Can Liberalism Make Peace Between the Future and Its Enemies?: An Interview With Virginia Postrel
What "factory jobs," Maya blouses and gay marriage tell us about navigating a changing world
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Reactionary Minds is a project of The UnPopulist. Hosted by Aaron Ross Powell. Produced by Landry Ayres.
The following is a transcript of Reactionary Minds’ interview with Virginia Postrel, author of many books, including The Future and Its Enemies. The transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: I’m Aaron Ross Powell, and this is Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist.
We’re used to thinking about politics as a battle between left and right, progressive and conservative. But those sides can be somewhat protean, with their positions, preferences and policies shifting in ways that make it difficult to analyze the political landscape clearly.
My guest today has a different way of framing politics—one she first set out 24 years ago, and one which looks more and more prescient with every passing day. Virginia Postrel is the author of many books, including The Future and Its Enemies. Her latest is the Fabric of Civilization. The core of Postrel’s framework for understanding politics isn’t left versus right, but dynamism versus stasis.
Aaron Ross Powell: What does it mean to be a “stasist,” to use your term?
Virginia Postrel: What I say in The Future and Its Enemies when I’m just laying out the basic distinctions is that dynamists, which is people like me, have a central value of learning. We can talk about that later, but the contrast is important, and stasists come in a couple of varieties, but their central value is stability or control.
Then I divide them into what I call reactionaries, which are the people who are more into keeping things literally the same, not necessarily the status quo. It could be going back to some imagined past or creating some utopia, but the idea of a stable society. Then technocrats, who are much more common in liberal democratic societies, who say, well, we want progress—we want things to change—but it’s got to look exactly like this. Very much an early 20th-century idea of control and planning the future, so that progress becomes something not that evolves, but that is dictated.
Aaron: When you say early 20th century and the rise of the technocratic position, is that because something new happened in the 20th century, or is it because prior to the 20th century, stasis won out because we weren’t moving very quickly anyway?
Virginia: That’s a very good question—not one that I really thought about when I was writing this book many years ago. But I think what happened was the rise of large business enterprises, railroads and huge manufacturing corporations, vertically integrated enterprises where you had to have a range of control to operate the business. That all happened really beginning of the 19th century, where you had these much larger organizations than had existed before.
They were very successful, and people developed new and genuinely innovative and efficient ways of doing things. And that led to an idea that if you can do this at U.S. Steel or General Motors, you should be able to do it for the whole society— that, in fact, because they were run by the profit motive, these enterprises maybe were a little inefficient and wasteful and duplicative (competition was seen as wasteful and duplicative). And so that you could do something about that [inefficiency] if you could plan the society in general. There are many forms of this in the early 20th century.
Obviously, you have the full-blown state socialism, state ownership of the means of production, with extreme versions in places like the Soviet Union. But there were also much more democracy-friendly versions associated with Thorstein Veblen, who’s famous for The Theory of the Leisure Class, but who also wrote a book whose title escapes me at the moment where he contrasted the good engineers with the bad financiers. The idea was that if you could just set engineering principles loose on society, you could have a much more efficient and productive society. That idea was in the air, and it came out of real business innovation that just got applied in ways that didn’t work.
One of the things that’s interesting about the history of liberalism is that before Friedrich Hayek’s writing on “the use of knowledge in society” and the whole socialist calculation debate—and I don't want to get into the weeds of that—what was wrong with that theory of control wasn’t obvious. A lot of people who were basically liberal became very attracted to socialism because it seemed like a way of improving the lot of people and extending the liberal contract in certain ways.
The idea that it was replacing local knowledge and even the knowledge of individual preferences with some necessarily dictatorial—even if it was being done in a democratic way—process was not obvious in 1900. It was not well articulated. I think there were people who understood it intuitively, but it had not really been fully grasped.
Aaron: That raises an interesting distinction, I think, within stasism, as opposed to dynamism. What you’ve just described is an awfully let’s call it ideological or philosophical argument for stasis. You had these arguments about the way a firm runs, and we can analogize that out, and we can manage progress and so on. That’s like an intellectual approach.
