The Road to Serfdom
The Reactionary Mind: Why “Conservative” Isn’t Enough, by Michael Warren Davis, (Regnery Gateway: October 2021), 256 pages.
Getting into the reactionary mindset, I decided to start this book at the end, with the appendices, and work my way back to the beginning.
The first appendix is a list of reactionary leaders, “men who sought to preserve the balance between charity and independence, and to maintain the harmony between freedom and duty.” It is, Davis admits, an eclectic group: Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Hilaire Belloc, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, Dorothy Day. Here, I take it, is that Big Tent we all have heard so much about.
The second is a list of reactionary pastimes, exercise or leisure that actually makes a man more useful, paired with an opposite list of no-nos. Weightlifting, “a waste of time and energy,” makes the latter list, while “strength training with objects found in nature” makes the former. For the life of me I can’t muster an explanation for the difference, but I have decided to accept it.
Next we get a list of reactionary dogs, again divided by usefulness or lack thereof. I’m not sure where my dachshund-chihuahua mix (don’t ask) falls, given his split constitution between a reactionary and a useless breed; but I’m not too bullish on the little guy’s chances.
Reactionary drinks is a mostly solid catalogue, though I can’t understand in the slightest why anyone would dilute a fine glass of chartreuse with tonic or any other mixer. Reactionary books, both literature and non-fiction, are two fine if inexhaustive lists.
Reading the entire thing in reverse would have been a bit laborious, so from here I went back to page one. Or page xi. Modern pagination has always rubbed me the wrong way. Somebody write a book about that. There’s a counterrevolution I can get behind.
I read the introduction, and nodded vigorously along to every word, then put down the book to watch a cop procedural on Amazon Prime as I fell asleep. Evening came, and morning followed; I went straight for the cell phone, and as I scrolled through a Twitter account called “cats with jobs” (@catworkers, for the morbidly curious), I found myself condemned by Michael Warren Davis:
In your pocket, there’s a little black box. Using that little black box, you can read every known work of Seneca, Euclid, Xenophon, Aquinas, Pascal, Shakespeare, Milton, Montaigne, Donne, Johnson, and Dickens. But you probably won’t. You’ll use it to look at pictures of strange-looking cats and watch videos of men hitting each other in the groin.
You got me there, Mike. Back to the book it is.
The Reactionary Mind is in some way an answer to Russell Kirk’s similarly titled 1953 opus, one of the founding documents of the postwar American right. It is not enough to be merely conservative, says Davis, when there is so little left of the order we should conserve and so much imposed that must be rooted out. We cannot be defenders of the status quo; we must rebel and rebuild.
This makes the project fundamentally revisionist, intent on rewriting centuries worth of the West’s understanding of itself. Enemies of progress denounced by the modern right must be reevaluated in light of the reactionary worldview. Champions of progress, meanwhile, even those who have called themselves conservative, must be held to account for the destruction they have wrought.
The argument at the center of the book is that life was just better eight centuries ago; the medieval serf, for all his technological primitiveness, at least had the advantages of an integral social order and an integral worldview. “The major catastrophes in Western history…the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution,” dissolved both and gave us the iPhone as consolation.
Another of the founding texts of the contemporary “conservative” movement warns that governments might set us on a road to serfdom, reimposing the premodern conditions of the medieval serf on his 20th-generation descendants. Davis is ready to hit the road, to ride back past modern catastrophe to the happy life of our faithful forebears.
He makes his case with a startling simplicity, recasting modern humanism as anti-humanism, and holding up the modern state in contrast to medieval government—a comparison that reflects none too kindly on our own temporal rulers. What good have these centuries of revolution done, besides strip men of their religion and their land and substitute the iron fist of the liberal state for a free life under a Christian king?
Though I must admit I am predisposed to agreement, it is hard not to be struck by just how obvious the book’s lines of reasoning appear.
