Part 1: Dr. Johnson’s Hypothesis
As has been noted elsewhere, the phenomenon of referring to oneself as a reactionary is a recent one.
It’s important to remember this fact. The past year has seen an explosion of “reactionary” writing. And I’m left feeling . . . unsettled. The explosion of high-quality Rightist thought is fantastic and should be enthusiastically applauded by anyone outside of the Cathedral (or anyone that enjoys a good argument – is that redundant?). On the other hand, there is something unique about the original neoreactionary thought, and I can’t but feel some of it is getting lost.
I’ve taken a bit of time away from blogging; however, in my absence, I’ve kept up on the reactosphere. My general approach in the past has been to be as inclusive as reasonably possible. If there’s another writer in these dark haunts that’s more inclusive than me, I’d like to know who it is.
However, in reading some of this new stuff, I can’t help thinking that it’s time to restate/reiterate/consolidate the focal points of neoreaction before some of them get lost. While some of this new writing is brilliant, it’s not all original in the same way that early stuff was. I don’t mean to suggest it’s time for some sort of National Review style purge, but I just don’t want to see my kind of reaction get lost in the broader space.
The term “reactionary” has been taken up by people whose ideologies are not new. For example, let’s say you’re basically a Russell Kirk-style conservative. That’s an admirable thing to be. I’ve read and enjoyed Kirk. I plan to read more Kirk. Nevertheless, his sort of thinking is a cornerstone of modern, mainstream Conservatism. If you agree with Kirk on all points, calling yourself a reactionary is just silly – absent some sort of clear distinction.
In an effort to clarify these ramblings, I’ve decided to re-read Unqualified Reservations (God, help me). I’m going to post reviews as I see natural breaking points in the posts. I will also add separate posts on miscellaneous topics as I see fit. Feel free to provide suggestions in the comments. I’ve read about 30% of UR at this point and I’ve seen two breaking points.
The first break point within UR deals with defining the left. Who are the Progressives?
Moldbug’s answer is that the Progressives are a nontheistic Christian sect. I not sure if it was an accident that this is the first full topic that Moldbug considered, but if it was, I think it was a very nice accident.
This first segment of UR ends with the brilliant series on Richard Dawkins (by far my favorite series of UR posts). In this series (more later), Moldbug argues that Richard Dawkins – instead of being an atheistic critic of Christianity – is a hardcore adherent of the world’s most successful sect of Christianity. Instead of arguing against Christianity, Dawkins is arguing for one sect of Christianity over all others. How’s that for a red pill? If that’s correct – and I think it is – almost everyone is wrong about everything.
If pressed, I’d go further. If I was forced to pick the one key tenet of the neoreaction, I’d pick this understanding of Progressivism. To the reactionary, Progressivism is a nontheistic Christain sect. If you don’t understand Progressivism in this way, you simply don’t understand Progressivism.
From this understanding of Progressivism, all other reactionary ideas flow. For example, here’s reactionary history in one sentence is: “Massachusetts, of course, later went on [i.e. after conquering the US in the Civil War] to conquer first Europe and then the entire planet, the views of whose elites in 2007 bear a surprisingly coincidental resemblance to those held at Harvard in 1945.” Similarly, political correctness and diversity-worship really can’t be understood unless they’re viewed as religious beliefs – at which point their operation becomes startlingly clear.
For certain people that have recently decided to call themselves reactionaries, this understanding of Progressivism is an uncomfortable conclusion. For others (like yours truly) the idea that any Western ideology could be entirely devoid of influence from Christianity is absurd.
More importantly, in the neoreaction we’re not concerned with the difference between religion and ideology. As Moldbug says, “You can go from religion to idealism and back simply by adding and subtracting gods, angels, demons, saints, ghosts, etc. . . . Therefore, we’ll just use the word prototype to mean either religion or idealism.” [He goes on to basically never use the word prototype in this way, but the idea is useful].
Believe it or not, even though Moldbug’s definition of the Left is basically the first thing he wrote about, there is a fair amount of debate about this topic in “reactionary” circles. This debate is sometimes referred to as The Puritan Question. (In addition to Puritan, Moldbug also uses the terms: Progressive idealism, ultra-Calvinism, crypto-Christian, Unitarian universalists, etc.)
