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Dark Prophets of Post-Liberalism
A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right
By Matthew Rose
Between 1968 and 2004 Republicans won seven presidential elections in America, to just three for Democrats. Yet during that time liberalism, the Democratic ideology, gained dominance over nearly all the major institutions of American society, including governmental bureaucracies, the education establishment, public-employee unions, big media, big entertainment, big finance, and big tech. Why?
The conservative activist and columnist Samuel Francis (1947–2005) posited an answer. Conservatives fought over ideas, he said, while liberals fought for power. What’s more, liberals brilliantly captured oligarchic power, which often is impervious to election returns.
An adherent of James Burnham’s pioneering thesis about the rise of a new “managerial class” gaining sway over larger and increasingly impersonal societal institutions, Francis perceived that many of the ideological debates following World War II—over Cold War strategies, civil rights, globalism, cultural issues, Richard Nixon, and more—were fundamentally struggles over the distribution of power among competing elites.
And, in Francis’s view, increasingly the liberal elites, globalist and anti-nationalist in outlook, sought and wielded power for the purpose of undermining the legacy foundations of America. “It is imperative,” he wrote, “for [liberal] elites to challenge, discredit, and erode the moral, intellectual, and institutional fabric of traditional society.”
Francis is one of five anti-liberal intellectuals of the last century profiled in Matthew Rose’s smart little book, which poses a provocative question: “What comes after liberalism?” To Rose, director of the Barry Center at the Morningside Institute, the question isn’t strictly academic. “We are living in a postliberal moment,” he writes, adding that liberalism “is losing its hold on Western minds.”
Poised to exploit this grand opportunity, writes Rose, is a new breed of young intellectuals of the right—“Nationalists, populists, identitarians, futurists, and religious traditionalists… vying to define conservatism in ways previously unimaginable.” Rejecting the old conservative preoccupation with individual liberty, limited government, market infallibility, and free trade, these rising thinkers focus instead on “the cultural, spiritual, and even racial foundations of human identity,” as Rose describes it.
He cites specifically such new-breed conservatives as Curtis Yarvin, Peter Thiel, Angelo Codevilla, Adrian Vermeule, and Steve Sailer. They agree on “almost nothing,” writes Rose, except that a revolution in conservative thinking is under way and “new forms of political life will soon be possible.” Rose suggests that the five anti-liberal thinkers profiled in his book provide insights into where today’s fresh crop of conservative intellectuals might go for philosophical guidance.
The five are the German Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), dubbed by Rose as “The Prophet,” exponent of the cyclical view of history and analyst of civilizational lifecycles; the Italian fascist Julius Evola (1898–1974), “The Fantasist,” who believed that a recognition of natural human inequality was essential to any political order; the American Francis Parker Yockey (1917–1960), “The Anti-Semite,” advocate of brutal Western global dominance; the Frenchman Alain de Benoist (b. 1943), “The Pagan,” anti-Christian as well as anti-liberal; and Francis, “The Nationalist,” who aspired to lead a “Middle American Revolution” designed to upend the U.S. liberal elite.
Rose takes care to emphasize that he himself rejects much of the thinking he describes in his book, though he clearly shares his subjects’ general anti-liberal sentiments and welcomes the idea of a liberal decline. As for America’s current “radical right” seeking a new, post-liberal dialectic of politics, he notes with seeming approval that its adherents see themselves as “the last remaining enemies of nihilism on this side of the liberal frontier.” He adds, “Their ideals are not mine and are likely not yours, but their writings tell us they are engaged in a lonely struggle to save wisdom and civilization from those who would see them destroyed.”
Rose gets into some perilous territory, though, with regard to race. As modern liberalism has embraced more and more fervently a globalist sensibility hostile to the country’s Western heritage, conservative defenders of the cultural inheritance have found themselves under attack as racists, bigots, xenophobes, and the like. Much of this is unfair, even outlandish, and can be dismissed as simply power-play maneuvers on the part of the prevailing elite, bent on maintaining its elevated status. But the last thing any current defender of the Western culture needs is to be identified with, for example, the likes of Francis Yockey, whose antisemitism is described by Rose as “of a particularly virulent and innovative kind.”
Indeed, it is difficult to fathom why Rose would include Yockey at all in his circle of anti-liberals of the past, given his stark racism and his call for total Western global hegemony, a project as fanciful as it would be self-destructive. “There is a clarity and zeal for a cause that are undeniable,” writes Rose, “even when the cause is revolting.” This reflects a certain lack of moral rigor, as a revolting cause is seldom redeemed by the zealotry of its adherents.
