"How to Change the World?"

Prepared for a Conference with that Title in the Nexus Institute, Amsterdam, December 2012

Roger Scruton

There is another and more important question than the one contained in that title, namely: how can it be that people ask themselves how to change the world? What is it, about human nature, human history or both, that has placed such a question in the hearts and minds of my contemporaries? It is not a question that appeals to me. My concern throughout my life has been not to change things but to conserve them in the face of change. But I recognise the truth in Burke's remark, that one must also change in order to conserve. On the other hand, it is not the whole world that we should change, but the local conditions that pose threats to our cherished continuities. I realise, however, that I am exceptional among intellectuals, in that I cherish continuities (some of them) and wish to protect them from what I consider to be an intemperate desire for novelty and for all the things — the much trumpeted goals of equality and social justice for instance — that seem to demand the dismantling of the status quo. Far more normal among intellectuals in our time is the desire to do away with everything and to start again, with the intellectuals in charge. That, in my view, is what is wrong with intellectuals, and why we ought to minimise their influence.

            But how could this situation have come about? From the mid 19th century onwards literature, art and philosophy have testified to the alienation of the intellectuals from the world of normal people. In many places, Russia in particular, the intellectuals have issued violent exhortations to the mass of mankind to join them in a work of comprehensive destruction. Dostoevsky was perhaps the first writer to examine and condemn this particular trait — witness his frightening novel, The Devils. But, even without the violent rhetoric of the Russian anarchists and revolutionaries, we know that modern intellectuals have declared to the world that they are mightily displeased with it. From Marx to Foucault and beyond, the intellectuals have identified themselves as victims of social power, exiles from the true community, united in their suffering with the oppressed groups and classes whom they will one day lead to liberation. That was the picture that fired the imaginations of the Bolsheviks, and also of Mussolini and many of the Nazi leaders. You find it in Sartre, and especially in the Sartre of Situations, in Foucault, in Althusser and Deleuze and all the gurus of 1968. It is there in the Frankfurt School, in the tormented and self-involved writings of Adorno and Horkheimer, in the play-group philosophy of Marcuse, and in the nasty books of György Lukács, written to justify the communist party in its great mission to exterminate all that is normal, competitive and unequal in the destiny of man.

            Reflecting on recent history I find it impossible to look with sympathy on the question contained in my title. But I know that the question survives every attempt to dismiss it, and that it stems either from something deep in the human condition — maybe from an adaptation once useful to those hypothetical bands of hunter-gathers — or else (as I rather suppose) from the nature of reflection, which fills us with a sense of the power of ideas and of the plasticity of all that lies before us when we dream by means of them.  Moreover, there is something about the modern condition that lends itself to the self-conscious alienation of those who reflect on it, and it is this thing that I wish to put before the reader.

            When Burke wrote his great analysis of the French Revolution it was in conscious defence of a historical settlement — the social and political order of England which, to his way of thinking, contained more dispersed wisdom than could ever be condensed into a single human head, and certainly more wisdom than was exhibited by the 'geometrical' rationalism of the French revolutionaries. He was right, of course. But what exactly was he trying to put in place of the 'rational' order that St Just and Robespierre proposed? Was it simply the English common law system, and the old forms of government by custom that he had experienced as a Member of Parliament? In my view it was something deeper than those contingencies. Burke was really defending attachment — the unconsidered and foundationless bond between people, and between people and the place, the history and the obligations that they recognise as theirs. And he was defending this against the detachment of person from person, and person from place, community and history, which is the universal result of modern ways of thinking and modern forms of life.

            In recent times psychologists, influenced by the ground-breaking work of John Bowlby, have recognised attachment as a fundamental process in the development of responsible and self-governing human beings.[1] Attachment to parents and to the routines and comforts of home is, according to Bowlby, a basic adaptation, which secures for children the protective strategies of their parents, and which also permits the emergence of the qualities necessary for the independent exploration of the world. Bowlby makes this suggestion as part of a theory of child psychology and moral development. But it echoes a much wider observation, already made by Hegel, which is that individuals develop into freely choosing and responsible beings only by first passing through a stage of dependency, in which obligations are not freely chosen but inherited. The first moment of social life, according to Hegel, is one in which piety and obedience, rather than justice and freedom, govern everyday conduct. The family is the place in which children learn to be free, and learn also to break out into the realm of civil society, there to exist in opposition to the dependence that has made them what they are.[2]