At this point, I think it’s best to start quoting Moldbug and then briefly review the series on Dawkins after all these points are laid out. In general, I’ll provide quotes in chronological order (although I have grouped some together to help elucidate certain points). I think chronology is important so that you can see Moldbug’s arguments evolving as he begins to work out his theory in more detail. All these quotes are from before the Dawkins series.
Here’s Moldbug (yup, there’s a lot in here, but it’s a review of UR, what do you expect?) (also, if you’re not interested in this evolution, feel free to skip below, where I’ll provide a more detailed review of the Dawkins series):
Progressive Idealism is a nontheistic branch of Christianity, specifically its Unitarian (American) and Nonconformist (British) sects, both of course dating back to the Puritans, who were the first to construct the integrated political, educational and religious system who much-improved descendant now hold Planet Three in its icy, inexorable grip.
. . .
The only reason we don’t think of the Progressives’ descendants, the Psuedo-Democrats, as a Christain party, is that the Psuedo-Democrats don’t want us to. In fact, their theocratic ideology, progressive idealism, is the leading modern descendant of the most powerful American Christian tradition, the “mainline” Protestants, who infested New England in the early 1600s and for some damned reason have never left.
These bastards are the Roundheads, the Puritans, whatever you want to call them, and after their defeat of the last Cavaliers (to be clear, the Slave Power was no picnic either), they have reigned unchallenged in North America. And no less outside it – indeed, more. The beliefs held at Harvard, not those at West Point and certainly not at VMI, are the complacent belches of today’s global transnational governing class.
If they feel some occasional Biblical pang, they sometimes call themselves “Unitarians.” But they have long since discarded the encumbrance of the supernatural, and these days their opinions are simply the truth – “science” or “reason,” usually. I am particularly fond of the phrase “reality-based community,” which is so stupid it’s almost ironic.
. . .
Ultracalvinism is also “tolerant” to branches of other religions which it has in fact taken over, such as Reform Judaism or “moderate” Islam.
. . .
If there is one general weakness in the conservative strategy, it strikes me as this unwillingness to admit that “liberalism” is actually mainline Protestantism, which is actually Christianity. Whether or not it obeys any specific detail of Christian or Protestant doctrine, such as the validity of the Holy Trinity, the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, the predestination of the elect, etc, etc, etc, is entirely irrelevant. We are talking about a continuous cultural tradition whose superficial features constantly mutate. It’s a waste of time to generate antibodies to metaphysical doctrines.
. . .
If ultracalvinists are Christains, “political correctness” is religious orthodoxy. Hm, where have we seen this before? Perhaps in Massachusetts? I mean, is it any surprise that Ivy League schools are acting, in effect, as ultracalvinist seminaries? Isn’t that exactly what they were founded as?
And what are “multiculturalism” and “diversity” but religious tests for office?
. . .
On the evolution of this religious sect:
Jefferson dumped the Trinity, Emerson relieved us of Hell, and so on down to Harvey Cox and his “secular theology.” (If you think “secular” is synonymous with “atheistic,” the full horror of the situation is not yet clear to you.)
(As an aside, it’s interesting that the current Pope seems to be doing a rather decent imitation of Emerson in this regard. If there’s a better illustration of Moldbug’s point or Conquest’s Second Law, I can’t think of what it might be. If this development surprises you in any way, you’re missing most of the lessons of the reaction.)
. . .
has not disappeared at all – it just mutated into Unitarianism (that is, non-universalist Unitarianism, now itself extinct), which begat Transcendentalism, which begat Unionism, Progressivism, and the ecumenical movement, which became the “super-protestant” Establishment so derided by the late great flower children, who conquered it and gave us multiculturalism, “diversity,” etc.
Not an unusual turn of events at all. Belief systems and languages evolve in much the same ways, and if you look at the historical gyrations of, say, English, the evolution from Calvinism to ultracalvinism seems positively straightforward and sedate.
. . .
Ultracalvinism . . . is the primary surviving descendant of the American mainline Protestant tradition, which has been the dominant belief system of the United States since its founding. It should be no surprise that it continues in this role, or that since the US’s victory in the last planetary war it has spread worldwide.
