Philip Diaz-Lewis

Richard Weaver: A Platonist in the Machine Age

“Modern man is a moral idiot.” – Richard M. Weaver. 1948. Ideas Have Consequences. 

The American cultural critic Richard Weaver (1910-1963) is unfortunately an obscure figure. However, I can’t conceive a thinker whose message would be of greater interest or novelty for the contemporary world. Weaver bewails the decadence and hopelessness of the twentieth century as much as Oswald Spengler or Jose Ortega y Gasset. Yet his account of their causes is far more philosophical: his explanation of the “dissolution of the west” is that it has abandoned its classical heritage.   

For Weaver was a latter-day High Tory. A Platonist who thought ancient Greek mores were still alive among folk in the rural American south (his first work was on this very topic, see: The Southern Tradition at Bay). Already an oddity in the 1930s, he was the sort of conservative that has barely existed in the mainstream Anglophone world since the nineteenth century.

Weaver’s great work is Ideas Have Consequences, from 1948. It carries a single thesis from beginning to end. Europe’s mental decadence began at the close of the Middle Ages. It was then that the English churchman William of Ockham decided to abandon a doctrine almost universally held before him. A doctrine common to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. A doctrine believed by Catholics, Jews, Orthodox, and pagans. This doctrine is realism

This is my partial review and partial meditation on Weaver. His prose is vast, so I can only chew over a selection of what it covers. I shall focus on three issues which stand out to me: fragmentation, the spoiled child psychology, and what Weaver calls the “great stereopticon”. 

Realism is the view that abstract entities exist. For example, if I see the sun, a basketball, and a balloon, and call these all “spheres”, that word “sphere” refers to something separate from my mind. When I say, “All these things are spherical”, that term “spherical” describes a real feature of how the world truly is.  

It was the widespread opinion of ancient and medieval people that such concepts as “redness”, “roundness”, “catness” and “humanity” were the basic building blocks of reality. These were the patterns that individual things conformed to, to make them what they are. Each one acts like the blueprint for a building. In the same way a pile of bricks isn’t a dome unless it has roundness, a pile of bones and organs isn’t a dog unless it has “dogness”. That is, unless it conforms to the pattern of an idealised dog.

Realism then allows for nature to have a sort of duty inherent to it. For, if to be a dog is to conform to the pattern of an ideal dog, then this pattern is what dogs should be. A dog that doesn’t eat meat, doesn’t play fetch, and doesn’t wag his tail fails to be a proper dog; and so, we call it a “bad” dog. Likewise, to be human is to embody the ideal pattern of “humanity”. Good people embody it better, and bad people embody it less. 

This means morality is a simple movement from how we are to how we ought to be if we fulfilled our ideal. Beings come into the world imperfect. They only arrive at their proper pattern through hard training and discipline. Moral rules like “don’t steal” and “don’t lie” are guides to help us get from one point to the other by telling us what being an ideal human consists of. Just like “eat meat”, “play fetch” and “wag your tail”, are commands telling the dog how to be a proper dog. This understanding is what, for example, informs Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius insists that the good man is virtuous regardless of what others do or say to him. Because his goodness consists of fulfilling an ideal pattern of conduct, which doesn’t change with the words or actions of others.  

What if we deny all this though? What if, like William of Ockham, we declare this all superstition, and say general terms only refer to our own thoughts? This would make us nominalists, a word derived from the Latin nomen meaning “name”. We’d be saying abstract terms are mere names in the mind; conventions for grouping things together, which truly have nothing in common. This is where Weaver is true to his name and weaves us the consequences. 

First, nature goes from how things should be to how things just are. Without ideals for things to aspire to, it becomes impossible to talk of imperfection. If there’s no ideal dog, for example, then there’s no such thing as a deficient dog. Dogs come in many shapes and sizes, some eat meat and live to fourteen, others never eat, and they die at one. But all are equally natural and morally neutral.

Applied to people, this causes the death of virtue. For, without an ideal human personality type, all our instincts, inclinations and desires also become morally neutral. Nature produces some people with an extreme hunger, and others with almost none. The human mind and body go from something that must be cultivated to meet an ideal, to a machine that runs on automatic. Passions just happen and calling them flawed now seems ridiculous. Weaver writes, “If physical nature is the totality and if man is of nature, it is impossible to think of him as suffering from constitutional evil”.

Fragmentation results from the loss of an ideal to hold knowledge together. For, where the ideal concept of a thing is lost, there’s no one principle to explain its parts. The blueprint of a house, once in my mind, makes everything about it understandable at a glance. But without the blueprint, the atrium, room, and corridor lose all meaning (imagine explaining what a corridor is to someone without any notion of a house and what it should look like). Since, from the realist perspective, the ideal is what determines knowledge, the long-term consequence cannot be but the elimination of truth. 

As Weaver then says, modern man, “Having been told by the relativists that he cannot have truth, (…) now has “facts.”” Gentlemen of the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, he notes, had a broad humanistic knowledge. They had it because they were schooled in a classical worldview. The gentleman of Ancien Regime Europe sought not pedantic obsession, but to know how ideals relate to each other. So he was like an architect, having the whole plan of the building before him. He could then inform the more expert workmen how best to make this plan a reality. 

 The gentleman has been gradually replaced by the specialised technocrat as the ruler of western societies. Every field (biology, economics, architecture, etc.) becomes isolated from the rest, and presents itself as the unique solution to all problems. Those who practice them, the technocrats, are each busy making the world in the image of their chosen subjects. The technocrat asks neither why, nor wherefore, but only how. This is, for Weaver, the “substitution of means for ends”. Since, having lost the plan which gives purpose to learning, the tool now becomes the aim. Statecraft becomes a competition between obsessives, who each advance only their own segregated hobbies because they no longer serve human nature. 

Modern man is a “spoiled child” according to Weaver. The path to this is indirect, but obvious when seen. Once ideals are denied, everything that seems fixed and permanent becomes liquid. The cosmos is a machine which we can take apart and reassemble to our own fancy. A cat, for example, isn’t a natural type which ought to have four legs, meow, eat meat, etc. It’s a pile of flesh and bones just so arranged into cat-like shape. We can therefore change it as we see fit. And since humans ourselves have no ideal pattern to conform to, what we see fit is anything whatsoever. This is what Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, sets out to do when he says nature should “be put on the rack”, for our benefit.

Our own goodness, in other words, has come apart from any natural limit. This means goodness is now limitless pleasure (pleasure being the only thing remaining when all purpose is removed from nature). So, man becomes a “spoiled child” because he demands the fabric of reality itself be bent to his delight. Science goes from the quest for wisdom to the slave of indulgence. Progress now means destroying whatever stands in the way of comfort and convenience. The masses get used to thinking of nature not as what exists, but as an enemy that must be overcome. Rights without duties are the inevitable result. 