But a lot of stasis seems to be more of almost an aesthetic approach. So you get people like Wendell Berry—or Josh Hawley in some of his earlier, pre-political career writings is almost making an argument that the ideal America is one that always and forever looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting. Or that modern architecture is bad and what we really need is the return of the aesthetics of the Catholic church to rule us. Are these distinct things, or do they bleed together?
Virginia: They are distinct things, and historically they’re distinct things because they’re very different reactions to what’s called the second industrial revolution. That is the rise of these really large enterprises, railroads being that quintessential one. In the 19th century, you also have the arts-and-crafts movement around William Morris. You have the rise of neo-Gothic architecture, which is initially a very ideologically freighted thing. It is a rejection of industrialism.
The irony is that it then just—I write about this in The Substance of Style— becomes a style. Therefore, you get to a point where you have Blair Hall at Princeton University built and named for a railroad magnate in the neo-Gothic style because it associates the university with the great universities of Britain. It takes on a different meaning over time, but there is definitely in reaction to industrialism not only this kind of technocratic argument, which also takes a Marxist form; there is a medievalist argument, as well, that we are losing handcraft. We’re losing beauty. The cities are ugly. They’re crowded—of course, cities were always crowded—but [there’s] coal smoke and factories, and it is a ugly transition in many ways. Therefore, we should go back to a pastoral, hierarchical, often Catholic ideal. That is a reactionary stasis, which is very prominent in a lot of the great literature of the period—not so much in novels, but in poetry. Yes, they are two distinct, very old—at this point we’re talking 150 years; I guess that’s not old by human history, but certainly old by American history—ideals, and they take different forms.
The American ideal is different from the European ideal, the reactionary ideal. Also, one thing that’s different is while there is this Wendell Berry, farmer, slightly medievalist view, there is also in the U.S. a wilderness ideal. In Europe, the cultivated landscape is always, or almost always, the ideal, whereas in the U.S., you also have a notion that untouched by human hands is ideal. That’s less common on the right than on, I don't know, I hesitate to call [it] exactly the left, but in the environmental movement.
Aaron: That raises my next question, which is, Does this technocratic versus reactionary (or traditionalist or natural) by and large map onto a left-right spectrum? It certainly seems like technocrats are the left and the center left, generally speaking, and the people calling for a return to the old ways tend to be on the right.
Virginia: Well, part of the point of The Future and Its Enemies is that these things do not really map onto the left and the right. They cross those divisions. It’s just that what people want is somewhat different, and so conservative technocrats might be more inclined to regulate land use so that you have single-family suburban homes or regulate immigration in a technocratic way, so that you give priority to people who have a lot of college degrees and professional skills, because they’re going to be—a Brahman from India is better than a peasant from Guatemala, because we can anticipate that.
I’m just using those as examples. I describe technocracy as an ideological ideal in the early 20th century, because there was an intellectual movement there, but I don’t think it is primarily ideological. I think, for many people, it is common sense. It is common sense that somebody ought to be in charge, and people ought to make rules, and we ought to control things. And if this is dangerous, we should prohibit it, and if it’s good, we should subsidize it. This is the norm in our politics, and that wasn’t new in the 20th century.
Things were subsidized and prohibited forever, but it got this patina of efficiency and rationality and modernity in the early 20th century. It took on an ideological air, but it is the norm in our politics. That’s one reason I spend a lot of time in the book talking about it. But really what interests me is [that] I think of it as the norm: That it’s what most of our political discussions are, but both reactionaries and dynamists, therefore, have to make alliances with technocrats in order to get the world they want. They’re the polar opposites, but the question is—in some ways, the technocrats decide who wins.
Aaron: How totalizing are these two—are the dynamic versus the static viewpoint? Because there are lots of vectors for change. There’s technological change; there’s social; there’s political. Like we right now refer to, say, the Trumpist movement as “conservative,” but populism is on the one hand, very stasist in culture shifting too quickly—I-don't-like-it-make-it-stop!—but it’s very politically radical in terms of [saying] the systems that we have in place need to be torn down and replaced.