Ultracalvinism is an ecumenical syncretism of the mainline, not traceable to any one sectarian label. But its historical roots are easy to track with the tag Unitarian. The meaning of this word has mutated considerably in the last 200 years, but at any point since the 1830s it is found attached to the most prestigious people and ideas in the US, and since 1945 in the world. . . .
The “Calvinist” half of this word refers to the historical chain of descent from John Calvin and his religious dictatorship in Geneva, passing through the English Puritans to the New England Unitarians, abolitionists and Transcendentalists, Progressives and Prohibitionists, super-protestants, hippies and secular theologians, and down to our own dear progressive multiculturalists.
The ‘ultra’ half refers to my perception that, at least compared to other Christian sects, the beliefs of this faith are relatively aggressive and unusual.
. . .
Ultracalivinsts believe in:
1. The universal brotherhood of man – i.e. equality
2. The futility of violence – i.e. peace
3. The fair distribution of goods – i.e. social justice
4. The managed society – i.e. community run by benevolent experts
The four points also feature prominently in a little book called Looking Backward, which appeared in 1888 and sold about a bazillion copies. The author of this novel was not a Hindu. His readers were not Zoroastrians. The political movement that Bellamy helped spawn did not put its faith in Allah. And nor were any of these folks atheists, which was still quite a dirty word at the time. . . .
In fact, the four points are very common and easily recognizable tenets of Protestant Christianity, specifically in its Calvinist or Puritan strain.
. . .
The combination of electoral democracy and “separation of church and state” is an almost perfect recipe for crypto-Christianity. . . .
If you have a rule that says the state cannot be taken over by a church, a constant danger in any democracy for obvious reasons, the obvious mutation to circumvent this defense is for the church to find some plausible way of denying that it’s a church. Dropping theology is a no-brainer.
. . .
My contention is that Rawls is not a philosopher, but a minister. Like his Calvinist forebears, he is trying to establish the kingdom of God on Earth. Unlike them, he doesn’t admit it. . . . He redefines the word “justice” to mean, effectively, righteousness.
The full post on Rawls, “The Rawlsian God” is probably worth your time if you’re interested in these points.
. . .
The cultural ancestors of the Universalists have been called Progressives, Fabians, Unitarians, Evangelicals, Nonconformists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Chartists, Methodists, Dissenters, Puritans, Roundheads, etc, etc, etc. Any good Anglican, from any date between 1660 and 1960, would have identified the current Archbishop of Canterbury as a hardcore Dissenter or “low church” man, and they would certainly accept this as final and conclusive evidence that the conquest of Britain by Massachusetts is complete.
That brings us to the series on Richard Dawkins titled, “How Dawkins Got Pwned.” This series of posts uses Dawkins as an example (perhaps the best example) of a modern Puritan. The thesis of the series is that:
Professor Dawkins is not just an atheist. He is a Christian atheist.
Professor Dawkins is not just a Christian atheist. He is a Protestant atheist. And he is not just a Protestant atheist. He is a Calvinist atheist. And he is not just a Calvinist atheist. He is an Anglo-Calvin atheist. In other words, he can also be described as a Puritan atheist, a Dissenter atheist, a Nonconformist atheist, an Evangelical atheist, etc, etc.
The series begins by treating progressivism as a sort of infection of the mind. Assume progressivism is a virus that is solely concerned with spreading itself into as many minds as possible. We see the idea’s evolution, in which it starts as a fundamentalist religious belief and ends up discarding theism so as to better propagate itself in an officially secular system of government. Shed of overt theism, Progressivism “can be propagated by American official institutions, which are constitutionally prohibited from endorsing its ancestor or competitor [ie theistic Christianity].” The devil’s greatest trick . . . and so on.
After considering this germ-theory of Progressivism, Moldbug turns to Dawkins’ beliefs. “Professor Dawkins describes himself as a ‘deeply religious non-believer.’ He calls his belief system ‘Einsteinian religion.’”
