Jacobite history of the world

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Mencius Moldbug shares his Jacobite history of the world:

Let’s start with the obvious. A reactionary — ie, a right-winger — is someone who believes in order, stability, and security. All of which he treats as synonyms.
One synonym [for] reactionary is legitimist. When the legitimist asks whether Corner Man really owns his corner, he is not asking whether Corner Man should own his corner. He asks whether Corner Man does own his corner. And his answer is “no.” He prefers the claim of “Metro,” not (or not just) because “Metro” is not in the habit of getting loaded and bashing the holy heck out of random peoples’ cars, but because “Metro” and Corner Man have conflicting claims, and in the end, the former is almost certain to win.

And when he asks whether the Bourbons are the legitimate rulers of France or the Stuarts of England, he is not asking whether (a) the Bourbon or Stuart family has some hereditary biological property that makes their scions ideal for the job (midichlorians, perhaps), or (b) the Bourbon or Stuart will suffer intolerably as a result of being deprived of the throne, or even (c) the Bourbon or Stuart families obtained their original claims fairly and squarely. At least, not if he has any sense. None of these arguments is even close to viable.

Thus, the order that the rational reactionary seeks to preserve and/or restore is arbitrary. Perhaps it can be justified on some moral basis. But probably not. It is good simply because it is order, and the alternative to order is violence at worst and politics at best. If the Bourbons do not rule France, someone will — Robespierre, or Napoleon, or Corner Man.

One of the difficulties in resurrecting classical reactionary thought is that when this idea was expressed in the 17th century, it came out in the form of theology. Who put the Stuarts in charge of England? God did. Obviously. And you don’t want to argue with God. For a believer in Divine Providence, this is pretty much unanswerable. For a 21st-century reactionary, it won’t do at all.
So we know what a reactionary is: a believer in order. What is a progressive?

Here is the problem. We only have one dimension to work with. We know that a progressive is the polar opposite of a reactionary. So if a reactionary is a believer in order, a progressive is — a believer in disorder? A believer in mayhem? A believer in chaos?

Well, of course, this is exactly what a reactionary would say. (In fact, Dr. Johnson did say it.) The only problem is that it’s obviously not true. When you, dear progressive, watch the clip of Corner Man, do you revel in the crunch of smashing glass, the screams of the victims, the thrill of wanton destruction? Um, no. You’re horrified, just like me.

Let’s put aside this question of order for the moment. We know that reactionaries believe in order. We know that progressives do not believe in chaos. But we know that reactionaries are the opposite of progressives. Is this a paradox? It is, and we will resolve it. But not quite yet.

We can say quite easily that a progressive is someone who believes in progress. That is, he or she believes the world is moving toward — or at least should be moving toward — some state which is an improvement on the present condition of affairs.

This is what Barack Obama means when he talks about change. Why do he and his listeners assume so automatically that this change will be for the better? Isn’t this word neutral? Change means a transition to something different. Different could be better. Or it could be worse. Surely the matter deserves some clarification.

The obvious explanation is that since Obama and his followers will be doing the changing, they will make sure that the result is desirable — at least, to them.

I find this answer inadequate. It implies that progressives are egocentric, humorless, and incapable of self-criticism. I’m sure this is true of some. I’m sure it is also true of some reactionaries — although these days you need a pretty solid sense of humor to even consider being a reactionary. But it is rude to apply a pejorative derivation to an entire belief system, and nor is it particularly accurate in my experience.

A better answer is that today’s progressives see themselves as the modern heirs of a tradition of change, stretching back to the Enlightenment. They see change as inherently good because they see this history as a history of progress, ie, improvement. In other words, they believe in Whig history.

Whether you are a progressive, a reactionary, or anything in between, I highly recommend the recent documentary Your Mommy Kills Animals, about the animal-rights movement. In it there is a clip of Ingrid Newkirk in which she makes the following proposition: animal rights is a social-justice movement. All social-justice movements in the past have been successful. Therefore, the animal-rights movement will inevitably succeed.

This is pure Whig history. It postulates a mysterious force that animates the course of history, and operates inevitably in the progressive direction. Note the circular reasoning: social justice succeeds because social justice is good. How do we know that social justice is good? Because it succeeds, and good tends to triumph over evil. How do we know that good tends to triumph over evil? Well, just look at the record of social-justice movements.

Which is impressive indeed. If there is any constant phenomenon in the last few hundred years of Western history, it’s that — with occasional reversals — reactionaries tend to lose and progressives tend to win. Whether you call them progressives, liberals, Radicals, Jacobins, republicans, or even revolutionaries, socialists or communists, the left is your winning team.

Mencius calls this left-favoring force the W-force — W, for Whig — and he has no rational progressive explanation for it, but he does have a reactionary explanation:

If, in 1688, you had insisted that the concept of a “constitutional monarchy” was a contradiction in terms, that “constitutional” simply meant “symbolic” and the upshot of the whole scheme would simply be a return to the rule of Parliament, you were a Jacobite. Plain and simple.

And you were also dead wrong — for about two centuries. Most of the royal powers died with George III, but even Queen Victoria exercised a surprising amount of authority over the operations of “her” government. No longer. If the W-force has made anything clear, it’s that constitutional monarchy is not a stable form of government. Nor is restricted suffrage. There is simply no compromise with democracy — good or bad.

Moreover, 19th-century classical liberals promised over and over again that democracy, despite the obvious mathematics of the situation, need not lead to what we now call “socialism.” Supposedly the English people, with their stern moral fibre, would never tolerate it. Etc.

The lesson of history is quite clear. Whether you love the W-force or hate it, surrendering to it is not an effective way to resist it. There is no stable point along the left-right axis at which the W-force, having exacted all the concessions to which justice entitles it, simply disappears. Oh, no. It always wants more. “I can has cheezburger?”

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