Reaction vs. Neoreaction, and Roger Scruton vs. himself

Since there is no functioning conservative intellectual tradition, individuals or small groups are continually reformulating Reaction from scratch.  If they work at it on the internet long enough, they are bound to run into other pockets of reactionary thought and realize they are not so isolated or original after all.  At this point, a pocket of reactionary pilgrims may either dissolve themselves into the wider community or define something distinctive about their own approach.  The neoreactionaries are now at this point.  These are a smart and relatively new group of bloggers, most of them former libertarians who came to their current rejection of modernity through the writings of Mencius Moldbug.  My own opinion of Unqualified Reservations is that it’s an amusing and often thought-provoking site; its author is primarily a theorist of power structures and social movements who specializes–like Pareto, whom he resembles in many ways–in subjecting progressivism to the same sociological goring it has long applied to its enemies.  He says little about what I would regard as the foundational issues of political philosophy (more on those later), but it is natural that those awakened by him from the illusions of liberalism should in gratitude speak of him as if of a new Aristotle.

As a taxonomist of the Right, I’m always interested when some new school of reactionaries decides to define itself.  So, what if anything makes these “neoreactionaries” special?  One idea they’re floating, made by The Reflective Reactionary and endorsed by Bryce Laliberte, is that this new group works at a higher level of abstraction than ordinary reactionaries–e.g. defenses of monarchy and religion in general rather than of particular dynasties or cults.  Now, as is, this candidate for a specific difference won’t stand; it is a fact that there are general defenses of monarchy, religion, tradition, and the like that proceed along entirely different lines than those of the neoreactionaries.  However, it does get at something distinctive about this group, and I agree that there is a sense in which Neoreaction is more abstract than the Orthosphere, to name another group of reactionaries who make equally broad arguments in very different ways.

The actual distinction is a recurring one in conservative thought; neither we nor they are the first to invent either pole of it.  They are both to be found in Roger Scruton’s brilliant but deeply conflicted book The Meaning of Conservatism.  The odd thing about this book is that Scruton offers two contradictory (indeed, almost polar opposite) definitions of the conservative viewpoint.  In chapter 2, he notes Marxism’s emphasis on economic base and dismissal of ideological superstructure as epiphenomenal and illusory.  He contrasts this with conservatism’s concern for appearances, the “surface” of social life, on which people actually live and find meaning in their relationships.  Even if economic or biological determinism is true, he says, it is not the most important truth.  The most important truth is what things like marriage or the nation mean to and how they are experienced by their participants.  In the philosophical appendix, Scruton takes the opposite position, distinguishing the first-person point of view in which liberalism with its categorical imperative reigns supreme with the third-person point of view in which we ask not what individuals are morally compelled to do but what society needs to function.  Conservatives, he says, take the view of functionalist anthropologists, dismissing the understanding of social practices held by their participants and considering rather how they maintain the social organism.  In one of Scruton’s own examples,  the conservative knows that when a primitive tribe thinks it is offering a sacrifice to one of its deities, what is really going on is that the tribe is solidifying itself.  The influence of Durkheim is unmistakeable.

These two reactionary postures are as old as Reaction itself, and in today’s blogosphere they seem to have incarnated themselves in the Orthosphere and Neoreactionary communities.  Often both can be used to support the same conclusions, and possibly they are even both valid, but it is clear that they are distinct.  One cannot simultaneously take the phenomenological-natural law view and the functionalist view; trying to combine them means subordinating one to the other.  (For example to say “it’s good for society for people to think that…” is not to propose a synthesis, but to take the functionalist view.)  Reactionary thought operates on both first and third person viewpoints; this cannot be the real distinction between it and liberalism.  Clearly, though, our first-person viewpoint is different from the liberals’, and our third-person viewpoint is different form the Marxists’.

30 thoughts on “Reaction vs. Neoreaction, and Roger Scruton vs. himself

  1. “Labilerte.” You mean Laliberte?

    It’s okay, hardly anyone can pronounce it anyhow. I’ve been tempted to change it to something simpler, but I’ve grown fond of it by this point.

