Ever since the shuttening of Radix, I have intended to re-run this essay at some point. And with the recent publication of James Lawrence’s Are We Right?, now seems to be as good a time as any. I wrote this piece over two years ago, and if I were to do it over again today there are certain portions I would phrase differently—my explanation of particularism would be more precise, for instance. And while my understanding of the nature of the Left has not much changed, my opinion of that nature has become much more disdainful. But I stand by my main conclusion about the reasons for the meta-political failure of the Right throughout history, and I think that conclusion is relevant to the questions raised by Lawrence in his essay.
Lawrence is correct that the Right, historically, has had a more concrete socio-political vision than the Left, that it has been concerned with maintaining the existing social order (or restoring one recently passed). In my estimation though, that is where the Right went wrong. In practice, most ideologies of the Right have been forms of social conservatism, and lack a metaphysical fixed point. At first glance, one might think that being unencumbered by any adherence to an abstract system of thought would make the Right more nimble and adaptable to the times, and it does have its benefits in the area of electoral politics, but the “first glance” counts for little in the more important field of meta-politics. Without an abstract fixed point to guide its response to inevitable social changes, the Right has been left rudderless, and its adaptability amounts to adapting to the social changes of the previous generation—changes which were initiated by the Left.
The following is a slightly altered version of an essay that appeared in Radix in the summer of 2015.
“The arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Our President [Obama] seems to be particularly fond of this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (or whoever might have actually originally said it). Those of us on the far-Right, and the far-Left too, reflexively recoil at this sort of whiggish interpretation of history, but for most people it is just commonsense. Some people and ideas are “ahead of their time,” and some are “on the wrong side of history.” The vast majority of Westerners achieve an intuitive understanding of this at a very young age, and whether they grow up to become university professors or adults who are unable to locate France on a map, most maintain this belief all their lives.
Of course this outlook is simplistic, but if we limit our historical timeline to the Modern Age, it is basically true (relative to contemporary moral opinion). The problem with this view is that it is treated as some deep teleological truth, when it is essentially just a tautology. The whole point of dividing history into “ages” is to identify and demarcate eras according to their guiding socio-political spirit. So naturally a man-of-his-time will feel like his immediate ancestors were moving in the right direction—his beliefs are the result of their actions. Socio-political evolution moves in one direction until a powerful enough force ends it, and creates a new age. The spirit that has guided our civilization since at least the Enlightenment is egalitarian universalism; but why? Why has the Right failed to overthrow this verdict, or turn it in its favor? Why, since the Enlightenment, are those on the Left generally “ahead of their time,” while the Right is “on the wrong side of history?”
The answer, I think, is that the Right has always been practically synonymous with conservatism, which has always been a ramshackle collection of contradictory positions that can not rationally defend itself. The Left is also a very diverse grouping, but unlike the Right, everything that is of the Left flows from, and is mostly logically consistent with, their articulated first principle. Which, again, is egalitarianism. The specific points of emphasis may change, certain issues may be discarded, and they may even at times appear to contradict their own expressed ideals, but every manifestation of the Left is a coherent extension of a foundational belief in equality. In contrast, “the Right” is just a name we give to any reaction against the Left. For most of modern history, the Right has simply defended the status quo against attack from the Left, or argued for a return to a previous arrangement. In hindsight, we can say that the Right is usually defined by its relative support for inequality, but this is more a coincidence of favoring old ways over new than it is a coherent abstract ideal.
This is important because an ideology without an attractive abstract core to direct it will always be a house of cards, especially if the ideology is coming from the Right. Unlike that of the Left, the morality of the Right is not in-step with human intuition; it can only be arrived at intellectually, and even here, the path is not straightforward. Our circle often derides Conservatism as retrograde Liberalism, but perhaps the Right should have embraced Liberalism (though not Leftism) from the start.
