Monday, August 29, 2016

The Problem with Neoreactionaries is their Ignorance of History

Vox has put up a nice "explainer" on the alt-right phenomenon, which I recommend. Much of the alt-right is a boiling cauldron of resentment, cynicism, racism, and misogyny, directed against the current liberal consensus but not pointing toward anything in particular. I find one piece of the movement more interesting: the people who call themselves "neoreactionaries." Neoreactionaries hate democracy and long for some sort of strong-man rule, perhaps by a king, and they think the world is getting worse, not better. There is enough material in the Vox essay to identify the basic problem with neoreaction, which is that although its proponents claim to venerate the past, they actually know nothing about it. Among their number there is not a single historian, nor even anyone who could pass as a decent amateur. They cherry pick the odd fact from history but they always yank it out of context, and they never come to grips with either what the past was like or how we got to the situation we are in.

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.


JEL said...

I hardly think the universities can be blamed or praised for the ignorance of lack thereof in the country, but there is a good piece today (8.29) in the editorial section of the NYT about the extirpation of Political History (Diplomatic History was expelled long ago) from contemporary US college history departments.


G. Verloren said...

If you want a fascinating monarchy to study, I'd go with that of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

It's got everything - elections for the kings, personal unions, a privileged noble class, complex multicultural confederation, equality under the law, a well defined constitution, de jure religious tolerance but de facto friction and lopsided distributions, bitterly vying rival factions, shady deals and massive scandals, vilest corruption and purest virtue in equal measures...

It was at once both a wildly progressive and successful system, as well as one riddled with flaws, abuses, and outright contradictions. It's absolutely fascinating to read about, and it demonstrate perfectly the strange complexity of governance even in the pre-modern age.

Unknown said...

I think you've missed some key components of the (more sophisticated) neoreactionary vision for governance. Despite the rhetorical trick of pining for absolute monarchies of the past -- this move being partly motivated by what seems to be a deeply-felt aversion to Whig historiorgaphy (part of the "the Cathedral") -- the positive vision of the state espoused by Moldbug is much more modern: Singapore, or to take a fictional example, the various power enclaves from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Here's a long passage from Moldbug's article, "Why I am not a libertarian":

"And this is how formalism leads us to neocameralism. Neocameralism is the idea that a sovereign state or primary corporation is not organizationally distinct from a secondary or private corporation. Thus we can achieve good management, and thus libertarian government, by converting sovcorps to the same management design that works well in today's private sector - the joint-stock corporation.

"One way to approach neocameralism is to see it as a refinement of royalism, an ancient system in which the sovcorp is a sort of family business. Under neocameralism, the biological quirks of royalism are eliminated and the State "goes public," hiring the best executives regardless of their bloodline or even nationality.

"Or you can just see neocameralism as part of the usual capitalist pattern in which services are optimized by aligning the interests of the service provider and the service consumer. If this works for groceries, why shouldn't it work for government? I have a hard time in accepting the possibility that democratic constitutionalism would generate either lower prices or better produce at Safeway, although it is certainly fun to imagine the elections.

"If it strikes you as farfetched to imagine the US Government as a corporation with a stock symbol, you might find it easier to start by thinking in terms of private city-states. While none of them comes anywhere near the neocameralist ideal, the city-states of Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong certainly provide a very high quality of customer service. Note that none of them has any concept of constitutional, limited, or democratic government."

Now other elements of the alt-right certainly do diverge from Moldbug on this point. In particular, there's a strain of Catholic paleoconservativism in the mix that strikes me as sympathetic to the old Divine Right of Kings philosophy. The Japanese far-right, with its nostalgia for imperialism, is a bit similar.

But in general, I think you hit the nail on the head in emphasizing the libertarian intellectual roots of neoreaction. This is not, in general, an ideology that lionizes the oppression of past monarchs. Rather, imagine you're a disaffected libertarian who has grown frustrated with the limited amounts of voice provided in conventional democratic systems, and has started considering exit instead; add a dash of disillusionment with the actual governance outcomes produced by democracy (a point that modern social science is starting to appreciate, cf. for example Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter), and you're already partly red-pilled.