With Googling so ubiquitous today, it’s tempting to find shallow, slogan-level knowledge of every new thing before diving into it for the first time. This is especially true for uncanny politics–‘did you hear about Marxism-Nixonism?’–and it is certainly true for a den of irreverent tricksters like the contemporary alt-right. Otherwise, who knows what a fool they might make of you?
If a curious and intrepid visitor from far afield were coming to Social Matter today, I would guess that their slogan for what to expect might be one of two things. First, an edgier libertarianism–in which case, they’re in for something much more interesting. Second, intemperate and fervent hatred–but a picture of a woman alone in the fog on a skyscraper? It’s the wrong aesthetic. This is a site from which one can quietly look out and over the world. There’s no such thing as Batmanism-Libertarianism, right?
Ideally, a new visitor would come with the idea the right is somehow about ‘order.’ Whether it’s the military, the police, high-finance plutocrats, old church morality, fathers as heads of households, or walls to keep out immigrants, the right is on the side of order, while the left is on the side of license.
But this idea that ‘the right is for order’ is unintelligible unless order is carefully defined and fleshed out. Vocabulary shifts, especially during times of cultural upheaval.
Uncharitable observers say our order is regimentation. They imagine the right organizing battalions of citizens to salute as one, all individuality subsumed into faceless, even ranks. All families forced to be nuclear families constituted in identical, cookie-cutter forms, all homes identical ‘little boxes made of ticky tacky.’ This is not the case; totalitarian order is degenerate order. It is chaos. In the false order of regimentation, all men are given identical places, rather than being given the places that properly fit them. Wherever men can be assigned to duty randomly and interchangeably, that is disorder and chaos.
Uncharitable progressives say our order is stasis. They imagine us trying to freeze society into an atemporal traditionalist culture, with all families eternally revering the same God in the same way with the same mores and the same aesthetics. This is also not what we desire. Static order is also degenerate order. The healthy, organic growth of societal development is never opposed; rather, the continuities of tradition are the foundations of artistic and moral progress. The right seeks to ensure orderly development–and, most importantly, development that is not simply the fluctuation of wild animal populations, but that which brings man closer to perfection, God, or Truth. All true artists work in this way, from Gilgamesh to Homer to Michelangelo to Malick. The alternative would be a society that is continually hacked and cut to prevent growth, stunted like India under the Brahmin. Wherever outcomes are static and divorced from natural possibility, that is also chaos. The link between man and time is broken, splitting men from the world and from consequence.
Whether it is the decrees of God or Nature or inscrutable Power, the philosophy of the right is a philosophy of thriving under conditions set from outside oneself. Without these, reaction properly appears to be a caricature of stasis and regimentation–but the left recoiling here is simply a 5-year-old grossed out by sex, seeing only the possibility of cooties and none of the depth of love.
A virtuous society repudiates order without outside influences, like virtuous men repudiate sex without love. A closed system lives on its own excrement, and perfect autonomy and complete madness are indistinguishable. However, like sex without love is tempting and all too common and callous, closed autonomy is also tempting and also all too common. How much easier it is to be a shut-in with whisky and opinions rather than to raise a family. How much easier, even as a husband, to renounce one’s headship rather than to lead. But lazy sex is no argument against good sex, and lazy order is no argument against good order.
Multiculturalists disingenuously claim that “if order is a matter of fit to the world, then like us, you should respect every way people have found to fit to the world.” Or, “I am the true traditionalist because I respect all traditions.” This self-serving mischaracterization of the right ignores the most final, inarguable, and seemingly obvious way what is outside us orders our lives: through death. The longest tradition of life, long preceding man, is deadly struggle for supremacy. As any gardener or evolutionary biologist knows, pruning is no enemy of growth or antonym to order. Multiculturalism can find a place in reactionary thought as a base for otherwise differentiated cosmopolitan cultures, but universal toleration could never be an essential principle of order. Et in Arcadia ego.
