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Revolutionary Road

I want to endorse, pretty much without reservation, Ross Douthat’s post this morning comparing the sexual revolution to the industrial:

[P]artisans on both sides of the culture wars often tend to think of the sexual revolution as fundamentally apolitical upheaval, in the style of the Russian or the American Revolutions — with Hugh Hefner and Gloria Steinem as its Lenin and Trotsky or Adams and Jefferson (depending on your point of view), “The Feminist Mystique” or maybe “Fear of Flying” as its Communist Manifesto or else its Common Sense, the Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade decisions as its February and October Revolutions or its Lexington and Concord, the Christian Right as its White Russians or its Tories … well, you get the idea. . . .

But suppose for a moment that we thought of the sexual revolution as something closer to the industrial revolution instead: A shift that was shaped by books and individual personalities and political movements, certainly, but that was fundamentally driven by economic and technological changes that would have happened even with a different cast of characters and choices.

Read one way, this analogy offers a certain amount of vindication to social liberals, since it suggests an analogy between social conservatives and the 19th century’s Luddites or agrarian nostalgists, shaking their fists impotently against changes they were powerless to stop. (At the very least, thinking of the revolution in these terms should give liberals a little more confidence that a hypothetical President Rick Santorum couldn’t bring the 1950s back by fiat.)

But the analogy also suggests that the most strident sort of social liberal risks becoming the equivalent of the most doctrinaire 19th century economic liberals, who were so committed to an ideological interpretation of socioeconomic change that they regarded any reform or regulation as an unacceptable imposition on the glories of laissez-faire, and a dangerous and backward-looking threat to the prosperity and growth the new order had produced.

I think that’s quite right – but, of course, there were many different responses to the downsides of industrial capitalism. The Victorian reformers put forward their proposals for melioration. But Progressives after them also proposed reforms – far more extensive ones. And Marx’s “let capitalism utterly uproot everything, so that capitalism itself may then be uprooted, and usher in a glorious new age of socialism” response wasn’t reformist at all. And those who, in different ways, resisted or rejected industrialism were not limited to the retrospectively mockable Luddites, or the various quaint or bizarre utopian communities that sprouted up, but also John C. Calhoun’s forthright defense of slavery as preferable to capitalism, for which he was called (much later) “the Marx of the master class.”

So, too, are there many different possible responses to the changes wrought by the sexual revolution. Katie Roiphe’s response – to accept that single motherhood is here to stay, and so try to provide more social support for single mothers – is one such. “Promise Keepers” is a very different response. I went to college in the age of the “Antioch rules” – that was yet another kind of response to the sexual revolution, one that conservatives mocked at the time and that feminists look back on somewhat quizzically now. I think there are plenty of people on the “cultural left” and the “cultural right” who are interested in a debate about the positive and negative consequences of the sexual revolution, and about how to preserve the former while meliorating the latter. We should probably just have the debate, instead of discussing whether this or that commentator is open to one or not.

But what I would encourage Douthat – and others – to do as well is to recognize that the economic and the social are not separate spheres. The industrial revolution had profound consequences for family life – and may, in fact, have begun where it did precisely because of the kinds of families that predominated there. (Compare the areas where “absolute nuclear” families predominated in medieval Europe – England, the Netherlands, and Denmark – with the areas where the industrial revolution first took hold.) By the same token, the changes in sexual and family life that we lump together under the phrase, “sexual revolution” surely bear some relationship to the economic changes that have happened around the world since the mid-20th-century – the rise of automation and consequent shift of the bulk of the workforce in all developed countries from manufacturing to services; the dramatic increase in mobility of both labor and capital; the central place of information-processing and communications technologies in high value-added industries; the rise of mass higher education; meritocracy; assortative mating; etc. An approach to meliorating the negative side-effects of the sexual revolution needs to reckon not only with the (reasonable) fear on the part of some that such reforms would also retard that revolution’s positive effects, but also needs, itself, to speak to the material basis of our current social order.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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