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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
9.1 (Winter 2009)
the polis in crisis
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Thoughts Out of Season: The Future of Traditionalism
Author’s Introduction (2008): I would like to present to the readers a text whose initial drafts go back to around October 1985. Among the aspects of the text I have decided to retain are considerable polemical and combative elements, because excising them would render the flavor of the writing bland. The text was written from a feeling of deep alienation and loneliness, at a time when Canada was definitely NOT sharing in the spirit of what was then called “the Reagan/Thatcher revolution”. Despite the election of Brian Mulroney and his Progressive Conservative party in 1984, with one of the largest majorities in Canadian history, the entire social and cultural climate in Canada remained dominated by politically-correct Left-liberalism—while nearly all of the Canadian media were loudly proclaiming that the “hard right” of Brian Mulroney was wreaking havoc. Thus, in the campus setting of the University of Toronto at that time, persons on the Right were frequently accused of being well-heeled, privileged protégés of a “ruling party”—whereas the truth was that any genuine, so-called “small-c conservatives” felt extremely remote from and betrayed by the “Mulroney-ites”. It should also be remembered that, in the pre-Internet age (especially in Canada), the text below simply could not appear anywhere in Canada. The author remembers trying to present the text to the more right-leaning of the main University of Toronto student newspapers (The U of T Newspaper) to the great hilarity of the editors, who said they could not imagine a place in Canada where it might appear.
Science Fiction and World-History: The Final Stage
One of the ideas suggested by literary critic Northrop Frye in The Great Code: The Bible and Literature is that any single, finite event in time can serve as the starting point for the explanation of the world as a whole. Similarly, Hegel argued that by attempting to “explain” any slice of particularized reality, one will of necessity have to move to embrace the entire Cosmos. (By attempting to explain relations between particulars, we move outward and upward towards the Whole.) The Toronto Harbourfront Science Fiction Authors’ Festival (October 23-26, 1985) has been chosen as the initial kernel, the finite moment of particularized reality where this piece begins. (Harbourfront is a prestigious, government-funded cultural centre on Toronto’s lakefront.)
This Harbourfront Science Fiction Festival can serve as a paradigmatic example demonstrating—yet again—the storied “pluralism” of “Late Economic Determinist” society. On the one hand, there was to be seen the very weakly stated position of the defenders of the conventional liberal status-quo, who know in their hearts they are wrong, and do not hesitate to yield to “politically correct” temptation wherever and whenever possible. On the other hand, there was to be seen a throng of crackpot pseudo-dissidents who contrive to feel oppressed in a society which accepts about 95% of their first principles, premises, and programs. Their craft, it may be admitted, is of fair to middling quality—but, by their own admission, is not the issue. What is important is their “commitment to the struggle”. They are, in fact, a vital element in the informal power structures of Economic Determinist Society: after all, they help maintain that keen edge of unending, relentless, ceaseless drive into the abyss which constitutes our mechanistic society!
Judith Merril, the doyenne of Canadian science fiction, can hardly excite anyone with her re-hashings of late-stage Marxist “Scholasticism”, which has reached new heights of aridity and unreality. Nor can the socially radical (ultra-antitraditionalist) Samuel Delany interest people with his interminable “utopias” (often actually resembling Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World dystopia) which most would probably reject as positive models for the future.
Then there is Margaret Atwood, with her radical feminist diatribe, The Handmaid’s Tale, which effectively constitutes a vicious slander against religion and premodern society, the latter cruelly and crudely parodied in her dystopian Gilead. (The book later had the misfortune to be made into an equally dreary movie.) Considering the nature of late modern society, Atwood’s misplaced focus on the threat of a crude neo-fascism on the Right amounts to a massive distortion of reality—in fact, an inversion of the real situation and of the real threats to humankind.
It is true that persons such as Margaret Atwood promise us, in their better moments, “an end to alienation” and a “decent human society”.
