Month: February 2023

Britain needs to be more family-friendly – but not on Corbyn’s model

Jeremy Corbyn is back in the news, though for admirable and respectable reasons this time. In a speech to the Commons on Tuesday, Corbyn argued that the current two-child limit to parental support benefits is immoral, specifically immoral to the 3rd, 4th or 5th child born to that parent, and instead it’s time “to scrap the two-child limit on benefits, and create a social security system that treats people with dignity, care and respect.”

It is quite common for socialists to claim that “it’s time” for the measures they propose, thus implying it has been a deliberate, cruel choice thus far to not pursue the measures, rather than caused by any practical limits. Nonetheless, stopped clocks and all that, and Corbyn has actually managed to touch on a problem quite serious in the British polity: we have an aging population and a declining birth rate, a combination which is, put nicely, a demographic time-bomb. 

It was not that long ago that a Tory minister received quite substantial criticism for proposing a pro-natalist policy, which must of course raise eyebrows as to why Corbyn is being lauded for proposing something so similar. I think we can chalk that one up to a mistaken belief that the unnamed minister was attempting to “engineer” a birth rate change whilst Corbyn just wants to support the children born anyway. 

Corbyn is, fundamentally, correct. The British state needs to do more to support children, but the focus should be on families, rather than children alone. By focusing on “children”, Corbyn is – unintentionally, I think we need to admit – neglecting the role parents play in both the creation and support of children. An avalanche of studies show the advantage children experience when both of their biological parents are involved in their childhood. Most importantly, the family is the finest form of welfare available in the world, and thinking the state can ever do more than supplement that welfare is misguided at best.

Since Corbyn has wandered into normative questions, we also need to clarify what is actually “immoral” in his eyes. Is it that further children would not get any support from the state? Perhaps, but then the immorality is not caused by the state, it is caused by nature as a rule and ameliorated by the state as an exception. Is it that, in providing support for the first two children but not any subsequent children? Maybe, but it is a dubious claim that state welfare is an expression of moral worth, though I appreciate I am battling with a socialist on this. 

Moreover, this might be a typical “nasty party” attitude to take, but why does Corbyn stop at the 5th child? Why not make the point regarding the 10th, or 20th child? Pro-natalist policies are good, when they support the lives of children already in the world, but if we are not careful we can generate a trap in which it pays to have children, and not work. Incentivising parents to have more children when it is the state supporting them and not their own employment is risky business.

What it should be doing instead is less direct. Instead, the British state needs to foster an environment that is more supportive of families, both in the material and in the attitudinal sense, which I explored in a recent paper with the think tank Civitas. What is an unfortunate truth of this situation is that birth rates are almost uniformly a symptom of the social environment, with a positive correlation between economic development and falling birth rates. As far as I know, no developed nation has successfully broken this link, but that does not mean it cannot be done. 

If the economic development of a nation has a bearing on birth rates, but birth rates are not the primary concern of national governments in their economic policies, then we cannot rely on the economic argument only, but there is still the possibility that economic policies could be shaped around families more. For one, as the Tory minister suggested, reforming the tax system to offer tax breaks in proportion to children (in both number and age) is an obvious option. The fact that Hungary has pursued such policies suggests it is possible, so the political will is all that stands in the way.

Inevitably, we need to think about housing. Property offers the most secure physical environment for parents to raise children in, especially as they make the transition from tenants to owner-occupiers, with which comes a greater degree of security. As has become common to remark on, millennials and Generation Z are facing crises of home-ownership, and without the security that can offer, families will start later and later, which not only has an effect on birth rates, but will mean those children born will be born into a world of insecurity. 

Corbyn is right that the British state needs to support children more, but he has missed the key point: the British state is not hospitable to families, and needs to be restructured to be so.

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A Response to Polly Toynbee

“Know thyself” is a most fundamental axiom of Greek philosophy that has been repeated into cliche in philosophy and religious studies classrooms around the world. And yet it is a concept that many seem to forget. To ignore our fundamental presuppositions and the grounding of our beliefs is foolish and to unwittingly seek to undercut them is ideological suicide. 

These thoughts follow my reading of Polly Toynbee’s recent article in the Guardian which seeks to essentially de-Christianise Christmas celebrations and throws around the terms ‘cultural Christianity’ and ‘humanism’ as a way to legitimise her thoroughly anti-Christian position as some kind of reasonable middle ground/self-critique. A contradiction for sure, as she lampoons the foundations of Christian belief and excoriates the actions of early Christians. If we attached power cables to Friedrich Nietzsche’s grave, his rolling would probably solve the present energy crisis our country is currently undergoing. 

Cultural Christianity, at the very least, demands an adoption of Christian morality and admiration for Christian tradition and history that is ridiculous to maintain in lieu of actual religious belief and makes me wonder why one doesn’t go all the way to believe in God too. Perhaps we consider the morality of ‘love thy neighbour’ as not necessarily an exclusively Christian belief but the very mindset that the European and American lives in are framed by Christianity – from the Protestant work ethic to our preference for monogamous relationships. Believing in the morality, mindset and general worldview of Christianity without its origin and basis, the teachings of Christ and the existence of God is vapid and naive. Why is marriage a sacred, inviolable contract if its primary advocate is not even real? (or dead).

This mindset is ultimately pointless and shallow and seeks to provide its own moral foundation with an appeal to some kind of tradition, popularity, or history – merely copying a greater tradition than itself. Ms Toynbee’s self-critical cultural Christianity is further called into question as nothing more than a veneer in her decidedly un-historical diagnosis of Christianity as anti-philosophical, anti-mathematical and anti-intellectual. The church is aware of its failings as a human institution, our own doctrine expects this and our scripture reminds us to be constantly vigilant against sin and our nature. Unfortunately, examples in history can be dragged into scrutiny to illustrate the failures of our forefathers. Maybe certain Popes and church leaders resisted the progress of science, or maybe the condemnations of 1277 sought to strangle ‘heretical’ elements of Aristotelianism out of medieval philosophy, but it isn’t appropriate to attribute particular mistakes by fallible humans to the wider religion. To do so is to be blinkered to what Christianity has provided and what it stands for.

Many of the greatest leaps in mathematics and science were accomplished by monotheists, algebra was pioneered and beautifully developed during the Golden Age of Islam and much of modern science owes its exposition and articulation to Christianity: Newtonian physics, Mendelian genetics and even the Big Bang Theory originate from Christian scholars. As for philosophy, while the discipline in the medieval period did develop in partnership with theology, the enlightenment saw the emergence of important secular thought among many Christian thinkers. For one example, Immanuel Kant, the father of modern philosophy, sought to use God to justify human freedom and escape relativism and nihilism; providing a philosophical framework that has shaped the European zeitgeist. There is a good case to be made that most Anglo-American philosophy that traces back to Hume is essentially a secularisation of the work of William of Occam; a Franciscan monk. Yes, certain Christians supported the barbaric practice of slavery but subsequent Christians spearheaded the abolitionist cause and rebuked their forebears. To accuse Christianity of being backwards because some nuns teaching children attempted to use theological themes to encourage good behaviour is intellectually immature. Ms Toynbee can chase caricatures and mistakes by certain people in order to try and hurry Christianity out the door as much as she wants but her arguments are largely rebutted by a cursory reading of history. There is no real correlation between Christianity and intellectual stagnation. 