  2. “One cannot simultaneously take the phenomenological-natural law view and the functionalist view; trying to combine them means subordinating one to the other.”

    True, but the skill of switching from one perspective to another is one that the Orthodox ought to cultivate. Our “missionary work” has as its audience people who find it extraordinarily difficult to think beyond the limits of functional analysis. Nevertheless, understanding Durkheim is a step towards understanding, say, Girard, and beyond Girard, the Gospel. Therefore, I would (and I do) try to help people understand Durkheim, or Marcel Mauss.

    In the present context, Durkheim and Mauss are positively subversive. Durkheim teaches us, for example, that when the Liberal Establishment tried to lynch George Zimmerman, it was seeing to its own re-solidification, merely and only. Seeking justice had nothing to do with it, no matter how loudly the lynch-mob shouted about justice.

    The original dissemination of Christianity was slow. The re-dissemination of Christianity will also be slow. We need infinite patience and tactics (how to put it?) of devilish subtlety.

    And that is why we should (as Bonald suggests) be willing to enter dialogue with neo-Nietzscheans and neo-Carlyleans like the eloquent Mr. Moldbug.

    • There is a lot of value in Durkheim, taken in moderation. I don’t know how useful the above sort of subversion really is, though, because it can be turned against pretty much any act of seeking justice, even ones we approve. Girard I know less about, but from what I know, I think he could be problematic for similar reasons.

  3. I am struck by what I perceive to be two common features of neo-reactionaries like Moldbug. 1.) the hyper-rationalist methodology that colors so many neo-reactionary arguments. 2.) The constant references to and nostalgia for 19th century Victorian culture. I think given the last 50 years Christians and traditionalists need to be extremely cautious when forging alliances with 19th century liberal reactionaries. The older liberals will happily expropriate traditionalist ideas when it comes to quelling an ascendant challenge from the left.

    • Ita, my impression of Moldbug is that he is rather more intuitionist than rationalist, despite his being some kind of computer programmer. It isn’t rationalism that leads him, in his most recent monologue, to conclude that the USA is the latest chapter of Communism, after the USSR; it’s intuition.

      Moldbug is a Carlylean. Chronologically, Carlyle was a Victorian, but philosophically, he was sui generis.

  4. “Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists” – Joseph de Maistre

    Love this quote! In my culture (Hindu) there is an altar in every home. We have puja rooms or thakur ghars, that is a worship/temple room, or “god house” with an altar and our divine symbols and icons inside our houses.

    Traditional homes are built with these in mind and they are designed accordingly.

  5. The left and right both make use of the distinction between appearance and reality, but they differ in their attitude toward appearances and their understanding of reality. We on the right understand reality as an order of being that does not change. It is possible for humans to live at odds with this order of being for a long time, but like a life financed by credit, it cannot last. There is always, eventually, a reversion to reality. The left, as Voegelin never tired of pointing out, aspires to make itself “masters of being” because it believes that the order of being is plastic and subordinate to human will. The left and the right both open the hood of society from time to time, but the right does this to check the oil, whereas the left does it to install a turbocharger.

    When it comes to appearances, the natural attitude of the right is piety or reverence. This is, at least, our attitude when appearances are not a gross distortion of the underlying order of being. The natural attitude of the left, on the other hand, is gnostic revulsion because they can never revere that which appears or presents itself in the present, only that which they imagine presenting itself in the future (when the order of being will have fully evolved).

    • One quibble I have is that the distinction between first-person and third-person perspective is not the same as the distinction between appearance and reality. While first-person and appearance are closely enough related in the current context, third-person/outsider perspective and reality should not be connected. Appearances are a very important part of reality.

  6. I hadn’t previously noticed that inconsistency in Scruton (whom I have a lot of time for), and I’ll have to think about it some more. However, the first person/third person tension in right-wing thought goes back long before him. You find tensions between the “phenomenological-natural law view” and the “functionalist view” as early as De Maistre. I wonder if it’s a rhetorical consequence of writers attempting to simultaneously address different audiences.

