Since there is no functioning conservative intellectual tradition, individuals or small groups are continually reformulating Reaction from scratch. If they work at it on the internet long enough, they are bound to run into other pockets of reactionary thought and realize they are not so isolated or original after all. At this point, a pocket of reactionary pilgrims may either dissolve themselves into the wider community or define something distinctive about their own approach. The neoreactionaries are now at this point. These are a smart and relatively new group of bloggers, most of them former libertarians who came to their current rejection of modernity through the writings of Mencius Moldbug. My own opinion of Unqualified Reservations is that it’s an amusing and often thought-provoking site; its author is primarily a theorist of power structures and social movements who specializes–like Pareto, whom he resembles in many ways–in subjecting progressivism to the same sociological goring it has long applied to its enemies. He says little about what I would regard as the foundational issues of political philosophy (more on those later), but it is natural that those awakened by him from the illusions of liberalism should in gratitude speak of him as if of a new Aristotle.
As a taxonomist of the Right, I’m always interested when some new school of reactionaries decides to define itself. So, what if anything makes these “neoreactionaries” special? One idea they’re floating, made by The Reflective Reactionary and endorsed by Bryce Laliberte, is that this new group works at a higher level of abstraction than ordinary reactionaries–e.g. defenses of monarchy and religion in general rather than of particular dynasties or cults. Now, as is, this candidate for a specific difference won’t stand; it is a fact that there are general defenses of monarchy, religion, tradition, and the like that proceed along entirely different lines than those of the neoreactionaries. However, it does get at something distinctive about this group, and I agree that there is a sense in which Neoreaction is more abstract than the Orthosphere, to name another group of reactionaries who make equally broad arguments in very different ways.
The actual distinction is a recurring one in conservative thought; neither we nor they are the first to invent either pole of it. They are both to be found in Roger Scruton’s brilliant but deeply conflicted book The Meaning of Conservatism. The odd thing about this book is that Scruton offers two contradictory (indeed, almost polar opposite) definitions of the conservative viewpoint. In chapter 2, he notes Marxism’s emphasis on economic base and dismissal of ideological superstructure as epiphenomenal and illusory. He contrasts this with conservatism’s concern for appearances, the “surface” of social life, on which people actually live and find meaning in their relationships. Even if economic or biological determinism is true, he says, it is not the most important truth. The most important truth is what things like marriage or the nation mean to and how they are experienced by their participants. In the philosophical appendix, Scruton takes the opposite position, distinguishing the first-person point of view in which liberalism with its categorical imperative reigns supreme with the third-person point of view in which we ask not what individuals are morally compelled to do but what society needs to function. Conservatives, he says, take the view of functionalist anthropologists, dismissing the understanding of social practices held by their participants and considering rather how they maintain the social organism. In one of Scruton’s own examples, the conservative knows that when a primitive tribe thinks it is offering a sacrifice to one of its deities, what is really going on is that the tribe is solidifying itself. The influence of Durkheim is unmistakeable.
These two reactionary postures are as old as Reaction itself, and in today’s blogosphere they seem to have incarnated themselves in the Orthosphere and Neoreactionary communities. Often both can be used to support the same conclusions, and possibly they are even both valid, but it is clear that they are distinct. One cannot simultaneously take the phenomenological-natural law view and the functionalist view; trying to combine them means subordinating one to the other. (For example to say “it’s good for society for people to think that…” is not to propose a synthesis, but to take the functionalist view.) Reactionary thought operates on both first and third person viewpoints; this cannot be the real distinction between it and liberalism. Clearly, though, our first-person viewpoint is different from the liberals’, and our third-person viewpoint is different form the Marxists’.