Here Weaver, the abstract metaphysician, makes a practical point. The spoiled child endlessly consumes, because he sees no limit to his pleasure, and appetites grow with the feeding. Yet production means enduring discomfort for the sake of an end, and hedonists are averse to this. The hardest worker is the person who believes work improves him; the one who thinks the human ideal is fulfilled by work. But “The more [modern man] is spoiled, the more he resents control, and thus he actually defeats the measures which would make possible a greater consumption”. 

Nominalism is the philosophy of consumption, but realism is the philosophy of production. A nominalist culture thus runs the risk of collapse through idleness. 

A stereopticon, or stereoscope, is an old-fashioned machine used to look at three-dimensional stereoscopic images; the ancestor of 3D glasses. Weaver likens mass media in nominalist societies to a stereopticon because its aim is to maintain an illusion. For, Weaver thinks, the above modern project of specialisation, hedonism, and progress at all costs is fated to fail. If ideal concepts truly exist outside the mind, then all attempts to ignore them will end badly. They shall re-assert themselves at every attempt to destroy them, and thwart whatever projects are built on their denial.

As the ideal drops out, society fragments into myriad groups with incompatible perspectives. Like the blind men in the Buddhist proverb, each one touches the elephant and calls it a different animal. The biologist, the head of a social club, the accountant, and engineer; each fails to see the higher truth that unites his vision with the rest. Modern states face, then, the problem of getting these specialised obsessives to agree to a common action or set of beliefs. Thus, it presses mass media for this purpose. Radio, cinema, and television spin a narrative where endless consumption makes people happy, and progress is irresistible and unrelenting. Journalists and directors adopt a single “unvarying answer” to the meaning of life: pleasure, aided by technology and consumption. 

Weaver believes the effect is to re-create Plato’s cave through media. The prisoners, chained in a cave, are forced to watch the parade before them: vapid film stars, gung-ho newsreels, advertisements for cars and coffee makers. They are spiritually and mentally starved yet believe the cure to their trouble is the shallow, materialistic life portrayed on the cave wall. This is not grand conspiracy according to Weaver. Rather, a society with such bloodless aspirations is forced to use propaganda. The unhappiness it causes would otherwise be too obvious for people to bear: “They [media] are protecting a materialist civilization growing more insecure and panicky as awareness filters through that it is over an abyss.”

Such a propagandised civilisation, our author warns, will suffer cyclic authoritarian spasms. Conditioned to think progress is relentless, modern man “… is being prepared for that disillusionment and resentment which lay behind the mass psychosis of fascism.” Long gone are the gentlemen who could move us from how we are, to how we ought to be, if we fulfilled our ideal. When the stereopticon fails, the public looks to anybody who can impose duties on them. These tend to be thugs fed on the same materialism as everyone else. 

In conclusion, Weaver paints a picture of a culture undergoing a long, agonising death, yet clinging to the fantasy of its own life. Societies whose false idols are failing cope like a balding man whose hairs retreat ever more. He compensates with a combover until there’s nothing left to comb. Nominalism creates a contradictory culture. Glorifying pleasure, it expects heroism. Fragmenting the sciences, it expects wisdom. Destroying a common ideal, it expects its citizens to form a common front. 

The treatment is polemical, and not a replacement for reading philosophers themselves. As a Platonist, Weaver unnecessarily denigrates Aristotle at times, blaming him for the decline of the medieval worldview. Yet some authors of similar politics to Weaver (like Heinrich Rommen or Edward Feser) would dispute this. He also glosses over Enlightenment projects like those of Rousseau and Kant without much analysis (Charles N. R. McCoy criticises them in much more satisfying detail). But for one wanting an overview of how a single wrong turn can doom a whole culture, Weaver’s clarity is unparalleled. His work is especially good as a locus classicus, with which to compare current trends against. Seldom, in my reading, do I find Weaver has nothing to say on a given topic.

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Immaturity as Slavery

“… but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a world of secondhand, childish banalities.” – Sir Alec Guinness, A Positively Final Appearance. 

The opening quote comes from a part of Alec Guinness’ 1999 autobiography which greatly amuses me. The actor of Obi Wan Kenobi is confronted by a twelve-year-old boy in San Francisco, who tells him of his obsessive love for Star Wars. Guinness asks if he could do the favour of “promising to never see Star Wars again?”. The lad cries, and his indignant mother drags him away. Guinness ends with the above thought. He hopes the boy is weaned from Star Wars before adulthood, lest he become a pitiful specimen. 

Here enters the figure of the twenty-first century man-child, alias the “kidult”. He’s been on the radar for a while. Social critic Neil Postman prophesies the coming of “adult-children” in The Disappearance of Childhood from 1982. American journalist Joseph Epstein calls this same creature “The Perpetual Adolescent” in a 2004 article of the same name. But the best summary of this character I’ve yet found is by the writer Jacopo Bernardini, from 2014, to which I can add but little.

The kidult is one who lives his life as an eternal present. As the name suggests, his life is a sort of permanent adolescence. He is sceptical of traditional definitions of adulthood, so has deliberately shunned milestones like marriage and childbearing, in favour of an unattached lifestyle which lasts indefinitely. His relations with other people remain short and shallow; based entirely on fun and mutual use (close friendships or passionate love-affairs are not for him).  

Most importantly, the kidult doesn’t change his tastes or buying habits with age. The thresholds of adolescence and maturity have no bearing on the things he likes and purchases, nor how he relates to these things. Not only does he like the same toys and cartoons at thirty as he did at ten, but he continues to obsess over them and impulsively buy them like when he was ten. Enjoying childhood fare isn’t a playful interlude, but a way of life which never ends. He consumes through instant gratification, paying no thought to any long-term pattern or goal.

Although it must not strike the reader as obvious, I think there exists a link between Guinness’ “secondhand, childish banalities” and a kind of latter-day slavery. To see the link needs some prep work, but once laid, I think the reader will see my point. 

First to define servility. I believe the conservative writer Hilaire Belloc gave the best definition, and I shall freely paraphrase him. The great mass of people can be restricted yet not servile. Both monopolistic capitalism and socialism reduce workers to dependency, but neither makes them entirely slaves. Under capitalism, society retains an ideal of freedom, enshrined in law. Even as monopolists manipulate the law with their money, the ideal remains. Under socialism, state ownership is supposed to give all citizens leisure to do what they want (even as the state strangles them). In either case then, freedom is present as an ideal in theory even as it ceases to exist in practice. Monopolistic and socialist states don’t think of themselves as unfree.  

