Okay, open-minded progressives. You’ve read Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. Quite a bushel of prose. And has any of it changed your mind? Are you ready to stop being a progressive, and start being a reactionary?
Almost certainly not. We haven’t really learned anything here. All we’ve done is plant a couple of little, tiny seeds of doubt. Now we’re going to throw a little water on those seeds, and see if we can maybe get a leaf or two to poke its head out. Don’t expect a full-grown redwood to fly up and hit you in the face. Even when they work, which isn’t often, conversions don’t work that way. Doubt is a slow flower. You have to give it time.
What we’ve seen is that the story of the world that you and I grew up with—a story that is the common heritage of progressives and conservatives alike, although progressives are certainly truer to it—is oddly complicated in spots. The great caravan of the past comes with quite a baggage wagon of paradoxes, each of which needs its own explanation.
So, for example, by one set of standards which seem essential to the progressive mind, the end of colonialism was a great victory for humanity. By another set of standards which it is equally difficult to imagine rejecting, it was a vast human tragedy. Could it be both? A tragic victory, perhaps? Clio was always both poet and historian, and the idea of a tragic victory has definite Empsonian potential. On the other hand, however…
History is big. We shouldn’t expect it to be simple. But we’d like it to be as simple as possible. When we study the errors of others, we see that nonsense often conceals the obvious. And what is nonsense, to those who believe in it? To a Catholic, what is the Trinity? A mystery. Some things are truly mysterious. But others have simple explanations. The Trinity is a compromise designed by a standards committee. History 1, mystery 0.
I hate to beat this colonialism thing to death, but there is an odd little op-ed this morning by former Times foreign correspondent John Darnton. It’s about Robert Mugabe and T. S. Eliot. It’s short and worth a read.
I’ve seen a few similar reminiscences in the fishwrap recently—we’ll let this one serve as an example:
I first heard mention of Mr. Mugabe in May 1976 in the Quill Club of the Ambassador Hotel, a watering hole where Prime Minister Ian Smith’s police, guerrilla sympathizers, reporters and agents from various factions suspended normal antipathies for the sake of gossip. We foreign correspondents used to toss around names of the ultimate leader of the emergent new country like miners testing gold nuggets: Would it be Joshua Nkomo? Ndabaningi Sithole? Jason Moyo?
What’s fascinating about these pieces is how close they come to being apologies. And yet how far away they are.
Because why should John Darnton apologize? What could he possibly be sorry for? You apologize when you’re responsible for something bad that has happened. President Mugabe is clearly a bad egg. But how could Mr. Darnton and his Quill Club friends be responsible for him? They are reporters, that’s all. They report. You decide. And yet there is that phrase—“responsible journalism.”
While we’re on the fishwrap beat, another puzzle was inflicted on Americans this week by a man of the cloth. As one might expect, the smart people of the world have smart explanations, whereas the dumb ones scratch their heads and say “duh”:
Chris Matthews said it best when he said if anything like the 9/11 remarks had been said in his church the weekend after he would certainly have know [sic]. I know that’s true. In 20 years you have never heard anything inflamatory [sic]? It just isn’t believable. He initally [sic] lied the when ABC first aired the tapes. The next night he was asked by three different news medias [sic] and he said he did not hear nor did he know of any of these remarks. Then the following Tuesday, he acknowledged he had heard about them before he announced his candidacy and that’s why he asked him not to come out. Too wierd [sic]!
“Too weird.” Indeed, weirdness is the mother of doubt. Is it not slightly weird that a twenty-year member of the Church of Hate Whitey could become not only the leading candidate for the Presidency, but the candidate who stands for racial harmony? Is it more weird, or less weird, than the fact that Robert Mugabe had no interest in T. S. Eliot?
The thing is: these things don’t seem weird to me. In the progressive story of the world, they are mysteries. They can be explained, but they need to be explained. In the reactionary story of the world, however, they are firmly in dog-bites-man territory.
I have yet to justify this assertion. But as a progressive, you can swallow it without fear. It is not the red pill that will turn you to an instant Jacobite, forcing you to abandon your life, your beliefs, your friends and lovers, and replace them with an ascetic and fanatical devotion to the doomed old cause of the Royal Stuarts. (Though at least you’d still “oppose Republicanism.”)
Because even if we admit that the progressive story has these little lacunae, the reactionary story has giant, gaping holes. In fact, it’s hard to even say there is a reactionary story. If there was, how would you know it? What would Archbishop Laud make of the iPhone? Of jazz? Of Harley-Davidson? The mind, she boggles.