A point that is interestingly used to drive her case forward is to complain about the largely ceremonial title of Fidei Defensor, which our monarchs adopted as an ironic jest at the Papacy. It is a somewhat nickel and dime point to analyse the declaration of the Anglican church’s independence – remember that the monarch is also the (ceremonial) Supreme Governor of the CofE: a broadly ceremonial title. Surely then, in an institution that is allegedly racist and backward, we should be welcoming Charles’ declaration to defend all the faiths of all of his subjects even if he is styled with a ceremonial, historic title? Dwelling on the ‘the’ seems to be counter-productive. These nickel-and-dime points come across as the bread and butter of this article – We can see another example of these snipes in her discussion of assisted suicide. To say that life is sacred and that assisted suicide is a slippery slope somehow makes our elected officials dangerous radicals that are out of touch with the electorate. This polemic move is extremely dishonest. See the advancement of medically assisted suicide in Canada as an example of the practical risks associated with this policy. 
Maybe this response article is also rising to the nickel and dime bait. The debate could rage forever, as glib anecdotes and controversies are thrown about to illustrate the evil of the ever-vengeful skydaddy and his charlatan prophet. But let’s not forget the message of Christmas in the Gospel – a message of love, hope and the salvation of mankind by God who loves His creation and wants nothing more than to reconcile our broken relationship.

Let’s remember that the secular values we associate with Christmas – family, reconciliation, joy, giving and altruism – stem from a message of divine love and peace with a promise to end human suffering. Ms Toynbee’s vision of a secular winter holiday is not possible without the Incarnation.

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A Quasi-Defence of Classical British Education

A couple of weeks ago, enough to make this piece seem dated, our Prime Minister Rishi Sunak contended that all students should be taught mathematics to the age of eighteen. As one would expect with anyone holding a convicted belief in anything these days, such remarks were held to scant regard and I suspect that like most Toryism of the modern day, that with conviction with give way to that with expedience and this policy will be dropped by the waysides at the slightest pushback in parliament.

However, the criticism that has spawned from this rare moment of genuine conviction from our prime minister is probably far more interesting than his own aspirations of what would have manifest.

As a sidenote, I expect that should this compulsory maths to 18 intention go through, what will likely happen is that the ever-beleaguered adolescent must now come to grips with the ire of all office workers: Microsoft Excel, only too early for their time. It is infeasible in the least that people who struggled to get a 4 in their foundation papers for GCSE maths could go on to study integrals. Maths is unlike other subjects in that one must have a command of the knowledge foundational to the next level, it is not a matter like in history, of switching periods or method of analysis to an area you may find more interesting. There are limits for everyone be it in wit or will. I, much like everyone else reading this article, is likely aware of our own maths limitations, it’s all too human.

But the furore about what should be taught instead of maths, or anything else for that matter, is as I’ve already said far more interesting. Of course, the first conviction of the modern vision of education, a cookie-cutter idea of turning an innocent child into the taxpaying office worker to satisfy the top-heavy pension-state is very tempting. In a world of material, the person is personified by their work, after all. Teach people about taxes! Teach them about compound interest! Teach them how to start their own businesses! Teach them about how to tie their shoes! Et cetera, et cetera. 

For someone however who normally takes a very technical view towards things, I’d like to take a moment to defend the British style of education in which people choose their A Levels and focus on honing their skills in a certain area, be it in humanities or technology, as opposed to being taught what the education cynics would prefer people learnt, which is essentially accounting 101 or what the cabinet desire, learn all the maths possible until your brain turns into C++ code.

In the first place, can we please clear up the idea that education is only, or even primarily about getting people ready for work? If you are leaving school at eighteen (good choice by the way) your job is likely going to have nothing to do with what you studied, nor has it ever been like this. The two original skills we most valued in school, maths and English, were primarily about getting people up and ready to learn information by themselves. Economists do not use a “can do their own taxes” rate when measuring educational development, they measure either literacy or time in school. Most people do not learn about their own job, or about their hobby because they were taught in school. For the degree educated among us and who retain passion for their subject, how much do you really owe your subject knowledge to the university instruction and how much to your own passion and research?

Education is, no matter how wearily and poorly it does it these days, a matter of getting people to learn things for themselves and maintain some level of function in society. Before the SNP took charge of Scotland, most state schools still taught Latin and Scotland retained a reputation as one of the premier education systems of the world (that has been dashed, you may finger point at whodunnit somewhere else). No, I’m not saying Latin is what makes a good education, but I don’t think it’s useless either if people are willing to learn it and be passionate about it.

I’m not going to pretend that a society in which everyone is a “critical thinker”, or “free thinking” Twitter user is either realistic or good. The reality is that humans are by and large not critical thinkers. But I think there is something to be said of the idea that education is not about doing your taxes (have these people never heard of PAYE?) but about rounding yourself out cognitively and figuring out who you are amongst peers.

Some of the greatest in British history studied what many would consider ‘useless’ in modern standards. The traditional British education was to go to Oxford or Cambridge and study classics or the law, after which one could study whatever one wanted, or indeed get a premium job in the civil service. All this was during the period of time in which British innovation was the envy of the world. I struggle to see how if more children were taught the properties of triangles during the 1840’s how the Industrial Revolution could have been anymore revolutionary.

I think the likely final avenue here of discussion is the frequently cited immense rise of Asian cognition in the economic space and the pre-eminence of the Chinese and Japanese companies and workers in the tech sphere. To be frank I do not think either that the rising ability of these nations need pose any threat to us in this country unless we decide it does. Liz Truss reportedly after a visit to China thought we all needed to study more maths and I’ll admit, the Chinese mathematics curriculum is terrifying. Calculus in many parts of China is taught as young as twelve, but that alone need not merit fear from anyone. Firstly, China’s economic coming dominance is vastly overstated by their own figures, but more importantly an economy isn’t just data scientists and modellers. Have people ever stopped to think that maybe too many mathematicians is also a bad thing? The most fundamental feature of all economies, the ability to produce food and water, is almost never going to feature maths beyond that which we use in Excel. Nor for that matter do most electricians, plumbers, journalists, chefs, manufacturers, technicians or even IT workers need to know how to find an eigenvector. 

Our other example, Japan, is perhaps an even more damning verdict of teaching a high number of students to eighteen mathematics than the former. Japan is a great country and I have little bad to say about them as a culture, but their economy has not been saved by maths being taught to eighteen. If you think the UK productivity figures are bad than Japan’s are lamentable. Japan lags the rest of the west in productivity despite a highly technical education. In spite of this 85% of Japanese Students will take maths to eighteen with math PISA scores that dominate the free world.

It is hard to assess the economic impact, let alone geopolitical impact of teaching everyone maths. But I’m comfortable in saying that if China or Japan are our examples of high-level STEM education, I’m not going to tie myself in knots. Britain’s productivity issue probably lies elsewhere.

I’m not attempting to be biased here, I myself have studied two different STEM subjects at higher education, but for me it seems expertise and skill is unlikely to be unearthed by your schooling. In my view then, don’t make the poor children study maths or accounting; adolescence is a strain unto itself. Let people pick their own interests, and the chips fall where they may.

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The Church has let men like Prince Harry down

The King has allegedly asked the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to mediate in the current royal drama with a view to repairing things before the Coronation. Reading extracts of Prince Harry’s ‘Spare’ I can’t but help think that though this is intervention is to be welcomed there is a sense in which Harry is typical of a lot of modern men who have been let down by the one spiritual organisation that is meant to guide them over the pitfalls and perils of this mortal coil. 

Harry’s complaint is that he is ‘spare heir’ and therefore a marginalised victim of the system, or what the royals dub ‘the Firm’. This is a difficult premise to swallow in the light of a life of opulent privilege. Anyone who takes up the daily recitation of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer will soon be confronted with a different of ‘spare’ that might as well come from another planet because it is so in-modern. “Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults, restore thou them that are penitent.” If only Harry had been shown how to orientate his life on this concept of ‘spare’ things might have turned out differently. 

