This lively volume follows the development of right-wing thought in Britain between the beginning of the premiership of Labour’s Keir Starmer and the end of the presidency of Mark Hall of the United Party.
Richard Cruston, Professor of Political Theory at Trinity College, Cambridge, is a learned scholar who has written biographies of Edmund Burke, Roger Scruton and Jacob Rees Mogg. His deep knowledge of ideas and personalities were clearly essential in developing this book.
His story begins with the astonishing electoral failure of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in 2024 — ending almost fourteen years of more or less unrivalled Conservative success. In exile, the Conservatives found themselves fragmented, both politically, with the Johnson loyalists in a fiery campaign to make the unenthusiastic former Mayor of London and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Leader of the Conservative Party, and ideologically, with “post-liberals”, “national conservatives” and “classical liberals” vying for influence.
If conservative ideas mattered at all, it was in their influence on the Labour government. Professor Cruston is an authority on the development of post-liberalism — a communitarian trend which earned support in the wake of the 2028 London riots — which spread from the capital across provincial England — as its emphasis on order and localism chimed with the state’s management of societal division. Cruston suggests that there might have been the faint whiff of opportunism in the combination of communitarian rhetoric and neo-authoritarian security measures — with more of an emphasis on “community hubs” and “peace enforcement” than on family and faith — but it was politically successful.
The 2030 blackouts were considered the beginning of the end for the Labour government. Prime Minister Meera Devi won the 2032 elections on a platform that some commentators called “neo-Thatcherite” — promising economic liberalisation, energy reform and closer links with what became known as “the younger powers”. Professor Cruston disapproves of what he describes “the fetishisation of the market” — though he doesn’t say where the power was meant to come from.
Devi’s government placed significant emphasis on character and individual responsibility. “Disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and important,” she was fond of saying, quoting Britain’s first female prime minister, “Is the high road to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction.” Regrettably, her time in power was dogged by scandal, with ministers being accused of cocaine addiction, using prostitutes, doing cocaine with prostitutes and being addicted to doing cocaine off prostitutes.
Ashley Jones’ Labour premiership offered conservatives a chance to regroup. Had they forgotten the ends of politics as well as the means? Were they too focused on economics and not culture? Cruston is informative on the subject of the traditionalist “Lofftism” which flourished in the late 2030s, only being interrupted by the “Summer of Crises” which finally led to the United Party taking power in March 2039.
Conservative thought flourished in the early years of the 2040s, with generous funding being invested in private schools, universities, think tanks and private clubs. Here — if you were fortunate enough to be invited — you could hear about great right-wing minds from Hayek to Oakeshott, and from Kruger to Hannan. It was a time of intellectual combat but also intellectual collegiality. Millian liberals could debate Burkean conservative and yet remain friends. You could say anything, some intellectuals joked, as long as you didn’t influence policy.
With the unexpected departure of President Hall on the “New Horizons” flight the future of British conservatism looks mysterious. Professor Cruston counsels that we return to Burke — a voice that spoke in a time of similarly great upheaval. Perhaps we should heed his words.
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By Philip Diaz-Lewis — 8 months ago
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.
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By Derek Turner — 2 months ago
In 2014, speaking via Skype to a conference held at the Vatican, Donald Trump’s later advisor, Steve Bannon, casually mentioned Julius Evola (1898-1974), a thinker little known outside Italy, and who even within Italy was conventionally dismissed as a former Fascist whose writings still exerted a pernicious influence on the ’far right’. When that comment was unearthed by the US media in 2016, it sparked a furore amongst those desperate to discredit Trump as a danger to democracy. It also drew mainstream attention to a strange and possibly wide-reaching philosophy.
Evola’s Fascist sympathies went much deeper than anti-communist or nationalist sentiment, being rooted at least partly in a colourful and irrational worldview referred to by some authors (although not Evola) as ‘Traditionalism’. Through him, Bannon, and so by extension Trump, were potentially ‘linked’ to much broader intellectual currents, with connections across everything from the abstractest metaphysics to the earthiest ecologism.
There existed, obscure but important scholars had long argued, a mystical ‘perennial philosophy’ of transcendent religiosity and social stratification that was simultaneously as ancient as origin myths and applicable to modern discontents. Over the centuries, this concept has attracted intellectuals as diverse as the 15th century humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Brave New World author Aldous Huxley. Other than Evola, its best-known and most systematic modern exponents were two metaphysicians, the Frenchman René Guénon (1886-1951), and the Swiss Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), who issued writings and launched initiatives that channeled underlying cultural gloom, and still resonate powerfully. Like Evola, Guénon did not use the term Traditionalism, but his writings are regarded as key texts.
