Over at Alternative Right I had a discussion with a participant who—like a lot of people who comment there—tended toward a sort of action-oriented tribal relativism. His basic thought seemed to be that social order doesn’t go very deep but comes out of crude drives plus choice, with this and that expedient added in to handle whatever particular problems come up.
Here’s the (not very successful) pitch I made, edited for concision and coherence:
Biology, tribalism, and personal magnetism are important, but if you want a social order instead of a riot or looting expedition other things are necessary. Biology doesn’t give human beings a social order, and tribalism and personal force don’t do anything very definite outside a definite scheme of meaning and value.
It’s true leaders don’t get their authority by appealing to theoretical systems, any more than their speeches carry the day because they’re written with some elaborate grammatical scheme in mind. Still, speeches make sense because there’s a subtle and complex grammatical system behind them, and there’s an equally subtle and complex system behind the charisma, traditions, and power that make a leader. Such things aren’t brute facts of nature. Like language, leadership is a functional system of human meanings.
We never get away from metaphysics. We need basic categories for understanding and interpreting the world, and different schemes of categories are possible—or at least people think they are. With that in mind the godlessness of the present world is not some sort of ultimate reality that we have to get used to. It’s part of the current false and self-destructive metaphysical system.
Man is a rational animal at least to the extent that it’s important how he understands what’s real and what makes sense. Basic points have basic importance, and what you think is worth doing depends on what you think about the world in general. If you accept the current view you can’t patch it up with bits and pieces of other views. Aristotle’s ethics were of a piece with the rest of his outlook. They don’t make sense if you don’t have essences and implicit natural goals.
The understanding of reason and reality that’s triumphed in modern times (atoms in space, subjective experience, going for whatever it is you happen to want) means that things like kinship, culture, religion, and traditional non-utilitarian conceptions of the good, beautiful, true, honorable, decent, and whatnot make no sense. As time goes by those things consistently lose arguments, so they’re constantly debunked as irrational and oppressive. The result is that they can’t function normally as principles of connection and cooperation.
If you want to turn the situation around you have to go to where the problem is and deal with it at its own level. If the problem is what people—especially leaders—think is real and makes sense then that’s what you have to attend to. Basic understandings have to stand up to stress and give people a reason to live by them even when it means sacrifice. That’s a basic issue that can’t be ignored, faked, fudged, constructed, manipulated, or propagandized away.
To say that is not to say that basic understandings of the world are the only thing that’s important or that they’re altogether independent of circumstances. They are mutually dependent with social functions, institutions, and classes. To put the point more abstractly: institutions promote beliefs, but beliefs are necessary for the complex system of cooperation that makes it possible for institutions to exist and function and gives them their place in society.
Belief and manner of life form a complex whole and you can’t take part of that whole and say it determines all the rest. It all matters, and sometimes beliefs are decisive. If you want to change institutions you have to do it cooperatively with others in accordance with some common vision that has some appeal to the people being revolutionized. It’s hard for that vision to remain stable, keep its adherents, and attract new ones if it’s at odds with accepted basic understandings of how the world is. So it does matter what basic view of things is socially authorized. If that’s the problem you must take it on.
To go on a bit of a tangent that has nothing special to do with the particular participant and his personal qualities: internet discussions make me think the future is going to be stupid, brutal, and sordid. The result of all our learning and our huge educational system is that people become uncultured and mindless.
That’s considered a feature and not a bug. People think the abolition of particular, traditional, and transcendental cultural standards is worth it, because those standards lack universal utilitarian rationality and lead to fanaticism, war, and oppression. Without them though people go feral. If you deprive them of the specifically human they don’t become more humane. They may sink into a sort of stupor, which I suppose makes them relatively harmless, but crude drives and boredom can push them into action as well. When that happens, why expect the action to respect civilized boundaries?