Neoreactionaries Part Two
12 March 2014
The first part of the Neoreactionary worldview is their history of Progressivism. Let me try to explain the theory of Progressivism in more detail.
To start, I need to be clear about terminology. I think “ideology” is a word that’s used in various contexts and sometimes with specific connotations, but it seems like the best word to me for my purpose. I think in general an ideology is a collection of beliefs and values that are sufficient to explain some domain of the world and determine the correct course of action for the believer in most scenarios that arise in respect to that domain. A religion is an ideology where that domain is unlimited, and there is some sort of supernatural element in its explanation of existence and meaning. (Some definitions of religion try to avoid the element of belief in the supernatural, but in that case I don’t see any distinction at all between “religion” and ideology.) In what follows, I will use “ideology” to refer to such belief systems with unlimited domain, and “religion” to refer to such belief systems with unlimited domain and an element of the supernatural. I will use “religious remnant” to refer to the supernatural parts of a religion, which people often hold on to despite living an otherwise generally secular life.
The Neoreactionaries’ Progressivism is an ideology in this sense. They describe it as having originated in early Protestant Christianity, either Quaker or Calvinist/Puritan or whatever. I don’t think the people who claim Judaism is involved are worthy of consideration – any resemblance between Progressivism and Judaism comes from either their shared heritage or from convergent evolution. One of the main criticisms of Neoreactionaries on this front is their inconsistency about the details of the “origin story” of Progressivism, which is a valid criticism but in some sense irrelevant. I think this only happens because no one with the necessary historical and theological background has made a serious attempt at an academic theory of the origin of Progressivism, and a reasonable theory could be produced if the right person or people tried it.
Anyway, the idea is that in the 17th-18th centuries, Progressivism evolved out of some Protestant faction by casting off all the details that excluded others in order to expand its membership. Over time all religious elements were entirely discarded, secular life was defined to be the vast majority of people’s concerns, and other “religions” were allowed to coexist by reduction to religious remnants, sort of like constrained ideologies that only got to explain things and dictate people’s actions outside of secular life. People still think of themselves as belonging to whatever religion was responsible for the religious remnant they retain. In this way Progressivism is stealthy.
The Neoreactionary argument for this narrative involves (a) quoting a bunch of historical sources where people write things that sound ideologically similar to modern liberals, (b) pointing out that the main liberal (i.e. Progressive) values are quite similar to those of Protestant Christianity, and (c) noting that modern secular life bears a lot of structural similarity to Protestant Christian religious organization, particularly in the sense of replacing God with Science, priests with professors, cathedrals with universities, and faith with reason, etc.
I think a major missing piece in this is the interpretation of ideologies as entities in competition with each other and fighting for survival. Progressivism is carefully designed to be a very successful ideology in competition with other ideologies. I don’t think this is an accident and I think it is a very important observation because it provides an explanation for the sociopolitical trends of the last few centuries that is not provided by so-called whig history. In particular:
1. Progressivism is very inclusive. Egalitarianism is a key value of Progressivism, similar to Communism. Progressivism is not mutually exclusive with religion and allows people to become Progressivist without having to entirely give up religion. But Progressivism also has a hierarchy that allows those in power to stay in power. Compare this to religions, which exclude all other religions, and Communism, which excludes religions and also is very bad for established elites. Progressivist societies even allow non-Progressive enclaves as long as those enclaves are on good terms with overall society and don’t pose any threat to Progressivism. Consider, for example, the Amish, or the Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and in Baltimore.
2. Progressivism prioritizes economic success. Note that efficiency is valued, and egalitarianism is tempered by capitalism/individualism. Also, as science and pursuit of secular knowledge and truth are valued, Progressivism fosters technological progress. Why else would the Progressivist countries beat everyone else? Every country that adopted American values and methods in place of their traditional society outperformed neighbors that did not. I don’t think the Neoreactionaries have a very strong argument for why Progressivism beats other ideologies and I think it is critical that Progressivism doesn’t get in the way of the economic development of the country. By comparison, Communism, at least as it was implemented every time it was attempted on a significant scale, was economically crippling. Religions also do not prioritize economic success; in fact, recently it was shown that life satisfaction among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel is entirely uncorrelated with income, and also in some Muslim countries, people are less economically productive during Ramadan than outside of Ramadan, but also report greater happiness and life satisfaction during Ramadan than outside of Ramadan. Also probably worth nothing that every existing theocratic country is either a terrible place, or enjoys vast resource wealth. Some are both.
