Neoreaction: is it for real? Part I

by rightscholarship

Nietzsche in uniform.

My posts on this blog are few and far between, mainly due to time constraints. I wish I had more time to blog, and I also wish I had more time to read the blogs of others. Lately, though, I’ve managed to squeeze in some blog surfing time in order to further explore the “neoreactionary” community and the other blogging communities in its orbit.

Although I don’t agree with everything I read from the neoreactionary community, it is exhilarating to come across a group of people with ideas similar to my own, engaged in what I consider to be productive discussion. I admire their non-academic intellectualism, as I think it allows for much greater diversity of thought than mainstream academic discourse.

The neoreactionaries are not afraid of reasoned discussion and debate, but they do not write in an academic style or make use of the fashionable keywords of academic discourse; instead, they write informally and create their own neologisms. They are largely removed from the mainstream of academic books and journals (although I believe a small number may be professors or students), but at the same time they conduct real research, in some cases digging up long-forgotten reactionary literature that is relevant to our contemporary situation. My only concern in this regard is that while neologisms and informal language allow writers to grasp at new ideas, they also make it difficult for writers to determine if what they are saying has been said before, or if they are blurring ideas that should be distinct. In one important respect, which I will examine here, such aversion to pre-existing analytical frameworks may lead neoreaction into error.

My concerns follow from the question in the title of this post: is neoreaction for real? As to whether neoreaction is serious or just a virtual pose, I expect it’s somewhere in-between, but I assume that we are not dealing with satire, and that the neoreactionaries stand behind at least some of their ideas. Whether they would maintain them under the pressures of failure, ridicule, blacklisting or worse, I don’t know, but I don’t know if I could handle such pressures either, which is why my blog is anonymous for now. However, when I ask if neoreaction is for real, this is not exactly what I mean. To explain what I mean, I will first highlight a key characteristic of neoreaction in its treatment of the history of reactionary thought.

Mencius Moldbug is widely considered a seminal neoreactionary blogger, and I have given some of his work a close read. Moldbug’s writing is compelling in the way it balances humour, criticism and historical insight, and his approach to cultural critique is what I would call a form of reactionary historicism.

A historicist approach to history is one that prioritizes historical context. Thus, to understand a particular historical event, one must understand the event from the perspective of those living at that historical moment and in that cultural context. The historian must, at least temporarily, suspend judgement and artificially limit his historical horizon. Historicism is part of the fabric of modern intellectual life: most of us can appreciate the scientific genius of Ptolemy if we place his geocentric astronomy in its historical and cultural context; few would call him stupid for not knowing that the earth revolves around the sun.

Moldbug’s “red pill” prescription is a strong dose of history from the perspective of those considered the “bad guys” in the liberal historical narrative. His focus is American history, but any historical conflict can be analyzed using his technique, which I would describe as follows: using primary sources, conduct research into those historical agents commonly deemed to be on the wrong side of history, and determine if these agents were really as misguided, prejudiced, or evil as they are portrayed to be. Usually it turns out that they were not.

Generally speaking, I am a fan of Moldbug’s approach. Books like William Thomas Walsh’s Characters of the Inquisition or A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War are examples of excellent red pill books, and list goes on. However, Moldbug’s historicism provides only a temporary antidote to the poison that traps people in the liberal Matrix. It does not provide a cure.

If Moldbug practises a form of reactionary historicism, his enemy, the “Cathedral,” is a tangible manifestation of the progressive historicism that still guides American politics and public policy. I should note that the progressive historicism of today is far removed from the more naive progressive historicism of the nineteenth century. Still, America and the West in general has not been able to shake the idea that history unfolds according to a process that will ultimately lead to universal freedom and wisdom. Black presidents, gay marriage, greater reproductive freedom, popes that are cool with atheists: these are all signs of progress! Of course, the question arises: progress toward what? Today the answer seems to be universal social inclusivity. Human differences of all kinds must be acknowledged and accepted. The philosopher/bureaucrat/possible Soviet agent Alexandre Kojève described the mechanics of the logic of inclusivity (or “recognition,” as seen from a Marxist-Hegelian perspective) as leading to a “universal and homogenous state,” in which all the great social conflicts of history will ultimately resolve. The Canadian conservative philosopher George Grant, following from Leo Strauss, saw this universal and homogenous state as the dwelling place of Nietzsche’s “last man”–the neutered, self-satisfied shell of mankind (think, for example, the Obamacare Pyjama Boy). It seems to me that behind Moldbug’s Cathedral lies the shadow of the universal and homogenous state. By showing how history has treated its bad guys, Moldbug implies that total social inclusivity–the kind demanded by both the Cathedral and the universal and homogenous state–is impossible, since it requires us to exclude (through ostracization or liquidation) those who do not see inclusivity as our ultimate goal.