Hopefully she will boggle slightly less after you read the following. Which will still not turn you into a Jacobite—but might at least help you understand the temptation.
Before we can tell the reactionary story, we have to define these weird words, progressive and reactionary. Vast tomes have been devoted to this purpose. But let’s make it as simple: to be progressive is to be left-wing. To be reactionary is to be right-wing.
What is this weird political axis? As you may know, the terms left and right come from the seating arrangements in the French Legislative Assembly. A body no longer in existence. Yet somehow, the dimension remains relevant. It is easy to say that if Barack, Hillary and McCain were seated in the Legislative Assembly, Hillary would be sitting to the right of Barack, and McCain would be to the right of Hillary.
Moreover, we can apply the axis to events even before 1791. For example, we can say that in the Reformation, Catholicism was right-wing and Protestantism left-wing. This gets a little confusing in the post-1945 era—most pre-20C Catholics would find the present-day Church quite, um, Protestant. (If you are unconvinced of this, you may enjoy Novus Ordo Watch.) But there is really no Catholic equivalent of the Münster Republic, the Levellers, etc., etc.
Of course, politics is not a quantitative science (or a science at all), and sometimes it can be a little tricky to decide who is to the left or right of whom. But it’s really quite amazing that this linear criterion can be applied so effectively across five centuries of human history. (It even works pretty well on the Greeks and Romans.)
Imagine, for instance, that we wanted to classify music along a linear axis. Is Bach to the right of the Beatles? Okay, probably. Are the Stones to the left of the Beatles? Where does the Cure fit in? And John Coltrane? And the Dead Kennedys? What about Einstürzende Neubauten? Are they to the right of Tom Petty, or the left? Is Varg Vikernes between them? And how does he stack up next to 50 Cent?
Each of these musicians represents a way of thinking about music. None of them invented music, nor are any of them unique. They are members of movements. If we have trouble classifying the individual artists, we should at least be able to classify the movements. So is punk to the left of goth? Is baroque to the right of death metal, gangsta rap, ragtime, etc.? We remain completely lost. I’m sure you could arrange all these musical forms on a line, if you had to. And so could I. But I doubt our answers would be the same.
Yet strangely, in the political sphere, this works. Indeed we take it for granted. Why should philosophies of music be all over the map, but philosophies of government arrange themselves along one consistent dimension?
Feel free to come up with your own answer. Here is mine.
Let’s start with the obvious. A reactionary—i.e., a right-winger—is someone who believes in order, stability, and security. All of which he treats as synonyms.
Think, as a progressive, about the simplicity of this proposition. It is so stupid as to be almost mindless. What is the purpose of government? Why do we have government, rather than nothing? Because the alternative is Corner Man.
Note that Corner Man has his own philosophy of government. He exercises sovereignty. That’s his corner. (“Metro [the Las Vegas PD] can’t even get me off this ---- corner.”) Indeed, he has much the same relationship to the government that you and I know and love, that Henry VIII had to the Pope. And how did he acquire his corner? “I’ve been on this ---- corner for ten ---- years.” In legal theory this is called adverse possession, which is more or less how the Tudors acquired their little island.
Of course, we reactionaries are not fans of Corner Man, largely because his claim to the corner is contested by a superior authority which will prevail in any serious conflict. Why does he attack the blue PT Cruiser? Is it because he’s on crack? Perhaps, but perhaps it’s also because the driver owes allegiance to the other side of the conflict—“Metro”—and neither has nor would acknowledge Corner Man’s authority. For example, she has not paid him any taxes, fees, or rents for the privilege of positioning her vehicle on his (so-called) territory.
One synonym for reactionary is legitimist. When the legitimist asks whether Corner Man really owns his corner, he is not asking whether Corner Man should own his corner. He asks whether Corner Man does own his corner. And his answer is “no.” He prefers the claim of “Metro,” not (or not just) because “Metro” is not in the habit of getting loaded and bashing the holy heck out of random peoples’ cars, but because “Metro” and Corner Man have conflicting claims, and in the end, the former is almost certain to win.
And when he asks whether the Bourbons are the legitimate rulers of France or the Stuarts of England, he is not asking whether (a) the Bourbon or Stuart family has some hereditary biological property that makes their scions ideal for the job (midichlorians, perhaps), or (b) the Bourbon or Stuart will suffer intolerably as a result of being deprived of the throne, or even (c) the Bourbon or Stuart families obtained their original claims fairly and squarely. At least, not if he has any sense. None of these arguments is even close to viable.