3. Progressivism is self-correcting. Most major religions have sacred texts that provide the foundation for the ideology. The doctrine is fixed. In order to adjust to changing times, to compete with other ideologies or to respond to new truths about the world, the religion often fractures in a violent way. This is why there’s endless fragmentation of religions, tons of types of Buddhism and of all the Judeo-Christian religions. I should note here that Roman religion was self-correcting in this sense: it could just absorb other religions by accepting their gods and associated traditions into its pantheon. The reason Judeo-Christian religion supplanted Roman religion (and other older religions) was often economic: you don’t have to sacrifice anything in Judeo-Christian religions, so it’s much cheaper. The rituals are also much less elaborate. I don’t know enough about Communism to know whether it is possibly self-correcting in the right way as well; it’s unclear whether China now is exhibiting a gradual transition to Progressivism or if it is still under the sway of its own home-brewed Confucio-Communist ideology that is in the process of adapting to modern technologies in its own way. Certainly Chinese ideology is at present still very different from Progressivism. Anyway, Progressivism espouses the rational pursuit of truth as one of its ideals, and holds science and academics in high esteem. As a result, Progressivism defines itself to always use cutting edge scientific understanding of the world as its basis for both individual and community decision-making. Of course it may be the case that the consensus of the academic community is wrong! But I think this aspect of Progressivism has been essential in its dominance over other ideologies, particularly religious ideologies that actively impede science and learning and education.
Getting back to the Neoreactionary story: there’s the point of Progressivism being like a religion, particularly in its expansionism. Islam is supposed to be the world religion and Muslims are supposed to convert or kill everyone else. Christians generally gave up on the killing part but still try to convert everyone else. Some religions don’t spread but the only really notable one is Judaism which instead is super focused on self-preservation. And anyway there have never been that many Jews. Have you noticed how people whose ideal is rational pursuit of knowledge tend to believe that everyone else ought to be more rational and the world would be better if everyone else were more rational? And how the entire Western world agrees that secular education is a fundamental right and tries not only to offer it but actually to impose it on societies that don’t want it?
I think a purpose of this Neoreactionary story is to discredit Progressivism by making the entire thing seem arbitrary and disingenuous. I think this is a poor strategy, because (a) it’s just true that Progressivism values rationality and reason in a way that other ideologies do not, and (b) it’s not strictly necessary to do this in order to question liberal values, which a clear-thinking liberal will understand do not in fact derive from objective scientific foundations.
I want to move now to go specifically over Section 3 of Scott Alexander’s Anti-Reactionary FAQ, which I think for the most part misses the point about the Cathedral and Progressivism, shooting down a lot of the specific crazy stuff that Neoreactionaries say without actually talking about ideology at all. (You’ll need to open his page and read his stuff first. I admit I am pleased to direct traffic at my blog over to his site as I think he’s a great writer and I think it would be good for the world if more people read stuff that he writes.)
3.1 I already went over this above.
3.1.1 I think Scott’s response betrays a lack of understanding of Roman society as well as a neglect of the ideological point. (a) Scott makes much of Roman social policies and multiculturalism, but I think the class system of ancient Rome is something that modern liberals would generally view as pretty horrible, and which despite all the great social developments Scott mentioned, never really went away (even unto the fall of the Roman empire). So what if the patricians provided welfare for the plebeians? It was always part of the Roman social structure that the patricians were above the plebeians, but also responsible for their welfare to some extent. They introduced political controls to enforce the latter, but it’s not like you ever had “social mobility” or any idea of equality of people from different classes. I really don’t think it’s fair to say the egalitarianism in the modern sense existed before Christianity. (b) This is very related to why the Romans opposed Christianity. Christianity was an ideology that was mutually exclusive with prevalent Roman ideology at the time. The Roman way was to assimilate other religions and traditions; Christianity did not want to assimilate. The Romans also opposed Judaism, for the same reason. A better question would be: what new features of Protestant Christianity made it ripe for the evolution of Progressivism? I don’t think this is answered by anything I’ve read in Neoreactionary writing and I can’t answer it myself because I have insufficient knowledge of Christian history and theology.
3.1.2 This doesn’t require response because I disagree with Scott’s characterization of Progressivism. I think the sequence “my ideology says solve problem A with response X, I tried X and it didn’t work, therefore I must not have done X enough” is a general problem of ideologies and stems from the fact that the believer can’t accept that the ideology was wrong and the only other option is that the believer did something wrong in the implementation of the ideology’s prescription. The unique and scary thing that Neoreactionaries are trying to point out is that because Progressivism is self-correcting, Progressives think they aren’t vulnerable to this error, but they actually are. That’s why the idea that Progressivism is like religion is important. It is still an ideology, and not all of the structure of the ideology is experimentally verifiable and thus enjoying the self-correcting feature of the ideology, and therefore believers are vulnerable to exactly the same fallacies that any other ideologues are. Neoreactionaries who argue that the above sequence is characteristic of Progressivism are just wrong.
3.2 Again, I think by picking a particular passage where a guy made much of specific modern institutions is cheap. Yeah, the stuff Scott quotes from Anissimov sounds like bullshit (though as a Princeton alum I enjoy the fact that he decisively places Princeton ahead of Yale). But Progressivism evolved over time in response to technology. The New York Times had a very different role in the world in 1880 than it did in 1980. It didn’t even exist in 1800. So the idea that the evolution of Progressivism is inextricably tied together with the New York Times is crazy and anyone who argues that is a nut. But the idea that as the news media achieved extensive penetration of society, the Progressive system adapted to take advantage of it, is not crazy. And Scott provides no argument against that.
