On Reaction

Julius Evola, from the opening pages of Men Among The Ruins:

Recently, various forces have attempted to set up a defense and a resistance in the sociopolitical domain against the extreme forms in which the disorder of our age manifests itself. It is necessary to realize that this is a useless effort, even for the sake of merely demonstrative purposes, unless the disease is dealt with at its very roots. These roots, as far as the historical dimension is concerned, are to be found in the subversion introduced in Europe by the revolutions of 1789 and 1848. The disease must be recognized in all of its forms and degrees; thus, the main task is to establish if there are still men willing to reject all the ideologies, political movements, and parties that, directly or indirectly, derive from those revolutionary ideas (i.e., everything ranging from liberalism and democracy to Marxism and communism)…

Strictly speaking, the watchword could then be counterrevolution; however, the revolutionary origins are by now remote and almost forgotten. The subversion has long since taken root, so much so as to appear obvious and natural in the majority of existing institutions. Thus, for all practical purposes, the formula of “counterrevolution” would make sense only if people were able to see clearly the last stages that the world subversion is trying to cover up through revolutionary communism. Otherwise, another watchword is to be preferred, namely reaction. To adopt it and call oneself “reactionary” is a true test of courage. For quite some time, left-wing movements have made the term “reaction” synonymous with all kinds of iniquity and shame; they never miss an opportunity to thereby stigmatize all those who are not helpful to their cause and who do not go with the flow, or do not follow what, according to them, is the “course of History.” While it is very natural for the Left to employ this tactic, I find unnatural the sense of anguish that the term often induces in people, due to their lack of political, intellectual, and even physical courage; this lack of courage plagues even the representatives of the so-called Right or “national conservatives,” who, as soon as they are labeled “reactionaries,” protest, exculpate themselves, and try to show that they do not deserve that label.

What is the Right expected to do? While activists of the Left are “acting” and carrying forward the process of world subversion, is a conservative supposed to refrain from reacting and rather to look on, cheer them on, and even help them along the way? Historically speaking, it is deplorable that a “reaction” has been absent, inadequate, or only half-hearted, lacking people, means, and adequate doctrines, right at the time when the disease was still at an embryonic stage and thus susceptible to be eliminated by immediate cauterization of its infectious hotbeds; had that been the case, the European nations would have been spared untold calamities…

Naturally, the term “reaction” intrinsically possesses a slightly negative connotation: those who react do not have the initiative of action; one reacts, in a polemical or defensive way, when confronted by something that has already been affirmed or done. Thus, it is necessary to specify that reaction does not consist in parrying the moves of the opponent without having anything positive to oppose him with. This misperception could be eliminated by associating the formula of “reaction” with that of “conservative revolution,” a formula in which a dynamic element is evident. In this context “revolution” no longer signifies a violent overthrow of a legitimate established order, but rather an action aimed at eliminating a newly emerged disorder and at reestablishing a state of normalcy. Joseph De Maistre remarked that what is needed, more than a “counterrevolution” in a polemical and strict sense, is the “opposite to a revolution,” namely a positive action inspired by the origins. It is curious how words evolve: after all, revolution, according to its original Latin meaning (re-volvere), referred to a motion that led again to the starting point, to the origins.

In conversation with my friends on the Left I often hear the phrase “the wrong side of history”; implicit in the use of this expression is the idea that it is the flow of history itself that ratifies changes in the condition of human society, rather than any higher and more permanent principle. The stark contrast between this view and that of the reactionary was borne home to me in two exchanges over the past weekend.

In the first, I replied to a remark made on Twitter about gay marriage. Someone had tweeted:

In 20 years, conservatives will be pointing out the positive effect marriage has on the gay community.

I replied:

And liberals will point out that opposition to gay marriage 20 yrs ago was just as strong as opposition to interspecies marriage is now.

In my mind this was a reductio ad absurdum, intended to show the lack of a limiting principle, and the folly of ascribing intrinsic wisdom to the entropic evolution of history.