Slavery is different. A slave society has relinquished even the pretence of freedom for a large mass of the working people. Servility exists when a great multitude are forced to work while having no productive property, and no economic independence. That is, a servile person owns nothing (or effectively nothing) and has no choice whatsoever over how much he works or for whom he works. Most ancient civilisations, like Egypt, Greece, and Rome were servile, with servility existing as a defined legal category. That some men were owned by others was as enshrined by law as the ownership of land or cattle. 

Let’s put a little Aristotle into the mix. There are two kinds of obedience: from a free subject to a ruler, and from an unfree slave to his master. These are often confused but distinct. For while the former is reasonable, the latter involves no reason and is truly blind. 

True authority is neither persuasion nor force. If an officer argues to a soldier why he should obey, then the two are equals, and there’s no chain of command. But if the officer must hold a gun to the man’s head and threaten to execute him lest he do his duty, this isn’t authority either. The soldier obeys because he’s terrified, but not because he respects his superior as a superior. True authority lies in the trust which a subordinate has for the wisdom and expertise of a superior. This only comes if he’s rational enough to understand the nature of what he’s a part of, what it does, and that some people with knowhow must organise it to work properly. A sailor understands he’s on a ship. He understands that a ship has so many complex functions that no one man could know or do them all. He understands that his captain is a wiser and more experienced fellow than he. So, he trusts the captain’s authority and obeys his orders. 

I sketch this Aristotelian view of authority because it lets us criticise servility without assuming a liberal social contract idea. What defines slavery isn’t that the slave hasn’t chosen his master. Nor that the slave doesn’t get to argue about his orders. A slave’s duty just is the arbitrary will of his master. He doesn’t have to trust his master’s wisdom, because he doesn’t have to understand anything to be a slave. That is, while a soldier must rationally grasp what the army is, and a citizen must rationally grasp what society is, a slave is mentally passive.

Now, to Belloc’s prophecy concerning the fate of the west. The struggle between ownership and labour, between monopoly capitalism and socialism, which existed in his day, he thought would result in the re-institution of slavery. This would happen through convergence of interests. The state will take an ever-larger role in protecting workers through a safety net, that they don’t starve when unemployed. It will nationalise key industries, it will tax the rich and redistribute the wealth through welfare. But monopolies will still dominate the private sector. 

Effectively, this is slavery. For the worker is protected when unemployed but has entirely lost the ability to choose his employer, or even control his own life. To give an illustration of what this looks like in practice: there are post-industrial towns in Britain where the entire population is either on welfare or employed by a handful of giant corporations (small business having ceased to exist). To borrow from Theodore Dalrymple, the state controls everything about these people, from the house they inhabit to the school they attend. It gives them pocket-money to spend into the private sector dominated by monopolies, and if they want to work, they can only work for monopolists. They fear neither starvation nor a cold night, but they have entirely lost their freedom. 

This long preamble has been to show how freedom is swapped for safety in economic terms. But I think there’s more to it. First, the safety may not be economic but emotional. Second, the person willing to enter this swindle must be of a peculiar mindset. He must not know even a glimmer of true independence, lest he fight for it. A dispossessed farmer, for example, who remembers his crops and livestock will fight to regain them. But a man born into a slum, and knowing only wage labour, will crave mere safety from unemployment. Those who don’t know autonomy don’t long for it.

There now exist a troop of companies that market childish goods for adult consumption. They typically do this in one of two ways. First, offering childish products to adults under the guise of nostalgia. The adult is encouraged to buy things reminding him of his childhood, with the promise that he will relive it. Childish media and products are given an adult spin, and remarketed. Toys are rebranded as collectibles. Children’s films get unnecessary, adult-oriented, sequels or remakes (what Bernardini calls “kidult movies”). Originally child-friendly festivals or theme parks are increasingly marketed to childless adults.   

The second way is by infantilising adult products. Adverts, for example, have gradually replaced stereotypical busy office workers and exhausted housewives with frolicking kidults. No matter how trivial, every product that is not related to Christmas, is now surrounded by giddy, family-free people engaged in play. The message we’re meant to get is that the vacuum cleaner or stapler will free us to act like children. By buying these things, we can create time for the true business of life: bouncing and smiling with one’s mouth open. 

I believe infantilism to be a kind of mental slavery. In both the above examples, three elements combine: ignorance and mass media channel anxiety into childishness. This childishness then binds the victim in servitude to masters who take away his freedom while robbing him in the literal sense.

An artificial ignorance created by modern education is the first parent of the man-child. Absent a proper and classical education, the kidult’s mind is an empty page. Lack of general knowledge separates him from the great achievements of civilisation. He cannot seek refuge in Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, or Dante, for he has never heard of these. He cannot draw strength from philosophy and religion for the same reason. Neither can he learn lessons from history, for the world begins only with his own birth. Here is a type of mental dispossession parallel to an economic one. Someone utterly ignorant of the answers great people have given to life’s questions will seek only safety, not wisdom.

The second parent is anxiety. Humans have always been terrified of the inevitable decay of their own bodies, followed by death. The wish for immortality is ancient. Yet the modern world, with its scepticism, creates a heightened anxiousness. When all authority and tradition has been deconstructed, there is no ideal for how people ought to live. Without this ideal, humans have no certainty about the future. Medieval people knew that whatever happened, knights fought, villeins worked, and churchmen prayed. Modern man’s world is literally whatever people make of it. It may be utterly transformed in a very short time. And this is anxiety-inducing to all but the most sheltered of philosophers.

Add to this the rise of a selfish culture. As Christopher Lasch tells us, the nineteenth century still carried (in a bastardised way) the ideal of self-sufficiency and virtue of the ancient man. Working and trading was still tied to one’s flourishing in society. Since 1960, as family and community have disintegrated, the industrialised world has degenerated into a Hobbesian “war of all against all”. A world of loneliness without parents and siblings; lacking true friends and lovers. When adulthood has become toxic and means to swim in a sea of disfunction, vulgarity, substance abuse and pornographic sexuality; it’s no surprise some may snap and long for a regression to childhood. 

Mass media is the third condition. It floods the void where education and community used to be. The space where general knowledge isn’t, now gets stamped by fiction, corporate advertising, and state propaganda. These peddle in a mass of cliches, stereotypes, and recycled tropes. 

