Ropke: Conformism in Non-Conformity

“In conclusion, we want to dispel a common misconception on a point regarding which even John Stuart Mill’s famous essay On Liberty is dangerously misleading. It is very easy to stress only the conformism and uniformity of our mass culture and to imagine that they imply the complete absence of the courage to be eccentric, unconventional, individual. But the situation is not like that at all. Certainly there is conformism and uniformity, but they are displayed precisely in breaking with the cultural tradition and in trying, at all costs, to proffer something new, original, or provocative pour epater Ie bourgeois. There is not as much conformism in tradition as there is in willful eccentricity; it goes with disorientation and discontinuity, with disdain of anything conventional, time tested, or normal, with sophistication and admiration of the avant-garde, with the cult of whatever happens to be new today and discarded tomorrow, the idolizing of novelty. It is conformism in being non-conformist. As an American critic of mass culture puts it, the modern Babbitt thinks he owes it to himself to hang a Picasso on his wall. But ‘bitter’ Kitsch is no better than ‘sweet’ and is just as revealing.

Indeed, nothing gives mass man away as much as his contempt for what he calls ‘suburban,’ ‘bourgeois,’ or ‘Philistine.’ His conformism manifests itself in the break with tradition and continuity, in rootlessness, anti-conservatism, revolutionary romanticism. This is the main danger today. The opposite danger of stale and stuffy stagnation hardly arises in present circumstances. This view of the situation is confirmed if we look beyond our own immediate horizon to what goes on in the so-called underdeveloped countries. The only hopeful approach is to regard the situation as a violation of human nature and society which is hard to conceive as permanent and which is bound, sooner or later, to end in an acute crisis, which might just possibly have the salutary effect of bringing us back to our senses.”

– Wilhem Röpke, A Humane Economy (pp. 63-64)


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