Tragically Harry’s nuggets in  ‘Spare’ betray an arid post-faith intellectual landscape where the classic virtues are absent. Humility, forgiveness, duty, sacrifice are sidelined whereas woke truisms and Californians therapy gobbledigook are at the fore. Did no one at Eton or in his confirmation classes drill in the Mosaic Ten commandments hanging up in many school chapels, least of all “Honour thy father and mother?” (Exodus 20.12) As he plotted with his ghost writer to disclose every petty family squabble did he not stop to weigh up the terrible dishonour it would bring to his father, the now present king? Perhaps those charged with his spiritual upbringing gave up too early? All indications from ‘Spare’ is that the teenage happy-go-lucky cheeky-chappy Harry was early on inhaling the wrong incense and needed a more bespoke approach to his religious instruction. As it is he now declares himself predictably as “spiritual but not religious.” Yawn! 

To borrow from the gospel of Mark, for what shall it profit a man, if he shall gaineth the biggest deals with Netflix, Spotify and Random House, and lose his own soul? It’s easy to dismiss religion and then tune out the meatier questions because they do not suit or harmonize with the confectionary lite buffet that presents itself as DIY “spirituality”.  What do I know anyway, I’m just a vicar? To Christ’s haunting question “What can he give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8.37) Harry’s industrious accountants have “done the maths” and monetized this to a balance sheet of around a quarter of a billion pounds, give or take.

 If only Harry had embraced the manly faith of his late grandmother, Her Majesty the Queen, then he wouldn’t be sinking in a quagmire of seances, quack therapists,  and crystal healers. They saw you coming, Harry!  And, to add comedy to tragedy he is stupendously oblivious  to the singular truth that is apparent to everyone else on the planet, ie, that this is not going to end well for him. The ton of cash from the books and TV series will not save his soul from disintegration. It will add to the mental inferno. He  now stands at the event horizon of an implosion, a galactic supernova which is the all consuming black hole of his fragile ego. And yet who cannot forget that when his grandmother deployed ‘spare’ it was always in the context of the misfortune of others. “Let us this Christmas spare a thought for those in the world who are less fortunate than us.” Spare indeed.

I feel sorry for Harry because he is a victim. He is a victim not of any antics at Buckingham Palace but a victim of himself and his ego.  He is his own worst oppressor. The pathetic thing is that we the plebs are all rather enjoying it. Hands up, I confess this has brightened things up from the rainy normal January blues along with the prospect of paying half my stipend on an exorbitant heating bill. That’s why Spare is flying off the shelves. It’s an Easterenderseque tittle-tattle of royal soap opera that makes our bored and wayward souls horny. 

Could the Church have helped to prevent this? My worry is that the current Anglican iteration is so panicked about appealing to wokism that Harry probably wouldn’t have been able to distinguish it from his wife’s current expensive appetite for tree hugging West Coast workshops. “Commandments? Oh, don’t concern yourself too much, they are merely ‘suggestions’ Your Highness for lifestyle enhancements. ” Here is a man displaying a profound lack of Christian catechesis. He thinks he can have God on his own terms. 

Maybe as Anglicans we should take the blame, as a religion we have failed him? Biblical fluency would have slammed the brakes on this kind of misadventure years ago. Regular and proper prayer would have constructed a spiritual fortress with a moat and a high vantage point that laughs off the psychological hobgoblins and foul fiends.  In Spare Harry talks of an RE teacher at Eton walloping him with a heavy Bible. Clearly not hard enough.

Harry is typical of a lost generation of men starved of meaning and direction. He and those on the other end of the spectrum who drool over the ridiculous Andrew Tate, are like pelicans wandering a neon wilderness tapping at leftovers and carcasses. Whereas Harry has an army of sycophants and celebs to tell him what he wants to hear, these men and boys scuttle around the cyberspace of Tik-Tok, Instagram and Youtube to collect morsels of ready made prejudices. Some of the more intellectually inquiring find solace in New Atheism, but increasingly the gleeful nihilism of Dawkins adds up to little succor these days. 

Most youngish men dropping into their Anglican parish church will soon realise that they are misfits in a club that struggles to connect with their concerns or knows what to do with them. Politically correct sermons are also a big turn off. The average vicar it seems has yet to learn from the Jordan Peterson rockstar phenomenon which points to younger generations (men and women) lining up in their thousands for a psychologically full-on wrestling of a demanding meaning to life. This is why he packs auditoriums whereas many of us have half empty churches. Key to this is inverting the victimhood narrative and saying instead “Get your house in order and be a positive force in the world, by the grace of God, you can do it.” 

Tragically the Anglican existential need to cosy up to the culture zeitgeist can put it on the wrong side of history, repeatedly. Just over a hundred years ago vicars and bishops casually deployed eye watering jingoistic rhetoric from their pulpits to rally this same constituency of young men to the trenches. The most infamous being the manipulative monster that was Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the bishop of London. He gleefully toured the country and packed churches where he signed up sixteen year olds to the Front. His crazed sermons including rants of  “Kill the Hun!” Thank God we can’t imagine Sarah Mullaly or Justin Welby doing this. But, it does at least highlight there was a period in history where young men and princes  like Harry Windsor were seen as the saviours of our civilisation even if the salvific work they were asked to shoulder was in reality a big con, an industrial scale slaughterhouse.

Having dipped my toe in the media world I now find myself at the receiving end of a mailbag of letters and emails mostly from Millennials, men (but not exclusively) around Harry’s age and lower who have found Christianity afresh. For various reasons lockdown prompted a considerable number to reevaluate the old faith. Typically they are rebels and misfits who find that the best way to dissent from the woke globalist revolution is to grasp Christianity. The gospel is for them the new anti-globalist movement.  I see in them a hunger for demanding gospel which is both generous and orthodox, intellectual and spiritual stretching. They do not want to be fobbed off with social justice platitudes and are prepared to suffer well for their faith, even job loss is necessary. This is an energized constituency that for some reason the Church is apathetic to. Please, please bishops wake up! 

So, what urgent spiritual advice could be given to the Duke of Sussex? Clergy, if the prince happens to trip into your confessional let’s not pander with the gushing words of  “there, there!”  He requires a direct approach. This is because he is like the earnest rich young man in the gospels who is strangulated by his possessions, privilege, and status and ends up walking away from Christ? Doesn’t he see that raking in millions and millions while surrounding himself with the Hollywood luvvies is the proverbial camel that he will never never never squeeze through the eye of the needle? No amount of Elizabeth Arden cream can help either. He needs to give it all up for a radically simpler quieter life.

Is any of this feasible for a royal like Harry let alone all those lost men the churches fail to inspire? Harry doesn’t need to go back to Edward the Confessor to find a role model. He could look no further than his quirky yet saintly great grandmother, the forthright Princess Alice of Battenberg, the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother. She had her troubles with mental health and ended up in and out of sanitariums. Opinion was divided over whether she was a mystic or a nut. Yet, unlike all the made up woke gongs that Harry and Meghan have received, Alice had a real award for her work in saving Jews from Nazis. Israel recognises and honours  her as a righteous gentile. She also sold everything and became an Orthodox nun. As a no nonsense woman, she would be the last person on the planet to ever describe herself as a “victim”. She rolled up her sleeves and got on with life doing endless good without fanfare or neediness. I suspect history will ‘spare’ her a bigger and more godly footnote than Harry Windsor unless he seriously and radically changes his ways.  And for bishops and archbishops maybe the lesson is that a church that preached and presented an Alice Battenberg Christianity, might not only reach out to guys like Harry but also find a remedy for its own seemingly terminal decline.                

