How classical liberalism got pwned (in brief)

Social equity today does not have to be so much fought for by young radicals as administrated by managers of all ages.

— Jay M. Shafritz and E.W. Russell, Introducing Public Administration


A long-standing dilemma that disturbs the libertarians is the question of how classical liberalism was so badly butchered into the pinko social liberal ideology of Hobhouse, Green, Lloyd George, etc. which it is today. The straight answer is that no one butchered it and that liberalism outside of England and (sometimes) France was practically never laissez-fairist.

However, it is worth looking into the question for its own sake. After all, going from Herbert Spencer ranting against public sanitation legislation in his essay The New Toryism (1884) to Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” in a span of about a couple of decades is a rather striking saltationist event of social evolution, both in the case of English liberalism specifically, and of how a generally economically liberal consensus can rapidly spiral off into one of scientific management.

“Who now reads Spencer?,” asked Talcott Parsons many years ago. No one. No one now reads Parsons either, might I add.

But in order to get a hint, perhaps we ought to sample the man. He was the biggest intellectual celebrity of the 19th century, after all. It’s almost difficult to believe this today given his quick plunge into irrelevance simultaneously with the Victorian rugged liberalism he stood for, but at least the volume of his book sales corroborates this notion. And, contrary to stereotypes of him by his socialist opponents, his theory of evolution was quite sophisticated.

This isn’t supposed to be an overview of Spencer. If you want that, go read Alberto Mingardi.

One of Spencer’s main postulates was that social systems evolve from an indefinite homogeneity to concrete and definite heterogeneous networks, and per his First Principles, “that all sensible existences must, in some way or other and at some time or other, reach their concrete shapes through processes of concentration.”

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Jules Barni and the comedy of the republican freeholder ethic

[This elucidates previous ideas I’ve been discussing, but states them in a much more direct manner. It also gave me the opportunity to introduce a few ultra-royalists that I will be revisiting later, and it’s my first attempt at comparative analysis via feudal law, something that I will be doing more of in the future.]

We will be looking at the story of a Kantian. It isn’t Donald Trump, though I am eagerly anticipating how he will complete the system. By all indications, The Donald seems like a fan of Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation, so perhaps a synthesis of the Ego and the Gesellschaft will be the key. One can only speculate.

The Kantian in question is Jules Barni, long-time traveler in left-wing causes during the Second Empire and Third Republic, having published in Jules Simon’s liberal newspapers, and having been a member of the League of Peace and Freedom, a pacifist organization joined by such luminaries as Garibaldi and Bakunin. Following his own idol Kant, himself a theoretician of republicanism and internationalism in Perpetual Peace (1795), Barni was to become a prime philosopher of modern liberal (as opposed to classical) republicanism, though largely unknown in the Anglosphere.

Writing in 1795, one of Kant’s Preliminary Articles for peace consisted of opposition to dynastic inheritance, justified thusly: “For a state is not a property (patrimonium), as may be the ground on which its people are settled. It is a society of human beings over whom no one but itself has the right to rule and to dispose. Like the trunk of a tree, it has its own roots, and to graft it on to another state is to do away with its existence as a moral person, and to make of it a thing. Hence it is in contradiction to the idea of the original contract without which no right over a people is thinkable. Everyone knows to what danger the bias in favour of these modes of acquisition has brought Europe (in other parts of the world it has never been known). The custom of marriage between states, as if they were individuals, has survived even up to the most recent times, and is regarded partly as a new kind of industry by which ascendency may be acquired through family alliances, without any expenditure of strength; partly as a device for territorial expansion. Moreover, the hiring out of the troops of one state to another to fight against an enemy not at war with their native country is to be reckoned in this connection; for the subjects are in this way used and abused at will as personal property.”

Putting aside the question as to why a “moral person” cannot morally contract himself, Barni’s Manuel républicain (1872) was a pivotal work in entrenching the revolution that Kant envisioned and which impassioned many men into carrying it out. It is an excellent statement of political modernity, and it ought to be reckoned with. We will be sampling the two most important chapters, Principles and Mores (of the republicans).

Now, we are going to do a little thought experiment here. We will take a contemporary legal treatise on Anglo-Norman feudal tenures and toy around with it as an analytical framework by which to elucidate the practical substance of Barni’s claims. Thomas de Littleton’s Tenures (circa 1480) is a good choice as any, a true classic.

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Constant, Remusat and the Tensions Between Ancient and Modern Liberties

Freedom! What word has caused more acrimony? Our great modern liberals, owing their lineage from cameralist blowhards on to German Kathedersozialisten who then cross-pollinated with American institutionalists (Friedrich S. List, widely credited as the founder of economic nationalism, was actually influenced by an early ideologue of the American System and of Northern manufacturing interests, Daniel Raymond), are ever clamoring for greater positive liberties. They fancy themselves as builders of an inclusive polis, complete with its patron deities of Science and Reason. A polis where behavioral norms are set completely uninhibited as if from a De Sade novel, and where no problem cannot be solved by social insurance programs legitimated through popular plebiscite and executed by technicians and clerks.

