NRx and Liberalism
In much of the neoreactionary camp, ‘liberalism’ is the end-point of discussion. Its argumentative function is exactly that of ‘racism’ for the left. The only question, as far as this stance is concerned, is whether the term can be made to stick. Once the scarlet letter of micro-cultural ostracism is attached, there’s nothing further to discuss. This is unlikely to change, except at the margin.
The obvious preliminary to this topic is, if not quite ‘American English’, something like it. ‘Liberalism’ in the American tongue has arrived in a strange space, unique to that continent. It is notable, and uncontroversial, for instance that the notion of a ‘right-wing liberal’ is considered a straight oxymoron by American speakers, where in Europe — and especially mainland Europe — it is closer to a pleonasm. Since we still, to a very considerable extent, inhabit an American world, the expanded term ‘classical liberal’ is now required to convey the traditional sense. A Briton, of capitalistic inclinations, is likely to favor ‘Manchester Liberal’ for its historical associations with the explicit ideology of industrial revolution. In any case, the discussion has been unquestionably complicated.
Political language tends to become dialectical, in the most depraved (Hegelian) sense of this term. It lurches wildly into its opposite, as it is switched like a contested flag between conflicting parties. Stable political significances apply only to whatever the left (the ‘opposition’, or ‘resistance’) hasn’t touched yet. Another consideration, then, for those disposed to a naive faith in ideological signs as heraldic markers. (It is one that threatens to divert this post into excessive digression, and is thus to be left — in Wikipedia language — as a ‘stub’.)
The proposal of this blog is to situate ‘liberal’ at the intersection of three terms, each essential to any recoverable, culturally tenacious meaning. It is irreducibly modern, English, and counter-political. ‘Ancient liberties’ are at least imaginable, but an ancient liberalism is not. Foreign liberalisms can be wished the best of luck, because they will most certainly need it (an exception for the Dutch, alone, is plausible here). Political liberalism is from the beginning a practical paradox, although perhaps in certain rare cases one worth pursuing.
Burke is, without serious room for doubt, a liberal in this sense. He is even its epitomy.
The positive content of this liberalism is the non-state culture of (early) English modernism, as represented (with some modicum of ethnic irony) by the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, by the tradition of spontaneous order in its Anglophone lineage, by the conception of commercial society as relief from politics, and by (‘Darwinian’) naturalistic approaches that position distributed, competitive dynamism as an ultimate explanatory and genetic principle. This is the cultural foundation that made English the common tongue of global modernity (as has been widely noted). In political economy, its supreme principle is catallaxy (and only very conditionally, monarchy).
It is from this cultural matrix that Peter Thiel speaks, when he says (notoriously):
I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.
Democracy is criticized from the perspective of (the old) liberalism. The insight is perfectly (if no doubt incompletely) Hoppean. It is a break that prepared many (the author of this blog included) for Moldbug, and structured his reception. It also set limits. Democracy is denounced, fundamentally, for its betrayal of Anglo-Modernist liberty. Hoppe’s formulation cannot be improved upon:
Democracy has nothing to do with freedom. Democracy is a soft variant of communism, and rarely in the history of ideas has it been taken for anything else.
Moldbug’s explicit comments on this point are remarkably consistent, but not without ambiguity. He writes (I contend, typically):
The truth about “libertarianism” is that, in general, although sovereignty is sovereignty, the sovereign whether man, woman or committee is above the law by definition, and there is no formula or science of government, libertarian policies tend to be good ones. Nor did we need Hayek to tell us this. It was known to my namesake, over two millennia ago. […] Wu wei – for this is its true name – is a public policy for a virtuous prince, not a gigantic committee. The virtuous prince should practice wu wei, and will; that is his nature. Men will flock to his kingdom and prosper there. The evil prince will commit atrocities; that is his nature. Men will flee his kingdom, and should do so ASAP before he gets the minefields in.
Is this flocking and fleeing to be conceptually subordinated to the analysis of sovereignty, or — in contrast (and in the way of Cnut the Great) — set above it, as the Mandate of Heaven above the Emperor, which is to say: as the enveloping context of external relations, grounded only in the Outside? Despite anticipated accusations of bad faith, this is a serious question, and one that cannot be plausibly considered simply exterior to Moldbug’s work and thought.
In any case, it is the lineage of English Liberty (and beyond it, Wu wei, or the Mandate of Heaven) that commands our loyalty here. Insofar as Moldbug contributes to that, he is an ally, otherwise a foe, the brilliance and immense stimulation of his corpus notwithstanding. NRx, as it now exists, similarly.
“… the State should not be managing the minds of its citizens” writes Moldbug. (That’s actually a little more moralistic — in an admirably liberal direction — than I’m altogether comfortable with.)