Outside the Gates

Jack Donovan, Becoming a Barbarian, Dissonant Hum (2016), 164 pages.

The modern world is weak.

There are any number of reasons to explain this weakness, but perhaps the simplest one is that European civilization is the victim of its own success. Through the efforts of our forefathers, who were strong, we have built a world where the weak not only survive but prosper. Perhaps this is an inevitable part of the rise and fall of any great civilization, but that doesn’t change the unenviable position we find ourselves in today. While progressives might imagine that we are standing on the precipice of some gargantuan leap in human consciousness, there are few modern men worthy enough to carry the armor of their warrior-poet ancestors, much less to fight and die by their sides.

There are plenty of guys who feel this gnawing sense of lack: you can find them at tactical training seminars, powerlifting gyms, or on grappling mats. A lot of these men like to imagine that they’re preparing for some hazily undefined Zombie Apocalypse, which may or may not be right over the horizon. The more unnerving reality, however, is that—in some deep existential sense—the world worth saving is already dead. Whether they fully know it or not—and I imagine that a lot of people sense it, even if they can’t really articulate it—what so many of these guys are fighting for is the salvation of their own souls.

Jack Donovan is one of those guys. He’s also a brilliant writer, who philosophizes about the decline of masculinity with a hammer made out of Heavy Metal thunder. His most famous book, [The Way of Men], set out to define what manliness actually consists of. The answer is hardly as obvious as it might seem, especially when the waters have been so thoroughly polluted by that odious breed of male feminist who wants to re-define manhood as something no one (in any other culture or at any other time in history) would have recognized as masculine, or by the pickup artists who react by setting the measure of a man at the number of women he’s seduced.

For Donovan, masculinity is about the tactical virtues: he defines them as strength, courage, mastery, and honor, as evaluated through the eyes of other men. Being masculine is not about being a “good man” in some trite moralistic sense, it’s about being good at being a man. This is why some dashing Sir Galahad-type who fights for “truth, justice, and the American Way” can be a masculine man, but so can an outlaw, like [Whitey Bulger]—maybe even more so. Donovan concludes with the observation that the Way of Men is the Way of the Gang. This is because the only way to prove your worth as a man is by acquiring both an attitude and the practical abilities that other men respect.

Sartre said that “Hell is other people” because the lies we tell ourselves fall apart when we see ourselves as others see us. You can sit alone in your apartment imagining that you’re a badass for the rest of your life, but until you put yourself to the test, with other men who actually are badasses, you’ll never really know for sure. Becoming a Barbarian is a book about how men can adopt a tribalist mindset (which is essentially what the Way of the Gang amounts to), but it lends itself to a number of different readings. First, it’s a critique of libertarianism, a philosophy that never seems to lose its appeal for a certain kind of (mostly) White man. Second, it’s a tightly argued broadside against moral universalism. Although it might not be apparent at first, the two are by no means unrelated.

Western liberalism can trace its origins back to the creation of the individual, as the Middle Ages gave way to the Enlightenment; before that, the idea of the free-floating, atomized human being, considered apart from national, cultural, and religious considerations, would have been largely inconceivable. Even so, it was never much more than a rather fatuous and hard-to-swallow piece of mythology. (“I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.” wrote the Catholic philosopher Joseph de Maistre, “but, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life.”) Nevertheless, the libertarian fable of the man who single-handedly masters his own destiny remains a powerful stumbling block for men who might otherwise be an ideal fit for Donovan’s gangster tribes.

While the idea of the “rugged individual” undoubtedly has some Romantic appeal, it’s less than a bad joke when placed in the mouths of the bourgeois small businessmen who typically subscribe to it. They imagine that they are making it on their own because they don’t accept welfare or food stamps, but the only reason they can keep this fantasy alive is that the police are protecting them from criminals, the State has created the infrastructure that allows their businesses to thrive, and the public schools are raising their kids. When Hillary Clinton (in)famously declared that “it takes a village”—or when Elizabeth Warren said “You didn’t build that”—both were not entirely wrong. The difference, however, is that the village, or the tribe, or the gang, consists of people with a tight personal connection to one another. There are bonds of mutual accountability, respect, shared history, and identity. It is precisely this kind of support system that has sustained men since the beginning of time. But the modern State has so successfully supplanted these functions that the libertarian doesn’t even notice that it’s there (except when it stands in his way). That’s why he can imagine that he’s an “individual.” But is he?

Ironically, those who reject any kind of tribal identity because they fear losing themselves in the “collective” will simply find themselves relegated to helpless pawns, or dependents, of the State. Affiliating with the tribe is not losing oneself in the collective; it’s a hedge against the collective.

