Untangling Scruton

Roger Scruton is one of the real intellectual heavyweight social conservatives. Usually, he, like many social conservatives going back to Burke, hold that certain liberalized notions are the prime movers for social chaos. But catch this line from his recent (and apparently final) article at The American Spectator:

The demoralization of society is the effect of many causes, only some of which belong in the realm of ideas. Prolonged peace, unprecedented abundance, social mobility, contraception, drugs, and stimulants — all these have a predictable effect in weakening the bonds of society.

Yeah, in the middle of that list of socially demoralizing forces, he said social mobility.  Apparently, one of the real problems with contemporary society is that people not knowing their place really undoes the bonds you have with them.  Oh, and peace is demoralizing, too.  So, just like with liberals, he sees the material conditions of culture to be influential in the same ways intellectual features of culture are.  He just sees all the material objectives of contemporary liberalism (peace, abundance, social mobility, control over when one begins a family, and access to medicine) as bad influences on culture.

OK, OK. Perhaps this is an uncharitable reading of Scruton.  Maybe by 'social mobility,' he means that we move around spatially, not across economic or social classes.  And by 'peace,' he means… erm, wait, are we at peace?  Maybe, he means, without constant existential threat.  And perhaps he means too much of a good thing by abundance. Regardless, when he turns to how to confront these challenges, he turns positively morose:

We have to accept that it is no longer possible to govern young people by the methods that were used to govern and influence the young of my generation. Exhortation, example, the stories of saints and heroes, the life of humility, sacrifice, penitence, and prayer — all such moral influences have little or no significance for them.

Really embracing the 'get off my lawn' model for the social conservative, isn't he?  And, by the way, I find this, at least in my experience as a college teacher utterly false. (Both at Vanderbilt and in by recent years at Western Kentucky)

Funny, though.  He ends with a line of thought on conservative education I find totally convincing:

We cannot ask young people to live as we lived or to value what we valued. But we can encourage them to see the point of how we lived, and to recognize that freedom without responsibility is, in the end, an empty asset. We can tell them stories of the old virtues, and enlarge their sympathies toward a world in which suffering and sacrifice were not the purely negative things that they are represented to be by the consumer culture but an immovable part of any lasting happiness. Our task, in other words, is now less political than cultural — an education of the sympathies, which requires from us virtues (such as imagination, creativity, and a respect for high culture) that have a diminishing place in the world of politics.

Agreed, agreed.  And note that none of the points here of the education Scruton asks conservatives to model are inconsistent with liberalized culture, just one that can maintain a kind of reverent acknowledgement of what had come before.  I'd alsways thought these Burkean conservatives inherited a kind of reaction-formation from the French Revolution.  Is liberalism coming from Scruton's pen really Robespierre?

7 thoughts on “Untangling Scruton”

  1. I'm not sure I follow your argument. You say, apparently sarcastically,
    <i>Apparently, one of the real problems with contemporary society is that people not knowing their place really undoes the bonds you have with them.</i>

    But of course it does — this has been well known, or at least widely held, since Durkheim investigated the link between social mobility and increased chances of suicide. and concluded that the reason suicide was associated with mobility, upward as well as downward, was that it put people into unstable periods in which prior social bonds were broken but new social bonds were not yet completely formed, thus isolating individuals as a byproduct. Durkheim's study of anomie also led him to suggest that swift increases in prosperity broke down social bonds in the same way. Scruton's basic argument is Durkheimian in character, although it updates him, and  while sociologists don't all accept the details of Durkheim's account (and Scruton says nothing here to suggest that he is committed to all the details), the general strokes are not really all that controversial. Of course social mobility will break down social bonds — many social bonds are class-based (almost inevitably, in fact, given bonds that develop around work, neighborhood of residence, or social interests) and class fragmentation due to social mobility is a widely recognized phenomenon. That people happen to like peace and prosperity and some kinds of social mobility is simply not relevant to the question of whether these things have the deterioration of social bonds as their effect; these are things that can be studied and have been. Indeed, Scruton explicitly emphasizes the fact that the underlying causes are desirable; it's why he doesn't think the deterioration can be stopped: people have increasingly many tempting reasons to break social bonds.