Thus, the order that the rational reactionary seeks to preserve and/or restore is arbitrary. Perhaps it can be justified on some moral basis. But probably not. It is good simply because it is order, and the alternative to order is violence at worst and politics at best. If the Bourbons do not rule France, someone will—Robespierre, or Napoleon, or Corner Man.
One of the difficulties in resurrecting classical reactionary thought is that when this idea was expressed in the 17th century, it came out in the form of theology. Who put the Stuarts in charge of England? God did. Obviously. And you don’t want to argue with God. For a believer in Divine Providence, this is pretty much unanswerable. For a 21st-century reactionary, it won’t do at all.
Perhaps the best and most succinct statement of the reactionary philosophy of government—especially considering the context—was this one:
Truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever; but I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consists of having of government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having a share in government, sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and sovereign are clean different things.
While I’m not prepared to endorse the author on all matters whatsoever (and I feel that chartered companies are more likely to produce effective neoreactionary government than royal families, Stuart or otherwise), I agree with every word of the above. At least for me, it makes a fine endpoint to the axis: it is impossible to be more reactionary than Charles I.
So we know what a reactionary is: a believer in order. What is a progressive?
Here is the problem. We only have one dimension to work with. We know that a progressive is the polar opposite of a reactionary. So if a reactionary is a believer in order, a progressive is—a believer in disorder? A believer in mayhem? A believer in chaos?
Well, of course, this is exactly what a reactionary would say. (In fact, Dr. Johnson did say it.) The only problem is that it’s obviously not true. When you, dear progressive, watch the clip of Corner Man, do you revel in the crunch of smashing glass, the screams of the victims, the thrill of wanton destruction? Um, no. You’re horrified, just like me.
Let’s put aside this question of order for the moment. We know that reactionaries believe in order. We know that progressives do not believe in chaos. But we know that reactionaries are the opposite of progressives. Is this a paradox? It is, and we will resolve it. But not quite yet.
We can say quite easily that a progressive is someone who believes in progress. That is, he or she believes the world is moving toward—or at least should be moving toward—some state which is an improvement on the present condition of affairs.
This is what Barack Obama means when he talks about change. Why do he and his listeners assume so automatically that this change will be for the better? Isn’t this word neutral? Change means a transition to something different. Different could be better. Or it could be worse. Surely the matter deserves some clarification.
The obvious explanation is that since Obama and his followers will be doing the changing, they will make sure that the result is desirable—at least, to them.
I find this answer inadequate. It implies that progressives are egocentric, humorless, and incapable of self-criticism. I’m sure this is true of some. I’m sure it is also true of some reactionaries—although these days you need a pretty solid sense of humor to even consider being a reactionary. But it is rude to apply a pejorative derivation to an entire belief system, and nor is it particularly accurate in my experience.
A better answer is that today’s progressives see themselves as the modern heirs of a tradition of change, stretching back to the Enlightenment. They see change as inherently good because they see this history as a history of progress, i.e., improvement. In other words, they believe in Whig history.
Whether you are a progressive, a reactionary, or anything in between, I highly recommend the recent documentary Your Mommy Kills Animals, about the animal-rights movement. In it there is a clip of Ingrid Newkirk in which she makes the following proposition: animal rights is a social-justice movement. All social-justice movements in the past have been successful. Therefore, the animal-rights movement will inevitably succeed.
This is pure Whig history. It postulates a mysterious force that animates the course of history, and operates inevitably in the progressive direction. Note the circular reasoning: social justice succeeds because social justice is good. How do we know that social justice is good? Because it succeeds, and good tends to triumph over evil. How do we know that good tends to triumph over evil? Well, just look at the record of social-justice movements.
Which is impressive indeed. If there is any constant phenomenon in the last few hundred years of Western history, it’s that—with occasional reversals—reactionaries tend to lose and progressives tend to win. Whether you call them progressives, liberals, Radicals, Jacobins, republicans, or even revolutionaries, socialists or communists, the left is your winning team.
What’s interesting about this effect is the number of theories that have been proposed to explain it. Richard Dawkins attributes it to a mysterious force which he calls the Zeitgeist. Dawkins, to his great credit, allows as how he has no understanding of the effect. It is just a variable without which his equations won’t balance, like Einstein’s cosmological constant.
Others of a more theological bent have attributed the effect to Divine Providence. (Note that the success of progressivism quite conclusively disproves the Providential theory of divine-right monarchy.) And then of course there is our old friend, dialectical materialism. Since all these theories are mutually inconsistent, let’s reserve our judgment by calling this mysterious left-favoring force the W-force—W, for Whig.
