Remember the donkey, Benjamin, from Animal Farm? He is a dissident intellectual who sees how things really are, providing exposition to the reader about how the ridiculous, surreptitious deception defines the post-revolution farm. He’s not a resister, he’s not a rabble-rouser and he’s not counter-revolutionary. He is passive, and he passively speaks the sober truth, with neither a delusion of living under a reasonable system or delusion of being able to change that system. That’s the only reason why he can occupy his strange position — he is an utterly defeated fellow with nothing to lose and no reason to speak anything but the harsh truth. This is the mystique of the neoreactionary.
The neoreactionary is the guy at the end of the movie that tells everyone exactly how he feels about them. He’s already lost his job, or lost the battle, or he’s just had an epiphany about how he’s been full of shit the whole time (does anyone else remember Talk Radio?) That’s why people actually read neoreactionary blogs instead of those of, say, Stormfront.org buffoons, despite the two being about equal in political incorrectness. Where white nationalists might have laughable fantasies about a “white revolution” and coming neo-Nazi order, neoreactionaries are acutely aware of the insurmountable obstacles that face an anti-mass movement. Nick Land writes:
Neoreactionary realism, in contrast, is positively aligned with the recession of demotic sustenance. If this were not the case, it would exhibit its own specific mode of democratic politics — an evident absurdity. Any suggestion of frustrated rage, tilting into terroristic expressions, would immediately reveal profound confusion, or hypocrisy. Lashing the masses into ideological acquiescence, through exemplary violence, cannot imaginably be a neoreactionary objective…
“What is to be done?” is not a neutral question. The agent it invokes already strains towards progress. This suffices to suggest a horrorist response: Nothing. Do nothing. Your progressive ‘praxis’ will come to nought in any case. Despair. Subside into horror. You can pretend to prevail in antagonism against ‘us’, but reality is your true — and fatal — enemy. We have no interest in shouting at you. We whisper, gently, in your ear: “despair”. (The horror.)
Compare this to the embarrassing pretensions of power that “anti-establishment” types have: libertarians saying “smash the state,” feminists saying, “smash the patriatrchy,” and socialists saying, “smash capitalism.” There is clearly no smashing of any of these types going on and no plausibility of it happening either. It’s a game of make-believe that the neoreactionaries do not play.
Progressive intellectuals, even the Marxist ones, are toiling in the status quo. Apparently fresh academia-intelligentsia-social media trends are just new exegesis of old progressive canon. Criticism of Patricia Arquette’s progressive Oscar acceptance speech is being made from the exact same assumptions about the nature of justice human interaction that Patricia Arquette’s speech itself is built upon. Even conservatives attempting to implement conservative ideas work within the status quo by using proxy arguments: “We should cut welfare because welfare leads to bad results for the poor,” or the ever eye roll inducing, “Liberals are the real racists for supporting affirmative action!” Both of these talking points, regardless of their truth value, are ultimately competing in the rat race of finding creative ways to dignify progressive assumptions. Conservatives don’t seem to realize that their proxy arguments are always going to be inferior to the real thing. This doesn’t mean that the progressives are wrong — they are just operate in the same kind of criticism-insulated environment that the medieval scholastics existed in.
The middle ages weren’t the “Dark Ages” that they are often referred depicted as, but it’s easy to imagine them that way. After all, it isn’t until we get a comfortable distance from the middle ages that we start seeing household names like Galileo and Descartes. Learning continued to exist and thrive within monasteries and medieval universities, but we don’t hear about the ones doing the learning because everyone more or less played by the rules. The few that we do hear about, such as Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, and Saint Thomas Aquinas, are remembered precisely because of their willingness to pierce the comfortable insulation of the day. This insulation is readily comparable to the “safe spaces” of today, and certainly led to the same kind of insipid discourse and uncritical conclusions that we see today.
While I have been contrasting the these medieval radicals with contemporary rule-abiding lefties, the metaphor breaks down as metaphors tend to do. These thinkers, despite being radicals in the sense of actually challenging many assumptions and leading to thought, still thought within a greater prescribed set of assumptions and conclusions where God as understood by the Catholic Church was the beginning and end point. Similarly, today’s intelligentsia operate within the Harvard-Washington consensus of what is a proper assumption to work with and what is a proper conclusion to be reached. Our medieval friends have the excuse of not wanting to end up like Giordiano Bruno, but modern-day progressives live in a liberal society where the mantra (purported by progressives!) is free inquiry. And, you know, Google is a lot more comprehensive than the archives of a Church institution.
I’m not saying this makes the medievals or the progressives wrong — I mean, I’m a Catholic who thinks that progressives get many things right! The problem is twofold:
- Having prescribed a priori right/wrong conclusions often leads to what is good and true (duh). Compare, “We already know God exists, so don’t bother inquiring,” and, “We already know human population groups have identical abilities, so don’t bother inquiring”
- As a practical matter, if becoming an actually original thinker is what you want, doing so while playing be these rules is really really hard. The best you can hope for is to be a particularly popular academic or maybe being a “thought leader” on a clickbait website, but in either case you’ll occupied with finding creative ways to hit the progressive piñata.
Having status contemporaneous with your working life as a thinker and being an actual game-changer often don’t align. I am guessing that the heyday of most of history’s thinkers occurred well after they started writing or even after they died. There have certainly been Amanda Marcottes at any given time and place in history, promulgating exceedingly fashionable ideas. Nobody remembers them; Amanda Marcotte and thought leaders like her are professional Mad Libs players, sticking creative and quirky ideas in the few acceptable blank spaces in the progressive rulebook. Five-hundred years ago, there was a different Mad Libs booklet.
But come to think of it, I am probably wrong about progressive thinkers being consigned the fate of the run-of-the-mill medieval scholastic, since there’s a game of make-believe popular among the media liberals that involves pretending that media liberals don’t exist. Thinking that progressivism is still radical and anti-establishment is like thinking that watching MTV still makes you a rebel. Left-wing moral panics are always greater than the social ill that such moral panics are attendant upon. Remember the dozens of news articles and hundreds of thousands of tweets made that were appalled at the few hundred tweets that supposedly proved that everyone was part of an enormous racist reaction to an Indian woman winning a Miss America pageant? Nobody really batted an eyebrow at the proportion of response. This kind of revolt against what are essentially are society-sized straw men serves the purpose of making progressivism seem like it is still a bunch of upstart rebels fighting against a massively overpowering enemy. The cultural left, for existential reasons, refuses to acknowledge that its underdog status is ancient history.
This doesn’t make neoreactionaries correct, it makes them interesting, at least as interesting as a cocktail of equal parts reactionary and radical is bound to be. They are willing to throw out the Mad Libs and in fact critique it. By using methods of reasoning alien to what is being critiqued, they are a separate creature from the conservative. Conventions of public discourse that have second-rate proxy arguments as a prerequisite for challenging progressivism do not exist in their world, and just as importantly, these conventions are not replaced with internal consistency rather than disjointed criticism.
I think that the neoreactionary ideology could conceivably become a force in the world not because its ideas are good, but because its ideas are radical. And not just radical, but with the the aforementioned ideological nirvana of the man without desire or delusions of changing the world. The emperor is wearing no clothes, and for all their buzzwords, only the neoreactionaries seem to point this out in a consistent and utterly sober fashion. That is their power, that is their mystique. I just really think we need to make sure that the people who point out the emperor’s nakedness and gain the corresponding influence are people who care about peace and human dignity.