Dawkins seems to understand that his own understanding of the world doesn’t quite make sense without some sort of fudge factor. He can’t quite explain why his side always triumphs – why progress seems to advance without significant or sustained interruption or setback. This fudge factor operates to consistently, if perhaps sometimes slowly, sway conflicts to the benefit of Progress. Dawkins calls this fudge factor the Zeitgeist.
The astute reader will note that the term “Zeitgeist” can be replaced with “Divine Providence” without losing any meaning at all. On the contrary, making such a replacement makes things much more clear. As Moldbug puts it: “It’s worth repeating Professor Dawkins’ definition of the Zeitgeist: a mysterious consensus, which changes over the decades. For some reason, these changes over the decades almost always favor Universalism itself. This is of course progress, and our Spirit of Time bears a suspicious resemblance to the MO of Divine Providence, minus of course the Divine bit.”
In this series, Moldbug also condenses much of his thoughts on Progressivism quoted above. For example:
Of course the tradition evolved over time. Its theology took significant steps toward modern secularism in the form of Unitarianism, which deleted the Trinity and other points of Calvinist doctrine, and especially under Transcendentalism, which elided the nasty idea of hell and declared that God loves everyone [paging Pope Francis]. Many of Professor Dawkins’ reveries about Einsteinian pantheistic natural grandeur are reminiscent of Emerson, who was trained as a Unitarian minister. During and after the War of Secession, New England Christianity established a cozy relationship with the Federal government, which it has continued to the present day, under labels such as liberalism and progressivism. . . .
Everyone knows that Western thought today, even its most fashionable incarnations, has Christian roots. But somehow, most of us think it’s possible to escape the implications of this connection by simply denying the Christian label, and adopting a metaphysical doctrine – atheism – which is repugnant to the unwashed who have not made this great leap. . . .
Imagine if I tried the same with Nazism. I could march around in a brown leather uniform all day, waving a swastika banner and condemning the filthy Zionist-Bolshevik hordes. When questioned by the usual voices of decency, I could respond that: I’m not a Nazi. In fact, I oppose Nazism. So I’m not a Nazi. I’m half-Jewish. The Nazis would never have me. So I’m not a Nazi. Nazis believe in the leadership of Adolf Hitler. I don’t. So I’m not a Nazi. My inverted swastika is actually a Hindu fertility symbol. So I’m not a Nazi. Etc, etc, etc. How much ice to you think this would cut with the diversity committee? But somehow, when the creed is Christianity rather than Nazism, it can be ditched as easily as a Muslim’s wife. Just say, “I’m an atheist, I’m an atheist, I’m an atheist.” And no one will ever be able to accuse you of being a religious fanatic, at least not without substantial preparatory explanation. What more perfect cover story for an actual religious fanatic?
Combining this understanding of Progressivism and Dawkin’s current beliefs we find that, “[e]xcept of course for the atheism theme, Professor Dawkins’ kernel is a remarkable match for the Ranter, Leveller, Digger, Quaker, Fifth Monarchist, or any of the more extreme English Dissenter traditions that flourished during the Cromwellian interregnum. . . . The point is that this thing, whatever you call it, is at least two hundred years old, and probably more like five. It’s basically the Reformation itself.”
Fine. So what? Who really cares if Dawkins is religious zealot?
This is important because Progressivism can’t be understood without this religious framework, and it’s important to understand Progressivism since it’s the world’s dominant ideology.
If Moldbug is right, then Dawkins, who “thinks he’s Galileo, Vavilov or Darwin” is really “a Caccini, Lysenko or Wilberforce. He is pwned in every sense of the word.”
In this series of posts Moldbug outlines a reactionary history of the last couple hundred years. It’s excellent and worth your time, but this post is perhaps so long that nobody will read it already, so I’ll save it for another post. The gist is that the Progressives always won, the last few Centuries have been extremely destructive and lots of things you think you know about history are probably wrong.
It is many of these ideas – Moldbug’s alternate histories and his criticism of both Progressivism and mainstream varieties of conservatives – that have attracted many other “reactionaries.” For our purposes, we can close by noting that these ideas are included in the series on Dawkins precisely because one can only reasonably reach these (apparently at least somewhat attractive) results from the initial idea that Progressivism is a nontheistic Christian sect.