What explains the W-force? One easy explanation is that it’s just the interaction of hindsight and a random walk. Everything changes over time—including opinions. Since by definition we consider ourselves enlightened, history appears as a progress from darkness to light.
For example, Professor Dawkins, since he is a progressive, sees the modern tolerance of gays and lesbians as genuine progress (I happen to agree). And for the same reason, he sees the modern intolerance of slavery in just the same way.
However, if these changes are indeed arbitrary, a random walk could reverse them. Professor Dawkins’ great-great-grandchildren could then explain to us, just as sincerely, the great moral advance of society, which early in the 21st century still turned a blind eye to rampant sodomy and had no conception of the proper relationship between man and servant.
While this theory is amusing, it is pretty clearly wrong. It depends on the fact that we don’t yet have a good definition of what it means to be “progressive.” But it clearly does mean something. We don’t see these kinds of reversals. We see consistent movement in a single direction. Furthermore, we know that progress is the opposite of reaction, and we have a very good definition of reaction. And we know that reaction tends to lose. That isn’t random.
Another phenomenon that people often invoke implicitly is the advance of science and engineering, which indeed is very like the W-force. It is easy to assume, for example, that Charles I could not possibly have anything to say to us on the theory of government, because—to paraphrase Hilaire Belloc—we have the iPhone, and he did not.
Of course, all the forms of government we know today were known not only to Charles I, but also to Aristotle. We know why science and engineering have advanced monotonically: it is much easier to create knowledge than destroy it. Since the American approach to government, which has now spread around the world, not only considerably predates iPhones but was in fact based on ancient Greek models, the analogy is quite spurious. It rests on little more than the double meaning of the word “progress.”
Another way to evaluate this question is to imagine that the technology of the present suddenly became available to the societies of the past. Stuart iPhones simply break the brain, but we can imagine what the reactionary England of 1808, in which approximately twelve people had the vote and small children were hanged for inappropriate use of the word “God,” would make of 21st-century technology. I suspect they would do pretty much what they did with 19th-century technology—use it to take over the world.
We should also seriously consider the possibility that the W-force is exactly what it claims to be, and that good really does have a tendency to triumph over evil. Unfortunately, when we examine political turmoil at the micro level, this is not the tendency we see—the classic case being the French Revolution.
Why did the French Revolution, the vast majority of whose initiators meant nothing but the best for their country, go so sour? A simple explanation is that good people are scrupulous, and evil ones are not. Thus, the latter have more freedom of action than the former. Thus, those who are amoral and simply wish to get ahead in life should choose the side of evil. Thus, good is outnumbered and evil is reinforced, producing the Yeats effect:
The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.
Anyone who has not seen this in practice has no experience of human affairs.
I’m afraid I have no rational progressive explanation for the W-force. If anyone else does, I’d be curious to hear it. Professor Dawkins might be curious to hear it as well.) I do, however, have a reactionary explanation.
I purpose to write the history of England from the accession of King James the Second down to a time which is within the memory of men still living. I shall recount the errors which, in a few months, alienated a loyal gentry and priesthood from the House of Stuart. I shall trace the course of that revolution which terminated the long struggle between our sovereigns and their parliaments, and bound up together the rights of the people and the title of the reigning dynasty. I shall relate how the new settlement was, during many troubled years, successfully defended against foreign and domestic enemies; how, under that settlement, the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known; how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example; how our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers; how her opulence and her martial glory grew together; how, by wise and resolute good faith, was gradually established a public credit fruitful of marvels which to the statesmen of any former age would have seemed incredible; how a gigantic commerce gave birth to a maritime power, compared with which every other maritime power, ancient or modern, sinks into insignificance; how Scotland, after ages of enmity, was at length united to England, not merely by legal bonds, but by indissoluble ties of interest and affection; how, in America, the British colonies rapidly became far mightier and wealthier than the realms which Cortes and Pizarro had added to the dominions of Charles the Fifth; how in Asia, British adventurers founded an empire not less splendid and more durable than that of Alexander.
Okay. Imagine you are the leader of a daring, futuristic, secret science project whose goal is to resurrect the mind of Macaulay, by digitizing scraps of rotten tissue from his cranium, applying a holographic reconstruction algorithm, and simulating the result in a giant supercomputer. After great effort, you succeed. Macaulay lives. You connect the computer to the Internet. Running at superhuman speed, it downloads gigabytes of information from La Wik and other reliable sources. It says nothing. It is merely processing. Macaulay is revising his great history of England. You wait, breathless, as he reacts to the last 150 years. Finally the screen flashes to life and produces a single sentence:
And then it all went to shit.