A day later, the subject came up again, this time in private conversation with a dear, but very liberal, friend. I pointed out that, now that the ancient and universal understanding of marriage had been overthrown, marriage could defensibly become a relationship between a man and his goat.

She responded by reminding me that I was too mired in present-day attitudes, and that in a few decades it may well turn out to be considered perfectly acceptable for a man to marry his goat. What had been for me a reductio ad absurdum, then, was for her a perfectly plausible progression; in other words, it was her view that whatever such norms might become in the future, they are ratified, and justified, simply by virtue of their having evolved into whatever they will have become. This is the implicit meaning of “the wrong side of history”.

It seems to to me that “reaction” stands in relation to this worldview in the same way that position is related to momentum in quantum-mechanics: it is a complementary property of the human psyche. If we analyze the eigenfunction of a quantum particle so as to determine its position, we introduce uncertainty as to its momentum; by focusing on location, we lose sight of its motion. Likewise, we can understand the condition of a society either in terms of its location relative to an absolute frame of reference — i.e., to a set of immutable principles, or our concept of the sacred — or simply in terms of its momentum.

29 Comments

  1. the one eyed man says

    The problem with immutable principles is that they often defy science, reason, and human decency. It was an immutable principle that slavery was morally acceptable until John Brown started raising a ruckus (and thereby providing us with a fascinating moral question: was he justified in what he did?). It is an immutable principle in some Muslim cultures that stoning an adulterer is A-OK. The concept of the sacred was once the golden calf (or, for that matter, a fairy tale about a baby in a barn).

    To find immutable laws, the closest you will come is discovering the love child of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. Relying solely on the “ancient and universal understanding” or marriage, or many other things, is the obverse of your liberal friend’s worldview. While she believes that future moral equations are justified “simply by virtue of their having evolved into whatever they will have become,” your position is that current moral equations are justified simply by virtue of having existed in the past.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  2. “… position is related to momentum in quantum-mechanics: it is a complementary property …”

    anti-correlated

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    …your position is that current moral equations are justified simply by virtue of having existed in the past.

    No, this is precisely the opposite of my position.

    You exhibit a curious blindness here, and are simply projecting onto the reactionary the same mindset as my friend’s, with the polarity reversed. To assert this, you must assume that there is no higher criterion for wisdom, or for a culture’s organizing principles, than mere temporality. This is exactly the view that the reactionary rejects. The reactionary seeks a return to higher principles not because they prevailed in the past, but because they are higher. (You yourself flirt with this, in your appeal to “science, reason, and human decency”.)

    Of course, there is no surprise here; you are simply expressing the radical relativism, and denial of objective value, that is axiomatic to modern, secular liberalism. But to ascribe this assumption to the reactionary worldview, as you have just done, is precisely to miss the whole point of this post.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Henry, I refer to the idea of complementarity that is central to QM.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  5. I am vaguely familiar with the concept, Malcolm. I was merely distinguishing between positive and negative correlation.

    I suspect we are in violent agreement …

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  6. “You exhibit a curious blindness here, …”

    Monocular vision, perhaps?

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    You are trying to have it both ways here. If you justify traditional marriage because it conforms to “ancient and universal understanding,” then the justification is precedent and not a “higher criterion for wisdom.” If you want to claim that the pro-traditional marriage case is based on “higher principles not because they prevailed in the past, but because they are higher,” then you have to identify what those principles are, and why they have permanent and universal validity. Merely asserting that your principles are higher than the next guy’s is no different than your friend’s acceptance of holy matrimony between man and goat, Chihuahua, or cephalopod. Or all three at once.

    If you have a higher principle which explains why the benefits of marriage should be denied to two men or two women, then I am eager to hear it. The reason why marriage inequality is being struck down by courts with unerring frequency is that nobody is able to find such a principle, and precedent alone does not justify invidious discrimination.

