The Benedict Option, Reactionary?
You may have seen Ross Douthat’s column from the weekend, in which he talked about the reactionary element of American conservatism. He says that classical reactionary thought usually contains racist and anti-Semitic elements. Even so…:
But while reactionary thought is prone to real wickedness, it also contains real insights. (As, for the record, does Zizek — I think.) Reactionary assumptions about human nature — the intractability of tribe and culture, the fragility of order, the evils that come in with capital-P Progress, the inevitable return of hierarchy, the poverty of modern substitutes for family and patria and religion — are not always vindicated. But sometimes? Yes, sometimes. Often? Maybe even often.
Both liberalism and conservatism can incorporate some of these insights. But both have an optimism that blinds them to inconvenient truths. The liberal sees that conservatives were foolish to imagine Iraq remade as a democracy; the conservative sees that liberals were foolish to imagine Europe remade as a post-national utopia with its borders open to the Muslim world. But only the reactionary sees both.
That’s a great insight. More:
Is there a way to make room for the reactionary mind in our intellectual life, though, without making room for racialist obsessions and fantasies of enlightened despotism? So far the evidence from neoreaction is not exactly encouraging.
Yet its strange viral appeal is also evidence that ideas can’t be permanently repressed when something in them still seems true.
Maybe one answer is to avoid systemization, to welcome a reactionary style that’s artistic, aphoristic and religious, while rejecting the idea of a reactionary blueprint for our politics. From Eliot and Waugh and Kipling to Michel Houellebecq, there’s a reactionary canon waiting to be celebrated as such, rather than just read through a lens of grudging aesthetic respect but ideological disapproval.
What is Reaction? I find this loooooong post by Scott Alexander helpful. He doesn’t seem to be a reactionary, but he tries to explain it as sympathetically as he can. He, like me, finds the racialist aspect of contemporary reactionary politics “creepy,” and unlike me, he doesn’t understand the religious and metaphysical attractions of (some) contemporary reactionaries. Check out his post. I’m strongly opposed to the racism of the alt-right, and don’t mind being designated by them a “cuckservative”: their term for right-wingers who aren’t sufficiently racist and anti-Semitic.
Anyway, Ross’s last bit — reaction as an artistic and religious stance, but not a political one — seems to be more or less where the Benedict Option is. You have to be fairly alienated from liberal democratic culture to find the Ben Op appealing. In fact, I think that’s why so many conservative Christians resist it. They know that things are bad, and getting worse for us, and they know that the center is not holding, and cannot hold. But if it’s true, then they would have to do things that are really difficult. It seems easier to live with the cognitive dissonance. Many of us are like the conservative Episcopalians who say, “One more thing and I’m out the door!” — but then the one more thing comes, and we redraw the red line.
Discussing Ross’s column with a conservative friend, I told him that I don’t have much faith in liberal democracy, but I have even less faith in any alternative. I will vote for the party and the politician that gives me and my tribe the most room in which to be ourselves. But that’s not the same thing as having political hope. In fact, giving up political hope — that is, the possibility of a political solution — may be the first step toward sanity, and building a resilient future. When MacIntyre says a “crucial turning point” in the antique past came “when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium” — for us, I believe that means ceasing to believe that the United States is a Christian nation in any but a nominal sense, and coming to understand, in fact, that what is now mainstream in America is essentially anti-Christian. That does not call for a freak-out, but it does call for a radical re-evaluation of the way we small-o orthodox Christians think and the way we live here.
One of the most fundamental things we have to come to terms with is how living in modernity itself causes us to forget what Christianity is, and what a Christian is. As part of my Ben Op research, I’m reading now a dense book by social anthropologist Paul Connerton, whose 1989 book How Societies Remember I blogged about here. Note this short passage from that blog entry:
Connerton begins by saying that “our experience of the present very largely depends upon our knowledge of the past,” and that “participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.” Those memories, he contends, “are conveyed and sustained by (more or less) ritual performances.” Finally, he argues that these performances have to be embodied to be effective. Let’s unpack this.
