No. 13: Traditionalism is Modernism…
October 27, 2014
Excuse the dashed off nature of this post. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I wanted to comment after reading this post by one of the better Neoreactionaries out there, Henry Dampier: Traditionalism is Modernism.
Though the Trichotomy is nice in theory, in practice it seems obvious to most that Neoreaction really consists of two opposing and very often antagonistic camps, the Traditionalists and the Post-Libertarians. (However I’ve found that most of the antagonism extends from the former group towards the latter one and not the other way around.)
Moldbug’s insight is both simple, and it’s own way, a little profound. The State is a Corporation. In contemporary political discussions, especially online, the public world of the state and the ‘private’ world of capitalism and corporations are contrasted infinitely to the point that the two become absolutely antithetical to one another. The ideological libertarian, the ancap, sees taxation as theft and considers the practice to be fundamentally immoral. The progressive leftist, on the other hand, considers the matter more through the lens of an 8th grade social studies lesson in civic virtue: taxation is the moral duty of those who possess something worth taxing.
The Menciian post-libertarian completely transcends the tedium of this worn-out old debate. In an economic sense paying taxes is the entirely rational act of the individual or firm. In this way the issue is completely obviated. The state is a corporation, no different or better than an insurance agency. The individual does not pay taxes, as the leftist would have you believe, out of a moral obligation to his ‘society’ or nation, but rationally, as it is in his best interests to do so.
Like the ideological libertarian the post-libertarian believes that the market evolves solutions over the long term to persistent material problems faced by human beings. The concept of governance then is subject to conditioning by historical market forces, emerging, not as the ideological libertarian insists, as something absolutely opposed to the market, but rather, as a corporation functioning within the dynamic confines of the market.
Members of the political left will alternatively see either Neoliberal democracy, or perhaps world communism as the form of government, given in idea, that is ultimately morally superior and towards which all of human history appears to be trending. The traditionalist reactionary typically will see some sort of romanticized monarchy as being the moral pinnacle of governance.
The post-libertarian will abide be neither of their visions unfortunately.
As Dampier points out this sort of Menciian thinker mines the political philosophy of monarchism, not to restore monarchy, but, quite to the contrary, to move beyond it. And herein lies the difference between reactionary traditionalists and post-libertarians, the post-libertarian is not making a moral argument about who, ideally, has the right or prerogative to rule. The post-libertarian does not advocate the elite, the people, or the ‘merchants’ right to hold power. The post-libertarian rather accepts reality as given. The most functional political structures emerge over time through competition, and it’s their functionality, and nothing else, that determines their worth.
Because he holds this view the post-libertarian confines himself much more entirely to the comprehensible world of the understanding while both the traditionalist and the Marxist concern themselves with the subjective realm of our reason. These two realms are, of course, metaphysically speaking, both infinitely coextensive as well as infinitely distinct.
The liberal or libertarian is generally caught between a rock and a hard place so to speak when he places himself inbetween the traditionalist and the leftist, as both are philosophically idealist in the sense that they both attempt to constitute the physical realm of material actuality as completely determined the morality of our reason. The post-libertarian avoids this transgression, attempting a neutrality with respect to the right of actuality to constitute itself according to its own laws, whether those laws be the ones of Newtonian mechanics or economic supply and demand.
The market does not yield anything rightly considered as the absolute or ultimate form of governance, yielding instead only forms of governance that may be considered most adapted to the circumstances engendering their emergence. Hence, Neoliberalism is not the end of history but only that system which has emerged during modernity as the one most adapted towards the unique circumstances of modernity. As this era of history gives way to another, as material factors conditioning the realities of governance change, Neoliberalism becomes obsoleted in the face of better adapted institutions.
“He comes to himself out of his sensuous slumber, recognizes himself as Man, looks around himself and finds himself — in the State. An unavoidable exigency had thrown him there before he could freely choose his station; need ordained it through mere natural laws before he could do so by the laws of reason. But with this State based on need, which had arisen only from his natural endowment as Man, and was calculated for that alone, he could not and cannot as a moral being rest content — and woe to him if he could! With the same right, therefore, by which he becomes a man, he leaves the dominion of a blind necessity, since he is parted from it at so many other points by his freedom as — to take only a single example — he effaces through morality and ennobles through Beauty the low character which the needs of sexual love imprinted on him. He thus artificially retraces his childhood in his maturity, forms for himself a state of nature in idea, which is not indeed given him by experience but is the necessary result of his rationality, borrows in this ideal state an ultimate aim which he never knew in his actual state of Nature, and a choice of which he was not then capable, and proceeds now exactly as though he were starting afresh and substituting the status of independence, with clear insight and free resolve, for the status of contract. However artfully and firmly blind lawlessness has laid the foundations of her work, however arrogantly she may maintain it and with whatever appearance of veneration she may surround it — he may regard it during this operation as something that has simply never happened; for the work of blind forces possesses no authority before which Freedom need bow, and everything must yield to the highest ultimate aim which Reason sets up in his personality. In this way the attempt of a people that has reached maturity to transform its natural State into a moral one, originates and vindicates itself.”