    I would also suspect that the functionalist view, far from being “neo”, can be traced back to Hume’s Enlightenment Toryism, or even Bolingbroke before him (one could go on – Hooker, maybe?) – but I’m not sure of my ground here and, rather than dropping names, I’d have to refer you to someone with greater knowledge of the subject.

    As for Moldbug, he is a clever guy but his literary style is execrable. (I’m sure he speaks highly of mine too).

    • That is interesting. I’d like to return to Maistre with an eye for these tensions. I’ll bet you’re right, but often when I come across such conflicts in a writer, I mentally smooth things over and emphasize whatever I like. With Scruton’s book, this is hard to do because he states both principles so clearly.

      • I suspect with De Maistre it’s a consequence of his needing to address a liberal or semi-liberal audience – his writings are works of apologetics written for a polemical purpose. No-one would doubt the sincerity of his ultramontane Catholicism, and you can tell that he is just itching to give a full-blooded divine-command account of politics, but he is not afraid to argue in an unabashedly functionalist mode.

        As a sidebar, you may be familiar with the English conservative judge and writer James Fitzjames Stephen, who is mainly remembered today for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, his critique of J.S.Mill. I discovered last year that his occasional writings for the “Saturday Review” are online at (under “Horae Sabbaticae”). He comments in depth on both De Maistre and Burke (amongst others), and as a taxonomist you might find his stuff interesting from the perspective of intramural conservative debates.

      • It also occurs to me that Jerry Muller (who you’re probably familiar with) is good on the distinction which you draw out… however, you might wish to reject his position that the functionalists are the true conservatives whereas the natural law guys are members of a distinct (and less legitimate) tradition. For him, conservatism is something which subsists within the Enlightenment tradition (which links in not only with Moldbug but also with Hume et al). I am very comfortable with this perspective, but I sense that you might not be!

  7. In one of Scruton’s own examples, the conservative knows that when a primitive tribe thinks it is offering a sacrifice to one of its deities, what is really going on is that the tribe is solidifying itself. The influence of Durkheim is unmistakeable.

    I’ve been thinking about this since you posted it. The distinctions you are making and the tensions you are seeing elude me. If I am a natural-law-believing, Catholic Monarchist kind of guy, then I believe both that a society ruled in conformity with natural law will produce objectively good natural outcomes and that God wants society to be ruled in conformity with natural law. I believe that Russia should convert to Catholicism and acclaim a Catholic king. On the other hand, I think it would be, in the natural order, better for them to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy and acclaim Putin Emperor than it would be for them to devolve further into materialistic liberal democracy.

    I believe, perhaps, that “when a primitive tribe thinks it is offering a sacrifice to one of its deities, what is really going on is that the tribe is solidifying itself.” On the other hand, when a Catholic parish assists a Catholic priest in offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, two things are going on. Second, the tribe is solidifying itself. First, the tribe is paying worship to God in the exact way that God asked it to. These ideas are not in opposition as long as you believe Catholicism is true. Both things are really going on.

    And here is where I think the distinction between reactionaries and neos lies. They are atheists. Worse, they are honest atheists. Would the sacrifice solidify the tribe if everyone believed that the sacrifice was, itself, vain? Would the sacrifice solidify the tribe if the leading lights of the tribe openly denied that the sacrifice, itself, was effective? I think not.

    And this means they are sterile, futile, and, at depth, dishonest. If they really believed that natural law and religion were necessary for the good society, then they would outwardly convert and hope for inward conversion. To be honest, they must lie. A country run by people like Thomas Jefferson would be like, well, the US.


    Oops. Or, more briefly, what Nick Steves beat me to saying.

    • There are several problems the functionalist turn in Scruton’s appendix.

      1) I do not believe that you can define “objectively good natural outcomes” absent some idea of what “good” is, which means you are not making judgements from outside (and, it is implied, above) the moral community in question.

      2) Even if both functionalist and phenomenological perspectives are both valid, Scruton is still contradicting himself by basically defining conservatism as adherence to the second and later defining it as adherence to the first.

