Cultural Pessimism (2012), by David Webb
by D.J. Webb
Published on the LA Blog
30th January 2012
A nation in decline
England is a nation in decline, and as much as conservatives hope for the leadership to emerge that could stem the decline and encourage a cultural renaissance, we know in our bones that this will not, or cannot, happen. Patriotism seems to contain the seeds of its own antidote: revulsion—revulsion against what England has become. Just like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s novel 1984, who dreamt of the ‘Golden Country’,England is for us an image far removed from the country around us. If we love that image, we have to recoil from the Real England that surrounds us in our daily lives. We feel less and less confidence that there is any real thread of connection between the Golden Country and the Real England of today. Would a conservative be prepared to fight for a country such asEngland today? And if so, why? Out of nostalgia? Or confusion?
Cultural pessimism means that we no longer admire the country we have become. And so we can no longer be conservative. Being conservative means resisting change. The way things have always been done seems best to a conservative. A conservative does not inhabit the realm of theory, but the practical realm of a comfortable culture: he points to the society and culture around him and hopes that politicians and their grandiose schemes will not make pointless changes that destroy that world for him. We, however, can point to nothing. Everything has already been changed, and not for the better. So we embrace the idea of change, but do so knowing that change in order to recreate the past cannot come. It is because we have become lesser people than our forbears that we, or the wider nation at any rate, no longer wish to have a great culture, to be a great nation, and so the only change that will come is more of the cultural slide downwards that we have already experienced.
Now that a great culture has been “deconstructed”, we can no longer remember clearly what it was like to be English. Most of us were not around in the 1950s to remember those years ourselves; we can only garner information about that period from books or films. Those of us, like myself, brought up in the 1970s and 1980s, can remember the days before the ‘chav’ culture was so fully triumphant, the days before anti-social behaviour became the established norm on the less wealthy housing estates. But we are constantly told that our memories are faulty, and that thatEnglandwas less vibrant, more prejudiced, more class-ridden. The truth is we are having our consciousnesses overwritten by fresh data, overwritten by the new interpretations of the past insisted on in the media and education systems.
Yet the numbers of us who have real memories, or folk memories, of a better world are relatively large. The success of historical television dramas such as Downton Abbey and lighter dramas such as the Midsomer Murders testifies to some kind of yearning for traditional Englishness. A full DVD set of All Creatures Great and Small about the life of a country vet is possibly one of the most pleasurable companions in audiovisual format. The Mad Men series set in theUS in the 1960s has also attracted a great following, owing to its depiction of a world where the women were feminine, the men smoked, and social comment on race and other topics was free.
I am sure poverty was a problem in the post-war era, but I am not so sure that our economic modernisation had to go hand in hand with our social deterioration; indeed, that very deterioration of the fabric of society in turn imperils the economy, as has become abundantly clear in the current economic crisis. Countries and territories such asJapanandHong Konghave managed to forge a path to modernity without losing their own cultural values, and it is hard to deny that we would have done well to have followed a similar approach.
Those telling us that we have to move on becauseEngland—the Real England that surrounds us—has moved on are forgetting one important thing. Even the liberals who have encouraged social change are not happy with the country that has been created. If the promotion of equality between the sexes, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and even ‘gay’ equality has been as positive for society as is insisted by our current leaders, then why is society more fragmented and more violent, why are so many struggling to raise their children with healthy social values, why were so many tricked into buying overpriced properties financed by two incomes, and why have so many people spent the best part of the last decade living on social handouts? Positive change would be welcomed, almost naturally. It would not require greater and greater state intervention to prevent supposedly positive developments from overwhelming us. There has to be something wrong; it is inadequate simply to claim that change must always be welcomed.
Change creates new vested interests, people who enjoy the bread and circuses, people who feel empowered by the political focus on sex, race and sexuality, people who benefit from the huge expansion of the state. Consequently, reversing negative social trends becomes ever harder. It is easier to accept that the world has changed. Yet there is nothing wrong with pointing out that we are going in the wrong direction. Even as we do so, we know ourselves the will to dig ourselves out of the hole, or succession of holes, we are creating for ourselves is simply not there.
Just let go?
Are we supposed to love this society? Or should we despise it? And if we do despise it, does that not mean that the basic preconditions for social or cultural improvement no longer exist? Roger Scruton, one of our best conservative writers, wrote in his England: An Elegy, that we should mourn for England (that is, mourn forEngland conceived as the Golden Country) and move on. As a coping strategy, that makes sense. But on a day-to-day basis, it is impossible to ignore the culture around us. Those living in neighbourhoods afflicted by the loud playing of popular music and screaming in the streets until 4 in the morning cannot simply say, “I have mourned for a decent neighbourhood and moved on”; they are faced with a depressing and dispiriting environment on a daily basis.