Virginia: I describe them as if they’re these silos, but that’s just a model; that’s not reality. That’s the map, not the landscape. First of all, most people have elements of all of these things in their thinking, in their intuitions, in their politics; as you say, it takes multiple dimensions. Somebody may think that we should, even within, say, economic regulation—somebody may think that we should let people build houses more freely, but the FDA should regulate really tightly, something like that.
Talking about the radical institutional aspects of populists of various types brings up the issue of rules, which is one of the things that’s the trickiest to understand and to grapple with. How do you think about rules? Let’s say you want this kind of dynamism. You want this kind of learning, bottom-up order without design, trial and error, correction, economic progress, or social learning. What sort of rules give you that? There’s very much this idea that you need nested rules, and you need certain rules that are fundamental and don’t change very often.
You could call that the constitutional order, and those need to be fairly simple, and they need to be broadly applicable, and they need to allow things like recombinations and people using their own knowledge to make decisions and plans. And there’s a chapter about that, which I then, in a completely different context, reinvented in The Substance of Style; honest to God, I did it from the bottom up. I didn’t refer, because it was all about neighborhoods, where [it’s a] fact that people care about what houses look like, but on the other hand, they care about their neighbor’s house, and they will pay money to live in a planned community—but on the other hand, people want freedom, and how do you think about that?
One of the issues is that you need to be able to move when rules are very prescriptive; there need to be ways to exit. What you’re seeing in this populist upsurge is a notion that the rules that we think of as not changing very much—that stable institutions, the liberal institutions that govern societies—are barriers to what populists want, and so, therefore, they need to be taken down.
That does become a radical move. One of the misperceptions that was in lots of reviews of the book was the idea that dynamism equals change, and that I’m saying all change is good. First of all, even in the process of dynamism—that is, bottom-up change—not all change is good. It’s an experimental process. Sometimes you do things—whether it’s you start a company or you change your living arrangements—and it’s a bad idea. It doesn’t work, and that’s why we need criticism and competition, and that’s part of the process.
Aaron: Then the goal is we want a dynamic society because it produces all of these. The book is full of all the wonderful benefits that come out of a dynamic society. But at the same time, the people who are fans of stasis—yes, a lot of them take it way too far in a reactionary direction—but. … There is something fundamentally true to the notion of wanting things to be somewhat stable and familiar. I just three weeks ago moved my whole family from Washington, D.C., to Colorado.
We all know moving is incredibly stressful, and it’s not just because of all the logistics you have to deal with. Uprooting yourself is deeply stressful, and [it] takes a long time to get re-established. More people move in a dynamic society than in the past, but the world around us is changing too, in a way that feels like the same stress that I have with moving. People want [to feel] like, “My life is settled and is going to look roughly tomorrow the way it did today.” There is something very human and understandable about that. How do you get the effects of dynamism without everyone constantly feeling like they’re being uprooted?
Virginia: This is a really good question, a really hard question. Part of it goes back to this idea of nested rules and also nested commitments. One of the important aspects of dynamist rules is that they allow for commitments—that you can make contracts of various kinds (to use that term), but it could also be marriage; it could be, I'm going to live in this town, and I'm going to be involved in civic institutions and volunteer institutions, and I'm going to put down roots here.
That said, one of the difficult things is that one person’s stability is an intrusion on another person’s plans often. For example, I write a lot about housing, and there’s some about housing in the book, but there’s not as much as I would probably put there if I were writing it today. One thing that we see in Los Angeles, where I live, is there are a lot of veto players whenever you want to build anything, and they are people who want their neighborhood to stay the same.
One result of that is that people who have grown up in Los Angeles, the children of people who lived here, cannot live here anymore because it’s too expensive. That's this kind of, I want stability [laughs]—oh, but wait a minute; I’d also like to see my grandchildren, but now they live in Texas because they couldn’t afford to live here. There’s often trade-offs with issues of trying to make stability, but human life inherently changes. Generations come and go; we grow older; people have children, et cetera.
