Progressives pursuing their millennium: a reconsideration of neoreactionary and orthospheric approaches

I was kindly invited to participate in a recent Ascending the Tower podcast by Social Matter.  It’s now accessible here.  The subject of discussion was “Progressive Millenarianism”.  I’m clearly the least charismatic of the bunch.  Also, Sabrina got very upset after a while that I was at home but in another room not playing with her, so I had to mute myself and give her my attention for some long stretches.  I may have missed some interesting comments, but I doubt I’ll go back and listen to the recording myself, for fear of learning what I really sound like.

For a long time, conservatives have been accusing liberals of being utopians, of being excessive both in their condemnation of current realities and their ambitions for the future, of trying to build heaven on Earth.  The trouble with such complaints is that we can come off sounding as if there is something inherently wrong with condemning injustice or with trying to fix problems.  Of course, both of these are in fact very good things.  So what are we really getting at with this criticism?

The followers of Burke would probably say that progressives are being too reckless and going too fast.  Also that demanding unattainable levels of perfection will probably bring unexpected bad consequences.  I don’t like this answer, because it seems to concede that the progressive utopia is indeed a desirable thing, but alas unattainable.  In fact, I think their utopia is a monstrous, inhuman thing, and I’m terrified by the success they’ve had thus far in implementing it.

Here is the Orthosphere answer.  The problem with the progressive’s heaven on Earth is not that it is on Earth but that it has lost its orientation to anything above Earth.  It is immanentized, meaning its perfection of freedom and equality, even if recognized, allows no recognition of anything transcending human desires–not God, nor the given structures of human nature, nor any normative inheritance.  This is necessarily true, because meaning always restricts freedom of choice, even as it gives those choices their significance.

For a long time, I missed the significance of the neoreactionaries’ distinctive critique.  They’re always going on about progressive attitudes being a strategy to improve the “signaler’s” relative social status.  Rhetorically, I could see this being effective, because if refuses to grant Leftists the presumption of being altruistic idealists that most people seem to grant them.  Still, an ad hominem attack logically does nothing to address the Leftist’s positions.  Who cares what their ultimate motives are?  After reading more of their writing about virtue signaling and holiness spirals, I realized that this wasn’t their point.  They’re not critiquing progressives for responding to incentives; we all do that.  They’re critiquing progressivism the ideology or social system for creating those incentives.  The historical connections they draw between ideologies (e.g. Calvinism and liberalism) are not meant to be logical.  The claim is that the type of status competition triggered by the first system incentivized people to embrace the second system, at least if I understand them correctly.

Interestingly, my interlocutors and I ended up agreeing that a key moment in the degeneration of the West was radical reformers denying the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and the accompanying doctrine of the sacrificial character of the Eucharist.  From my Orthosphere perspective, the anti-sacramental principle represents a severing of the public world from God, mediated by the tension between sacred and profane realms.  The Eucharist is the key to the Christian system of God entering into the world as a part of it (rather than transcending it absolutely) and thus more present in some places/things/activities than others.  Abolishing the Christian sacrifice also means abolishing the priesthood, since the function of a priest is to alter sacrifice.  This is what my interlocutors insisted was the key thing.  Eliminating the priesthood, whose position is held by sacramental conferral rather than any claim to personal holiness, left a social vacuum which the ambitious would fill by ever more extreme and ostentatious displays of superior holiness.  This is the neoreactionary’s answer to my question ‘what’s wrong with progressives being utopian?’  It’s that the moralizing is driven by an uncontrolled and unstable social status competition, where contradicting common sense carries a social premium.

Naturally, this is all more directly applicable to the rise of progressivism in Protestant lands than to the corresponding deformations in Catholic and Orthodox countries.  The neoreactionaries justify this focus by pointing out that Anglo-Saxon liberalism rose first and is the version that eventually came to dominate the world.

There’s certainly some plausibility to the neoreactionary story.  My own impression is that most people are motivated less by the promise of being at the front of the march of holiness than by the fear of what will happen to them if they get caught bringing up the rear.  Regardless, we also need the other type of critique focusing on what is wrong with the liberal utopia, considered abstractly apart from the motives of its exponents.

17 Responses

  1. My gosh, you just said it way better than anyone ever has.

  2. “My own impression is that most people are motivated less by the promise of being at the front of the march of holiness than by the fear of what will happen to them if they get caught bringing up the rear.”

