Classical Nihilism

It’s a common refrain among self-described conservatives and libertarians in America that both the modern bureaucratic managerial state and mass culture have veered wildly out of control, headed in an ever increasing totalitarian direction, and must some how be reined in. Their prescription is almost always a return to the Constitution, along with the supposed values of the Founding Fathers, and some form of classical liberalism; as one constitutionalist slogan declares, the answer to 1984 is 1776. What is often absent from sloganeering is any meaningful analysis of how society developed from the original republic to the current oligarchic, Leviathan surveillance state.

Certainly assorted bogeyman figures and political movements are blamed in passing (just think back to Glenn Beck’s schizophrenic chalk board scribblings), but very few mainline conservatives and libertarians would dare entertain the notion that classical liberalism, which the American Constitution is an expression of, may itself be the mother of all the problems they now bemoan. Or to put it another way, either the Constitution is inherently too weak to stop its increasing irrelevance and the expansion of the Leviathan state, or totalitarianism is the natural, if not entirely foreseeable, progression of the original constitutional order.

One American, the Orthodox monk Fr. Seraphim Rose (1934-1982), was willing to entertain such notions, and boldly exposed classical liberalism as the first stage of unfolding revolutionary nihilism in his careful and prophetic study of the nihilistic dialectic. Through Rose’s clear-eyed vision, liberalism has always been a faulty compromise between traditional authority and what he called the Revolution, that is the drive to uproot and overthrow traditional authority:

The Liberal view of government, as one might suspect, is an attempt at compromise between these two irreconcilable ideas. In the nineteenth century this compromise took the form of “constitutional monarchies,” an attempt-again-to wed an old form to a new content; today the chief representatives of the Liberal idea are the “republics” and “democracies” of Western Europe and America, most of which preserve a rather precarious balance between the forces of authority and Revolution, while professing to believe in both.

Yet such a mixture is unnatural and ultimately one element must give way to the other. As Rose noted, the Revolution “cannot be stopped halfway, it is a force that, once awakened, will not rest until its ends in a totalitarian Kingdom of this world.” That is to say, returned an earlier mentioned slogan, 1984 was conceived in the womb of 1776. So in the end, as the Italian traditionalist Julius Evola observed, similar to Fr. Seraphim Rose, in his Men Among the Ruins,

The beginning of the disintegration of the traditional sociopolitical structures, or at least whatever was left of them in Europe, occurred through liberalism.

Why must this be so? According to Fr. Rose, this is because the Old Order was “founded on absolute truth,”

…wherein sovereignty was vested in a Monarch, and authority proceeded from him downwards through a hierarchical social structure.

Liberalism, on the other hand, as an outgrowth of Renaissance humanism, places sovereignty in the hands of “the people” and authority is seen as “proceeding from below upwards.” It is not grounded in anything transcendent, even if it did in its infancy utilize the Christian vocabulary of that era.

How's that Constitution working out for you?

How’s that Constitution working out for you?

In the American political arena, many conservatives and libertarians, in addition to their idolatry of the Constitution, often chant the mantra of “We, the People,” while they, supposedly, are the true bearers of the will of “the people.” Such a claim is all quite ludicrous, as atomized, multicultural America no longer has anything that could even remotely pass as a homogenous population – there is no People. The American Empire is a hodgepodge of increasingly polarized, balkanized, and alienated racial, ethnic, and other sectarian groups. But even beyond that, the very concept of popular sovereignty is the root of the problem. After all, every totalitarian party, be it the Bolsheviks or the National Socialists, claimed to rule under the mantle of the will of the people, and the notion that the vulgar masses are especially wise or good has not been born out by history. If anything, quite the opposite seems to be the case.

So to return to the “spirit of 1776” is not the return of some lost golden age of constitutional justice, but rather a mad attempt to play out the entire fiasco all over again. The answer to the later stages of the nihilistic dialectic, careening in our age toward total destruction, is not solved by a return to one of the early stages, the nihilism of liberalism.