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Orwell’s Egalitarian Problem

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book whose influence exceeds its readership. It resembles a Rorschach test; moulding itself to the political prejudices of whoever reads it. It also has a depth which often goes unnoticed by those fond of quoting it.

The problem isn’t that people cite Orwell, but that people cite Orwell in a facile and cliched manner. The society of Oceania which Orwell creates isn’t exemplified in any contemporary state, save perhaps wretched dictatorships like North Korea or Uzbekistan. It’s thus not my intent to draw on Nineteen Eighty-Four to indict my own society as being “Orwellian” in the sense of being a police state, a procurer of terror, or engaged in centralised fabrication of history. A world of complete totalitarianism of the Hitlerian or Stalinist kind hasn’t arrived (not yet at least), but Nineteen Eighty-Four still has insights applicable to our day.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist, Winston, is suffocated by the miserable tyranny he lives in. The English Socialist Party (INGSOC) controls all aspects of Britain, now called Airstrip One, a province of the state of Oceania. It does so in the name of their personified yet never seen dictator, Big Brother. When Winston is almost at breaking point, he meets fellow party member, O’Brien. O’Brien, Winston thinks, is secretly a member of the resistance, a group opposing Big Brother. O’Brien hands Winston a book called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. This book is supposedly written by Emmanuel Goldstein, arch-nemesis of Big Brother, and details the secret history and workings of Oceanian society, something unknown to all its citizens.

Oligarchic collectivism is the book’s term for the ideology of the Party in response to a repeating historical situation. Previous societies were characterised by constant strife between three social classes: the top, the middle, and the bottom. The pattern of revolution across history was always the middle enlisting the bottom by pandering to their base grievances. The middle would use the bottom to overthrow the top, install itself as the new top, and push the bottom back down to their previous place. A new middle would form over time, and the process would repeat.

INGSOC overthrew the top through a revolution, in the name of equality. What it actually achieved was collectivised ownership at the top, and so it created a communism of the few, not unlike classical Sparta. The rest of the population, derogatorily called “proles”, live in squalid poverty and are despised as animals. They’re kept from rebelling by being maintained in ignorance and given cheap hedonistic entertainment at the Party’s expense. INGSOC nominally rules on their behalf, but in reality is built upon their continual oppression. As Goldstein’s book puts it:

“All past oligarchies have fallen from power either because they ossified or because they grew soft. Either they became stupid and arrogant, failed to adjust themselves to changing circumstances, and were overthrown; or they became liberal and cowardly, made concessions when they should have used force, and once again were overthrown. They fell, that is to say, either through consciousness or through unconsciousness.”

In other words, the top falls either by failing to notice reality and being overthrown once reality crashes against it, or by noticing reality, trying to create a compromise solution, and being overthrown by the middle once they reveal their weakness. INGSOC, however, lasts indefinitely because it has discovered something previous oligarchies didn’t know:

“It is the achievement of the Party to have produced a system of thought in which both conditions can exist simultaneously. And upon no other intellectual basis could the dominion of the Party be made permanent. If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality. For the secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one’s own infallibility with the Power to learn from past mistakes.”

INGSOC can simultaneously view itself as perfect, and effectively critique itself to respond to changing circumstances. It can do this, we are immediately told, through the principle of doublethink: holding two contradictory thoughts at once and believing them both:

“In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion; the more intelligent, the less sane.”

It’s through this mechanism that the Party remains indefinitely in power. It has frozen history because it can notice gaps between its own ideology and reality, yet simultaneously deny to itself that these gaps exist. It can thus move to plug holes while retaining absolute confidence in itself.

At the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Inner Party member O’Brien tortures Winston, and reveals to him the Party’s true vision of itself:

“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”

It’s here where I part ways with Orwell. For a moment, O’Brien has revealed to Winston one-half of what Inner Party members think. Doublethink is the simultaneous belief in the Party’s ideology, English Socialism, and in the reality of power for its own sake. INGSOC is simultaneously socialist and despises socialism. Returning to Goldstein’s book:

“Thus, the Party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it chooses to do this in the name of Socialism. It preaches a contempt for the working class unexampled for centuries past, and it dresses its members in a uniform which was at one time peculiar to manual workers and was adopted for that reason.” 

Orwell creates this situation because, as a democratic socialist, he’s committed to the idea of modern progress. The ideal of equality of outcome isn’t bad, but only the betrayal of this ideal. Orwell critiques the totalitarian direction that the socialist Soviet Union took, but he doesn’t connect this to egalitarian principles themselves (the wish to entirely level society). He therefore doesn’t realise that egalitarianism, when it reaches power, is itself a form of doublethink.

To see how this can be we must introduce an idea alien to Orwell and to egalitarianism but standard in pre-modern political philosophy: whichever way you shake society, a group will always end up at the top of the pile. Nature produces humans each with different skills and varying degrees of intelligence. In each field, be it farming, trade or politics, some individuals will rise, and others won’t.

The French traditionalist-conservative philosopher Joseph de Maistre sums up the thought nicely in his work Etude sur La Souveraineté: “No human association can exist without domination of some kind”. Furthermore, “In all times and all places the aristocracy commands. Whatever form one gives to governments, birth and riches always place themselves in first rank”.

For de Maistre the hard truth is, “pure democracy does not exist”. Indeed, it’s under egalitarian conditions that an elite can exercise its power the most ruthlessly. For where a constitution makes all citizens equal, there won’t be any provision for controlling the ruling group (since its existence isn’t admitted). Thus, Rome’s patricians were at their most predatory against the common people during the Republic, while the later patricians were restrained by the emperors, such that their oppression had a more limited, localised effect.  

If we assume this, then the elite of any society that believes in equality of outcome must become delusional. They must think, despite their greater wealth, intelligence and authority, that they’re no different to any other citizen. Any evidence that humans are still pooling in the same hierarchical groups as before must be denied or rationalised away.

This leads us back to the situation sketched in Goldstein’s book. What prevents the Party from being overthrown is doublethink. The fact it can remain utterly confident in its own power, and still be self-critical enough to adapt to circumstances. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the former is exemplified in the vague utopian ideology of INGSOC, while the latter is the cynical belief in power for its own sake and willingness to do anything to retain it. But against this, no cynical Machiavellianism is necessary to form one-half of doublethink. A utopian egalitarian with privilege is doublethink by default. At once, he believes in the infallibility of his ideology (he must if he’s to remain in it), and is aware of his own status, continually acting as one must when in a privileged position.

How does this connect to that most Orwellian scenario, the permanent hardening in place of an oligarchic caste that can’t be removed? As Orwell says through Goldstein, ruling classes fall either by ossifying to the point they fail to react to change, or by becoming self-critical, trying to reform themselves, and exposing themselves to their enemies. Preventing both requires doublethink: knowing full well that one’s ideology is flawed enough to adapt practically to circumstances and believing in its infallibility. The egalitarian elite with a utopian vision has both covered. If you truly, genuinely, believe that you’re like everyone else (which you must if you think your egalitarian project has succeeded), you won’t question the perks and privileges you have, since you think everybody has them. That takes care of trying to reform things: you don’t.

Yet, as an elite, you still behave like an elite and take the necessary precautions. You avoid going through rough areas, you pick only the best schools for your offspring, and you buy only the best houses. As an elite, you also strive to pass on your ideology and way of life to the next generation, thus replicating your group indefinitely. Thus, you simultaneously defend your position and believe in your own infallibility.