As well as Bannon, ‘Traditionalist’ sympathies of some kind were avowed by, or detectable in, influencers outside America – Hungarian politician Gábor Vona, the Russian ideologue Aleksandr Dugin (whom Bannon met in 2018, and who was supposedly an influence on Putin), and the Brazilian writer, Olavo de Carvalho, credited with helping Jair Bolsonaro win the presidency in 2019. Beyond politics, the connections were even more diffuse, with well-known academics, artists and even King Charles III (when Prince of Wales), articulating Traditionalist tropes to combat anomie and materialism, and promote organic agriculture, small-scale economics, traditional arts, and interfaith dialogue. But did all these different things have anything in common other than root-and-branch discontent with a drably dispiriting status quo? What possible relevance could Traditionalists’ distaste for democracy, and even politics, have for determinedly populist politicians?
This is a long-standing area of interest for Oxford-educated Arabist, Mark Sedgwick, now professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at Aarhus University. His 2003 book, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, was the first to draw mainstream attention to Evola, Guénon, Schuon, and others dubbed or self-described as Traditionalists. He brings to this discussion special insight into Islamic influences on Traditionalism, from the inner ecstasies of Sufism to the academically distinguished elucubrations of the contemporary Iranian-American theologian, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Along the way, he treats ably and interestingly of many subjects, from Hindu ideas about caste via 17th century theories of history to the trajectory of Western feminism, and analyses the influence of Jordan Peterson, whom he regards as a Traditionalist for the internet age.
Traditionalism is a catch-all sort of term, and its outcomes are so diverse it is difficult to discern much consistency at all. Had it not been for Bannon’s remark, it is hard to imagine many even noticing Traditionalism existed. Conceptual complexity could help account for Traditionalism’s apparent ascent; as the author notes, “That which is not easy to understand is not easy to deny”. Sedgwick also suggests that Guénon’s theories may be fundamentally flawed because based on early 20th century understandings of ‘the East’ which are now regarded as too colourful and generic, even condescendingly ‘Orientalist’. Evola’s more dynamic and Western-oriented variant is likewise a product of its time, suffused with Nietzschean contempt for Christianity, and the epochal pessimism of thinkers like Oswald Spengler (even though he criticized both). Sedgwick nevertheless treats it as a coherent corpus of thought, with much relevance for today.
The central element of all variants of Traditionalism is ‘perennialism’ – the notion that beneath all the exoteric differences of world religions there is a unifying ‘sacred order’ understood only by the deepest thinkers, although hazily intuitable by the masses, if only they can be detached from the trammels of modernity. This is not just a tradition, but the Tradition that unlocks all cosmologies, and renders the most impassioned theological and political disputes not just superficial, but almost risible. Traditionalist writings are predictably esoteric, aimed solely at a supposedly more spiritually attuned elite.
Traditionalists tend to be greatly interested in such things as hermetic philosophy, occultism, shamanism, and symbolism, and believe strongly in what the ethnomusicologist Benjamin R. Teitelbaum called “spiritual mobility” (see his 2020 book, War for Eternity). They regard 21st century preoccupations like equality, gender politics, individualism, material progress, and technology as mere aspects of modernity, harmful or simply inconsequential.
The second ingredient is a belief in cosmic circularity, as opposed to the ideas of inevitable linearity inherent in mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and so throughout modern politics. The world, in this reading, goes through ‘ages’ of decline that can be followed by renewal. An original golden age of unity and quality is ineluctably succeeded by silver, bronze and ultimately dark ages of increasingly mechanistic reductionism – what Guénon memorably called the “age of quantity” – after which the cosmic wheel turns back to the start.
‘Golden Age’ thinking is common to many civilizations, but there are especially close parallels with the four ages (Yugas) of Hinduism, with ‘Kali Yuga’ (the last, sin-filled age of conflict) a shorthand term for today among ‘Aryan’-interested Rightists. This process is almost irrespective of politics, although some theorists see an expeditious role for ‘disruptors’. Evola saw Fascism as a means of reconstituting the Roman Empire, and Bannon saw (and perhaps still sees) Trump as a kind of creative destroyer of consensus, but politics has been a lower priority for other Traditionalists, who concentrated instead on transformation through self-realization.
It may easily be imagined that Traditionalists are prone to eccentricity; for instance, Evola believed that ‘Aryans’ were descended from an ethereal Arctic race which had decayed as they came south. In the 1980s, a writer calling herself “Alice Lucy Trent” officiated in County Donegal over a small community called the Silver Sisterhood, which worshipped a female deity, sported Victorian clothing, and refused to use electricity. Trent later changed her name to “Miss Martindale”, and moved to Oxford, to found a movement called Aristasia in a modest terraced house, where ambiguous persons wearing dresses and veils would hold ultra-reactionary court in a candle-lit, gramophone-sounding interior, and be seen driving around town majestically in a 1950s car. It was part-pantomime, part-serious critique, at once amusing and interesting.