            Those stories — the one psychological, and told in the terms of evolutionary psychology, the other political, and told in the terms of the Hegelian dialectic — point to a single observation, which is that human beings stand in need of attachment. It is the condition from which responsibility grows — responsibility for oneself, and also for those to whom one is bound in relations of dependence. Marx and Engels may have been right that the workers in the factories of Victorian England suffered from alienation — the alienation that comes from being exploited, treated as a means, and deprived of the respect without which, Hegel argued, true freedom cannot be realised. But they were surely wrong in believing that this alienation lies also at the heart of the family, and the institutions of private property (the institutions that permit us to close a door on our private space) on which families in general depend. Yet, with the characteristic hubris of intellectuals, they set themselves against the social customs on which they themselves had depended for what scant moral education they had achieved. They argued as though the cure for alienation were not, as Ruskin believed, to re-attach people to the primary experience of community, but rather to detach them from all their old allegiances, to make them warriors on behalf of a new social order, which would be, for the time being, a disorder. And anyone who has witnessed the world that their theories created will know that the steps taken to achieve it were taken at every point against human nature, and with a compulsive disregard for our moral and spiritual well-being.

            Still, vital though the experience of attachment may be to the moral development of mankind, it is no longer the robust and reliable thing that it used to be. Not only are families fragmenting, and people detaching themselves at an unprecedented rate from their incurred obligations. Not only are children increasingly being abandoned to the care of the state by fathers who value their own freedom more than their children's happiness. There is a growing culture of detachment, which endorses and accelerates the process of decay. Maybe it began in the 19th century, with the mass migration of people to the cities. In the countryside the migrants had been poor but rooted, surrounded by vigilant neighbours to whom they were bound by ties of obligation and from whose judgements they could not escape. In the city they could live in comparative anonymity, enjoying wages that permitted another style of life. And with the escape from the small community came loneliness and isolation.

            But maybe the causes are deeper, in the Enlightenment itself and in the emancipation of mankind from traditional forms of obedience, traditional objects of worship, and the traditional hierarchies on which so much of customary morality had been made to hang. Whatever the cause, during the course of the 19th and 20th centuries all the old forms of attachment were both shaken from within by vast social changes, and scorned from without by an intelligentsia that found in them little besides the oppressive 'structures' of the bourgeois order.

            Now the bourgeois order, in my view, was a great achievement. The bourgeoisie discovered new forms of attachment in the routines of urban life. They developed forms of mass entertainment through theatre, opera and concert hall that were peaceful in themselves while permitting the public absorption in sublime and moving aspects of the human condition that are not easily put on display.  They developed architectural styles and urban plans that have proved durable and adaptable to the needs of the modern city. And they filled their streets with schools, colleges and hospitals that — in intention at least — reached out to the lower strata of society and offered the possibility of social and material advancement. In all these ways the bourgeoisie strove to replace and compensate for the old forms that had been swept away by industrialisation. But this fact has not on the whole attracted much praise from the intellectuals, who have typically condemned every arrangement in which decent people have striven to create a shared and durable order. Marx, of course, admired bourgeois society. But he admired it for its destructiveness, its ability to sweep away the old attachments, and not for its stunning achievement in putting something comparatively peaceful in place of them. And there is no doubt that the process of detachment continued through the 20th century, producing not only the all too familiar wars and genocides, but also new forms of unsettled communities, composed of unsettled people.

            When I look at Western society today, I am impressed by nothing so much as the extent to which detachment has become not merely the norm of social existence, but also the theme of art, music, architecture and high culture. There has been a steep decline in the experience of membership, and in the institutions — church, family, civil association, clubs and teams — through which ordinary people experience their social identity. What here is cause and what effect is hard to say. Durkheim identified membership as a defining characteristic of religion, and evolutionary biologists like David Sloan Wilson argue that religion is an adaptation that endures and reproduces itself because of its ability to bestow cohesion on the group.[3] Such thinkers would not be surprised, therefore, that the loss of religion brings with it a gradual detachment of people from each other. Nor would they be surprised by the weakness of our detached societies in the face of immigrant communities bound together by strong religious ties.  

