The fragmentation of right-wing thought

Intellectually, the contemporary Right is in disarray.  It’s not only that mainstream “conservatism” is an utter embarrassment.  If an open-minded liberal were to tell me that he wanted to understand conservatism and asked me to recommend him one–or half a dozen–books, I don’t know what I would tell him.  All the candidates I can think of are gravely flawed or incomplete.

The lack of a well-known, well thought out statement on traditionalist principles cripples us tremendously.  Conservatives resort to defending their positions on liberal principles, which in the end can never provide a justification for resisting liberal policies.  Worse, the conservative becomes intellectually corrupted himself, squandering whatever influence he has supporting liberal causes like capitalism or Muslim feminism.  Being unable to explain the true reasons for his positions, intellectual maturation will only mean the process of surrender to the Left.

Today, reactionary thought is divided into schools with only political expediency rather than real intellectual synthesis holding them together.  I’ve presented a detail taxonomy of the Right here.  To summarize, the most sophisticated branches of reactionary thought are

  1. The romantics:  followers of Burke, defenders of tradition, skeptics of rationalism and revolution in politics;
  2. The authoritarians: followers of Bonald, defenders of patriarchy, monarchy, and religious establishment, enemies of anything that threatens to displace the family, be it revolution or capitalism;
  3. The natural lawyers: followers of Aquinas or Kant, enemies of abortion, assisted suicide, gay marriage, and consequentialism in all its forms;
  4. The Hegelians: followers of his Philosophy of Right, who see the traditional family/regulated civil society/modern nation-state division of society as a cure for the alienations of modernity (to the extent that such a cure exists)

A half-century ago, the Left was similarly divided into utilitarian technocrats, classical Marxists, Freudo-Marxist libertines, “open society” positivists, Trotskyists, utopian socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, and others.  Since then, a remarkable work of unification has been acheived.  The collapse of communism has meant the eclipse of the more impractical positions.  Economic libertarianism has been banished to the outer darkness (i.e., the Right).  The others have been synthesized by political theorists like Rawls, Rorty, Dworkin, and Raz.  Now it’s clear that all the remaining streams of the Left are after the same thing:  maximum personal autonomy (ability to live as one pleases, meaning both lack of restrictions and availability of needed resources)  through public procedural neutrality between rival value systems and through wealth redistribution.  If somebody wants to know what liberalism is about, you have him read John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism.

We Right-bloggers often criticize Rawls, but we should appreciate the magnitude of what he acheived, and admit that the Right has not yet acheived this level of coherence.  Some might say that this is a good thing, that our diversity gives us strength, but that’s humbug.  Unity is strength.  Diversity is weakness.  Liberalism’s current unity didn’t come through some strands losing out, but from everybody understanding their own commitments better, so it became clear that they all really wanted the same things.  We should want this for ourselves.

Why don’t we have it?  First, because the Right has been insufficiently theory-oriented.  (Theory comes easier to the Left, with its control of academia.)  Too many have been taken in by  “diversity is strength” BS, or at least they’ve been afraid of the clarity that might alienate ideologically heterogeneous allies.  Second, the philosophical challenge of synthesizing conservatism is much greater.  Liberalism in all its varieties is (or imagines itself to be) anti-metaphysical, so unifying liberalism just meant bringing together different theories of governance, all of which were already similar enough to recommend the same set of policies.  Questions about Being, God, and the good life could be put to the side.  Conservatism is, almost by definition, metaphysically-informed political theory.  Opposition to transcendence is at the heart of the Hegelian system–its ideal “ethical” state presents man with a reflection of his own soul’s rationality.  The system is closed, and therein lies the end of alienation.  The authoritarian conservatives, on the other hand, belong to a more explicitly religious philosophical tradition going back to Saint Augustine.  The point of authority precisely is to point beyond itself, to be an agent and sign of the transcendent Being.  Bringing the truths of both points of view under a single system would be a feat comparable to the synthesis of Aristotelian and Augustinian ethics by Thomas Aquinas (as told in Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice?  Which Rationality?) .  So, really, a fully adequate conservative synthesis doesn’t just require another Rawls; it requires another Aquinas, a significantly taller order.

