27 April 2016

On the detection and overthrow of praxis and logos falsely so-called

It is always disconcerting and saddening to me to see Eastern Orthodox laymen, and even a few priests, praise the work of the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, for what turn out ultimately to be vulgar and simplistic reasons. Particularly when it comes to the idea that the ‘individualism’ of the Austrians is categorically to be preferred to ‘collectivism’ of anyone else. It has always been the case that classical Christianity is a more ‘collectivist’ faith than, say, either the Second Temple Judaism from which it emerged, or the Monophysite, Arian and Islamic heresies which broke away from it. Our ‘collectivism’ is written into our very theology, our very Christology: our God, being both Three and One, is not (unlike the god of the Arians) some detached deistic monad but a truly social God; and our God, having taken on the flesh of a human man – the son of a young virgin of an impoverished branch of the House of David – stood in what Saint Athanasius called ‘divine solidarity’ with humankind. And yet when this conviction manifests in any kind of practical way, the modern Orthodox layman flees to the preachers of Robinson Crusoe and the myth of the ‘self-made man’ (as if St. Paul had never written a word!).

The problem goes much deeper than the surface level, as is to be expected. There is a difference even in the ways of knowing. First it is necessary to understand what the Eastern Orthodox world means by ‘knowledge’, by true gnosis. In Eastern Orthodox thinking, the ones who have attained the truest and the highest levels of knowledge, are the saints – and in particular the hesychasts and ascetics – who have taken the path of self-renunciation. The Desert Fathers – for example, Abba Cassian – who have attained the truest and the purest knowledge of God, are those who renounced their property and their self-will, and opened themselves radically to the service of God and of neighbour. The paradox is, that the personality opens up when the will is renounced: the more the self is renounced, the more truly themselves the saints are. By removing from themselves the ability and the presumption of sitting in the seat of judgement, and passing condemnation upon their brothers, and instead allowing God to sit there and judging themselves first, they are able to attain a clearer knowledge of what is right, and more importantly, what is necessary that human being shall be saved. Again, the paradox of this Eastern Orthodox theory of knowing is that the more one belittles oneself and one’s own intellect and reason in consideration of one’s own sins, the more reasonable one becomes, and the wiser.

Reference is made always to the fact that we are created and dependent beings – dependent, indeed, upon God alone. During Lent and during this Holy Week most of all, this much should be apparent: we fast, and we find ourselves hungering not only for food, but for the One from whom both our bodies and our souls are sustained. We falter and fail in the fast to a greater or lesser degree, and we find ourselves needing to rely upon God’s strength and upon the strength of our friends and neighbours in the faith. Whatever value there is in the Lenten fast, can only be found not by contemplating it on a detached, individual level, but by participating in the common life, by partaking in the common struggle, by feeling the bright sadness of the season that all of us feel, who find ourselves on the road to Golgotha in the knowledge that Christ will die, and who find ourselves on Pascha looking into the eucatastrophic breach of our fallen reality that is Christ’s empty tomb. Lent only touches us to the degree that we partake in the collective life of the Church.

This way of knowing is what is preached – subtly, and often by way of parable and anecdote – in the writings of the Desert Fathers. The ones primarily responsible for developing and expounding this in ways that we moderns, so far divorced from the knowledge of the desert as we are, can understand, are the Slavophils: Aleksey Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky. The concepts of sobornost’ and of integral knowledge – that is to say, of a free and dynamic collectivism of self-giving love, and of the knowledge that comes from the loving submersion of the willing subject in the participation and experience of the object – are means by which the thought of the Fathers, and specifically St. Isaac of Nineveh whose writings were so influential on Khomyakov and Kireevsky, can be made understandable to those of us who live in an age warped by ideology. More: the Slavophils’ model of the ideal society is not individualistic. It is not bourgeois. It is not one of Robinson Crusoes and Man Fridays; it is not one populated by mere producers, consumers and ‘rational actors’. Khomyakov’s and Kireevsky’s distrust of the market is Eastern, it is Syriac and Iranian: it is the same as the sentiments of Kourosh-e Bozorg as he articulated them to the Spartans: ‘I have never yet been afraid of any men who have set a place in the middle of their city, where they come together to cheat each other and perjure themselves’. They do not turn to the market but to the familial obshchina, the Russian rural village, characterised by common ownership of the land and benevolent paternalism within families. The Slavophils looked for, and found in the studies of von Haxthausen, an outworking of praxis to go with the orthodoxia they had sought indirectly to clarify.

Now, of course, it is a hallmark of Slavophilia that they refused to reduce their own collectivism (and, make no mistake, collectivism it was indeed!) to a set of rationalised political principles. Khomyakov and Kireevsky, although (and because) they refused the bourgeois spirit in toto, also refused the various strains of socialism and ‘enlightened’ autocracy that came out of the West, in part because the alternatives both such radicals and proposed to the bourgeois individualism of the more radical Enlightenment forms were themselves nakedly political and reductive. Such political and state-driven collectivisms could only work formally, and only from the outside; they would leave no inward space for the free-and-dynamic element of sobornost’ that they thought so critical, nor for the willing renunciation of will that is needed for the integral way of gnosis.

