Webster’s defines culture as a variation of the verb cultivate. It is time, therefore, for us to look at what, as a nation, we are cultivating.

In our government schools, which we persist in calling “public,” students are taught that virtually any loose community can be called a society, and that the world is driven by “progress.” But Émile Durkheim, one of sociology’s fathers, believed that a society could not exist without sharing certain principles and beliefs, that religion holds a society together. Thus, a change in religion leads to a change in moral values. To Durkheim, society is a religious phenomenon. Max Weber carried this insight further. He credited the Calvinists with having baptized all society and with expanding the idea of worship into every aspect of work. This evoked bitter attacks, of course. Nevertheless, it is now — thanks to Weber and Durkheim — tactfully accepted that sociology and history must accept the reality of intangible influences.

With this in mind, let’s look at our world, our civilization. The extent of change in what is now considered acceptable from what was once forbidden is astonishingly sweeping. For example, the members of this civilization shared basic beliefs for centuries, yet they have been discarded in just 100 years. If such an abrupt, widespread change took place in a foreign civilization, our experts would flock to explain it. But since this phenomenon occurred in our own, it is dismissed by summoning a phantom called “progress.”

Progress? A hundred years ago the West ruled the world, though seeds of decay were, in retrospect, visible. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, introduced a rationale for racial superiority and a pseudoscientific argument against religion that created a great deal of mischief. But Darwin largely expressed ideas floating in the air of his time. An insightful book called The Decline of the Industrial Spirit in English Culture 1850-1900 (Wiener, Rice University) defined the decline. The English disdain for “trade” lured English manufacturers and merchants into working toward a landed country life. This trend led Britain, in the span of a single generation, from 1870 to 1900, into an inability to feed the nation from its own agriculture, and removed the British from the industrial leadership of the world. An interesting parallel of this phenomenon is provided in an article in the April 1983 Atlantic. The essay describes how American industry fell from the top to somewhere in the middle of ranking industrial powers in a single generation ranging from the mid-1950’s to today. It shows how industrialists were more concerned with profits than with expensive innovations and retooling and were toppled by foreign competitors who weren’t masking losses and failures with “creative” accounting and governmental subsidies,

In both instances, in the decline of Britain and the decline of the U.S., fundamental shifts occurred in basic values. In both countries, which were once dominated by a religious ethic that sacrificed present gain for future values, short-range rewards took precedence. This is evidenced by the failure of the managerial class in the two countries. Whereas they were once self-reliant, they turned to their governments. The British government nationalized industries; the U.S. government set up a bureaucratic mechanism that provides subsidies. This failure can be discovered earlier, in, for example, the inability of England’s industrial and agricultural systems to cope with the demands if the world wars. Not only were the failures results of mechanical decline, but also of a metaphysical one: the turning away from religion.

In both world wars, however, an even darker side of secularization was revealed. Long-standing religious attitudes had restricted behavior — even in war. But in 1914-18, millions were led to useless death by leaders who had lost all scruples. In earlier ages such leaders would not have been obeyed. Yet the people of the West, far from rebelling, marched to their doom. Even Russia’s rebellion was gentle, under Kerenski, and brief — and the Russians were soon resubjugated by even more brutal rulers.

In the Second World War the West cast aside all restraints. Britain introduced mass bombings of civilians: we soon did the same. In the U.S.S.R. and nazi Germany, ancient paganism returned, as Karl Wittfogel proved. Wittfogel was a Marxist who changed his mind in the concentration camps of Hitler:

My final thoughts go to those who, like myself, were passing through that great inferno of terror. Among them, some hoped for a great turning of the tables which would make them guards and masters where formerly they had been inmates and prisoners. They objected, not to the totalitarian means, but to the ends for which they were being used. Others responded differently. They asked me, if ever opportunity offered, to explain to all who would listen the inhumanity of totalitarian rule in any form.

Wittfogel survived to study the roots of totalitarianism. He researched the huge monuments and immense irrigation systems of Mesopotamia, the Orient, and Latin America, and discerned these to be the results of total despotism. Vast numbers toiled to create systems that controlled agriculture — and people. In those ancient paganisms there was no class system: everyone lived in the service of the despot. Despots in the West were restrained by the nobility. The nobility was sustained by the Christian idea that only God is sovereign, and that all power on earth must be limited. Wittfogel effectively demolished the idea that the class struggle is the key to universal history. His second contribution was to show that the absence of class struggle means a despotism is in place. Nevertheless, our government schools continue to discuss Marxism in 19th-century utopian terms. Conservatives, while sympathetic to the idea of elites, have failed to provide a popular defense of why elites are necessary and how they preserve liberty.

Meanwhile, we gaze at the results of secularization in our cities and countryside. Chillingly impersonal glass-hung structures made livable by machinery alone, prono shops in even remote villages. Instead of automobiles we not export dirty movies; where we once imported art and books we now bring in cocaine and heroin.

The conservative movement, although growing, remains largely unfocused. It is hobbled by overintellectuality and a persistent neglect of the arts. Its ranks contain few painters, even fewer composers, and only a handful of professional actors, writers, musicians, playwrights. In some respects, the conservative movement is a sort of intellectual cottage industry, with each cottage intent upon weaving its own patterns. Most of the cottages produce political diatribes, though some lean toward economics. But many of the economically minded are not even contemporary in their observations. They evoke the theology of a free market when no such market exists anywhere in the world. It is worth remembering that after the Bolsheviks realized the German Revolution of 1919 had failed, they shifted to a seduction of German artists. The results are still visible; The Threepenny Opera continues to play, somewhere, every day. Brecht was not alone: within three years after the Comintern decided to concentrate in German artists, nearly all had become members of the Marxist mainstream. But our conservative intellectuals seem to find an absorbing interest in Gnosticism and anti-French Revolution British statesmen. It would seem that the situation calls for more contemporary analyses.

The overall problem seems to be that conservatives are not sure what they want to conserve, and what changes they are willing to accept. We live amid changes introduced by non-conservative forces which many resent and fear, and yet there is no consensus about which changes are inevitable and which must be forever resisted. By gradual, almost imperceptible stages, conservatism has become a political movement a mainstream political movement in many respects. In that process, conservatives have apparently forgotten that most Americans now fear government, and with good reason. The government can ruin an individual without bothering to take him to court. We are told to elect better people — but suppose there are no better people? What then?

Suppose the debacles so often predicted, unless we change our ways, actually occur? Then what? What is the conservative plan then?

Can conservatives actually envision change at all? Can they speculate upon not only a new administration, but even a new government? After all, our forebears didn’t try to reform George III: they replaced his government. I do not place the Reagan Administration in the category, of course, but it is clear that it is incapable of changing the trends that alarm us. It is not obvious that the President has no party, and that both Republican and Democratic politicians no longer believe in party principles: they follow the media agenda.

What this all adds up to is that a loss of faith means a loss of principle, and that these losses are more serious than is generally admitted. If we want a conservative culture, we shall have to think in deeper, braver, broader terms about how to bring such a culture to life. We shall have to drop our perpetual judgements and criticisms of what others say and do, stop talking mainly to each other, and — most important of all — start recruiting the communicators of the arts. We need the theater, the literati, the music and painting and architecture: we need to cultivate what once kept our civilization strong in order to restore its strength for today and tomorrow. We need to stand up against the blackmail and rhetorical excesses of racial politics: we need to broaden our activities beyond politics and economics into the whole of American life. We must, if we want to avert the deluge, cultivate a better conservatism than that which has been thus far expressed.