So far so good: reactionary historicism is a potent red pill that allows us to understand what is excluded by the aspiration to total social inclusivity. It frees us from the liberal Matrix and allows us to see the Cathedral as the oppressive entity that it is. The problem is that both reactionary and progressive historicism have a close ally, radical historicism, that has been wreaking havoc in both European and North American culture since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, and which has undermined many previous attempts at developing a cohesive reactionary political program. Radical historicism (I borrow this designation from George Grant, who borrowed it from Leo Strauss), like reactionary historicism, accepts that the Matrix is a powerful illusion. However, following from its greatest exponent, Nietzsche, it claims that all is history, and that all is relative: there is no privileged vantage point from which we can judge the past. The red pill does not disclose reality, because there is no stable reality to disclose. You take the red pill, and you are simply plunged into another Matrix. One Matrix follows another, in endless supply. How do you get out? You don’t. You learn to love whichever Matrix you have been plunged into, accept it despite its falsity, and use it to your advantage. Thus, the goal of life is not to discover the truth but to live as fully as possible, even in an illusory world. Commitment, immersion, conflict and action are not means to ends but ends in themselves. The neo-Nazi is often an unwitting devotee of this philosophy. He and his comrades participate in a mythology that provides unity, demands discipline and hardship, and (in their wildest imaginings) promises glorious battle and victory in the future. That neo-Nazism has no real political potential is irrelevant (at least from the perspective of Nietzschean radical historicism). It allows the neo-Nazi to break free from the workaday world and recover a sense of danger, conflict, and impending struggle–and that’s what counts. Such a person could just as well be a fanatical communist who cares more about the future showdown with capitalism than what will come after, or a feminist social justice advocate who finds her greatest delight in stoking feminist rage, caring little whether systemic misogyny is real or not or whether any particular rape story is true or not. This type of person is a nihilist-in-denial, charged with a blinding enthusiasm. He is the spiritual and philosophical descendent of Nietzsche and the political descendent of Georges Sorel. Radical historicism on this model is where right and left meet: the fiery-eyed traditionalist and the identity-politics crusader. Neither one is really interested in achieving their goal: what they love is the struggle.

Are the neoreactionaries just nihilists-in-denial, or something more? Radical historicism hangs over the thought of Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, and it permeates the thought of post-Nietzsche reactionaries like Charles Maurras (who embraced Catholicism not because it represented the truth but because it was part of his vision of integral French nationalism) and Julius Evola (or at least what I’ve read of his work). Radical historicism also helped to produce Nazism, but I do not think it will facilitate that kind of destruction again, unless perhaps we consider the Islamic State to be a product of this worldview. In any case, I have little fear that neoreaction, if it takes such a Nietzschean path, will lead us into orgies of nihilistic death and destruction. Rather, I fear that the relativizing influence of radical historicism will instead neuter neoreaction and facilitate its integration into the Cathedral and the universal and homogenous state.

The core of our intellectual culture is progressive historicism (witness the unending human rights campaigns and other social causes that obsess everyone from teenage YouTube posters to university professors), but the advance guard of the liberal army is radical historicism, which relativizes everything it comes into contact with. The Cultural Studies programs in our universities, for example, are part of this advance guard. Once historicized and relativized, any religion, philosophy, or politics can be incorporated into the larger narrative of progressive historicism. In the universal and homogenous state there will be plenty of heterogeneity or difference, but none of it will mean anything because such differences will not be allowed to tear the fabric of the giant umbrella of inclusiveness. There will be Christians, Muslims, Jews and all the rest . . . even possibly neoreactionaries, who will be able to fulminate to their heart’s content, practising a neutered version of neoreaction. Their discourse will perhaps be full of imagination and intelligence, but it won’t be real.

This is why I ask if neoreaction is for real. Is it about truth, or is it just a way to escape a progressive worldview that has become, for people like us, too uninspiring to sustain intellectual life? Does its largely virtual presence mean that it was never, perhaps, meant to be real? Are the neoreactionaries just another part of the Cathedral?

I can’t answer these questions, but in my follow-up post I will propose a way out for neoreaction, if it really plans to take on the Cathedral and the Modern Structure. In doing so, I hope that the neoreactionary community will forgive my audaciousness. I know, however, that neoreactionary bloggers are not the type to worry about the etiquette of blogging and the risks of tossing around big ideas. If they were, I probably wouldn’t care what they have to say.