But how different still this integral knowing is, from what is meant, in the subtle and even demonic subversion of the noble Greek words from which it derives, by the Austrian method of ‘praxeology’. In Mises’ own words, it ‘aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences’! Was there any scientist so mad that he thought his own knowledge, his own logic, to be absolute? Think carefully on what this means. Again, this is from von Mises’ own words:
Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts. Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case. It aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences. Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts…

Economics can never be experimental and empirical. The economist does not need an expensive apparatus for the conduct of his studies. What he needs is the power to think clearly and to discern in the wilderness of events what is essential from what is merely accidental…
Human action need have no reference to the other. Further, no reference to reality or to nature, let alone to other human beings, need be made to understand human action. The will triumphs over even the heavens. Think again of what this means, on what the implications are. Human reason – divorced from any consideration of experience – sits arrogantly self-appointed upon the judgement seat, needing no justification outside itself, fit to pass judgement over the whole scope of human activity over all time, based solely on a set of axioms: chief among which is that human beings are fundamentally rational when they act! Starting from the most basic of the Austrian ‘praxeological’ axioms (which is ultimately a denial that human beings are sinful and that our reason is darkened), and building back up – can we not see that this is an undoing of the whole of the intuitive and integral tradition of knowing that our Fathers have so carefully cultivated? Who dares to deny the nose upon his face? Need it be spelt out in full, this Austrian affirmation of the lie that we should be as gods, if only we should eat of this fruit… ?

21 April 2016

Mindfulness and misunderstanding the self


If you, my gentle readers, haven’t already watched this exquisite BigThink video by Harvard China historian and expert Dr Michael Puett on Asian philosophy and the mistakes of ‘mindfulness’ thinking and naturalistic fallacies, please do so now. It’s short but beautifully and sensibly done. Dr Puett attempts to give some psychological context to Confucian ideas of morality, showing that what we tend to think of by default as a natural or autonomous ‘self’ actually turns out to be quite ‘messy’. In doing so, he gives a healthily radical cast to Confucian thought, particularly of Xunzi and Confucius himself – and in the process gently calls into question the matrix of Western assumptions about ‘nature’ and even about the ‘self’ into which a lot of the ‘mindfulness’ thinking is made to fit, which renders it passive, pietistic, individualistic and based on acceptance of the status quo.

Even though Dr Puett affirms the idea that the Confucian ideal is one of self-cultivation, of actively making oneself a better ‘self’, he calls into question precisely what it is that is being cultivated, and in what way. He points out that Xunzi would deem dangerous the call to ‘look within’ and finding a ‘true’, ‘natural’, ‘sincere’ and ‘authentic’ self that ought to be expressed. The ‘messy stuff’ that Dr Puett ultimately refers to, when talking about Xunzi’s model of the psychological baggage that the ‘self’ irreducibly comes with, ultimately comes down to a non-individualistic, relational view; a ‘self’ conditioned by relationships and interactions with other people close to that ‘self’:
The fact is if we’re messy creatures, as many [Chinese philosophers] would say, what we perhaps are in our daily lives are simply people whose emotions are being pulled out all the time, by people we encounter, interactions we have… and over time those responses fall into kind of ruts and patterns, that can just be repeated endlessly. So: someone does something, it makes me angry, and not even because of what they immediately did, but because for some reason it brings back, say, you know, someone from my childhood yelling at me. And I just have a patterned response to a certain action being done in a certain way by anyone that brings out a certain response.
And Puett, in perfect form, finishes off by highlighting the potential dangers of relying on self-cultivation modelled on a disconnected withdrawal, or an acceptance of a personal or social status quo. If ‘mindfulness’ is simply telling yourself ‘I should be who I naturally am meant to be’, then, Puett says: ‘what you’re probably doing is simply continuing to follow a bunch of patterns probably destructive to yourself and almost assuredly destructive to those around you.’ Bravissimo!

To hammer home the point about Xunzi, I have highlighted before, actually, that Confucius bases his idea of ‘self-cultivation’ on what looks to modern Western eyes very much like a paradox: humaneness must be built within oneself and within one’s own relationships, with reference to rites. In order to ‘look within’ in an effective and meaningful way, one has to look without – or, rather, one has to not look at what is contrary to ritual propriety, and learn to do what is ritually-proper in one’s relationships with family and friends and loved ones. The Confucian approach to personal rectitude is emphatically not a Rawlsian one, in which one makes decisions from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ about one’s own situation and preferences – it is, instead, a means of navigating one’s own situated and non-negotiable relationships with other people (most notably, one’s parents)!

17 April 2016

Remembering Holy Hieromartyr Symeon Bar Sabbae, Bishop of Persia


Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt

Today is the Sunday of our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt, whose boundless humility, and whose legendary seventeen-year eremitical struggle against the fornication and the passions of the flesh she embraced in her wild youth, very meetly set her apart as one of the most revered figures in Orthodoxy. She is rightly considered a model for all of us penitents, and particularly those of us who struggle against lust and pride; and the length and intensity of her struggle against her own ‘wild beasts’ and her ‘mad desires and passions’ is a model and comfort to those of us (yours truly very much among them) who find we have only begun. The miracle she wrought just before her repose, walking across the water to where Saint Zosimos was waiting to give to her the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist, having been barred from the temple by an unseen force seventeen years before, was evidence of the great holiness she had attained through her ascetic struggle and her attainment of humility. Her Life is recommended Lenten reading along with St Andrew of Crete’s Great Canon. Holy Mother Mary of Egypt, pray to God for us!
Having been a sinful woman,
You became through repentance a Bride of Christ.
Having attained angelic life,
You defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross;
Therefore, O most glorious Mary you are a Bride of the Kingdom!