The creation of multiculturalism is similarly not a development that can be simply accepted, because it destroys any connection between the individual and the nation as a whole. Culture is what binds individuals to a society; lack of a common culture converts us all into guests in a hotel, an establishment for which we rightly feel nothing. Those who appear to have accepted the new dispensation have actually become more cynical individuals, seeing in society a tool for personal enrichment and not anything of value in itself. Love of country is a basic natural instinct that underpins any healthy society. Just as personal discouragement is a recognised condition in mental health that prevents a person from functioning normally, social discouragement is also a condition, a disease of the social body, a state of affairs that cannot be accepted and embraced.
So it seems impossible to let go entirely and reconcile ourselves to discouragement, impossible to ignore completely the negative social trends that dampen the vigour of our lives. That these trends are described as vibrancy empties words of any meaning. Our lives are weakened, not strengthened, by social and cultural conflict and casual lack of respect for neighbours and others we come into contact with. What is described as vibrancy is actually discouragement and dreariness in social life. Government coercion to create a diverse society with no common values or culture means that unfreedom is added to the list of our complaints, an unfreedom that is enthusiastically peddled by a well-staffed and well-paid bureaucracy that we have to pay for.
What is wrong with being unfree, you may ask? Chinais unfree, at least insofar as there is no popular participation in government and no freedom of social debate. Will it be so bad to be like the Chinese? Could it even be reasoned that our current cultural problems are caused by an excess of freedom? By allowing everyone to do what he wants, have we created a society with no centre of gravity? To this I would answer that the Chinese remain Chinese, that the Chinese government is not seeking to replace or culturally reconfigure the entire population, and so in many ways our government is worse than theirs. Secondly, our culture, the culture of the Anglo-Saxon countries, has traditionally emphasised liberty in a way that is not the case with China, and so our recognition that we are no longer as democratic or as free as we once were is harder for us to accept. Finally, we should be clear that government coercion is required to create a multicultural society, as human beings in a single society tend to create a common culture when left alone by the authorities. So unfreedom and social discouragement go hand in hand inBritain today.
Reacting to social decay
Ironically, when classically educated, our rulers were well aware of the danger that immigration could destroy the bands of society. In Dryden’s translation of Juvenal’s Third Satire, we read:
In short, no Scythian, Moor, or Thracian born,
But in that town which arms and arts adorn.
Shall he be placed above me at the board,
In purple clothed, and lolling like a lord?
Shall he before me sign, whom t’other day
A small-craft vessel hither did convey,
Where, stowed with prunes, and rotten figs, he lay?
How little is the privilege become
Of being born a citizen ofRome!
How little is the privilege become of being born a British subject! With daily reminders of this, we could well become curmudgeons, like Gildas in the 6th century, who lamented the condition of Britainin his On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. A pessimistic view also engulfed other remnants of forgotten civilisations, such as the émigré Russians in Paris between the wars. What is different about what is happening to us, however, is the demographic change that is overwhelming our society. The original Italian stock of Italy maintained its demographic dominance and assimilated immigrants from Greece in ancient times. The ancient Britons and the Angles and Saxons later merged into a new English-speaking society with a Celtic fringe. The Soviet experiment in Russia came to an end, allowing a certain restoration of some parts of Russian culture, including the Russian Orthodox Church, in Russia today. In our case, however, the sheer disparate nature of the origins of the incoming population groups and the official encouragement for them not to forge a united culture make social anomie from now on the most likely outcome, at least for now.
Given that the political and media worlds are dominated by people who support the discouragement of our society, there is little reason to expect an improvement. Anger is one possible reaction to what has happened to our country, and I cannot deny that anger would be justified, although achieving little in the way of positive results. It seems all we can do that is more productive than a complaining or angry reaction is to try to create corners for ourselves in which to lead happy lives or establish social networks, regardless of what is happening in society more broadly. The problem is that, even if successful, we lead devalued lives. We can do what we can in the forgotten corners ofEngland, but, now there is no longer a nation or national culture, our achievements will all die with us. We have become zombies, the living dead, adherents of a culture that even we know has already passed on.
I can offer no real answer to the question of how to live a worthwhile life during the death of a culture. We should try to speak up as and when we get the chance to. We should support other members of the English nation who are penalised for speaking out. We should not vote for or otherwise support political parties that encourage our national decline. But we should also be realistic in our expectations, and try to find niche locations and occupations for ourselves to enjoy our lives despite the dispiriting backdrop. Such political work as we can do should be engaged in with the object of deriving a certain enjoyment therefrom, forging links with other like-minded Englishmen and thus creating a counter-culture. The long-term future of that counter-culture is itself in doubt, but we are on this earth and have a right to cultural expression, and we should make the most of it. Cultural pessimism does not imply that we should always be glum, but it does point to a certain detachment from the culture and even the wider interests of Englandtoday. I will certainly not be keeping my fingers crossed that the bond markets spare the state and its hangers-on during the current economic downturn, but all we can do is to wait to see how our economic difficulties play out. Roll on the crisis! As Lenin said, the worse, the better!