In the New Tragic Age, we face multiple existential transformations of our society — de-globalisation, a rising multi-polar world order, and the scarcity of limited resources on a finite planet. Most of these changes are downstream from the latter: we are facing the inevitable de-complexification of a society propped up by an abundant access to cheap energy.

If we use the stages of grief as a model for human reckoning with tragedy, we are currently desperately bargaining that we might simply flip a switch — be it policy or market-based — and continue to expect to live as we have in the relatively peaceful End of History period of the past few decades.

Climate change activists, for example, look to the state and potential mechanisms for world governance via climate conferences to solve the problem. If only we put in the right number of bike lanes or subsidise the transition to a world of electric vehicles, industrial society would lumber on. Free-marketeers, relatedly, look to the unfettered global market to innovate our way to unleashing energy abundance never before captured in human history — a fantasy of the world economy run on nuclear power with Silicon Valley-backed AI-run vertical farms underwriting fully automated luxury capitalism.

These assumptions — that industrial society must continue indefinitely, or that we must develop solutions at grand scales — has us stuck in a political and technological gridlock, and limits our ability to imagine alternatives. Some of the most salient cultural traditions for this historical moment live outside the current oversized scale of market and state.

Writers such as John Michael Greer, who have compared ours to collapsed civilisations of the past, have been proclaiming that we are at the end of the industrial society. In response, forward-thinking individuals are cobbling together a worldview to get us through this period of crisis: something like the conservatism of Christopher Lasch combined with the environmentalism of Wendell Berry, a synthesis we might call Left Conservatism.

In practice, this nascent ideology looks to revive civil society, cares about ecology and culture of place, desires robust local and regional economies, is broadly anti-war, and rejects the ongoing bureaucratisation and commodification of all the most sacred aspects of life. This milieu of thinking doesn’t belong to a set political tradition — hence the contradiction in terms — but, above all, Left Conservatism centres the local, the particular and the human-scaled.

Whether or not we are ready for it, we are entering a world in which the market and state are failing to meet basic needs. We will therefore need to embrace much more radical self-determination, at various scales for various problems. Those who take on the responsibility of de-scaling our economy and politics will be the most successful in the New Tragic Age, which may not be so tragic after all, depending on how we prepare.

There is an interesting history of something like Left Conservatism in the United States, especially owing to federalism and the ability to devolve power to states. Writers such as Berry, Lasch and Norman Mailer represent versions of this alternative to the typical Left-Right binary. In an interview with Martin Amis, Mailer describes the appeal of the term:

“The best thing that can be said for conservatism, and there are a great many terrible things to say about it, but the best thing to say about it is that they (conservatives) do tend to have a certain appreciation of the world as a whole. I become uneasy when I find people drawing up solutions, which is, of course, the great vice of the Left, to solve difficult problems, because I think they cut out too many of the nuances. So, Left Conservatism is my way of reminding myself that you have to deal with everything in context.”

In a globalised market and bureaucratic state, nearly every aspect of life is decontextualised — a line on a spreadsheet to be analysed by financiers or policy-makers. The principle of subsidiarity, or the idea that decisions should be made at the lowest possible scale, closest to where they will have an impact, is a helpful rule. Political questions answered on appropriate scales would allow for a patchwork of diverse cultures — working in concert when necessary and focusing on self-determination where appropriate.

Here, the environmentalism of Berry is scaled down. Instead of focusing primarily on the global and intangible, Berry’s environmentalism is about local ecologies, fundamentally inextricable from place and culture. What follows from this distinction is a radically different ontology: a concern for global concepts such as climate seems to drive activists toward acts of destruction, whereas a focus on the stewardship of a specific, knowable ecology encourages acts of creation.

Lasch is best known for documenting the advancing narcissism of the modern era, but he also mourned the loss of the culture of pre-industrial times. He bemoaned “the decline of craftsmanship, the fragmentation of the community, the loneliness of the modern metropolis, the subordination of spiritual life to the demands of the market” and called for a reinvigoration of active participation in civic life. Primarily known as a Leftist, Lasch retained a respect for the positive potential of the state, as long as it remained in balance with strong families, neighbourhoods, and working “guilds”.

For both, whether dealing with the market or the state, it is the scaling down of focus that radically reorganises the field of action. The inhuman scales through which we currently engage in politics rightfully make us feel out of control. Our sense is that the only way to protect ourselves from such totalising forces is to either recoil from them or to destroy them in some way or another. You can see this most clearly in climate activism, where the sense of helplessness leads to a rage channeled toward acts of destruction. However, when the scale is more human — a neighbourhood, a family, a garden — suddenly the possibility for acts of creation or stewardship become much more real, and the responsibility for action more tangible.

Those hovering around these ideas — localism, civic orientation, care for local ecologies — are seeking to move beyond the gridlock of over-scaled politics as currently constituted. They see the future clear-eyed, and know that more partisan appeals to solutions of the global market or governance will just provide us more of the same. The “Left” part of Left Conservatism is recognition of the need to protect ourselves from the exploitative forces of the market — the desire to commodify and sell off every last sacred thing. The “conservative” part is the desire to protect the sacred from the flattening authority of bureaucracy. Despite superficial political differences of individuals, working at the local scale as neighbours can start to draw out the shared sense of the sacred: a clean environment, a safe community, a thriving home.

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