There is a certain amount of change that always is going to happen, but there is a highly nonideological issue which comes up, in fact, in my most recent book, The Fabric of Civilization, in the context of the original Luddites. The original Luddites were not ideologues [chuckles]; they were not stasists who wanted to keep medieval ways because they liked what the Middle Ages represented to their intellect.
They were hand weavers who had prospered from the invention of mechanical spinning, which gave them ample supplies of thread. So they had prospered because of the technological and economic upheavals of a generation earlier, and now they were losing their jobs to power looms, and so they were mad. They were stressed. At that time, losing your job was not like losing your job in 21st century America; losing your job meant your children might starve.
There was a reason to be upset. They engaged in both nonviolent civic activity, petitioning Parliament and that sort of thing—and also violent riots and smashing looms and that sort of thing. The government said, “No, you don’t get to choose.” There was a technocratic aspect of that, which is, they said, "Look, this is going to be good for society. It’s going to create new jobs and new industries. It’s going to make Britain more prosperous against its rivals.” All of these kinds of things. And so power looms went ahead, and some of the Luddites got deported to Australia (the more violent ones).
That is really important in the history of economic prosperity, and the people who were the children and grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren of those people are far better off in basically every respect than their ancestors, but it was a true, genuine, painful transition. I don’t know what my prescription would’ve been back then other than let this go forward. In a richer society, there are things that can be done with redistribution to ease those transitions.
Another thing that I think we don't emphasize nearly enough in the U.S. today is the traditional American thing of moving to different parts of the country. There's considerable evidence that people are more locked into place than they used to be, and that makes certain things more difficult. Particularly, if you are somebody who is living in Detroit, say, it might be better if you could move to Colorado or North Carolina, but you don't have the money, because moving is not just disruptive; it's expensive to do so.
There may be other barriers like licensing regulations or that sort of thing, but the main barrier, aside from the psychological barrier, is the financial one. I think that that's the sort of thing you need to think about from a policy point of view. But you're right. People like change; they like the benefits of change; but only up to a point.
Aaron: There's another side to it, too, I think. As I was re-reading the book in prep for our conversation, I kept thinking there's a moral imperative of dynamism when you think about it in a social context, because the story you just told is an economic and a production one. The disruption that can come from changes in economics—and we see this all the time like a lot of the reactionary movement right now is—but we're losing the old lifestyle of working in the factory in the small town and supporting your family at a middle-class level on one salary. That's gone away.
That's an economic story, but I think a lot of what we're seeing today from illiberal sides is about social change. The anti-trans backlash is in a lot of respects about this: “My conceptions of gender and gender roles are that there are people who are setting those aside, living in ways that are contrary to them, but we also see the traditional family is under attack.”
It's not under attack in the sense of someone is coming and trying to just tear apart my traditional family, but that there are people who are living in nontraditional ways, and it makes me uncomfortable. In that case, it seems harder to justify the stasist worldview from a moral standpoint, because what you're saying is often that people who were traditionally marginalized or oppressed are now able to get outside of—are now centered in a way that they didn't used to be, are gaining privilege in a way that they didn't used to be, have status in a way that they didn't used to have.
Or are able to express themselves and author their own identities in ways that they weren’t, and I don't like that; that makes me uncomfortable. We need to shut it down; we need to punish corporations that are too “woke” in what they're expressing or what they're putting in movies and television. That one seems harder to say yes, you've got a point [to], because telling other people they can't have dynamic self-identities isn't the kind of thing that we should necessarily correct for or compromise with.
Virginia: Yes and no. The way you put it, sure, but it's also the case that a lot of these fights are between two sides each of which wants to force the other one to adopt its worldview and to pay obeisance to its worldview. So that it's not just that I have to tolerate someone who has [another worldview], whether they believe that everyone who doesn't believe in Jesus will go to hell, or whether they believe that someone with male genitalia can be considered a woman.
Those are two worldviews that you can live with in a society, where people hold those views, and we just tolerate them, and it's like, I don't care if you believe Mercury is in retrograde and makes your computer go crazy. I think it's stupid, but okay, sure what the hell. We can treat them like that, or we can have fights where everybody has to get on the same page. And a lot of what we're negotiating now is what is it where everybody has to be on the same page.