Holy Hieromartyr Symeon of Persia

But I would like to focus also on the lesser-known saint and martyr who is commemorated today, and those 1,150 men and women who died together with him: St Symeon, Bishop of Persia. Blessed Symeon was born to a menial family, who were fullers as indicated by their surname, Bar Sabbae. He became bishop of Salwakiyeh and Tisfun during the reign of Shāhpuhr II ‘the Great’ of the Sasanian Empire, at a time when all Christians were suspect of being agents of Rome. To this end, Shāhpuhr levied a heavy tax on Christians throughout his kingdom as a test of their loyalty; however, many Christians either could not afford, or refused to pay this tax – and this was considered an act of subversion against the Persian king. Chief among these tax protesters was Bishop Symeon, a loyal subject of Shāhpuhr, who nonetheless refused to submit to such an oppressive rule. Shāhanshāh Shāhpuhr brought him to the capital in iron fetters, but the blessed bishop refused to bow to him. When Shāhpuhr asked him the reason for this, the holy man replied: ‘Earlier I did bow to thy dignity, but now, when I am led forth for this, to renounce my God and quit my faith, it doth not become me to bow to thee.’

The shāhanshāh used many threats and enticements to get Bishop Symeon to pay homage to Mithra, including the threat to exterminate all the Christians in his realm – but all to no avail. As the saint was being led off to prison, he was approached by the eunuch Guhushtazād, who was an Imperial counsellor and a former Christian who had turned to the worship of Mithra out of fear of the shāhanshāh. However, Symeon turned away from the eunuch and would not speak with him. Guhushtazād was at once stricken with remorse. He took off the finery of his high official station and put on rough garments of mourning, and cried out, ‘Woe to me, when I stand before my God, from Whom I am cut off. Here – was Symeon, and he hath turned his back on me!’

Shāhpuhr, learning of Guhushtazād’s grief, summoned him to the court and inquired about what had happened. The eunuch spoke openly to the shāhanshāh that he rued and deeply repented of his former apostasy, and would no longer pay homage to Mithra but instead worship only the One True God. Taken aback at Guhushtazād’s sudden display of courage, Shāhpuhr again attempted to persuade the eunuch not to abandon the gods of his forefathers, at first with flattering words and subsequently with threats. But Guhushtazād would yield to neither. In the end, the emperor condemned his counsellor to death, and Guhushtazād made only one request: that the heralds proclaim that he had died not for any crime against his nation or people, but for confessing Christ. This request Shāhpuhr granted.

When Blessed Bishop Symeon heard of Guhushtazād’s conversion and his having faced the same death as the penitent thief, he gave thanks aloud to God. When the bishop was again brought before Shāhpuhr, he again refused to worship the pagan gods, and the wrathful emperor ordered all the Christian prisoners to be hauled up and beheaded before the bishop’s eyes.

However, these prisoners went to their deaths gladly, being blessed by Bishop Symeon before they submitted to execution. One of them, however, a priest named Hannanja, faltered and trembled when they came to him. One of Shāhpuhr’s dignitaries, a secret Christian named Fusik, told Saint Hannanja not to fear the sword, for he would that day see the divine light of Christ. Saint Fusik himself was submitted to terrible tortures and killed for his faith, along with his daughter Saint Askitrea. Another eunuch and close advisor to Shāhpuhr, and holy confessor of Christ, Saint Azād, was also martyred that day. Blessed Bishop Symeon was the last of them to be killed for his faith, and he submitted willingly to the executioner’s sword on the 13th of April, Good Friday of 344 AD.

Christians have, if I may understate the case of it, not always had an easy time of it in Iran. However, we have always had a presence there – Armenians and Assyrians particularly. Shāhpuhr’s persecutions were dire, but his own descendants were far more tolerant of us – notably the shāhanshāh Anushirwān the Just, who was educated in philosophy under another Persian Christian bishop Mar Bar Samma, married a Christian woman and had a son who confessed Christ, Prince Nushizād. The Zoroastrian influence on the entirety of the monotheistic tradition ought not to be discounted, and it should be little surprise that Iranian Christians – including some very important ones, like Bishop Symeon and like Saint Aphrahat the Persian Sage – have contributed a number of significant witnesses and great wisdom to the Apostolic deposit.
With your holy band of martyrs
You shone forth from Persia like radiant stars.
With them we praise you, O Simeon.

13 April 2016

De anoraco comburendo

This Atlantic article by Asher Elbein is well worth a careful read, a careful re-read, and perhaps a critical evaluation. But the thesis it makes: that by taking on the language of ‘canon’, nerd-fandoms have, in a way which is troubling on multiple levels, constructed elaborate religions out of fictional characters and universes, is one which is worth contemplating in-depth.

First, let’s clear the air a bit. I’m a nerd. I enjoy Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings (and yes, I’m one of those guys who’s read the Silmarillion and likes the books better than the films), Harry Potter, Firefly, Warehouse 13, Hayao Miyazaki films (and manga), Paul Verhoeven films, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs (the game and the comic books both), Japanese animation of various sorts, the wuxia novels of Jin Yong, and science-fiction books by Lois McMaster Bujold, C. S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov and Terry Pratchett. I’ve had friends recommend to me classic science fiction works by Frank Herbert and William Gibson, and look forward to reading those as well. In addition, I consider myself a devotee of the fiction works of Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, Dorothy Sayers, Edith Pargeter and Robert Hans van Gulik. And yes, these are all works of fiction that you can invest yourself in heavily – as with all good fiction, each is a world with its own mythos and beloved characters, and none are so aware of this fact than the creators themselves. Think of the amount of time J. R. R. Tolkien spent on the Silmarillion and tell me these things aren’t immersive!

Also, arguments like Elbein’s about how harmful or how dissociative fiction can be for fans in the ‘real world’, go as far back as fiction itself. Think of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and the gentle satire she aimed, through the charming-but-slightly-outlandish credulity of her Gothic-obsessed Romantic heroine Catherine Morland, in the direction of her fellow authoress Ann Radcliffe. As such, I think it would be salutary to take Elbein’s analysis of nerd culture with the much-needed grain of salt that comes with historical perspective. It’s also difficult to tell what exactly Elbein ultimately wants to do here. Is he faulting us-the-fans for being overly-concerned with the ‘reality’ of fictional worlds, or the corporate culture at Disney/Marvel and DC, which figured out it could use this enthusiasm to make lorry-loads of money?

