The conventional model for framing Western politics, since the French Revolution, is the Left-Right axis. This dates from when supporters of the king sat to the right of the president in the National Assembly, while supporters of the revolution sat to the left of the president. Ever since, the Left are the radicals of one sort or another, who seek to overturn the present order in favor of something else. On the Right are the defenders of the present order, but also those who seek to restore a past order.
That means radical republicans in the 18th century, like the American Founders, would be on the Left, along side 19th century Marxists or even 21st century queer theorists. In the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson was a radical. In fact, he was a supporter of the French Revolution. It also means that modern Civic Nationalists, who claim allegiance to the Founders vision of republican order, are on the same side as 19th century monarchists and 20th century fascists. It turns out that libertarians are the real Nazis.
This also means that the game of political theory always has the Left playing offense, while the Right is playing defense. It’s why 20th century fascism never made any sense as a right-wing or left-wing movement. The fascists were just as anti-traditionalist as the communist. They were not trying to restore an old order. On the other hand, they were a reactionary movement, driven by a rejection of international communism. The fascists were both reactionaries and radicals, embracing the rhetoric and tactics of the Left.
The interwar period in Europe is a good example of the Left-Right political model not holding up in the face of reality. There were multiple social and cultural forces working on European society, in addition to the consequences of the Great War. Even in America, the first half of the 20th century saw the old Left radicalize into something that drew on European fascism, but was littered with communists. It’s why people today, who try to argue that the fascists were left-wing or right-wing, are simply missing the point.
That’s what makes the period so fascinating. A lot of history happened in a very short period of time. It’s a lot like Roman history, in that there is something for everyone and their favorite political theory. On the other hand, the period is not very useful for understanding the present age. Interwar Europe may as well be a story set on different planet. The flow of events that led up to that period and the history of the people involved, is foreign even to their descendants alive today. it was the great break in the timeline.
Now, the interwar period is useful for one particular reason and that is as an example of how history is not a river that flows uninterrupted through time. Instead, it is many rivers and sometimes those rivers find themselves occupying the same space. The Thirty Years’ War, for example, was the confluence of historical forces leading into the 17th century. Similarly, the two industrial wars of the 20th century were bookends to the great confluence of intellectual forces in Europe, dating to the Enlightenment.
This age may be another such confluence. Like the interwar period, there are many forces in conflict with one another today. You have global capitalism, which is disrupting the normal functioning of western societies. There is the collapse of the Cold War political order, that is collapsing the domestic political arrangements within nations. There’s mass migration, where hundreds of millions seek to move from the fringe of civilization into the heart of it. Of course, there are the various reactions to these forces, as well.
This piece by Victor David Hanson is a good illustration of how the conventional way of framing politics is not helpful today. Hanson is one of the remaining sober minded people on the conventional Right. He’s actually a conservative of the old sort. He’s also a good analyst who lives in the real world, rather than the Potemkin village that is the home of the commentariat. Despite that, he remains attached to the old paradigm of Left and Right, trying to jam present reality into the old model of two warring political camps.
Hansen is that sort of conservative who is excellent at describing what is rotting away the present, separating us from the past. He just cannot bring himself to accept that there is no going back. There will be no great rollback.The present conflict is not a choice between the glorious future and the status quo. That’s the old mode of thought. Today is one of those great confluences. What comes out the other end will bear little resemblance to what came before it and may not even have a strong connection to the forces that shaped it.
For example, the alt-right is not about restoring an old order. To assume that misses the fundamental point. Richard Spencer has spoken for years about how the past is what caused the current crisis. To return to 1950’s America, for example, means replaying the 1960’s and 1970’s with the same outcomes. His concept of the ethno-state, even if it is limited to North America, results in an America that is completely different than anything imagined by conventional politics. His idea is a complete departure from the liberal past.
Greg Johnson’s new book is about as radical as it gets, with regards to conventional political thinking. What he describes as white nationalism, is an overthrowing of liberal social democracy. What his version of the ethno-state means is a rejection of the foundation item of neo-liberalism, the free movement of people. It’s not a “return to tribalism” as that is a past that never existed in the age of the nation state. It is a new nation state that accepts the fundamental biological reality of man.
The Dissident Right world view that is slowly coming into focus, one that has grown out of the paleocon critiques of managerialism, is also a sharp break with the past. What’s the point of fetishizing the Founding period, when what they created lasted one lifetime. That form of social order simply could not hold up to modernity and was replaced by a series of increasingly radical innovations. To go back and start that process all over is to relive the same nightmare. The antidote to radicalism is not going to be its antecedents.
The revolutionary mind of the new opposition is not focused on restoring the past or even engaging in conventional politics. The use of “us versus them” rhetoric is only useful as a rallying cry. The real fight is about what comes after liberal democracy. Ours is not a fight to restore the past or even romanticize it. Ours is a fight about who will build the future, after this present is vanquished. Whatever comes out of this great confluence will not reflect the past. Instead, it will reflect the spirit and aspirations of those who build it.