The (Pre)Existing Institutional Morality (The Right) vs Our Intuitive Morality (The Left)
To be fair to the Right, the Left has a lot of built-in advantages. First of all, they were the first-in-the-field. The modern Right-Left dichotomy only exists because the Left emerged to challenge the existing regime. This regime, essentially a Medieval holdover of warlords and priests, was in a terrible position to defend itself in an age of scientific discovery and commercial expansion. Of course that did not stop them from trying. The modern Right is descended from this futile defense, and it has been on-the-back-foot ever since. And really, the basic ideas of the Left have always appealed to people. The requirement to be kind to the stranger is a common thread throughout history, and populist politics thrived in the ancient world. Most fundamentally—and perhaps this opinion reflects my white privilege in assuming my experiences to be universal, but it seems to me that in any civilization that has reached a certain level of moral sophistication, egalitarian universalism is the default ideal. It is, to quote my own book, “the path of least intellectual resistance.”
Universalist morality as the ideal is a truism to most people, not just because of the triumph of liberalism, but because it is an easy-to-follow and convincing logical justification of what most people are already emotionally and intuitively inclined to believe is true. They may be instinctively uncomfortable with the logical implications of universalistic morality, but their conscience concedes it is the ideal. The only question left on-the-table is whether or not implementation of the latest leftist innovation is practical, or practical at this time.
From the beginning, the modern Right has been caught in a vicious nature-nurture cycle. Again, the Right began its life defending an outmoded societal model. Advances in scientific understanding directly contradicted Church teachings, and it was hard to argue that de facto power of the rising commercial class did not entitle them to some measure increased political power. An aristocracy of warlords to maintain order was plainly less vital in the Post-Westphalian world (even to the royal administration); homicide rates were a tiny fraction of what they were in Medieval times†, and technological changes undermined the necessity of a privileged warrior class.
And one disadvantage leads to another; when one side champions reason and the other side champions faith, which side do you think is going to attract more intelligent partisans? When one side is content with the world they already know, and the other side is restless for ‘justice and the liberation of the individual,’ which side do you think is going to collect the more dedicated and idealistic followers? And so for most of modern history the Right has gathered in those who instinctively fear change, or who have too practical a cast-of-mind to entertain it. While those who are more open to the world of ideas have, by and large, found their home on the Left.
The casual observer might expect that in an age of mass democracy, instinctive fear would win out over intellect. In the short term, it often does, but only in the short term. It begins losing its power over us almost from the moment we first feel it. The politics of the intellect follow the exact opposite trajectory. Remote from our immediate concerns, and contrary to our habits, our initial impulse is to ignore it or rationalize it away and continue on the familiar way, but the argument remains lodged our mind until our conscience can no longer deny its truth. So the Right wins plenty of elections, but the political center keeps moving to the Left. And it is not as if the Left must rely only on pure intellect; they have their own emotional arguments—even outside of the intuitive morality mentioned above (e.g. envy of the historic in-group).
Toward a More Mature Liberalism
Contemporary conservatism as a whole may not be a coherent ideology, but it does contain a coherent political ideology: freedom. Tellingly, mainstream Conservatism’s more literal understanding of freedom (relative to leftist ideas) has attracted more able defenders and stood-up over time a lot better than has their social agenda. Their battle against expanding government in general may be a Sisyphean struggle, but in many significant areas—welfare, tax rates, gun control, school choice, specific business regulations—the political tide moves back and forth. There are monied interests behind many of these issues, and it helps that these are not all-or-nothing disagreements, but the exception is great enough that it must at least be recognized. And once recognized, I do not think it can be explained away so simply. The “freedom agenda” has a reasonably attractive and coherent abstract core and an appreciable number of smart idealistic adherents.
It is impossible to prove a negative, but every ideological movement that is able to stand its ground across multiple generations has had those two traits (an abstract core and idealistic smart people) in common. I am going to assume that that is not a coincidence. I make this assumption because, well, it seems to be commonsense, but also because I have known a few smart people in my time, and this seems to be the way they think, especially if morality is the primary object of their contemplation.
Social conservatism, conversely, does not spring from an abstract first principle, and so does not have the force of smart idealistic crusaders behind it. It is nothing more than an instinctive defense of what was. Their ideological explanations are rationalizations of their prejudices (in the true meaning of the word), and this is transparent to every discerning observer. So, again and again, they lose. I happen to agree with social conservatives on many issues, but rarely have I been convinced by the eloquence of their arguments. (Their interpretation of the law is a notable exception to this rule, as the logical framework of law is squarely in conservatives’ intellectual wheelhouse—a happy coincidence of poetical symbolism and objective expectations. Here, social conservatives are capable of forming abstract first principles because those principles must be induced from particular precedents.)