    The reason that I mentioned Kant and Rawls is that you can use their works to construct a moral philosophy which is independent of “mere temporality.” By applying the categorical imperative and veil of ignorance, you can create a moral edifice which actually has principles with permanent and universal validity. Otherwise, what you share with your friend is a moral system based on preferences, which are self-characterized as being higher than those who hold opposing preferences.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    If you justify traditional marriage because it is conforms to “ancient and universal understanding,” then the justification is precedent and not a “higher criterion for wisdom.”

    First, marriage is not the point here, but is simply an example; its present-day repurposing, and the stripping away of its essence, are just symptoms. I’m not even staking out a position on governmental recognition of same-sex marriage here; the institution was already in tatters before this came along.

    More importantly, you miss the point again: when I refer to “ancient and universal understanding”, the fixity of your thinking immediately makes you seize on “ancient” — but the justification I refer to is not precedent, but the part you ignore: understanding.

    The reason why marriage inequality is being struck down by courts with unerring frequency is that nobody is able to find such a principle…

    No, it’s that a new “principle” has seized control — or, more accurately, a radically corrosive meta-principle that calls into doubt the very existence of anything higher than itself. That principles formerly understood by all are ignored in the modern world is not evidence that they do not exist; it is simply evidence that they are ignored. Regarding marriage, I could point you to any number of sources as regards the relation of marriage to higher, and even esoteric, ideas; if nothing else, you could begin with Aristotle, and work your way through Augustine and Aquinas, or you might read what the Hindus have to say about marriage as the union of complementary aspects of the divine, and so on. (Marriage as a sacrament that unites male and female has been a central feature of nearly every human tradition, until about ten minutes ago in the secular West.) Likewise, I could (and likely will, before long; it’s something I’ve been thinking about) develop a metaphoric analysis of marriage and other essential social structures in terms of entropy and thermodynamics.

    So if you want to understand these things, the door is still open. But why bother? We’re getting away from them as fast as we can, and most people seem perfectly happy to go along for the ride.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  9. “So if you want to understand these things, the door is still open. But why bother? We’re getting away from them as fast as we can, and most people seem perfectly happy to go along for the ride.”

    Your delicacy in referring to the Left as “most people” is admirable, Malcolm. They have rediscovered cynicism and writ it large.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Actually, “most” may be an exaggeration.

    Things have been moving very quickly lately, and the suicidal consequences of modern secular universalism are beginning to become apparent to more and more of the people of the West. At the risk of sounding optimistic, I’m starting to think a spirit of resistance is beginning to stir.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink
  11. Don’t count your optimism until the fat lady (in the White House) sinks.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 5:30 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Not to worry, Henry. I think it’s safe to say that I’m unlikely to give way to an excess of optimism.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  13. JK says

    Something for everybody’s line of argument here.

    Quantum Mechanics for TheBigHenry.

    Thermodynamics for Malcolm.

    & the Cock-Eyed for One-Eyed.

    http://theweek.com/article/index/256556/how-christianity-gave-us-gay-marriage

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink
  14. JK,

    Gay marriage is out (it’s been sobering, at best). Goat marriage is in.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
  15. JK says

    Sheep marriage maybe, goats however require another religion.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  16. You just know you’re on the wrong side of history . . . when you wake up dead.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 6:32 pm | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    Regarding the title of that article, JK, Moldbug would agree.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    See also this.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 6:50 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    And from your linked article, an astonishing example of precisely the mindset I described above (my emphasis):

    …a major reason why equality always wins is that the new order is always more just than what preceded it.

    On this view, then, the Third Reich was more just than Weimar, the Khmer Republic more so than the reign of Sihanouk, and the Kims are looking good in Korea.

    “Equality always wins”: words to die by.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 6:57 pm | Permalink
  20. “…, goats, however, require another religion.”

    Racist …

    I’ve heard that goats make a fine choice for a long-term relationship, viz., “You old goat, you.”

    Sheep, on the other hand, provide plenty of “Baaa!” and not a little “Humbug!”.

    Z

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  21. JK says

    I counted on you Malcolm to, if you tried reading to the end, you’d get there.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Permalink
  22. Malcolm says

    I got there, all right. Made my blood run cold.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 8:29 pm | Permalink
  23. Obviously, sheep and goats must join together as a society of shoats! That sort of society will surely be best for all . . .

