John A. Burtka IV is executive director of the American Conservative magazine.
Among conservatives, the erosion of civil society is most often attributed to the heavy hand of the administrative state. While the welfare system, especially at the federal level, certainly deserves its fair share of the blame, a growing number of conservatives, including Tucker Carlson, Patrick Deneen, Rusty Reno, Michael Brendan Dougherty and Rod Dreher, have also expressed concern about the side effects of economic globalization and the elite culture that shapes many corporations. In short, conservatives are coming to see that Big Business can also threaten our liberties and the flourishing of civil society.
I am not insinuating that capitalism is bad or that the free markets haven’t dramatically reduced poverty and raised living standards. What I am saying is we should not underestimate the importance of our immediate commercial environment to the forging of a sense of community, and that the shift from locally owned businesses to multinational corporations comes at a cost.
A major consequence of purchasing goods at Walmart and Costco instead of local farms and small businesses is a leveling of regional distinctions and particularities, replacing unique local cultures with a national or international monoculture. Whether you live in California, Vermont, Ohio or Virginia, the shopping center off the interstate looks and feels exactly the same.
How does this new arrangement shape civil society? As National Affairs editor Yuval Levin summarizes in a recent podcast on the classic book “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” philosopher Edmund Burke was disturbed that the French had “erased all of the county divisions in France and instead divided the country up into perfect squares. And Burke says, nobody loves a perfect square. People love the place where they are from.” It is that love, of family and friends and neighborhoods, that precedes and makes possible our love of the state or nation.
The same point about the impossibility of loving a square could be made about the Big Business monoculture. Do people love the strip malls and big box stores where they purchase products of unknown origin from strangers? And when they return home, does the impersonality of that monoculture encourage them to engage with their neighbors? The placelessness of our commercial space is more likely to draw them inward — to make them more likely to lock the door and eat a pre-prepared meal while watching the same television show that people everywhere (or perhaps more accurately, nowhere) are watching.
Not long ago in my town of Kennett Square, Pa., the owner of our local bookstore for more than 40 years, Thomas Macaluso, died at the age of 85. A sign on the door of his shop reads, “Loving Husband, Father, Brother, Grandfather, and Community Friend. Over the years Tom was a fixture in the town of Kennett,” and goes on to describe all the local charities and civic associations where he volunteered. In our living room, prints from his store are a daily reminder of Thomas’s presence. Shortly after his passing, we were dining at a local restaurant on bingo night, and the bingo caller raised a glass in honor of a life well lived. Everybody knew whom he was talking about. Ask yourself, do you know the owners of the stores where you shop? Would you mourn their absence?
This is not just about small towns — the importance of local commerce in civic life is just as important in West Philadelphia, South Boston and Anacostia as it is in southeast Pennsylvania. Across the country, as locally owned businesses have been priced out of the economy, we lose links to the unique history and cultural memory that permeate not only the local market but also the philanthropic institutions many small-business owners support. As our attachments, and consequently obligations, to families, neighborhoods, small businesses and charities diminish, I fear that people cease to exercise civic responsibility and fill the empty societal space with whatever appears on their easily accessed screens: reality TV, strident talking heads on cable news, gossip on social media.
If we want to strengthen our country, we must strengthen the fabric of civil society in our towns and neighborhoods — and that includes the urban neighborhoods where most Americans live. Limiting the size of the administrative state is certainly a necessary ingredient toward achieving this goal. However, when financially possible, people should also reinvest their dollars into locally owned institutions — vigorously defending community and cultural heritage against the stifling conformity of our national monoculture, which is often sustained by multinational corporations dependent on cheap labor and ugly working conditions. By embracing a twofold disposition toward preserving beautiful things and also local things — call it “aristo-populism” — we can live in better solidarity with our neighbors and the “better angels of our nature.”
After all, if people don’t love a place, will they serve it? If they are called to defend it, will they die for it? When building our future, with all the progress that may come, it would be prudent to consider how we might conserve the personal, small-scale institutions that make ordered liberty possible.