One might ask why I think that it’s possible at all.  Perhaps the different strands of right-wing thought are ultimately unreconcilable.  Of course, the only way to prove that they can be reconciled is to actually do it, but most of us have a reliable instinct for who is ultimately on the same team.  A romantic like Russell Kirk, a Hegelian like Roger Scruton, and an authoritarian like myself organize our thoughts differently, but we seem to agree on pretty much everything of substance.  When somebody can explain why we agree, we may have our synthesis.

17 Responses

  1. A first step might be to translate the convictions of the Left into Conservative terms.

    “Maximum personal autonomy (ability to live as one pleases, meaning both lack of restrictions and availability of needed resources) through public procedural neutrality between rival value systems and through wealth redistribution” might in this way read:

    ‘The absolute freedom to choose obedience to God, except that there is no God.”

    Whether or not Conservatism is a dogma may yet be an open issue. It is certainly a way of being in the world. It is, in fact, our default position. This is a source of extraordinary strength.

    After all, two generations now have suffered vigorous attempts to redefine ‘family.’ Still the traditional understanding survives as normative.

  2. You’re too optimistic for me. At least how I’ve interpreted it, Rawls was able to systematize liberalism because it stood as a widely accepted practical system of thought. Reactionary thought isn’t widely accepted. You’d likely need the intellectual strength of Aquinas, the imagination of a Dante, and the brass fortitude found in people capable of pitting themselves against most of the world. The first are exceptionally rare and the last two tend to be prone to fits of insanity.

    But I’ve always been pretty pessimistic.

  3. Hello Mark,

    I will accept that it’s unlikely anyone will bother synthesizing several positions, none of which are believed by anyone. There’s got to be a community that takes this stuff seriously. On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be nearly as widely accepted as liberalism is.

    I think I could get behind somebody good and crazy, if he had those three qualities you give.

  4. I don’t think the right is in disarray at all. I see an increasing coalescence in the alt-right or reactionary blogosphere – anything to the right of mainstream Republicanism – around recognizing the truth of such things as race realism, sex realism, the right of white nations to self-identify and defend that identity, the values that used to be taught as a classical education, the importance of individual liberty within a framework of a moral and orderly society, and on and on. I don’t think there’s any need to push things, the underlying principles are surfacing on their own.

  5. You forgot about the Nietzscheans. I, and others like myself, really resent the fact that you Christian conservatives put up such resistance to the notion that Nietzche was on “our team” and it really hurts us. The best way to combat the Left in the future will not be through moldy old Christianity (which has done nothing but lose and lose and lose over the last 200+ years — what makes you think it will stop losing?) but through the tools Nietzsche bequeathed us.

    The Left/Right division is predicated on egalitarianism. That’s it. There are right-wing atheists, pacifists, environmentalists, anti-capitalists, etc., but to be a right-wing egalitarian is just incoherent and anyone who claims to be such is probably not a right-winger but severely confused. As someone who thinks most of our urgent problems (cultural decline, worship of mediocrity, the cocksure arrogance of the mass-man, unfounded optimism about universal education) can be traced back to egalitarianism and democracy, I am interested in the most efficient method of fighting them. I will never understand those who insist that Christianity, the slave religion par excellence, is the remedy to these ills when it, in many ways, paved the ground for them.

  6. Agreed on the far-right and traditional conservative sector but we are talking about the contemporary and mainstream right. They are in disarray and are starting to become liberal lite.

  7. If anything skepticism and atheism paved the ground for liberalism. Nietzsche tends to influence a person towards non-belief in transcendence. Reductionism is dangerous because a society is multi-layered and so is truth. A society is about body (biology, nature), mind/soul (culture) and spirit (transcendence, religion). One aspect of civilization is when these parts are in harmony and are supporting one another.

  8. Hello Drieu,

    Nietzche certainly represent a powerful strain of antiliberal thinking. I didn’t want to bring all antiliberals under the umbrella term “conservatism” lest the latter lose all meaning. It seems that Christians and Nietzcheans are as far from each other as each is from liberalism. Perhaps someday I should present an antiliberal taxonomy that would include all opponents of liberalism, no matter how different from each other.