Could an Oceanian-style oligarchy emerge from this process? Absolutely, provided we qualify our meaning. The society of Nineteen Eighty-Four lacks any laws or representational politics. It has no universal standards of education or healthcare. It functions as what Aristotle in Politics calls a lawless oligarchy, with the addition of total surveillance. But this is an extreme. What I propose is that egalitarianism, once in power, necessarily causes a detachment between ideology and reality that, if left to itself, can degenerate into extreme oligarchy. The severe doublethink needed to sustain both belief in the success of the project and safeguard one’s position at the top can accumulate over time into true class apartheid. This is, after all, exactly what happened to the Soviet Union. As the Soviet dissident and critic Milovan Dilas, in his book The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System, put it:

“Every private capitalist or feudal lord was conscious of the fact that he belonged to a special discernible social category.  (…) A Communist member of the new class also believes that, without his part, society would regress and founder. But he is not conscious of the fact that he belongs to a new ownership class, for he does not consider himself an owner and does not take into account the special privileges he enjoys. He thinks that he belongs to a group with prescribed ideas, aims, attitudes and roles. That is all he sees.”

To get an Oceanian scenario, you don’t need egalitarianism plus a Machiavellian will to power, forming two halves of doublethink. You just need egalitarianism. 

Photo Credit.

Neoconservatism: Mugged by Reality (Part 2)

The Neoconservative Apex: 9/11 and The War on Terror

11th September 2001 was a watershed moment in American history. The destruction of the World Trade Centre by Muslim terrorists, the deaths of thousands of innocent American citizens and the general feeling of chaos and vulnerability was enough to turn even the cuddliest of liberals into bloodthirsty war hawks. People were upset, confused and above all angry and wanted someone to pay for all the destruction and death. To paraphrase Chairman Mao, everything under the heavens was in chaos, for the neoconservatives the situation was excellent.

After 9/11, President Bush threw out the positions on foreign policy that he’d advocated for during his candidacy and became a strong advocate of using US military strength to go after its enemies. The ‘Bush Doctrine’ became the staple of US foreign policy during Bush’s time in office and the magnum opus of the neoconservative deep state. The doctrine stated that the United States was entangled in a global war of ideas between Western values on the one hand, and extremism seeking to destroy them on the other. The doctrine turned US foreign policy into a black and white war of ideology where the United States would show leadership in the world by actively seeking out the enemies of the West and also change those countries into becoming like the West. Bush stated in his 2002 State of the Union speech:

“I will not wait on events, while dangers gather.  I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer.  The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”

The ‘Bush Doctrine’ was a pure expression of neoconservatism. But the most crucial part of his speech was when he gave a name to the new war the American state had begun to wage:

“Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun.  This campaign may not be finished on our watch – yet it must be, and it will be waged on our watch.”

The ‘War on Terror’ became a term that would become synonymous with the Bush years and indeed neoconservatism. For neoconservatives, the attack on 9/11 reaffirmed their pessimism about the world being hostile to the United States and, in turn, their views on needing to eradicate it with ruthless calculation and force. A new doctrine, a new President, a new war – neoconservatism certainly held itself up to its ‘neo’ nature. With all this set-in place and the neoconservative deep state rearing to go, they could finally start to do what they had always wanted to do – wage war.

Iraq and Afghanistan became the main targets, with Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban becoming public enemy’s number one, two and three. A succession of invasions into both countries, supported by the British military, ended up with the West looking victorious. Both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein had been removed from power, Al Qaeda was on the run, and various of their top leaders had been captured or killed. It was ‘mission accomplished’ and thus time to remould Afghanistan and Iraq into American-aligned liberal democracies. Furthermore, the new neoconservative elite saw to demoralise and outright destroy all those who had been associated with the Hussein regime and Islamic radical groups and thus began a campaign of hunting down, imprisoning and ‘interrogating’ all those involved. However, this is where the neoconservative project would begin to fall as quickly as it had ascended.

The Failure and Eventual Fall of Neoconservatism

A core factor to note is that the neoconservative belief that one could simply invade non-democratic and often heavily religious countries and flip them into liberal democracies proved to be highly utopian. As Professor Ian Shapiro pointed out in his Yale lecture on the Demise of Neoconservatism Dream, the neoconservative’s falsely believed that destroying a country’s military was equivalent to pacifying and ruling a country. The American-British coalition may have swiftly destroyed the armies of Hussein of Iraq and cleared out the Taliban in Afghanistan but they did not effectively destroy the support both had amongst the general population. If anything, the removal of both created an array of intense power vacuums which the neoconservatives could only seem to fill with corrupt American aligned Middle Eastern politicians as well as gun-ho Generals and neoconservative elites who knew very little about the countries they were presiding over.

One such example is Paul Bremer who led the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq after the Hussein regime was overthrown. His genius idea – that totally would get the Iraqi people on the side of freedom and democracy – was to disband the army and eradicate the Iraqi civil service and governmental authorities of those who were aligned with Hussein’s Ba’ath Party; terming it De-Ba’athification. Both led to a plethora of Iraqi’s losing their jobs and incomes and being smeared as enemies of the new American led regime – even low level teachers and privates were removed despite the fact that many of them joined the party simply to keep their own jobs.

While seen as a tactical way in which to remove any potential opposition to the CPA, the move created more opposition to the new government than any dissident anti-American group could have wished to have created – turns out making 400,000 young men, who know how to kill a man in sixteen different ways, unemployed isn’t the best way in which to show your care for the Iraqi people. It also didn’t help that Bremer and the CPA failed to account for a variety of funds and financial given to him for the reconstruction of Iraq, leading to a variety of financial blackholes and millions of dollars that simply disappeared.

Insurgent groups grew and assassination attempts on Bremer became commonplace to such an extent that even Osama Bin Laden himself placed a sizable bounty on Bremer’s head. Opposition to Bremer was so fervent that he was essentially forced to leave his position in the CPA by mid-2004 with his legacy being one of failure, instability and corruption, a legacy which the Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called “the largest single disaster in American foreign policy in modern times”.

Removing opposition instead of attempting to work with it and use their expertise is something the US has done before, especially after WW2 with the fall of the Axis regimes, but the neoconservative mind has no tolerance or time for those who oppose American values – leading to brutal methods being used against those who do not comply.

It was under the neoconservatives that Guantanamo Bay was opened, a prison known for its mistreatment of prisoners and dubious torture methods. It was under the neoconservatives that Abu Ghraib prison, a feared prison under Hussein’s regime, became a place in which American soldiers and state officials were allowed treat and use interrogation methods on prisoners in manners that violate basic human dignity. And it was under the neoconservatives that began a mass surveillance state in their own country via the so-called ‘Patriot Act’ which put the privacy of American citizens in great danger. The Bush administration claimed that these abuses of human rights were not indicative of US policy, they were and the neoconservatives were the one’s responsible.

Luckily, these abuses were quickly all over mainstream news both inside and outside the US and horrified the population at large, even those who had once been pro the War on Terror. Furthermore, soldiers who had fought abroad came back with horror stories of their fellow soldiers abusing prison inmates and how they’d left Iraq bombed to the ground, displacing families and with casualty rates of up to and around 600,000 Iraqi civilians. The American mood turned against the war and by the end of Bush’s tenure in office 64% of Americans felt that the Iraq war had not been worth fighting.

The average American who felt angry and upset at their freedoms being threatened by Islamic terrorism became just as angry and upset when they saw their own country committing atrocities and taking away the freedoms of others. While it may seem cliche to point out the hypocrisy, this was one of the first times American’s had been exposed to the reality of what their state was really capable of. As Shapiro elucidates, the real legacy of the Iraq war and the War on Terror is that it destroyed America’s moral high ground. A high ground America has never been able to reach to since.

