Andrew Sullivan has a lengthy article in NY Magazine titled “The Reactionary Temptation”. The byline reads: “An open-minded inquiry into the close-minded ideology that is the most dominant political force of our time — and can no longer be ignored.”
From the piece:
The reactionary impulse is, of course, not new in human history. Whenever human life has changed sharply and suddenly over the eons, reactionism has surfaced. It appeared in early modernity with the ferocity of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in response to the emergence of Protestantism. Its archetypal moment came in the wake of the French Revolution, as monarchists and Catholics surveyed the damage and tried to resurrect the past. Its darkest American incarnation took place after Reconstruction, as a backlash to the Civil War victory of the North; a full century later, following the success of the civil-rights movement, it bubbled up among the white voters of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” The pendulum is always swinging. Sometimes it swings back with unusual speed and power.
You can almost feel the g-force today. What are this generation’s reactionaries reacting to? They’re reacting, as they have always done, to modernity. But their current reaction is proportional to the bewildering pace of change in the world today. They are responding, at some deep, visceral level, to the sense that they are no longer in control of their own lives. They see the relentless tides of globalization, free trade, multiculturalism, and mass immigration eroding their sense of national identity. They believe that the profound shifts in the global economy reward highly educated, multicultural enclaves and punish more racially and culturally homogeneous working-class populations. And they rebel against the entrenched power of elites who, in their view, reflexively sustain all of the above.
I know why many want to dismiss all of this as mere hate, as some of it certainly is. I also recognize that engaging with the ideas of this movement is a tricky exercise in our current political climate. Among many liberals, there is an understandable impulse to raise the drawbridge, to deny certain ideas access to respectable conversation, to prevent certain concepts from being “normalized.” But the normalization has already occurred — thanks, largely, to voters across the West — and willfully blinding ourselves to the most potent political movement of the moment will not make it go away. Indeed, the more I read today’s more serious reactionary writers, the more I’m convinced they are much more in tune with the current global mood than today’s conservatives, liberals, and progressives. I find myself repelled by many of their themes — and yet, at the same time, drawn in by their unmistakable relevance. I’m even tempted, at times, to share George Orwell’s view of the neo-reactionaries of his age: that, although they can sometimes spew dangerous nonsense, they’re smarter and more influential than we tend to think, and that “up to a point, they are right.”
If only other liberals of note approached a debate like this.
Sullivan interviews Charles Kesler and Michael Anton, and also covers Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Moldbug).
On the subject of mass immigration:
Mass immigration, neo-reactionaries argue, creates more job competition for those without college degrees, and, by the laws of supply and demand, lowers wages for some, even as it massively increases profits for a few. At some point, a citizen on the losing end will surely ask: Why is my country benefiting foreigners and new immigrants, many of them arriving illegally, while making life tougher for its own people? And why doesn’t it matter what I think? It’s this question that Anton has a policy answer for. Scaling back free trade and ending mass immigration would “improve the economic prospects of the lower half of our workforce to a greater extent than either would in isolation,” he has written. “The people have repeatedly said ‘no’ to more immigration, ‘no’ to more free trade … but the administrative state will not allow itself to be driven in a direction it does not want to go. It therefore must be broken.”
And then there is the cultural impact of mass immigration, which the Party of Davos, living in a post-national world, celebrates as a vision of the global future. Neo-reactionaries beg to differ. They get a little vague here — tiptoeing awkwardly around the question of race. A nation, they believe, is not just a random group of people within an arbitrary set of borders. It’s a product of a certain history and the repository of a distinctive culture. A citizen should be educated to understand that country’s history and take pride in its culture and traditions. Honed and modulated over time, this national culture gives crucial legitimacy to the American political system by producing citizens acclimated to the tolerance, self-government, and other civic values that democracy needs if it is to function. And so Anton, who gives America’s long history of successful integration of immigrants short shrift, worries about the influx of what he delicately calls “non-republican peoples.” “What happens when the West ceases to be western?” he asked me. On the blog, he was much more direct: He wrote that “Islam and the West are incompatible” and that Muslim immigration should be almost entirely banned. A country like the United States requires “a certain type or character of people.”
Isn’t all this just code for white nationalism? That’s certainly what self-described white nationalists cite in their support for Trump. When I asked Anton bluntly about whether he believes race matters to a national identity, he turned uncharacteristically silent: “I’m not going to say something that could be used to destroy my livelihood and career.”
On the ‘Death of the West’ theme central to the NRx POV:
We are losing a vast civilization that honed answers to the deepest questions that human beings can ask, replacing it with vapid pseudo-religions, pills, therapy, and reality TV. I’ve become entranced by the novels of Michel Houellebecq, by his regret at the spiritual emptiness of modernity, the numbness that comes with fully realized sexual freedom, the yearning for the sacred again. Maybe this was why as I read more and more of today’s neo-reactionary thought, I became nostalgic for aspects of my own past, and that of the West’s.
Because in some key respects, reactionaries are right. Great leaps forward in history are often, in fact, giant leaps back. The Reformation did initiate brutal sectarian warfare. The French Revolution did degenerate into barbarous tyranny. Communist utopias — allegedly the wave of an Elysian future — turned into murderous nightmares. Modern neoliberalism has, for its part, created a global capitalist machine that is seemingly beyond anyone’s control, fast destroying the planet’s climate, wiping out vast tracts of life on Earth while consigning millions of Americans to economic stagnation and cultural despair…
On one HBD aspectd of NRx:
Certain truths about human beings have never changed. We are tribal creatures in our very DNA; we have an instinctive preference for our own over others, for “in-groups” over “out-groups”; for hunter-gatherers, recognizing strangers as threats was a matter of life and death. We also invent myths and stories to give meaning to our common lives. Among those myths is the nation — stretching from the past into the future, providing meaning to our common lives in a way nothing else can. Strip those narratives away, or transform them too quickly, and humans will become disoriented. Most of us respond to radical changes in our lives, especially changes we haven’t chosen, with more fear than hope. We can numb the pain with legal cannabis or opioids, but it is pain nonetheless.
Of the problems-of-praxis that accompanies NRx as a political ideology or movement:
It is also one thing to be vigilant about the power of the administrative state and to attempt to reform and modernize it; it is quite another to favor its abolition. The more complex modern society has become, the more expertise is needed to govern it — and where else is that expertise going to come from if not a professional elite?…
Beyond all that, neo-reactionaries have a glaring problem, which is that their proposed solutions are so radical they have no chance whatsoever of coming into existence — and would be deeply reckless to attempt. Their rage eclipses their argument. The notion that public opinion could be marshaled to effect a total reset of American government in favor of a new form of monarchy, as Yarvin suggests, is, to be blunt, bonkers.
After discussing NRx fairly intelligently, although a bit misguided on some central elements, Sullivan then concludes rather disappointingly with stock liberal platitudes about racism and the like.
Rod Dreher weighs in on Sullivan’s piece and, in his discussion of the upcoming election in France, notes this excellent postulation of Scott McConnell:
In France, nobody really believes that Emmanuel Macron is the future. He will probably win the French presidency this weekend because most French voters fear a National Front future. But the issues that drive the National Front are at the core of France’s politics. As my colleague Scott McConnell writes, quoting an unnamed National Front activist, if Marine Le Pen had a different last name, she might be winning this thing. Anyway, if you were betting on French politics over the next 20 years, would you really bet on the cosmopolitan centrists, or the reactionary right? This may not be the National Front’s year, but the forces that have carried the party toward the center of France’s politics are only going to grow stronger. Do you doubt it?