To call someone a “reactionary” historically speaking has almost always been considered a form of abuse.
The word connotes an individual for whom a nostalgic obsession with the past prevents an embrace of the inevitability of change and the progressive dynamism upon which any desirable future must be built. “Reactionary” in common usage is not associated with intellectual sophistication or philosophical acumen, but rather the absence of these things. The reactionary’s motives, we are told, are purely sub-rational and merely the manifestation of a subconscious aversion to change—a change which if evaluated under the neutral illumination of the liberal faculty of reason would surely be seen as not only necessary, but desirable, as well.
At least this is the story. It’s a story continually told to us by modern progressives and conservatives alike. But for years, attacking the reactionary impulse had seemed like little more than an exercise in beating a dead horse, as the years following the end of the Cold War brought with it a renewed sense of the inevitable triumph of liberalism. With its lone competitor, communism lying at its feet, crumpled from exhaustion, and the eternal boogeyman of fascism barely a distant memory, liberalism stood alone as the sole heir to the spoils of the modern age.
But, as is by now only too clear to those paying attention, the past golden years of winsome liberal optimism have given way to a new and much harsher reality. The new global economy, which was supposed to bring peace and prosperity to all those who fell within its web of symbiotic interconnections, over-promised and under-delivered. Though of course considered successful by certain metrics, its path of creative destruction has sown discord and uncertainty among the middle and lower classes of the Western world. The upper classes, in their own, have also not gone unscathed.
In addition to this trauma, years of idealistic Western interventions have undermined the foundations of almost the entire Middle East, which has now descended into a bloody death spiral of civil war and chaos. This, in turn, has led to a new refugee crisis, with millions pouring out of war zones and into Europe. Under the shadow of these events, previously unimaginable forces have arisen to challenge the neoliberal consensus.
These forces have not, as one might have previously expected, been situated to the left of global liberalism, but rather to its right. All across Europe, right-wing parties keep winning elections and new leaders like Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin wield ever-growing influence, while promoting foreign and domestic policies at odds with Western conceptions of the “End of History.” These events have certainly troubled the minds of elites in Washington and Brussels, but they could still be viewed as merely the inevitable growing pains of underdeveloped societies still recovering from the effects of decades of communism—that was until these same forces began appearing in the cracks and fissures emerging within Western societies themselves.
This wake-up call manifested itself in the seemingly simultaneous phenomenon of the rise of Donald Trump in the United States and Britain’s June vote to leave the European Union. Both were seen as essentially impossible outcomes, incompatible with the narrative liberals had told themselves about their own inevitable victory.
The most interesting aspect of the elite response to these events, however, hasn’t been the, entirely predictable round of shrill and panicked denouncements leveled by progressives, but rather the awkward attempts at “understanding” this phenomenon, which are led mostly by a band of earnest liberals, who seek to understand what makes the Reactionary Mind tick.
The most notable example of this has been Mark Lilla’s recent book The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, which has been used as a springboard for recent, high-profile criticisms of reaction from such notable mediocrities as David Brooks and Damon Linker.
The book, which is more a collection of loosely related essays, is an engaging read.
Lilla attempts to understand the Reactionary Mind, not as the caricature of unthinking impulse put forward by so any of its progressive critics, but rather as an actor every bit as militant and intellectually sophisticated as its revolutionary adversaries.
The defining trait of the reactionary is, according to Lilla, his desire to return to a historical Golden Age, which existed before the corruption of Modern Age. This desire, he contends, is the essence of the Reactionary Mind, a fixation or rather obsession with the past. As he elucidates in his introduction, “[e]very major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of someone’s nostalgia… Political nostalgia reflects a kind of magical thinking about history. The sufferer believes that a discrete Golden Age existed and that he possesses esoteric knowledge of why it ended.”
This broad definition of the reactionary impulse allows Lilla to cast a wide net in search of his quarry, and it’s what allows him to collect such disparate thinkers as Leo Strauss, Alain Badiou, Carl Schmidt, and Alasdair MacIntyre all, neatly, under the same label. These thinker’s philosophies are varied and frequently at odds with each other, but what unites them, for Lilla, is that they all seem to indulge in narratives of historical decline.
It is these historical narratives that strike him as not only false, but obnoxiously pretentious and ultimately dangerous.