The trouble is that the people who run England now, while they are progressive to a T and consider themselves very much the heirs of the British liberal tradition, have different objective standards of success than Macaulay. By Tony Blair’s standards, Great Britain is doing better than ever. By Macaulay’s standards, it is a disaster area.
What happened? The W-force itself. With its customary glacial irresistibility, it has been driving the center of British politics steadily to the left for the last 150 years. Meanwhile, poor Macaulay has been stuck in his own cranium, just rotting. He has had no chance to adapt. So he still has the same opinions he held in 1859, which in the world of 2008 put him somewhere to the right of John Tyndall. If I think of Gordon Brown’s Labour as the left edge of my screen and David Cameron’s Tories as the right, Macaulay is somewhere out on the fire escape.
Of course, if you are a progressive with a soft spot for Macaulay—despite some of his rather, um, Eurocentric opinions—you might assume that by reading the last 150 years of history, he would realize that New Labour is exactly where it’s at. I suppose this is a matter of opinion. Perhaps Gordon Brown really is that convincing.
However, we also need to consider the possibility that Macaulay would be convinced in the opposite direction. Given the fact that the state of England today would horrify him, he might well be open to moving further out on the fire escape—a reaction not dissimilar to the response that 18th-century Whigs, such as Burke (yes, Burke was a Whig) had to the Reign of Terror.
The absolute shibboleth of the 18th-century and 19th-century British liberal movement, for example, was the proposition that a fundamentally aristocratic government could resist democratic pressures by conceding a mixed constitution. Contemporary commenters on the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 are constantly explaining that Tory or Adullamite right-wing resistance to these measures was not only futile, but actually dangerous—it could spark an actual, French-style revolution.
Indeed the entire constitution of post-1688 Britain was based on this proposition, because it was based on the concept of constitutional monarchy—as opposed to that dreaded Jacobite abomination, “absolute” monarchy. And how exactly did that one work out? As La Wik puts it:
As originally conceived, a constitutional monarch was quite a powerful figure, head of the executive branch even though his or her power was limited by the constitution and the elected parliament… An evolution in political thinking would, however, eventually spawn such phenomena as universal suffrage and political parties. By the mid 20th century, the political culture in Europe had shifted to the point where most constitutional monarchs had been reduced to the status of figureheads, with no effective power at all. Instead, it was the democratically elected parliaments, and their leader, the prime minister who had become those who exercised power.
If, in 1688, you had insisted that the concept of a “constitutional monarchy” was a contradiction in terms, that “constitutional” simply meant “symbolic” and the upshot of the whole scheme would simply be a return to the rule of Parliament, you were a Jacobite. Plain and simple.
And you were also dead wrong—for about two centuries. Most of the royal powers died with George III, but even Queen Victoria exercised a surprising amount of authority over the operations of “her” government. No longer. If the W-force has made anything clear, it’s that constitutional monarchy is not a stable form of government. Nor is restricted suffrage. There is simply no compromise with democracy—good or bad.
Moreover, 19th-century classical liberals promised over and over again that democracy, despite the obvious mathematics of the situation, need not lead to what we now call “socialism.” Supposedly the English people, with their stern moral fibre, would never tolerate it. Etc.
The lesson of history is quite clear. Whether you love the W-force or hate it, surrendering to it is not an effective way to resist it. There is no stable point along the left–right axis at which the W-force, having exacted all the concessions to which justice entitles it, simply disappears. Oh, no. It always wants more. “I can has cheezburger?”
The persistence of this delusion in Anglo-American thought is quite remarkable. For example, I was reading Harold Temperley’s life of George Canning, from 1905, when I came across this amazing passage on the Holy Alliance:
Despite the great revolution the despots of Europe had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, except their one saving grace of benevolence. The paternal system of government has not succeeded where strong local institutions or feelings exist, and for this reason Austria has never conciliated or subdued Hungary. But the Holy Alliance proposed a sort of patriarchal system of government for all Europe, which could not really have applied to those nations where free constitutions or strong patriotic feeling still remained. These proved indeed to be to Metternich and Alexander what Kossuth and Deak have been to Francis Joseph. Metternich did not understand the changes created by the French Revolution in the ideas and hearts of men. He thought he could tear a page from the Book of History, and destroy both the memory and the hope of liberty. He believed that re-action could be permanent, that new ideals and opinions could be crushed, and the world again beguiled into the dreary inaction which characterized the home politics of all nations before 1789.
“Dreary inaction!” “Their one saving grace of benevolence!”