    Certainly, and the average person is content mouthing the moral status quo. There isn’t THAT MUCH power to be had by pushing the envelope leftward. Those who do usually have some sort of privilege: rich daddies, or minor mandarins (funded by rich daddies) whose job it is to push envelopes. People might not be too interested in gaining moral status, but they’re incentivized to avoid losing it.

  3. BTW, that is only part one of the podcast. You’ll have to advertise part two (whenever it comes out… which I don’t know).

  4. I look forward to listening to the podcast. You are right when you say that critics of utopia appear hardhearted–like men so hostile to change, and so indifferent to suffering, that they wouldn’t put up an umbrella if it began to rain. What we must make clear is that we do not oppose progress when we oppose progressivism, or utopianism. But our vision of progress does not include magical changes in the ontological structure of reality. Our progress is a matter of making the best of fallen men and women in a fallen world. The utopia of progressives always assumes that they can (without divine aid) break through to some New Creation where Everything is Different.” Suddenly people will not be greedy, or jealous, or vainglorious; perhaps some of the more inconvenient laws of physics will also be altered.

  5. Here is the Orthosphere answer. The problem with the progressive’s heaven on Earth is not that it is on Earth but that it has lost its orientation to anything above Earth. It is immanentized, meaning its perfection of freedom and equality, even if recognized, allows no recognition of anything transcending human desires–not God…

    Exactly. By chaining Man to the Earth, Man is abolished as C.S. Lewis would put it, and a degraded slave of the age as Chesterton would.

    Eliminating the priesthood, whose position is held by sacramental conferral rather than any claim to personal holiness, left a social vacuum which the ambitious would fill by ever more extreme and ostentatious displays of superior holiness.

    Brilliant. A conferral by the way, granted by an authority not the “consent of the governed” or by self-identification. On Catholic forums I have often encountered someone declaring their vocation to the priesthood and it becomes clear that no one is going to tell them otherwise. I try to gently remind them that their are two calls: interior (personal discernment) AND exterior (the Church-authority’s discernment) and both have to be in sync. When it is clear there is a call, the Church (when it does it right) trains you for the life including an academic intellectual foundation.

    By contrast, becoming a SocJus imam issuing arbitrary PC fatwas doesn’t require anything other than bluster. You simply appoint yourself. Sure, you go to college but not for rigorous academics but rather an extended (and expensive) Reichsparteitag.

    In short, a liberal utopia is a demagogue’s utopia and the result is we are living in a modern Corcyrean civil war as described by Thucydides.

  6. a key moment in the degeneration of the West was radical reformers denying the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and the accompanying doctrine of the sacrificial character of the Eucharist . . . Eliminating the priesthood, whose position is held by sacramental conferral rather than any claim to personal holiness, left a social vacuum which the ambitious would fill by ever more extreme and ostentatious displays of superior holiness . . . It’s that the moralizing is driven by an uncontrolled and unstable social status competition, where contradicting common sense carries a social premium.

    Great. You’ve found the long, muscular, dry, undulating thing. It’s not a snake, though. It’s a trunk.

    You’re missing great, honking, obvious stuff about Neoreactionaries (not that they are worth talking about, but you keep doing it). First of all, they are essentially all “former” libertarians. Libertarians, whether they believe it or not, don’t believe status competition is an important aspect of human behavior. To conclude that the free market is awesome, you need that there not be important status competitions, because they induce externalities.

    The problem is that status competition is not merely real, it is probably more important than the stuff that economists/libertarians normally take to be essential. Status competition is hard-wired. A plausible account of what status competition is for is given by Bowles and Gintis in their underrated book. In their story (or, more accurately, in my rather free-wheeling and liberal reading of their story) hard-wiring for status competition arises from the evolutionary need to elicit altruistic behavior in hunter-gatherer bands.

    Richard Cocks mentioned in one of his posts over at the Orthosphere that he encountered a sociopathic student who shared with him his theory that emotions don’t exist. Denying the essentiality of status competition to humanity is crazy like that (also, incidentally, emotion-denial is a serious problem with libertarian economism). There is a piece missing to their psyches. They are Aspergery. Notice, they made Magic: the Gathering cards of themselves and then touted them enthusiastically.

