The Reactionary Ethos And The Forging Of Elites: A Response To Ross Douthat

Is the reactionary doomed to be an alien in American life?

The tradition of Carlyle and de Maistre gained attention recently thanks to coverage by Ross Douthat, NYT columnist and apologist for Christianity and conservatism to the thought-creators of American life. Given the tightrope this puts him on in the polarized United States of 2016, his recent opinion piece and follow-up blog post are a sort of intellectual skydive.

Douthat implores his readership–mostly adherents of liberalism in either its progressive or conservative forms–to see the usefulness and erudition present in the “reactionary mind” and praises the aesthetic worldview of many reactionaries, citing Nicolas Gomez Davila in particular. Nevertheless, he expresses his wish that this aesthetic could be separated from illiberal reactionary views of human nature and political power. This piece will examine why the “reactionary aesthetic” is founded on its broader worldview. Moreover, there exists a fundamental strife between the reactionary and liberal traditions which prevents any reconciliation of principles.

Both liberalism and conservatism can incorporate some of these insights. But both have an optimism that blinds them to inconvenient truths. The liberal sees that conservatives were foolish to imagine Iraq remade as a democracy; the conservative sees that liberals were foolish to imagine Europe remade as a post-national utopia with its borders open to the Muslim world. But only the reactionary sees both.

[…] Is there a way to make room for the reactionary mind in our intellectual life, though, without making room for racialist obsessions and fantasies of enlightened despotism? So far the evidence from neoreaction is not exactly encouraging.

Reaction proper has always taken human biodiversity as one of several factors which impact civilizational order and evolution. If Douthat is asking whether reaction can accept the “Liberal Creationist” belief that human evolution stopped 10,000 years ago (at least from the neck up), then the answer is obviously no. However, it is worth noting that reaction differs from some parts of the alt-right, in that it sees race as merely one of the elements which sovereign power must work with, rather than as a sufficient condition for a healthy society. The answer to global ethnocultural diversity is a global diversity of political regimes. The liberal idea that Sweden and Syria ought to have the same form of government is ideological derangement.

A major point on which reaction differs from many alt-right factions is that strong and orderly multiracial regimes built on reactionary lines are in fact possible, provided that they limit the possibilities for racial politics. Singapore is the modern standard for a stable multiracial state, and it is success precisely because it accepts the reality of a dominant group (Chinese ethnicity and “Asian values”) and because the state uses authoritarian measures to suppress identity politics by agitators. Nonetheless, all regimes die at some point and multiracial ones usually die by the sword of racial conflict.

Unlike the race question, Douthat’s pondering on whether reaction can abandon its illiberal view of political order requires a more in-depth response. Presumably, when Douthat means despotism, he is referring to rule by a non-democratic elite and the embodiment of sovereign power in a ruler or group of rulers unconstrained by constitutions, rule of law, or axiomatic moral principles. If they abide by certain norms or customs, this is voluntary. When pressed, their power is limited only by nature and by competing political powers, either within the state or outside it. The ruler or rulers are ultimately guided by personal judgement and how they choose to navigate the realities of rule and politics, rather than by legal systems of regulation.

The reactionary answer to outrage at this view of political order is simple: “please present an existing alternative.” Now, most Americans would state that the Republic–however corrupted by Big Money or Big Government or what have you–is ultimately based on the Constitution. No part of the Republic’s governing bodies have total sovereignty, and they are restrained by the limits of the constitutional framework. There even exists a body whose job it is to make sure that make sure that the Constitution is being followed: the Supreme Court. But this body is the subject of strange disputes.

Republicans and Democrats have bitter struggles over whether the presiding judges will be conservative or liberal. It seems that when conservatives read the Constitution it says conservative things, and when liberals do it says liberal things. But then the Constitution in and of itself is not the foundation of the Republic; rather, the judgement of the Supreme Court is! The nation of laws is ruled by those who interpret what the law is. This even applies to seemingly unequivocal parts of the document. The rights to life and due process, for instance, are interpreted in ways consistent with the USG’s security requirements.

However, this is merely the most obvious contradiction in the American tradition. The Overton Window within which such competition occurs does not arise in a vacuum. It reflects the variety of views which are considered respectable to hold in a public forum. This respectability includes those who are “radical,” provided it is in a direction which elicits excitement and admiration rather than shock and rebuke. Nor is it “the people” who set the Overton boundaries. There exists a liberal mythology that politics exists as a “national conversation.” Think of every pundit and commentator who begins promoting a cause with the phrase “we need to talk about…”

Of course, in all cases, the speaker already knows exactly what their premises, conclusions, and applications are. The conversation, such as it is, has already been had.

