I find neoreaction interesting because I agree that in some ways the world has gotten worse. It is hard to point to events in the pre-modern past as bad as the Holocaust, or regimes as murderous as those of Hitler and Stalin. Modernity's great benefits have come at a high cost in both human and environmental terms. Democracy as we practice it can indeed be perfectly absurd, and our system sometimes makes it all but impossible to fix messes that a hypothetical strongman could sweep away with a decree. In a world full of naive progress-worshipers and no alternative to democracy with any serious following outside the Chinese communist party, neoreactionary critics are performing a service of sorts. Two mainstream writers who recently tried to come to terms with neoreaction are Tyler Cowen and Ross Douthat, and their pieces are also worth reading. Cowen thinks the neoreactionary impulse is ancient and comes up with a list of important thinkers with neoreactionary leanings: Aristotle, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Jonathan Swift, John Calhoun, James Fitzjames Stephens, Nietzsche, Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Lee Kuan Yew.
So neoreactionaries sometimes have a point, and they are part of an old tradition of thinkers who despise progress and think the important things about human society will never change.
If only they didn't get everything wrong.
Mencius Moldbug (as he calls himself) is one of the leading neoreactionary writers. His favorite attack on contemporary society is made by comparing the safety of major cities in late Victorian Britain to the violence of our own age. And this is, in a limited sense, true; the lowest homicide rates ever recorded were in Britain between 1880 and 1930. It would be amazing if we could achieve such social peace again. But in this regard late Victorian Britain is highly unusual; almost all other past societies were much more violent. In the period I studied for my dissertation, 1272-1348, England was about as violent as Baltimore is now. On the whole, insofar as we have the statistics, the US and Europe have been relatively peaceful in the post-World War II era, certainly much nicer than the Iron Age. Nor was late Victorian Britain much of a traditional society. It was on the contrary one of the most forward-looking, progress-worshiping, radically transforming societies the world has ever seen. I believe that the world changed much more between 1830 and 1930 than it has changed since, but anyway it is not arguable that the world was changing very fast in the London and Manchester of 1910. So the low crime rates of that era are a lousy argument against modernity. Plus, late Victorian Britain, the society that achieved the lowest violent crime rates ever measured, was a democracy.
Every argument made by the neoreactionaries has this same problem. Yes, it is true that in some ways some past societies were better than ours. So? Unless you understand those particular issues in the context of their times, you cannot begin to conceive of why that society had that admirable feature, and you certainly cannot plan to recreate it in our own age.
The worst and most ignorant arguments to come from the neoreactionaries have to do with government. Here is a good example:
Hitler and Stalin are abortions of the democratic era - cases of what Jacob Talmon called totalitarian democracy. This is easily seen in their unprecedented efforts to control public opinion, through both propaganda and violence. Elizabeth's legitimacy was a function of her identity - it could be removed only by killing her. Her regime was certainly not the stablest government in history, and nor was it entirely free from propaganda, but she had no need to terrorize her subjects into supporting her.I agree that Hitler and Stalin were modern rulers not really imaginable in a medieval context, but otherwise this is absolutely wrong. Elizabeth used widespread terror against her own subjects, executing hundreds of English Catholics among others. Her secret police were very active in putting down the many very real conspiracies against her. So long as you were not a Catholic or a radical dissenter, life in Elizabeth's England was a lot less scary than life under Hitler, but that is not really much of a recommendation. And if you expand the picture to Ireland, where they remember her as one of the bloodiest rulers in history, Elizabeth's government begins to look very much a grim, violent despotism.
Much of the support for alt-right thinking comes from a libertarian distrust of how democracies manage the economy. (Peter Thiel: "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.") Democratic governments, they think, have to stay in power by "buying votes," hence high taxes to fund welfare schemes; they imagine that kings and other well-settled despots did not have to engage in such chicanery. Somehow it has escaped their notice that kings and queens like Elizabeth did not pursue libertarian economics. On the contrary Elizabeth was one of the great practitioners of proto-crony capitalism, granting her favorites all sorts of monopolies and other business privileges, from a woad-growing syndicate to the Virginia Company. If what you want is capitalist, pro-growth economics, democracies have on average a much better record than any other sort of government.
More broadly, neoreactionaries seem to believe that kings did not have to practice politics. This is utter nonsense. Kings, like modern dictators, had to constantly bribe various constituencies to stay in power, even more so if they wanted to enact any changes to the system. Most of them also had to threaten some of their subjects with violence, backed up with the real thing whenever necessary. In fact a government like that of the US, Britain or Denmark in the 20th century has a degree of legitimacy that very few kings or emperors in history have ever managed. Monarchs were after all regularly overthrown, and without representative institutions the balance of power between the center and the provinces was often set by armed conflict; hence the long series of peasants' wars and lesser violent disturbances. To prevent anarchy, powerful factions (every society has powerful factions) had to be bribed, intimidated, incorporated into the power structure, or otherwise managed. A good example of how this works in the modern context is provided by Egypt, where a series of dictators have kept the army loyal by allowing its officers to control large parts of the economy through various corrupt schemes.
Every government has to bribe its supporters, because every government has to struggle to maintain its legitimacy. And if you don't understand that, then you simply don't know enough about human societies and governments to be taken seriously as a political reformer.