Prosperity and the Roots of American Order
In the first chapter of Russell Kirk's The Roots of American Order we read the following statement: "Our own society, like that of any other people, is held together by what is called an 'order.'" Without order, society doesn't cohere. Instead, it flies apart, breaks up, and disintegrates. And, I would argue, a process of disintegration has been underway in the United States for many years. The breakup of the American order has been masked by American prosperity, which has continued throughout the process of social disintegration. To a very great extent, the financial crisis we are experiencing today is no ordinary economic downturn. It is also the result of spiritual and moral degeneration together with the total collapse of paternal authority.
Most citizens of the Republic do not realize that a breakdown has already occurred. But many are troubled. A few days ago I spoke with a 19-year-old girl who expressed embarrassment about her peers. "People my age aren't honest," she volunteered without prompting, "and the future isn't safe." I asked what she thought would happen. "I don't know, but I have my mountain." She then motioned as if to indicate her parent's home in the country. Another young person I spoke with recently confided that her peers were mainly interested in partying and taking recreational drugs. "I want to be a history professor," she said.
It has now been 30 years since Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism. According to Lasch, "The psychological patterns associated with pathological narcissism, which in less exaggerated form manifests themselves in so many patterns of American culture - in the fascination with fame and celebrity, the fear of competition, the inability to suspend belief, the shallowness and transitory quality of personal relations, the horror of death - originate in the peculiar structure of the [modern] American family.... Industrial production takes the father out of the home and diminishes the role he plays in the conscious life of the child." Today one might add that the mother, too, has been largely taken out of the home. Thus the way is paved to the collapse of parental authority and the sinister process of state usurpation of the parental function.
The collapse of order has many causes, and results in a growing sickness within the American soul. "Before a person can live tolerably with himself or with others," wrote Russell Kirk, "he must know order. If we lack order in the soul and order in society, we dwell" in a land of darkness. Life becomes insufferable without harmony, meaning or purpose. Of the many signs of a breakdown, our instincts have become attenuated; we do not know our enemy (as we do not know ourselves); we do not know where we stand in history, as we do not care to know any history - imagining ourselves somehow separated from history, even to the point of being "above" history. This sense that we are excepted from history comes from a corollary sense of unreality.
We do not seem to realize that order is evaporating, or perhaps it has already evaporated entirely. Among the countless indications: people are going to the store in pajama bottoms; they are destroying their minds with drugs; they are eating junk food and drinking soft drinks so that 30 percent of the population is obese and 80 percent are said to be overweight. What is happening to us? Are we becoming a nation of slobs?
Kirk explained that "order" means a "systematic and harmonious arrangement - whether in one's own character or in the commonwealth." This cannot be represented by a drug addict, or by a bank president who is laundering drug money, or a politician who has taken bribes from a drug cartel, or the child who comes of age in a country where such activity has been normalized. Here we see what has broken down; that is to say, certain ideas and beliefs; customs and folkways. And we also see the promise of a new type of order - coming to replace the old (i.e., socialism).
And the risk is thus explained by Kirk: "If our souls are disordered, we fall into abnormality, unable to control our impulses. If our commonwealth is disordered, we fall into anarchy, every man's hand against every other man's." He further explained, "Without a high degree of private moral order among the American people, the reign of law could not have prevailed in this country. Without an orderly pattern of politics, American private character would have sunk into a ruinous egoism."
As Kirk said, "Order is the first need of the soul." It is something that takes priority over justice and freedom. For there cannot be justice or freedom without the foundation provided by order. But the machinery of order is breaking down, and optimism ought to be reserved for "the time after next." For that which immediately follows a period of excess is necessarily corrective, and therefore painful. If we want our society to be healthy, then we must accept what cannot otherwise be avoided. Furthermore, today's attempt to forgo economic pain merely promises greater pain and calamity in the future. Our disordered appetites, and our refusal to accept the discipline of the free market system leads us into a series of disastrous interventions of which socialism is the fiery pit itself. For socialism represents a false harmony, and a false form of order which does not conform to nature or the lessons of history. This is one of the things that the wise have learned from history, if they've learned anything at all.
I will finish by quoting what Kirk wrote about social democracy as a concept of order: "Having rejected the supernatural order and the possibility of a Justice more than human, the humanitarian tends to erect Envy into a pseudo-moral principle. It leads him, this principle of Envy, straight toward the dreary tableland of featureless social equality - toward Tocqueville's democratic despotism, from which not only God seems to have disappeared, but even old-fangled individual man is lacking."
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