If it’s the latter, then Elbein has a valid point indeed. There is a very real danger in blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality, and a further danger in allowing corporate control over these very public shared fantasies to shape real-world consequences. When he says that ‘when Snyder or Abrams speak about canon, they speak with the weight of Warner Brothers and Disney behind them’, Elbein is making a very worthwhile and incisive commentary on the way we’ve even managed to outsource our fictive imaginations – the very engines which drive fictional creation in the first place – and turn them into a packaged product for consumption, stamped with official seals of approval and watched over by the most stringent possible intellectual property laws. He’s watching critical engagement and reimagination get crowded out, and he doesn’t like it. Nor should he.

If it’s the former, though – if Elbein is simply lambasting fans for being fans – then we start wading into far trickier waters. There’s a noticeable and troubling subtext to Elbein’s writing which itself gives off more than a whiff of Puritanical zeal. To the point where one begins to wonder if he would smoke out the superstition and crypto-Popery of these wicked, ‘vicious’ and ‘toxic’ fans (in whose unenlightened hearts-of-darkness lurk those boogeymen of the Massachusetts imagination, the demons of sexual perversion, now recast as violence and misogyny), drive them all to the stake and purge them with fire. This is, indeed, a genre we’ve seen before. Multiple times, in fact. The idea that someone – someone male and nerdy, in particular – somewhere, might be having fun talking about something fictional, something possibly titillating or even (oh, the scandal!) fun, is so odious to such latter-day Salem judges that it must be stamped out at all costs.

Not that Elbein is the most egregious in this genre – and, as before-stated, Puritanical nerd-bullying might not at all be the intent of his writing this piece. As he himself says, ‘the elevation of corporatised canon to scripture in geek culture is a particular issue’, and it is a real one. The stifling of creativity by a culture concerned only with the money that can be made from it, is a longstanding concern in everything from music to painting to storytelling. But once a creative work is out in the world, it can, does and should take on a life of its own, a world which can and ought to be respected, and not subject to the violence of an ‘infinity of interpretations’. The idea that the ‘only true’ fictional world ‘lives inside your head’ is a good one if it drives exploration and fictive creativity. The problem is that the same thesis, that fiction is only ‘inside your head’, can also be read as though it should stay locked up there and never leave.

12 April 2016

What God hath conjoined…

It never ceases to bemuse me that so many of the people who seem to be most romantically-inclined to the Jacobite cause are also those who don’t quite know what to make of that one most important aspect of the Stuart legacy: namely, the grand personal union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England that occurred in 1603. Indeed, on this very day, the 12th of April, a little over three years later, the patriarch from whose hathel lend every one of the Stuart kings descend, commissioned this very flag to signify that union.


King James I of England, VI of Scotland himself said this as well:
What God hath conjoined let no man separate. I am the husband and the whole isle is my lawful wife; I am the head and it is my body; I am the shepherd and it is my flock. I hope therefore that no man will think that I, a Christian King under the Gospel, should be a polygamist and husband to two wives; that I being the head should have a divided or monstrous body or that being the shepherd to so fair a flock should have my flock parted in two.
It must be noted that the Stuart kings, not just James I but also notably the martyred Charles I, proved themselves to be opponents of the enclosures movement and the appropriations of Church and common land that had been so common in the preceding centuries (and in the centuries to come) – in a way which appealed to the rural peasantry on both sides of the Wall. Charles I has even been described as ‘the one English monarch of outstanding importance as an agrarian reformer’. But even going back to James I, the government was taking an active interest in the well-being of the vulnerable rural poor in both Scotland and England. From this historical treatment, even though how sincere this interest was is an open question, the generality of the policies it inspired is not: both rural Scots and rural Englishmen had a strong stake - even their whole livelihoods - in these policies.

The Jacobite risings coming after 1688, it must be noted, were an alliance of Highland Scots with their High Church brethren in Northern England. They were hardly a Scottish national movement as such; instead it becomes necessary to note that they were a broad alliance of Englishmen and Scots who protested in common cause against a bureaucratic, capitalist new order. By and large, the Jacobites were in favour of preserving the commons, the cottage and the village; the elder style and pace of life that prevailed on the Highlands. They were the last vestiges of a nobility and free yeomanry who fought the extension of the enclosures into the Highlands (which amounted to a particularly brutal form of land theft from the peasants who had until then held the land in common) – a free yeomanry, it cannot be stressed enough, that was every bit as much English as it was Scottish. Though 1688 undoubtedly brought with it an urge to centralise and rationalise the affairs of the two countries and bring them under the control of London, so too it cannot be denied that the opposition to 1688 was not a purely nationalist phenomenon.

Even these tidbits of 17th-century English history show, I hope, that the real interests of the working class in Britain are the same regardless of whether they are localised in Scotland, England, Wales or Ireland. As David Lindsay points out, political patterns and preferences across Great Britain vary far more by class and religious preference than they do by place of national origin (however that is determined, and the excellent Mr. Lindsay more than once has pointed out the dubiousness of attempting to do so).

