Integralism is the principle that the Catholic faith should be the basis of public law and public policy within civil society. As with everything political, there is debate as to when the concept was born, but modern integralism as a genuine political movement has its roots in the 19th century. For obvious reasons it has been limited to those countries with a large enough Catholic population to make integralism plausible. That means the Latin countries of Europe like Spain and Italy.
Over the last decade, integralism has become a topic of conversation, largely due to Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule. He is a critic of modern liberal democracy as well as the conservative movement that operates within it. His main work is in the area of administrative law, but his embrace of the integralism concept has attracted others from the traditionalist wing of conservatism. Matthew Schmitz, Sohrab Ahmari, and Patrick Deneen are the notable converts.
In fairness, what is forming up to be American integralism is not what Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre had in mind at the Second Vatican Council. The thinkers and writers coming to the integralism banner share Vermeule’s disgust with modern conservatism and its role in enabling progressivism. Sohrab Ahmari called it David Frenchism, a performative traditionalism that is weak and conciliatory toward the Left. They imagine themselves creating a new Right similar to old European Right.
To be fair there are some serious people within this space thinking hard about how to re-center politics within the Western Christian tradition. To be even more fair, there is no chance of this happening, at least not peacefully. Liberal democracy comes with its own religion and moral code. It cannot tolerate alternative morale codes and it cannot exist within the moral framework of Catholicism. We will need a revolution to go from liberal democracy to some new moral order.
Therein lies the main problem with all modern political philosophy. It assumes a blank sheet of paper where the deciders get to decide the type of society they will create and impose on the world. They spend their time working out the political theory and then imagine how it would work, assuming a fresh start. It is the game of imagining your dream home in some idyllic setting. The plausibility of the house and the process to make it happen is just assumed.
Libertarianism is probably the most egregious example. As Hans Hermann-Hoppe explained many years ago, it is not possible to go from modern societies to a libertarian society within the constraints of libertarian theory. Further, there is no way to maintain a libertarian society, assuming you solve that first problem. Despite this obvious reality, libertarianism persists. The adherents are content to imagine themselves living in the Shire with the other hobbits of libertarianism.
Integralism has a strong whiff of this same sort of escapism. Instead of being yeoman farmers trading sheep for shoes, the integralists imagine themselves riding out to face the black knight of liberal democracy in defense of the faith. There is not much thought given to how we could turn back the clock. It is just assumed that something will happen, the current order will fail and this alternative will become the obvious alterative to the crisis of liberal democracy.
In fairness to the libertarians and integralists, they are not outside the bounds of normal political debate with this approach. The post-Marx culturalists who now dominate the American Left believe they just have to destroy the current cultural institutions and from the rubble will rise the egalitarian paradise. The old civic nationalists believe we just need a blank piece of vellum onto which we can copy down the original constitution and America becomes a republic again.
A curious feature of this age is that almost all political discussion operates in the world of forms to the exclusion of practical concerns. This is true in outsider politics on the Right, which has largely been centered on re-fighting the 20th century. Some want to re-fight the 1960’s while others want to re-fight the 1930’s. There is little self-examination about why those fights were lost the first time and no consideration for how re-fighting those old failures will change anything in the present.
The fact that this sort of idealism is popular on the Right suggests that maybe right-wing political theory in a liberal democracy is not supposed to be a serious counter to the prevailing orthodoxy but is a safe harbor for dissent. Historically, the Right exists as a counter to ideology, not as an alternative ideology. The man of the Right is the one throwing cold water on the dream of immanentizing the Eschaton. He focuses on what is possible, not what is desirable.
This is where integralism can contribute. All human societies need a source of authority to justify the rules of the society. “This is how we do things” must be supported with “this is why we do things this way.” Catholicism fused tradition with the supernatural to provide a basis of authority for medieval Europe. The Roman empire had to rely on force to impose its will abroad, but at home it was the traditions and customs of the Roman people that provided the moral authority.
Every human society has an authority. In theory, the authority in a liberal democracy is the will of the people, the consent of the governed. In reality, fifty percent plus one is a fickle master and easily exploited by unscrupulous actors. The crisis in the modern West is rooted in the fact that the system is easily manipulated to profit a ruling class that operates in the shadows of the political order. The gods of democracy are tricksters who revel in the frustrations of the people.
An alternative to liberal democracy must first deal with this reality and propose an alternative authority upon which to base the moral order. That new authority is unlikely to be medieval Christianity, but it will have to be something similar. Some combination of nature, nature’s God and the civilizational interest of the West will be the authority for a new political model. Perhaps some form of techno-feudalism is in the cards for what comes after liberal democracy is thrown into the dustbin of history.
Of course, this means moving from the safe harbor of political escapism into the world of practical solutions to present problems. The real damage done to the American constitutional order has been the deification of the Founders. Their ideas have been turned into holy writ. In reality, the Constitution was a practical solution to present problems hammered out by practical men. It was a political compromise, not the foundation for a political cult.
Whatever comes next will have to start from the same basis. What sort of civil society is possible in the world as it is demographically, technologically and materially? Is a civil society even possible under present conditions? If not, then what must be done, no matter how unpleasant, in order to create the conditions that will make a civil society possible in a post-democracy world? Whatever comes next will not be the work of dreamers, but of practical men solving practical problems.
That is the value in boutique political movements like integralism. It is not a solution, but rather the starting point for a necessary critique of the current order. From that will flow the necessary debate to conjure a plausible alternative. Integralism can be a hammer to crack the walls of modern conservatism, which in turn exposes the soft realty of the liberal democratic order it protects. Integral to an alternative moral philosophy is a rational critique of the present order.
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