    So, anyhow, they discover, somehow, that status competitions exist and are an important aspect of human behavior. Then, they promptly both pathologize status seeking behavior (yes, they do so) and worship it. Sort of like their attitude towards women. And that’s also insane. It’s like viewing bipedality as pathological (but sexy!! and worth thinking about a lot!!!).

    The importance of status competition is not a revelation to anyone except former presidents of the Ayn Rand fan club. They think it is a revelation because, in addition to the psychic wound, they have walled themselves off from people who talk about it every day. Like, you know, sociologists and anthropologists and social psychologists and historians. Back in their teen and early adult years, walling themselves off from these stupid, icky people was part of their identity formation. Why, they don’t even know that deregulated, untaxed, free market competition will usher in utopia . . . wait, I mean optimally balance costs and benefits here in our sublunar world.

    And the stuff they deduce from their discovery is not remotely new either. Nor is it forgotten. “Protestant work ethic” is not some forgotten phrase from the misty deep of intellectual history. Protestants’ creepy efforts to out-holy each other are also not esoterica. The re-direction of status competition into the accumulation of goods and knowledge under Protestantism is practically what sociology used to be about.

    The above is relevant if you take the whole edifice seriously. But that’s like taking Mormon or Scientologist theology seriously. It misses the point. What guys like Yarvin and Yudkowsky want is to be court philosophers for imaginary literal sperglords. They want some of Peter Theil’s money. That’s what the movement is *for*. That’s its telos. Extracting money from a subset of the Silicon Valley nuveaux riches.

    There are multiple, other parallel intellectual scams directed at Peter Theil and his confreres. Aubrey DeGrey sells immortality via drugs, viruses, and nanobots. Patri Friedman sells the attainment of true enlightenment . . . I mean libertarian freedom . . . via seasteading. There are others.

    Back to theology, though: their critique is too critical. Hows come this weird, pathological system with all its destructive “purity spirals” won? Saying it’s like a meme virus is a retarded cop-out. The virus was isolated in Northern Europe, and, at first, only witches, monks, nuns, the poor, and priests paid the price for it.

    It won because all the energy and wealth which used to go into building Cathedrals and supporting hermits went instead into an orgy of acquisition of wealth and knowledge as the Prots looked anxiously at each other, trying to convince themselves that they were among the elect. Which point is, again, tediously unoriginal. And it will go on winning until the low-hanging fruit of technology is done being harvested. Which looks to be not too far off. Well, unless the immortality-granting nanobots manufactured on giant rafts in the middle of the Pacific work out.

  7. That’s a great rant by Dr Bill. I think the tech harvest still has a ways to go, because we are getting really good at clinically neutralizing or killing people whose existence spoils the narrative while ignoring the fact that that is what we are doing. Modern palliative care units are basically Logan’s Run carousels, just as one example; and enough psychotropic drugs over a long enough period of time can land any sort of troublemaker there.

  8. Next time I’m in the market for a nice colonic, I’ll be sure to come to Dr. Bill.

  9. […] reformulation (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). Secrets of sex. Holiness (plus). Dampier interviewed. Consequences. Leftist lies (1, 2). Daily Moldbug. The weekly round, […]

  10. Modern palliative care units are basically Logan’s Run carousels

    I saw a seminar given by a medical historian one time. She was curious about the evolving standards for “death.”

    Hospitals routinely have to decide things like “is Bob dead?” Long ago (like the 60s), this was done by listening to Bob’s heart. No heartbeat ==> Bob is dead. Yes heartbeat ==> Bob is alive. Sometimes you can start Bob’s heart back up after it stops, and, later, he walks and talks and balances his checkbook and generally seems to be alive. On the other hand, sometimes Bob’s heart beats merrily along for a long time with Bob just laying there until he dies of old age (well, more commonly pneumonia, or an iatrogenic infection from bed sores, or something, but you get the idea).

    Now, the first problem is easy to deal with. You try to restart Bob’s heart for 45 minutes. If it doesn’t start by then, then it very likely isn’t going to start (given currently known methods), and you can call him dead. There are even studies about this, so we kinda know that somewhere around 45 minutes it becomes pretty pointless. In case anyone cares, hospitals do not routinely resuscitate for this long, so if they come asking you to let them stop resuscitating Uncle Bob, say no for a while (not medical advice. I am a real Dr, not one of those medical ones). Not that they always ask.

