The new right-wing reactionaries differentiate themselves from conservatives in part by their time horizon. They don’t long to preserve just yesterday, last year, or last half-century. They long to preserve the wisdom of past centuries, even past millennia. A favorite reactionary quote of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn‘s goes:
For the average person, all problems date to World War II; for the more informed, to World War I; for the genuine historian, to the French Revolution.
Social linchpin Nick B. Steves recommends to think past the year 1789 to 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, or even to 1517, the Protestant Reformation. But let’s be honest; by 1517, humanism was already rampant in Italy’s fading Renaissance. What sort of Golden Age could that have been? Clearly, we must go further back.
Finding a firm root for all of this degeneracy is timely with Mark Lilla’s new book on political reaction, The Shipwrecked Mind, making the rounds. He asserts that half of us ignore the ills of previous eras in favor of remembering them nostalgically as Golden Ages. Let’s prove ourselves different by being rigorous enough and going back far enough to truly find a real golden age—
This is a fun game, though not one to take too seriously. Let’s play “history of degeneration,” and let’s start with today. The rules: list instances of degeneration in as many sequential time periods as you can, on a timescale starting with half-centuries but growing as you go back. Provide just enough color to say why each was degenerate; end by proposing a solution. Farthest back wins.
Assume today is a time of imminent collapse of Western civilization. Blame it on immigration, the end of free speech, rampant consumerism, globalization, whatever you’d like. Whatever it was, the seeds of our current collapse were clear in the 1960s countercultural revolutions, from sexual revolution to civil rights legislation and immigration liberalization. This cultural collapse started in the 50s with Playboy, the Beats, massive tranquilizer abuse, popularization of Frankfurt School Marxism, and so on, though the seeds of degeneration sprouting then could be ignored by popular media, giving us a false impression of a Golden age.
And these values of the 60s left, germinated in the 50s, were a natural evolution of Wilsonian Puritanism. The 1910s and 20s were a famous era of feminist liberation and bureaucratic excess, as America naturally took a chief place in the world in the wake of Europe’s grand self-destruction in World Wars I and II.
This fall of Europe, of course, had been a long time coming by the 1910s. The mass-led, nihilistic modern industrial society of that time had been mismanaging itself disastrously since the liberal revolutions of 1848 confirmed a bloody end would not be long in coming to the Age of Metternich; one need only read fin de siecle French writing to understand how degenerate the intervening years were and how much nihilism, anarchism, and communism had begun to rear their ugly heads. 1848, of course, was the natural consequence of the series of liberalizations that swept over Europe behind Napoleon’s artillery, thundering out from the chaos of the 1789 Revolution that toppled a French monarchy that had been the light of civilized Europe for centuries.
Yet, the chaos of 1789 was natural for a French monarchy that had been desperately selling titles and restructuring its tax base around unpriveleged class power even before the financially devastating Seven Years War and War of the Austrian succession. The Spanish, French, and Habsburgs were already in decline by 1789; civilizational decay precedes mere Jacobinism. It was clear that these states possessed mere sham-kings after the War of the Spanish Succession collapsed the glorious Spanish empire and the Great Northern War ended the Swedish empire—and those both so soon on the heels of the mendaciously-named Glorious Revolution in England—the following, excessively parliamentary “Age of Enlightenment” was as odious and doomed as you’d expect; the French Revolution was no surprise. So, let’s go back to 1688.
1688 was in a way only a continuation of English parliamentarian rebellion in the 1640s, when Independent Protestants) beheaded their king, only too natural given the weakness of the Stuart dynasty founded after Queen Elizabeth’s disastrous choice not to provide an heir—in fact to suppress and execute perhaps the closest thing she had to one—and to mismanage her kingdom’s finances and religious controversies to the point popular anti-tax and anti-episcopal revolution was arguably inevitable.
But focusing on England alone would be a mistake, for how could we neglect that unparalleled European bloodbath, the Thirty Years War? (I’ll skip the War of Devolution for the sake of brevity.) Yes, we seem to have a half-century not just between collapse, but an entire half-century of collapse. One of the bloodiest wars, per capita, Europe has ever seen—and should we include it as only part of a larger combination with the 80 Years War?