Donovan deftly argues that man is truly sovereign, and is more himself as a man, within the tribe. And the avowed enemy of tribal identities, and of identity per se, is what Donovan calls the Empire of Nothing. This rather inspired appellation is used to describe the decentralized conglomeration of governments, corporations, media, and academic institutions that represent the real locus of power in the modern world. While the Empire of Nothing might superficially seem to encourage “identity politics” when it panders to the Black Lives Matter movement or fights for the rights of transgendered people to use the restroom of their choice, its real agenda is to mobilize these minority identities as a wedge against the identity of the dominant culture. And rest assured: even if you’re a member of a protected class today, there’s no guarantee that you won’t be swallowed up by the globalist monoculture tomorrow.

According to Donovan, there are three factors that contribute to the Empire of Nothing’s war on identity, and at least the first two will be familiar to followers of Alain de Benoist’s Nouvelle Droite.

First is the economic rationale of the capitalist economy: identity is bad for business. A world of faceless, uncommitted consumers, who can buy the “culture” that the Empire is selling, rather than having one of their own, is the ideal global marketplace.

Second is the homogenizing influence of technology and especially the media. Even when it’s not explicitly serving as a propaganda organ for the Empire, the sheer reach and scope of the mass media becomes a solvent against localized identities and the primary inculcator of the Empire’s ideology. Lastly—and here Donovan is in more original, and more controversial, territory—is the predominance of what might be called “feminine values.”

Within small tribal societies, women serve an indispensible role as peacemakers and provide a useful counter-balance to masculine thumos. As the primary caregivers for children, they also tend to be more nurturing and compassionate. But with the large-scale political enfranchisement of women in Western democracies, these values have been perverted in the service of strangers, who are often not only different but openly hostile. The result is the replacement of politics by a gauzy sentimentalism that makes it impossible to maintain the Us/Them distinction that is the bulwark of tribal identity.

It should be emphasized that none of these factors necessarily implies a shadowy conspiracy of Jews, Freemasons, or even “cultural Marxists,” although different groups may have interests that align with the Empire to a greater or lesser extent. But ultimately, the System is just that—a machine, with a lot of moving parts. And this is just the way it works. When its logic is internalized, it takes the form of a universal morality that recognizes no differences between different people(s), regarding each as an interchangeable unit possessed of a common humanity. There are elements of Christianity that feed into this (although even Christians are now regarded as insufficiently tolerant), as well as a strong component of Kantian ethical universalism.

Conveniently, it is the ideology of both the Social Justice Warrior (who inexplicably fashions himself, herself, or hirself, a “rebel”) as well as über-elites like Michael Bloomberg or Mark Zuckerberg. The one is guided by fantasies of an egalitarian utopia (or, as is more likely the case, by class-envy and ressentiment), while the other simply seeks to open up the biggest market share possible.

But like the ancient Alemanni, the Cherusci, or the Suebi, the modern barbarian is the man who stands outside the Empire, rejecting its decadent values and preparing to profit from its destruction. What Donovan is advocating here is not open plunder and pillage—although he encourages his readers to take advantage of any useful material advantages the System has on offer—but a kind of spiritual detachment that bears a strong family resemblance to Ernst Jünger’s “inner emigration” or Julius Evola’s injunction to “ride the tiger.”

And it would be wrong to think that this detachment, as Donovan understands it, is merely an intellectual exercise. The barbarian refuses to think in universal terms: he knows what team he’s playing for, and he doesn’t allow his heart or mind to be corrupted by the Empire’s False Gods. The barbarian doesn’t want to be “fair” (although there’s certainly nothing wrong with being polite): he wants to win. But thinking tribally, and actually seeking to form new tribes, is not merely some exercise in LARPing or historical re-enactment.

It’s useful to remember that the identities of barbarian tribes are enshrined in the names of countries like England (the Angles), Russia (the Rus), Hungary (the Huns), and France (the Franks). The barbarian is the founder of nations. In many ways, the Empire of Nothing is really just the post-historical society described by Alexandre Kojève and his disciple Francis Fukuyama. When Donovan enjoins his readers to “Start the World!” (a quote he lifted from Peter Fonda in Easy Rider), he’s ultimately trying to incite the barbarian battles for identity that will reinitiate history.

Donovan’s style, and the style of the [Wolves of Vinland], the heathen fighting tribe that he belongs to, may not be your cup of tea—perhaps you prefer neckties to neck tattoos, or roasted cauliflower to cauliflower ears. Nevertheless, the style itself has become an inseparable part of Donovan’s work, and it reaches young guys in a way that no amount of academic theorizing could. His books are emblazoned with his artwork (Donovan was an artist before he was a writer), which is just as visceral and uncompromising as his prose. He boils his ideas down to pithy slogans (“Violence is Golden!” “No Tears for Strangers!”) which he disseminates on [patches and wicked-looking t-shirts]. It’s probably not a stretch to say that he could have had a successful career in marketing, had he wanted to make common cause with the Empire. But what Donovan is selling instead is a new culture. Maybe it’s not the one you want to belong to, and that’s okay. What’s important about Becoming a Barbarian is that it contains the tools necessary for building your own. And why not? The only things you have to lose are your shackles.