      3) The strong implication of functionalist conservatism is that its perspective is the more ultimate one. However, this is not true. If anything, we must give priority to the first-person viewpoint, because it more directly affects the eternal destinies of society’s participants. Furthermore, it certainly seems odd to say that the “real” reason for defending an institution is not allowed to have anything to do with the reason its participants actually treasure it.

      4) It does violence to the reality of religious bodies (which would include most pre-modern organizations) to speak of them as if they were separate entities from the worship they perform, as if the latter were just a means to the former (or even vice versa). One may speak of organization in abstraction from the spirit that drives it, and this may have some limited use, but the understanding it gives is necessarily inferior to one that grapples with the inner essence of the thing.

      • I can’t tell if we disagree now.

        When I say that 1) the tribe’s sacrifice is solidifying, and that 2) they believe that their sacrifice is an act of rightly-ordered worship, and that 3) they are wrong about 2, am I being a functionalist or not?

      • How does it solidify? To understand that, we must adopt their perspective. Why do they think the being they are worshipping is worthy of worship? They do have some intuition about God if they can conceive a Being toward whom worship is the appropriate response. I don’t believe they are entirely wrong about 2.

      • This is frustrating. Would you mind answering Skeggy Thorston below? I even prefer that to answering me.

        Clearly, offering a goat to Umba Bumba, the great doorknob god, is not an act of rightly ordered worship. Yet, I believe that, because of its gross physical and psychological similarities to rightly ordered acts of worship, it gets to partake of some of the social and psychological benefits of rightly ordered acts of worship. Furthermore, the final cause of those benefits is to push us towards worshipping God properly, and the efficient cause of those benefits is some story about the evolution of mechanisms to promote kin and group selection among bands of primitive humans, which story predicts that certain kinds of ritual activate those mechanisms. Am I a functionalist?

  8. I’m going to chime in agreement with nickbsteve and DrBill. Any practice or institution will have multiple consequences for the individual or group that practices it, a heightened social solidarity being possible consequence. A person can argue that any one of these consequences is the “function” of the practice or institution. A person could argue that the function of gathering to celebrate the mass is to stimulate the economy by necessitating the purchase of gasoline and dress clothing. A person could argue that the function of a university is to remove young people from the labor market and suppress the unemployment numbers. A person could argue that the function of marriage is to cage males in lifelong servitude. Now all three examples I have given are real consequences of attending the mass, enrolling in the university, or entering into marriage, but to call then the function of those institutions is simply a way to degrade and belittle those institutions. It’s like saying I drive to visit my parents in order to run up the numbers on my odometer.

    If we take the word function to denote the purpose of a practice or institution, then we find the function in the consequence that is intended by the actors who engage in the practice or people the institution. Now Durkheim assumes that the intentions of religious actors are directed at non-existent objects, and so moves on to another consequence (social solidarity) and names it the “function.” And this is an assumption. The Elementary Forms contains no argument for atheism.

    I also think it is important to remember that Durkheim was a secularized Jew, so his formative experience was with a tribal religion in which social solidification was at least part of the intention, and therefore could be reasonably described as a “function.”

    • Hi JMSmith,

      I’m confused. You say you’re agreeing with them, but it sounds like you’re agreeing with me. Perhaps I’m not getting what my critics are saying.

      • My 5:11 comment was just an immediate response to the preceding comments by nickbsteves and DrBill, but I’ve now re-read the original post and will try to relate it to your question about Scruton’s apparent contradiction. The distinction between first-person and third-person accounts is a a distinction between what I say I am doing and what an “impartial” observer says I am doing. For instance, I might say that I am scolding my son for failing to pick up his room, but an “impartial” observer might say I am venting aggression I feel toward my boss, by whom I am thoroughly intimidated. Now in this case the “impartial” observer might be right, or he might be wrong. We would have to ask about the actual state of my son’s room, the general character of my scolding him, and the actual relationship I have with my boss, etc. In fact, in everyday life we know that the third-person perspective is very often a vehicle for malicious speculation, pop psychology and barnyard philosophy. I’d venture to say that, in ordinary life, the burden of proof rests (and ought to rest) on the “impartial” observer, and that we should not presume the first-person perspective is defective until we have substantial reason to believe that it is.

