May 25, 2021

There are not many Marxist detective stories. But the clever and entertaining Verdict of Twelve (1940), by the writer, critic and historian Raymond Postgate, falls into that category, prefaced as it is with a quotation from the great man himself: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” That is to say, Marx thought that our values and feelings, our beliefs and prejudices and attitudes, are dictated by the conditions under which we live, rather than being, as we might hope, independently arrived at by a rigorous process of reflection.

While reading Sohrab Ahmari’s The Unbroken Thread, I kept thinking of the quotation — which I only know from Postgate’s novel; I confess to not being familiar with Marx’s doubtless very exciting A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

Ahmari’s book is a collection of 12 chapter-length essays, each focused on a different aspect of traditional wisdom. Like me, he is an older millennial and an adult convert to Catholicism, although our journeys to the banks of the Tiber could hardly be more different. Mine was a comparatively gentle and unspectacular movement between Christian denominations, after an Anglican upbringing in quiet rural Kent. By contrast, Ahmari, now a New Yorker and a US citizen, grew up in post-revolutionary Iran, in a secular Muslim family, and became a Catholic in 2016 after moving to the US in the Nineties.

One thing we do have in common is that we are fathers to young sons, and worried about the kind of world in which our boys will grow up. Ahmari’s son Maximilian is named after the Polish priest-martyr Maximilian Kolbe, murdered in Auschwitz, and concern for his future animates the introduction to the book. Here Ahmari reveals his fear that Max will drift into the kind of disorderly, anodyne, atomised life in which so many modern Westerners find themselves, and goes on to frame The Unbroken Thread as a sort of guidebook. The great examples of the past can light our way through the gloomy swamp of liberal modernity.

Ahmari has made rather a name for himself in the USA as a determined critic of liberalism, by which he means a constellation of overlapping ideological commitments, united by the belief that whether in economic or social policy, the most important subject of political concern is the sovereign choice-making individual, determining what is best for himself by his own lights. As the American Supreme Court judge Anthony Kennedy phrased it, earning the ire of conservatives: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The Unbroken Thread is a critique of that idea.

Ahmari seeks to show that there are alternatives to the Kennedy view, and that these alternatives have enduring power and weight. The challenge for those who write about such matters is to find fresh ways to defend and illustrate the Great Tradition; he achieves this by blending references to conventional conservative heroes such as CS Lewis, Pope Benedict XVI and John Henry Newman with discussions of lesser-known or unexpected figures. I was fascinated to read about the husband-and-wife anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner, who spent many years studying the religious rituals of African tribespeople and later joined the Catholic Church, having left behind their youthful Communism.

In the chapter dealing with the virtue of filial piety, i.e. respect for parents and family and established communal customs, Ahmari turns not to the Romans, but to ancient China and Confucianism. He even has praise, albeit qualified, for the second-wave feminist Andrea Dworkin, who shared with social conservatives a hostility to pornography and prostitution, and a clear-eyed understanding of the need to control and regulate the male sex drive.

Ahmari wisely does not focus on specific hot-button issues, which can raise the argumentative temperature. He does not hide his views, but The Unbroken Thread is really about the high-level questions that are conceptually upstream of individual culture war battlefields. The existence and significance of God, the importance of keeping the Sabbath, duties to parents, the meaning of freedom and sex; Ahmari invites his readers to good-faith consideration of these questions that are too often crowded out in modern discourse.

Which brings me back to that quotation from Marx. Like many books of conservative cultural criticism, The Unbroken Thread is implicitly premised on the idea that if we can persuade people to adopt better ideas, we can improve things for the better. In the terms used by Marx, a change in consciousness can re-engineer social conditions and social relations. Ahmari is essentially appealing to individuals to rethink and re-imagine their lives. What conservatives also need, however — to put it as Marx did — is a change in social relations to change men’s consciousness.

It is undoubtedly true that, as the title of one famous conservative polemic noted, ideas have consequences. Nevertheless, you don’t have to be a Marxist to see that the technological and economic structures of a society can strongly determine the ways in which people understand the meaning and purposes of their lives. For instance, the aims, rhetoric and substance of modern British progressive activism are heavily influenced by events in the USA; this would not be the case to anything like the same degree without the internet, social media, smartphones and so on.

Similarly, the explosion in gender fluidity over the last decade or so is indisputably the consequence of how the internet works. Not only does the web enable people who are physically remote from one another to form communities of interest or identity, thereby binding them more closely to those interests and identities, but social media gives us all of us a heightened sense of our lives as curated performance and presentation. WiFi and mobile internet, and the associated hardware, have compelled people to inhabit the world in a particular way, and there is unlikely to be a mass return to the old modes of analogue existence, even if we have excellent rational arguments against the new.

Or to take an example from The Unbroken Thread: it is easy to lament the decline in people caring for their infirm or aged parents, and ascribe this to the loss of Christian faith or heightened selfishness. Yet we must realise, too, that it is the material conditions of the modern world, its hypermobility and the nature of the economy, that make it possible and indeed necessary for people to live far away from their parents. Medical and scientific advances that have extended lifespans, and new geriatric treatments, mean that looking after frail elders at home is in many cases a much more demanding and longer-lasting task than it once was. The plausibility structures around the old-fashioned understanding of filial piety have been badly weakened, just as the Pill’s promise of “safe sex” helped to destroy the plausibility structures around the prohibition of pre-marital sex.

This is not meant as criticism of Ahmari. I am quite sure he would agree with me about the need to overhaul social relations alongside persuading individuals of the merits of traditionalism. Having spent his early life in Islamic Iran, he understands that civilizational questions matter, that the underlying material incentives and scaffolding of a society make a difference. He is closely associated with integralism, a political ideology in which the Catholic religion is privileged and protected by the powers of the government and in which Catholic teaching forms the basis for law-making. The recognition that political power can be used to reshape and adjust social norms and the basis of social relations is central to this worldview. And perhaps he would say that he is hoping that his book will persuade people with their hands on powerful political levers.

Conservatives have done sterling work in tracing the roots of bad ideas, and have often presented compelling and powerful arguments for good ones. Yet people’s identity in any given society at any given time is not simply a matter of individual rational thought and the effective use of the “marketplace of ideas”. Rather it is shaped by all sorts of technological and material factors. Consider how the televising of British parliamentary proceedings has changed the way MPs behave, in the same way as the very existence of TV has changed politics. “The medium is the message”, in Marshall McLuhan’s words — new ways of communicating change human society, regardless of the content.

We cannot undo technological or material changes; the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on, as the Persian poet Omar Khayyam said. What we can do is match well-written, thoughtful and true arguments like Ahmari’s with serious thinking about how to make the material incentives match them. Many on the contemporary Right, for example, are coming round to the idea that if we reduce house prices by relaxing supply constraints, we will incentivise earlier and larger family formation. This may not work, but in the current climate it is more likely to be effective than moral exhortation. After all, Marx was not too far wrong when he said that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.