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Among The Neoreactionaries

Matt K. Lewis takes a look at a very small but noisy group on the American Right: monarchists and neoreactionaries. It’s not just about crusty romantics; techno-libertarians are joining the movement. Klint Finley at TechCrunch wrote about geek neoreactionaries last November. Excerpt: Perhaps the one thing uniting all neoreactionaries is a critique of modernity that […]

Matt K. Lewis takes a look at a very small but noisy group on the American Right: monarchists and neoreactionaries. It’s not just about crusty romantics; techno-libertarians are joining the movement. Klint Finley at TechCrunch wrote about geek neoreactionaries last November. Excerpt:

Perhaps the one thing uniting all neoreactionaries is a critique of modernity that centers on opposition to democracy in all its forms. Many are former libertarians who decided that freedom and democracy were incompatible.

“Demotist systems, that is, systems ruled by the ‘People,’ such as Democracy and Communism, are predictably less financially stable than aristocratic systems,” Anissimov writes. “On average, they undergo more recessions and hold more debt. They are more susceptible to market crashes. They waste more resources. Each dollar goes further towards improving standard of living for the average person in an aristocratic system than in a Democratic one.”

Exactly what sort of monarchy they’d prefer varies. Some want something closer to theocracy, while Yarvin proposes turning nation states into corporations with the king as chief executive officer and the aristocracy as shareholders.

For Yarvin, stability and order trump all.

In the Lewis column, John Zmirak, who knows from neoreactionaries, explains that in an American context, this is fantasy:

“No conservative in Europe (outside Switzerland and maybe Venice) can be whole-heartedly anti-monarchical, just as no conservative in America can realistically be a monarchist,” says John Zmirak, author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. “You conserve what is best in your own tradition; you don’t indulge in utopian fantasies of replacing it with something alien and untried.”

Incidentally, I’ve been meaning to post Zmirak’s recent column on “Illiberal Catholicism,” which generated loads of controversy. In it, Zmirak

Let me start with a few vignettes. I was an eyewitness, or heard a detailed firsthand account, of each of these events, or else will provide a link to document it.

– Just after the Chinese government crushed the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, a seminarian explained to me that he wished he “could have driven one of the tanks” that ran over the demonstrators and their makeshift Statue of Liberty. “Americanism is a far greater threat to the Church than communism,” he explained. He is now a priest — I saw him on the altar in October.

– It was a festive evening at the small Catholic college. A hearty dinner followed Mass for the feast of its patron saint. Now the students were gathered with the school’s faculty and leaders for a bonfire and robust songs. The high point of the night was the piñata, which the school’s director of student life hung from a hook. It was full of candy and shaped like a pig. Across it was written, “Americanism.” The student life director held up a bat, and told the students, “Okay, everybody, let’s SMASH Americanism!” The students lined up behind their teachers, their dean, and their college president, to smash whatever it was they thought was Americanism. (They had never been taught what Leo XIII actually meant by that word.)

– At this same school, in an academic discussion, the college dean explained the greater economic success of Protestant countries that embraced capitalism (compared to agrarian Catholic nations) as the “effects of Freemasonry.” The college president quickly corrected him, pointing out another critical factor: “diabolical intervention.”

– That same dean, in a conversation with me, waved off the possibility of democratic reform in America. Moral reform, he explained to me, would only come in the form of a forcible coup d’état, by which “men of virtue” would impose their will “on the people, who will fall in line when they see that they have no choice.” That dean had previously criticized Franco’s Spain for being too lax.

– The historian at a large Catholic university gathered his friends and family on the day that the rest of us call “Thanksgiving.” But his clan called the holiday “Anathema Thursday,” and every year used it to mock the Protestant origins of America by hanging a Puritan in effigy. This same historian teaches those he mentors to call the Statue of Liberty “that Masonic bitch-goddess.”

– At another small Catholic college, faculty and staff lead an annual pig roast, which they call an “auto-da-fe,” naming the pig each year after a prominent “heretic” before they immolate and eat it.

– At still another small Catholic college, one of the teachers whom I met at a conference spoke effusively of “loopholes” a scholar had purportedly found in Vatican II’s endorsement of religious freedom. It seems that Dignitatis Humanae only forbids the State from using physical force in matters of religion. The Church, this young scholar explained, is not so constrained. The Church may imprison any baptized person and punish him for heresy. “So that means the Pope has the right to throw any Lutheran in jail?”, I asked skeptically. “I know, right?” he said, beaming a smile. “This is really exciting.” In subsequent weeks he sent me “proof” that George W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks.