        The everyday distinction between the first-person and third-person perspective takes an academic form in the distinction between what anthropologists call emic and etic knowledge. Sometimes this is defined as the “insiders’ view” and the “outsiders’ view,” sometimes (more honestly) as “local knowledge” and “scientific knowledge.” In other words, the third-person perspective is granted an automatic epistemological privilege. Whatever the natives may imagine themselves to be doing, what they appear to be doing from the third-person perspective becomes what they are “really” doing. As in the everyday case above, I grant that the emic knowledge can be a delusion, but that the burden of proving that it is a delusion ought to rest with the outsider, who would like to replace it with his etic account of what the locals are up to.

        It’s been a while since I read Scruton, but here’s how I’d solve the dilemma you describe. Scruton does not believe that the phenomenological world, or what he sometimes calls the human world, is a hopeless illusion or an ideological mask hiding an underlying reality. The phenomenal world is produced by categories and classifications that have emerged in the course of human development, and these categories and classifications are no less “real” than the “natural kinds” that have emerged in the course of the development of the universe. In this respect I see him as an heir to the common sense philosophers who tried to bottle up radical skepticism at the end of the 18th century. I also see his debt to Voegelin, who criticized the gnostic prejudice in favor of esoteric knowledge.

        With respect to what he has to say about social functionality, I think there are three things going on. First, he embodies conservative pessimism and understands that social functionality can not be left to take care of itself. We are conservative because we believe that societies can loose ground and fall apart, and so we don’t assume that, say, atomizing the family will work out for the best in the end. Second, he recognizes that “functionalist explanations” are very often subversive ideological redescriptions, and that they are therefore very often detrimental to functionality. For instance, the reductionist redescription of sex that we find in Freud has damaged the ability of society to reproduce itself. Third, he’s simply struggling with religion and trying to solve the struggle with Durkheim (I haven’t yet read his recent book on the Face of God).

  9. If the phenomenological (let’s call it A-T) view is correct, then it would of course be functional. And if the functional view is correct, then it might very plausibly be perceived as A-T. I fail utterly to see how they are exclusive. One may subsume one under the other without destroying either. I believe with Divine faith Tradition’s injunction against fornication. I still expect fornication to have bad effects, statistically speaking. The data will never prove the divinely revealed injunction. But it will never disprove it either. In fact, for people of a certain, say numiniously autistic, disposition, the data may, if they are honest enough to allow lying eyes to behold it, in fact be an avenue for them into the Divine faith, which normal, average people just get by virtue of their birth. (I’ve been privy to this very effect in two specific instances over the last year.)

    There are many roads into Jerusalem; and every road into it is also a road out of it.

  10. I think I agree with Bonald. The functionalists seem to be arguing from a utilitarian view that the most important things are survival and pleasure, though for a specific group rather than the individual or all sentient beings taken as a whole. Whereas the proponent of a religiously or morally based system would view doing what is right in the eyes of god as the most important thing even if it means the destruction of one’s self, one’s group, or conceivably of all sentient beings as a whole. So a functionalist could argue that in certain cases something like infanticide could be just and since there are many traditional societies that practice it they could feel vindicated as traditionalists in doing so. It also causes bizarre statements that I could never understand the logic of, such as the Neo-pagan ethnonationalists asserting that Christianity should be abandoned because it is bad for the white race. Let us assume for the sake of argument that this is true. Even so if Christianity is correct, although I am sure they assume it is false, and it harms the white race, doesn’t that just suggest that the white race should be harmed. If the one who sustains all existence wants a particular people to be harmed, denying his existence is not going to change it, though I guess that gets back into the functionalism again. However, even if denying the truth would save a people it could still be considered wrong to do so and thus there is a distinction conceptually. Sorry for the ramble.

  11. Pingback: Our Marx, Only Better | This Rough Beast

  12. Pingback: More on neoreaction as the outsider’s perspective | Throne and Altar


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