These are the great fights that led to liberalism in the first place—[these] were the religious wars, where there was an assumption that unless everybody agreed on that [question], unless everybody in the society was of the same faith, the society would not be strong. Obviously, this is potted history, but they kept fighting over that until they were exhausted and said, “Let's have liberalism instead.” That's oversimplifying much. A lot of these fights today are about, How do you accommodate when people have radically different worldviews, live in the same society, have to know about each other's worldviews?
One of the differences today versus when I was growing up in the Bible Belt is that everybody sees everything. The people I went to college with at Princeton for the most part—I was raised a liberal Presbyterian, but the assumptions I made about the people around me—I might as well have been from Mars. I could understand Renaissance literature, because it's steeped in a religious society, in a way that most of the people that I went to school with couldn't, because they had never been in a place where everybody was religious—and really religious, not just nominally.
Also, that affects jokes and stuff. Supposedly, my freshman roommate got mad, she told somebody, because I had said she was going to hell. Considering I didn't believe in hell, that was impossible, but I must have made some joke that anybody who knew me in high school would've understood. Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I think that you are right, and this goes to the issue of commitments and being able to carve out your own life. Some of these fights are about that.
One of the things that happened since I wrote the Future and Its Enemies is [gay marriage]. When I wrote the Future and Its Enemies, I was for gay marriage, but that was way ahead of the curve. It advanced partly because of this desire to have a commitment. I see this as a constant negotiation, and I also see the economic ideals as not being completely disconnected from it.
People talk about the good old days: Let's go back to the good old days, when you could work in a factory and have a union job and raise a family on one income and all of that. Well, first of all, I'm from South Carolina, and that wasn't the case then. Even if you were white, people were poor. Yes, you could do that—you could raise a family on one income—if you were an engineer, but not if you worked in a textile mill. You would have both parents working in a textile mill and probably the teenage kids as well—and that's, again, if you were white. If you were Black, you were even worse off.
So there is a kind of centering, as you say, of a particular not only ethnically narrow experience, but also even regionally narrow experience in that kind of nostalgia. I think that remembering who's left out is an important part. It goes to this issue of the knowledge problem—of the idea that dynamism allows people to operate on their local knowledge. It allows people who might not be included in the big, top-down view to force themselves to be included, because they just go through life and do their thing.
Aaron: I think part of that is not necessarily stasists, or not necessarily stasists versus dynamism or change, but about pace of change. This is the point that you made about we're all aware of what each other is doing in a way that we didn't used to be. There always are subcultures; a subculture adopts a handful of things and then innovates on them very quickly and becomes weird and pops up. Suddenly everyone's goth for a little while, and goth is very different. And this shows up in fashion frequently, or in me trying to keep up with my middle schoolers slang or so on.
With the social media stuff in particular, we end up in these situations where you don't even think that your subculture is a subculture anymore. You think it is the dominant culture because you've cultivated your Twitter following, and everyone you know online knows to talk this way, or that these terms are passé or shouldn't be used anymore or whatever. Then you assume that's what everyone knows and everyone talks about. I don't even know that, in a lot of cases, it is you saying, “I want to force my subculture’s views on everyone else”; it's more just you assume that that's what all of the views are.
Virginia: It's like my joke about you're going to hell. I assume that you know how I mean it—oh, wait a minute, you don't, because you don't come from that subculture. It used to be that these subcultures were [overlooked]. The mainstream media—The New York Times, Time Magazine—did not know, and even Gallup polling did not know, there was such a thing as “born-again Christians” until Jimmy Carter. And they were a huge percentage of the population. It's just that they weren't the people who worked at The New York Times; they weren't the people who lived in New York, for the most part.
Partly because I have this weird background of having lived in a lot of different parts of the country, I'm more aware of how many subcultures there are, and my Facebook friends come from all of them, pretty much. I think you're absolutely right that part of what happens is people assume that their norms are universal, or should be universal, and that therefore people who violate them are bad people.