Let us first look at what, from late 1917 to the 1980s, was the chief regime of “actually-existing socialism”. The Soviet Union, then the most prominent such state in existence, was an obscene tyranny, responsible for the deaths of over 60 million human beings (“people just like you and me”), 1984-type treatment for the slightest hint of resistance, and an economically based theory which failed even on economic grounds. At that time, many Western Left-liberals, as “friends of progress”, effectively exalted the expansion of this tyranny to the ends of the Earth, while hoping that the next country which became a satrapy of the imperium would become their dreamed-of “independent Marxist” utopia. (These warm feelings recurred over the decades in the context, for example, of Cuba, Vietnam, and Nicaragua.) Considering most Left-liberals’ willingness to support virtually any left-wing dictatorship during these decades, their stance against “repression” and “oppression” in their home countries, and their promises to deliver “human rights”, “power to the people”, “economic democracy”, and “the fulfillment of human needs” could be seen as highly hypocritical.
There were two main factors keeping the Soviet empire together:
1) a fundamental misunderstanding in the West of the reality of the Soviet system—as if a nihilist, terrorist, and economically determinist system could ever fulfill real human needs;
2) the well-organized oligarchy of the Soviet state (which would in no way be tolerated by these people here—unless they themselves were in charge)—an oligarchy based on lies, terror, force and fraud.
In those days of the early 1980s, it must be remembered, a real war was going on in the West for the hearts and minds of its citizens concerning resistance or accommodation of the Soviet empire. One wonders what might have happened if Jimmy Carter had won the 1980 election. The author of this essay remembers well how the Left-liberals of those days were so very unwilling to criticize the Soviet Union. Indeed, one often got the impression that, apart from distinctly conservative circles (and some Eastern European groups), there was some kind of stampede to scrape and bow before the Soviets.
One wonders how this interminable appeasement by Left-liberals, and, in particular, by nearly all their intellectuals, became so all-pervasive. They seemed to move from decade to decade learning nothing. The British political theorist John Gray has suggested that the roots of this profound indifference to Soviet crimes lay in the common intellectual heritage of both liberalism and socialism in Enlightenment philosophy. Indeed, if one examines liberalism and Marxism carefully, they can be found to share at least 90% of their first principles and premises: both are “democratic”, “progressive”, secular, relativist, positivist, scientific-reductionist, economically determinist, highly agnostic/atheist, etc. It might have been argued that liberal America and the Soviet Union resembled each other more closely than either did any premodern society. In those days, no real Left-liberal could resist that which seemed to him or her to be only a more thorough, more committed liberalism. It should be pointedly stressed that, from the standpoint of organic tradition, there is also little to celebrate about present-day America. The ruling ideology of America today seems to be liberalism, or more precisely, the Left-liberal agglomerate which emerged out the Sixties’ revolutions.
One may sharply argue that the differences between the actual Final Ends (or telos) of Marxism and liberalism, as seen by traditional thought, are relatively minor. These may be characterized as the differences between the Nineteen Eighty-Four nightmare of George Orwell (the real Nineteen Eighty-Four of pure evil, of course, not that of the trivialized common media usage) and the “Brave New World” of Aldous Huxley (where, to paraphrase the pre-eminent Canadian political philosopher George Parkin Grant, truth has been abolished, and every orifice is incessantly satisfied in a never-ending mindless hedonism).
In the last three decades or so, we have also been proffered “new nightmares” as a possible terminal point for humankind—such worlds as those represented in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?); John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar; Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (filmed by Stanley Kubrick); Verhoeven’s RoboCop ; Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic (from the short story by William Gibson); the Terminator, Mad Max, and Aliens movie-series; Judge Dredd; and the Max Headroom TV series (which takes place “twenty minutes from now”). Two older movies are Logan’s Run, which presents a sensual, Brave New World-type society, with one catch—you are scheduled for termination at age thirty; and Outland, which presents a variant of the gritty future on a brutal mining colony near Saturn. The movies Wall Street and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network offer critical portrayals of our own contemporary society. Finally, one must mention Jean Raspail’s extraordinary book, The Camp of the Saints, which graphically explores problems of overpopulation and mass migration from the Third World to the First.
With every year, the traditionalist thinker would argue, the “friendly” control of the corporate/media tyranny over what were once the traditional societies of the West becomes ever tighter. The last vestiges of premodern society, including positions held for virtually all of previous human history and prehistory, are ruthlessly offered up to the dark idols of radical freedom and radical equality, which have led humankind to the guillotines and beyond. Hardly anyone dares to challenge publicly the bloated sacred cows of the “consensus”. The desiccation and destruction of a living history and past, and of authentic philosophy and authentic language, proceeds apace: in Economic Society, the human person is expected to live on the ever-thinning line of an ever-diminishing present of material bliss. The elected government—chosen “by the people”—increasingly appears as the least important element of late modern liberal society. Instead of Big Brother, we have the kindly face of Peter Mansbridge (or Dan Rather) telling us “the truth” (constructing “reality” for us) on the telescreens of CBC or ABC or NBC or CBS or CNN.