My critique of kidults isn’t founded on “good old days” nostalgia, itself a product of media cliches. Fashions, customs, and culture change; and the citizen of today doesn’t have to be a joyless salaryman or housewife to count as an adult. Rather, the man-child phenomenon is a massive transfer of power away from the small and towards the large. The kidult is like an addict, hooked on feelings of cosy fun and nostalgia which are only provided by corporations. These feelings aren’t directed to the good of the kidult but the organisation acting as a dealer. The dealer controls the strength and frequency of the dose to get the wanted behaviour from the addict.     

Now we see how kidults can be slaves. First, they’ve traded freedom for safety (false as it is) like Belloc’s proletarians made servile. Unlike the security of a traditional slave, this is an emotional illusion. The man-child believes that there’s safety in the stream of childish images offered to him. He believes that by consuming these the pain of life will cease. Yet man-children get no material or mental benefit from their infantilism. Indeed, they’re fast parted from their money, while getting no skills or virtues in return. The security is merely psychological: a Freudian age regression, but artificially created. 

Second, while authority in Aristotle’s sense means to swap another’s judgement for your own, for the sake of a common good you understand; here you submit to another’s judgement for the sake of their private good, which you don’t understand. Organisations seeking only profit or power impose their ideas on the kidult, for their benefit. An immature adult pursues only pleasure, lives only for the present, and thinks only in frivolous stereotypes and cliches implanted during childhood. He’s thus in no position to understand the inner workings of companies and governments. He follows his passions like a sentient puppet obeying an invisible thread, leading always to a hand just out of sight. 

In the poem London, William Blake talks about “mind-forg’d manacles”. These are the beliefs people have which constrain their lives in an invisible prison of sorts. For what we think possible or impossible guides our acting. Once mind-forg’d manacles are common to enough people, they form a culture (what’s a culture if not collective ideas on how one should act?). Secondhand childish banalities are such mind-forg’d manacles if we let them determine us wholly. Their “secondhand” nature means the forging has been done for us, and this makes them more insidious than ideas of our own creation. For if what I’ve said above is true, they threaten to make us servile. If enough people become dependent on secondhand childish banalities, as the boy who met Alec Guinness, then the whole culture becomes servile. Growing up may be painful, but it’s a duty to ourselves, that we remain free.

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Economic Bondage Against the Family (Magazine Excerpt)

In his 1936 Essay on the Restoration of Property, the author Hilaire Belloc recalls an image he had read two decades before and reproduces to the best of his memory. I’ll adapt it: imagine a single machine that produces everything society could possibly need. If this machine is owned by the collective, through a caste of bureaucrats, we have socialism. Everyone who tends the machine are regularly doled-out what they allegedly need by this bureaucratic caste. If the machine is owned not by many but by just one man, we have monopolistic capitalism, of the type resulting from complete laissez-faire. Most people work the machine and get a wage in return so they can buy its produce. Some others are employed in entertaining the owner, and all the rest are unemployed.

Belloc doesn’t say it, but we could imagine that working the machine involves just pushing a button repetitively. If technology did advance to the point that all which humans need could be provided by one machine, surely it could be worked by merely pushing one button repeatedly.

I rehearse this second-hand image because through it Belloc makes a point: these are capitalism and socialism as “ideally perfect” to themselves. If such a machine existed, this is what each system would look like. 

Both monopoly capitalism and socialism share an agnosticism about the role of property and work in human life. Neither ideology views work nor property as ends in themselves but only means to further ends. For the socialist this end is consumption. Material needs are more important than freedom. To borrow again an image from Belloc, socialists view society as like a group stranded on a raft. The single overwhelming concern is not starving, so food is rationed and handed out according to a central plan. Perhaps a man finds fishing fulfilling and would lead a happy life honing the fishing craft. Maybe he would benefit from selling fish for a profit so he can support his craft. But the circumstances are extreme, so the group take collective ownership of his fishing rod and collective charge of distributing the fish. It’s for this reason that socialism is so appealing to ideologies that see existence as struggle.

For the monopolist this end is profit. Money-making is the only purpose of economic activity, separate from any human need or fulfilment from work. Property is good only if it generates money; not because it has any fixed purpose within human life. Work also is good only if it generates money, and if profits can be increased while reducing the amount of work needed, this is preferable. This is the reasoning Adam Smith uses to create the production line. The goods produced, further, also have no value apart from the profit they create.   

Neither system recognises that humans are rational animals who flourish by both having and using private property as an extension of their intelligence. Thus, if a machine existed which could produce everything needed for life by repeatedly pushing a button, both systems would adopt it and consider themselves having achieved perfection. Everybody (or almost everybody) could be employed doing the same repetitive activity, differing only on the matter of whether their employer is private enterprise or the collective. 

The worker pushing a button is akin to one working on a conveyor belt in a factory, or in bureaucratic pen-pushing. His livelihood consists in a single repetitive and mindless task which requires little intelligence to perform. A craftsman, on the other hand, creates something from start to finish by himself or as part of a team effort with other craftsmen. Intelligence runs all through the activity. Making a teapot, fixing a car engine, building a house, or ploughing a field, each requires applying a design with one’s hands, that has already been worked-out by one’s mind. 

Another effect of this agnosticism involves the consumer. The sort of consumption monopolists think about is a limitless glut happening in a social vacuum. It is want unrelated to need, because the only way we can truly specify need is by defining a fixed purpose for human life. Human needs, on an ancient view, relate to the kind of life humans must live to be truly happy and flourishing. So, we need food, water, shelter, and other commodities. But we also need to exercise our uniquely human faculties, like creativity, aesthetic appreciation, imagination and understanding. We also need to know how much of a good or activity to have. After all, eating until we pass out isn’t good for us, and to sit around imagining all day may run into idleness.

As a result, neither system has much room for organic human community at the local level. Such communities depend on need which goes beyond the mere satisfaction of material wants. Work, for example, is more than just a way to get what we need to live. It’s a vocation, which taps into our rational human nature, and gives us joy through creating and shaping our surroundings.

This is an excerpt from “Nuclear”.

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A Dirge for the Aristocracy (Magazine Excerpt)

Culture is often a bearer of such practical wisdom. Indeed, the reason we listen to the experienced and wise, despite their lack of formal education, is that their experience has imparted practical wisdom. Theoretical wisdom is implicit in this down to earth practicality. Although the village elder might not be able to say why a certain behaviour is virtuous, her account, being correct, could be elaborated to reveal a true and natural principle. Extending this to an entire culture, we have one basis for social conservatism. The accumulated experience of ages has a sort of implicit wisdom to it, which can be potentially made into a theory, even though nobody may have yet done so. However, this isn’t enough, lest we be agnostic pragmatists like David Hume. For the one clinging to classical ideas, all practical wisdom has a theory behind it whose objective springs we can discover through reason.