To be sure, the freedom agenda exists entirely under the umbrella of liberalism. One may assign many demerits to the libertarian wing of the Right, but I dare say that its adherence to liberalism should not be included among them. I think, perhaps, that the Right’s “original sin” is that it is grounded in a rejection of liberalism. As I hope I have explained in such a way that my audience can understand, an ideological movement must have a logical, moral, abstract first principle, if it is to be successful—and again, this goes double if the ideology is coming from a place on the Right. Achieving this seems to almost require some level of obedience to liberalism. Reason over faith and freedom of speech are so logically impregnable that they may as well be scientific laws. Meritocracy, democracy, a first principle founded on individual happiness, if carefully designed, are very near the same status, technically still theories perhaps, but without any serious rivals.
Instead of embracing the truths offered by Liberalism/The Enlightenment, and carving its own path from there, the Right chose to defend an outmoded order, and we have all been the worse for it. The Right refused Kant’s call for man to emerge from his ‘self-imposed immaturity.’ Given that the dominant political wing of Enlightenment thought soon morphed into a direct challenge to the preexisting order, the path taken by the Right was “natural,” if I may be permitted to use that word to describe a thing which I disparage, but the result has been a stunting of the West’s moral philosophical development. Without a worthy challenger, a logical and idealistic challenger, the Left is rarely forced to rethink its foundational assumptions, so it simply continues to extrapolate from the same base of beliefs. The Enlightenment should have offered boundless moral possibilities, but instead Western man is left with a false either/or choice.Ω If it seems like I am repeating myself, it is only because since the Right made its initial wrong turn, the same dilemmas plague it at every turn. (And having listened to my share of conservative talk radio, I know that right-wing audiences need to have each point repeated for them at least three times before they get it.)
Yes, the essence of the Right is inegalitarian. But the first principle must not be because it is natural, or in keeping with any given tradition; these rationales crumble under logical examination.∞ It must not be a reality that is accepted, but an ideal that is worth achieving. It must be an ideal that has human happiness as its aim; it must consider what the individual does want, and attempt to answer what he should want.
To make this concrete, there is no intrinsic conflict between ethnonationalism and the core spirit of Liberalism. Ethnonationalism flows from a logical, idealistic, abstract ideology of individual happiness: Particularism. The starting point for Particularism is that the individual should want to perpetuate himself, and therefore the state should be a means to this end. However, self-perpetuation means different things to different people. So the idea is that there ought to be a far greater multiplicity of states, representing as many human spirits as possible in order that the state may represent the individual’s will as closely as possible. The nature of the individual’s bond with his fellow citizens could be ethnic, religious, ideological, anything that is willed with sufficient power. The only limiting principle is the viability of the state, and its society, to perpetuate itself.
I do not run from the fact that ethnonationalism is unyieldingly unequal: if you do not have the right lineage, you can not be part of the ethnostate. For the same reason, it permits less freedom. But looked at another way, it is profoundly egalitarian in that it attempts to provide a far more intimate happiness to the individual, and it is far more liberating in that it allows far more space for individual expression to actually make itself felt. The libertarian will counter that his proposals go further on both these fronts, but if it does not create or contribute to a lasting community, the individual will is not really willing anything. (This formulation, by the way, is entirely in sync with the Enlightened Social Contract theory of limiting a thing in order to preserve it.) In practice, Particularism could get messy sometimes, but basing our arguments on the preservation of order has just gotten us where we are today.
†The homicide rate in seventeenth century England was only three times higher than it is now—which is about the same as the current US rate. Three or four centuries earlier, it would have been several times that high. The homicide rate in Amsterdam plummeted from 47 per 100,000 in the mid-fifteenth century to between 1 and 1.5 per 100,000 in the early nineteenth century.
Ω The rise of a multi-party system in many European countries, in which parties sometimes blend ideas that are conventionally thought of as Right and Left, may be a very small step toward correcting this situation.
∞Truth be told, the ideological constructions of the Dark Enlightenment are based on little more than aesthetic preference, which its adherents attempt to justify by a utilitarian theory built on flimsy first-order philosophizing. Just a few tugs on its loose threads, and the whole thing is reduced to rubble. Which is utterly unsurprising, given the fate of the model on which they have based their recreation.