One may wonder why it is today that in Canada, for example, a typical political party convention (as in the 1985 Tory leadership race in the province of Ontario) becomes a three-ring circus, a bedlam, a satiation of all the grossest appetites and impulses; that all politics seems degraded to the level of pork-barrelling and petty intrigues over nothing substantial; that manipulators and sycophants and morons advance most rapidly in such parties. One possible answer is that the persons in such political parties have no real power; that they have sold out the chance of ever exercising real power; and it is only for the grossest material benefits that they join such “political parties”. The politicians, it may be argued, are effectively at the beck and call of the real rulers of this society, the media oligarchs, who with a word can consign a person to ignominy, and with another elevate their champion.
Confronted with the emerging dystopia towards which Left-liberalism is tending, we might well ask where hope exists for true change in the world. It may be argued that hope appears not only in such places as churches (or the traditionalist elements therein), which are themselves under severe attack, but also in some rather unlikely places. Indeed, some might contend that the science fiction and fantasy genres of literature constitute, to a certain extent at least, a possible mode of resistance to Economic Determinist society. There seems to be a series of deep tensions in these genres which go beyond matters of artistic form and convention. Of course, there is the writing of crass Left-liberal or radical Left propaganda tracts, which do nothing but entrench the status-quo of Economic Society. These either present traditionalist or neo-traditionalist societies as grotesquely caricatured dystopias (e.g., Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) or present societies even more radically anti-traditional than ours as highly positive (or at least not too bad, and supposedly quite possible—e.g., Samuel Delany’s Triton). But in most science fiction and fantasy works, there is a clear tension between generically liberal or socialist positions on the surface and the deeper level of satisfying the truly natural human desires for archetypal meaning and harmony. (This can be seen even in much of supposedly “feminist-oriented” fantasy, such as that of Marion Zimmer Bradley, which seems to transcend dogmatic latter-day feminism.) A high proportion of works in the SF and fantasy genres seem totally to reject Left-liberal premises (The Lord of the Rings and Dune being two outstanding examples). Although the George Lucas Star Wars series clearly contained certain ideational ambiguities, it could nevertheless be rather safely interpreted as a cheering, heroic series of movies that played not a small part in the renewal of American willingness to resist the Soviet empire in the 1980s.
Some may argue that an overall tension exists in these genres between the shoring up of the Left-liberal status-quo and the call for something better. Indeed, a similar argument might be advanced for much of the rock music genre, especially as it existed in the 1980s. While rock music is one of the primary means for the “socialization” of youth into liberal “reality”, at the same time it maintains strong Romantic and idealistic themes, however distorted they might sometimes be.
One can also point today to the burgeoning genre of “the lonely, wounded hero”, typified by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical interpretation of The Phantom of the Opera, the Beauty and the Beast television series, Tim Burton’s art-deco/gothic re-interpretation of Batman, the first Highlander movie, and Ladyhawke (which showed a single knight dressed in black fighting on behalf of the Church of Rome against an evil, heretical bishop and sorcerer of seemingly infinite powers).
On the one hand, the SF/fantasy genres offer as their main benefit a temporary, drug-like escape from the soul-destroying, deadening world of Economic Society and economic values—thus, paradoxically, helping to maintain the status-quo. On the other hand, a real hope can be discerned for a better society than one based on brute force and economic power-relations and false ideologies. The new-old society pictured in much science fiction is often classified as one with “feudal structures and high technology”. (Judith Merril indeed was complaining in 1985 that most of popular science fiction was pervaded by such a reactionary typology.) What sort of society could this correspond to in the real world?
It could be seen as a society which combines the deep wisdom and spiritual fulfillment of premodern society with the benefits of technology used for the person, not against him or her. It could be seen as a society in which those who seek the Higher Good and Higher Truth are rewarded, and which integrates all men and women into an overarching harmony full of meaning, satisfying their archetypal desire for what is truly natural.