  2. Hi Brandon,
    Thanks for the note about the consequences of social mobility, but my point still stands.  Even if there are other externalities to giving people the chance to change their lives (for the better or worse), that opportunity is worth those costs.  Part of the reason why this is a trouble is that when you're at the top, social mobility carries more threat than value.  But when liberals complain that the US has comparatively low social mobility, they aren't sad that more rich people get poor.
    The point of the post is that regardless of your take on social programs, a focus on individual virtues is the best bet when faced with social upheaval  And those individual virtues are politically neutral, not conservative.

    An "uncharitable reading of Scruton?"
    I am deeply troubled by Mr. Aiken's failure to see that Scruton's piece is absurd and disgusting. Sruton is a 'cultural bigot', one with a deeply rooted superiority complex, bound by hero worship and religious indoctination.
    The "demoralization of society", Scruton says, is part "peace, abundance, social mobility". Peace? Peace? WTF? Like War is good, eh? Peace? That is so abhorrent, Scruton should be found incompetent. Abundance? WTF is that? Abundant food? natural resources? consumer goods? Abundance is good, BTW, as it means the pie is bigger for us all; more choices. One can argue whether or not such a thing as 'over abundance' can be detrimental to to environment, perhaps, but declaring the generic concept of "abundance" as immoral is absurd. Social mobility? Let's go back to 1960, eh? Or perhaps 1912? Or 1850? 1750? Yeah, let's go back to the 'good old days' where everyone stayed in their 'place'. 
    Then there is "contraception, drugs and stimulants." We all know that anti-contraceptive, anti-family planning, anti-sex education, etc. is solely in the realm of religious fanaticism. (If our bodies are "dirty", as Lenny Bruce said, the problem is with the "manufacturer".) As for "drugs", I assume he means "illegal drugs", as in the "war on drugs"; yeah, let's just lock drug users up in jail and that will solve the problem–NOT. (I doubt Scruton meant "medicine".) Stimulants? Again, WTF? Caffiene? Oh no! Coke and Pepsi are demoralizing our culture! (Do you drink coffee in the morning? You immoralist!)
    Scruton's reference to "my generation" is typical of the cultural bigot. Surely, he does not mean "the country as it was when I was growing up", but his circle of family and friends, his race/religion/nationality, his tribe. This is blatant bigotry. Yeah, let's go back to when "they" stayed in their place and "we" were the higher class. (Vomit)
    "… the stories of saints and heroes, the life of humility, sacrifice, penitence, and prayer — all such moral influences have little or no significance for them [young people]."
    Ah, he knows so much about young people! Has he no children? Has "his generation" failed to teach their own children? Oh wait, it is "them" that is at fault! (Mr. Aiken does say he is "utterly false". Bravo.) Morality, Scruton implies, means that his religious beliefs are the only true beliefs to follow. 
    Funny, though. Mr. Aiken ends with "Agreed, agreed", when refering to Scruton's horriblness about "old virtues", "suffering", "the consumer culture", "respect for high culture".
    "Others" and "them" are ruining this country of "ours", eh? Scruton?
    "Our task", Scruton says, is "less political than cultural".
    Cultural Bigot Defined.

  4. Hey G-Man.  First, it's Aikin, not Aiken.  Second, you need to read more closely, as I do push back on Scruton on pretty much every point.  When I consider that I've been uncharitable, I am being sarcastic… which is something that, as you'll see above, was picked up by Brandon Watson.
    I'll agree about the cultural bigotry problem, and I think the line about social mobility being something we should want to avoid is really troubling.  But, again, the point of the post wasn't to point out all the places where Scruton and I disagree on policy, but to show that regardless of how we look at policy, the individual virtues he envisions are politically neutral — but he sells them as conservative values.  Perhaps this is a further extension of the bigotry, but I see it, instead, as a kind of blindness that comes with identifying with the dominant currents in culture.

  5. Jeez, Brandon.  Perhaps you didn't read the last comment or the piece.  It's not to say I'm not a conservative, but to say that whatever virtues conservatives see as uniquely conservative aren't unique.  Regardless of policy views. 

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