You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you. If this be arrogance, as some of your critics observed, it still is the truth that had to be said in this age of the Welfare State.—Ludwig Von Mises, Letter to Ayn Rand (1958)
One of the central principles of liberalism is the moral equality of all people. This has been expressed in a variety of fashions across the world: from the Jeffersonian declaration that “all men are created equal” to Kant’s insistence that we treat all people with dignity as “ends in themselves.” Of course, liberal societies have never consistently applied this principle—something that was noted from their very beginning. In 1791, Benjamin Banneker wrote a passionate letter to Jefferson, praising the American revolutionary’s accomplishments, but condemning the hypocrisy of not only allowing but profiting from the slave trade. The following year, Mary Wollstonecraft published the early feminist classic A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she castigates forward-thinking Enlightenment men for calling for greater freedom for themselves—but not for women. The lack of integrity liberal societies often display is one of the main reasons their legitimacy has been constantly called into question: as we see today, when millions have taken to the streets to protest racialized violence by the police. At the same time as critics began to notice the distance between liberal rhetoric and practice, the left emerged, demanding more radical forms of egalitarianism. Early socialists questioned whether a society of free moral equals could tolerate extreme inequalities in wealth and power. Egalitarian liberals, from John Rawls to Martha Nussbaum, believed and believe that we cannot, and the failure to take material inequality seriously explains a lot of the ire directed against economic hierarchies by a renewed socialist left and against cultural elites by postmodern conservatives. There is a deep connection between the liberal argument for moral equality and leftist demands for material equality: a shared genealogical heritage even intelligent left wing critics often miss or undervalue.
By contrast, reactionaries take an approach to the world that is antithetical to liberalism, radical leftism and moderate conservatism. While liberals insist that all are moral equals and leftists demand that we become more equal in fact, reactionaries believe that individuals are fundamentally unequal. Rationalizations for this outlook often draw on myth. The reactionary outlook has an evergreen appeal to those who regard the world as a dangerous and chaotic place, which only a hierarchy of strength and domination can properly order.
At the epicenter of the reactionary outlook is a tremendous anxiety about chaos and a yearning for total order. Reality is always on the cusp of complete collapse into meaningless decadence and decay. Preserving order requires a firm hand. As a consequence, reactionaries dislike freedom, which inexorably leads them to a profound hatred of equality because freedom is—above all else—about unknown potential, and can therefore neither be fully controlled nor predicted. By contrast, in a world governed by absolute necessity, total order is guaranteed, though at the cost of eliminating freedom. Because free individuals will always resist efforts to force them to submit to a totalizing order, reactionaries deeply admire certain kinds of strength.
The strength reactionaries admire is, of course, nothing like strength of character or Aristotelian virtue—these may even be disdained as forms of weakness or sentimentality. Nor does it include any forms of strength associated with compassion or empathy—including many of the classical Christian virtues of self-sacrifice, even though reactionaries sometimes nostalgically pine for the homogenizing order of Christian culture and civilization. This is also why many reactionaries—even the women—tend to hold misogynist views: a great deal of reactionary thinking leans heavily on clichés about effeminacy and weakness. Above all else, reactionaries praise the strength to dominate others. This is where their inegalitarianism becomes wedded to their disdain for freedom. Reactionaries feel that the strong should dominate the weak, keeping them in their place. This alleviates their anxiety that reality is fragile and about to crumble. At its most manic, this belief can take on an apocalyptic fervour sufficient to justify the most appalling crimes, as with the emergence of Nazism. In Mein Kampf, Hitler rails against the “Jewish doctrine of Marxism” for its egalitarianism, and fears that it is replacing the “aristocratic principle” of nature and the “eternal privilege of power and strength.” Hitler feared that this would lead to the destruction of the world: ironically given his own penchant for malicious destruction.
The reactionary impulse is an outlook first and foremost. It begins from deep convictions about the nature of reality and the need for domination and hierarchy. The shrill quality of much reactionary writing is not coincidental: there is a genuine fear that, unless the worthy are in positions of dominance, the world will fall apart. But the more intelligent reactionaries have always recognized that appeals to feelings will not be enough to gather support for the changes they want. The dilemma of how to persuade others of the reactionary worldview became especially urgent from the eighteenth century onwards, as liberalism and leftism gradually became worldwide political movements, agitating for moral and even material equality. As a consequence, reactionaries have developed many rationalizations to justify their outlook.