One such cultural heirloom that is greatly misunderstood these days is aristocracy. Most cultures in human history have had aristocracies of some type. A noble class existed in ancient Mesopotamia, Persia, Mesoamerica, the Andes, Egypt, China, Japan, Greece, Rome, among the Celts, as well as mediaeval and early modern Europe. Indeed, aristocracy of some type has been one of the most common institutions of humanity across history. Yet in the last three hundred years, aristocracies have shrunk, from the predominant ruling elites of the world to disempowered and mocked cliques, clinging to privileges regarded as archaic.

Britain is one of the few countries that still has an institutional aristocracy. But its influence is ever diminishing, its numbers ever depleting, and its ideals waned to nothing. I doubt many would contradict me if I said its public image is far from positive. I believe the cause of this decline is that it is a remnant of a previous ethical outlook, one rooted in ancient Greek and Roman thought, and Christianised in the Middle Ages. This outlook collapsed in Britain during the eighteenth century (before it did in most of Europe). Whig liberal philosophers like John Locke chipped at its foundations. The aristocracy as a result became an institution without a purpose, embedded in a new society totally hostile to it. 

So, what are these foundations? I think three: human goodness as function, a communitarian spirit, and a family-centred life. Really, it’s only the first, functional goodness, the latter two being elaborations of it.

Goodness as a function is simple. To be good is to function properly according to a species’ ideal. In the same way a good hammer is good at banging nails, and a good oven at baking bread, so a good human being is good at “human-ing” to coin a verb. The question ‘what is goodness?’ for ancient and mediaeval thinkers is almost invariably ‘what’s the function of humans?’ Yet because humans have reason, unlike animals who merely follow their instincts, our function involves more than survival and reproduction. We make art and science, and can appreciate the value of things through understanding. We are the animal that is happy with a garden and a library, as Cicero says.

This is an excerpt from “Mayday! Mayday!”. To continue reading, visit The Mallard’s Shopify.

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The Internet as Mob Rule

The ancient Greeks believed political constitutions repeated in a pattern called kyklos (“cycle). The idea first occurs in Plato’s Republic, gets elaborated by Aristotle in his Politics, then reaches its apogee in Polybius’ Histories.  

Unlike modern theorists of cyclical rise and fall of civilisations, such as Oswald Spengler, the kyklos doesn’t have a zenith or golden age. It’s rather a waxing and waning of stable society types, followed by unstable society types. What characterises a stable society is that the ruling class and citizens both strive towards the common good, conceived as the objective purpose of human beings, which results in their happiness and flourishing. Society becomes unstable when its members stop having the common good in mind, and instead strive after their selfish private interests to the detriment of other citizens. 

Kyklos then presupposes several things. First, it isn’t culture specific. Its objectivist outlook means it applies equally to all political human groups, always and everywhere. Second, the engine that drives history is human virtue and vice, and not economics, class struggle, or war. These are secondary factors resulting from the characters of human beings. Healthy economies, contented class structures, well-won peace and just wars all result from virtuous people. Third, the stable government types are various. Kyklos defends neither monarchy, nor aristocracy nor a republic exclusively. It isn’t a Whiggish or utopian theory of history, that says if and only if a certain group are in power all will be well. Rather it claims that whatever group are in power, they must be virtuous to rule well. Vice immediately leads to disorder.

Simplifying in the extreme, the kyklos model runs as follows. Rule can be by one person, several, or many. When these rule for the common good, they are just, and are called monarchy, aristocracy and republican respectively. When they rule for their private interest to the detriment of society, they are tyranny, oligarchy and democratic respectively.    

It’s important to note that by “democracy” I don’t mean here a system of popular representation or voting. The virtuous form of this is called a polity or republic in classical thinking. In the latter, bonds of authority and specialised expertise remain. In the former, absolutely everything is sacrificed for the sake of equality of the masses (see below).

A good monarch rules with benevolence. His successors are unjust and become tyrants. The nobility removes them, creating an aristocratic state. These in turn degenerate into oligarchs as they grow decadent and self-interested and begin to oppress the poor. The people rise up and remove them, creating a republic where all citizens have a say. But the mass of citizens loses the bonds of political friendship, grows selfish, and the republic becomes a democracy. Democracy eventually deteriorates to a point where all bonds between people are gone, and we have a mob rule. The mob annihilates itself through infighting. One virtuous man seizes power, and we return to monarchy. The cycle begins anew.

With these preliminaries out of the way, I come to my point. I believe the present age we are forced to live through is highly ochlocratic. Of course, it’s not a pure mob rule since we have non-mob elites and a rule of law. I also think our age is oligarchic (dominated by elites swollen with pleasure). But it’s more ochlocratic, I contend, than it was a few centuries ago, and enough that mob behaviour characterises it.

The defining trait of unstable regimes, as I’ve just said, is vice. However, vice doesn’t just happen spontaneously as though people awake one morning deciding to be selfish, spoilt, and cruel. Evil people, as Aristotle notes, often believe they are good. Their fault is that they’ve mistaken something which is bad for what is good. For example, the man who hates the poor falsely believes money is the same as goodness. The man who mocks monks and sages for their abstinence believes all and only pleasure is good. Even when we know what is good for us, ingrained habit or upbringing might make the illusion of goodness overpowering. A lifetime of cake-gorging can condition one to the point it overrides the knowledge that sugar is bad for health.

            I think the Spanish thinker Jose Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) unwittingly echoes Plato when he points to the faults of the democratic “mass-man” of the twentieth century. All human societies need specialised minorities to function. The more demanding and specialised a field, the more those who do it will be a minority of the population. Further, all societies, to function, need sources of authority which aren’t decided by a majority vote. Modern democracy has created the illusion that the unspecialised mass is sovereign and has no reliance on anybody. It has achieved this mirage through artificial liberation: creating unnatural freedoms through constant government intervention and technocratic engineering.

This in turn has supported vices out of unthinking habit. The mass-man accepts his lack of qualifications and is proud of this absence. He isn’t one deluded about his knowledge. Quite the opposite. The mass-man is someone who openly declares he knows nothing but demands to be listened to anyway because he’s a member of the sacred demos. In short, according to Ortega y Gasset, the ideology of the mass-man is: “I’m ordinary and ignorant, and so I have more of a say than those who are specialised and learned.”

The internet is a democratic medium par excellence. This isn’t to say that its members are all egalitarian and individualist, rather, its very construction assumes egalitarian and individualist ideas, and these force themselves onto its users whether they be willing or not.

