Novelty of Neoreaction

Recently, I’ve been thinking about James Goulding’s post, “The sociology of Reaction.” Goulding summarizes:

Neoreaction began in 2007, when pseudonymous blogger Mencius Moldbug opened Unqualified Reservations. “Reactionary” is an old, familiar word in politics, but almost everyone on the Internet who calls himself a reactionary, neoreactionary or member of the dark enlightenment community does so because he is a fan of Moldbug.

It might not be strictly true that neoreaction ‘began’ with Moldbug, but it’s clear he heavily popularized it. In recent times, the word “reactionary” has almost exclusively been used as an epithet. References on Google Trends bear this out. A typical example is seen in the description of the book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (2011), which explains:

Tracing conservatism back to its roots in the reaction against the French Revolution, Robin argues that the right is fundamentally inspired by a hostility to emancipating the lower orders. Some conservatives endorse the free market, others oppose it. Some criticize the state, others celebrate it. Underlying these differences is the impulse to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality.

Despite their opposition to these movements, conservatives favor a dynamic conception of politics and society–one that involves self-transformation, violence, and war. They are also highly adaptive to new challenges and circumstances. This partiality to violence and capacity for reinvention has been critical to their success.

A New York Times book review repeats the line, “Conservatism at its core, this book argues, is about subjugating the lower orders.”

It should be clear from reading the above description that the author seeks to characterize conservatism as violent and evil and progressivism as light and good. It seems to signal an absence of nuance and narrow framing that lacks objectivity.

In Men Among the Ruins (1953), reactionary Italian philosopher Julius Evola writes that Radical Traditionalists should reclaim the term “reactionary”:

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 “re-action” 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.

Google searches seem to verify this “lack of courage.” Search for “reactionary conservative” and you’ll see what I mean; no right-thinking, or indeed practically any conservatives in the English-speaking world seem to attribute this label to themselves, except readers of Mencius Moldbug, and a few others. The modern neoreactionary movement is just six years old. What’s more, the movement didn’t begin to truly cohere and articulate its self-identity until December 2012. Core reactionary works were so opaque that it took an outsider, Alexander Scott, to write up a summary of some of the ideas so they could finally be made more accessible. That was published only on March 3rd of this year.

True reactionary conservatism seems to have gone out of fashion around the time of the Second World War. It is clear that modern “neoreactionary” movement is a novel phenomenon sparked almost single-handedly by the writings of Moldbug, though there were some faint stirrings beforehand, mostly from Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

What is a reactionary? Moldbug writes, “a reactionary is a believer in order.” He contrasts this with progressives, whom he argues are believers in progress. Reactionaries are not necessarily picky about the source of the order:

Thus, the order that the rational reactionary seeks to preserve and/or restore is arbitrary. Perhaps it can be justified on some moral basis. But probably not. It is good simply because it is order, and the alternative to order is violence at worst and politics at best. If the Bourbons do not rule France, someone will – Robespierre, or Napoleon, or Corner Man.

To address his mention of politics; reactionaries are tired of politics, and tired of political parties. We see democracy as low-intensity civil war that incentivizes group conflict. We look to a more traditional and hierarchical government as a stabler configuration that can satisfy human preferences more effectively and reliably while minimizing inter-group conflict.

In another blog post, Moldbug says, “violence equals conflict plus uncertainty. He describes a political system designed to reduce violence which he calls formalism. The argument is that current patterns of political power are highly obfuscated, and this uncertainty leads to conflict. To resolve the conflict, we should “formalize” power relations by pointing them out more explicitly, and assigning them certificates.

Moldbug argues that the default state of power relations in government is an obfuscatory one; those who actually have the power to formulate the details of policy are able to remain mostly anonymous. Immense political power is also found in academia and the media, parts of which are continuous with sibling groups in the government itself. None of this may immediately be obvious to the casual observer, but it is the fundamental basis on which our government operates.

In personal conversation, Samo Burja argued that the default state of government power relations being a obfuscatory one disrupts the basis on which social contracts are formulated. For instance, political power is nominally in the hands of the elected officials, but in actuality it appears to be in the hands of the permanent civil service. There is even a sitcom that humorously illustrates this reality in the context of the British government; Yes Minister. It is known as Margaret Thatcher’s favorite TV show. To summarize, the show highlights how the temporary, elected official (Minister) has his activities guided and limited by the more experienced Permanent Secretary, a top civil servant. The Minister thinks he has power, but in fact he doesn’t. The real official pulling the strings is the Permanent Secretary. Meanwhile, constituencies are under the impression that the elected official is in charge. Savvy academics and politicians, however, know that the real people to influence are not necessarily elected officials, but other academics or civil servants in key positions.

In contrast to a democratic government ruled by a biege dictatorship where no one is truly accountable, Traditionalists (a term I prefer to “reactionary”) call for a government where the chains of command are more explicit and stable. We argue that this has historically led to better government with greater accountability. Note that Congress has an approval rating (9%) lower than Dick Cheney (18%), BP during the oil spill (16%), or Paris Hilton (15%). Is this because politicians are inherently evil and incompetent? That’s the standard line of both Democrats and Republicans (always referring to the other side, of course), but a simpler explanation may be that the system is broken by design. It seems likely that few monarchs were ever as unpopular as Congress is.

Another issue has to do with the size of the legislative body. The United States House of Representatives has 435 members. This is well above the Dunbar number, about 150, which is the natural upper limit of human groupings. This super-Dunbar number of legislators ensures that true mutual understanding and trust cannot be achieved. Person-to-person interactions flounder as a result, and partisanship prevails to an extent that it never could in a smaller and more cohesive group.

This post is simply meant to summarize a collection of points for beginners in reactionary ideaspace. To recap:

  • Neoreactionaries are a brand new phenomenon, different in kind from paleoconservatives and other political groups that came before them.
  • The whole movement was heavily popularized by Mencius Moldbug, though Hans-Hermann Hoppe played a founding role beforehand.
  • Before 2007, “reactionary” was mostly used as an epithet. Now, a significant group of people are enthusiastically applying the term to describe their politics.
  • Reactionaries are in favor of order, while progressives are in favor of progress.
  • Violence equals conflict plus uncertainty.
  • Democracy incentivizes group conflict and its core body, the Congress, has an abysmal approval rating.
  • Legislative bodies with super-Dunbar head counts are dysfunctional by design.

For further reasoning behind these points, I encourage you to read the Moldbug posts linked, especially the Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives.