The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an isolated system, the universe as a whole being the largest example of such a system, the level of entropy will increase over time. While this is technically a statement about energy moving from an ordered and usable state to one that is disordered and unusable, the popular understanding of the Law as saying that everything eventually breaks down is not wrong. Translated into poetry, William Butler Yeats’ lines “Things fall apart/the centre cannot hold/mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (1) is a decent approximation.
That this Law is valid when applied to history ought, with certain qualifications, to be considered a fundamental reactionary principle. By history, of course, I mean the history of human civilizations, and one qualification is that the Law must be applied in a particular rather than a general sense. Speaking of any given civilization, the creative energy that was put into building it eventually runs out and the civilization enters into a period of decline. Those who are familiar with Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West will recognize in his theory of the life-cycle of civilizations – although he called them cultures – what the history of human civilization in general looks like when the Law of entropy is applied to each civilization in particular. The other qualification, is that, as with any other application of this Law including its original usage in physics, it is a property of fallen Creation which in no way binds the Creator. The decline of a civilization can be and often has been retarded and even turned around by a religious revival. This is why there is no essential conflict between the reactionary’s anti-Whig understanding of history as moving in a downward direction towards decadence, decline, doom, and destruction and his call to “turn back the clock.” Whether the reactionary recognizes it or not, the latter is really a call for religious revival, a call to turn back to God.
The opposite of this reactionary principle is the idea that the history of human civilization, apart from any divine input, is an exception to the Second Law and is constantly moving towards a higher order, greater freedom, and maximal human potential. This is the idea of progress to which all forms of modern thought subscribe in one form or another. The nineteenth century Whig interpretation of history which treated all of past history as one long preparation for liberal democracy was one well known version of the idea of progress. The neoconservative Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man was an updated edition of this version. As Eric Voegelin (The New Science of Politics, 1952) and George Grant (Philosophy in the Mass Age, 1959) observed this idea was produced by inappropriately transferring to the history of human civilization the attributes of God’s redemptive history which transcends the history of human civilization and culminates in the Kingdom of God. The result of this transferal is the substitution of the Kingdom of Man for the Kingdom of God and Grant, who pointed this out in his first major book, devoted the writing side of his career to contemplating the consequences of this substitution in the modern, technological, age.
A quick glance at the mainstream “right” today will tell you that it has entirely abandoned the reactionary principle in favour of some form of the idea of progress. In Manitoba our most recent provincial election just took place a day prior to the request for the dissolution of Parliament launching the next Dominion election. Provincially, the status quo was more or less maintained, with the majority of seats held by Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives. Note the adjective in the party’s title. During the campaign Pallister’s PCs – the initials are even more appalling than the adjective by itself – used “Moving Manitoba Forward”, previously used by the socialists, as their slogan and ran ads urging voters not to let Wab Kinew’s New Democrats turn back the clock. In this context, of course, turning the clock back does not mean a religious revival, a recovery of worthy elements of the ancient and Christian traditions that were lost or damaged in the transition to modernity, or anything else a reactionary would mean by the phrase but rather a return to the policies of the previous Greg Selinger government – huge deficits, high taxes, long emergency room wait times, and general mismanagement of the public health care system. It speaks volumes of the mainstream “right” in this province, however, that it would rely so heavily on the language of progress to sell its platform to the public.
There is also a growing right outside of the mainstream. If we compare it to the mainstream right on an issue by issue basis we find that overall it is much to be preferred to the mainstream right. In Canada today any stronger position against abortion than “I am personally against it, but I believe it is a woman’s right to choose” has been almost completely pushed into the non-mainstream right. Any position on immigration stronger than “we need secure borders and to enforce our border laws” such as the suggestion that legal levels of immigration are way too high was pushed out of the mainstream right in all Western countries decades ago. To say that selection of immigrants is the prerogative of the country admitting the immigrants and that Western countries need more prudence in exercising that prerogative because not all cultures are equally compatible with our own, although common sense and until about sixty years ago non-controversial, is now regarded by the entire left and the mainstream right as beyond the pale. Speaking these truths about immigration has become the signature issue of most of the various forms of the non-mainstream right.
This “right” too, however, seems incapable of speaking its truths in any language other than that of the left. Take the movement behind Brexit in the United Kingdom, the Make America Great Again movement that put Donald Trump into the presidency of the United States, and the movement represented by Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party here in Canada. All three of these movements are populist. Populism is a style of politics in a democratic state that involves appealing directly to “the people” and vilifying the governing elites. A populist conceives of the policies he promotes in terms of “the will of the people” and prefers direct democracy over representative democracy. Each of these aspects of populism is an obvious characteristic of each of the three movements that I have specified – even though, ironically, it is due to representative democracy having been given the upper hand over direct democracy in the constitution of the American Republic that Donald Trump is now their president.
Indeed, the association between the non-mainstream right and populism is such that many people today think of populism as being naturally and inherently right-wing. It is not. Populism’s natural home is on the left. The idea of “the will of the people” is the very fiction upon which the left was historically based. It is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called la volonté générale and was incorporated by the French Revolutionaries into the sixth Article of their Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Indeed, the very concept of “the people” is a fiction, for it has no consistent meaning. When a republican speaks of “the people” he means all citizens of the republic, governor and governed alike. A populist, by “the people”, excludes the elite. A lot of leftists use “the people” to mean “the poor” and exclude “the rich”. Hitler, by “the people” meant German-speaking Aryans. “The people” can mean whatever the person invoking the name of “the people” wants it to mean and therefore it means nothing at all. It is an expression, like so many others in the leftist lexicon, which is defined not by its designation of a corresponding reality, but by its usefulness as a tool for justifying violence and seizing and exercising power.
By contrast, kings and queens do not traditionally speak of “the people” but rather “my people” or “our people.” This wording is clear and definite – it means the monarch’s subjects – and expresses the traditional relationship between sovereign and subject in which feudal allegiance and familial ties are connected, kings and queens being both the liege-lords of their realms and the fathers and mothers of their large extended family of subjects. A true man of the right, a reactionary, is always a royalist.
To our list of reactionary principles we can add that pure democracy is the worst form of government, and that direct democracy as opposed to representative democracy, is the worst form of democracy. These principles are the opposite of all modern thinking, which is what makes them reactionary, but they are demonstrable.
Imagine a group of twenty people. One of them, Bob, puts forward to the rest of the group, the proposition that another of their members, Joe, should be beaten, tortured, mutilated, and killed for their amusement. The proposition is debated and they decide to settle it by taking a vote. Fifteen vote in favour, five against. The outcome is rather rough on poor Joe, but it was a democratic decision, fair and square, majority rules.
While that example is rather absurd and extreme, it illustrates what is wrong with the popular modern thought that democracy is the ideal form of government. If, however, you were to make one slight adjustment to the illustration and have Bob put forward the proposition that since Joe, who is quite wealthy, has so much property, and the rest of them, who are rather poor, have so little, it is only fair that they confiscate Joe’s wealth and distribute it equally among themselves, you would no longer have a situation that would be highly unlikely to arise in real life but a small-scale depiction of what is called economic democracy or socialism.
This problem with democracy has been recognized since it was first invented by the Greeks in ancient Athens and is one of the reasons why Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle condemned democracy as the worst form of government. Alexis de Tocqueville described the problem as “the tyranny of the majority.” Modern thinkers believed that the solution to the problem was to combine democracy with liberalism – the idea that government is itself subject to the law and that the law must recognize the natural, inalienable, rights of the individual. When men like John Locke and John Stuart Mill first proposed this doctrine they saw it as a restraint on the power of government to oppress. Today, centuries later, we are surrounded by an abundance of examples of how the doctrine of liberalism can be the basis and justification of state oppression. To give but one, we are now living in a day when someone can get in trouble with the law for using the pronoun “he” to refer to someone born with a penis on the grounds that it violates the individual’s inalienable “right” to choose his/her/its/whatever own gender.
What is also apparent in our day and age is that while “the tyranny of the majority” is a problem unique to democracy, the tyranny of the minority over the majority is just as much an element of democracy as of an outright oligarchy. Interestingly, the best example of this is the very issue which the non-mainstream right insists on framing in leftist, populist, terms. The populist, nationalist, “right” is not wrong in saying that Western countries have had too much of the wrong kind of immigration and placing the blame for this on “the elites.” What they don’t seem to grasp is that the guilty elites are democratic elites qua democratic elites.