Next, the cynical, nihilist determinists claim that “if order means moving in concert with the world, well, there is only one way for the world to move and we must accept it whatever it is.” Perhaps all human decision-making is supervenient on the unthinking propagation of particles through spacetime. Perhaps there is no free will. In that case, what is the argument? That one is deluded if one seeks any particular goal? But this has no power to persuade–in this case my belief is part of the way that the world is, and so is my resolution to fight for the goal. Is it supposed to change my mind to discover that, to paraphrase the determinist, my choice is the work of Nature or God rather than my own private judgment? Far from it.
I’d be delighted to serve these true sovereigns and delighted to be guided by them deeply. Even granting the unlikely premise of determinism, accepting the world as it is would also mean accepting the apparent conflict between oneself and the rest of the world. Otherwise one finds oneself resisting one’s own obvious convictions–simply a new and different conflict in place of the original.
In both cases, the non-reactionary has incorrectly taken ‘conflict’ or ‘frustration’ to be an antonym of order, which could not be further from the truth. A building ‘rests’ on its foundation the same way that the Berlin Wall could be safer than the Bronx: order is a matter of the balance of forces rather than their absence.
A virtuous reactionary society does not suppress forceful conflict and self-assertion. Limp openness is a funhouse image of the closed autonomy described earlier and no better. Openness means one succumbs to any passing madness, and limpness means one is merely more of the excrement the world recycles endlessly. A society without conflict is sterile, and a society without force is flimsy. Of course, it is often tempting to forgo conflict when it is costly and to be weak when that is easy, but this is no argument: the vices remains vices. One should protect oneself and one’s fellows; the prices of unprincipled appeasement and atrophy are higher in the long run.
Could a preference for order be rephrased as a form of utilitarianism? “Order is matching everyone to what makes them happiest.” One might say, “Disorder is mismatch between duties, abilities, and rewards.”
It has quite a bit to recommend it from a narrow rationalist perspective. First, it turns questions of order into more familiar questions of game theoretic equilibria: for instance order is however we can cooperate most and maximize our complementarities, or order is the way we cooperate least, while still ensuring the greatest liberty, or order is a way to reduce transactional costs and uncertainties. Relatedly, it seems to make the desire for order a nonthreatening problem of calculation: it becomes an optimization with a flexible objective function, and if the objective is up for discussion, then the definition of order is also implicitly up for discussion, as well. The ideological baggage of this order then appears to be defused. The associated worldview seems safe to model as a sterile optimization process without fear of memetic contagion.
However, even if some utility function could envelop the reactionary conception of order, there is little reason to think that that would do any good.
At its heart, the reactionary conception of morality contains a conviction that individuals do not and cannot know what is best.
It requires a game theory in which players never precisely learn the payoffs for actions and do not even know the actions available to them. At best, they eventually learn variable estimates for the payoff of an action someday, and at worst they die unexpectedly years later with no idea of the causal connection–but in fact I spoke too soon–at the truly worst, all of their distant offspring die together unexpectedly, centuries later, with no idea that the action was ever performed and even less idea that it caused their deaths. For better or worse this is the ‘game’ we play.
Likely too late, a rationalist will also find that the optimization problem is not memetically sterile. Thinking about these problems leads down a road to understanding embodied cognition, which leads to intelligence nonorthogonality, evolutionary game theory, which leads to human biodiversity, and rational bias, which leads to virtue ethics and even functional ritual. Grappling with the difficulty of this civilizational calculation problem leads away from individualistic rationalism, just as certainly as grappling with the economic calculation problem leads away from socialism.
So enough. We are not merely utilitarians trying on a more frightening costume.
But is it possible we might still remain progressives behind the reactionary mask? Is our ‘order’ a species of Progress? It’s certainly true that we’re no enemies of less meretricious forms of progress. Order makes room for improvisation, creativity, technological innovation, and moral development. For people who want to make their lives genuinely better, we consider the reactionary lifestyle ideal. But it is better not to compare ourselves on the the basis of this present name ‘progressivism’ at all. It is better to summon forth the left by a string of names that it has worn before: Dissent, Puritanism, Whiggery, Quakerism, Jacobinism, Unitarianism, Universalism, Progressivism, Communism, Multiculturalism.
