What is neo-reaction?
Or perhaps I should rephrase that question: what would neo-reaction be if it were presented in a more coherent analytic framework? (You’ll find other takes here; I like it better with the hyphen.) Here is a list of propositions, noting that these are an intellectualized summary of a somewhat imagined collective doctrine, and certainly not a statement of my own views:
1. “Culturism” is in general correct, namely that some cultures are better than others. You want to make sure you are ruled by one of the better cultures. In any case, one is operating with a matrix of rule.
2. The historical ruling cultures for America and Western Europe — two very successful regions — have largely consisted of white men and have reflected the perspectives of white men. This rule and influence continues to work, however, because it is not based on either whiteness or maleness per se. There is a nominal openness to the current version of the system, which fosters competitive balance, yet at the end of the day it is still mostly about the perspectives of white men and one hopes this will continue. By the way, groups which “become white” in their outlooks can be allowed into the ruling circle.
3. Today there is a growing coalition against the power and influence of (some) white men, designed in part to lower their status and also to redistribute their wealth. This movement may not be directed against whiteness or maleness per se (in fact some of it can be interpreted as an internal coup d’etat within the world of white men), but still it is based on a kind of puking on what made the West successful. And part and parcel of this process is an ongoing increase in immigration to further build up and cement in the new coalition. Furthermore a cult of political correctness makes it very difficult to defend the nature of the old coalition without fear of being called racist; in today’s world the actual underlying principles of that coalition cannot be articulated too explicitly. Most of all, if this war against the previous ruling coalition is not stopped, it will do us in.
4. It is necessary to deconstruct and break down the current dialogue on these issues, and to defeat the cult of political correctness, so that a) traditional rule can be restored, and/or b) a new and more successful form of that rule can be introduced and extended. Along the way, we must realize that calls for egalitarianism, or for that matter democracy, are typically a power play of one potential ruling coalition against another.
5. Neo-reaction is not in love with Christianity in the abstract, and in fact it fears its radical, redistributive, and egalitarian elements. Neo-reaction is often Darwinian at heart. Nonetheless Christianity-as-we-find-it-in-the-world often has been an important part of traditional ruling coalitions, and thus the thinkers of neo-reaction are often suspicious of the move toward a more secular America, which they view as a kind of phony tolerance.
6. If you are analyzing political discourse, ask the simple question: is this person puking on the West, the history of the West, and those groups — productive white males — who did so much to make the West successful? The answer to that question is very often more important than anything else which might be said about the contributions under consideration.
Already I can see (at least) four problems with this point of view. First, white men in percentage terms have become a weaker influence in America over time, yet America still is becoming a better nation overall. Second, some of America’s worst traits, such as the obsession with guns, the excess militarism, or the tendency toward drunkenness, not to mention rape and the history of slavery, seem to come largely from white men. Third, it seems highly unlikely that “white men” is in fact the best way of disambiguating the dominant interest groups that have helped make the West so successful. Fourth, America is global policeman and also the center of world innovation, so it cannot afford the luxury of a declining population, and thus we must find a way to make immigration work.
By the way, here is Ross Douthat on neo-reaction:
But while reactionary thought is prone to real wickedness, it also contains real insights. (As, for the record, does Slavoj Zizek — I think.) Reactionary assumptions about human nature — the intractability of tribe and culture, the fragility of order, the evils that come in with capital-P Progress, the inevitable return of hierarchy, the ease of intellectual and aesthetic decline, the poverty of modern substitutes for family and patria and religion — are not always vindicated. But sometimes? Yes, sometimes. Often? Maybe even often.
Anyway, let’s continue.
Who are the important neo-reaction thinkers?
