Tolkein: Liberal or Conservative


Over at TCS, Joshua Livestro asks whether JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings "is a liberal or a conservative novel." In the course of not really answering the question, while offering up a paean to technology, Livestro opines:


The main reason why liberals past and present have returned to the novel is of course its techno-sceptic attitude. Tolkien's Middle Earth isn't just an Arcadian fantasy about creatures deeply at one with nature. It is also, or perhaps more importantly, a story about the struggle between the forces of stagnation (good) and material development (bad). Like his Inklings colleague CS Lewis, Tolkien had serious misgivings about the arrival of the age of the machines. He wasn't, as David Brin argued in Salon.com, an enemy of Enlightenment and democracy. But only a fool could deny that Tolkien was profoundly sceptical of the blessings of modern technology.


In today's political world, that would make him an unlikely bedfellow for conservatism.


Tolkien's techno-skepticism only makes him "an unlikely bedfellow for conservatism" if one limits one's definition of conservatism to the libertarian strain introduced by Goldwater. The older - dare I say, purer? - strain represented by Russell Kirk is profoundly skeptical of technology and even capitalism. Consider Kirk's well-known essay on the economist Wilhelm Roepke, in which Kirk discussed Henry Ford:


At large expense, he had undertaken several attempts toward reconciling the old rural order with the new urban industrial life. For one thing, he had purchased and restored water mills in small towns of southern Michigan-Plymouth, Nankin Mills, Waterford, and elsewhere-with the intention of maintaining industrial employment on a humane scale and nurturing small-town life. He made available small garden plots near these mills to Ford employees who might wish to cultivate their own vegetables and flowers; at the Plymouth mill, my uncle, a Ford chemist, was the only person to request and work such a garden. Although doubtless Henry Ford would not have employed the word "proletarian," these experiments were meant to help factory hands keep from sinking into a proletarian condition. But all was abandoned at Ford's death; and the Ford Foundation, inheritor of most of his great wealth, has wasted its benefactions in grandiose abstract schemes that do nothing to humanize the economy.


All my life I have known the city of Detroit, called-during World War II "the arsenal of democracy." In Celine's famous novel Journey to the End of Night, the journey terminates at Detroit. In the shocking decay of that great city nowadays, we behold the consequences of an inhumane economy-bent upon maximum productive efficiency, but heedless of personal order and public order. Henry Ford's assembly-line methods had much to do with the impersonality and monotony of Detroit's economic development; and so, in some degree, did Ford's concentration of his whole productive apparatus at the Rouge Plant; but of course Henry Ford had no notion, in the earlier years of his operation, of what might be the personal and social effects of his highly successful industrial establishment; nor did the other automobile manufacturers of Detroit. Indeed, they seem still to be ignorant of such unhappy consequences, or else indifferent to the consequences, so long as profits continue to be made. Consider the wiping out of Poletown through the unholy alliance of industrial, municipal, and ecclesiastical power structures, regardless of the rights and the wishes of Poletown's inhabitants-all to build on the site of Poletown a new industrial complex, which already, far from supplying the promised increase in tax revenues for Detroit, is involved in grave difficulties.


The parallel with Tolkien's discussion in the Introduction to the LotR of the English countryside of his youth is quite striking. All the way down to the water mills.


My point is not that Kirk and Tolkien are right; to the contrary, I tend to be considerably more enthusiastic about the merits of capitalism and technology than either of them. My point, however, is that there is a strain of conservatism - with which I have some sympathy - that views much of modern life with profound skepticism. It's the same strain that worries about stuff like suburban sprawl, factory farms, and the like.


The core problem for this brand of conservatism, which I've never seen properly worked out, is how we reconcile Kirk's loathing of the "the impersonality and monotony of Detroit's economic development" and his concomitant belief that "that freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all." How do we reconcile preventing the former without infringing on the latter?


The intractability of the problem is suggested by Livestro's praise for the impact of technology on modern life:


Take the example of the country that I know best, The Netherlands. The old Gaffer would have been happy to note that, whereas in 1892 (the year Tolkien was born) forests and woodlands accounted for only three percent of Holland's surface, in 2000 this had risen to 10 percent, thanks to an active policy of reforestation and the introduction of new species of trees and shrubs. New technologies in water quality management have led to the return to Dutch rivers of many species of fish and bird previously presumed lost. And with concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, led and zinc at historic lows, the free air breathed by Dutch citizens is probably as clean as the free air breathed by Theoden king. In many ways, the world today resembles Tolkien's Middle Earth more closely than it did in the year Tolkien was born.


And just how many of these developments were brought to us by market forces and how many by government regulation?


I'm not claiming to have a pat answer for drawing the lines between the unregulated market and the nanny state, but I do know that it's very much these issues that explain why I'm not a libertarian

© Hank Edmondson 2012