When a new regime or social order takes over, the first thing it does is to find ways to sever the society’s connection to its past. ISIS is now doing that in the areas it controls, by erasing any physical embodiment of the memory of the area’s pre-Islamic past. “The more total the aspirations of the new regime, the more imperiously will it seek to introduce an era of forced forgetting,” says Connerton.
The one I’m reading now, from 2009, is called How Modernity Forgets. Connerton draws on Marxist analysis to talk about how capitalism causes us to forget vital connections having to do with the origin of material goods. In this excerpt, he talks about how the city of Chicago’s role as a rail hub in the 19th century changed the experience of man to the material world:
One could buy merchandise after consulting a Montgomery Ward catalogue without troubling to reflect on a web of economic and ecological linkages that stretched out in all directions. The natural roots from which it had sprung or been extracted and the human history of the labour process that had created it faded from view as it passed along the long chain of wholesale-retail relationship. The relationship in which the flow of merchandise was enmeshed was obscured from view.
Or, in other words, they were forgotten. As natural ecosystems became more intimately linked to the urban marketplace of Chicago, they came to appear ever more remote from the busy place that was Chicago. Chicago both fostered an ever closer connection between city and country, and concealed its debt to the natural system that made it possible. Chicago concealed the very linkages it was creating. The field was separated from the grain, the forest from the lumber, the rangeland from the meat. The more concentrated the city’s markets became and the more its hinterland expanded, the easier it became to forget the ultimate origins of the things bought and sold there. The easier it became to obscure the connections between Chicago’s trade and its earthly roots, the more casually one could forget that the city dew its life from the natural world around it.
Similarly with Western culture and the Christian religion. We have become a consumer society, seeing all things as commodities that can either be bought and sold, or if not bought and sold, at least as things that can be used or discarded according to our desires. This process has been happening for some time with Christianity, and it is quickly accelerating. The political theorist Glenn Tinder wrote an Atlantic essay in 1989 on “the political meaning of Christianity.” Look at this bit:
The idealism of the man-god does not, of course, bring as an immediate and obvious consequence a collapse into unrestrained nihilism. We all know many people who do not believe in God and yet are decent and admirable. Western societies, as highly secularized as they are, retain many humane features. Not even tacitly has our sole governing maxim become the one Dostoevsky thought was bound to follow the denial of the God-man: “Everything is permitted.”
This may be, however, because customs and habits formed during Christian ages keep people from professing and acting on such a maxim even though it would be logical for them to do so. If that is the case, our position is precarious, for good customs and habits need spiritual grounds, and if those are lacking, they will gradually, or perhaps suddenly in some crisis, crumble.
To what extent are we now living on moral savings accumulated over many centuries but no longer being replenished? To what extent are those savings already severely depleted? Again and again we are told by advertisers, counselors, and other purveyors of popular wisdom that we have a right to buy the things we want and to live as we please. We should be prudent and farsighted, perhaps (although even those modest virtues are not greatly emphasized), but we are subject ultimately to no standard but self-interest. If nihilism is most obvious in the lives of wanton destroyers like Hitler, it is nevertheless present also in the lives of people who live purely as pleasure and convenience dictate.
And aside from intentions, there is a question concerning consequences. Even idealists whose good intentions for the human race are pure and strong are still vulnerable to fate because of the pride that causes them to act ambitiously and recklessly in history. Initiating chains of unforeseen and destructive consequences, they are often overwhelmed by results drastically at variance with their humane intentions. Modern revolutionaries have willed liberty and equality for everyone, not the terror and despotism they have actually created. Social reformers in the United States were never aiming at the great federal bureaucracy or at the pervasive dedication to entertainment and pleasure that characterizes the welfare state they brought into existence. There must always be a gap between intentions and results, but for those who forget that they are finite and morally flawed the gap may become a chasm. Not only Christians but almost everyone today feels the fear that we live under the sway of forces that we have set in motion—perhaps in the very process of industrialization, perhaps only at certain stages of that process, as in the creation of nuclear power—and that threaten our lives and are beyond our control.