Barrack Obama and the Democrats attacked the Republicans and their neoconservative wing for their human rights abuses, the unjustified invasion of Iraq and implosion of America’s moral standing on the international stage. It is not unfair to say that Obama’s intoxicating charm and message of hope for America was desperately wanted in a post-Bush era in order so that Americans could try and forget the depravities that their country had fallen to in the early 2000s. He promised to pull out of Iraq, close Guantanamo Bay and replace the neoconservative doctrine for one based on diplomacy and moderation.

Bush and the majority of his neoconservatives left office after the election of Obama – in which he beat the then darling of the neoconservative right John McCain – and have since failed to re-enter the halls of power or indeed even their own party. The Tea Party movement supplanted neoconservatism dominance over the Republican Party and those still clinging on for dear life are being cleared out by the new America First aligned Republicans who wish to supplant the war-hawks and globalists with non-interventionists and nationalists.


It is not radical nor unfair to say that not since the fall of the Berlin Wall has an ideological group lost its grip on power so completely as the neoconservatives have. 

With the failure of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, the grotesque violation of individual liberties at home and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, neoconservatism, and indeed even the US government, became synonymous with warmongering, authoritarianism and out and out international crime. To quote Stephen Eric Bronner in his book Blood in the Sand:

“Like a spoiled child, unconcerned with what anyone else thinks, the United States has gotten into the habit of invading a nation, trashing it, and then leaving without cleaning up the mess.”

Neoconservatives like to hand-wring about the ‘evils’ of Middle Eastern dictators while they allow dogs to tear off the limbs of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, spy on innocent American citizens and bomb Afghani schools full of children into oblivion. Thanks to the neoconservative project of the early to mid-2000s – elements of which still are in place today – the United States became a leviathan monstrosity of surveillance, torture, corruption and warmongering.

It is interesting to see that after being the “cause célèbre of international politics”, neoconservatives are now the frequent targets of ridicule and scorn. And deservedly so, especially considering what neoconservatism has devolved into. The Straussian and genuinely conservative elements of the political philosophy have been ripped out, replaced with vague appeals to liberal humanitarianism and cucking for globalist organisations like the UN and NATO. The caricature of neoconservatives wanting drag queens to be able to use gender-neutral bathrooms at McDonalds in Kabul has shown to be somewhat accurate. After all, neoconservatives exist to promote ‘Western values’ in foreign countries, so naturally what they will end up promoting is the current cultural orthodoxy of progressive leftism, intersectionality and social decadence. An orthodoxy I’m sure Middle Easterners are desperately clamouring for.

However, despite their dwindling ranks and watering down of the ideology, the essence of neoconservative foreign policy remains intact; they still think the world should look like the United States. Therefore, it is unsurprising to see neoconservatives calling for every country in the world to be a liberal democracy along with the American model, or for Western troops to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. Not only are these convictions still deeply held but are a direct expression of wanting American global hegemony to persist. On a deeper level, the recent pearl-clutching and whining from neoconservatives about the whole ordeal is simply a reflection of the anxiety that they now hold. Their ideas about what the world should look like have come collapsing before their eyes. And they can’t bear to face the fact that they were wrong.

This collapse has been occurring for some time and hopefully with the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and the recent moves amongst elements of the right and left to adopt a more non-interventionist approach to foreign policy, the collapse of neoconservatism will remain permanent. After all, the neoconservatives who backed President Joe Biden – thinking he would spell a revival in their views – have now had an egg thrown in their face. Biden has proven himself to not be aligned with neoconservative foreign policy views.

Despite his claims that ‘America was back’ and his past support of foreign interventionism, it is evident that Biden has no real ideological attachment to staying in Afghanistan. In turn, he seems to have found it relatively easy to pull out and then spout rhetoric that wouldn’t be uncommon to hear at a Ron Paul rally. He stood against nation-building, turning Afghanistan into a unified centralised democracy and rejected endless military deployments and wars as the main tool of US foreign policy. Biden, alongside President Donald Trump, has turned the tide of US foreign policy away from military interventionism and back towards diplomacy. A surprise to be sure, but a welcome one.

However, while the ‘War on Terror’ may firmly be at an end – the American state has worryingly turned its eyes towards a new ‘War on Domestic Terror’. A war that political scientist and terrorism expert Max Abrahams worries will be catastrophic for the United States, quoting Abrahams:

“The War on Terror destabilized regions abroad. It’ll destabilise our country all the same… We cannot crack down on people just because we don’t like their ideology…otherwise the government is going to turn into the thought police and that is going to spawn the next generation of terrorists.”

The neoconservatives may have lost the war on terror but the structures and policies they put in place to fight that war are now being used, and being used more effectively, against so-called ‘domestic terrorists’. The American regime’s tremble in the lip is so great that it now believes the real threat to its existence lies at home. While this ‘War on Domestic Terror’ is still in its early stages, it is clear that the neoconservative deep state’s toys of torture, mass surveillance and war are now being put to other uses. Only time will tell if it will have the same consequences in America as it did in the countries it once occupied.
With the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq; the continued rise of anti-interventionism on the right and left; and the memory of the failure of conflicts in the Middle East fresh in people’s memories, neoconservatism has been all but relegated to the ideological graveyard – its body left rot under the cold soil for eternity. A fitting fate.

“A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality” proclaimed the godfather of the ideology. But in the perusal of utopian imperial ambitions it has now suffered the same fate – neoconservatism has been mugged by reality. A reality it so desperately and violently tried to bring to heel. 

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Who Controls Europe’s Streets? The Migrant Riots of 2022-23 as a Glitch in the Matrix

“We were suddenly gifted people”, shrieked the German Green Party politician Katrin Göring-Eckardt in 2016. This happened at the annual gathering of the EKD, the German Lutheran protestant Church (after the Catholic Church, the second largest denomination in Germany) which has become an adjunct outlet of the Green Party. Shortly before that, the narrative of “all those great Syrian doctors“ was born.

However, nobody is talking about migrant doctors – or itinerant rocket scientists – these days. Instead, the Dutch and Belgian police were nervously biting their nails as they watched the games of the Moroccan soccer team during the 2022 World Cup.

If Morocco won, there would be riots – in Brussels, The Hague, Rotterdam and elsewhere. If Morocco lost, the outcome was much the same. The outcome of the games did not seem to matter all that much.

What did seem to matter to these future brain-surgeons (even in the third generation) was to show to their (not so) new home countries where their true loyalties lie and who controls the street.

In France, The Grinch that stole Christmas from French policemen arrived in the form of Kurdish rioters. Some lunatic, white Frenchman, had opened fire on visitors of a restaurant and culture center.

This resulted, of course, in riots – much as anger and grief about senseless violence is understandable, but why take it out on French society at large? It is not like Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey are doing a better job at keeping Kurds safe.

You thought all that would fulfill the allotted contingent of migrant rioting for a year? Enabling European cops to kick back the heavy boots, put their feet up, sip a Glühwein or a hot toddy? Not so fast.

Germany’s imported future nuclear physicist community was happy to oblige. This time, to their credit, they were not sexually assaulting women in their hundreds – as happened in 2015/16, just months after Angela Merkel had thrown open the borders.

Instead this year the “gifted people” had graduated to attacking ambulances, firemen and, of course, policemen. In one instance a Fire-engine was lured in an ambush, 25 masked thugs attacked the fire engine, the firemen had to retreat and part of the equipment was looted.

No, this is not Kabul or Mogadishu but Berlin, in the country formerly known as Germany.

