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The One, the Many, and the alternative right

The respectable right is respectable because it accepts the principles of liberalism and can’t offer serious resistance to liberal conclusions.

That’s why a less respectable “alternative right” is needed. But what is the alternative that would do better? People have been looking for a good way to resist liberalism for a long time, and judging by results they haven’t gotten very far.

Liberalism has a lot of staying power, so there must be something in it that goes rather deep. If that’s so, it’s not going to go away because fashions change, and dealing with it effectively is going to require thought and correct diagnosis.

The trap of modernity

A lot of the problems with liberalism have to do with something men have been arguing about since Plato’s time: the relation between particular and universal.

Any sensible approach to life and the world has to have a place for both, and it has to put them into a relation that makes sense.

Liberalism accepts both, which speaks well for its (comparative) good sense and moderation. It’s a modern outlook though, and modernity insistently emphasizes the clear, usable, and demonstrable at the expense of the traditional, transcendental, and common-sensical.

The emphasis is very helpful in some respects—in formulating physical laws, for example—but not helpful in others. As to politics its usual effect is to make some one thing absolute. A modern political movement wants to be able to place the world in a clear manageable order through reliance on a single principle—Science, Economics, Freedom, Equality, Power, whatever—from which all else can be derived.

An unusual thing about liberalism is that it makes both particular and universal absolute. It accepts the autonomous individual, who is a law unto himself, and has come to accept the Nietzschean superman, who creates his own values. It also turns radically anti-individualistic principles like nondiscrimination and inclusiveness into supreme universal standards.

The liberal social order is supposedly based on both. It’s hard for two absolutes to live together, so the results don’t make a lot of sense. One result is anarcho-tyranny: you vindicate the sovereignty of the particular by letting criminals be criminals, and you vindicate the absolutism of the universal by going after ordinary people for not being PC enough.

Another result is that particular and universal get emptied of content so they don’t get in each other’s way. The individual becomes the Cartesian ego, a disembodied locus of desires and sensations, while the universal becomes the interchangeable equality of all such egos.

The results aren’t good for either the particular or the universal. As to particulars, identity evaporates and they become departicularized. You get man as a cog in the social wheel—the employee, the consumer, the victim of discrimination, the evil oppressor. You also get man as a purely private individual—the hobbyist, the devotee of this indulgence or that. What you don’t get is man as a man. (Or, for that matter, woman as a woman rather than a figure constructed to debunk and dislodge man.)

At the other pole, the universal becomes totally vacant and mindless, the mere proposition that everything is the same and must understand itself as such. The alternative, after all, would be acceptance of bias and discrimination, and to advanced liberals those are the worst things possible.

The net effect is that we’re free to be you and me, as long as the differences never matter. That doesn’t sound so good, so sensible people want to reject liberalism, but how? That is the question the alternative right must answer.

The simplest response, and the one most consonant with modern ways of thinking, is to reject half the polarity that defines liberalism by choosing the pole we prefer and making it the sole standard. If we are individualists, we get rid of the universal and become Satanists, Nietzscheans, Randians, or followers of Max Stirner. If we are universalists, we do away with the particular and become Maoists or followers of some Eastern religion.

The problem with that move is that individuality and universality only make sense in relation to each other. Individual man can’t be a law unto himself. There are no Nietzschean supermen. To act rationally and to some purpose, man has to see himself in a setting that gives him a clue what he is, what other things are, and what is worth doing. Otherwise his actions turn into random or compulsive motions—something out of late Samuel Beckett—and lose their human quality.

Universality, for its part, has to have things that are real and distinct to work on if it is to amount to anything. As a one-sided absolute it either crushes the particular, as in Maoism, or turns it into an illusion, as in some Oriental religions. In either case the result is an understanding of the world that has nothing to do with human concerns because the individual has vanished.

So what to do? One common solution to the problem, which attempts to strike a sort of balance, is to go with some intermediate arrangement like nation, race, class, or whatnot that seems big enough to provide a stable purposeful setting for human action but not so big it blends into the featureless universal All.