The Immutability of Hierarchy
I love empire, I love power, I love achievement.—Richard Spencer
One of the characteristic features of reactionary discourse is a tendency to avoid direct moral argumentation. Of course, there is a moral outlook underpinning that worldview: reactionaries believe that the worthy deserve to be at the summit of a rigid hierarchy and rule over the unworthy. But reactionaries rarely like to present principled arguments for this position. As far back as Joseph De Maistre—the intellectual godfather of fascism, according to Isaiah Berlin—reactionaries have characterized philosophy and principled argumentation as an “essentially destructive force.” Arguments about principle could lead to legitimate disagreements about what kind of society we should have. But disagreement, for reactionaries, is the handmaiden of dissent and chaos and might even plant the seeds of egalitarian revolution. As a consequence, reactionaries prefer to couch their arguments in theological or naturalistic terms, presenting their preferred social hierarchy as immutable—either commanded by God or the product of nature.
In the early modern period, many reactionaries leaned towards theology for rationalizations. Robert Filmer defended the divine right of kings in his 1680 book Patriarcha, which prompted a ferocious response from the liberal John Locke. Joseph de Maistre defined authority as the product of divine providence, and regarded questioning authority as rebelling, like the prideful Lucifer, against God. Dostoevsky—though far more thoughtful, similarly characterized the liberal and socialist revolutionaries of his time as devils or the “possessed.” Thomas Carlyle—a favourite of Joseph Goebbels—offered neo-paganist mythologies of hero worship as a substitute for Christian theology, as he railed against the egalitarian age and insisted that history was just the biography of great men.
However, as secularism and liberalism took hold of the cultural imagination, these overtly irrational justifications for hierarchy came to seem less plausible. The new liberal age required novel explanations for why some were poor and others rich, not to mention ways of legitimizing the vast colonial empires. As a consequence, reactionaries began to rationalize the new capitalist and imperialist hierarchies along cultural, civilizational and even racial lines, selectively appealing to history, myth and science—or, sometimes, all at once, as in the case of Julius Evola. Racists like Arthur de Gobineau divided human beings into categories of racial superiority and inferiority. Gobineau also asserted the superiority of his own aristocratic class over their peasant counterparts. These accounts were used to justify ever more extreme forms of inequality, domination and violence, a tendency that reached its peak with the emergence of fascism and Nazism, which weaponized these arguments even against other Europeans. Until recently, the destructive consequences of such reactionary positions seemed to have relegated them to the ash heap of history.
Reactionary Capitalist Apologias
Contemporary reactionaries moderate their claims, to accommodate them to the liberal capitalist order. This can make it difficult to distinguish genuine classical liberals and libertarians from their reactionary kin—particularly since far right activists like Gavin McInnes are fond of appropriating the labels and rhetoric of libertarianism. The key tell is that genuine classical liberals and libertarians agree that all people are moral equals and need to be treated as such. Where they disagree with social liberals and the left is on the best system to accomplish this: they either contend that infringing economic liberty for the sake of equality treats people as a means to an end, or—like F. A. Hayek—they argue that the negative consequences of redistributive efforts are too great to justify them.
By contrast, reactionaries in the vein of Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises—who infamously praised fascism for temporarily “saving” European civilization—and Murray Rothbard regard the world as a chaotic place, in which most people are not worth very much: being simply second-handers or even parasites in Ayn Rand’s charming formulations. Their attraction to capitalism is therefore highly contingent and romantic. They ascribe a secularized theological significance to the market, as an invisible hand that sorts the world into ranks defined by levels of wealth and privilege. Consequently, those who make it to the top deserve to be there, while those who fall to the bottom should accept their place as inferior, as Von Mises puts it. For the reactionary defenders of capitalism, this sorting process is far more important than the freedom they sometimes claim to cherish. They consider it even more foundational to capitalism than the idea of rational economic actors pursuing their enlightened self-interest. Reactionary capitalists are therefore either comfortable with or relatively indifferent to the ways in which wealthy rulers like Augusto Pinochet use state power to their advantage, and they also virulently object to any effort by the demos to try to redistribute goods. They may even support state repression where they deem it necessary.
Ironically, many reactionaries’ veneration for noble superiority and orderly worthiness contrasts starkly with the anxiety and shrillness that so often characterize their work. They appeal to a pastiche of clichés and mutually incompatible philosophies to justify what is ultimately an affective attachment to mythologies of strength and domination. Occasionally, a startling creativity can be spurred by the reactionary impulse, but it is always a derivative form of creativity. The reactionary is primarily defined by her anxiety about the decay of order and the rise of chaos, an anxiety that generates tremendous resentment of liberal and leftist egalitarians, who are seen as disrupting the natural order of things. This paradoxically means that reactionaries define themselves by juxtaposition, which limits their capacity for genuine, Promethean creativity. Reactionaries will latch themselves onto whatever ideological framework happens to be popular at a given moment—theology, Darwinian evolutionary biology, liberal capitalist individualism—and pervert it into a rationalization for the rule of whomever they venerate over everyone else. It is a profoundly nihilistic outlook, which sees the meaning of existence as so fragile that it can be easily annihilated through the pollution of the inferior, with their terrifying vulgarity and decadence.