Against this stand the dwindling numbers of Manchesterites, espousing the negative conception of freedom from interference. To a large degree, this is an aristocratic idea: the nobleman jealously guarding his seignioral rights from regalian prerogative on top, and thus developing an ethic of independence. The ideal here is the rzeczpospolita szlachecka, a constitutionally limited commonwealth consisting of allodial property-holders having free conscience and owing little to the taxman, its ultimate dream being sinecure through absentee rent-extraction. Except this vision was transplanted to the burghers.

The Manchesterites would find out that the capitalists are natural-born Ghibellines, since strictly speaking, they have no status in terms of formal peerage. Their status is determined by wealth, and wealth can always (selectively) be maximized, if in an illusory manner, by the coalition-building powers of the exchequer and by lavish public works projects to serve as subsidized foundations of their own enterprises.

Social liberalism and Manchesterism are the inevitable perversions of two archetypes that French liberal Benjamin Constant would respectively draw between liberty of the ancients and liberty of the moderns, himself an avowed champion of the latter.

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Aristocratic liberalism: a brief tour of an extinct tradition

Can one be a liberal who hates the people? Liberalism and democracy are generally taken to be two inseparable sides of the same coin, but as any socialist will tell you, it need not be so. Indeed, it was not always so. Is there not some conflict between a contractual view of a bounded state where governors reciprocally guarantee certain rights to citizens, and a view of a General Will perpetually demolishing fences that the forces of “free expression” and ballot-box anarchy deem unworthy of standing? It seems there is. Of course, any aberration from democracy in a liberal state seems to be quickly corrected, either in the direction of more popular participation with disastrous results (First Spanish Republic, First Portuguese Republic, First Austrian Republic, etc.) or that of more popular participation with careful bureaucratic safeguards (most modern liberal democracies).

Still, the rule of law differing from the rule of the rabble, we will be looking at the dead transitory tendency that was aristocratic liberalism, which flourished during the period from the Bourbon Restoration to the July Monarchy (1814-1848) in France, but with a precedent in the conservative Monarchiens faction during the early stages of the French Revolution (1789-1791), who advocated for constitutional monarchy.

The essence of this aristocratic liberalism is a belief in constitutionalism, representative institutions and civil liberties, but a rejection of what we call “political freedom.” A nonpartisan monarch stands inviolable and infallible, but does not legislate directly, only through his ministers. A bicameral legislature votes on and enacts laws, but they are sanctioned and promulgated solely by the person of the king. Freedom of religion and equality before the law are guaranteed. However, political participation is strictly limited by census suffrage, restrictions on the press and restrictions on political assembly. These are, by and large, the principles of the Charter of 1814 which opened the Bourbon Restoration. The conception of liberty is one based on property, not on voice.

The aristocratic liberals were the epitome of bourgeois values. The term “bourgeois” has, of course, become one of opprobrium. The left associates it with reactionary capitalist robber barons extracting surplus value from powerless wage workers, whereas the right uses it as something of a synonym for an urban bohemian type with progressive convictions and a liberal-arts major, what is today often called a SWPL.

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Mencius Moldbug, 10 years later: a critical retrospective

[Also on Thermidor.]

Who would have thought that some kid, a civil service brat and the grandson of dues-paying members of the CPUSA, who came of age on Usenet discussing SunOS Unix login semantics and apparently submitting text files for cDc’s ezine [who are somehow still kicking around], would become an infamous blogger widely credited as the one who kickstarted a tendency in political thought called “neoreaction”?

April 22nd, 2007 was Moldbug’s debut on 2Blowhards.com, publishing his formalist manifesto, to be republished as the first article on Unqualified Reservations a day later. Having ostensibly secured himself a reasonable amount of discretionary income in the dot-com boom, he took a sabbatical to read some books, old and new.

The product of UR was a series of lengthy blog posts with long-winded digressions, liberal use of quotations and extended commentaries on books written before 1922 offering perspectives that are unsettling to children of (very) late modernity. Between this were frequent spats with other bloggers (something Moldbug would come back to do again after Scott Aaronson urged action against Trump’s Executive Order 13769). See, e.g., his exchanges with Liberal Biorealist: [1][2].

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Gobineau, the Royalist

[UPDATE: Now also on Thermidor.]

Just about everyone has heard of, if not actually read, Joseph-Arthur, comte de Gobineau, the racial theorist.

However, we will not be looking much at his racialism, although we will ultimately have to draw some observations on it near the end. Instead, this article is about the lesser known side of Count Gobineau – the intransigent royalist, Bourbon legitimist and conservative pessimist. Although his background and his historiographic debt to the elitist theories of Henri de Boulainvilliers are frequently acknowledged, it goes deeper than that. It is not possible to understand his infamous Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (so horribly butchered by its American Southern translators) without knowing his background as a man of ancien regime temperament trapped in “le stupide XIXe siecle,” as Leon Daudet was to memorably describe it later.