And there are rewards for making those assumptions. There are rewards in terms of attention. There are rewards in terms of, “You go, girl,” or whatever, and that has been corrosive. I think that it's not new in human history, but as you say, there has been an acceleration of it, and the idea that you could know about these horrible other people who think differently from you is more likely. You don't just know about them, you probably get a distorted picture of them, because it's being filtered through people who are spinning it or selectively representing it in a way that maximizes not only its strangeness, but its “evil.”
Aaron: Yes. I think we also, too, don't necessarily appreciate the pace at which things change and become accepted in our subcultures. You mentioned you wrote this book—this book was published in 1998, I think it was.
Virginia: Yes. Right. So I was writing it in like 1996, '97.
Aaron: I was in high school in the 90s. Thinking about gay marriage—you mentioned gay marriage—how dramatic the change on acceptance of gay relationships and gay marriage has been: When I was in high school, Ellen coming out on her sitcom was, like, We're going to have a gay character on television! This was national news; everyone was talking about it. Whereas now, 30 years later, it's just like, so what, there's a gay character.
It happens very quickly, and this makes me think how much of this is about—and going back to the rules, too—ambiguity versus clarity; that people want to know how things are, and how they're going to be. And a lot of rapid change is not constant. It's not uniform. It is experimentation and competing views and figuring out which is the right one, or which is the acceptable one.
All of that messiness means that things are ambiguous, and that what we want is clarity. We want to know, okay, this is the rule that I'm going to have to follow tomorrow. This is what's going to be acceptable. I'm not going to get called out for this. I'm willing to change, but I want to know what it's going to be. That dynamism is inherently ambiguous.
Virginia: Well, I think that is part of it. I think people do want to be able to make their own plans and structure their own lives in a way that it is going to work for them. I would argue that you're better off in a world where people aren't constantly making new rules, from their plans, to run your plans. That's one of the big Dynamist ideas.
But you were talking about people wanting clarity. One of the things that I've written about over the years is clothing sizes and problems of fit. Bear with me; this is relevant. People tend to think that it would be better if there were specific clothing sizes—that if you knew that every size eight dress was for a 35-inch bust and a 28-inch waist (I'm making these up) and 40-inch hips, or something like that, that would be great, because everything would be the same. You would know exactly what you were getting.
It would actually be terrible. In the ‘40s, the catalog companies actually went to the government and said, Could you please establish some standard sizes? And they did. But almost as soon as they were established, different brands started not complying with them, because it wasn't required; it wasn't a regulation.
The reason is that people's bodies come in different proportions—even two people who are the same height and weight. One will have longer legs, one will have shorter arms, one will have a bigger waist, the other will have bigger hips, et cetera. What happens is that brands develop their own fit models and their own sizes. The lack of clarity actually makes it more possible for people to find what fits. I think that is an analogy to one aspect of dynamism—that is, the fact that there isn't a single model that everyone must comply with makes it more likely that people can structure their own lives in meaningful ways.
Now that said, this goes back to this issue of nested rules. Hammering down on people because they express views that were perfectly normal 10 minutes ago, or worse yet, because they use a term in a nonpejorative way (they think), and suddenly, it's turned out that it's now pejorative: This is not good. This is a kind of treating as fundamental rules things that should be flexible and adjustable and tolerant. There is this idea of tolerance when we talk about tolerance as a liberal value, a liberal virtue, but there's also mechanical tolerances. I think a society needs that kind of tolerance as well. That allows for a certain amount of differentiation and pliability; that allows things to work, and it allows people not to be constantly punished. Zero tolerance is a bad idea. Anytime people are having zero tolerance, you're almost always going to be running into trouble.
Aaron: You published this book 24 years ago. As I said at the beginning, I think the framework and the thesis that you articulated in it is really powerful and helpful for understanding things. But the political landscape and the cultural landscape looks rather different now than it did in the ’90s. Looking at the threats to dynamism that we see today and the rise of illiberalism, what are the lessons that we should draw from the stasist-versus-dynamist framework for countering those threats, or at least understanding them in a way that may prove helpful to ameliorating them?