The nation is the usual choice: big enough to be a complete independent society but small enough to be grasped as a unity. For that reason right-wingers are often radical nationalists. Other choices include class and race, which some prefer on the ground that the former has more social and economic coherence and the latter more biological and therefore historical and scientific reality.

Whichever collectivity you go with, the move doesn’t work any better than the previous ones did. The same problems reappear: the collectivity becomes an absolute, so the individual disappears, and it lacks a relation to the universal, so it has no way to make sense of itself and its situation and what it should do.

The practical result is that the collectivity is forced to define itself not by any positive goal, since there’s nothing to suggest which goal makes most sense, but by opposition to the individual and other collectivities. Concretely speaking, it proves its purposefulness and supreme validity by sending masses of people to the camps and crushing foreign enemies.

That approach is too violent and irrational to last long. If it doesn’t crash and burn like the Nazis, people get tired of the craziness and strain and it sinks into terminal hypocrisy and corruption like the Soviets.

The theo-trad option

What the foregoing shows is that modernist—secularist, rationalist, reductionist—alternatives to liberalism don’t work.

Like liberalism, they try to be more rational than the traditional order, and give us clear, demonstrable, forceful answers that will stand up in the modern battle of ideologies. They do that though by making the world smaller and simpler than it has to be for us to inhabit, and end up as crazy as liberalism and probably more violent.

That’s why, I suppose, Alternative Right found it advisable to define itself as “magazine of radical traditionalism,” where “radical traditionalism” is defined (I also suppose) in a “big tent” fashion to include people other than the Integral Traditionalists.

A big tent is a nice place to discuss things, but it doesn’t tell us how to understand the world and organize human life. What’s needed to deal with the issues we’ve run into is some more particular view that—no doubt along with other requirements—accepts that universals, particulars, and intermediate arrangements are all necessary and real. None reduces into the others, and each has its role:

  • Universals provide the setting that determines the nature and significance of particulars.
  • Particulars give universals reality and function.
  • Intermediate arrangements look both ways. From one direction they bring universals down to earth and make them particular standards individuals can deal with. Instead of Duty we have particular duties to attend to. From the other direction, they connect individuals to more universal concerns by making them part of something concrete larger than themselves.

The basic issue for an alternative right, then, is what can bring particulars, universals, and intermediate arrangements into a stable and satisfying common order that respects each and allows us to make sense of man, the world, and our own lives. Unless we have some such principle we’re not going to be able to propose anything that works better than liberalism.

And that, of course, is a religious question. The basic question for the alternative right, then, is which religion best presents a cosmic order that does justice to all its elements. The issues really are that basic. Secular rationalism won’t solve them. Assertion of particular identity and denunciation of universals wouldn’t solve them even if that move made sense for Western man. We need something beyond those things.



“free to be you and me, as long as the differences never matter”

I agree with the analysis.

In psychiatric terms the secular left are psychotic (out of touch with reality) while the secular right are psychopathic (selfish, lacking in empathy).

Clearly the roots of the problem are very deep - and perhaps as deep as modern philosophy (Descartes and onward) which gives no grounds for objective morality, truth or beauty. Since Platonism doesn’t really wrok, this means there needs to be a return to Thomism with its Aristotelian metaphysics.

In other words (at last - 22 years after first reading it) I agree with Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue. He was right. Anything less does not cohere.

A very succinct account of your view—it just keeps getting better.

I very much like your point that man—the humanum—disappears in liberalism and all of it self-conscious alternatives. This doesn’t mean he really disappears, of course. He just seems to. And as someone once said, nothing makes a person so noticable as disappearing.

Peter Lawler has often talked about this stubborn refusal of nature—including human nature and natural law—to disappear. He likes to stress, with Pascal, that human misery, at least, is the gift that keeps on giving. One day, so Lawler, when all the panaceas have been tried, we will realize all of this. I suppose this is why, for your part, you talk of traditionalism as mainly a long-term possibility. (?)