It is a reactionary principle that all institutions give rise to elites, and said conversation is one had by these elites. Gay marriage is a stellar example. America’s elite classes were more or less unified in their view that changing the definition of marriage was not just acceptable, but a moral imperative. Accordingly, the Overton Window shifted in record time to exclude the contrary opinion. Conversely, non-elites in American society have little effect on policy. The pieties of democracy require elites themselves to deplore this, but when a Trump or a Sanders attempt to bring non-elite voices into the “national conversation,” the bitter contempt is palatable. The words of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus would not be out of place coming from a Beltway insider discussion about the phenomenon that is the 2016 election:

I say again,
In soothing them, we nourish ‘gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough’d for, sow’d, and scatter’d
By mingling them with us, the honour’d number,
Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that
Which they have given to beggars.

Yet the American paradox is that its elite is one of the few in history which seems not to realize that it is an elite, or at the very least tries desperately to pretend that it is not. If a reactionary solution to America’s crises is ever to be implemented, then one of the firsts tasks is to demand that the American elite recognize its position and start taking its responsibilities seriously.

This paradox becomes positively dangerous when one considers what it means to have an elite bathed in the liberal tradition. In the American spectrum, the conservative takes liberty as his founding principle, the liberal takes equality, and the more radical leftist takes fraternity (called “solidarity”). These are of course the values of the Revolution, and predictably each introduces their own element of conflict into the social order.

The modern conservative reduces humans to economic units at war with the state. (The sin of Trump supporters is that they by and large do not care about ideology and vote instead for someone they believe will use the state to benefit them). The liberal or social democrat seeks to abolish borders in pursuit of a global democratic society based on our common humanity – and thus sets cultures, races, and classes against each other. The radical leftist carries this process to its logical conclusion, and enthusiastically wages the war of all against all.

The American elite generally fall into one of the former two camps, whereas their children are turning American universities into training grounds for the latter ideology. Moreover, it is this caste which drives cultural and political norms because they have the resources to inculcate their values in the population through media, educational institutions, and the power of the law. The absurd result is an elite which promotes every sort of contention, conflict, and social war, and then wonders at why the Union is characterized by polarization, bad faith, hatred, and populist rage.

Andrew Sullivan sums in up nicely in his recent Trump-inspired reflections on democracy:

For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome…

[The] American elite…has presided over massive and increasing public debt, […] failed to prevent 9/11, […] chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, […] allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and…is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: “We Respectables” deserve a comeuppance.

The reactionary tradition rejects the values of the Revolution – the exacerbation of conflict which Nick Land described as “fundamentally degenerative: systematically consolidating and exacerbating private vices, resentments, and deficiencies until they reach the level of collective criminality and comprehensive social corruption.” In its place, this tradition sets forth a drive towards order, harmony, and the organic hierarchy which derives from seeking excellence through discipline. This conclusion is what divides the reactionary from the liberal, and what lies at the center of the reactionary aesthetic.

Were the reactionary position to gain substantial ground, institutions which have long based their legitimacy on serving the cause of democracy and revolution would immediately lose it, since these claims would be exposed as lies and manipulation. Men such as Nicolas Gomez Davila, the later Heidegger, and Julius Evola attempted to live according to a philosophy of life which embraced duty, inner discipline, and transcendence.

This code reflects the values which aristocratic classes formalize at the high points of civilizational achievement. Roman senators praised virtus and popularized Stoic philosophy, the knights of Christendom learned chivalry, the Japanese samurai classes developed Bushido. The common function of these elite codes was to inculcate in the elite classes an ethic which would lead them to rule responsibly and thus maintain their position in the social order. Of course, in all cases there existed those who deviated from these principles and instances where those principles failed or were ignored. But it should be noted that their goal was precisely the development of a personality which could understand the purposes of these codes and reliably judge when exceptions might be necessary to fulfill them.

These same philosophies despised the personalities which were associated with populist pandering and the incitement of social violence to achieve personal gain. English writer and scholar James Anthony Froude reflects this attitude in The Bow of Ulysses (1887):

Oratory is the spendthrift sister of the arts, which decks itself like a strumpet with the tags and ornaments which it steals from real superiority. The object of it is not truth, but anything which it can make appear truth ; anything which it can persuade people to believe by calling in their passions to obscure their intelligence.

Even America’s un-self conscious elite holds cultural norms against those who might threaten their position, or even those who merely flout their accepted social boundaries. Therein lies the contempt and fear which they have for populists–a trait they share with elites from all ages, and rightly so, since the populist is often a self-interested power seeker. This contradiction arises because while the American elite may not acknowledge their position, they nevertheless hold it and thus will act to preserve it. However, the myths of liberalism cause them to undermine their own future. The conservative faction guts their own populace’s future by viewing them as mere economic units, while the liberal and far-left factions set them against each other based on class, race, and other forms of identity politics.

