Patrick Deneen (a professor of government at Georgetown University and the author of an very thought-provoking blog) has an old post I recently discovered regarding his experiences in southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria. There he found modern, 1st-world places, that nonetheless still embody an ancient, lasting way of life that is neither 1st-world American consumerism nor the stereotype of Europe as a softly communist, liberal hedonist’s paradise.
Deneen is fascinating as an advocate of a new kind of conservatism – or more correctly, a very old kind of conservatism. This is a conservatism that cares to conserve the best, the richest, the most human aspects of life and culture. A conservatism that revolts as much against American consumerism and rampant individualism, as it opposes the blind belief of much “progressive” thought that whatever is newest is therefore best, and whatever is possible is therefore necessary.
Perhaps this is a growing movement; I don’t know, I’ve only just recently become aware of it. But it appeals to me as one who often feels disconected from and distressed by, our disposable American culture. It appeals to me as one who mourns in the midst of all this abundance the lack of meaning, beauty, and connection to other humans and to creation that I somehow sense is possible and was perhaps more fully realized at times in the past. I am not suggesting that there was some golden era in the past that we must return to, a time when everything was perfect. The brokenness and corruption of this world run too deep. But aren’t there better, more human ways to live than what we’ve been sold?
Deneen is not just wishing for the past. He regularly writes about policy considerations and even in this post suggests some of the practical things that local governments have done to encourage a different way of life. Many of these would be criticized by conservatives as forms of increased taxation and government control. And yet the argument of Deneen and others (if I understand part of it correctly) is that these government controls actually foster increased local participation and democracy. That is a much larger argument, and in any case, what becomes clear in reading his writing is that the differences are much deeper than policy; these are fundamental issues of our country’s historical trajectory and elemental philosophy (particularly our definition of what constitutes the good life). Personally, I cannot imagine the necessary changes happening in America on a large enough scale to change our reckless, to-hell-with-the-future, headlong pursuit of leisure, consumption, and endless entertainment.
But isn’t there something appealing about what Deneen records here? Doesn’t it at least open up the possibility of a different, more human way of living? And if we immediately say “that’s not realistic”, isn’t the obvious question, “Well why not?”
Just a small excerpt from Deneen’s post:
In these parts of central Europe (all German speaking), I have been mightily impressed – as ever – by the strength of communal bonds, the presence of local cultures and distinctions, the persistence of tradition and memory, a culture that saves (in every sense), and a strong ethic of work aimed at preserving a high degree of independence…
Here, at the moment in Swabia, outside every town are breathtaking vistas of rolling landscape with miles and miles of forests and farmland, all oriented toward local food production, hunting and forestry. Nearly every household seems involved with the land in some way or another, whether through a small garden and wood stand or a larger farm. In the backyard of many homes one still finds chickens that roam free, fruit trees that are now bearing apples, pears and cherries that will be made into jam, water barrels that catch rainfall with which families water their plants. Nearly every yard has an enormous pile of wood, stacked carefully and in perfect symmetry, already today in use as the temperatures dip into the 50s here. Also, in every backyard one sees a compost heap: one pays for each piece of garbage one throws into the waste can, so every incentive is to avoid refuse weight. Moreover, companies must pay for the production of packaging (which must also be separated from the garbage and separately collected for recycling) and must charge a deposit for all plastic bottles. At most public events you will not even be served with plastic: you must pay a “pfand” (deposit) for dishes or glasses, and return it for return of your deposit afterwards. You must pay for plastic bags at supermarkets, an expense most people avoid by bringing their own canvas bags. The German economy, thus, does not measure its growth by the creation of waste products, and the German countryside is not defiled with endless vistas of discarded plastic.
For the most part, families live above the businesses they run.It is a way of life, an art of living, that I think will be here recognizable still many hundreds of years yet, long after our reckless American “lifestyle” has passed from existence.