The reactionary, according to Lilla, can occupy only one of two roles: either that of a holy fool or a capricious villain. The role of fool is exemplified by the figures of Don Quixote and Emma Bovary, who are:
martyrs of the Gutenberg revolution. The Knight of the Sorrowful Face has absorbed so many tales of sublimated desire and derring-do that he can no longer make out his surroundings. Emma reads of fortunes made and lost, of maidens, plucked from obscurity by dashing counts, of life as an endless ball…Both suffer as we all do, from the fact that the world is not as it should be…Quixote awaits the second coming. His quest is doomed from the start because he is rebelling against the nature of time, which is irreversible and unconquerable…Quixote is under the illusion that the gap he perceives is caused by a historical catastrophe, not that it is simply rooted in life. He is a tragicomic messiah, wandering in the desert of his own imagination.
Lilla sees the quixotic impulse in a sympathetic light: it is a mental disease, for which its sufferers deserve far more pity than scorn. In contrast to his condescending sympathy, however, Lilla can bring himself to feel nothing but revulsion towards those more virulent expressions of reaction, which he identifies in the phenomena of Nazism and contemporary Islamism, which serve as the villains in his story.
Lilla, not being a progressive, is inoculated against the usual counter charge leveled by the reactionary against his opponents, namely that those criticizing his narrative of decline are themselves in thrall to a credulous narrative of linear and inevitable progress. Lilla is as suspicious of these tales of liberal triumph as he is of the reactionary ones of decline. As he states:
Narratives of progress, regress, and cycles all assume a narrative by which historical change happens. It might be the natural laws of the cosmos, the will of God, the dialectical development of the human mind or economic forces. Once we understand the mechanism we are assured of understanding what really happened and what is to come. But what if there is no such mechanism? What if history is subject to sudden eruptions that cannot be explained by any science of temporal tectonics? These are the questions that arise in the face of cataclysms for which no rationalization seems possible and for which no consolation seems possible.
Following in the footsteps of Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin, Lilla rejects the metanarratives of both the revolutionary and the reactionary and in their stead proffers a modest, cynical liberalism, a liberalism he describes at the end of his 2007 work, The Stillborn God, for which The Shipwrecked Mind should be read merely as an addendum to:
We have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good.
So, what’s the problem with Lilla’s seemingly convincing story of fools and villains? Beyond the rather obvious critique that he has fallen into the classic trap of creating a metanarrative whose premise is the rejection of all metanarratives, there are several.
The first is that although Lilla’s analysis manages to expertly capture the essence of the thought of these sophisticated thinkers within the confines of an essay’s length, which is certainly no small feat, in the process he still manages to misread the Reactionary Mind. His analysis, however carefully executed, is never able to escape the gravitational pull of his own disdain for his subjects, whom he perceives as purveyors of simplistic narratives of a fall from a past Golden Age, which will lead, inevitably to attempts at its restoration through the means of political violence.
It’s impossible not to sense that the story he puts forward is just a bit too convenient for him, that it manages to dovetail a little too elegantly with his own subrational affinities for modern liberalism. Lillia is all too eager to assume that, because a certain narrative is, in fact, a myth, that it’s mythological status thus equates it to being a fiction.
Narratives and mythologies gain traction in the societal imagination not only because they provide guidance and meaning in an otherwise chaotic world, but also because their hearers recognize the essential truth of the underlying message they are attempting to communicate.
The unemployed 50-year-old former factory worker looks back at past years with nostalgia, not because he longs for an imagined past which never actually existed, but because the past he is remembering was in reality, quantifiably better than his present condition.
The story is the same for most other practitioners of reactionary nostalgia. The White Russian exiles who sang sad songs of past glories were singing of a time they had actually experienced and which was, for them, manifestly superior to their present condition of dispossession.
Nostalgic myths, though they are frequently dipped in a thick glaze of romanticism, have weight precisely because of the reality of the pasts they invoke, whether the American suburbs of the 1950s, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, or Tolkien’s pre-industrial English Shire. These all were societies that actually existed and whose glories and achievements were very real.
