September 21, 2017
Author: Chilton Williamson
It is a healthy and encouraging sign when politicians don’t know where they’re going because they have no idea what’s coming next, which pretty much describes the state of politics in the West today. Among the various political groupings, only liberals know where they wish to go—and that is simply where they’ve been going for the past few decades, charging ahead toward a world fully globalized through internationalism, open borders, neoliberal economics, identity politics, multiculturalism, secularism, science, and scientism. Their problem today is that they are no longer confident, and rightly so, of their ability to find sufficiently large constituencies to follow them in their flight into dystopia. They are being challenged moreover from the further left by radicals who view them as the party of the postmodern establishment and for whom liberal is a slur, while the so-called populists, dreaded and despised by all true liberals, belong to the left as well as the right. Conservatives, on the other hand, are not at all sure where they want to go, so long as it isn’t toward liberalism.
Their uncertainty has been reflected recently by reconsiderations in the philosophically opposed publications Modern Age and the New York Times Magazine on the nature and meaning of conservatism. This discussion is only the renewal of a debate in this country that has lasted a good three quarters of a century and that has generally been long on academic theorizing and politicking, respectively, and short on conclusions that are clear-sighted, intellectually honest, and practical. (Frank Meyer’s “fusionism” had been largely forgotten before Modern Age and Tevi Troy at the Times tried to resurrect it over the summer.) Chesterton said that the great distinction is not between liberal and conservative but between wrong and right. This formula may seem to raise another question regarding the standards by which the “right” should be judged, but it really doesn’t. Indeed, we all could have been spared the entire liberal versus conservative wrangle, had conservatives conceded from the start the validity of the liberal charge against them: that they are, essentially, premodern people—pre-secularists, pre-capitalists, and pre-industrialists. Now I am not saying that conservatives since around the beginning of the 19th century have set their hand implacably against secularism, capitalism, and industrialism by refusing to recognize them, since to have done so would have changed them from conservatives into ideologues, their natural enemy. I do say that conservatives should never forget where their social, intellectual, aesthetic, and moral homeland lies, and that is in the premodern era. (The vast majority of people we recognize as “liberals” and “conservatives” are really just plain liberals and conservative liberals.) Only once they have recognized that fact will they be in a position to discern and fix the difference between what they actually are and the circumstances history has decreed they must live and move in, and the materials with which they must work. This is why debates among conservatives about whether President Trump is or is not a “conservative” are simply a waste of everybody’s time.
The liberals’ problem is that they are really the sole ideological party remaining in the world today, while their enemies are almost entirely nonideological; they are pragmatic. The 21st century is an anti-ideological century because it is an anti-intellectual century, despite (or because of) its being the first educational century. But ideology is pretty well confined to the little worlds of academia, entertainment, and the media, and the masses receive only what they are encouraged to think of as “education,” though it is really “training” in a wide variety of trade, specialty, and technical schools. Learned, philosophical, and even seriously thoughtful people scarcely exist. Liberals scorn “populists” for their academic ignorance and their lack of a social and political vision, partly because they are social and intellectual snobs but also because the populists’ want of an articulated political program makes it very difficult for liberal politicians to devise party agendas by which to bamboozle, buy, and finally cheat them. In recent months, voters in America and Great Britain broke ranks all over the place, cross-voting, splitting their tickets, and abandoning party loyalties formed many generations ago. In the wake of May’s Folly, British journalists spoke of “consumerist” voting to gain one appealing item on the right, another desirable something on the left. Then in France last April and June, the electorate (or the minority of it that voted in an election that saw the highest abstention rate since 1969) came together from every political direction to avoid any direction indicated by the leaders of the four long-established parties. Beyond that, in La France as in Britain and the U.S., voters seemed to want specific, practical, and tangible results while appearing oblivious if not actually hostile to theoretical considerations, any sort of political “philosophy.” And in fact their new President, M. Macron, is uncertain whether he is a neoconservative, a neoliberal, or Napoleon Bonaparte reincarnated. That is how people in the Western democracies have been trained to think, since that is how their “leaders” have imagined Western democracies since the late 19th century: as elaborate political, bureaucratic, and corporate machines whose principal purpose is not governance in the traditional sense but the steady production of goods and services and the realization of the kind of world liberal “leaders” wish to construct. Ultimately, their model for statesmanship is the international corporatist’s model, the same model they accuse Donald Trump of looking up to.
