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Traditionalist conservatism and the dignity of labor

By Mark Wegierski
web posted April 26, 2004

As May Day is celebrated by various socialist and far left parties around the world, those who consider themselves traditionalist conservatives could re-examine what may have been authentic and insightful in Marx's ideas -- most notably, the cherishing of the worker. What is perhaps the pre-eminent attitude in authentic, reflective traditionalist conservatism is the recognition of the dignity of labor, no matter how humble or menial it is.

At the same time, traditionalist conservatism -- despite its unwarranted reputation for anti-intellectualism -- recognizes that the true thinker or artist, are also engaged in profound work and effort. Reflective persons often face the huge psychological burden of their erudition and knowledge about the world. Today, the conservative philosopher can see the prospects of an ever more dystopic future before humankind, against which any kind of counter-action often appears very difficult. Some especially acute analysts and diagnosticians of late modernity live in a state of almost constant unhappiness and disquiet. It would be ridiculous to claim that the struggles and agonies of many thinkers (of virtually any persuasion) are not an expression of immense striving (requiring, for example, twenty or more years of formal schooling).

At the same time, it could be argued that many conservative or traditionalist thinkers might like to submerge themselves in the bliss of "unconscious" living. Working at hard but satisfying physical labor for a decent wage, having a faithful and humble wife who will raise many children, and believing in religion without complex examination, may seem quite a blissful existence to many male conservative theorists. However, the heightened consciousness of the traditionalist critic in regard to the surrounding society does not usually permit the enjoyment of simple pleasures, while the world around is crumbling.

The idealized life of the blue-collar worker is also less and less a current-day reality for anyone in society -- as Canada and the United States are increasingly "de-industrializing" -- and the re-education projects of left-liberalism affect the most traditional families. It often happens that the worker's wife and children are turned against him and what he cherishes. Today, decent working people are not left alone by the managerial-therapeutic regime. There are indeed vast infrastructures attempting to subvert the basic traditionalism and decency of the working classes.

The person who enjoys thinking and philosophizing would also, in most cases, wish to pursue a profession in areas such as the academy or high-level journalism, where they could manifestly use their multifarious talents -- and be well-rewarded for them. For intelligent persons of traditionalist or conservative persuasion, achieving academic, journalistic, or publishing success is frequently highly difficult in today's social and political climate -- no matter how diligent they are in their studies, and how smartly they frame their arguments. So, in many cases, to make a decent living, they have to fall back on some white-collar profession that is not as intimately linked to society, politics, and culture -- for example, librarianship, archivy, or engineering.

The reflective traditionalist is able to see the worth and dignity of all honest labor. Traditionalism largely identifies with both the petit-bourgeoisie and the proletariat -- the broad working classes of society. It sees the haut-bourgeoisie today as mostly a managerial elite which has largely abandoned decency -- in the wake of what Christopher Lasch called "the revolt of the elites" (in his 1995 book of that title). Traditionalism also rejects what Marx had honestly termed the
lumpenproletariat -- which it sees as an unruly, disorderly element of society whose failure is largely the result of bad moral habits. Traditionalism is also inclined to boldly criticize most of the official academic, literary, and journalistic worlds as pseudo-intellectuals or as a pseudo-intelligentsia. Traditionalism also has a healthy disdain for most sports and Hollywood celebrities, appreciating the irony of multimillionaire rock-star or movie-actor "rebels." It is also contemptuous towards the archetypical "caviar socialists" and "limousine liberals" -- who it sees as immensely powerful and privileged persons who have rarely done an honest day's labor in their lives -- and have in most cases manifestly benefited from holding all the politically-correct opinions.

Almost all of what was authentic in Marx was his cherishing of the worker. In that respect, it was not a position all that different from what most reflective traditionalism had always believed. In the nineteenth century, the countervailing power of the labor movement was clearly needed to balance the power of capital. Throughout the twentieth century, however, Western societies have gone through a series of almost continual, relentless, wrenching, social revolutions and transformations, that have massively reconfigured the social terrain. The result of this is that the classic labor struggle exists in a far different context. It now in most cases is seen as part of a left-liberal coalition that includes rich privileged liberals, various "official" minority and gender activists, and what would have earlier been considered elements of the lumpenproletariat. Nevertheless, traditionalism would retain a slim hope for a partial disalignment of labor (in recognition of the authentic interests of a majority of workers) from this coalition.

Traditionalist conservatism cherishes the ethos of the hardworking, patriotic petit-bourgeoisie and proletariat, which it hopes to bring once again to the center of society and politics, as the popular foundation for a new cultural and spiritual re-birth.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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