There is much room for argument about these matters. But there is no greater error in the modern mind than the assumption that the God-man can be repudiated with impunity. The man-god may take his place and become the author of deeds wholly unintended and the victim of terrors starkly in contrast with the benign intentions lying at their source.
It is my contention that liberal democracy has effectively repudiated the religious roots that made for ordered liberty, and will not be sustained because it cannot be sustained. John Adams had it right when he said that our Constitution is made for a moral and religious people, and could not work for any other. The forces of liberal democratic capitalist society do for religion what Connerton says they do for the means of production: cause mass forgetting of where the good things we enjoy come from. Consequently, if you are a Christian who assumes that you live in a more or less Christian country, and that all is well, your faith will be washed away — either in your own life, or in the lives of your descendants — because modern society (liberal, democratic, consumerist, relativist) will by its very nature cause you to forget its roots.
The forces in motion are not going to be stopped, not in the lifetime of anyone alive today. For traditional Christians, and religious traditionalists of any sort in the West, it can only be ridden out. This does not require one to affirm monarchy, fascism, or any other illiberal political form (as I do not). The problem is not political, but religious. If the Benedict Option is in any sense reactionary, it’s because it prescribes turning aside from shoring up the imperium (= liberal democracy) and instead redirects the Christian’s energies and focus to building up local forms of community within which the Christian vision can survive and thrive.
This does not mean total withdrawal, though it might for some people. I imagine most Ben Op people will do as I do, and continue to make their livings working in the world, and being a help in their own communities. But their primary loyalty will be not to the imperium, but to God, above all, and then to the family, church, school, and other local structures in which the faith is made manifest.
To take an extreme example: a Christian living and working in communist Czechoslovakia would still have had to participate in the system to earn his daily bread. But that didn’t mean that he supported communism.
Vaclav Havel once wrote that the materialist totalitarianism that people under Soviet domination endured was not different in essence from the arrogance of its liberal European version. A lengthy excerpt here, but an important one:
I presume that after all these stringent criticisms, I am expected to say just what I consider to be a meaningful alternative for Western humanity today in the face of political dilemmas of the contemporary world.
As all I have said suggests, it seems to me that all of us, East and West, face one fundamental task from which all else should follow. That task is one of resisting vigilantly, thoughtfully, and attentively, but at the same time with total dedication, at every step and everywhere, the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power — the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans. We must resist its complex and wholly alienating pressure, whether it takes the form of consumption, advertising, repression, technology, or cliché –all of which are the blood brothers of fanaticism and the wellspring of totalitarian thought. We must draw our standards from our natural world, heedless of ridicule, and reaffirm its denied validity. We must honor with the humility of the wise the limits of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our competence. We must relate to the absolute horizon of our existence which, if we but will, we shall constantly rediscover and experience. We must make values and imperatives the starting point of all our acts, of all our personally attested, openly contemplated, and ideologically uncensored lived experience. We must trust the voice of our conscience more than that of all abstract speculations and not invent responsibilities other than the one to which the voice calls us. We must not be ashamed that we are capable of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy, and tolerance, but just the opposite: we must set these fundamental dimensions of our humanity free from their “private” exile and accept them as the only genuine starting point of meaningful human community. We must be guided by our own reason and serve the truth under all circumstances as our own essential experience.
I know all that sounds very general, very indefínite, and very unrealistic, but I assure you that these apparently naive words stem from a very particular and not always easy experience with the world and that, if I may say so, I know what I am talking about.