Science fiction offers us a warning, as well. If we do not take this course, there awaits us a whole series of liberal “utopias”, and coercively totalitarian dystopias, or possibly, various technological disasters.
The traditionalist thinker does not offer easy, facile utopias of material bliss and ease. Since it is argued in traditionalist understandings that all societies are in fact, ultimately, hierarchical or oligarchical, the differences between ruling philosophies and ideologies constitute the basis for the chief differences between societies. Historically, it may be argued that the desire of the so-called Enlightenment thinkers to overturn the “iron law of oligarchy” resulted in the replacement of kings by mob-masters and tyrants; of wise men by idiots and cruel, cunning monsters; of priesthood by psychological manipulators. There is a seeming inevitability about this whole process—the premodern systems in Europe were too closely tied to organic tradition to resist guillotines, gulags, and gas-chambers with similar methods. They were therefore effectively routed. What remains of their vaunted principles today? Their putative opposition to technology, which might have improved their chances, doomed them utterly. The trenchancy of their philosophical defence and their sometimes heavy-handed methods (although some scholars have calculated that Stalin’s regime killed more people in one day than the Spanish Inquisition in its 800-year existence) sprang from the feeling that no one could really challenge what had been upheld (more or less) throughout all of previous human history. Thus, they were defeated.
Now it is those who seek to live in a context of rooted, reflective tradition who are the real dissidents from Economic Determinist society.
Unfortunately, the totalitarian implications of high technology mean that the Left-liberal oligarchies are very secure indeed. The Inner Parties of Economic Determinist societies are afraid of nothing more than a return to genuine pluralism. They know full well that this would seriously challenge their unnatural, mechanistic systems. A real Free Speech Movement would be cut down quickly by media attacks and pseudo-legal judicial maneuvers, if it went beyond one individual’s dissent.
To analyze late modernity in the neo-traditionalist way, it should be stressed, requires no “special insights” or “conspiracy-theories”. Anyone who is fairly well read and wants to open his eyes to the world around him would probably reach similar conclusions. The goal is to see liberal society from outside the prism of liberal ideology. One of the main questions is to what extent the years of “full-spectrum” media and educational indoctrination can be overcome.
One of the gravest, if unfairest, accusations against neo-traditionalism is the cry of “fascism” (an accusation which carries the emotive weight of being labeled a “Nazi camp-guard and baby-killer”). Nazism, it may be observed, is actually a nihilist, hyper-irrationalist, positivist, fanatically anti-Christian, pseudo-spiritual, terrorist, and fundamentally unnatural philosophy. There are, in fact, a number of interesting convergences between it and liberalism and Marxism (such as anticlericalism) which one is usually discouraged from remarking publicly today.
At the same time, in this period of late modernity, “fascism” serves as a “devil-word”. In late-modern, Left-liberal societies, such devil-words as “racist” and “sexist” could be seen as serving the political function of fixing scapegoats and diverting people from the real problems of those societies, which mostly relate to the lack of archetypal unity, meaning, and harmony. This is not to say that there are not some cases where some of these words can be honestly used.
It seems that today, every person on the planet is faced with a choice of awesome proportions. Will what can be interpreted as the real dialectic of history advance into a genuinely decent human society (thus allowing for further evolution and choices which cannot be predicted from this vantage point)—or will human history end through the imposition of sterile so-called “utopias”, cruel, dark dystopias, or multifarious technological disasters? The decisive question is whether the human person will indeed be reduced to the level of a drugged zombie, a machine, deprived of history and philosophy and culture and truth and virtue… and love.
Some may see analogies between the decay of Rome (or other moments in history) and our own late modern period. The past has produced not only Cicero and Augustus, but also the scrofulous Nero and the pock-marked Caligula. But the basic acknowledgement of and striving for the fulfillment of a moral imperative in society (here exemplified by the virtues of ancient Rome), however imperfectly it is embodied, is far better than that imperative’s total denial. Although Pope Alexander VI (Roderigo Borgia) was a decayed personality, there remains, even in Renaissance society, a real ethical code. Ironically, the Northern barbarians sacking Rome maintained at least a vestigial respect for the grandeur of Rome, whereas the persons possibly overwhelming the West today from “the South” have been taught to do nothing but hate it, by the Western elites themselves. It seems that almost no Roman, however physically feeble, wished for the fall of Rome because it had created a magnificent empire, worthy of praise. The fall of Rome took centuries, coming about mostly (it could be argued) as a result purely of lacking physical resources. Even today, the West has a superabundance of physical resources available that could conceivably be deployed in its defence; it simply seems to have ceased believing in itself, and has lost its will to live.