It is a curious thing that Gobineau is overwhelmingly remembered purely for his Essai. In his lifetime, he was an intellectual with a diverse repertoire – serving in many diplomatic posts, writing novels, travelogues, gaining authority as an Orientalist and admirer of East and Central Asian civilizations [which is one of the reasons why judging Gobineau’s views by his Essai alone is highly misleading] and mingling with major figures of the day. He was one of the first men to recognize the literary genius of Honore de Balzac at a time when most of his contemporaries overlooked him. In addition, despite his disdain for the principles of the Revolutions of 1848, he may have actually inadvertently contributed to them in his capacity as a French minister to Greece, by being a capable defender of the liberal nationalist statesman Ioannis Kapodistrias, a man who was distrusted both by Klemens von Metternich and Friedrich von Gentz, two of the primary architects of the conservative order established in the Congress of Vienna.

A complex figure, indeed.

We will focus on a posthumous ouevre of Gobineau’s, La troisième république française et ce qu’elle vaut [What the French Third Republic is Worth] (1907), compiled from his manuscripts by Ludwig Schemann, a German enthusiast of his, a racial theorist who translated Gobineau’s Essai into German, and a man who inhabited volkisch circles.

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Reading some actual Nazis

National Socialism – the perennial bogeyman of right-wing politics. Yet at the same time a persistent morbid fascination all across the political spectrum. The most trafficked website on the “alt-right” appears to be The Daily Stormer, with 500k+ daily views.

Greg Johnson, the voice of the North American New Right, has a beef with the “Old Right” (his term for the interwar fascist movements), particularly National Socialism. The Nazis didn’t just stay in their ethnically “self-determined” patch of land, but expanded further and violated the “right to self-determination” of other ethnicities. I can’t help but laugh at this. I imagine a libertarian in a Gadsden flag t-shirt yelling “Stop initiating force against me!” while getting beaten. The Nazis were only helping the diaspora Germans “self-determine” along with them, after all.

Someone writing under the pseudonym of “Padishah Emperor Julius Ebola” over at TRS realizes this, however. He therefore advocates an active policy of containment and conquest for a future revolutionary Aryan state. So much for wanting to live separately, then.

Regardless, the Nazi chic has truly endured beyond belief. Forget about the Holocaust industry. Something about the Hugo Boss uniforms, the cool symbols, the marching girls of the BDM, the workplace aesthetics of Kraft durch Freude and the paramilitary ethics in a Nuremberg rally makes some people stamp their feet and say “This is what our people need!”. Where are all the Rexists, Metaxists, Brazilian or Lusitanian integralists, or even good ol’ Maurrassistes? A few French true believers might still adhere to some of the latter, but any influence on the Anglosphere is practically nil. Not that the Action francaise were like the other movements. Ernst Nolte made an error to conflate them. Still, they did intermingle.

Nazism is dead, but is it really? It’s a corpse that people can’t stop fornicating with, whether to desecrate it out of hatred, or as a token of appreciation.

“Don’t punch right” is pretty much a euphemism for “Don’t punch the Nazi, for he is the epitome of right.” Now, it can’t be that we have so many Nazi enthusiasts but little to no Maurrassistes because of the language barrier alone. Most AF works have not been translated to English, but neither have most NS works. And the ones that have are barely read (I’m implicitly counting out Mein Kampf — there was far more to NS as an ideology than Hitler the man). Does your average reader of The Daily Stormer nod at the robust framework presented in Gottfried Feder’s Die Neue Stadt? Of course not. Nor do they read Rosenberg’s verbose tomes. But, the NS movement was not a cadre of anti-intellectual power cultists per the stereotype. They had publishing houses – the Eher and the Kampf-Verlag, plus newspapers and journals. The tendency to dismiss their writings as “propaganda” or as bereft of value, is mistaken.

Yet even as Brett Stevens buries Hitler, he can’t help but sneak in quite a bit of praise.

Perhaps the far-right fondness for NS comes from a similar source to the 12-year old’s fondness for Cradle of Filth in shocking his evangelical parents? It’s there, but people don’t just listen to, say, Alice Cooper because he’s a shock rocker. They listen to the music. Similarly, people are drawn to the style of NS for deeper aesthetic and spiritual reasons.

One way to look at NS, per Ernst Nolte, is as a reaction against Bolshevism and the revolutionary waves of 1918 and 1919. That’s one part of it, but if NS were just a movement that wanted to go back to the Biedermaier days, I’d probably be one of the avid readers of The Daily Stormer today, if not donning the SA uniform and singing the Horst-Wessel-Lied, too. There was a tad more to it. It was a revolution from the right, as Hans Freyer called it.

Nor do I regard Goodrick-Clarke’s linking of NS to Ariosophy and the occult to be very useful, either. In fact, the occult seems far more influential to the small NS groups post-1945 (in the form of Miguel Serrano, Savitri Devi, etc.) than the contemporary Nazis. Still, barely anyone reads those, either.

So we have a dead and extraordinarily demonized movement whose literary tradition is highly obscure, but is an unending staple of popular culture, of political rhetoric, of tarring your foe, and of far-right sensibilities in late modernity.

This means there is some attachment to the essence and tenets of NS. Well then, instead of yelling “Nazi!” at every hint of authority, or salivating over the eagle atop swastika, let’s take the Nazis at their word and see what is so passionately inspiring about Die Revolution von Rechts.

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