I confess to having a small, but real, personal stake in this question. The free-yeoman Cooper family – spelt Cowper back in 1688 – has been referred to in our genealogical records both as English and as Scottish. Some romantically, but as yet unconvincingly, trace us back to an origin in Fife. But the fact of the matter was that William Cowper was first a High Church Anglican, later a Quaker, who was forced to emigrate to Pennsylvania in 1699 either because of his religious convictions, or because of his Nonjuror politics. (At the time, it behoves me to note, the two would have gone hand in hand.) He lived in Pennsylvania, both among other Quakers from elsewhere in England, and among Scottish indentured men and smallholders who made up the frontier population of the time. Some among his descendants would continue to embrace a radical-traditionalist vision; my direct ancestor Jacob Cooper was a Tory, in fact, and wound up on the enemies list of the revolutionary committees of South Carolina. It is hard to say what they were, if not partisans of that Kingdom of Great Britain which King James I proclaimed.

11 April 2016

The dangers of a ‘libertarian moment’


A modest example of drug legalisation in action

In my last post I warned – somewhat over-vaguely – of the anti- and alter-liberalisms that could end up taking the place of the neoliberalism which has eaten itself well into its moral and political seed corn. Of course, the neoliberal consensus is not to the satisfaction either of the libertarians, who are seeing in the collapse of the reigning technocratic-globalist order the opportunity for a ‘libertarian moment’ – a moment in which the reigning dissatisfaction with the competency of the state is giving way to an anti-state mood, and an increasing openness to an alter-liberalism of the most brutally-dogmatic variety. It’s easy enough to understand the temptation, particularly for those of us who have been critical of the way the American state has handled a number of different issues. After all, if the American state has proven itself untrustworthy with how it gives foreign aid, with how it deploys our military, with how it handles social services, with how it educates our children and with how it secures our borders, then how can we trust it to do anything right?

This temptation is one to be resisted. For those of us who take such things seriously, and for those who recognise the above line of questioning as a form of anarchism, we can point to the Basis of the Social Concept (which was written, remember, by the Russian clergy in 2000, when the Russian state was still truly dysfunctional on practically every conceivable level) which says that ‘anarchy is the absence of proper order in a state and society, while calls to it and attempts to introduce it run contrary to the Christian outlook’ (III.2). However, there are a number of people both inside and outside the Church who are attracted to anti-state ideologies for the simple reason that the American state has time and again, both on the above-mentioned issues and on a number of others, proven itself to be untrustworthy. It is worthwhile exploring some of the thinking that goes into the temptation to anarchism.

For one thing, many of the people who are heralding the new ‘libertarian moment’ are not, in fact, objecting to the actual substance of the neoliberalism being promoted worldwide. Indeed, many of them, such as David Boaz at the Cato Institute, wholeheartedly embrace neoliberal ideology is a good thing and welcome the ‘trends in the world… toward human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, democratic governance, and freer markets’. Of course, one can point out to libertarians that much of this trend toward liberal values has been a function of aggressive and more-than-occasionally-violent enforcement by the state (whether the British Empire historically, by the dictatorships of Jiang, and Pinochet, or more recently by direct and indirect American intervention). And on the historical facts alone, consistent libertarians may be more likely than not to agree with this interpretation – they aren’t, after all, among the greatest fans of intervention. But this reading of the history itself calls into question their invincible faith, that the trend toward greater acceptance of their ideas is in fact a function of the desirability (the ‘market appeal’, if you will) of those ideas themselves. I’ve gotten into arguments before with libertarians who readily agreed with me that the Opium Wars were a Very Bad Thing, but then went on to claim that free trade – including free trade in opium – was in fact an unmitigated good that shouldn’t have required the enforcement of the British state. (Never mind that the Chinese government and a sizeable proportion of the Chinese people of the time didn’t actually want a free market in British-pushed narcotics.)

But that’s the very crux of the matter. Libertarian ideas cannot function in any social context, in ways that ordinary people would find morally or æsthetically or physically tolerable, without building incredibly powerful technocratic and depoliticised states to enforce them. A society in which drugs and all forms of consensual sex are completely legal and sanctioned, in which corporate behaviour is completely unregulated, and in which individual movement and market behaviour are as free of restriction as possible, will inevitably demand that government use its executive powers to shield it as much as possible from the predictable consequences.

To turn only to the most obvious example, we can already see the results of how the low-wage, non-union model preferred by libertarians lead to a necessary backfill in government-provided welfare services. When workers are not being compensated adequately for their time, if they are not to starve, someone else must foot the bill, and that ‘someone else’ is usually the Department of Agriculture.

Likewise, the standard libertarian answers to the rational observation that legalised prostitution correlates with higher observable human trafficking rates, are either to deny that there is a problem in the first place, or to claim that legalised prostitution has to be mainstreamed before it can out-compete into oblivion the black market in sex trafficking victims. The second answer, carried to its logical conclusion, balloons at least the sectors of government responsible for registration, protection and health-care provision for prostitutes and their clients. (The same objection applies for the legalisation of hard drugs.)

Historically, governments were indeed smaller. But that was largely on account of the fact that they could rely on institutions like the Church and the natural family, and on the tightly-interwoven mesh of unwritten privileges and mutual obligations that upheld these institutions, to serve the welfare of the people in society. And it was taken for granted that, as Solovyov would later put it, the purpose of the state in all things was ‘collectively-organised pity’ for the weak and vulnerable. Libertarians appear to think – as a matter of ideological wishful-thinking and in the absence of precedent – that one can have a functional society of the sort people would prefer to live in, without either the cultural safety net of traditional social roles and obligations, or the legal safety net of an economically-interventionist state. I can understand the appeal to such an ideology in a time when the legitimacy of the state itself is being called into question, but libertarianism is still very much a utopian fantasy, and a profoundly dangerous one.

09 April 2016

What comes afterward?