            At the same time, because people yearn for attachment, and cannot exist happily in a state of collective solitude, we see in our time all kinds of short-lived but intense substitutes for religion: practices, rituals, forms of association which offer a kind of mystic unity to the participants, and shield them from the fact of their isolation. I rather think, looking back on it, that this was what was happening in Paris in May 1968, when the intellectuals declared their indissoluble unity with the workers, and began throwing cobbles at policemen (who were not workers or intellectuals, but instruments of bourgeois oppression) and setting fire to cars (which did not belong to workers, since only the bourgeoisie owned cars — intellectuals and workers merely borrowed them). I don't see this event as Alain Badiou sees it, as a break from the impossible to a new possibility. I see it as a collective act of self-deception among people who had no desire to count the cost of their actions. The sight of this caused me, at the time, to side with the bourgeoisie, whoever they were. And it also convinced me that the attempt to change the world completely, even if authorised by the Little Red Book of Comrade Mao, was much inferior to the attempt to hold on to the few good things that we already have, while fighting the hooligans who wanted to destroy them.

            Still, the process of detachment continued. We have all but lost religion, and we have all but lost the family too. Living through this, I have nevertheless entertained the hope that culture might provide a kind of substitute, a vision of home and homecoming, of the kind made vivid in the poems of Hölderlin and, much later in the Duino Elegies of Rilke and the Four Quartets of Eliot, that would enable modern people to enjoy in imagination what they had lost in fact — which is the immersion in a shared community of being.  But of course, high culture is a minority pursuit, and in a democracy it counts for little or nothing beside the clamorous products of mass communication. Moreover, whether we look at high culture or popular culture, we find a kind of routinised message of detachment, repeated at every level of reflection, together with a nostalgic longing to be re-attached. This longing for attachment is often expressed, as in the Harry Potter stories, through some sanitised version of an older and vanished form of settlement, with landscape, gothic pinnacles and the routine of school.

            My feeling, reflecting on this, is that we ought in some way to resist the process of detachment. Of course, it is a process with vast and hidden causes, of which technology and abundance are only a part. And who would want to get rid of technology and abundance? Moreover, for reasons made clear by the great sociologists of the early 20th century — and by Weber in particular — the emergence of mass society is a one way process, which replaces old customs, laws and modes of thought with entirely new social and intellectual parameters. We modern people must live within those parameters or not live at all. But what then happens to attachment, and how can this deep need of the species be satisfied, in the conditions of modern life? It is not enough to seek refuge in the nostalgic forms of popular culture, to retain as a Disneyfied vision in the clouds of what we need rather as an emotional foundation in reality. We have in some way to re-attach ourselves to the world if we are to feel at home in it. Or are we henceforward to be homeless?

            I give you an example that is near to hand. As you journey from the airport at Schiphol to the centre of Amsterdam, there comes a sudden moment of transition. It is a transition from the modern world to the older world — the world that Marx called bourgeois, but which I think we should rather describe as settled. The architecture that litters the roadside from the airport to the edge of the old city is an architecture of nowhere. It does not create a place, a dwelling, a settlement. It lies there by the road, as though some giant had dropped it as he strode across the landscape.

            It is not simply that these buildings are large, made from concrete, alloy and glass, and all the other very obvious features that distinguish modern architecture from its predecessors. It is that they are designed differently and on different principles from the canal-side houses of Amsterdam. They are organised not vertically but horizontally. They consist of horizontal planes, stacked up on top of each other. These planes lie on the ground, but do not grow from it. The old houses of Amsterdam are organized vertically. They grow up from below, and are divided horizontally not by ground plans but by mouldings inscribed on the façade — mouldings that represent the joints of invisible columns, endowing the façade with the elasticity that we associate with the upright human frame.

            This vertical organisation is combined with a loving use of detail — panelled doors, mullioned windows, sloping roofs and so on, the whole fitted into an allotted space so that the houses stand side by side, enjoying each other's company. Such symmetries as they exhibit are like the symmetries of the human form — not symmetries up and down, but from side to side. Those buildings on the other side of the city's edge do not stand side by side. They neither touch each other nor align with each other, but lie, stacked up like crates outside a factory, without any relationship to each other or to their surroundings. Their symmetries are vertical, each floor exactly imitating the one below it and the one above. Pascal wrote something interesting in this connection:

            Symmetry is what we see at a glance. It is based on the fact that there is no need for any variation. But it is also based on the human face. That is why symmetry is only desirable in breadth, not in height or depth. (Pensées, Preface 50.)