The reactionary answer is that the elite must be inculcated with an awareness that they are an elite and by the wisdom of the ages, which testifies as to what they must do to establish an enduring political order. Since sovereignty is ultimately held only by human beings exercising their personal judgement in how power is used, this is a requirement for any program which intends to save America–and the West as a whole–from utter ruin. How this can be achieved is one of the primary topics of debate and discussion among those who identify as students of the reactionary tradition. It is this wisdom which creates the aesthetic Douthat admires, and it is founded on a conception of human society and political power which the Liberal tradition cannot abide.

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  1. Great article. It is indeed the nature of the West’s current elite to disregard their actual place in society, and to wholeheartedly believe that any sort of elite mustn’t exist, that human societies can indeed exist without an elite. Therein lies the insurmountable difference between realists and mainstream progressive ideologues. Reaction faces the latest Utopian ideology in a long list of human Utopianism that dates as far back as Sumerian civilization. Can it win?

  2. The Dissenting Sociologist May 6, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    “The nation of laws is ruled by those who interpret what the law is.”

    Not an especially bad thing. The judiciary is presently the flagship of the State, indeed the only branch that hasn’t become altogether sordid and contemptible. It alone maintains the Stately traditions of dignity and gravitas, impartiality and objectivity, commitment to Reason as against emotivism, and veneration for the authority of predecessors and contempt for innovation (stare decisis). Its influence cannot be easily bought, and never without incurring the most grave form of public scandal. Its members are furthermore held to the strictest standards of moral rectitude in their personal conduct, and subject to being removed in disgrace if they lapse. And if you see them, you’d better act respectfully and address them in properly reverential form- for you can insult the President to his face with impunity, but try that with the lowliest municipal judge and your ass is going to the cooler for at least a few days.

    The judiciary, in short, can still command respect, and this probably explains why it is that people in general will unconditionally and without thought obey court orders and rulings at a time when most of those people, whether on the Right or Left, otherwise regard the State with open scorn to the point of altogether withdrawing legitimacy from it. The judiciary, to be sure, is the subject of considerable criticism, but the very critique of judicial activism itself seems to suggest that we expect much more from the judicial than the other branches, whose tendency to irresponsible depths of monkey-business is simply taken for granted. The judiciary is probably the only social force keeping a Hobbesian state of Nature at bay in America.

    1. This is an interesting perspective. I agree that it’s not a bad thing, but that it is unrecognized is a bad thing.

      Your comments on judiciary remind me of Curt Doolittle’s ideas about the return of judges and common law as an Anglo solution to the crisis brought about by rent-seeking politics. You’re quite right: the judiciary alone still holds the public image of being merely the servants of a higher principle, although of course judicial activism reveals that as being something of a fiction too. The judges attend the same schools as the other elites, after all.

      1. I think it was Moldbug who noted that if you combined the nine members of the Supreme Court into a single personage, what you’d have would be a king. The Supreme Court, like a king (and here I am talking about the truth of the matter, not the theoretical purpose and powers of the Court, or any of the other flowery nonsense you’ll hear in a high school social studies class) is an unelected, unaccountable party that has unlimited veto powers over all or part of any of the people’s laws, which it exercises at whim for any purpose it sees fit (with only the minor inconvenience that the members of the Court must come up with some rationalization – it need not even make sense, for no one has the power to hold them accountable if it does not – why the Constitution backs up their personal agendas, biases, and belief systems).

        Now, I don’t object to having a king, per se. But I must object to the Supreme Court – if on nothing else, then on Moldbuggian Formalist grounds. It is best to call things what they actually are – so why do we engage in this elaborate deception which allows us to pretend that we don’t have a king when we actually do?

        Well, the answer to that is obvious, really. But as someone who sees things as they are instead of engaging in flowery nonsense, I say that The Nine-Headed King is a tyrant, a liar, a usurper, and an abomination.

  3. Excellent article, full of insights. Democracy does indeed slot people into tribes or castes; and you might argue that all societies do that democratic or not. But the problem with democracies is that they then proceed to set each tribe against the other in a battle for spoils. Inculcating that battling mindset is what makes democracy inherently unstable.

    Only the massive excess productivity of the last couple centuries has kept us one step ahead of total chaos. There were always enough spoils to dole out to various groups. That is fast becoming an unworkable solution. Will we devolve into a war of all against all? Leviathan is plum tuckered out.

  4. Great. I think Douthat — and many other regular liberals — will find this digestible.

  5. “A major point on which reaction differs from many alt-right factions is that strong and orderly multiracial regimes built on reactionary lines are in fact possible, provided that they limit the possibilities for racial politics. Singapore is the modern standard for a stable multiracial state, and it is success precisely because it accepts the reality of a dominant group (Chinese ethnicity and “Asian values”) and because the state uses authoritarian measures to suppress identity politics by agitators.”