The neoliberal, globalist, corporate-friendly, free-trade consensus that the United States government has operated under since 1980, is these days being attacked with spectactular vigour (I mean that in both the literal and figurative senses of the term). From the left, the charge against the official Washington ideology is being led by Bernie Sanders, who for the most part represents, not Marxism, but a paternalistic, old-school Keynesian New Deal Democracy, of the sort that was standard-issue of post-WWII America. It is very much a function of the individualism, atomism and nominalism of our political shift in the meantime, that even what the Greatest Generation did to ward off socialism, now looks like socialism not only to its detractors, but also to its supporters. From the right, Donald Trump has been leading a cultural revolt of working-class whites which, policy-wise, owes as much to a tradition of executive-heavy Jacksonian nationalism as it does to anything else.

It doesn’t take an expert to reckon that the Beltway’s favoured mix of economic and social liberalism has only a limited life-span left. Even if the champions of the establishment – Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Kasich – manage to win their respective nominations, I will be quite surprised if the dissatisfaction with the direction of the country over the past 35 years simply dissipates with the passing of an election cycle. Previously-intractable issues (the structural indebtedness of students and low-wage workers; the failures of our foreign and immigration policies; ubiquitous discrimination against working-class whites), issues to which establishment liberalism has no satisfactory answer, have been broached and I’m sure will continue being discussed long after 2017.

The pressing question now is: what comes afterward? After countless failed neoliberal colour revolutions throughout the Arab world, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the cautious and wise observers will be careful to ask whether we know how the replacement for the establishment we overthrow will be any improvement over the status quo ante. And (hopefully!) said observers will take care to evaluate their options. There are, after all, exactly as many variants of anti- and post-liberalism on offer as there are specific and particular projects suited to every interest of class, race, religion, profession and social standing – and (ironic though this may sound coming from a deep critic of liberalism and the Enlightenment more generally, such as yours truly) not all of these variants are created equal, and some may be even worse than what we already have.

I’ll say it up front, though I’ve said it before and I’ll doubtless say it again. No matter how ‘populist’ it might sound, and no matter that it has a raison d’être with which I can’t argue, I cannot in good conscience bring myself to support the kind of political programme Trump brings to the table. Whereas the American élite class have done an incredible job of hollowing out our body of shared moral standards and replacing them with raw emotivism as a substitute, as Lasch himself pointed out, what Trump ultimately represents is the utter abandonment of those same standards. Who can take seriously family values proclaimed by a notorious libertine who is twice-divorced and who treats women like pieces of raw meat? Who can take seriously the basic competencies of hard work, accountability, sincerity and personal responsibility when they are proclaimed by someone who has built his career on a long series of bluffs: pyramid schemes, shell games, reality television and public-relations hype? In short, Trump – for all the excellent points he makes about free trade, the plight of poor whites and even foreign policy – represents an acquiescence to nihilism.

The increased taxation, fairer redistribution, restructuring of the banking system and so forth that Bernie Sanders advocates, is more attractive simply for the reason that it appears to be sincere. In Sanders you have a man who genuinely believes in the common good, and who has spent his entire legislative career fighting for it. (And yes, the idea of having the wealthy pay their share does indeed appeal to yours truly.) But at the same time, the kind of finical tinkering Sanders is basing his campaign on doesn’t reach down to the level of culture, and culture is the seat of our current problems. There are entrenched nexuses of patronage and interest at the core of the American state – nexuses that have an interest in destabilising uncooperative governments abroad; that have an interest in expanding American corporate hegemony at public cost; that have an interest in maintaining a soft ideological conformity in public life – that need to be exposed to scrutiny, and it is worrisome that Bernie Sanders at times seems uninterested in tackling these issues beyond their economic ramifications.

As the editorial staff at the American Conservative have warned us: ‘A void is opening in American politics, and Trump and Sanders are only the first to try to fill it’, and that we should ‘view all of this warily’. Both the description and the admonition are true – and it isn’t difficult to imagine how, if these options are stymied, other, possibly less-healthy, alternatives to the liberalism we’ve come to expect may be allowed to surface. Illiberalisms based on blood-and-soil have a notoriously bloody track record, and those based on scientism and techno-fetishism will undoubtedly land us in That Hideous Strength territory. What we need, rather, is an alternative that has been shaped, if not by Confucianism, then at least by the nobler and more humane strand of the classical thought that was once native to our cultural experience: that of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Seneca. And, hopefully, one which is open to the restoration of a healthy and balanced alliance between labour and agriculture, which is not averse to public ownership and management of communications, transportation, mail and banking infrastructure, but which is also wary of allowing the state to extend its reach down to the affairs of the family, or to the common interests at the community level.

05 April 2016

High Toryism contra moonlight and magnolias


The Right Honourable John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore

I’ve said it before often enough, but it bears saying again anyway.

Traditional conservatism in the American colonies had three geographical hubs: New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. All were located in the Mid-Atlantic colonies. Each hub represented an Old World population (or many, in New York’s case); each held over a sentiment and culture that refused at first to give themselves over to an assimilated colonial identity. Anglicans, Catholics and Quakers kept their old loyalties to the King, and in many instances to the deposed House of Stuart. In the case of New York – true, it was cosmopolitan, but that cosmopolitanism ran straight to the centres of Baroque high culture in Europe. The Toryism of the Mid-Atlantic colonies found its voice in their attachment to Loyalism to the Crown during the Revolution. That voice – the last voice of an authentic ‘Toryism of the old school’ in the Thirteen – was subsequently quashed through revolutionary violence, expropriation and expulsion. However, the elder Toryism finds its North American voice in Canadian political philosophy, such as that of George Parkin Grant.