While life in premodernity may certainly have been harsh at many times and for many people, the question modern liberals refuse to examine is how premodern societies, with about one-millionth of the economic resources available to late modern society, managed to create sublime art, philosophy, and religion, and to maintain the continuity of society for a thousand years at a time, or even longer. How wretched, thin, and pathetic is nearly all the art of late modernity!
It seems that, in the presence of high technology, the only effective limits to power will be those generated by the ideology of the ruling group. A ruling group whose philosophy recognizes natural limits will probably be the least likely to abuse its power, thanks to a philosophy of recognizing and understanding natural limits—and hence, ipso facto, the rightful limits of governmental and coercive power. It seems that only a ruler who is guided by some degree of commitment to virtue will acknowledge the compulsion to be (or attempt to be) an ethical person, and not to abuse his or her power. It might be argued that it is only in a society accepting natural limits that there will be any attempts at self-control by the hierarchy. At the same time, some might argue that modern technology offers unprecedented possibilities for the effecting of true goodness in the world, if only such technology could be properly steered and contained.
Liberalism, as seen from the standpoint of rooted tradition, seems to be waging a war on society. It appears unlikely to address such social problems as crime and family breakdown, and may actually exacerbate them. How can liberals talk about a “decent human society” in the face of such burgeoning problems? It plainly seems that liberalism lacks the strength and moral will to deal with such issues. It’s clear, for example, that the burgeoning plague of illicit drugs could only be crushed by extraordinary measures of which liberalism seems totally incapable. Although there are some liberals who are willing to be tough on crime, and although all liberals resent having their policies being identified as leading to increased crime and social disorder, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that “soft” liberal psychology has played a part in these burgeoning trends.
Liberalism, as seen from the standpoint of rooted tradition, seeks to destroy Western national cultures—and all the rooted cultures of the planet—through the artificial formation of multicultural, anomic, said to be “value-free” society. Liberalism, it seems, will never fulfill the real human needs for archetypal unity and harmony. It appears to reduce the human person to a machine, an automaton devoid of spirit. Liberalism might well be interpreted as the Death Wish, the tendency to entropy, the Thanatos, that can only be confronted by the spirit of life, of organic tradition, of rooted and reflective particularity.
To the traditionalist thinker, organic tradition (rooted, reflective particularity) transcends ideology. It is Life. It is, the traditionalist thinker argues, that in us which is truly human. The traditionalist thinker urges us to consider what the liberal or Marxist, devoid of traces of organic tradition, would be. To the traditionalist thinker, such a liberal is seen as a highly negative type of personality: as a social libertine, a political manipulator, or a ruthless capitalist—or, on the other extreme, as a person willing to cave in to any minority demands if the demanding group can be made to appear some sort of victim of mainstream Western civilization and sufficiently “alien/alienated” from mainstream Western civilization. The doctrinaire Marxist (or the blowhard fascist) could be seen as a power-mad ideologue, a Robespierre, a Stalin, a Hitler, who recognizes no limits on violence and terror.
The traditionalist will argue that it is only through the outmost efforts of human beings striving for real humanity against the prospects of total enslavement to technology (and the ideologies that arise therefrom) that a real, socially worthwhile world could be recreated. It may be helpful to use a naturalistic image to describe this process. Humankind has passed through the blessed innocence of childhood, when the numinous was with humankind, to a troubled adolescence of rebellion and self-destruction. It is now time to enter the world of real maturity, to fulfill Providential destiny, and not to frustrate our efforts through self-destructive behaviour or suicide. It is a choice which must be strenuously argued for, as all other paths seem to lead to perdition. Yet every day, the Left-liberal oligarchies seem to be closing off path after path by which a nobler, higher society could be created.
So, the traditionalist will polemically ask, are you a human being or a machine?
“All that is necessary for the triumph of Evil is for good men to do Nothing.”
~ Edmund Burke
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Toronto. He has frequently contributed articles to this journal on subjects ranging from “pop” culture to political philosophy.