Of course the reorganization of society around the individual at the expense of mediating institutions necessarily leads to increased state responsibility, and thus increased state authority. Of course social contract theory legitimizes the expansion of governmental power in a way medieval theory never could. Of course a modern bureaucratic leviathan is both more vulnerable and better suited to the development of tyranny than any old feudal system. Of course the transformation of the taxpaying small farmer into a deracinated wage slave made him less free, not more. Of course the abolition of public religion has done exactly what any sensible person before about a century ago could have warned you it would do.
The reactionary knows all these things, and yet the question remains: How do we go back? This is the question guiding the book’s second part, “a handbook for would-be reactionaries…in open revolt against the modern world.”
In the first part, Davis quotes Tolkien’s famous letter to his son voicing a draw towards anarcho-monarchy, a kind of return to the free kingship of the middle ages. Like most who quote from the letter, Davis omits the latter parts, which have some bearing on the second half of his book:
But the special horror of the present world is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to. Even the unlucky little Samoyedes, I suspect, have tinned food and the village loudspeaker telling Stalin's bed-time stories about Democracy and the wicked Fascists who eat babies and steal sledge-dogs. There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as 'patriotism', may remain a habit! But it won't do any good, if it is not universal.
“Dynamiting factories and power-stations” is radical action, and even most diehard reactionaries would forswear it today. I myself am obliged to tut-tut it, lest our friends in Langley place me on another watchlist.
And yet there is a profound wisdom in Tolkien’s negativity: There is nowhere to fly to. The modern economic order, just like the modern political order, is all-encompassing, all-consuming, inescapable.
Davis, a fellow Bay State native who has crossed the border northward, takes his epigraph from that great New England poet, Robert Frost: “Well, if I have to choose one or the other I choose to be a plain New Hampshire farmer.” But he admits readily that he cannot be a farmer. He could not even afford the land. Nor could any but the richest among us.
It is likewise impossible, once the die has been cast, to return to a social-economic order of single-income families. (For this argument, Davis draws on that great Senate reactionary, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.) We find ourselves in an ever worsening situation of concentrated capital and cratering property ownership, declining real wages, less meaningful work that nonetheless rarely becomes less demanding, and a market ever more hostile to the institution of the family.
It seems that humane economy, once lost, is—to borrow from one of our great living novelists—“a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.” (I am not sure if Davis would call Cormac McCarthy a reactionary, but I think he should.)
Davis notes, rightly, that we have to “fix the economy.” It must be reordered toward the primacy of the family, the valuation of real craft, rootedness in place and community—all the things that constitute the political vision of Nazareth. Davis highlights the value of 20th-century distributist thought. He calls for protective tariffs and tax incentives for reshoring labor.
These are all sound ideas, and well worth implementing. But I hardly find myself convinced that they will succeed in conquering either Mammon or Leviathan. This may be an indelible problem of the reactionary mind. The person whose natural tendencies incline him to recognize the failures of modernity does not, as a rule, have also the ability to meet system-level problems with system-level solutions. The kind of thought and action required to reshape society is, in the end, antithetical to the reactionary’s character.
Maybe the reactionary cannot defeat modernity. But neither can modernity defeat the reactionary. He believes Stein’s Law: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
Near the end of The Reactionary Mind, Davis predicts:
Christendom—a Christian society and culture, reflected in life and law—may be dead beyond any hope of resurrection. The American republic may fall. It may be succeeded by some techno-oligarchic tyranny, or it may be swept into the sea by a Chinese invasion. The whole industrial capitalist system may collapse and plunge our nation into anarchy, hunger, and war. Christians may once again become an openly persecuted sect. We may very well be headed for a new Dark Age.
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This seems, at first glance, bleak. But we ought to remember that the last Dark Age birthed the thousand years of Christendom on whose goodness this book meditates. Nothing is permanent except for the things that are.
For a note of muted hope, as the battlefields of late modernity set themselves up and the Christian prepares for the coming turmoil, we might turn to a reactionary poet who did not quite make Davis’ list:
…But as the turf divides / I see in the slow progress of his strides / Over the toppled clods and falling flowers, / The timeless, surly patience of the serf / That moves the nearest to the naked earth / And ploughs down palaces, and thrones and towers.