Friends, the world today is not such an awful place. Corner Man aside. But compared to what it would be if “dreary inaction” had prevailed in the world since 1905, it is a sewer and a slum and a dungheap.
Think of all the beautiful people who would have lived, all the beautiful cities that would not have been bombed, all the hideous ones that would not have been built. The Napoleonic Wars were a garden-party compared to the First and Second World Wars. The French Revolution was a garden-party compared to the Russian. And, as we’ve seen, the Whig foreign policy of exporting democracy as a universal remedy for all ills, as practiced by both Canning and Temperley, does not appear entirely unconnected with these tragedies.
Temperley is even wrong about the small stuff. The hot-blooded Hungarians? Snoring soundly in the arms of Brussels. And before that, Moscow. Which had far less trouble with Nagy than Franz Josef had with Kossuth. No constitutions conceded there! So much for the “Book of History.”
Moreover, Temperley didn’t even need the future to prove him wrong about Metternich—who, as Deogolwulf points out, if anything exaggerated the eventual futility of his efforts. Europe’s era of pure reaction was short, but the years between 1815 and 1848 were great ones. (Don’t miss the Wulf’s rare sally into long form, wherein he devastates the Enlightenment in the shape of the distinguished Professor Grayling—who turns up in the comment barrel, and receives the brisk filleting his name suggests.)
This brings us to the failed project of conservatism, which puts its money in a slightly different place—the proposition that all the concessions made to the W-force in the past are good and necessary, but any further concessions are bad and unnecessary. The Confederate theologian R. L. Dabney dispensed with this quite eloquently:
It may be inferred again that the present movement for women’s rights will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution, to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always when about to enter a protest very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy, from having nothing to whip. No doubt, after a few years, when women’s suffrage shall have become an accomplished fact, conservatism will tacitly admit it into its creed, and thenceforward plume itself upon its wise firmness in opposing with similar weapons the extreme of baby suffrage; and when that too shall have been won, it will be heard declaring that the integrity of the American Constitution requires at least the refusal of suffrage to donkeys. There it will assume, with great dignity, its final position.
I’m sure Rev. Dabney would have regarded the era of Ingrid Newkirk with great amusement.
However, note how thoroughly hoist on his own petard he is. The proposition that suffrage is a bad idea, period, may not be one you regard as defensible—but it is surely more defensible than the proposition that all men should be able to vote, but not all women. (Or white men and not black men, another proposition of which the Rev. Dabney was convinced. Note that this bastion also proved impractical to defend.)
So: we still do not understand the W-force. Nor do we understand why reaction is the polar opposite of progressivism. Nor do we have any theory which explains in which cases the latter is good, and in which cases it is bad.
But Dabney and Metternich suggest a very different way of dealing with it. Perhaps if you actually oppose the W-force, the most effective way to oppose it is simply to… oppose it.
After all, as a progressive, you oppose racism. Is the most effective way to oppose racism to give it a little air, to let it blow off steam—to be just a little bit racist, but not too much? It strikes me that the most effective way to oppose racism is simply to not tolerate it at all.
As a progressive, you support democracy. But if you set this aside, wouldn’t your advice to a government that opposed democracy simply be the same? If you, with full hindsight, were advising Charles I, would you really advise him to let the Parliament execute Strafford, on the grounds that it might sate their lust for necks?
What I’m suggesting is that the W-force actually behaves as an inverted pendulum, perhaps with a bit of a delay loop. As an “absolute” monarch, the best strategy for maintaining your rule is to preserve your sovereignty entirely intact. Ripping off chunks of it and throwing them to the wolves only seems to encourage the critters.
Why was this not obvious to the kings and princes of old Europe? Perhaps it was obvious. The trouble was that absolute monarchy was always an ideal, never a reality. Every sovereign in history has been a creature of politics—not democratic politics, perhaps, but politics still. At the very least, a king who loses the support of the army is finished. So the pendulum is not quite vertical, and it’s all too easy to let it do what it obviously wants to do.
The inverted-pendulum model suggests that, for a stable and coherent nondemocratic state, eliminating politics requires very little repressive energy. Singapore, Dubai and China, for example, all have their secret police—as did the 19th-century Hapsburgs. Each of these governments is very different from the others, but they are all terrified of the W-force. Yet they manage to restrain it, without either falling prey to democracy or opening death camps.
Residents of these countries can think whatever they like. They can even say whatever they like. It is only when they actually organize that they get in trouble. If you don’t want the Ministry of Public Security to bother you, don’t start or join an antigovernment movement. Certainly this is not ideal—I don’t think this blog would be tolerated in China, and my image of the ideal state is one in which you can start all the antigovernment movements you want, as long as they don’t involve guns or bombs. However, when we compare this level of infringement of personal freedom to the experience of daily life under Stalin or Hitler, we are comparing peanuts to pumpkins.