In my circles, I detect a piece of confusion that you might address. The confusion is that the social teaching of the Catholic Church is a replacement for traditionalist thought—and ought to be—because traditionalism cannot comprehend the serendipitous Justice in modern arrangements. That is, the move away from so many traditional things has produced benefits, and the fruit of man’s growing competence is part and parcel of the image of the creator within him.

Because both the circumstances of man and Catholic social teaching seem to be evolving, there is a “preferential option” against any form of traditionalism, which is interpreted as putting fetters on the Church and as a hindrance to its proclamation of authentic Justice.

This sort of view is not encoded any place that I know of. It just seems to be an M.O. that people and prelates imbibe as time goes on.

Any thoughts on this?


It’s also one that would take a lot of work to answer properly. I suppose the obvious issues are

  1. What is the social teaching of the Church?
  2. Do modern arrangements make us better?
  3. Do they produce the good things they are said to produce?

On the first point, it seems to me that your remarks apply much more at the day-to-day operational level among Church functionaries than at the papal level. At the latter level central bureaucratic intervention in the arrangements on which we rely for our welfare is still presented as something that can be justified only as an exception.

The second ought to answer itself unless the thought is that inclusiveness, tolerance, and support for the system are supreme human virtues that trump what were formerly considered vices, which are now either acceptable individual variations or else psychological issues to be handled by therapy.

The third is probably the decisive one for those tempted by the line of thought. I devoted some space to it in my book (see e.g. pp. 119 ff.). There are also a couple of relevant blog entries here and here.

I suppose I’d add: does it really make sense to view a comprehensive administrative apparatus that looks after us and relieves us of personal responsibility as “authentic Justice” that manifests “man’s growing competence” that “is part and parcel of the image of the creator within him”? It’s hard for me to look at things that way.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.


I wonder whether you’ve explored Mencius Moldbug’s explanation of liberalism. It’s hard to do it succinctly and thereby do it justice (Moldbug prides himself on prolixity), but it basically consists of seeing liberalism as a meme complex descended traceably and directly from the radical low church protestantism that took root in New England in the 17th century. Whereas in Europe puritanism had natural (and potentially deadly) enemies, in North America it found none, and thus expanded and mutated into, among other things, 18th Century revolutionary fervor, 19th century abolitionism, 20th century teetotalism, feminism, socialism, and so on. While the nature of the godhead and Christ (and other intangibles) may have long ago ceased to be an important aspect of the meme complex as it morphed from 16th century English Puritanism to 21st century Universalism, the tangible goals, principally of building (G|g)od’s Kingdom on earth, took on a supremely important life of their own: In short, Liberalism is a religion, not just by analogy or aspersion or insult, but in reality—a particularly virulent form of Christian heresy. Strong and virulent enough to take over the entire world (more or less), but insufficiently morbid to kill its hosts… at least not yet.

I’ve read him occasionally but haven’t paid attention to his specific theory of liberalism.

In general, I’d say that theories of liberalism as a specific complex of memes are often interesting especially from an historical standpoint. They don’t account though for the fact that all somewhat mainstream Western views from liberalism to Marxism to Protestantism to a lot of everyday Catholicism (as you mention in your comment on catechists) have ended up in the same place. Paul Gottfried’s three books on Liberalism, Multiculturalism, and Marxism are good on what’s happened.

Anyway, that’s one reason I prefer the theory that contemporary liberalism is a consequence of basic conceptual features of modernity rather than some specific train of events.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Anyway, that’s one reason I prefer the theory that contemporary liberalism is a consequence of basic conceptual features of modernity rather than some specific train of events.

But how do you keep such a definition from being perfectly circular? Liberalism is a conceptual feature of modernity, which is in turn defined by its liberalism… I mean Japan (to just think off the top of my head) had modernity, of a sort, e.g., modern military and industry, an advanced and refined culture, imperial ambition, long before it had liberalism, or, perhaps more properly, “caught” liberalism from its conquerors.

