On Being A Reactionary

In a recent column (or blog post), Ross Douthat over at the New York Times talked a little bit about “the reactionary mind”:

What liberals attack as “reactionary” on the American right is usually just a nostalgia for the proudly modern United States of the Eisenhower or Reagan eras — the effective equivalent of liberal nostalgia for the golden age of labor unions. A truly reactionary vision has to reject more than just the Great Society or Roe v. Wade; it has to cut deeper, to the very roots of the modern liberal order.

Such deep critiques of our society abound in academia; they’re just almost all on the left. A few true reactionaries haunt the political philosophy departments at Catholic universities and publish in paleoconservative journals. But mostly the academy has Marxists but not Falangists, Jacobins but not Jacobites, sexual and economic and ecological utopians but hardly ever a throne-and-altar Joseph de Maistre acolyte. And almost no academic who writes on, say, Thomas Carlyle or T. S. Eliot or Rudyard Kipling would admit to any sympathy for their politics.

Which is, in a sense, entirely understandable: Those politics were frequently racist and anti-Semitic, the reactionary style gave aid and comfort not only to fascism but to Hitler, and in the American context the closest thing to a reactionary order was the slave-owning aristocracy of the South. From the perspective of the mainstream left, much reactionary thought should be taboo; from the perspective of the sensible center, the absence of far-right equivalents of Michel Foucault or Slavoj Zizek probably seems like no great loss.

Despite that, there are insights to be had on the reactionary right, Douthat writes:

Reactionary assumptions about human nature — the intractability of tribe and culture, the fragility of order, the evils that come in with capital-P Progress, the inevitable return of hierarchy, the ease of intellectual and aesthetic decline, the poverty of modern substitutes for family and patria and religion — are not always vindicated. But sometimes? Yes, sometimes. Often? Maybe even often.

Actually, I believe the reactionary’s understanding of humanity and the world is always vindicated. Human nature is unchanging and unchangeable, despite our most fervent faith and our best efforts to do just that.

I’m often asked to describe myself politically, and I find it almost impossible to do so in the American context. I’m not a progressive because I simply do not believe in progress — either moral or material — and I’m not a conservative because, at least in America, conservatives too believe in moral and material progress. Until I found the writings of Colombian aristocrat Nicolas Gomez Davila, I didn’t really have a language for what I believed. But *sigh* it seems that I am, in fact, a reactionary.

Douthat is right too much reactionary thought is anti-Semitic and focuses on preserving something akin to an enduring, objective moral order. (Too many who believe in that kind of order cannot imagine what it is to be on the wrong side of that order.) I don’t have a positive vision for how the world should or ought to be organized — aside from a kinder world in which people aren’t so callous, dismissive, or outright cruel to each other. I’m no fan of democracy (my ideal societies are all multicultural empires like Imperial Russia, Hapsburg Austria, Mughal India, and the Ottoman Empire), but there is no alternative to democratic and popular politics in a democratic age. One cannot be an anti-democrat without being undemocratic. But past that, I agree with nearly every understanding of humanity Douthat outlines there — a human nature which makes tribalism and hierarchy inescapable, that order is a fragile thing (and always requires coercion and violence), and that progress is illusory and impossible. More to the point, I believe these things are true and always prove themselves so. Modernity cannot undo human nature despite its very beguiling promises.

Indeed, much of the problem of modernity is the attempt to create order grounded entirely on critique and to break so brutally with history. This is my objection to the sexual revolution — not that there aren’t (or shouldn’t be) queer people leading openly queer lives, but that you cannot create a sustainable (or humane) queer order. If human beings could have, we would have done so long ago, and there would be something in history to point to.

The same is true of modern multiculturalism. There have been multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies throughout history — the empires I admire were ethnically and religiously diverse — but they were all fairly tightly ruled by elites that defined themselves ethnically, culturally, and even ideologically. And virtually all of these societies failed in the face of the democratic promise — that people who are not us should not rule us. Multiculturalism, however, seeks to create something that has never existed — a multi-ethnic, mass, democratic society of fully equal individuals with group identities but no group affiliations to mediate their interests. In which the us is constructed and defined entirely by ideology. And an elite formed entirely around acceptance and enforcement of the multicultural ideal. Ideology and the centralized state are all that will hold the multicultural society together. And that cannot work. Human beings cannot make it work. We have tried, repeatedly in history (especially in the last few centuries), and we have failed completely and utterly.

That said, human history is the story of failure — of decay, collapse, rust, and oblivion. Nothing lasts, nothing is permanent, and every polity though some people, polities, and cultures leave a far greater mark on the world than others do (domesticated animals, the month called August, the 365-day year). Or as Gomez Davila said,

The majority of civilizations have not passed on anything more than a stratum of detritus between two strata of ashes.

And that reality, that from dust we come and to dust we shall return, is why I cannot be anything but a reactionary.

One thought on “On Being A Reactionary

  1. I expect “multiculturalism” to have a trajectory something like Prohibitionism. There will be a triumph of the new righteousness for a while, but it won’t make the intended beneficiaries all that much happier. To bureaucracies it will be at first another lever of power, and then another chore — an increasingly confusing one. It could be compared to accessibility measures now required by law or regulation, which, as I’ve heard from someone involved in the effort, are almost impossible to satisfy to the degree intended. Eventually multiculturalism will evolve into a vague ideal, but rarely enforced, except where some changes have become second nature in the general culture. We now have serious efforts to limit drunk driving. Something similar will come from the other, but not the elimination of the Dark Side people think they are opposing.

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