Granted, these glorious pasts may not appear particularly glorious when viewed through the lens of a modern liberal moralism, which fetishizes economic growth, religious pluralism, and the absolute liberty of the atomized individual. But when viewed through a reactionary lens, which places more weight upon values like social cohesion, tradition, and the pursuit of moral goodness, these past societies, in fact, are superior to the modern present in which the reactionary finds himself, in Lilla’s word, “shipwrecked.”
Reactionary nostalgia seduces the minds of men, not because it paints the picture of a Utopia, free of all imperfection, but because it offers examples of societies organized upon superior principles. The reactionary longs for a particular Golden Age, not because he believes it was perfect, but because he believes it was better.
This brings us to the next problem with Lilla’s analysis: he refuses to engage the thinkers he criticizes on their own intellectual and philosophical grounds, instead preferring to obliquely snipe from the treeline, seeking their defeat through the infliction of 1000 sanctimonious insinuations of fascism. Reaction, if its principles are ever manifested in a political context, can end only in a new Holocaust, of this Lilla is certain. This certainty, it seems, is what grants him the indulgence of skipping argumentation entirely in favor of simple assertion.
In fairness, it’s hard to blame him for employing this tactic. For like all wise strategists, he refuses to start a battle whose outcome would be less than certain for him.
Lilla, as an abnormally self-aware liberal, is all too conscious of the fragility of his own tradition, that its genesis in the primordial soup of 17th Protestant sectarianism was more accident than destiny. His liberal beliefs about what values constitute the “good” life are just as baseless (or rather just as much acts of faith) as the reactionaries. He also knows that when he looks to the history of philosophy, he will find no great liberal champions to aid him in the battle against those he criticizes, notwithstanding the pretensions to the contrary of certain deluded pedants who consider the ponderous question begging of a John Stewart Mill or John Rawls to represent triumphs of philosophical imagination.
Ironically, much like his subject, the reactionary, Lilla desires a different world, a world in which humanity would be something other that what it is, a world where, instead of rushing down the blind alley of metaphysics in search of an illusory higher meaning, they would be satisfied with the real and tangible benefits offered by modern liberal society. After all, it’s strange to think that in a modern world full of endless electronic diversions, affordable organic delicacies, and consequence-free sexual congress, anyone should bother wasting their time tilting at windmills.
Ultimately, Lilla desires a human condition more amenable to what Philip Rieff described brilliantly in his 1968 classic, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Rieff, though he was describing Sigmund Freud, the original advocate of Therapeutic culture, could have easily been talking about Lilla when he wrote:
Freud taught lessons which Americans, prepared by their own national experience, learn easily: survive, resign yourself to living within your means, suffer no gratuitous failures in a futile search for ethical heights that no longer exist—if they ever did. Freud proclaims the superior wisdom of choosing the second best…With no place to go for lessons in the conduct of contemporary life, every man must learn, as Freud teaches, to make himself at home in his own grim and gay little Vienna.
The late Christopher Hitchens once lamented that “our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenal glands are too big.” Perhaps in a world where the opposite was the case, Freud and Lilla’s advice would be more easily received by those minds presently in thrall to the glories of ages past–minds who would then find the bounties of modern life as desirable as Lilla seems to believe they are.
Alas, for better or worse, we do not live in such a world. We are stuck, as ever, on this side of paradise. We reside in a world where men and women cannot seem to bring themselves to “live by bread alone,” but rather are frequently drawn toward some mysterious higher vision of what life could be.
Those are troubled souls who wager that it is ultimately “better to take the risk, and engage in fidelity to a Truth-Event, even if it ends in catastrophe than to vegetate in the eventless utilitarian-hedonist survival of what Nietzsche called the ‘last men’,” as Slavoj Žižek put it in his book, Living in the End Times.
Those who share Lilla’s peculiar temperament will surely find such sentiments loathsome, if not dangerous, as these sentiments stand at odds with their own panglossian reading of our present moment, namely that modernity, for all its shortcomings, still represents “the best of all possible worlds,” and that those who oppose its benign hegemony can only be fools or villains.
Lilla claims that man has failed modernity and the reactionary that modernity has failed man, but who is ultimately correct?
The answer will depend on the dispositions and biases those asking the question bring to the discussion and, ultimately, on those eternal values they choose, or choose not, to perceive.
For Don Quixote himself, that enduring symbol of reaction, the answer was obvious: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams—this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness—and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”