3.2.1 Same as above. I don’t have any sympathy for those Neoreactionaries who claim that some small set of universities control everything. But the idea that the system of academia is integral to Progressivism? That academia as a whole regards itself as infallible, believes that everyone should go through academia, and teaches its own values to everyone who does go through academia, is potentially problematic? Scott doesn’t challenge any of this.
3.2.2 Again, too focused on specific institutions. There is no argument here about to what extent the Progressive ideology came out of academia. Not that Neoreactionaries make a very strong case that it did. But it seems plausible given that academia is so highly regarded in the Progressive hierarchy. The whole point of the self-correcting nature of Progressivism is that people eventually figure out that there’s no good argument for exception A to the egalitarian principles, and eventually exception A gets shot down. To me it doesn’t actually seem necessary that the first voices against exception A come from academia. Of course the people who suffer under exception A are the ones who want to get rid of it. According to the Neoreactionary theory, it’s only when academia accepts exception A as the next target for removal that it becomes accepted by society at large. So I don’t think Scott’s example about homosexuality actually counters the Progressivism theory.
3.2.3 I’m surprised Scott made the mistake he did in this section. It’s exactly the same kind of error that he’s criticizing Neoreactionaries for elsewhere in his FAQ (e.g. about crime rates and how Victorian Englishmen thought their society was amazingly safe). The evolution of people’s opinions according to that poll has to be interpreted in the context of society at the time of the poll. Just taking the first question from the list, “Too much power in the hands of big companies” – people’s answers to that question didn’t change from 1987 to present. But did the perceived amount of power in the hands of big companies change from 1987 to present? If it did, then people did move right or left compared to 1987. But Scott’s chart doesn’t show this, so he completely fails to make a case about whether society has shifted left or not. All he has shown is that where society thinks we should be, relative to where we are now, hasn’t changed much in the last 25 years. This isn’t inconsistent with the Neoreactionary view.
3.3-3.4 Here Scott gets off track (according to my way of organizing the key ideas) and starts talking about the question of whether Progressivism is bad, which I will address in a later post.
3.5 I think the kind of stuff Scott is arguing against is basically silly, as Scott makes clear, though I agree with Scott that the effort involved was impressive. I guess the Neoreactionary claims along these lines seem to me to be attempting another angle at showing that we’ve become much more liberal in the 20th century and in this case it’s just a poorly conceived approach. Again I don’t think it’s all that relevant to the question of the validity of the theory of Progressivism. I don’t think it’s really contentious that we’ve gotten more liberal over the past hundred years.
That’s it for Scott’s section 3, so let’s review. I think some of what I’ve said in this post requires re-evaluation or further commentary. I see two big issues.
One is that an essential part of the Neoreactionary theory of everything is that Progressivism is bad, while I have instead argued that in order to explain the successful history of Progressivism, we have to think that Progressivism is better, at least in certain ways, than other ideologies. So I am differing substantially from Neoreactionaries here. I’ll get into this in more detail on the later post about whether Progressivism is bad. I don’t think the idea that America was successful despite Progressivism, rather than because of Progressivism, and that Progressivism supplanted other ideologies despite being worse (due to it being so insidious that it takes advantage of exogenous progress and convinces everyone that it’s responsible for said progress even while it inhibits progress), instead of because it is better, is very defensible. The only possibility that to me has any merit is the idea that Progressivism won due to certain advantages, but is still worse in other ways, and a superior ideology is possible.
The other is that I’ve grossly oversimplified the world into this sort of contest between a small set of ideologies. I do think that broad ideology is an aspect of intellectual and political conflict on both small and large scales, but it is certainly not the only thing going on, and in many cases ideas compete with each other and replace each other or new ideas emerge in a way that can’t really be captured by this simplistic picture of cohesive, immutable ideologies that purport to explain and guide the entire scope of human experience. Not all Progressives believe exactly the same things, just like not all Protestants believe exactly the same things. Different people prioritize different values. That’s why you have both environmentalists and gay rights activists. Clearly those people prioritize different liberal values, but I think Neoreactionaries would view them both as Progressives, which is obviously a generalization. I think the entire Progressivism story broadly makes sense and is a useful way of viewing the world as long as we are cognizant that we’ve made this oversimplification and that this is only a lens, a tool for interpretation of social and political issues, but not a complete and sufficient theory to explain everything.
To conclude, it seems like I’m leaning towards believing the Neoreactionaries in that describing the package of liberal values as an ideology is a useful tool for understanding, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a conclusive explanation for 19th-21st century political and social developments and it is far from a complete theory. The general history they describe seems like a solid starting point that could benefit from treatment by people with sufficient relevant background knowledge. I think in order for the history to make sense, it is necessary for Progressivism to be superior to other ideologies in more ways than just subversiveness, because there’s no argument being made for why America would be the dominant world power despite having the inferior ideology. I don’t have the knowledge of history or religion to comment on the details of the theory as it currently stands, especially the early origin and spread of Progressivism, but it seems like these details are in need of considerable work.