Iran and the Hopelessness of Social Conservatism
Why secularization and cultural liberalism are inevitable
While writing my essay on the triumph of Fukuyama, I considered including something about recent protests in Iran but ultimately decided against it. The relevance of the ongoing disturbances in that country was addressed in a response to my piece by Ross Douthat, and later in an article by Fukuyama himself, as further discrediting any supposed authoritarian challenge to the West.
Iran is, however, worth addressing separately from China and Russia, as it tells us not only something about the relative merits of democracy and dictatorship, but about social conservatism and whether it can win in a modern society. If you listen to American conservatives, liberals command the minds of the youth and set the political agenda because they control academia and journalism. This is “the cathedral” in Yarvin’s formulation, or what Sailer memorably refers to as “the megaphone.” If there’s one thing that distinguishes what Tyler calls “the New Right” from mainstream conservatism, it is a belief in the need to get serious about liberal domination of the most important institutions in the marketplace of ideas. Those associated with the movement therefore tend to prioritize issues like school curriculum and stopping social media censorship. The thinking seems to be that since liberals made everyone believe in LGBT and globalism by just seizing power and repeating the same messages over and over again, conservatives can either take control of institutions or build their own to brainwash people into accepting different views.
In other words, what they want is a milder version of the project undertaken by the Islamic Republic in 1979. To push its socially conservative philosophy, the new Iranian state did everything one could have reasonably expected. It outlawed blasphemy and pornography and made religious instruction central to its education system. Despite Ayatollah Khamenei being a poster himself, Twitter and Facebook are banned.
Still, the regime is extremely unpopular, at least with the urban elite that forms the economic and cultural base of any modern society and whose buy-in is required for social peace. As The New York Times points out, every so often the regime has to go out and slaughter its citizens in order to stay in power.
The protests are small crowds and scattered across the country but widespread, making it difficult for the government to mount a large, definitive response…
“We are telling officials in meetings that if you don’t change course and realize that the legitimacy of the system is at stake, the only way the Islamic Republic can remain in power is to kill several hundred people every few months,” Gheis Ghoreishi, an analyst who has advised the government, told The New York Times.
“It is becoming very difficult and even impossible to defend the domestic policies,” he added.
In the last major wave of nationwide protests, in November 2019, security forces killed more than 400 people, according to rights groups, which say the actual numbers are probably much higher than that. Most were shot at close range in the head and neck over less than one week, according to these groups.
But this time, women and young Iranians are leading the protests, and the scenes of violence — sometime lethal — against them have prompted calls for the armed forces to put down their guns and to stop the killing.
“I don’t think that Iran’s military and security forces, as brutal as they can be, are prepared to be ready to be known as the murderers of Iran’s daughters,” said Mr. Ostovar, the history professor. “They have to kill a lot of women to get this extinguished, and they can’t kill them all.”
It’s interesting to wonder what the clerics who took over four decades ago could have done differently. Executed more people? Disqualified more of them from running for office? Banned women from learning to read, so they couldn’t eventually attend universities and lead protest movements? I have no idea what, if anything, could have worked, and neither does anyone else.
What appears to be certain is that governments cannot force traditionalism and religion onto people that don’t want it, any more than they can successfully engage in economic central planning. As countries get wealthier and more urbanized, they become more secular. This is virtually a universal pattern, with traditionalist values seeming to be something individuals revert to when times are difficult.
I thought about developments in Iran while reading an article titled “Why Conservatism Failed” by Jon Askonas. The author argues that traditions and morality are shaped by economic progress and technology. You can’t expect to maintain the values of a rural community in a country where no one farms anymore. Conservatism has failed to recognize this, and so of course lost the culture war. While all of this makes sense, Askonas then goes on to close with a call to arms for a new kind of traditionalist movement.
If we believe in a human future, we must build it, not with kind words or tax credits, but with a serious program of technological development. Marx showed how a material transformation of the economic order could have enormous social and cultural effects. Forging the human order anew means building technologies that make it easier to live well. In some places, the renewal, revival, and reoccupation of the human order of things requires a return to what was done within living memory. In other places, however, it will need to be far more radical in the literal sense: It must return to human nature rooted in man’s bodily dwelling upon the earth. Simone Weil called this process enracinement—actively putting down roots where none exist.
This lacks specifics, and I think for understandable reasons. The author does such a good job of making the descriptive case for a kind of economic determinism that it serves as a stark contrast to the article also expressing confidence that something can be done to once again cultivate traditionalist values.
When and where have governments been able to centrally plan the culture through picking and choosing which technologies to accept and encourage, and which to forgo or discard? The Amish are able to preserve their way of life by being deliberate regarding which technological innovations they adopt, but it is difficult to think of many recent historical examples of a country successfully doing something similar through the power of the state and on a much larger scale – unless one counts instances such as North Korea, and increasingly China, which I doubt anyone wants to emulate.
Using government to construct a new morality not only requires totalitarian power in the hands of the state, but political leaders having the wisdom to actually be able to foresee how new economic and technological developments will shape and influence the culture. To see an example of how bad we are at predicting things like this, look at how much optimism there was in the early days of the internet about the possibility of that technology being used to bring the world together. And what happens when the US rejects some technology that is thought to have negative cultural consequences, but Americans can see that it is still being used abroad and their government has taken away a freedom that foreigners are able to enjoy? Before long you’ll be the mullahs and their thugs beating women with batons.
Central planners from the left have also faced difficulties. It’s interesting to contrast the experience of Iran with what happened in Syria and Iraq. In the second half of the twentieth century, both nations were taken over by governments that believed in the strict separation of mosque and state and saw Islamic fundamentalism as the greatest threat to their power. Despite claims from Christopher Hitchens and others that Saddam had turned Islamist in his later years – made in order to justify the Iraq War – the Baathist regime remained secular and frightened of both Sunni and Shia extremists to the very end. Over the last two decades, however, wherever state power has receded in non-Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria, the vacuums created have been filled by religious fundamentalism.
Today, there are healthy traditionalist faiths in the United States such as the Amish, Mormons, and Hasidic Jews, yet the creation of these communities was not the result of determined political effort of the kind advocated for by modern social conservatives. Imagine if someone in the early nineteenth century told you that in 200 years, 40% of American children would be born out of wedlock, but one state would stand out for having an extraordinary low rate of illegitimacy. This would be because most of its residents will follow a faith founded by a prophet who was just born in 1805. Such a claim would surely have been dismissed as absurd, but what has been called “Utah exceptionalism” shows how strange and unpredictable cultural developments can be. Conservatives should of course do what they can to ensure that traditional communities – always being threatened by civil rights law and other kinds of progressive social engineering – are able to be left alone and prosper. But while they may be able to purge the worst ideas currently being taught in public schools, social conservatives have no plausible plan to remake American culture on a national scale and should not fool themselves into thinking that they do.
That doesn’t mean that traditionalists should lose all hope. But they’re going to need to be patient. Scientists like David Reich, Gregory Cochran, and Henry Harpending have found that human evolution can happen on extremely short time scales, and Eric Kaufmann has collected the data and applied the simple principle of exponential growth to convincingly show that we are heading towards a more religious future. In most countries, the effects won’t yet be visible in the next few decades, but we’re not going to have to wait for millennia either. Differential birth rates have already influenced the politics of Israel, and similar changes should eventually make themselves felt in other developed countries, whether or not any of us now alive will still be around to see it. Today, social conservatives are in a hopeless battle against secularism and modernity. But in the long run, it will be secular elites who find it impossible to mold human nature to their preferred specifications.
Richard Hanania's Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.