Regardless, we can clearly see that the 1555 Peace of Augsburg was no final solution to the Protestant Question. No, Augsburg was a clear failure to contain dissent: “an exhausted Charles [V] finally gave up his hopes of a world Christian empire,” says Wikipedia. The Lutherans were officially recognized: given time to develop their power and lay foundations for all the religious wars and bourgeois revolutions to come.
So, perhaps we need to go back to the Protestant Reformation launched by Luther in 1517? At 500 years back, let me start marking time in centuries rather than half-centuries. Because surely, it is impossible to consider the Protestant Reformation without reference to the degeneracy of papacy in Renaissance Italy. The Reformation obviously recalled the Western Schism that had just ended in 1417, marking the collapse of the attempts of France to pull the papacy to Avignon. The Avignon papacy was famously political and temporally-focused; its degeneracy inspired the Franciscans, especially William of Ockham, to invent disastrously effective theories of natural human rights in the mid-1300s. Contemporaneously the Golden Bull‘s expanded constitutionalism laid the ground for ever more ‘rule of law,’ that mendacious phrase which only ever conceals actual rule by judgment.
Just a century before this mid-1300s degeneration, de Jouvenel’s Minotaur was already busy in the guise of Frederick II’s Imperial Landfrieden of 1235, a coddling insulation of men from rightful vendetta by their peers. Claiming a government monopoly on violence, it was masterful use of high/low vs middle, relying crucially on the support of the governed beneath the level of princes and aristocracy, who Frederick contested with for power. The law survived, though Frederick’s dynasty didn’t; the House of Hohenstaufen brought to greatness by Barbarossa soon collapsed under opposition from the popes—opposition between the popes and the emperors soon to come to a head with the Avignon papacy, mentioned above, and all the future degeneration and liberalization that implies.
Barbarossa himself came to power at the expense of Italian and Byzantine decay. His rise was nearly contemporaneous with the overextension of the Byzantines against the Sicilians in Italy; 1158 was the end of a brief period of Byzantine power in Italy and soon enough the Latins would sack Constantinople, permanently ending Byzantine greatness. Of course, the sack was just insult to injury on the heels of the Angelid dynasty, formed in an 1182 revolution, which predictably decayed, as revolutions do, into a reign of terror complete with mass slaughter of the aristocracy. The Fourth Crusade was late. The Byzantine renaissance under the Komnenian dynasty, started in the 1080s, had already ended. So finished the glory of the second Rome.
The 1150s wars in Italy and the subsequent century and a half of papal venality so vividly indicted in Dante’s Commedia were for their part the heirs of the Norman invasions across Europe begun a century before. The conquest of England by 1072, in particular, was a classic case of an invading criminal elite governing through foreign institutions and intentionally suppressing native traditions. This was the end of Old English, and the end of the English monarchy and nobility. More importantly for my broader arc, the Norman invasions of Italy and the Byzantine empire were crucial political forces behind the Great Schism of 1054, since which the Orthodox and Catholic churches have never reconciled. The Normans played a key role in destroying any hope for the unity of Christian worship, one millennium after its founding by Christ. At the same time, the first of the Landfriede, prototypes for rule by law rather than judgment across continental Europe, was decreed in Mains.
Evidently, the year 1000 is not far enough back to reach a golden age where incipient liberalism is not already sprouted and degeneracy is not running rampant.
At this point we could shift to the oft-disputed translatio imperii of the Ottonians, then the decline of the Carolingians, then to the Popes who only invited Charlemagne to rule to solidify growing freedom from declining Byzantine influence, and then we would find ourselves in the shadow of the long Roman decline and fall chronicled so famously by Gibbon. The rise of Rome had in turn relied on degeneracy of Hellas and Carthage, which had in turn grown only in the vacuums left by the degeneration of yet older precursor civilizations. Each new civilization brought forth more complex and artificial legal and social organization, bringing us closer to detestable modern forms. In each, unsecure powers made use of de Jouvenel’s high and low vs middle to enrich themselves. In each, powers popularized whatever philosophy and religion profited them best. Even Christ and Aristotle were used in this way.