– Over at Ethika Politika, a Catholic writer followed his rejection of American liberalism and capitalism to a different logical endpoint, and attempted to rehabilitate Karl Marx, absolving him of all the evils historically perpetrated by communists, and urging his readers to find ways to be good Catholic Marxists.

– At America magazine, a commentator wrote dismissively, even patronizingly, of that magazine’s greatest contributor — Father John Courtney Murray, SJ — for his attempt to embrace American liberty and infuse it with an understanding of natural law. It was clear that such attempts had already failed, and that Catholics should embrace political quietism, withdrawing to separatist communities and hoping for toleration, the commentator wrote.

You get the idea. Zmirak — who told me personally some of these anecdotes a while back; I confirmed some of them with other witnesses — says that more than a few on the Catholic left and Catholic right fail to understand the value of the Enlightenment, a seriously flawed but ultimately beneficial revolution in thought that, in Zmirak’s view, Catholics ought to be defending. Excerpt:

It is one thing to say that John Locke and Thomas Jefferson had flawed views of human flourishing. It is quite another for Catholics — given our long, unhappy heritage of paternalism and intolerance — to reject the Enlightenment wholesale; to pretend that religious, political, and economic freedom are the natural state of man, which we can take for granted like the sea, the sun, and the sky. These freedoms are the hard-won fruit of centuries of struggle, and many of our ancestors were fighting on the wrong side. If we expect to preserve our own tenuous freedom in an increasingly intolerant secular society, we must make it absolutely clear to our non-Catholic neighbors that we treasure their freedom too. Denouncing the Enlightenment a mere fifty years after our Church belatedly renounced intolerance, at the very moment when men as level-headed as Archbishop Chaput and Cardinal Burke are warning that Catholics face the risk of persecution, and we desperately need allies among our Protestant neighbors… can anyone really be this reckless?

Given that Zmirak has long traveled in Catholic Right circles, most of his anecdotes are from there. There is concern, however, that Pope Francis’s statements about economics reflect a return to the kind of “paternalism” — both right-wing and left-wing (e.g., social-welfare states) that the Church has supported in the past.

On the other side, Patrick Deneen wrote here at TAC last year about fellow right-wingers who have the heebie-jeebies over Francis’s position on economics. Deneen says that conservative Catholics are upset because Francis’s harsh criticism of market economics seems to validate the Catholic left’s “narrative of disruption,” which is the view (rejected by Deneen) that Francis marks a disruption of JP2’s and B16’s teachings. Deneen says that many Catholic conservatives accepted uncritically the idea that John Paul and Benedict were basically American Republicans, ignoring what both popes had to say about economics (in the same way Francis’s left-liberal admirers downplay what he says about sexual morality). The bottom line, Deneen says, is that “for Catholics, economics is a branch of moral philosophy.” More:

I think it is because of the left’s “narrative of disruption” that the right is panicked over Francis’s critiques of capitalism. These Vatican criticisms—suddenly salient in ways they weren’t when uttered by JPII and Benedict—need to be nipped in the bud before they do any damage. Of course, all along Catholic teaching has seen a strong tie between the radical individualism and selfishness at the heart of capitalism and liberationist sexual practices, understanding them to be premised on the same anthropological assumptions. (If you don’t believe Catholics about this, just read Ayn Rand.) While Hadley Arkes laments that Pope Francis did not speak at more length on sexual matters, if one reads his criticisms of the depredations of capitalism with care, one notices that he uses the same phrases with which he criticized abortion—namely, that abortion is but one manifestation of “a throw-away culture,” a phrase as well as in Evangelii Gaudium in his critique of capitalism (Section 53). If one attends carefully to Francis’s criticisms of the economy’s effects on the weak and helpless, one can’t help but perceive there also that he is speaking of the unborn as much as those who are “losers” in an economy that favors the strong. Like John Paul and Benedict before him, Francis discerns the continuity between a “throw-away” economy and a “throw-away” view of human life. He sees the deep underlying connection between an economy that highlights autonomy, infinite choice, loose connections, constant titillation, utilitarianism and hedonism, and a sexual culture that condones random hook-ups, abortion, divorce and the redefinition of marriage based on sentiment, and in which the weak—children, in this case, and those in the lower socio-economic scale who are suffering a complete devastation of the family—are an afterthought.

What think ye, about the Deneen-Zmirak argument, or neoreactionaries? I think that I have an essay on Dante for the magazine due, and I need to attend to it.