22 September 2014

Actual conservatism? In defense of big organizations

David Brooks is one of the house conservatives at the New York Times. Practically speaking, that means he represents the point of view of Republicans, albeit of the more "thoughtful" kind, and with the caveat that many Republicans probably would regard the likes of Brooks as a RINO. He probably isn't expected to articulate philosophical or even practical conservatism, but he did so, whether he intended it or not, in one of last week's columns. Lamenting the inability of African countries to respond effectively to the latest Ebola outbreak, Brooks blames an absence of infrastructure in the afflicted countries. He goes on to observe a disdain for infrastructure in other places, synonymous with many Americans' disdain for government itself. Writing as a conservative, Brooks sees this as a decline from the 20th century.

A few generations ago, people grew up in and were comfortable with big organizations — the army, corporations and agencies. They organized huge construction projects in the 1930s, gigantic industrial mobilization during World War II, highway construction and corporate growth during the 1950s. Institutional stewardship, the care and reform of big organizations, was more prestigious.
Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are [seen as] dinosaurs.

His capitalization of "Organization Man" refers back to a 1950s bestseller that warned of a trade-off between collective organization and individual creativity. Starting in the Fifties people grew anxious about the conformity that might be imposed by collective organization, whether on the state level in Communist states or on the cultural level by corporate monopolies and pervasive mass media. Bigness itself became suspect as "Small is Beautiful" became a mantra for some. If Brooks now sees all of this as a sort of backsliding, at the time it was thought a healthy reaction to societies that had gone too far in one way or another. It's clear that a new kind of alienation evolved at midcentury that still inhibits many of us. Yet we still think of the years before as the heyday of the "Greatest Generation," and Brooks doesn't seem to disagree, at least on this score. His is a particularly daring and challenging conservatism when it comes to the defense of big government. though as a Republican he most likely would question whether big government is the best solution to all problems. To the extent that it does solve some problems best, as he argues in the case of epidemics, Brooks might ask what it would take to make people more comfortable again with big organizations or governments, whether the alienation so many have felt can be transcended. It really might just be a matter of time. In the 1930s, threatened by economic depression and fascistic aggression, many people around the world felt there was no hope for survival outside big institutions. In our time "survivalism" is still identified with an individualist ethos, but how much longer will that last should we see more pandemics, more globalized terrorism, more climatological upheaval? Before long, true survivalism may be identified with pragmatic submission to effective authority, though it may prove harder for us or our descendants to swallow that than it was for our grandparents or their parents. We seem more ready to see authority as Other rather than of us. Whatever it takes to change that is what actual conservatives should call for. If a conservative like David Brooks isn't willing to wait until catastrophe to call for change, that may be a good sign.


Anonymous said...

There would be no need for "submission to pragmatic authority" or any authority for that matter, if people would actually use their brains for something other than to keep their skulls from collapsing.

Sans propaganda and "brainwashing", individuals would have to realize that "individualism" is a no-win game; that "collectivism" (which is what lead to the creation of civilization in the first place) is necessary to maintain the technologically advanced lifestyle we've all become addicted to.

Anonymous said...

Once that is explained to the morons, should they still insist on "individualism", they should given a deed to an acre of wilderness and sent packing.

Samuel Wilson said...

The problem, not just with Americans but around the world, is that collectivism looks to many like a zero-sum game in which someone gets more power while others become powerless -- that it won't be an equal society but one in which the demagogues or "experts" take over. The problem with these suspicions is that, instead of taking responsibility to prevent such outcomes, too many people prefer the "every man for himself" option to save themselves the trouble.