Why does China not tolerate peaceful antigovernment politics? Because “people power” can defeat the People’s Liberation Army? No. Because China is not a perfectly stable state, and it knows that quite well. Within the Chinese Communist Party, there is politics galore. One move that is off-limits for contending figures within the Chinese regime, however, is imposing one’s will on one’s adversaries by means of mob politics. Almost everyone in any position of responsibility in the PRC today was personally scarred by the Cultural Revolution, in which China felt all the vices of democracy and none of its virtues. Only by outlawing politics can the Party hold itself together.
Note that in 1989 the Chinese government broke the cardinal rule of Whig government: never fire on a mob. As John F. Kennedy put it, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Not only did the Chinese government make peaceful revolution impossible—they made peaceful revolution violent. And the result? Violent revolution? No—twenty years of peace, unparalleled prosperity, and personal if not political freedom. As philosophers say, one white raven refutes the assertion that all ravens are black.
The inverted-pendulum model of the W-force gives us a great way to understand Hitler. Yes: Hitler was a reactionary. I am a reactionary. Yikes! If I ever feel the need to grow a mustache, which I won’t, I’ll have to make sure it extends well past the nose on both sides. Perhaps waxing and curling the tips is just the only way.
Nazism, and fascism in general, was a reactionary movement. It was also the product of a very unusual set of circumstances in history. The fascisms emerged in countries in which the top level of the political system had been turned over to liberals, but many remnants of the ancien régime still existed—notably in the security forces and judiciary system—and retained considerable popular support among the petit-bourgeois or Townie caste.
So the pendulum was a long, long way from top dead center. But the system still had a crude mechanism by which it could be brutally yanked back: street violence. Hitler and Mussolini came to power partly by good old democratic politics, and partly by using their thugs to intimidate their political opponents. This would not have been possible without a security system which tolerated this sort of behavior. When the SA had street fights with the Communists, the SA men tended to get off and the Communists get long jail sentences.
Note how much effort post-1945 governments invest in making sure this particular horse does not escape from this particular barn. There is zero official tolerance for right-wing political violence in any Western country today. (There is a good bit of tolerance for left-wing violence, notably the European antifas, who are the real heirs of Ernst Röhm.) Classical fascism simply does not work without a hefty supply of judges who are willing to “let boys be boys.”
The Western judicial systems today cannot be described as reactionary in any way, shape or form. Thus, if you are a progressive, you can cross fascism—at least, good old 1930s-style fascism—off your list of worries. And if you are a reactionary, you can cross it off your list of tricks to try. Considering the results of the 1930s, I have to regard this as a good thing.
Okay. Enough suspense. Enough digressions. Let’s explain the W-force. Let’s also explain why progressivism is the opposite of reaction. In fact, let’s explain them both with the same theory.
Progressives do not, in general, believe in chaos. (Imagine breaking into the Obama website and replacing all uses of the word “change” with “chaos.” Happy, chanting crowds, holding placards that just say “CHAOS…” Frankly, the whole thing is creepy enough as it is.) Nor do they believe in disorder, mayhem, destruction, or doing a massive pile of crack and smashing the crap out of some poor woman’s car.
Rather, when you look at what progressives, Whigs, republicans, and other anti-reactionaries actually believe in—whether they are supporters of Obama, Lafayette, Herzen, or any other paladin of the people’s cause—it is rarely (although not never) the simple, nihilistic liquidation of the present order. It is always the construction of some new order, which is at least intended as an improvement on the present one.
However, in order to construct this new order, two things need to happen. One: the builders of the new order need to gain power. Two: they need to destroy the old order, which by its insistence on continuing to exist obstructs the birth of the new.
In the progressive mind, these indispensable tasks are not objectives. They are methods. They may even be conceived as unpleasant, if necessary, duties.
One fascinating fact about the presidential campaign of 2008 is that both Democratic candidates are, or at least at one point were, disciples of Saul Alinsky. Clinton actually studied and corresponded with Alinsky. Obama was an Alinskyist “community organizer.” Next year, we may well have our first Alinskyist president.
Last year, the New Republic—not a reactionary publication—published an excellent article on Obama’s Alinskyist roots. I’m afraid this piece is required reading for all progressives. If you are still a progressive after reading it, at least you know what you’re involved with. Here’s the bit that jumped out for me:
Alinsky’s contribution to community organizing was to create a set of rules, a clear-eyed and systemic approach that ordinary citizens can use to gain public power. The first and most fundamental lesson Obama learned was to reassess his understanding of power. Horwitt says that, when Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: “You want to organize for power!”