In every case, it appeals to individual consciences for solidarity as individuals, even across current group lines. It asks new followers to give up their memberships in small inner groups for stronger individual identities in a larger group, and it always moves on by forming the larger group from a inner group vanguard plus whatever outsiders can be converted. The movement progresses by appealing to naive consciences seeking equality in the inner group and avaricious conscience in the outer group; the former uses the latter’s desire for inner group resources as the drive for purges and internal reorganization. Then the process repeats with a new vanguard and new outsiders. The right gloats that ‘the left devours its own,’ but this is a stable part of the lifecycle. It has rarely been a hindrance–certainly never since the American First Great Awakening turned Puritan sons against their fathers.
In the core of contemporary reaction, there is no hint of a centrality for oppressed and spoiled conscience. There is no hint of a call for equality of individuals and universal respect inside the group. The order we call for is not an ordering of morals by inborn conscience, but an ordering of conscience by morals. The goal is not vainglorious, absolute Progress, but humble, tangible development. The existence of progressives mistaking themselves for reactionary is no argument against the reality of this truer core; heresies are always plentiful at the conception of new orthodoxies.
So we are not progressives, then, but one might still find something disquietingly modern about contemporary reaction.
To begin with, however much we read old greats like Carlyle, Froude, and Maine, we cannot help having also read Darwin, Boltzmann, Schumpeter, Feynman, and Schelling. Whatever the mendacity of liberal ideology, it should be inarguable to an honest man that the last two liberal centuries have provided vast intellectual and scientific knowledge. Given the scale of the changes, it is almost impossible to imagine what a genuinely reactionary society for today’s world would look like. This is why the ‘neo’-reactionary label is used. As stated in the first section of this piece, a true order must fit the nature of a time and its material facts.
It has been 100 years since WWI destroyed the last technologically advanced, yet plausibly reactionary European societies, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Therefore, we are in the uncomfortable position of having to build and experiment. One of the things we experiment with most dangerously is materialism.
The body is physical and physical manipulations have effects on character. This is inarguable and traditional; it was known by older societies, and traditions sprang up to say what foods were good for the soul and for growing strong children. However, the scale of the changes and the rapidity with which cycle in today’s society make traditions learned over generations an unwieldy adaptation. Imagine keeping a traditional diet of milk, eggs, plentiful wheat and vegetables, and occasional meat, but always buying cheaply and from local stores. The animal products would likely come from animals fed antibiotics and unnatural feed. Much of the wheat and vegetables would likely be transgenic or grown with fertilizers and pesticides. These have unknown, often deleterious effects on nutritional content and hormonal influence, and worse, the technologies change so rapidly that even before one understands what their effects on health and character are, they have changed again.
Comparable effects are active in almost every corner of life. The styles of advertising and journalism change so rapidly that a tradition of reading news each morning means something quite different from decade to decade. The march of liberal influence through Christianity can make sticking with just one church for a lifetime a wild ride. Skills such as driving manual transmission briefly seem to be essentially masculine, then quickly become foibles of old men. If we do not appreciate this, then our hopes of restoring order are empty vanity. So, we spend more time than ancient reactionaries may have in terms of thinking about the changes wrought by these things: diet, profession, media, material. We can be confused, wrongly, with material determinists.
However, the challenge of designing environments to support virtue is not solely a determinist’s challenge, as any monk or priest could tell you. Our goal is neither to shape man alone, nor to shape nature alone, but to ensure that the reciprocal influences between man and nature are maximally harmonious and lead to ever greater and deeper harmonies. In the media Cathedral, men’s loud voices encourage others to raise their voices until all is shouting chaos. In a true cathedral, the ceilings absorb the noise from the pews and amplify the voice from the pulpit; the long echoes off the walls keep every man mindful of his disturbances of the peace. Our determinism goes only so far as desiring the latter over the former.
