatorship.
American conservatism is entrenched in these words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,...