If Germans had ever doubted subsidizing their public broadcasters with  8 billion Euros in compulsory fees) – this New Year’s Day the public broadcast delivered a stellar piece of hard hitting investigative journalism.

A gallant young reporter, the Berlin correspondent of the Tagesschau (the flagship of the public broadcaster’s news media) rode to the rescue – and twisted himself in an argumentative pretzel in order to avoid saying the obvious (i.e. who the rioters were).

Here is the transcript (link, fast forward to 2:42):

[Main newsreader]: “So, who are the perpetrators? What do we know to date?”

[Hapless, deer-caught-in-the-headlight-Berlin-correspondent Thomas Rostek]:

Talking of the perpetrators‘ is always a little bit difficult in such contexts [sic!]“.

As a matter of fact, the, uhm, The Union of German Policemen, has already, uhm, commented on this and said that these are group-dynamic processes, uhm, therefore in society as a whole there was meant to be this, uhm, great pressure, now on the occasion of 2 years of pandemic and now one is just, uhm, trying, uhm, uhm, exactly, that you can also easily obtain, pyrotechnics [meaning: fireworks, flares, fire crackers] then that this just, uhm, led to great problems. Correct.“

[Main newsreader, very serious]: “Thank you for the assessment. Thomas Rostek in Berlin“.

Wow, so this is the kind of eloquent, hard hitting journalism that you are getting for just 8 billion Euros annually. Also, do they no longer teach using conjunctions such as “because” or “therefore” in journalism schools? Either way – we are getting solid comedy gold:

Even the logic starved brain of a public broadcast journalist, could only take so much reality denial: His cerebral cortex switched into “I am outta here” modus.

Explaining away violence against firefighters by pointing at a pandemic and „group-dynamic processes and pressures from society at large“ (whatever that is supposed to be) would have been difficult even had he mastered the proper use of conjunctions.

Let’s ponder on the symbolism of this journalistic masterpiece: Since 2015 we have been dealing with a well-oiled world explanation machine. This machine has perfected papering over the increasing cracks between reality and publicly desired narratives. Alas, increasingly glitches are showing in the matrix.

Thought experiment – you have built a Hundertwasser (Google him!)styled airplane, that looks great but contradicts physical imperatives for flight (e.g. Bernoulli Principle and Newton’s laws) and thus cannot fly. Dealing with this collision between reality and wishful thinking can be done in a variety of ways:

Strategy No. 1 – Denial: “Nonsense, the plane can fly!”

Strategy No. 2 – Placation: “Ok, it can’t fly, but it is ‘not very helpful’ to say that, mmkaay?”

Strategy No. 3 – Not reporting or banning such unwanted news to page 30 of the newspaper

Strategy No. 4 – Adjusting the definition: “Ok, part of flying is rolling on the tarmac, and that has worked really well, so technically it has been flying, sort of.”

Strategy No. 5 – Attack at a personal level: “If you say one more time that this thing ain’t flying you are a terrible person, and you hate birds, and women, too.”

Strategy No. 6 – Glitch in the matrix/meltdown: If all papering-over measures are failing, one can always resort to pseudoscientific gobbledegook and say “uhm” a lot and have a good old fashioned meltdown.

Strategy No. 7 – Waiting for the news cycle, change the topic and use censorship: Recover from No. 6 meltdown by:

a) Hope the next news will make the viewers forget about the meltdown

b) Talking about “insurrections” (such as a bunch of German pensioners planning a coup with crossbows – yes I kid you not)

c) “Politicians, please help and give us new censorship laws.”

For this still young 2023 to be on the lookout for glitches in the matrix, they are occurring more frequently, as reality collides with the desired mainstream narratives more and more.

In the meantime even the notoriously unfunny public German broadcasters (same should apply to the BBC, CBC and NPR) are delivering comedy gems for eternity – enjoy! 

On a more serious note – this should go without saying – the aim of this article is not to blame entire communities for the acts of a minority. I have worked with plenty of young people from some of the countries of origin that seemed to have been disproportionately involved in the recent riots. I have found them to be very hard working, polite and highly polyglot. This is precisely why we should be having a debate about what has gone wrong.

Have we at times attracted the wrong subset from these countries? What about our vetting processes in the face of open borders? If we do not believe in ourselves as a country, why should they? If we do not enforce our own norms and laws – aren’t we bound to create communities stuck in a nihilist limbo?

Important questions that should be asked and discussed, but that are subject to the “Lala, nothing to see here”/ostrich treatment of the mainstream.

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Book Review: Return of the Strong Gods by R R Reno

One of the rare consolations of the Empire of Lies we’ve found ourselves in is occasionally encountering a sphere of truth. Such an event reassures us we’re not alone and that kindred spirits are still out there, patiently pushing back against the insanities of the age. One such spirit is the American Catholic author and editor of First Things magazine R.R Reno and his 2019 work Return of the Strong Gods.

Like contemporary efforts by Patrick Deneen and the Polish philosopher Ryzsard Legutko, Reno’s is a book which illuminates the errors of the age. It’s a work which neither succumbs to the easy evasions of the left nor to the vulgarity found on farther reaches of the right. Ultimately, it’s a book that rejects the notion that the post-war era has been the best of all Panglossian worlds.

Divided into five sections and written in simple yet succinct prose, the overarching theme is that the West has lost its way in an abyss of openness: that sine qua non of the present day. Opening at the Second World War and surveying the post-war era, Reno traces our failings back to Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the promise that ‘never again’ would we bear witness to such horrors.     

In light of such an overwhelming imperative, a rhetorical and practical pursuit of openness was initiated in what Reno dubs the “postwar consensus”. A stance which involved the marginalisation at best – and outright illegality at worst – of the noxious -isms that led us to 1914-1945. Nationalism, militarism and anti-Semitism were what caused our horrors, they were thus to be expunged from the public square.

Put simply, such ‘strong gods’ were too dangerous: they had to be banished from the realm. Yet precisely who these deities are, and what they mean in practice, is rendered by Reno deliberately vague. In essence, they’re the deeper – and often darker – parts of the soul such as pride, envy and a ‘love of one’s own’.

Yet Reno does provide us with a rough definition. As he states, the strong gods “are the objects of men’s love and devotion, the sources of the passions and loyalties that unites societies” – ”Truth is a strong god” as are “King and country.” Not all strong gods are malignant, however: they can just as well “be beneficent.” Still, the chief lesson of the twentieth century was that the strong gods of “militarism, fascism, communism, racism, and anti-Semitism” overwhelmingly “brought ruin.”

To this end, the Western post-war consensus, led by the United States, was to prioritise cultural weakening in the form of a near-unlimited openness. Out were truth, certainty and exclusivity; in were relativism, doubt and diversity. If these trends were ever queried, one only needed reminding of 1945 and was soon brought to heel. The post-war consensus – and its Manichean framing: either ‘openness or Auschwitz’ – was thus brought into being.

A stance that Reno then proceeds to illuminate, beginning with ‘the open society’. A notion coined by the author of the movement’s most emblematic and eponymous work, Austrian philosopher Karl Popper and his two-volume Open Society and Its Enemies. A book which was written in obscurity in New Zealand during the Second World War and in which Popper attacks Plato, Hegel and other giants of the tradition before coming down on the side of openness.

As Reno remarks, for Popper ‘our civilisation faces a choice.’ We “can live in a tribal or ‘closed society’or we can break free from this ‘collectivist’ impulse and build an ‘open society’”, one that ‘sets free the critical powers of man.’ And as Popper argued at the time, our future depended on choosing the latter: something we’ve dutifully done and which has set in train the decline that’s since followed.