Virginia: Well, there are different forms of illiberalism around the world, and there are different reasons that people back them. One of the things that is striking in the rise of Trump in the U.S. is that one component of the people who voted for him—I don't know whether this would be true if he runs again, because the whole January 6 thing alters it somewhat—were frustrated dynamists. They were people who are really sick of technocracy; they're really sick of being told what they can and cannot do. They're really sick of the fact that it's hard to build things—that it's hard to create, especially with atoms, rather than bits.
Peter Thiel might be a a high-profile example, but there are lots of just little guys who own plumbing companies or whatever who are in that category. The notion that you need to knock over the table to effect change: I think some of that comes from this idea that technocracy has tied down ordinary people like Gulliver and the Lilliputians.
I think one thing that needs to happen—again, I don't know that this applies in Hungary, but certainly I think it's applicable in the U.S.—is that technocrats need to get their act together, at least some of them, and need to get a little more dynamism in their heads. You're seeing some of this among intellectuals like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias on the center-left, and you definitely see it in the issues around housing. That's one thing, because dynamists can't do it alone, and we need allies; we need to peel off technocrats who will support us, many of whom are liberals or think of themselves as liberals, in the sense that they're not illiberal.
As far as the people who really want to go back to the Middle Ages, part of this is that you need to tell different stories—and this is hard. Culture is hard. This is not a libertarian show, but one of the things that I say to libertarians and also to conservatives is that they always talk about culture the way leftists talk about markets: as if there's one giant lever. If I could just get my hands on that lever and pull, I could make everything the way I want it. That's a fallacy in markets, and it's a fallacy in culture as well. Whether you like it or not, it's a dynamic process.
I hadn't really thought about this, but in a way, The Fabric of Civilization, my latest book, which is the story of world history through the story of textiles, says the world is always changing. Even in the periods where it changes slowly, it changes. There are always people who are pushing against the established order, whether it's economic or cultural or whatever.
Another thing that it says quite explicitly in the discussion of traditional clothing—and if somebody goes to my Substack, you can see that I posted this—is that people don't generally want to make a choice between tradition/identity and modernity/progress: They want both. Given control over their lives, they will find ways to incorporate both, to hold onto what they value in terms of their identity and tradition, and to get the benefits of modernity and liberalism.
I think many people who really like change don't fully appreciate that. It was definitely not appreciated at the beginning of the 20th century and the technocratic move that we talked about earlier, but the example I use is the way indigenous women in Guatemala dress. Now, they can buy jeans and t-shirts just like everybody else, but they choose to dress in traditional garments—except they're not really traditional. They've changed in a lot of different ways. The daily blouse is made in a factory. It's made out of polyester. It's not woven on a handloom, but it still looks Maya because that identity is important. I think there is a universalizing element of liberalism that wants everyone to be a rootless cosmopolitan. Even those of us who basically are rootless cosmopolitans aren't really. We actually do have roots. I am very dedicated to living in Los Angeles. I really am from the South; whether I like it or not, it shaped me in certain ways. I have certain ties.
Liberalism needs to understand that that's how people are—that they care about where they come from. They care about things that are passed down in their families. They care about their community ties, and that is perfectly compatible with liberalism and dynamism. But the manifestations of that will change. This is why the great social success story of the past 25 years—this is from a liberal, social point of view—is the story of gay marriage, because it says, yes, gay people are different in certain ways, but they are embedded in families. They want to be embedded in families—not every single one—but in the sense that most people want to be embedded in families. The mere fact that you have a sexual orientation toward the same sex does not mean that you want to leave that all behind; it means you want to have Thanksgiving, and you want to get married, and you want to have kids. And all of that which is part of normal human life since time immemorial can take a slightly different turn and still be compatible with these very ancient, conservative institutions, which, by the way, have taken a zillion different forms over human history.
Aaron: Thank you for listening to Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist. If you want to learn more about the rise of a liberalism and the need to defend a free society, check out theunpopulist.substack.com.
Virginia Postrel, The Future and its Enemies
Virginia Postrel, “Continuity and Change: The case of Maya trajes.”
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