Does liberalism inhere to modernity? If so, then the knee-jerking critics are right: We really do want to give up 21st century oral hygiene. But of course, anti-liberals (like us) are quite fond of such hygiene, and a lot else brought to us by (what at least appears to be) “modernity.” So while it may very well be true that we would never have had liberalism without modernity, I shudder to think that we might never have had modernity without liberalism… unless of course they’re synonyms, which I don’t think you mean to say. And if not, and especially in view of the constantly shifting (leftward, of course) nature of liberalism, then cannot we rightly view liberalism as more a bug than a feature of modernity? To be sure, a dern persistent bug, but nevertheless a bug??

I think the original entry answers most of your questions. It goes into central modern themes (which at the most basic level don’t include liberalism), and also various forms of political modernity, which do include liberalism but also inter alia extreme nationalism. It also suggests why the nonliberal forms disappeared.

As to oral hygiene, you could at least in concept have scientific method and all its fruits while viewing it as subordinate to something else, Thomism for example, and thus separate from the tendencies that have in fact defined modernity.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

‘Liberalism has a lot of staying power, so there must be something in it that goes rather deep. If that’s so, it’s not going to go away because fashions change, and dealing with it effectively is going to require thought and correct diagnosis.’

Liberalism is natural to us, literally instinctual. The instincts, especially altruism, which formed in primitive small groups, were effective in keeping the individual alive in those societies. An isolated man would soon have been a dead man. But Hayek, whose observation that is, and Freud, his opposite, agreed that all civilization involves the renunciation of instinct. So while Adam Smith or James Madison may successfully calculate that modern civilization becomes far more humane by attending to ambition countering ambition—in defect of the “better” motives of good versus bad—we can see that our instinctual altruism represented by socialism will never be far away. Even now, as it is close to crushing us, men have not given up their opinions to experience.

Russell Kirk—
‘Discussion and private judgement, rather than the physical suffering which Marx predicted, have provided the stimulus to incessant experiment and alteration throughout the past century and a half. Marxism has been embraced by many not because they suffer, but because it is a new field for protest and private judgement. Is the voracity of discussion indeed so insatiable as the appetite of the grave? If it is, then are permanence and continuity impossible for modern society? Three checks upon the empire of unbridled discussion seem possible; the deliberate revival of the concept of traditional wisdom, the growth of public boredom with talk and with change itself, and the coming of catastrophes which teach men to distrust their own opinions.’

In the Great Depression, we instead turned and faced the wrong direction. The left has confidence we have even more reason to repeat history than before, because now they have written their version of it into the basic fabric of our lives.

Our advantage is in our past. It is not necessary to invent new schemes, but understand our long experience. Much of it has been spectacularly successful.

I don’t think there’s a connection between liberalism and socialism on the one hand and altruism on the other. If there were then conservatives wouldn’t give more to charity than liberals do.

It seems to me more a distinction between people who think the world should be placed in an overall perspicuously rational order and those who think of it as more an unplanned result of the actions of the people and groups participating in social life.

Because of that distinction liberals think of support for the overall rational order as the natural expression of concern for others while conservatives think of charitable activities, doing people good turns, carrying out your ordinary duties to family, friends, and neighbors, etc.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

“And that, of course, is a religious question. The basic question for the alternative right, then, is which religion best presents a cosmic order that does justice to all its elements.”

Well, it’s a philosophical question, certainly, but the philosophy which offers the best cosmic order may or may not turn out to be a religious one. It should be possible to create a coherent account of universals and particulars without bringing in dodgy concepts like God, spirits, the afterlife, etc.

It seems to me that any adequate view of such things that we could live by would have features that identify it as religious. For example, it would include an understanding of the world as oriented toward purposes that rightly form our own purposes, as well as acceptance of the need for trust in realities that can’t entirely be grasped, and for fundamental personal commitment.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.