Wednesday, May 7, 2014

David Brooks, Ross Douthat, And Cultural Conservatism's Contradictions

Conservatives are always bemoaning the cultural fallout caused by the very political economy they so rabidly support, but never seem to make the connection.  Case in point are recent columns by Ross Douthat and David Brooks on the culture of college students.

Douthat's piece discusses "party culture" on campus, wherein he highlights a study showing that affluent students at state universities benefit from a culture where they can be comfortably decadent and at the top of the social heap while working-class students find themselves isolated.  Having worked on such campuses, I've seen this dynamic at work.  However, Douthat does not see classism at work here, but the perniciousness of "cultural permissiveness."  As we say back home in Nebraska, Douthat has it bass ackwards.  The "permissiveness" by itself isn't what causes class disparities, it's the fact that party culture fits within a pre-existing class structure, a structure that Douthat would never question.  He says we'd be better off with an upper class that maintained "bourgeois values" of "thrift, diligence, sobriety, and chastity."

Douthat and other cultural conservatives never seem to wonder whether the dearth of these values has anything to do with the increasing dominance of consumer capitalism over our society.  Capitalism and the market care nothing for traditional values, in fact, they are the biggest forces against tradition in the world today.  The fundamental contradiction between cultural conservatism's professed values and conservative support for unfettered capital also bedevils David Brooks' most recent column.  He discusses how surveys of college freshmen show that they are much less interested in developing a philosophy of life than they used to be in the 1960s, and much more likely to see college education merely as a stepping stone to making money.  That's certainly what I've seen in my time on campus, but Brooks is oddly silent on the causes of this cultural shift.  He might be silent because the growing materialism among the youth reflects the ever-increasing hegemony of neoliberal economic thinking.

Brooks and Douthat love wagging their finger at what they consider the loss of traditional values, even though they support the biggest force for the destruction of tradition that the world has ever known: capitalism.  In a lot of ways, I think this reflects a fundamental contradiction at the heart of modern conservatism, one that should not be allowed to continue unnoticed.  Those who wish to destroy every human value except the cash nexus should not be allowed to stand in moral judgement over the rest of us.

1 comment:

Alessandra said...

Obviously these people never read Pier Paolo Pasolini, the intellectual who, to my mind, most contributed in teasing out this contradiction, reflecting on what he called the 'cultural genocide' provoked by capitalism (as a Marxist, he certainly would). As always, he expressed it nowhere better than in his poems, the artistic contribution for which he should most be remembered (and for which he is least known, at least outside of Italy). The following poem was read by Orson Welles in Pasolini's movie 'La ricotta:

I am a force of the past.
Tradition is my only love.
I come from the ruins, the churches,
the altarpieces, the abandoned
villages on the Apennines or the Prealps,
where the brothers lived.
I wander on the Tuscolana like a madman,
on the Appia like a stray dog.
Or I watch the twilights, the mornings
of Rome, of Ciociaria, of the world,
the first acts of this After-History,
of which I am the witness, by chronological privilege,
from the very end of some buried
age. Only a monster can be born
from the womb of a dead woman.
And I, adult foetus, wander around,
more modern than any modern,
searching for brothers that are no more

Notes: both Tuscolana and Appia are consular roads, which connected Rome to the rest of Italy in Roman times. Both are still in use today.
Ciociaria: a region south of Rome, part of its agricultural hinterland.