    So in fact, it is a racialist society. It just suppresses all racialism except Chinese racialism, which is made dominant. That’s the opposite of limiting racial politics.

    1. Racial politics implies race being used as a factor to foment conflict. Dominance implies that race is not a factor of politics – that is, of debate and quarrelling – at all. It’s a factor of state policy which is set by an entrenched establishment which agrees on the fundamentals. That the American Revolution was righteous is not a topic of American politics.

      1. Let me first state that this article is excellent and works like a well oiled machine.

        That being said I think you might be blurring the lines between “Leftism” and our precious American “Liberalism”. You are correct that the American propaganda that we “have no elites” is nonsense. However I’d say that American elites (like Douthat) are very aware that this is bullshit. Almost all American elites, “conservative” and “liberal”, are aware of their elite status. Even if they publicly disavow such status. In fact, American Liberalism is predicated on the notion that such an aristocracy is both necessary and desirable. This is the reason for the system being built on Anti-Populist measures like Checks and Balances, 6yr termed Senators, the Electoral College, the Supreme Court etc. The idea of American Liberalism is that of Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy”. There’s still an aristocracy, it’s just based on “merit” instead of birth.

        My point is: I don’t think American Liberalism is as far away from what you’re advocating for as you think it is. It seems to me that you, and many other NRx types just desire a less democratic, less populist and more self aware American Liberalism.

        1. You’re right that historic American Liberalism was more aristocratic. That being said, the farmer class of the days of Jefferson is centuries under the ground at this point, so for classical American Liberals the task would be to either find a new meritocratic elite or else Make Jefferson Great Again in the Beltway. The latter has been a project of Conservatism since Russell Kirk and has made little headway, as most Americans could not distinguish between a democracy and a Republic.

          A fundamental point of departure in NRx from American Liberalism is that it rejects the checks-and-balances system insofar as its intent is to actually make power unsecure, because this introduces purposeful uncertainty and thus violence into the Republic. Remember, the philosophers of the American Revolution were channelling violent subversion up the hierarchy and Reaction rejects this. Taking the corporation metaphor, think about how Sales and R&D check and balance each other without being able to block the CEO from making a final decision.

          From a perspective of fallout: if we were to map America onto the old Roman Republic, my suspicion is that Trump is Gracchus – the traitor elite who uses non-elites to expand his personal power. Gracchus is defeated, but lays the road for Caesar. Caesar in turn is the herald for Augustus, at which point the monarchic principle is restored.

          1. Followup:

            It should be pointed out that America, even more than France, still did hold onto quite a lot of the old ethos which would be termed Reactionary today. Their major points of deviation were the belief that local elites should seize power from the Sovereign, and the earliest philosophical incarnations of individualism, universal human rights, progress, and nominalism. The latter was in many ways the Protestant Reformation moving from religion to philosophy. Reaction has generally supported the Catholic tradition against the Protestant one (English Reaction being an exception) and resolutely condemns the former move.

          2. Formalism, Formalism, Formalism. Lies always crash to the ground in the end. So call things what they really are. If you’re going to have an aristocracy, have an aristocracy. If you’re not going to have an aristocracy, then don’t have an aristocracy. Jefferson wanted a comfortable lie – to be able to say that we don’t have an aristocracy, but to have one anyway, with a wink and a nudge. By not formalizing his system, he made it easy to overthrow. (Yes, there was the small matter of 600,000 dead farm boys, but what elite – especially in a democratic system – ever cared about trifles like that?)

            And so, here we are.

  6. The Dissenting Sociologist May 8, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    Mark Christensen wrote:

    “It should be pointed out that America, even more than France, still did hold onto quite a lot of the old ethos which would be termed Reactionary today. Their major points of deviation were the belief that local elites should seize power from the Sovereign, and the earliest philosophical incarnations of individualism, universal human rights, progress, and nominalism.”

    They drew from an Anglo tradition of reaction that is older than the French version that seems to be favoured by NRx (Bonald, Maistre et alia). Where the latter reacted to the usurpation of Monarchy by Republicanism, the former originated in reaction to the usurpation of the traditional patriarchal rights of legally free male subjects by Sovereigns with then-novel absolutist ambitions. As a result, this Anglo school of reaction naturally emphasized the liberty of the subject, and the privileges of the gentry and nobility in Parliament, in its defense of tradition and accordingly became fused with various proto-Enlightenment elements in the process (but not indelibly so, as the scholarship of J.G.A. Pocock and others has proven).

    I am of course talking about the “country party” and its theorists: Harrington, Sidney, Bolingbroke, “Cato”, et alia, who informed the American mind in a durable way, and whose imprint can clearly be seen today in rural “red state” support for limited Federal power, for traditional marriage, and above all, the right to bear arms.

    I’d be very interested to hear what NRx thinks of this tradition, or if they read it at all.

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