The two major victors in the War of American Independence were the colonies of New England (what Colin Woodard calls ‘Yankeedom’) and the Lowland South (‘Tidewater’ and parts of the ‘Deep South’). Two very different, but both revolutionary, concepts of what the new nation should be, began to emerge from these two victorious cultures.

Most of us are familiar with the Yankee conception of what the new nation ought to stand for, and many of us who know our history understand that it was very much tempered by a Puritan zeal, of the selfsame sort which ruled Calvin’s Geneva. This ideal is revolutionary insofar as it compasses a thoroughgoing break with the past and with tradition, but also insofar as it proclaims only the individualistic dimension of God’s relationship to man: either one is ‘elect’ or one is not. Thus, the Yankee conception also comprehends it as the destiny of that same, small elect few to ‘establish their standards of holiness in the world and thereby transform the world toward greater conformity’ with that same holiness, even if that means smashing up and burying older and more established forms of ‘prayer and adoration’. There is an active shunning of contemplative or mystical forms of religious sentiment among the Puritans centred on Boston, who are wholly driven by this mission of conversion to a high and rigid standard of republican virtue. The revolutionary-republican Yankee compulsion to make the world anew in its own image is one rightly shunned by traditionalists.

However, what too many American traditionalists tend to overlook, largely as a result of the myth-building of the Southern Agrarians, is that the revolutionary ideas were not confined to New England, and were just as strong in the South. They merely took different, and in some cases much more insidious, forms. This is something George Grant himself touches on briefly in Lament for a Nation, written in 1964: the Deep Southern ‘conservatism’ of a Barry Goldwater supporter is not truly a conservatism at all. Though the thrust of Grant’s attack is largely against the ‘dynamic empire spearheading the age of progress’ – an empire whose character is largely driven by Puritan Yankee imperatives – he could not at all countenance the pretensions of Goldwater-supporting Southerners to a genuine form of conservative thought or temper. Indeed, he said of Goldwater that ‘what he conserves is the liberal philosophy of Locke’. This has been the case, as (for example) nationalist free-trade critic Michael Lind has also been arguing repeatedly, for a very long time.

Going back further, into the Antebellum, Southern Ur-liberalism was firmly planted in the political theory of Thomas Hobbes and the ethical consequentialism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. If one looks at the most ardent defenders of the sectional economic and social interests of the South in the years leading up to the Civil War – including such notables as John C. Calhoun, Thomas Dew and George FitzHugh – their defences do not rest upon appeals to organic tradition, but rather to a ‘rational’ order designed with the ‘happiness’ of its inhabitants (including black slaves, who were in this ideological conception the beneficiaries of the ‘peculiar institution’!) in mind. In this, the history of the South is very sharply at odds with the mythology of the South. Calhoun, Dew and FitzHugh all regarded themselves as champions of the ‘new sciences’ against hidebound moralism and superstition. In his speeches before the Senate, Calhoun even likened himself to the ‘philosophical inquirers’ Newton, Laplace and Galileo, and his northern opponents to Galileo’s benighted and censorious Catholic inquisitors.

I should note briefly that the economic model that the Deep South has always embraced, since its beginning in the Carolinas, has always been one in which a rootless-cosmopolitan rentier caste makes its living on the unfree or undercompensated labour of an equally-rootless underclass of indentured servants and slaves. The Barbadian planters and the West India lobby which made up the élite caste of Charleston were not, themselves, noblemen of blood and birthright. Most of them were derived from Southern English and Dutch shipping and mercantile classes, whose knighthoods and peerages were bought not with blood and valour, but with silver wrung from the sugar-harvesting backs, first of Irish convicts furnished from the gaols of Oliver Cromwell’s bandit régime, and later of West African chattel slaves. If these sugar-mongers, who on the Continent turned to rice, indigo and cotton as their low-wage extraction crops of choice, did have noble blood, they were largely bastards (in both senses of the word), second sons, scions of cadet houses, army deserters and generally ‘boorish, limited men’ who got one beating too few from their fathers. They were adventurers, in short, who were totally free of the compunctions of noblesse oblige which constrained their betters.

It is worthy of note also that the elder High Tory tradition which both lingered in the Old World and found refuge in Upper Canada, was inflected with an abolitionist moralism which utterly detested the chattel slavery of the Americas. During the War of American Independence, Lord Dunmore promised freedom to escaped slaves who would fight for the British Crown. Samuel Johnson, as recounted by his biographer Boswell, scandalously made a toast to the ‘next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies’. Jonathan Swift, though a latecomer to Toryism, was another notable opponent of slavery – and also of the mistreatment of the Irish which so often went hand-in-hand with it. Robert Southey, the Romantic Tory poet, was among those who championed the boycott against ‘the blood-sweeten’d beverage’. The Tory radical Richard Oastler vociferously opposed black slavery in the West Indies in 1807, and went on to oppose the ‘Yorkshire slavery’ of undercompensated child labour in the workhouses. John Ruskin, that ‘violent Tory of the old school’, drew his opposition to the drudgery demanded by capitalism by comparing it to the ‘bitter and degrading’ slavery ‘of the scourged African’, and attacked the condition that left industrial workers in ‘the best sense, free’, yet which robbed them of all other forms of consideration. In British North America, the Anglican Tories Sir John Colborne and Fr. John Strachan had no fear of offending American sensibilities by advocating before Upper Canada’s Executive Council that no runaway slave should be betrayed to the Americans; this sentiment was shared widely by the late Loyalist settlers of that territory.