Sedgwick rues some Rightists’ co-option of some parts of Traditionalism. Indeed, perennialism can be hard to square with ideas about a “clash of civilizations”, or immigration, or belief in physical racial differences (which even Evola downplayed). He nevertheless examines their thinking with commendable fairness. He differentiates between genuinely traditional teachings about religion and society, which really can be millennia old, and 1920s-to-present-day attempts to turn some of these teachings into realities. For Sedgwick, whatever about the youthful Evola, by his late period he had become a “non-traditional Traditionalist”, and the Evolan phraseology deployed by some on today’s radical Right is therefore mostly “post-Traditionalism”.
But logical consistency matters little in politics, even metapolitics. Traditionalism may persist as a presence on the Right, if sometimes more symbolically than as substance. Traditionalists’ emphasis on arcane knowledge is intrinsically appealing to some who aspire to be elite leaders. There are also similarities in outlooks and temperaments between Traditionalists and some Rightists – shared perspectives on the manifold problems of modernity, shared detestation of bleak materialism, and shared love of grand and sweeping narratives. As the once world-bestriding West shivers in winnowing new winds, and mainstream conservatism flounders, the epic appeal of a mythical past (and implied enchanted future) seems likely to grow. Sedgwick’s second book on this too long neglected theme makes another significant contribution to what may be an expanding as well as evolving field.
Book Details: Mark Sedgwick, London: Pelican, 2023, hb., 410pps., £25
My thanks to John Morgan for invaluable input on this article.
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By Wyck — 9 months ago
Deep, and yet deeper down, below the marsh slime and the swamp rot, even underneath poppy roots and the granite rows, Old England’s Foundations lie. While thinned and turned soils are cold and damp, the fiery Mantle warms and pulses, twisting round and circling on itself; the Core sees into itself and ponders on its shadows; to reach out into the cold and dark, hope perchance to find new wheels to turn, or perhaps not. Content, in the underworld, dreaming of the pictures of its marble face, Old England’s Foundations are buried the deepest, overwritten by thin and beaten sheets of plaster and tissue paper.
Yet, this is a fantasy: circumstantial myths of Old England, and its Foundations. Those marshes were sealed, and the swamps became roads, and the shapes and the names of the trees do not matter anymore. Accumulated plays turned in on themselves and became a meaningless fresco; the hand-me-down uniform, hoarded in poverty, with no weavers to craft anew. That Core is no form but a feeling, fleeting and shallow, giving only the image of warmth. Gawp at the statues and the towers and the gold on the wall. They were never yours.
Intermission, The Alchemists’ Folly:
Higher, and yet higher so, far reaching beyond the sea and above the clouds, up and up Nature’s Ladder, climbs a Champion. For all its power and glory. He soon received the ravenous attention of The Crow, the most cunning of all the birds. It said: “I have seen many climb, and their plans dissolved away, but wear my feather, and sing my song, and Nature’s sure to play”. The Crow put a feather on The Champion’s shoulder, and The Champion cawed until he had near reached the clouds. He looked down to measure his climb, and one cheek was slashed by The Crow’s feather; he saw many other smaller birds with more beautiful sounds and colours than The Crow, hiding fearfully away in their nests.
Higher and higher, between the feathers and the stars, up The Ladder, climbed The Champion. The clouds from below were sunlit pillars in the sky yet seemed smoke and fog inside. At once, the guiding stars were blotted out, and The Champion was frozen in the dark. He begged it clear, and The Cloud said: “Truly, Nature loves to hide, and seems at first a chaos sight, but learn its ways, obey and pay, by water’s path will light”. The Champion’s waterskin was plucked by a gale, and The Cloud gave in credit due a magic hailstone, and it magnified the light of the stars. His fingers were cold and heavy, his water was lost, and the constellations seemed more twisted than ever before; but, with the dim path seen by magic divined, The Champion waged on.
An earthquake struck, and The Ladder path fell; weathered wood, by many footsteps heeled, shattered with the turning of a generation. His bearing steers all amiss under the dizzying constellations, for the old way is no more; and The Champion loses their footing, curses the folly, and plummets into brine under the bottommost rungs; championing, no more. The Fool who works with wood and nail, at the bottom of The Ladder, did not build houses that day, for another ladder was built by him; and The Fool then propped it, already to seize the opportunity, to climb the path again. But The Cloud and The Crow remain in their Nature, as they wait between the salt and the stars.
Hailing practice and ritual, making nothing new, and the new, ugly; what comes from a fool’s history? Yesterday’s legislation becomes today’s tradition, and old and common habits are preserved by kitsch committee. To justify what happened, because it happened, accounting to stacked sediments of past scoresheets? If that is good, then good is evil; bored eyes make nothing beautiful around our empty hands, so we make eternities of nothing, and are compassed about by our enduring appetites. With Nature as your sentimental measure, you pay tribute to accidental shadows on the wall. Where is The True, The Good, The Beautiful? God have mercy on your windswept souls.
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