The Human Condition:

The Real Reactionariess – October 2, 2022

Robot juggling

Political lines seem to be drawn these days between Progressives, who are supposed to be looking forward to the future and what it will bring, and Conservatives, who are supposed to be looking backward, to past traditions and the security they promised, and away from the future the Progressives want—and so they have been called “Reactionaries.” But, like most modern memes and the definitions that support them, the real world is more fluid and sometimes becomes curiously inverted.

When I talk to Progressives—who used to be called “Liberals,” although that’s a position I hold—they seem to be afraid of the future. For all their claimed allegiance to science and progress, they appear to want to keep everything the same. Oh yes, they believe that the “arc of history” bends toward a desirable future: social justice, socialism, collective consciousness, and some nebulously defined utopia where history itself will just … end, while humanity glides forward in some sort of uneventful but endlessly gratifying state of somnolence. But unless that rainbow is somehow hurried along toward its pot of gold, bad things are gonna happen, and that’s scary.

For example, they talk about climate change (formerly known as “anthropogenic global warming”) and insist that we need to bend our economy out of shape, divesting ourselves of reliable energy sources in favor of renewables, and submit to increasing government control of our lives and our prospects in order to keep the world temperature from rising a couple of degrees. That level of warming will supposedly cause the oceans to rise and the planet’s vegetation to change measurably in the next eighty years. It will supposedly destroy coastal property values, change growing patterns, and disrupt people’s daily lives. But if we act now through stringent regulation, they insist, we can keep the current climate, land masses, farming systems, and economic activities to which we have become accustomed.1

That sounds like a Conservative yearning for the world to remain safe and familiar and not change at all. But change is inevitable. It has been going on for ten thousand years, not just in climate2 but in technology, culture, language, and political and economic affairs. No single step or series of steps will hold back the tide, or time, or the changes that both will bring. Continuous jockeying and adaptation have always been the keys to human survival and prosperity.

For another example, Progressives are afraid of scientific discovery and technology itself and the changes they will bring. Automation and artificial intelligence will disrupt the current patterns of work and economic exchange. Genetic modification of crops will supposedly open the door to human diseases or rampant changes in the environment. But pesticides, antibiotics, and artificial fertilizer are also said to disrupt human health and the environment, so the Progressive vision of agriculture is a return to “natural” and “organic” methods that lower yields and increase crop damage.

The Progressive yearns for a world that operates along current economic lines—the better, I suppose, to further their planning for a Marxist revolution that will institute state control under a change of power. But the world’s economy has been changing for more than a hundred years, as new energy resources and engines replace animal and human muscles, as improved farming techniques reduce the labor input to agriculture, as the Industrial Revolution at first absorbed new hands into assembly-line production methods, and now as the Computer and Communications Revolution is absorbing those displaced workers into a knowledge economy. And when machine intelligence does away with the routine knowledge jobs of accountants and librarians, other fields will open up.

For a third example, Progressives appear to be afraid of the people they presume to champion, of the average person in a differentiated society. Such people’s voices and understandings are expressed, debated, and examined through unfettered speech. Their beliefs and visions carry through to social action with free and open voting. And their needs and desires are expressed in a free market, where eager entrepreneurs working under a capitalist system respond quickly and comprehensively to fulfill them. Instead, Progressives want a world where experts steeped in academic study and trained in policy decisions will project what is best for the society and so arrange its systems.

And again, the Progressive mind is yearning for the safe, the known, the predictable, and the governable. The Progressives have a vision for the future that is based on the experiences of the past, and new ideas, new relationships, new methods upset the status quo. They want to be the disruptive force that brings about change—the vision that Karl Marx and his fellow travelers penned almost two hundred years ago—and they will not be stopped or sidetracked by the natural disruptions that free thinking and unfettered technology are bringing about. In this, the Progressive is just as protective of the familiar and the reliable as any 19th century robber baron trying desperately to hold onto his wealth and power.

Change is inevitable. You cannot predict the future. Humanity’s only hope is then to continue developing deeper scientific understanding and more subtle and robust technologies. Yes, there will be disruptions. Yes, a number of people will be put out of work, lose their security, be moved off their property, and be forced to scramble and adapt to a changing economic and environmental conditions. And yes, on an individual level this may seem unjust and even cruel. But life itself is about evolution and adaptation to changing conditions.

As Louis Pasteur—a contemporary of Karl Marx—once wrote, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” That is, while you can’t predict the future, it is certainly possible to take prudent steps—learn everything you can, conserve your resources, stay light on your feet—to meet whatever eventualities the future throws at you. And that about sums up the viewpoint currently held by the rest of us “Conservatives.”

1. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Much of the shoreline around the Bay—including many towns like Foster City, where I worked for ten years—was originally, say a hundred and more years ago, tidal marsh and mud flat. By ringing an area with armor rock and filling it with garbage and topsoil, developers made industrial and residential property that today is worth billions. But even now some of that once-reclaimed land—especially some marginal farmland along San Pablo Bay—is being restructured into wetlands for environmental purposes. So … one hundred years ago your property was a mud bank mostly under water, and a hundred years from now it may once again be flooded. Cities rise; property decays and is abandoned; land is developed anew. This is the reality of attempting to own a piece of the ever-changing Earth.

2. Remember that human beings in their current form, Homo sapiens, certainly lived through the latter part of the last Ice Age and emerged into a world with changing shorelines and crop patterns, floods from melting glaciers—coming off an ice cap a mile deep over much of the northern hemisphere—and droughts from higher average temperatures. And they survived—not without loss, of course, not without suffering—while using technology no more advanced than stone spear points and bent sticks. I think we can do better with what we know today.