    Anyhow, it’s the other problem which is a real problem for them. If Bob’s heart is beating but he is just laying there, they tend to get all itchy. I mean, there are all these great organs inside Bob, and Bob isn’t using them. Cute bald kids with terminal liver cancer could use them, though.

    So, in came “brain death.” Which sounds pretty scientific. You’d think the government would show a great deal of interest in how hospitals diagnose brain death, seeing as how a faulty diagnosis of brain death is somewhere between involuntary manslaughter and capital murder. You’d be wrong. You’d think the medical establishment would show a great deal of interest in how to diagnose brain death, seeing as how this diagnosis is all that stands between helping your patient and killing your patient. Nope. Most places, the diagnostic criteria for brain death are made up by some committee of the hospital’s medical staff based on pretty much nothing—actually usually based on almost but not quite copying other hospitals’ criteria. In addition to being based on nothing, the criteria are usually subjective. Does the patient react when I put some ice cold water in his ear? No, that wasn’t a reaction, it was just a reflex. Etc.

    Anyhow, so this historian went around documenting many hospitals’ criteria for “brain death.” As it turns out, transplant hospitals have by far the most lax criteria for brain death. She also reported some anecdotal stuff that the criteria tended to be applied differently depending on whether the patient had an organ donor card or whether the doctor thought he could convince the family to let him harvest organs.

    The kicker to all this is that there are guidelines for harvesting organs from “beating-heart donors,” dead Bob with the heartbeat. One of these calls for the administration of anesthetic. To get the organs, you must make a big incision(s) in Bob. Wouldn’t you know it, but dead-as-a-door-nail Bob sometimes screams and sits up at this point if you don’t anesthetize him. Silly Bob. Stop upsetting the nurses.

    By the way, these problems can all be solved via binding contracts, signed in advance, clearly specifying the relevant property rights, contingencies, and specifying a guardian ad litum and an arbitrator. Well, at least according to Patri Friedman.

    Back to Zippy’s point, it’s not just palliative care. Memory care places do it. Nursing homes do it. Prescribing an atypical anti-psychotic, especially along with a benzo like Xanax does a reasonable job of offing old people. The FDA even helps you figure it out by putting a black box warning on the atypical antipsychotic.

    The thing is, nobody gives a crap about any of this. Well, that’s not true. There is a disturbing subculture of Kevorkians who seem to get off on killing people. They care.

  11. I loved Logan’s run as a teenager.

  12. I’ve always been a bit wary of checking those donor cars. Seemed a bit fishy… like agreeing to be preyed upon.

  13. Dear Bonald,

    If the Enlightenment is not true it means humans are not rational. That means, the primary reason humans accept an argument is not that our reason is convinced by it, to the contrary, we accept it because we like it and then rationalize it. This is why these status signalling ideas are so important – they explain how the heck it is possible that people accept ideas that are seemingly against their interests i.e. rich white males being antiwhite, redistributionist and antimale.

    The actual content of leftism matters far less because it will change – and how it will change will be determined by the underlying psychological mechanism. This is why the motivation is more important than the content, because it gives you what the future content will be and explains you why was the past content different.

  14. Though that might be true of some followers of Burke I don’t think it quite true of Burke himself.

  15. TheDividualist writes:

    If the Enlightenment is not true it means humans are not rational.

    The most obvious error here – though hardly the only one – is in equating the “enlightenment” with reason.

    It is true enough that people in thrall to incoherent ideas will act based on motivations extrinsic to those incoherent ideas: the arguments produced from those incoherent ideas will always be rationalizations, since they cannot by definition be rationally coherent. So I agree that the actual content of liberalism (not just leftism) , and modernity in general, changes based on extrinsic factors including status competition etc.

    But that is because liberalism specifically and modernism generally are not rational. It is not because human beings are just intrinsically incapable of acting in accordance with right reason.

  16. > If the Enlightenment is not true it means humans are not rational. That means, the primary reason humans accept an argument is not that our reason is convinced by it, to the contrary, we accept it because we like it and then rationalize it.

    This would be an example of self-refuting skepticism if true. Surely the Enlightenment doesn’t have a monopoly on rational arguments.

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