Here we can extend the criticisms that Neil Postman makes at television in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) to the web. On the internet, all information is available to everyone. Anyone can create it, and anyone can opine on it. The medium doesn’t distinguish for quality, so the greatest products of human civilisation sit alongside the basest, on the same shelf. There are no filters online for expertise or experience, indeed, any attempts to create such filters are decried as “gatekeeping”. As a result, the internet has no difficulty settings (to use a metaphor). Getting through the easier levels isn’t mandatory to reach the harder ones. You can skip ahead, so to speak, and mingle with the pros as their peer.

Someone might object here that I’m exaggerating, since online communities monitor themselves all the time. I can indeed post my amateur opinions onto an internet space for astrophysicists, but these will mock and exclude me once I become a nuisance. However, this isn’t an answer. The internet is built on the assumption of mass wisdom, and the only way to enforce hierarchies of value on it is by banding a mob together. The space around remains anarchic. Yes, there are communities of wise people online, but these exist in an ocean of communities of fools. The medium presents them all as equally valuable. Which communities grow powerful still depends on the wishes of the mass. 

When the internet produces a rare fruit of quality, this is because by sheer accident, the wishes of the mass have corresponded to reality. It isn’t an in-built feature.

The result is that the internet functions like a classic mob regimen or ochlocracy. The medium has no sensitivity to quality, but rather responds to will, provided enough people are behind it. Those who wield influence online do so because the mob will has selected them. They are our modern versions of Plato’s Athenian demagogues, or rabble-rousers of the French Revolution. A mass of ignorant and desperate people swirls around equally ignorant and desperate demagogues who promise them whatever they want. Demagogues rise and fall as the mob is first enamoured then bored of them. As the internet has grown to encompass our whole lives, this ochlocracy has spilt out into the real world.

In this space, truth entirely drops out. It’s a common fault of the ignorant to confuse desire with truth since desires are often hotly felt and what is very vivid seems real. Our egalitarian internet machine therefore is wont to magnify desires rather than realities. And because it magnifies desires, these ever more get confused with reality, until mob wishes would replace the common good of society. I believe a good example of this is how the online demagogue-mob relationship works. When internet personalities, especially political and social influencers, fall from grace, it’s usually because their followers realise they can no longer get what they want out of them (seldom do demagogue and mob cordially separate because each has become wiser). The power lies with the followers and not with their purported leader.

Which brings me back to kyklos. A classic Greek political cycle resets when a virtuous individual takes the reigns from the mob and establishes a monarchy. He recreates justice through his personal goodness. This was more likely, I think, in ancient societies where religion, community and family were stronger, and so the pool of virtuous people never entirely depleted. If our ochlocratic internet is indeed a stage in a kyklos (or a component of an ochlocratic stage), and it ends, I think it will end with one demagogic idiocy imposing itself on the others by force.

A population conditioned by the internet to think mass-appeal as equivalent to truth will readily accept a technocratic whip provided it claims to issue from the general will. Which idiocy gains supremacy is a matter of which can capture the greater part of the mass in the least time, to form a generation in its own image. This is why I don’t think the current trend of the internet becoming more regulated and censored is good. The regulators and censors come from the same debased crop as those they regulate and censor.

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Oligarchic Oafs

British cultural critics, in my opinion, suffer from an insularity which prevents them from connecting the events of their own country to any wider patterns of civilisation. This is truest for those who are the most correct with their criticisms. Take for example Theodore Dalrymple, whose 1998 article Uncouth Chic in the City Journal was prophetic in diagnosing a distinctly British pathology. I give a lengthy quote to showcase the depth of his description:

“The signs — both large and small — of the reversal in the flow of aspiration are everywhere. Recently, a member of the royal family, a granddaughter of the queen, had a metal stud inserted into her tongue and proudly displayed it to the press. (…) Middle-class girls now consider it chic to sport a tattoo — another underclass fashion, as a visit to any British prison will swiftly establish. (…) Advertising now glamorizes the underclass way of life and its attitude toward the world. Stella Tennant, one of Britain’s most famous models and herself of aristocratic birth, has adopted almost as a trademark the stance and facial expression of general dumb hostility to everything and everybody that is characteristic of so many of my underclass patients.”

Dalrymple lays the blame for this “uncouth chic” on moral relativism: “… since nothing is better and nothing is worse, the worse is better because it is more demotic.” This much may be true, but it sidesteps an important matter. There’s an area where the British remain elitists: money. Whatever relativism now reigns upon our morality, it has areas of preferred emphasis. With manners we are relativists, but with cash we are a nation of absolutists who think being rich is better than being poor. Indeed, the very need to transform the uncouth into a type of chic (a word meaning sophisticated and fashionable) betrays such a mindset. Nobody is demanding unfashionable uncouth trash.

To be an elitist about your wallet and a vulgarian about your manners. I wager this combination isn’t accidental but vital. The latter flows from the former.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who defines a lot of things near-finally, defines an oligarch as someone who is both wealthy and has a wealth-based idea of goodness. That is, an oligarch isn’t just rich; he thinks being rich is identical with being good. This is why he thinks only the rich should hold political office, for example. So, it’s not that money is the root of all evil and the rich the wickedest. The one who has his character in order only benefits the more money he has, because he understands money as a tool for acquiring other goods. The oligarch grasps for money like an idolum and hates anybody who doesn’t have it.

But why does the oligarch think this? Hasn’t he observed all the good poor people in the world? Is he blind to the honest pauper? Aristotle’s answer is simple: the oligarch thinks money equals goodness because he thinks living well is gorging every appetite with no limit. “For where enjoyment consists in excess, men look for that skill that produces the excess that is enjoyed”[ii]. In other words, if the good of life is endless pleasure, and endless pleasure needs endless money to buy it, the good of life requires endless money. Those without money are unable to get endless pleasure, so the oligarch looks down on their lives as inferior.

The collection of norms we call “etiquette” or “manners” have emerged organically over a long period. Some are obviously arbitrary or meant to exclude people unjustly (the outmoded and snobbish dress code of “no brown in town” comes to mind). But a great many are there to limit personal behaviour, to channel action into a disciplined pattern.

Why chew with your mouth closed? Because it shows consideration for your fellow diners. Why take small bites? Because it controls you to eat at a healthy pace. Why not deliberately get drunk? To not impair your reason. Why avoid constant use of foul language? To show that your mind dwells on higher things than bodily functions. In all these there’s a standard of excellence, mental or physical, drilled into the person through control of their actions. 

It’s a principle properly summarised in a line from Confucius: “Therefore the instructive and transforming power of ceremonies is subtle; they stop depravity before it has taken form, causing men daily to move towards what is good, and keep themselves farther apart from guilt, without being themselves conscious of it.”.

