The biggest problem with modernism is its infatuation with the idea of progress and the belief in human perfectibility. It is this obsession that made the twentieth Century such as turbulent and violent time, with the ‘little people’ sacrificed on the altar of intellectual hubris. So it is the very idea of progress that an antimodernist should challenge wherever possible.
It would be comforting if we could take this as one of the basic divisions in politics. However, it is clear that there are many conservatives who also subscribe to the ideal of progress. Indeed, the UK Conservative party, under David Cameron’s leadership, have deliberately tried to develop themselves as progressive. This is certainly challengeable, and has led many to question the credentials of Mr Cameron as a conservative. But there is one grouping commonly seen to be on the right that is perhaps progressive by definition.
Libertarians believe that the most important end in politics and morality is individual freedom. There is nothing superior to this and that societies should be so arranged to maximize this freedom. Libertarians argue that certain forms of state action, including taxation, the provision of welfare, compulsory education and even the provision of public goods are impermissible and should be ended. They envisage a society that is based on the operation of markets and which are led by the choices that individuals make as both consumers and as free moral agents.
This might appear to be either an inspiring or a frightening vision. However, it is most certainly a vision for the future. It is an attempt to draw up a better or even a perfect society. It may lead to diametrically opposing outcomes to those of socialist utopians, but it is exactly the same process. Libertarians believe in the possibility of progress towards a better society. They believe that this can be planned for, even if the outcome is the unplanned society.
Although some libertarians cavil at the distinction between left and right most would consider themselves to be modernists. It is indeed the case that some Americans have taken up the label of paleo-libertarians to show that while they believe in radical economic transformation they remain socially conservative, opposed to the permissiveness of modern society and the transgressive nature of modern art. But at best, this means they are still semi-modernists, and we can question the logic of how compatible are market-based institutions based on choice with social conservatism. How can one be enforced without seriously detracting from the other?
I have no wish to argue here against any form of libertarianism: it is a view at one time I have had considerable sympathy for. I now see it as mistaken and do so precisely because of the problems of attempts to enforce progressive change onto existing social arrangements. What I do wish to state, however, and the example of paleo-conservatism demonstrates this all too well, is that it is actually very difficult to oppose progress.
Most forms of political action, whether they acknowledge the fact or not, are about affecting change and so progress can be seen as the main purpose of politics. It may appear to be obvious that we wish to create a better society and so we can see that calls for progress have a ready appeal. It might even seem absurd to oppose progress: why would anyone not want a better society? This leaves the antimodernist with two alternatives. First, we can state that instead of looking to the future we look to the past and try to re-create this better society. The rhetoric here will be of returning to traditional values and institutions; of restoring a society to its former glory. But, we have to acknowledge, that time does not move backwards and we would still be creating something new. The same problems of unpredictability and lack of control would appear as exist with modernist change. And we cannot unlearn all we know about the present.
Second, we can argue that the present society we have, which after all is the accumulation of all past knowledge is the best society we can possibly hope for. We cannot hope to create anything better without the serious risk of destroying all we have. There may well be parts of our society that would like to disown and we can point these out. But there will be other parts that we can emphasise that show the best that has been thought, said and done and which properly link us to our ancestors and the traditions that they helped to form slowly over time. In pointing to these traditions we can point to what appears to be a way forward, but which is actually a way of staying still, or sustaining ourselves properly. And in doing so we can use these institutions, values and ways of acting to slowly pull down those parts of our society we see as failing us. But we recognise as we do this that all we need is currently here with us.
I would suggest that this second option is the only tenable one for an antimodernist to take. The problem is that it does not have the same instant appeal as the call for progress. It can make no claims about the better life we can expect in the future and so we might struggle to convince others to join us. But, and her is the beauty of this option, we do not have to struggle or fight. We merely have to live well and in doing so demonstrate what is still so good about what we have here with us here today.