            Because it recalls the human posture, the architecture of old Amsterdam creates a place, and marks that place as a human settlement. People gravitate to the centre of old Amsterdam for that reason — not because it abounds in architectural masterpieces — for it does not — and not because it is especially full of excitements, unless you find the caged birds of the Red Light zone exciting. The charm of old Amsterdam is simply that it is somewhere, not nowhere, and a somewhere to which people — some living, some dead and some not yet born — belong.

            The rise of the new architecture, in which not belonging and nothingness are the unspoken spiritual goals, is simply one aspect of the process of detachment to which I have been referring in this article. And it points to ways in which that process can be resisted. We don't have to build using the modern archetypes. We don't have to scorn the thousands of years of tradition that have taught human beings how to make a place that speaks of dwelling. As Heidegger pointed out, in an important essay, building and dwelling are two sides of a single enterprise, and their relationship was understood perfectly until the very moment when he was writing.[4] Why not resist this enormous change, in the name of the thing that we all secretly want, which is to re-attach ourselves to the community, to the place and to the form of life that is ours?

            Always however there is the nagging presence of the intellectual, who urges us to stand outside community in an attitude of critical negation. Just look at the intellectual products of our time, and ask yourself what their fundamental message is for ordinary humanity. The art that is applauded by our art schools and official galleries is uniformly an art of transgression, of defiance, in which the seedy, the random or the violent are put forward as the repositories of true aesthetic value. This transgressive posture is one in which beauty is regarded neither as a value nor even as a possibility. So we are told by no less an authority than Arthur Danto.[5] The assumption has arisen among the intellectual class that the pursuit of beauty will now result only in kitsch — in other words in fake art, expressing fake emotion. Since there is no real way to belong to the world around us, the critics say, it is only the experience of detachment, of non-belonging, that can achieve genuine artistic expression. That is why the officially sanctioned new music — the music that here, in Holland, receives state subsidies and state-sponsored performances — is so often offensive to the ordinary ear. That is why all those painters of figurative art, all those neo-classical architects, all those tonal composers and writers of lyrical verse who still abound on every side are either unnoticed by the critics, or singled out for special vilification should their heads appear above the parapet. They are traitors to the cause of detachment.

            I too am a traitor to the cause of detachment. But where am I to look for the communities and places, the practices and customs that I can still defend in the name of home? It is a difficult question. People are of course forming new communities all the time — this is something that the internet makes easy. But maybe it shouldn't be so easy. Maybe communities should come about only after an effort of settlement from which real commitments flow. Social networks grow and fragment with the rapidity of oil streaks on a puddle, never resting in one shape long enough for people to vest them with the emotions of belonging, but always assuming some other shape, and some other meaning before our response to them has formed. And when we look at the crowds who assemble in our cities, each with a cell phone attached to one ear or a tiny screen held like a mirror before him, we must surely be tempted to think that we all now live behind an impenetrable screen of gadgetry, which never presents us with the image of the Other, but only with a reflection of the self. The great venture outwards into the community does not occur. And at the same time the home too is invaded by these gadgets, so that even there we exist in a state of mutual detachment. Technology, which has made it so easy to stay in touch, also forms a screen between us, so that our ways of being in touch remain fixed in the routine of detachment.

            But no, it is not so bad. In this area too resistance is possible. It is possible to resist the gadgets. It is possible to sit quietly around a table with the people you love without consulting a screen. It is possible to make music together. It is possible to find moments of tranquillity in which the old gods can still be worshipped and obeyed. And this, it seems to me, defines the real task for the educated person in our world today — not to proceed along the path of change and detachment, following those self-loving intellectuals into the void, but to stay put in a cherished place, and to build there the customs and relationships that make it more agreeable to stay than to leave. If you want to know how that might be done let me recommend a book of my own, I Drink Therefore I Am, which describes the great gift that comes to us through wine, the gift of staying where we belong, and not bothering the world with our self-indulgent complaints against it.

—Roger Scruton

[1] John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss, three vols. 2nd edn., New York, 1999.

[2] Hegel, The Philosophy of Right.

[3] Émile Durkheim, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, 1906, David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral, New York 2002.

[4] Martin Heidegger, 'Building, Dwelling, Thinking', in Poetry, Language, Thought, tr. Albert Hofstadter, New York, Harper, 1971.

[5] Arthur Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art, Open Court, 2003.