Is there then any reason for an oligarch to cultivate manners? I think none of weight. An oligarch might make a show of good manners, if he thinks this displays wealth. But once the cultural association of money with good manners is gone, he’ll stop this act. An oligarch who sees money as the means to swelling himself with pleasure actually has an incentive not to cultivate manners. Why would he cultivate something designed to limit his appetites?  If the purpose of eating is to shovel as much food into your mouth as possible, and not to nourish yourself, then you can dispense with the cutlery, even possibly the plate.

But this leads to a further thought. Money for its own sake is necessarily vulgar because any constraint on it points to a standard other than pleasure. If we accept that the manners and etiquette we call aristocratic have developed over time as a way of disciplining wealth into excellence, then an oligarchy engorged on pleasure must reject them. Rather, manners that the underclass have adopted out of lack of correction or poverty now become the fascinations of the rich. A poor man wears ragged jeans because he can’t afford anything else. An oligarch wears designer torn jeans because money compels him to wear whatever he wants however he likes it. The expression of “general dumb hostility” which Dalrymple notes, may have been born from the Hobbesian nightmare of a slum; but for an oligarch, it’s the hostility of wealth to any external correction.

In an oligarchic society the top and bottom begin to resemble each other in customs even as they drift apart in income, and even as the top despises the bottom. We may explain the vulgarity of British elites in terms of class guilt, demoralisation, or political posturing. But the issue remains that love of gold doesn’t protect you from barbarism. It’s the passion that unites the highest emperor with the coarsest bandit.

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The Dangers of a Revolution in Reverse

“In conclusion, this is the great truth with which the French cannot be too greatly impressed: the restoration of the monarchy, what they call the counter-revolution, will not be a contrary revolution, but the contrary of the revolution.” – J. de Maistre, Considerations on France, R. A. Lebrun (Ed.), Cambridge, p. 105.

Imagine a prisoner digging an escape tunnel. For years, in desperation and longing for freedom, he’s picked at the stones by hand until his fingers are bleeding stumps. Suddenly he emerges and a rush of hope shoots through his veins. This subsides immediately. Before him is darkness. He had severely underestimated the size of the prison, and all this time he was merely tunnelling into another prisoner’s cell.

This situation, familiar to readers of Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, I think pertains to a figure Joseph De Maistre first identifies in 1797, in the aftermath of the French Revolution: the reverse revolutionary. As far as I know, the only other thinker to have dwelt on this character deeply is the conservative Augusto del Noce in the twentieth century, and I shall draw from both to make my case.

First, to define revolutionary. I use “revolutionary” to mean any view that seeks utopian salvation through political or social action, by rejecting traditions of immaterial truth, and an abrupt discontinuity with the past. I don’t necessarily mean one that wants violent upheaval, though usually they do. It’s not the manner that defines a revolution but its content. These ideologies try to sever the link between politics and any truth outside of it. Truth is a socio-political creed. Eric Voegelin’s view that modern revolutionary thought is gnostic serves us here. Ancient Gnostics separated heaven from earth and sought heaven through esoteric spiritual knowledge. Modern Gnostics also separate heaven from earth, but banish heaven from the earth and build paradises out of esoteric political knowledge, without reference to anything beyond it.

A reverse revolutionary is someone who begins as the staunchest conservative. The revolution has come and ruined the world he loves. He’s seen all that he holds good swept aside in a frenzy. Panic ensues, and then rage. What shall he do?  

He sets upon pushing back the revolution by what he thinks is a counter-revolution. Whatever the revolutionaries affirm, he’ll deny. Whatever nefarious plans they have, he’ll plan the opposite. Whenever they push, he’ll push back harder. But what he really does is create a contrary revolution. Instead of negating the revolution, he reverses it.

But what’s the difference exactly between negation and reversal? I think it’s the difference between partial and full denial of a revolutionary argument.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Ur-revolutionary, thinks something like this:

“Man is born free but everywhere he’s in chains, so he must be born good and it’s society that makes him evil.

There’s rather a lot here, but for simplicity’s sake it’s an argument with two parts. “Man is born free and everywhere he’s in chains”, effectively means that humans are naturally equal, but everywhere unequal. Why are we unequal if nature makes us equal? Because “man is born good and it’s society that makes him evil.”. That is, unjust social institutions have corrupted us, and prevent us from living as we would in a state of nature.

We can reverse or negate this position. A reversal would be something like this:

“Yes, man is born good, and society makes him evil. But it’s because by nature he’s unequal, and society is what makes him equal.”

In other words, we agree with Rousseau that society and its institutions are responsible for all injustice. However, we disagree with him that inequality is the problem. The problem is the opposite: equality. In the imagined state of nature, humans are unequal, and it’s society which has imposed an unnatural equality upon them.

If Rousseau’s original position is a sort of egalitarian primitivism, our reversed position is a sort of hierarchical primitivism. Were we to put the latter into practice, it would oppose the former, but create its own revolution to do so. It would resist with equal vehemence the status quo, but for the opposite reasons.

A negation, on the other hand, would read like this:

“Man isn’t born free and he isn’t everywhere in chains, so he isn’t born good, and society doesn’t make him evil.”

While the reversal inverts the premise, but keeps the conclusion, the negation says that the premise and conclusion are both false. It denies them both.

Fair, but why does this matter? Aren’t we just splitting hairs? It matters because reversing a revolution accepts part of its lie. One starts from this lie, then tries to produce from it an opposite effect than so far has been produced. But lies are at odds with reality, because only what’s true is real. By fighting lies with lies one risks ruining the world twice over instead of improving it. Further, since lies by definition don’t correspond to reality, a revolution in reverse is destined to fail. Accepting a lie means to accept something which doesn’t exist, and carrying through this lie into political action means creating a delirium or fantasy. History testifies to the fleeting nature of such things.  

To create a revolution in the opposite direction is tempting for those who want to protect themselves from a revolution but have unwittingly drunk from its well. It’s the reaction (in the political sense) of someone unwilling to reflect on the times he lives in or analyse himself as the product of a Zeitgeist. Someone who hasn’t thought that all ideas have a genealogy, and that those ideas he detests might be closer on the family tree than he suspects. The reverse revolutionary, in short, is someone who confuses the familiar with the truth.  

Like water through coffee, a revolutionary idea only bursts forth once it has thoroughly saturated the culture. By that point it’s part of a wider background, framing all conversation and extremely difficult to think outside of, like the courtyard surrounding a prison that blocks any view of the distance. Robespierre and the Jacobins normalised political violence as a means of change with La Terreur, and La Terreur Blanche was their mirror. Marxism normalised crude materialism and a murderous utilitarian collectivism, and Nazism was its mirror. Indeed, to get Nazism one must simply reverse, point-by-point, every social creed of Marxism, keep the materialist worldview intact, then embed it in a Prussian context (A. Del Noce, (2014), The Crisis of Modernity, pp. 68-69).  