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 8:33 pm | Permalink
  24. Goats and shoats will breach the moats,

    To pillage the village and slit our throats.

    What the dickens, I’ll stick with chickens;

    At least their thighs are tasty.

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 9:19 pm | Permalink
  25. Goats and shoats will breach the moats,
    To pillage the village and slit our throats.
    What the dickens, I’ll stick with chickens,
    And maybe some mutton from tasty kitchens.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 9:43 pm | Permalink
  26. Thighs from tasty chicken — good. Mutton from tasty kitchens — better. Claret from Mouton Rothschild — priceless!

    Posted February 19, 2014 at 10:09 pm | Permalink
  27. the one eyed man says

    In an earlier post regarding how progressives are such meanies, you cited the goal of conservatives to be “a prosperous and well-functioning American society that maximizes opportunity and happiness, in harmony with our nature.” Now you’re complaining that with recent changes in societal norms, “most people seem perfectly happy to go along for the ride.” If you want people to be happy, and accepting things like marriage equality makes them so, then what’s the problem?

    * * * *

    Slavery was once commonplace. It is now non-existent. What happened? The “radically corrosive meta-principle” that all men are created equal came into being, which threw into disrepute the previous (nearly) universally accepted understanding that enslavement was a natural part of the human condition. In 1215, the “radically corrosive meta-principle” that the power of the King is not absolute superseded the universal understanding that royalty should have absolute power, and the Magna Carta changed human society forever, much as the Declaration of Independence did 561 years later.

    As noted above, the problem with your argument is that it fails to account for the many times in human history when “principles formerly understood by all” are justifiably discarded to the ash-heap of history.

    Which is where Kant and Rawls become very useful. Slavery fails the categorical imperative (because nobody would want it to be universally applied) as well as the veil of ignorance (because nobody would vote for slavery if they didn’t know in advance if they would be master or slave). A principle like the right of self-defense would pass both the categorical imperative and the veil of ignorance. Hence if you want to construct a durable moral philosophy which is universally applicable through time and space, then you would be well advised to discard “those understandings which are universally held” in favor of these two criteria.

    Posted February 20, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  28. Malcolm says

    If you want people to be happy, and accepting things like marriage equality makes them so, then what’s the problem?

    Peter, what you say sounds plausible and appealing, but is far too superficial, and misses a key point. (And again, the question here is a general one; the headlong rush to discard all traditional notions of marriage for the sake of “equality” is just one aspect of it.)

    What you fail to keep in mind is that the Rawlsian/Kantian approach is simply an algorithm, a computational framework, for devising a moral system; it is not such a system in itself. And like any algorithm, it requires input.

    Even if we accept the Rawlsian model as the best framework for building a moral code, the policies that people would “vote” for as desirable features of an optimal society still depend upon their understanding of what principles actually lead to the sort of society that “maximizes opportunity and happiness, in harmony with our nature.” This is an empirical question, and it depends closely on the contingent facts of human nature; indeed, the answer most likely varies for different human groups.

    It is entirely possible for people to be sufficiently ignorant about all of this that they would “vote” for arrangements that gratify short-term interests, or give absolute priority to noble-sounding goals such as “equality” — but which actually fail, in the long run, to maximize the happiness, harmony, and stability we seek.

    So it is not enough to have everyone “vote” on these things: in order to achieve the best society, they must also “vote” wisely, which requires the sort of understanding you so blithely encourage us to discard.

    On this view, then, it is entirely possible for a majority of people in a democratic society to jump happily onto a social/political bandwagon that will, a few years later, carry them all over a cliff, or at least down into a swamp. Mobs can make very bad choices.

    Posted February 20, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  29. the one eyed man says

    I don’t disagree. People make bad choices, both individually and collectively. You will never construct a moral edifice with the perfection of a mathematical equation or a Bach fugue. However, you have to start somewhere, and to my thinking the works of Kant and Rawls provide the best matrix to do so.

    Posted February 20, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

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