We could now appear to be relativists to the coarser eye, given our confession that we must experiment and try multiple new ways of life. We also have a suspicious interest in patchwork civilizations, in which many societal subgroups coexist despite contrasting laws and traditions. However, there is a deep and firm dividing line between believing that what is best for a people depends on who they are and believing that what is best for that people depends only on what they believe. The former is common sense, while the latter is nonsense.
The particular ways different peoples might require different ways of life are undoubtedly what cause us the most trouble with impolite society, but they also prove beyond doubt that we are not relativists. Sexism is often a proper order. What’s referred to as racism is often a proper order. Slavery can be a proper order. These orders can be subtle enough that outliers from each group would not contradict them, and they can be lenient to encourage outliers in the rare cases they do pop up. The essential problem is to achieve a stable order that reinforces and deepens the best aspects of the group. This discrimination is nothing unusual. For instance, current racist laws keep down Asian college admissions to ensure apparent equality of opportunity among all races. Whether or not this equality is a goal of injustice and disorder, the point is simple: what is normally labeled as racism is in actuality a ubiquitous, unavoidable adaptation to objective differences between human subpopulations.
Individualists may be howling at this point, questioning my focus on societal virtues rather than personal virtues. But man is a social animal. Man’s highest perfections are expressed in friendship, comradeship, citizenship, and discipleship. Without others to serve and to lead, man leads a stunted, poor life, and no amount of individual strength or intelligence will make up for it. Even a solitary writer has his references and his audience, and even Mowgli had his wolves.
It is simply impossible for individuals inside and outside of society, or in different societies, to be ordered in the same way. Feral children do not learn language. Teenagers typically change their characters dramatically in front of different audiences. An adult’s profession will often shape him deeply by middle-age. And after death, a man’s success or failure will be judged solely by his effect on what remains. The individual, without responsibilities, is something only half real; the truth of a man is revealed in his relationships and his duties.
Order must be emergent and collective to reflect the way all admirable people actually live and judge. And what constitutes order in this sense? That conflicts should be minimal and stable, while harmonies are maximal and ever-growing. A clear negative example is the feminist project, which undermines the harmony between men and women while destabilizing the conflicts among men, among women, and between men and women. A clear positive example is the early Christian monasteries, which acted as nuclei for towns, repositories for knowledge, and supports to resettling the countryside after the fall of Rome.
In less obvious cases, there can be disagreement about what is order and what is chaos. There may be a right answer from an objective position, but no human is objective. In practice, good men follow the judgment of those they trust most. In practice, morality is personal choice within the context of a greater system of partially shared trust, partially shared property, and partially shared interests.
The name for this system of shared information, shared property, and shared goals is civilization.
Your earliest virtues come from your parents; your later virtues are developed in school and play; as you learn to read, the sources of guidance become overwhelming in number; as you become an adult, you learn to filter that guidance and rely on wisdom from the few you trust. Throughout it all, you are embedded in a system of reciprocal actions and relationships that you may never trust or feel fully loyal to, but you cannot escape as the frame and ground for all of your choices and values. It contains your parents, your school, your playmates, your books and internet, and your adult friends. Civilization is that system.
This is not the relativist’s metaphysical ‘what is true for one civilization is not for another’ but the concrete fact that what is good in one civilization may not be in another. The truth is often contingent but never relative.
This is enough to have made the most important points. Our order is not totalitarian, multiculturalist, Progressive, determinist, relativist, or individualist.
We are civilizationists. Our order is civilization.
Our reaction is not a matter of fixed, rigid patterns. Nor is it limp-wristed surrender to whatever comes. It is reinforcement and elaboration of whatever good comes from God and Nature along with avoidance and containment of whatever chaos comes. It is not a matter of forcing God and Nature to conform to conscience or intellect, but rather training the conscience and intellect to follow God and Nature. It is morality, not in the sense of a tyrannical law, but in the sense of the virtues identical with human flourishing.
And because human flourishing is a collective, social activity and the best virtues for a people depend on who those people are, we go further.
Reactionary order is a people’s elaboration of itself, their continued hallowing of their traditions, their conquering of new spaces, and their advancement to new heights of wisdom. These are the virtues that constitute order.
Order is morality, and morality is civilization.