Retreat into so-called centrism doesn’t protect against reverse revolution either. A mild and centrist ideology that opposes a harsh and radical one, can still be a revolution in reverse if it shares the same underlying commitment to a revolutionary ideal. Recall that it’s not the manner but the content that defines a revolution. The reversal of a reductive political utopia must necessarily be another reductive political utopia. Thus, the economic liberal who opposes socialism by curing every ill with market forces is no less revolutionary than the socialist for merely being a centrist. Lastly, that one wishes to achieve one’s aims through gradual change doesn’t make one less revolutionary, for a slow revolution is still a revolution.

In our day such reversals are coming thick and fast on the ground, as they must in an age of crisis and disintegration, though they lack the sophistication of even the crudest Victorian pamphlet. The disgraced and arrested influencer Andrew Tate is a reverse revolutionary of sorts. He accepts the radical feminist vision of the patriarchy as a grand male conspiracy to oppress womankind but considers this a good thing which must be reinstated. The result is a masculinist revolution parallel to the radical feminist one, where everything that feminist revolutionaries decry, Tate applauds. Any existing order which is neither feminist nor masculinist is the shared enemy of both.

In gnostic fashion, Tate has swapped the esoteric knowledge of radical feminists with a masculine counterpart. One thinks, as a revolutionary, that Tate wouldn’t really care if the facts disproved his vision (just as radical feminists don’t), since a political goal has absorbed all reality and replaced truth itself.

I don’t have a simple solution to this problem. There’s no remedy for reverse revolutionaries other than humility, education, and careful thought. The wrathful desire for vengeance especially breeds such people because anger, frothing up, looks for a way to harm the enemy without asking what the tool is. Any tool will do, even if the enemy himself has made it. Perhaps this is why societies filled with wrath are prone to this error.

Maybe we should close with the words of Louis XVI awaiting execution in 1792, to his son the Dauphin: “I recommend to my Son, if he has the misfortune to become King, to remember that he owes himself entirely to his fellow citizens; that he must forget all hatred and resentment, and particularly all that relates to the misfortunes and afflictions that I endure.”

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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. 

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Bureaucracy and Fate

Among those who detest bureaucracy, there is a common criticism. Theodore Dalrymple indicts the British bureaucratic machine with these words:

“… Anthony Blair, with the cunning of the natural born swindler, seized his chance and created a loyal, corrupt, self-seeking nomenklatura class that remains extremely influential and easily able to outwit the blancmange-like David Cameron, who in any case so easily moulds himself to any shape going.”

The idea is simple enough. Bureaucracies represent the interests of the class from which they are drawn. Over time they ossify into a lobby for that class, at the expense of society at large. In Britain’s case, there’s a caste of people most attracted to Blairite ideology, who form the core of the public service. Their predominance explains why Britain is incapable of moving beyond a collection of stale centre-left notions, regardless of the stance of the government in power.

The analysis is a classic one. Aristotle (Politics, 4.1294a; 6.6.1320b18; 6.1.1316bb39-1317a10) and Polybius (Histories, 6.10.4-11; 6.12.4) both see the balancing of different social groups as vital for social justice. It’s not just that there are executive, judiciary and legislative branches of government. These must be staffed with the right combination of groups in order to properly represent the interests of society. If a single class monopolises an institution, the results are bad, regardless of other separations of powers.

But there’s a further perception which, I think, has escaped Dalrymple. Implicit in his criticism is the idea, conscious to him or not, that were British bureaucrats something other than a Blairite nomenklatura caste, that things would be better. That a bureaucracy can be balanced between social groups, just like a parliament, and all will be well.

The training of a bureaucrat necessarily excludes any political virtue. A bureaucrat is a cog in a political machine. His job is to maintain the state’s will despite any turmoil or emergency the country may face.

In this sense the bureaucrat isn’t dissimilar to a soldier. The conservative French philosopher Yves Simon analysed the nature of authority in 1962, sometimes using the army as a metaphor. Much of what he says can be translated over to bureaucracy. Any association of people has a common good and a common action which enables it. The common good of the army is defending the national interest against enemies, so its common action is armed campaign to defeat the enemy. To do this, it must have unanimity: every soldier must know what he’s supposed to do and how to do it.

Now, every soldier is a rational individual with his own opinions and ideas. In an ideal world, each soldier would immediately understand the why and wherefore of an order, and assent to it through reasoned argument. But the reality is that the circumstances of war are so confused, cloudy and ambiguous, that were the army to expect rational assent from every individual to every strategy, nothing would get done. There would always be a cause of doubt; always a valid motive for dissent from a plan. So, there must be a threshold where deliberation stops, and opinion becomes an order. At this point, the soldier substitutes the reasoning of a superior officer for his own. Not because he’s stupid or unable to reason, but because common action demands it.

In the military the stakes are very high: destruction, death, and annihilation. Therefore, the threshold where opinion becomes an order is low, in comparison to other organisations. In a government bureaucracy the stakes are high, if not quite so high: shortage of goods, mass hunger, economic paralysis. This is why, I contend, the bureaucrat isn’t that different from a soldier. The common action of bureaucracy is to keep the country running. Like with war, the task is loaded with ambiguity and unpredictability. So, the bureaucrat is required to frequently substitute the deliberations of superiors for his own.

But this means that an excess of bureaucracy in a country will have similar cultural effects to an excess of militarisation, but without any of the martial vigour. The training of a bureaucrat isn’t to think deeply; it’s to internalise the state’s ideology to keep the country running at all costs. A bureaucrat who thinks deeply is a liability because he’s someone who will constantly express doubts and interrupt the state’s ability to act or respond to problems. So, a society that’s dominated by bureaucrats at every level will be radically conformist, incapable of self-reflection, and unable to undertake serious reform.

The city of Sparta, because it was narrowly focused on warlike virtue, excluded all other virtues and went into decline (Aristotle, Politics, 2.1271b). Sparta made all citizens into soldiers, and so rendered them unable to act as independent rational agents in times of leisure. Once the battle was over, Spartans couldn’t think without orders to follow. Sparta stopped innovating and was outcompeted by her neighbours. Isn’t a bureaucratic state like Britain prey to a similar fate of death by ideological conformity? If the bureaucrat is the model citizen, and not the statesman, artist, philosopher, or craftsman, shall our society not also become a self-regulating idiocy?

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