Those who come immediately to mind are Aristotle, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Jonathan Swift, Benjamin Franklin, John Calhoun, James Fitzjames Stephens, Nietzsche, Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Lee Kuan Yew. For all of the fulminations against neo-reaction, the intellectual movement is not a flash in the pan. Of course these thinkers were not operating in the cultural matrix laid out above, nonetheless they embody varying elements of elitism, non-egalitarianism, historical pessimism, and culturalism. The most significant neo-reaction thinker today probably is Steve Sailer, who often comments on this blog in addition to writing his own. By the way, both F.A. Hayek and Murray Rothbard were drawn to neo-reaction in their later years, and perhaps a separate post could be written on the complex connections between libertarianism and neo-reaction.
The miracle to my mind is that neo-reaction as an intellectual movement was relatively dormant for so long, not that it is coming back or will persist.
And maybe some of you are upset that I am even covering this topic, but neo-reaction, in varying forms, is a (the?) significant ideology in China, India, Russia, and Japan, and it is growing in popularity in Western Europe and of course America, where it has captured the presidential nomination of one of the two major parties. It seems odd not to discuss it at all.
Is neo-reaction a racist movement?
I don’t “hang out” with neo-reaction, whatever that might mean, so I cannot speak from first-hand experience. Still, I see overwhelming circumstantial evidence, including from the MR comments section, that the answer is yes, neo-reaction is very often racist. (And by “racist” I mean not only a particular set of beliefs, but how they are held with a kind of obnoxious, self-pleased glee.) If you read through the above propositions, it is easy enough to see why racists might find neo-reaction a congenial home. And that is an important critique of neo-reaction, namely that the doctrine, when stated explicitly or understood clearly enough, encourages a very harmful racism and a variety of other forms of bad behavior. Even if not every neo-reaction thinker is a racist himself or herself.
The early stages of the Trump campaign show clearly enough how publicly propagated neo-reaction disturbs the fabric and rhetoric of society. And there is a cruelness to the humor one finds in neo-reaction which is all too revealing; more generally neo-reaction just does not seem so conducive to a deep generosity of spirit.
That all said, I think it is a category mistake to dismiss neo-reaction on the grounds of racism or prejudice. There exists a coherent form of the doctrine perfectly consistent with the view that different races are intrinsically equal in both capabilities and moral worth, even if such a variant tends to get pushed out by the less salubrious elements. Furthermore calling neo-reaction racist, as a primary response, seems to personalize the debate in a Trump-like way, ultimately playing into the strengths of neo-reaction and distracting the liberals, in the broad sense of that term, from building up the most appealing vision of their philosophy and doctrine.
Liberalism isn’t actually an automatic emotional default for most people on this planet, so being a scold is in the longer run a losing strategy. I believe many current “democratic mainstream” thinkers genuinely do not understand how boring and unconvincing they are, as they live in bubbles filled with others of a similar bent. And while neo-reaction does not get exactly right the nature of “the golden goose” in modern America, that is a question which modern progressivism rather aggressively avoids in its attempt to view the wealthy as an essentially inexhaustible ATM.
What about me?
As an undergraduate, I was deeply struck by my readings of the Spanish and Salamancan friars who protested against the New World enslavement of the Indians, as they were then called. You can start with Bartolomé de las Casas. Here was a doctrine that was anti-slavery, anti-oppression, pro-reason, pro-liberty, pro-individual rights, and analytically egalitarian, and on top of that based on actual real world experience with the subject matter. On top of that, the overwhelming empirical fact is that people are far too willing to go tribal when it comes to politics. We don’t need to encourage that any further, nor am I excited by the notion of setting tribe against tribe.
The world could be facing some fairly dicey times in the decades to come, mostly for geopolitical reasons. I view the Spanish friars and their successors and offshoots — Montaigne, David Hume, Adam Smith, William Wilberforce, John Stuart Mill, Edmund Silberner, Martin Luther King Jr., Gene Sharpe, Thomas Schelling, and some of the EU founders, among many others — as providing better and more useful guides to our world than neo-reaction. Looking earlier, toss in Buddha and Jesus Christ and some of the Stoics as well.
Still, it would be a big mistake to simply dismiss neo-reaction, even though there are some rather easy and facile ways to do so. It’s a wake-up call for the fragility of liberalism, a doctrine which sinks all too readily into its own dogmatic slumbers.