But why stop so recently as Aristotle? Certainly the invention of writing was a powerful contributor to all future bureaucracy and false rationalization, and the invention of zero, a dangerous metaphysical innovation with repercussions still unknown but essential to modern nihilism. Certainly, also, early Indo-European evolution and radiation was a usurpation and genocide of more traditional, more natural men that did not degenerately suck the teats of other animals, and the associated linguistic changes were a victory for a false new modernity in grammar against richer, more traditional grammars of the further past.
Then again, why stop there? The lineage of mammals is essentially a lineage of neonates become so weak they must live in the womb longer than most animals live at all, and even after birth, they still must suckle from their mothers’ teats: the millennials of the animal kingdom, if you will. But then, aren’t all animalia just variants of super-predators evolved to take advantage of a more trusting microbial mat ecology, the Cambrian Explosion equally being the fall of the Ediacarian? The ‘burrowing revolution’ of the Cambrian was the end of a more trusting age in which living things could honestly count on the seabed not to harbor sudden devourers. Should we be asking the Animal Question, given that all animals are heterotrophs: parasites and predators? Aren’t the only real producers plants and algae?
We might even recognize the eukaryotic nucleus as a clear case of proto-liberal tyranny, an insulated elite of DNA dictating commands to the rest of the cell according to a noisy and often lazily interpreted foreign language of codons and amino acids, subverting the more traditional RNA into merely a class of middlemen and informers instead of the central place they initially held. And if social atomization is an easily recognized ill, perhaps we should also doubt whether primordial atomization, following quark-gluon condensation, was also the end of a superior more homogenous state, when mass and energy were more clearly one and the degenerate frustration of ‘molecules’ was only a nightmare of a future epoch.
If we have any comfort, it is the light of the stars fusing atoms back together. Occasionally they even approximate that lost halcyon era of 3 minutes after the Big Bang by collapsing into neutron stars in which, like that bygone age, there is no more cruel separation of quarks into cold, isolated atoms. Our last, best hope for redeeming ourselves of our wretched Fall is to launch ourselves into a pulsar.
I’ve clearly gone wrong somewhere. I hope you’ll try to outdo me with more plausible, yet even more absurd “history of degeneration” in the comments. Whatever you do, please don’t take the above seriously. I hope I’ve made my point: there’s no true requirement to stop when playing this game, and the resulting reverse Whig history is as silly as Whig history.
Unless, perhaps, existence really is fundamentally degenerate through and through? The second law of thermodynamics—entropy always increases—is our best argument to confirm this. However, this would be absurdly far from our real values: it classes all growth as degeneration, all reproduction as failed copying, and all partial ordering as net corruption. It indicts God on every count.
The poor history above, far from being ‘more rigorously’ reactionary, is a parody of progressives’ frequent inability to recognize that reaction is not simply a belief in contemporary degeneration and a hatred of everything too new.
Reactionaries must be, rather, good judges of both past and present: we know that most mutations are deleterious and that innovation is not an unalloyed good, but also that mutation is the engine of evolution and that even our oldest, fondest traditions were once innovations far back in forgotten time.
As I’ve written before, reaction is also not a celebration of stasis; reactionary order is organic harmony, adaptation, and civilization. Stasis is in conflict with the God or Nature of the world and therefore disordered, just as surely as pessimism is. So we do not long for fixed, historical, perfect Golden Age societies, only aspirational, mythical ones or ones that we’re willing to acknowledge had foundations destined to crumble. If we model the myths after our ancestors—well, we remember how to love what is best in our fathers without denying their faults.
In the meantime, we have no illusions that history is either endless progress, endless decay, or an endless cycle. It is not just a long rise followed by a recent fall. And God forbid we satisfy ourselves, instead, with a sophomoric spiral! The histories of civilizations and institutions show progress, decay, stagnation, and cycles, but also branching, collision, annihilation, hybridization, and much more. There are more dimensions, edges, and twists to history than there are grains of sand on the beaches of Normandy, Hispaniola, and Lake Kinneret.
We study history, we learn from it, we judge the good and bad. And when there is degeneration, we condemn it, but when there is glory, we praise that also.
Sometimes, on dour days when we mistakenly recognize Quixote in our mirrors, we even play games with it and laugh at ourselves.