The rest of the book is then an exploration of this one key theme; with Popper’s socio-cultural openness soon echoed on the economic plane by compatriot Friedrich Hayek: he of Road to Serfdom fame. Thus in a strange symmetry, the West ends up with two Austrian emigres erecting the twin pillars of its post-war world: the Popperian commitment to cultural openness and the Hayekian imperative of free markets.

As Reno remarks, these two men were “united by a commitment to individual freedom and a desire to prevent the return of authoritarianism.” A notion that encapsulates the last eighty-odd years as well as any other and that’s been reinforced through organisations like the Mont Pelerin Society, which Popper and Hayek were founding members, and through Popper’s most famous student, and current bete noir of the right, George Soros: he of his own Open Society fame.

Once established, then, the open-society framework of free markets, multiculturalism and the neutering of metaphysics – “The open society must be anti-metaphysical” – comes to characterise the West. A stance Reno then explores in an impressive overview of the major philosophical figures of the era. After Popper and Hayek, come the Americans Milton Friedman and William F Buckley; followed by a return to the German-speaking giants of earlier in the century, Sigmund Freud and Max Weber; before ending with the Francophone philosophers of the latter part of our era, namely: Albert Camus, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. 

Yet it’s Weber and his notion of the disenchantment of the world – i.e. the scientific erasure of the supernatural – that helps further explain our malaise. As Reno observes, Popper, following Weber, wants to rid us of the metaphysical. For as Reno adds, it’s been imperative to eliminate “the vestiges of sacred authority that blinker men’s reason”. A stance that many of us have come to believe is benign, yet it’s a trend which Reno intimates is ultimately suicidal as it “drains away the substance of Western Civilization’s beliefs in robust metaphysical truths.” That is, it erodes the religious substrate that has enabled us to flourish.

A posture that has been implemented practically by what Reno dubs our ‘therapies of disenchantment’. As although erasing the sacred is ultimately futile quest, our need for metaphysics can be tamped down by the political order. Something that has been done by “relativizing” such notions, by “putting them in their historical contexts” and “critiquing their xenophobic, patriarchal, cisgender, and racist legacies”.

From this, the cultural imperatives then follow: we must “celebrate diversity”, “cultivate transgression” and “problematize” our traditional ties. A stance accomplished by our elite as they “drive old loyalties to the margins of respectability, and otherwise advance the cause of an open society and open minds.”

This metaphysical poverty, allied with the imperative of openness and the eviscerating force of the free-market, have led us to the current impasse. One witnessed in the apparently inchoate actions of voters in their support for non-establishment actors like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. That is, in their clamouring for figures brave enough to enunciate the failures of the liberal order and able to address them.  

Something evident in what Reno calls the Homeless Society. One which is a natural reaction to the “embattled postwar consensus” and a “rebellion against the dogmas of openness”. As in opposition to the issues of 1945, we no longer face the same problems. Indeed, what ails us now is the direct opposite of that time.

Our issues revolve around an all-pervasive anomie. We are a culture that’s “imperilled by a spiritual vacuum and the apathy it brings”. A society that’s “politically inert, winnowed down to technocratic management of private utilities and personal freedoms”. Our main danger is thus one of “a dissolving society; not a closed one; the therapeutic society, not the authoritarian one.

A stance Reno expands upon as he notes the economic, cultural and demographic disasters that have arisen under the aegis of openness. A failure that has been overseen by what can only be described as an utterly inept and unpatriotic elite – or as Reno puts it, our Leaders without Loyalty. Indeed, the book can be read as one of the best indictments of our elites yet seen.

Simply put, our elites are hypocrites. They insist on ‘openness for thee, but not for me’ as they insulate themselves from the baleful effects of their dogma. As Reno notes: “For all their talk of an open economy and open society, those in the upper echelons of our society work very hard to protect [themselves and] their children”. They…choose homes in neighborhoods with goods schools” and condemn “traditional norms as authoritarian, but… keep their [own] marriages together.” Ultimately, “they shelter themselves and those whom they love” from the destructive effects of openness as they praise its putative virtues publicly.    

Given this hypocrisy, and the other failings of the liberal order, the post-war consensus is straining under the weight of its contradictions. It’s a case of ‘what can’t go on, won’t go on’ – and the current settings can’t go on much longer. Indeed, the anti-naturalness of the post-war project was inherent from the outset, but only now are the fissures impossible to ignore.

As such, we move back to the beginning: to the ‘return of the strong gods’. A notion that is not only the book’s title, but which was also an inevitable result of the liberal order. As despite the well-intentioned commitment to openness and the promise of ‘never again’, the post-war concord was always doomed to fail.

This is so as it doesn’t accord with underlying nature. For as many have come to realise, the liberal order is one big affect. Although largely peaceful and prosperous, the post-war consensus fails to fulfil a multitude of human needs. Socially, it’s a regime that doesn’t recognise the darker elements of the soul, like parochialism and ‘a love of one’s own’; not does it address the practicalities of life in a political community: such as a sense of belonging, a common culture and the stability we innately seek. While economically, the Hayekian imperative of unencumbered markets has left us as financially precarious as we are socially: afflicted by the dilemmas of the ‘double-dose’ liberalism to which many now allude, and that writers like Christopher Lasch and John Gray explicitly warned.

Which is why Reno finishes the book seeking an end to the ‘long twentieth century’ and a return to the politics of ‘shared love’. Our order failed as it rendered us homeless: lost in a sea of apathy with no place to call our own. As in spite of the left-liberals who treat our crisis “as an illusion” – with Trump and Farage mere manifestations of an aberrant electorate – Reno treats their rise as the logical result of the errors innate to the liberal order.

The mere fact of ‘populism’, then, is not an epiphenomenon of short-term economic or social angst; but of deeper and entirely legitimate “questions about national identity, immigration and foreign policy, all of which cast doubt on the legitimacy of the established leadership class in the West.”

As in advancing openness, our elite has eroded the solidarity we seek. As under our technocratic ethos, vast swathes of the human experience is marked verboten and placed outside the frame of debate. As Reno remarks, our elite “is so thoroughly blinded by the postwar consensus” it neglects “the actual problems we face – atomization, dissolving communal bonds, disintegrating family ties, and a nihilistic culture of limitless self-definition.”

We thus need to return to the strong gods: of love, solidarity and genuine community. It requires our leaders “to ask question they have been trained to supress”. It needs them to realise that, as the philosopher Leo Strauss observed – in direct opposition to Popper – that ‘the society by nature is the closed society’. A notion to which Reno alludes when he references that well-known saw about human nature: that “blood is thicker than water.”

Which in essence is all that is wrong with the post-war order and why it’s now falling apart. As although the initial desire to prevent future holocausts, gulags and atomic explosions was clearly laudable, these events did not to change human nature. That is, a nature which still seeks solidarity and a sense of the sacred; one that sees our “private interest as part of a larger whole”; one with a “love of our land, our history, our founding myths, our warriors and heroes”. Simply put, we need a renewed patriotism: we need ‘to renew the “we”’.

There is thus very little to critique in Reno’s work. Being an avowed Catholic, his remedies tend towards the Christian, which may rankle the less religious, yet he wears his religion lightly and the book is never in danger of dogmatism. There is an argument to be made, however, that by anchoring the book to the motif of socio-cultural openness, other factors, like the importance of economics – and the centrality of economic growth to the post-war era- are not given the import they deserve. There is also an incongruous attempt to smuggle in some American-style civic nationalism that is understandable even though it’s completely contradictory to the spirit of the work.Nevertheless, this is a highly commendable work. Like Deenen’s and Legutko’s, it’s one of few recent books that drives to the heart of our malaise and that honestly elucidates the errors of our age.

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