The vanguard of impersonal power, which drags the world along its irrational path, lined with devastated nature and launching pads, is composed of the totalitarian regimes of our time. It is not possible to ignore them, to make excuses for them, to yield to them or to accept their way of playing the game, thereby becoming like them. I am convinced that we can face them best by studying them without prejudice, learning from them, and resisting them by being radically different, with a difference born of a continuous struggle against the evil which they may embody most clearly, but which dwells everywhere and so even within each of us. What is most dangerous to that evil are not the rockets aimed at this or that state but the fundamental negation of this evil in the very structure of contemporary humanity: a return of humans to themselves and to their responsibility for the world; a new understanding of human rights and their persistent reaffirmation, resistance against every manifestation of impersonal power that claims to be beyond good and evil, anywhere and everywhere, no matter how it disguises its tricks and machinations, even if it does so in the name of defense against totalitarian systems.
The best resistance to totalitarianism is simply to drive it out of our own souls, our own circumstances, our own land, to drive it out of contemporary humankind. The best help to all who suffer under totalitarian regimes is to confront the evil which a totalitarian system constitutes, from which it draws its strength and on which its “vanguard” is nourished. If there is no such vanguard, no extremist sprout from which it can grow, the system will have nothing to stand on. A reaffirmed human responsibility is the most natural barrier to all irresponsibility. If, for instance, the spiritual and technological potential of the advanced world is spread truly responsibly, not solely under the pressure of a selfish interest in profits, we can prevent its irresponsible transformation into weapons of destruction. It surely makes much more sense to operate in the sphere of causes than simply to respond to their effects. By then, as a rule, the only possible response is by equally immoral means. To follow that path means to continue spreading the evil of irresponsibility in the world, and so to produce precisely the poison on which totalitarianism feeds.
I favor “antipolitical politics,” that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the utilitarian, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative.
That is the best secular statement I know of the inchoate politics of the Benedict Option. Havel rejected the main political alternatives on offer from the West as “two different ways of playing the same game.” That’s what I think about the Democratic and Republican parties. Take a look at this piece in National Review, written by George Nash, the well-known historian of conservative thought. In it, Nash surveys the mess that is American conservatism at the present moment:
Suffice it to say that in all my years as a historian of conservatism, I have never observed as much dissension on the Right as there is at present. Now, some may see in this cacophony a sign of vitality, and perhaps it will turn out to be so. But conservatives, more than ever, need minds as well as voices.
In this season of discontent, it might be useful for conservatives to step back for a moment and ask a simple question: What do conservatives want? What should they want? Perhaps by getting back to basics, conservative intellectuals can restore some clarity and direction to the debate. What do today’s conservatives want? To put it in elementary terms, I would say that they want what nearly all conservatives since 1945 have wanted: They want to be free, they want to live virtuous and meaningful lives, and they want to be secure from threats both beyond and within our borders. They want to live in a society whose government respects and encourages these aspirations while otherwise leaving people alone. Freedom, virtue, and safety: goals reflected in the libertarian, traditionalist, and national-security dimensions of the conservative movement as it has developed over the past 70 years. In other words, there is at least a little fusionism in nearly all of us. It might be something to build on.
Well, yes, but that description is so general as to be all but meaningless. It says nothing about the elite vs. masses divide that Nash earlier in the piece identifies as the big factor in American politics now. And for that matter, are there many liberals who would deny that they too want freedom, virtue, and safety? But what is freedom? What is virtue? What is safety? We can’t even agree on what these terms mean as conservatives. It is a pretty safe bet, though, that “freedom” and “virtue” are going to be redefined within conservatism to make orthodox Christians enemies of freedom and virtue, as the left already considers us.
Get in there and fight for our place at the table if you want to, but it’s a losing battle. Big business has taken sides, and so have the courts. So have the young, who are abandoning the faith, or, if they hold to it at all, profess a hollowed-out, vapid version that is far removed from historical Christianity.
Sooner or later, religious conservatives will have to take the Benedict Option, or be assimilated. I know of no feasible alternative. The longer you put off the decision to start thinking and moving in the Ben Op direction, the harder it’s going to be.