More intriguing is the case of Samuel Francis, whose probing analyses of the crosscurrents of power in a liberal-dominated America demonstrated a rare brilliance but who lost his standing in the public arena when he turned to “racial nationalism.” Before that happened, though, he threw down the gauntlet to the liberal oligarchy when he declared: “When I call for the overthrow of the dominant authorities, I am not advocating illegal or undemocratic processes, but the war for the culture is nonetheless a radical or even a revolutionary conflict because it involves an almost total redistribution of power in American society.”
Rose’s description of Spengler as a “prophet” pays tribute to the idiosyncratic genius of the man in predicting the broad sweep of world developments, and their impact on peoples and societies, based on his study of historical patterns and cycles. Writing around the time of World War I and into the interwar years, he viewed civilizations as rather like living organisms that are born, develop, flower, and then decline and die. The West, he believed, had passed through its allotted centuries of cultural health and creative ferment and had entered its final phase, characterized by greater concentrations of institutional power, foreign adventurism, big impersonal cities, the rise of an obsessive money culture, and a turning away from its cultural heritage.
But further into the future he saw the West’s final crisis in the rise of non-Western peoples, fortified with Western technology and science; bolstered by overwhelming numbers; and motivated in part by a sense of moral legitimacy born of centuries of Western exploitation. But, as Rose notes, Spengler was no humanitarian, and certainly no liberal, and he feared for the “fragile soul” of his own civilization when the “downtrodden races of the outer ring” converged onto Western lands. His reading of history suggested that the West would suffer a fatal crisis of identity, would reject its own heritage out of fear and confusion, while the peripheral peoples would coalesce into a powerful force of racial confidence.
Spengler viewed the world through a cold eye of determinism, and so it isn’t clear how his musings could inform intellectuals of today on how to combat the forces of globalism and anti-nationalism that seem to be pushing America in the direction of Spengler’s nightmare. If he was correct in his prediction, and current indications suggest he was, there probably won’t be much that can be done about it.
In the meantime, some elements of thinking represented by Rose’s other subjects might be worth pondering. Evola, for example, lamented the emptiness of modern life and extolled a fealty to tradition. As Rose describes Evola’s concept, “Tradition shelters human beings from the ravages of mortality, change, and contingency.” Or, as Evola himself put it, it is a “force that consumes time and history.” Likewise, Evola decried the rise of materialism, viewing it as a force that “kills every possibility, deflects every intent, and paralyzes every attempt” at reaching an elevated form of life.
Rose presents Alain de Benoist as an advocate of “identitarianism,” which aims to protect distinct cultures everywhere against their displacement by immigration and their distortion by colonialism or the introduction of hostile ideologies. Thus, he rejects two of modern liberalism’s most cherished principles—diversity and assimilation. He favored instead what he called “cultural cohesion and a clear sense of shared heritage.”
De Benoist foresaw growing tensions in the West between the cosmopolitan values of the elites and the more mundane loyalties of ordinary folk. He also believed that liberalism and democracy were essentially incompatible, as liberalism’s worship of the individual inevitably would destroy the sense of belonging and group obligation that produced a more hallowed sense of citizenship and therefore a more sinewy society.
Rose has produced a compelling intellectual exploration of a narrow slice of political thinking. But a number of his assumptions and suggestions seem subject to contention or at least discussion: that liberalism is in decline; that, if it is, the oligarchy that sustains it will decline with it (as opposed, perhaps, to turning increasingly authoritarian to preserve its standing); and that the new forces of the right will be positioned to exploit liberalism’s decline if it occurs.
What we see here, in addition to the struggle for oligarchic power between left and right as explored by Francis, is a profound conflict between those who wish to destroy the cultural heritage of the West and those who wish to preserve it. In his final book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, the late Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard posited that the American identity initially was based upon four elements: race, ethnicity, culture, and creed (the country’s constitutional system). But through history, he wrote, race and ethnicity had fallen away as identity elements.
Thus the struggle came down to those who defined America simply by its political creed, viewed as universal for all humanity, and those who believed the loss of culture would spell the loss of America as the world has known it for two and a half centuries. The supreme challenge faced by the country’s New Right is the imperative of preserving the cultural birthright as a corollary to the creedal inheritance and within the context of a multiethnic society. Matthew Rose has demonstrated just how difficult and even treacherous that will be.
Robert W. Merry, former Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy.
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