  9. But you said “right-wing thought” in your subject line and not “conservatism.” I think it’s important to remember that “conservatism” is a branch of right-wing thought and not the entirety. Conservatism and fascism are far from each other as well, but both are “right-wing” in their rejection of equality and the Enlightenment, emphasis on authority, denial of progress, etc. “Right-wing” does not mean “conservative” alone and I dislike when people conflate the two. Nietzsche is not conservative, but he is certainly right-wing. The primary difference between him and other Counter-Enlightenment thinkers is that he rejects Christianity as well, but anyone who reads him knows that he does so because he feels it was a Wegbereiter for democracy, socialism, egalitarianism, etc.

  10. If your precious Transcendent Order couldn’t even withstand some broadsides from a few philosophes, then obviously we need to wonder just how reliable it was in the first place. You’re just not going to return people to the mindset of those living during the 14th century. I’m not some Dawkins-style materialist, but I agree with him when he says that Christian theology is simply not intellectually satisfying for most people in a post-Darwin world. I might feel transcendence when listening to Bach, but I could never swallow Christian theology to the extent needed to make me a “believer.”

    Nietzsche and many of his followers (contrary to what some people will tell you, he was highly influential on many “right-wingers” during the first half of the 20th century) prove that you don’t need Christian “transcendence” in order to reject liberalism, egalitarianism, democracy, communism, and everything else the real Right fights against.

  11. I tend to use “conservative” and “right-wing” interchangeably, and use “illiberal” or “antiliberal” the way you use “right-wing”. Hence the confusion.

  12. You do need Christian transcendence, or something like it, to embrace what conservatives (who don’t, of course, not include all of what you would call the “real Right”) fight for: authority, patriarchy, sacrality, non-consequentialist morality, etc. If we’re just fighting egalitarianism to make way for the overman, most conservatives won’t be interested. We want slave religion, dammit!

    Also, the idea that the theory of evolution by natural selection has invalidated the idea of a transcendent sacred order is nonsense. See my essays “In Defense of Religion” and “Aristotle and Evolution”.

  13. Well, that’s why I don’t call myself a “conservative.” I don’t care about abortion, gay marriage, etc etc. These are all minor issues to me. I usually call myself a “radical right-winger.” We have common enemies and some common goals, but I just don’t care about what most conservatives call “morality.” It’s a Procrustean Bed in my view.

    Like I said, I just object when conservatives, especially of the most rigid and demanding sort, insist on monopolizing “the right-wing” for themselves and declare everyone else a faker, a crypto-leftist, etc. For one, it feeds into the Left stereotype that those on the Right are all narrow-minded and unable to cope with opposing views and, two, it drives away people who would otherwise be allies.

    And I didn’t say evolution invalidated any idea of a transcendent order. I just said it made Christian theology (which is what most Western conservatives seem to be defending — if they have more acceptable alternatives, I’m willing to listen) intellectually unsatisfying for many people.

  14. Hello Drieu,

    I guess I misunderstood your objection. Most Darwin-based attacks on Christianity are really attacks on natural theology (“transcendence”, if you will) in general. Accept that these attacks fail, and the merits (or lack thereof) of distinctly Christian theology seem about the same as they were in the fourteenth century.

    When I do get around to an antiliberal taxonomy, I’ll try to do justice to all of the distinctly nonconservative yet antiliberal schools out there. I’m sure I’ll fail, but I’ll try.

  15. And I didn’t say evolution invalidated any idea of a transcendent order.

    It tends to.

    I just said it made Christian theology (which is what most Western conservatives seem to be defending — if they have more acceptable alternatives, I’m willing to listen) intellectually unsatisfying for many people.

    For once I agree with you Drieu. My problem with evolution has been mostly the theology and philosophy behind it since I’m neutral and undecided on the physical evidence.

  16. Oh boy, you’re one of those types. And then people wonder why I say the Right should ditch the Christians.

    Do you have similar doubts about the evidence for gravity?

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