“In the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ is there a good deal to be said for nuclear war?” This is the first sentence of the lead essay in the Summer number of The Salisbury Review. The last sentence is “Anybody for Enola Gay?” The pair bracket a discussion by the editors of how the successes of applied science in recent centuries threaten to destroy the natural world and human civilization by human overpopulation, and the pollution and other types of stress it brings to bear upon nature. This is true irrespective of the truth of the Church of Global Warming’s central teachings, which, if there is any truth in them at all (as indeed there probably is), do no more than provide a theoretical explanation for phenomena observed and reported for decades by ordinary people before “climate change” became a cultural cliché. The introduction of modern Western medicine to populations in the Third World increased those populations enormously. The African one, for instance, is expected to double between now and 2050 on a continent whose climate is changing dramatically and whose inhabitants are incapable of sustaining even pastoral economies, let alone constructing the political and social structures that make modern economies and societies possible. Modern technological advances, in social communications and transport especially, make primitive populations hungrily aware of the reality of the prosperous Western countries and offer them relatively cheap and easy means to travel there. Population increase and the related scarcity of resources in poor non-Western countries promote tribal and regional warfare. So do the social networks created by Western technology, which, contrary to liberal fantasy, alienate cultures from one another more than they bring them together, creating rivalry and enmity rather than friendship between them. It is true that as poverty grows in some parts of the world, wealth does also—and with wealth, pollution. “[A]s wealth increases,” the Review notes, “so does industrial output, with its attendant miseries of mass consumerism, social breakdown, tourism, cars, aircraft, noise, roads, television, the mobile phone and Everests of rubbish.” As wealth increases, production and consumption will increase. “What will the world look like when one in every four people of the seven billion now alive owns a car and has a bit of road to drive it on?” Owing to all these factors—climatic, economic, political, and technological—more refugees, displaced persons, and migrants (and terrorists, under cover of their numbers) are on the move around the world than at any time in history, ensuring collisions of people and civilizations on an increasingly vast scale in future decades. The untitled lead essay in the Review is followed directly by a piece titled “Auf Wiedersehen, Deutschland,” whose author, Paul Weston, concludes that “Demographics are destiny and Germany’s tragic destiny, if nothing is done to halt it, is inevitably Islamic.” Finis Germania, in other words.
I do not believe The Salisbury Review exaggerates the future that faces the West and the rest. We are all confronted with a world beset by so many confluent and immediate crises arising from the contradictions of modern civilization that political philosophy may have become simply irrelevant, and politics reduced to a series of ad hoc and more or less desperate grapplings with cascading events, as in wartime, that will continue indefinitely. The world has ahead of it the terrorism with which we have all become too familiar, and the arrival of a formless, shapeless, intermittent, constantly shifting and undeclared world war from which the belligerents retire occasionally and which they rejoin intermittently, whenever they feel the need. “We fight not against organized ideologies but against fundamental chaos,” the historian Bradley J. Birzer writes in Modern Age. Confronted by this fact, the left is not going to surrender. It is not even going to change, unless absolutely compelled to do so. It will remain imperviously and irrationally ideological until it runs out of road and implodes. The alternative to leftism is probably not some form of rationalized self-conscious conservatism based upon “our philosophy” and “our principles,” as these were smugly invoked by the Republican establishment before it was routed in the primaries and the general election last year. Instead, it will likely be the antiliberalism, plain and simple, that raised Donald Trump to the presidency. That is what increasingly large numbers of Americans and Europeans seem to want: a nontheoretical, nonideological form of politics that in the case of the United States may be out of patience even with constitutionalism, or at least the sort of constitutionalism that is based on the U.S. Constitution. If that is really the case, then this country (and others) will truly become ungovernable, and democratic government will be replaced by the authoritarian sort, something at least one of the Founding Fathers predicted would happen within a century or so.
The great question is what might follow should Trump, and Trumpism, “fail,” whatever failure might mean. The answer is probably one of two things: the continuation of highly practical politics along somewhat altered lines, or the replacement of pragmatism by a vaguely theological orientation, no matter how imperfectly it represents traditional Christianity; a thing not unknown to history in times of previous crises, spiritual confusion, uncertainty, and fear. Liberalism is not going to collapse in the short run. It will be with us for some time yet, prolonging the domination of a political establishment that promotes an aggressively and scrupulously secular identity while having, as Chesterton said of America, the heart of a church. The maxim that it takes one to know one suggests that it takes one to beat one as well. In that case Christ the Phoenix, arrayed in glorious avian plumage exceeding Quetzalcoatl’s in all its serpentine finery, might arise triumphant from the ashes, and sooner perhaps than we think.
Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture August 3rd, 2017