The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince talked about “starting from zero.” One heard the phrase all the time: “starting from zero.” Gropius gave his backing to any experiment they cared to make, so long as it was in the name of a clean and pure future. Even new religions such as Mazdaznan. Even health-food regimens. During one stretch at Weimar the Bauhaus diet consisted entirely of a mush of fresh vegetables. It was so bland and fibrous they had to keep adding garlic in order to create any taste at all. Gropius’ wife at the time was Alma Mahler, formerly Mrs. Gustav Mahler, the first and foremost of that marvelous twentieth-century species, the Art Widow. The historians tell us, she remarked years later, that the hallmarks of the Bauhaus style were glass corners, flat roofs, honest materials, and expressed structure. But she, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel — she had since added the poet Franz Werfel to the skein — could assure you that the most unforgettable characteristic of the Bauhaus style was “garlic on the breath.” Nevertheless! how pure, how clean, how glorious it was to be … starting from zero!
— Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House
The new issue of Religion and Liberty features a long essay by Christine Rosen criticizing the we-have-nothing-to-conserve case presented by Jon Askonas in an essay I discuss here and here. Two points from me:
One: Rosen points out that Askonas’s hope for taking power through “a serious program of technological development” is just another version of Mark Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” — a model of action which has repeatedly proven much better at destroying than building. Another way to put this is to borrow a phrase from N. S. Lyons and say that the members of several recent post-conservative movements – as exemplified by Askonas’s essay, but also by Patrick Deneen’s call for “regime change,” and by several more extreme calls from some corner of the right to Blow It All Up – tend to be “change merchants”:
Whether an academic, a journalist, a financial analyst, or a software developer, a member of this Virtual class makes his living — and, indeed, establishes his social and economic value — by manipulating, categorizing, and interpreting symbolic information and narrative. “Manipulate” is an important verb here, and not merely in the sense of deviousness. Such an individual’s job is to take existing information and change it into new forms, present it in new ways, or use it to tell new stories. This is what I am attempting to do as a writer in shaping this article, for example.
Members of this class therefore cannot produce anything without change. And they cannot sell what they’re producing unless it offers something at least somewhat new and different. Indeed, change is literally what they sell, in a sense, and they have a material incentive to push for it, since the faster the times are a-changin’ in their field, or in society, the more market opportunity exists for their products and services. They are, fundamentally, merchants of change.
Maybe I shouldn’t include either Askonas or Deneen in this description, because Askonas has walked back his strongest claims, and some reviewers say that Deneen does the same in the latter portions of Regime Change. (I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t yet read it, but the more hard-nosed hard-right critics of the book chastise Deneen for not following through on his more extreme denunciations of the System.) But as a general rule: To be a successful change merchant you have to include, as a necessary prelude to your sales pitch, the claim that nothing you’ll destroy along the way to your innovation is worth preserving. (Starting from zero!) That is, the genuine change merchant will always say that we have nothing to conserve, and the person who genuinely believes we have nothing to conserve will always be either a change merchant or a victim of despair (or maybe both).
Many changes are, of course, necessary, and others are not perhaps necessary but are good or useful or beautiful or all of the above. In my judgment, the people best placed to implement the better kinds of change are not neophiles, who are impatient with anything that exists and desirous to replace it with whatever happens to occur to them, but rather those with a well-founded appreciation for what already exists and from that very appreciation develop a desire to preserve, sustain — and improve. (As Wolfe points out, the neomania of the Bauhaus movement led to a situation in which “Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse.”) One of Burke’s most famous lines is germane here: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.” Conservation and change are not opposites, but, in what that great conservative Albus Dumbledore calls “the well-organized mind,” complementary impulses.
Two: Again, some of those who say that there’s nothing to conserve will qualify that statement when challenged; but there are many among us who think it’s really true. And when I hear that, I find myself thinking about a famous passage from Henry James’s study of Nathaniel Hawthorne:
The negative side of the spectacle on which Hawthorne looked out, in his contemplative saunterings and reveries, might, indeed, with a little ingenuity, be made almost ludicrous; one might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools — no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class — no Epsom nor Ascot!
It turns out that there’s a certain kind of person who looks at the world we’re living in and thinks: No legitimate government, no useful laws, no worthwhile political acts or actors; no schools, no books, no skills of reading or writing or mathematics or art-making; no charitable organizations that serve people in need; no churches, no inspiring sermons, no beautiful liturgies, no memorable hymns; no national forests and parks, nor well-tended fields; no beautiful architecture, no thriving neighborhoods — no families! Nope. Not a thing to conserve. Those who went before us left us absolutely nothing of value. What can we do but start from zero, says the true change merchant, with me as your guide?