— Schiller, “On the Aesthetic Education of Man,” #4
Here is my main critique of traditionalism, it conflates the physical and the moral to such a degree as to become fundamentally idealist in its inability to recognize the independence of the understanding from the reason and vice versa. As an example, consider the physical institution of the university, which provides bureaucratic certification, and the relation of that institution to the moral necessity felt by the individual to educate himself, morally and aesthetically, to engage with the inner forces of his soul and to sort them out and put them in the proper order. These two things are completely distinct, but may, under certain conditions and at certain points in time coincide, as they did during the classical age of the modern university during the 19th century.
Initially the university developed to fulfill a physical need, later the abstract spirit of the ideal of liberal education grew into self-consciousness and began to predominate as the primary justification of the physical-legal existence of the institution of the university. In this way the university has moved away from fulfilling its basic material purpose within our society in favor of fulfilling directly an abstract moral one, namely, the rational and spiritual perfection of the populace. When the modern university is held up and defended in political discussions by progressives it is usually in service of this pedagogical ideal which they set up as the ultimate moral aim of the ideal of education. At the same time however it is plain to see that the university is failing in a purely mundane sense to satisfy with regards to its physical purpose of certifying students for entry into the world of middle-class bourgeoisie employment.
This is not the easiest point to grasp I realize, and I understand that I’m likely not doing it justice but I hope you can at least see what I’m driving at. Physical institutions must remain grounded in accomplishing materially necessary things as directed by the conditioning forces of history and the market. They must keep their eyes on the prize so to speak and work towards a purely mundane goal, it is only by means of this sort of self-limitation that at the same time they may flourish as truly moral institutions. When the body decays it is not enough to argue the immortality of the spirit.
In the case of the physical-legal institution of marriage traditionalists very often make this very mistake, of arguing that the superficial outward arrangement of a transitory political, cultural or social institution should be maintained so as to fulfill an ideally moral, rather than a mundanely physical end.
My ultimate diagnosis of reactionary traditionalists is this, they are degenerate 19th century romantics trying to realize, in actuality, the naive physical condition of their reason through the rigid upholding of the superficial outward constitution of the past.
Traditionalism here is Romanticism, specifically the Herderian kind, and Romancitism is Modernism. Go on twitter and browse through their posts, what do you find? Postcard ready images of idyllic towns and nature scenes, fan-art dedicated to Teutonic knights and Gothic motifs. As much as they’re wont to complain about materialism is there anything more materialistic than this? The harmony or unity of these past eras is the naive condition of their reason, and this sort of Gothic sentimentalism originates with and in many ways is completely identical to Romanticism during the 19th century.
I think I’d like them better if they read Walter Scott but their canon is ultimately only very small which is why I would call their romanticism degraded or degenerate as it tends to be hallowed out of much of its original substance.
This sort of traditionalism is not, as they would have it, a revolt against modernity in favor of a return to a more spiritually and socially integrated and harmonious past, but is modernism itself, as that is, plainly speaking, exactly what modernism is, a revolt against modernity in favor of a return to a more spiritually and socially integrated and harmonious past. The middle ages serves only as a symbol of this past within our consciousness, and was constructed by Ossian, Herder, Novalis, Walter Scott et al during the golden age of modern history around the turn of the 19th century.
It must be recognized that this past is not a goal to be realized in actuality, but a regulative ideal set up during the development of our reason that may never be physically realized. The reason for this? The moral harmony and unity of society is not objectively contained within the physical reality of society itself, but is a harmony rather introduced by our mind in our attempts to conceptualize reality.
The mistake of the traditionalist then, at his best, is to attempt directly realizing what is only a moral condition necessary for thinking in a constitutive way. At his worst however the reactionary is really just an anti-intellectual oaf dealing entirely in the picturesque. He collects cute postcards of European hamlets and hangs them on his fridge and believes that nothing more need be said. By perpetuating this revolt against modernity he sadly only perpetuates it though, as that is, in essence, the very definition of modernism.