Every organized society will always have an elite. There will always be a minority in any society that steers and directs it. This is what Robert Michels called “the iron law of oligarchy” (Political Parties, 1911) and it is true of all forms of society, no matter how democratic they might be in theory, and it does not make a difference if the democracy is direct or representative. In a true direct democracy, where every single question of public policy would be decided by a popular referendum, the ability to persuade the majority to vote its way most of the time, would be in the hands of a minority, and they would be the elite. The elite that actually wields power is not necessarily the same as those nominally in charge. Thus in a representative democracy the elite may be those who have gotten themselves elected into public office or it may be a hidden minority who have the ability to control elected officials. The nature of the society has as much of an effect on the nature of the elite as the nature of the elite has on the nature of the society.
Bertolt Brecht’s poem The Solution (1959) was intended as a criticism of the Communist government of East Germany’s suppression of the uprising of 1953. The poem’s ironic conclusion “Would it not in that case be simpler/for the government/To dissolve the people/and elect another” has frequently been borrowed as a critical description of the motives behind Western governments’ liberal mass immigration policies. The criticism is apt, but my point is that it is only a democratic society that provides its elites with an incentive for trying to “dissolve the people/and elect another”. An oft-heard argument for democracy is that it allows us to periodically “throw the rascals out.” One can see the appeal in this but the flipside is that it gives the political class a motive to “do unto them, before they do unto you.”
It is hardly a coincidence that radical, demographic transformation producing, mass immigration was introduced throughout the West in the 1960s – only a decade and a half after the end of the war in which the United States had emerged as the predominant power in the West. The United States, which had been led into the First World War by a President who wanted to “make the world safe for democracy” and who therefore insisted on driving the Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns from their thrones paving the way for the rise of Hitler, was able after the Second World War to introduce radical democratic changes throughout the West whether by forced re-education in the former Axis countries, the bribery of the Marshall Plan re-building assistance among the European Allies, or the dependence of both upon the American nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against the threat of Soviet invasion. The Americanization of the West led almost immediately to the spread of liberal mass immigration. Here in Canada, Tom Kent, an important Liberal Party strategist in the days of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau and one of the men who spearheaded the radical changes to our immigration policy in the late 1960s, as much as admitted to the Brechtian motive of maintaining the Liberal hold on power by dissolving the old electorate when he said that it was done to break up “Tory Toronto.”
If the radical immigration the West has been suffering from for decades is due to what Christopher Lasch called “The Revolt of the Elites” and that revolt in turn is the result of the triumphant ascendancy of American-style liberal democracy in the post-World War II Western world (2) then the insistence of the non-mainstream right on using the left-wing language of populism, democracy and “the will of the people” to combat this kind of immigration seems like a major strategic error.
I must point out, before concluding this essay, that the preceding strong criticism of democracy is not a criticism of the institution of parliament. As noted above, the true reactionary right is royalist, but no king or queen has ever governed without a council of advisors, and the institution of parliament has been a part of royal government in Christendom for over a thousand years. Parliament as an institution is democratic, but not completely democratic, and its virtue, historically, was that it incorporated a form of representative democracy into royal government in a way that strengthened the latter while diluting the many negative aspects of the former. While this virtue has been greatly lessened by the triumph of Whiggism the problem is with the Whig principle not with the institution. The Whig principle is that parliament is the democratic safeguard against royal tyranny. The Tory principle – the reactionary principle - is the exact opposite of this – that in parliament royal authority is the safeguard against democratic tyranny. The Tory principle is the true one.
In Part Two, I shall, Deus Vult, consider the reactionary principle that religion is the foundation of civilization in opposition to the liberal idea that the secular retreat from religion is the foundation of civilization and we shall weigh the mainstream, neoconservative, right in the balance of this principle and find it wanting.
(1) From The Second Coming (1919).
(2) Lasch would presumably disagree strongly with my explanation. The full title of his final, posthumously published, book was The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1996).
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