Reactionary Chic

Throughout academia, and the culture industry more generally, there are little to no repercussions for being left, indeed far left of center.

Occasionally, you’ll hear the usual sort of hemming and hawing from “conservative” commentators about fairness, an “open” academy, etc. But rare is it for them to think deeper about the issue. Recently, Ross Douthat attempted to do exactly that over in The New York Times.

Douthat, mixing and matching from the alt-right and Neoreaction (probably reflecting a confused understanding), does come to a real revelation, only to squander it later:

Meanwhile, over the same period, there has been a spate of media attention for the online movement known as “neoreaction,” which in its highbrow form offers a monarchist critique of egalitarianism and mass democracy, and in its popular form is mostly racist pro-Trump Twitter accounts and anti-P.C. provocateurs … But the void that it aspires to fill is real: In American intellectual life, there isn’t a far-right answer to tenured radicalism, or a genuinely reactionary style.

That’s because, throughout American intellectual life, there is a big (L) liberal hegemony in the world of ideas that serves as the unspoken presupposition for any discourse. Even the use of the term “reaction” or “reactionary” is misleading to understand what should be the intellectual state of the “right” in America, and the West more broadly, today.

For those of us who take critiques of the enlightenment seriously, believe in inegalitarianism, and whose aesthetic visions engulf more than the latest at MoMa and the Guggenheim are not reactionaries to the society around us, but radicals. Radical, of course, goes back to the latin Radix, or root. Which is where this journal’s namesake originates.

We are not “reactionaries” because there is little, if anything, left to “react” to. The Gramscian march through the institutions completed by the left has left little in their wake to perform much if any of a rearguard assault. It is only by thinking radically that the right—by this I refer to believers in inegalitarianism—will ever make headway in the realm of ideas.

Douthat does allude to this when he says:

A truly reactionary vision has to reject more than just the Great Society or Roe v. Wade; it has to cut deeper, to the very roots of the modern liberal order.

This is accurate, but again we seek a radical upturning of the order that is hegemonic throughout our society. Any right-wing thought that cuts deeply and foundationally to the liberal and egalitarian myths that hold sway over our society would be hounded out in a hot minute the moment they surface. Indeed, this is what occurs on a regular basis (even in obstensibly “conservative” institutions, just ask Jason Richwine).

The reason for this is that the hegemonic left can tell the difference between actual threats to its hegemony, and those who, for lack of a better word, are merely LARPing as its opponents.

Indeed, “reactionary” critiques have a lot to offer “liberals” and “conservatives” according to Douthat. If only they could just get rid of their obsessions (read: actual critiques) that make them so unpalatable to his set.

The two wings of which Douthat writes—“liberals” and “conservatives”—merely represent the edges of Liberalism’s hegemonic discourse. A true radical of the right has nothing to say to these tweedledees and tweedledums because his goal is to overturn them. Anything else is playing pretend.

Douthat wants a “reactionary” intellectual movement shorn of its “racialist obsessions and enlightened despotism fantasies.” What he is really asking for, however, is a neutered critique of liberal/leftist hegemony, a kosher version if you will, designed to be assimilable by readers of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal alike.

His solution is a move towards aesthetics. However, it’s an aesthetics that would be shorn of its key element: glamour. Douthat writes:

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.

But to remove the political from the aesthetic is to remove the “danger,” the edge that gives such works their enduring appeal. To cite just some exapmles he gives, Evelyn Waugh openly supported Franco’s Spain and T.S. Eliot once inveighed against allowing “too many free-thinking Jews” in society at a lecture at the University of Virginia.

What gave Céline, Pound, Brasillach, Wyndham Lewis, and others an artistic edge was being on the “Avant-Garde.” They radically called into question the emerging Liberal hegemony and indeed in the case of Lewis and Pound sought a modernism that was anything but “modern” as its commonly understood.

What Douthat wants is nothing more than a “reactionary chic” with which he and others can play to feel edgy.

Just like Leonard Bernstein and his party-goers in Tom Wolfe’s classic Radical Chic, Douthat and others like him see making radical right critiques palatable for the New York Times set as a way to pass the ideological ennui of our post-modern age.

In that way, they are engaging in the ultimate of disarming aesthetics.

After all, what would be more boring than “alt-right” or even “Dark Enlightenment” ideas filtered through the Times? (Answer: An older Ross Douthat column.) In the best case scenario, this could result in a better class of manager. Then again, our goal has never been to make better managers (that’s “conservatism’s” schtick). We wish to empower the rise of better men.

Our critiques resonate because of the dangerous, aesthetic, and yes radical power they have. We’re done reacting, but it seems like now that’s all our current year's “thought leaders” can do.