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.


13 thoughts on “Classical Nihilism

  1. Pingback: Classical Nihilism | Neoreactive

  2. The American people do have a culture distinct from Europe: longer strides, aggressive capitalism/ entrepreneurship, Macdonalds, Elvis, a relatively high value placed on marriage, urinals (men pissing against the wall is in Holy Scriptures-read it and weep Germany!), volunteerism, and funding the defence og nations with huge welfare budgets who expect NATO (U.S. with a smidgeon of U.K.) to protect them. There are , amazongly, some real virtues to be found; you may need to leave major cities to find them more easily! Distinguo: a culture one dislikes or which is objectively inferior is still a culture!Great post.

  3. It is hard not to take issue with this post, as it sees history unfolding inevitably in one direction based on mere scribbles on a piece of paper in 1776. Even if we are a good reactionary, we have to recognize the limitation of a written constitution stems from the fact that it is mere words, without the power to enforce itself or interpret itself. It creates the illusion of substantive restrictions on the power of the State, without actually delivering any such restrictions. Further, perhaps by committing words to paper it thereby creates a tool to separate civil customs from the words (reinterpreted) “the letter killeth”, but it seems a stretch to go from scribbles to the contemporary social trajectory.

    I suspect the situation in contemporary America has a lot more to do with the rise of modern capitalism, and also a set of decisions post-WWII to throw the baby out with the bathwater, decisions that some may judge as erroneous, but which were made on the basis of valid political concerns. Moreover, if one takes natural law seriously, political stupidity has a way of reversing itself in the long-haul.

    Traditional monarchy is dead, except in remote locations, perhaps Thailand. What dies a natural death organically cannot be revived. Instead, you get right-wing version of managerial Frankenstein. However, you are correct that Constitution worship will not resurrect the dead either. Let the dead bury the dead.

    • I think you have read something into my argument that isn’t there. I don’t think the document itself is patient zero, rather the political philosophy it’s an expression of is what I sought to criticize. Other than that, I agree with what you have said.

  4. As a follow up, the American Revolution was in no way similar to the French Revolution. American society was effectively self-governing at the time of the Revolution, and they simply unyoked themselves from Britain. It was no huge social transformation, they just stop sending the taxes out of town, and sent the governors home. No doubt, Jefferson threw in some French philosophy to prove to Europe that Americans weren’t just a bunch of bumpkins, but the Republic wasn’t governed in an Enlightened way, as the absence of mass executions bears out. For this reason, Edmund Burke was optimistic about the American revolution and pessimistic about the French revolution. It might be helpful to look at Christopher Lasch’s writings on American history, if you haven’t already.

    • Have you ever been to New York? There is a large, puke green androgynous statue gifted to the U.S. by France as homage to the “Revolution.” Have you not read Jefferson, who loved the Jacobins and called for bloody revolution? Franklin was a Satanist and liked the Jacobins, too. The fact that there is a difference of flavor between Jacobin and Girondin does not equate to the two revolutions having nothing in common – they have everything in common, since both France and the US are under the same Mother Lodge. Two sides of the same coin that has correctly likened to its modern (equally phony) Tea Party and Occupy.

  5. America was founded by Protestants, and the political assumptions that went into the Republic are only the sort of assumptions that Reformed Protestants can make. For example, pretending that you can rely solely on a written document without an authority rooted in tradition to interpret it. On the other hand, so long as America remains culturally Protestant, the center will hold, because everyone will be thinking Protestant still. Further, if America collapses, it will only be a political manifestation resulting from a prior cultural collapse of Protestantism. [This is intended as a political/cultural judgment, not a theological one.]

  6. Daniel,
    Reading this article I could´t help but remember the following passage from CG Jung´s “The Stages of Life”:
    “Whoever protects himself against what is new and strange and thereby regresses to the past, falls into the same neurotic condition as the man who identifies himself with the new and runs away from the past. The only difference is that the one has estranged himself from the past, and the other from the future. In principle both are doing the same thing; they are salvaging a narrow state of consciousness.”
    I can understand the critique made here to the way people (naively? Or induced to?) believe in the ideia “of the return of the spirit of 1776”. But the reference to the “We the People” cannot be linked exclusively to conservatives/libertarians. The progressives love it. And in the it´s name will scale up the state (following the disaster of the utilitarian ethics to the Manifest Disney of today – hat tip Mark).
    I think KD is right in bring the difference between french and american revolutions. In nature at least.
    I guess that not even Burke would anticipate the way the american trail would be so close to the french as it is now.


  7. Predictably, most American so-called conservatives cannot reference anything older or greater than the origin of their nation. The myth of the Founding Fathers, of the good rebels who fight for a republic against an evil monarchy is reflected even in pop culture such as Star Wars, where Empire characters have a British accent. It’s deep rooted and part and parcel of the American culture. If they realised that the very source of their ruin is the idea of egalitarian liberty, of suppressing traditional / natural hierarchy and replacing it with the quest for profit, they would have to erase their mental blackboard and start all over from scratch: they can’t face it. Not that things are any better in Europe either: tradition has been shattered pretty much everywhere.

  8. Pingback: Boiler Room Episode #20 – Uninterruptible Talk Radio on ACR

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