Galluzzo shared with me the manual he uses to train new organizers, which is little different from the version he used to train Obama in the ’80s. It is filled with workshops and chapter headings on understanding power: “power analysis,” “elements of a power organization,” “the path to power.” Galluzzo told me that many new trainees have an aversion to Alinsky’s gritty approach because they come to organizing as idealists rather than realists. But Galluzzo’s manual instructs them to get over these hang-ups. “We are not virtuous by not wanting power,” it says. “We are really cowards for not wanting power,” because “power is good” and “powerlessness is evil.”
The other fundamental lesson Obama was taught is Alinsky’s maxim that self-interest is the only principle around which to organize people. (Galluzzo’s manual goes so far as to advise trainees in block letters: “get rid of do-gooders in your church and your organization.”) Obama was a fan of Alinsky’s realistic streak. “The key to creating successful organizations was making sure people’s self-interest was met,” he told me, “and not just basing it on pie-in-the-sky idealism. So there were some basic principles that remained powerful then, and in fact I still believe in.”[…] Obama so mastered the workshops on power that he later taught them himself. On his campaign website, one can find a photo of Obama in a classroom teaching students Alinskian methods. He stands in front of a blackboard on which he has written, “Power Analysis” and “Relationships Built on Self Interest,” an idea illustrated by a diagram of the flow of money from corporations to the mayor.
(I haven’t looked for this picture. I suspect the site has probably been updated.)1
Here is my theory about progressivism: it is a “Relationship Built on Self Interest.” It is exactly what Alinsky says it is: a way for people who want power to organize. It brings them together around the oldest human pleasure other than sex: ganging up on your enemies. It lets them rationalize this ruthless, carnivorous activity as a philanthropic cause. But the real attraction is the thrill of power and victory—sometimes with a little money thrown in.
This is why the likes of a Temperley cannot imagine a world of “dreary inaction,” with no politics at all for anyone. “That is nothing pertaining to them.” Obama once tried to take a regular job at an ordinary company. He felt dead in it. It was like feeding a dog on turnips. Carnivores need meat.
What made Alinsky so effective was that he dispensed with the romantic euphemisms. He just described the thing as what it is. You have to admire him for that, I feel. A Lafayette, a Herzen, or almost any 19th-century republican outside the Marxist department, would have been absolutely appalled by Alinsky. But the fact is that they were basically in the same business.
So the progressive is, indeed, the polar opposite of the reactionary. Just as order and stability are essential to reaction, disorder and destruction are essential to progressivism.
The progressive never sees it this way. His goal is never to produce disorder and destruction. Unless he is Alinsky himself, he is very unlikely to think directly in terms of seizing power and smashing his enemies. Usually there is some end which is unequivocally desirable—often even from the reactionary perspective.
But if you could somehow design a progressive movement that could achieve its goal without seizing power or smashing its enemies, it would have little energy and find few supporters. What makes these movements so popular is the opportunity for action and the prospect of victory. To defeat them, ensure that they have no chance of success. No one loves a loser.
This theory also explains why progressive movements can produce results which are good. One: their goals have to be good, at least from their followers’ perspective. Since these are not evil people we’re talking about, their definition of good is often the same as yours or mine. And two: if progressivism is an essentially destructive force, some things still do need destroying.
Let’s take homophobia, for example, because this is one area on which (despite my breeder tendencies) I am fully in agreement with the most advanced progressive thinking. And yet, the destruction of homophobia is an act of violent cultural hegemony. Americans and Europeans have considered homosexuality sick, evil and wrong since Jesus was a little boy. If you have the power to tell people they can’t believe this anymore, you have the power to tell them just about anything. In this case, you are using your superpowers for good.2 Is this always so?
As for the W-force, while the inverted pendulum is a good physical analogy, there is another: entropy.
Progressivism is obviously entropic. Obviously, its enemy is order. Progressives instinctively despise formality, authority, and hierarchy. Reactionary political theorists such as Hobbes liked to conceive the state in terms of an ordered system, a sort of clockwork. Progressivism is sand in the gears of the clock.
More subtly, however, the real entropic effect is in the progressive method of capturing power not by seizing the entire state, but by biting off little chunks of it wherever it sticks out. The effect is a steady increase in the complexity of the state’s decision-making process. And complexity, of course, is the same thing as entropy.
An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives
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