Allow me to be perfectly forthright. I tend to look favourably on the Southern Agrarians, and Richard Weaver in particular, not least because they had such a profound influence on Wendell Berry and on the American distributists whom I count among my friends and comrades. But the mythology they promote has connived at what is, to my mind, a doomed love-affair. I speak of that between those Southern romantics attached to an elder traditional lifeway which is largely an imagined and nostalgic one, and that most selfish, godless and perverse of the revolutionary ideologies, the anarcho-capitalism of which Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises are the primary proponents and exemplars. It is one thing to want to return to an idyll of human-scaled community and reciprocal obligations that isn’t necessarily infected by a levelling, nominalist and utopian understanding of ‘equality’. It is another thing entirely, to fabricate that idyll whole-cloth to suit a misplaced sense of national pride.

01 April 2016

A Tory thought or two on ‘cultural appropriation’

Brendan O’Neill, the occasionally-thoughtful libertarian-leaning editor of sp!ked Magazine, has an article on the Spectator lambasting campus liberals and political-correctness police for their overweening obsession with eliminating ‘cultural appropriation’. It is actually very much worth a thoughtful read. If you can get past O’Neill’s borderline-hysterical uncertainty about whether to react to PC with hilarity or open-mouthed outrage, the irony that his latter response engenders by comparison with the very people he’s critiquing, and his occasional hyperventilation about how we millennials are ruining everything, the point is well-taken about there being at the ideological roots of the whole language of ‘cultural appropriation’ a kind of deathly, uncreative, censorious and Puritanical anti-culture which is obsessed with purity, and seeks to hedge all cultures bonsai-like into sterile and artificial shapes which are never allowed to intermingle. And he is, of course, quite right that unique, lively and creative cultural forms which take on lives of their own do spring from historical acts of ‘cultural appropriation’: notably rock music (or any kind of music which came out of the Delta or the Memphis music scene).

That much is very true. Where O’Neill is less persuasive, however (and where, in fact, he falls victim to his own critique), is in the idea that cultural preservation is inherently ‘racist’, and in his conception that we are primarily passive consumers rather than conduits of culture. I have fewer than no objections to chicken tikka masala or Asian fusion cuisine, but even before ‘cultural appropriation’ was a thing, even in my callow middle-school days, I thought young white women wearing cornrows, or young white men adopting ‘ghetto’ clothing and mannerisms, looked downright silly. I didn’t attach a moral stigma to either, as much as an aesthetic sense that something was deeply amiss. This attitude is fairly common, indeed, both in my parents’ generation and in my grandparents’ generation. First of all, we have to ask: what prompts this reaction in us? Secondly, we should be asking: what prompts young bourgeois white women to have cornrows or young bourgeois white men to wear saggy pants, anyway? What need is it that they’re addressing?

It’s worth noting that O’Neill does not use the organic analogy that I’m ascribing to him in my first paragraph, though he does use the language of ‘mixing’ and ‘learning’ that attribute agency, direction and growth to cultural production. The people he critiques, on the other hand – the politically-correct types – have at least a kernel of truth on their side when they note the ‘roots’ of a particular cultural expression. Cultures are, indeed, living and growing things; they are not static but organic. And just as it is unhealthy to prune, hedge, stifle and artificially segregate cultural output based on its biological origin, so also it is unhealthy to cut, graft, cross-pollinate or genetically-engineer without any thought for the underlying roots, for the nourishing stalk that lies beneath each example of cultural output. And this is where the Tory consciousness, with its passion for organic order, must concern itself.

Cornrows and white ‘ghetto’ fashion and yoga-for-yuppies are all ultimately imitative. They look and feel and act fundamentally silly because they represent an artificial grafting of cultural forms which feel more ‘authentic’ onto a dry and withering stalk that has not been properly nourished. One of my High-Tory complaints about white culture in America, at least, is that it has encouraged too many of us with immigrant roots to abandon our Old World traditions to the ‘melting pot’, to adopt a deadening cultural conformity, for the sake of (primarily economic) access to the ‘mainstream’, however that happened to be defined at the time. We whites, we formerly-‘ethnic’ whites in particular, have lost something of value in the process of ‘making good’ (a phrase Chesterton rightly despised) in a society predicated not on shared cultural but on ideological norms. And so what do we do? American bourgeois whites who are starved of meaning adopt cultural forms from others deemed more ‘authentic’. We turn to Eastern religions (yours truly being at least partially guilty of this one). We get tribal tattoos. We listen to reggae and hip-hop and talk with a supreme obliviousness about The Man. Or we take refuge in physical manifestations of antiquity. And we smother everything in layer upon layer of irony (see above).

I point all of this out not to be condemnatory – like I said, I can’t have any moral objections to the above, more aesthetic and existential ones – but it does point to a definite lack that needs filling, with something besides vicarious consumption of stuff and cultural output that is not, in a real sense, our own. It points, in a certain way, to an era of men without chests. CS Lewis wasn’t necessarily talking about ‘cultural appropriation’ specifically when he made this point, more about value-relativism much more generally, but the same point can apply. We demand ‘authenticity’, but we’ve cut out from ourselves those organs which alone can produce it. We’ve untethered ourselves from our Old World roots, and are casting about desperately for some ground – wherever it can be found – to lodge in. And the Old World itself is not much better, having adopted so heavily the selfsame mad alchemist’s approach to culture which got us into this mess.

So am I in favour of physically accosting white people who wear dreads? No, and hell no. That’s frankly an insane overreaction, and Brendan O’Neill is quite right to be worried about it. But at a certain level we do need to be questioning why it is that a guy feels the need to wear his hair that way in the first place. I get the feeling, personally, that if the question had been broached in a less-confrontational and less-antagonistic way, the question of ‘authenticity’ would not have been far beneath the surface for said dreads-wearing white dude.