About twelve years ago, I wrote a fantasy novel by the title The Black Feather. It remains unpublished, which I put down to the fact that it is unpublishable — not to mention unreadable. It was a blast of the trumpet against everything that appalled me at the time — progress, rationalism, utilitarianism, commercialism, egalitarianism, and all things modern.
It was also my own creative response to the fact that Dark Lords in fantasy fiction seemed so much more attractive than the protagonists. Pottermania was in full swing at the time, and I found Voldemort and his Death Eaters more alluring than Harry and his friends. I suspected J.K. Rowling was twisting the truth and that the Death Eaters were actually the good guys, the ones being persecuted. After all, liberals always lie about conservatives.
My novel was centred on a city-state which was inspired by ancient Athens and medieval Florence — that is, the humanistic cradle of a future modern world. The protagonist was a scion of one of the leading families of this city state. His city was embroiled in a war with an empire to the East which represented all things reactionary, and its Dark Lord was named the Spider King. Being an agnostic at the time, I allowed nothing explicitly supernatural into the novel, but the Spider King was reputed to have magical powers.
In the course of the story, my protagonist came to repudiate the values of his home city, and more and more to identify with the mysticism, hierarchy, traditionalism, and agriculturalism of his opponents. Eventually he became the new Spider King himself. This synopsis makes the story sound a lot better than it actually was.
When I think of the book now, I shudder a little at just how reactionary I had become at this stage. For instance, I had repudiated the very concept of human rights, seeing how these seemed to endlessly proliferate and expand in our own time. Abstractions such as human rights were destructive; they did violence to the delicate ecology of society that had grown up over centuries. When I eventually traded my agnosticism for Catholicism, I had to face the fact that the Catholic Church endorsed the existence of human rights — along with a lot of other ideas I had repudiated, in my reactionary zeal.
When I look out at the landscape of the right-wing today, I see a lot of people (especially young people) who remind me of myself as I was when I was writing The Black Feather. Many embrace a radicalism which is radical in the etymological sense, seeking to attack progressivism at its very intellectual and philosophical roots. They may not come to the same conclusions as I did, but their own conclusions are similarly radical. Names such as Julius Evola and Friedrich Nietzsche are bandied about. Often, democracy is repudiated. Whatever their particular set of beliefs, they are usually united on one point — conservatism has failed. Conservatism has lost battle after battle and it’s time for something new, something that can win.
This repudiation of conservatism disturbs me. Conservatism is not only opposed to liberalism and progressivism, but also to radicalism — and surely the history of the twentieth century should warn us of the terrible dangers of radicalism.
Whatever else may be laid at the feet of the Anglo-American world, its great glory in the twentieth century was that it was never seduced by the totalitarianism of the left or the right. The traditions of classical liberalism — democracy, compromise, moderation, gradualism, and all the virtues that radicals tend to disdain — inoculated it against both Fascism and Communism. Indeed, British conservatism from the time of the French Revolution showed a deep and healthy distrust of radicalism, which pervaded the rest of the English-speaking world.
It especially defended democracy, a system that radicals tend to disdain. It is something of a cliché to defend democracy as “the worst system there is, aside from all the others.” Nevertheless, I would defend the cliché as true. Certainly it is hard to find anything in the annals of democracy which equals the horrors of totalitarian and dictatorial regimes.
Our native experience of anti-democratic radicalism, in the twentieth century, should give us pause for thought. Whether or not the Easter Rising was a just war may be debated, but it certainly served as a justification, in later decades, for militants who saw themselves as the “advance guard” of the people — from the Irregulars of the Civil War to the latest dissident IRA groups. The pattern was always the same — radical action must be taken first, popular support could come later. The mentality is very similar to the New Right radical who dismisses “normies” and “sheeple”. This is very dangerous ground. I think C.S. Lewis conservative defence of democracy could hardly be bettered: “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.”
Another criticism of “old-fashioned” conservatism is that it’s impossibly vague, it has no intellectual cohesion. If David Cameron could say that he supported same-sex marriage on grounds of conservatism, couldn’t anything be justified as conservatism?
Perhaps it could. But the fact that conservatism cannot be reduced to a set of propositions does not make it contemptible. After all, it would be very difficult to reduce progressivism or liberalism to a set of propositions; indeed, it’s very easy to point out its internal contradictions. (How can gender be a social construct if transsexuals have a “true” gender identity, for instance?). This hasn’t made it any less effective. It would be absurd to think that most progressives today (which means most people) are familiar with the philosophy of Michel Foucault or the Frankfurt School.
The ideas that animate society are rarely clear-cut or definite. Take the history of Irish nationalism, for instance. Most people would accept that the nationalism of Patrick Pearse was very different from the nationalism of James Connolly. We argue about what the rebels of 1916 stood for; the truth was that they stood for many different visions of what an independent Ireland would look like, as subsequent history shows. Or take the example of Donald Trump and Brexit, two contemporary developments that delighted most populists and nationalists. Why did so many Americans vote for Trump? Why did so many British people vote for Brexit? It seems obvious that there were many motivations at work, in both cases. Trump came to power through a broad coalition of social conservatives, economic nationalists, Christians, libertarians, populists, and any number of other factions. The same applies to Brexit—the Leave camp encompassed a huge variety of different views regarding Britain’s role in the world, and its relationship with Europe. The vagueness of conservatism, far from being a drawback, is actually a strength.
One troubling aspect of the younger, more bullish right is the concentration on race, ethnicity and genetics—“demographics is destiny” is a common slogan. Considering that Ireland is now a de facto multi-ethnic and multicultural country, I think the appropriate conservative approach would be to find a way to reconcile this to the traditional aspirations of Irish nationalism. Can we really, seriously contemplate the idea of forced deportation of tens of thousands of people? Because, let us be honest, that is really what we are talking about when we talk about reversing multiculturalism.
For the Catholics among us, this would seem to be in clear contradiction to Church teaching (for instance, John Paul II condemns deportation as “intrinsically evil” in Veritatis Splendor, drawing on the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes.) But even for the non-Catholics, let us contemplate for a moment how radical this suggestion (which is more often implied than stated out loud) really is. When it comes down to it, would you be happy to see individuals and families marched to the airport against their wishes? Would this apply only to non-nationals in the official sense, or also what Justin Barrett of the National Party terms “paper Irish”? By all means let us have an open, sober discussion about immigration, multiculturalism, and ethnicity. But, while we remain hard-headed and realistic about demographics, let’s not forget we are talking about human beings, people — who cannot be reduced to carriers of genes and DNA.
Repatriation (meaning, presumably, deportation) is only one radical measure I have heard suggested by friends and acquaintances on the right — by my fellow anti-progressives. Others include: the abolition of democracy in favour of absolute monarchy; constraining people on social welfare to buy healthy food rather than junk food; using state power to suppress non-Catholic religions, or heresies; and making the Irish language compulsory in everyday life. All these proposals seem to me, to be honest, either crazy or oppressive or both. A radical right that embraces ideas such as these, or similarly radical ideas, are most likely destined to spend their energies in the self-indulgent politics of protest. But, should the unlikely happen and should people with such ideas actually come to power, it would be infinitely worse. Do we want to replace progressive social engineering with right-wing social engineering?
Instead of this, I urge again a conservatism that is wary of all radical measures, including those which would advance our own aspirations; a conservatism that fears excessive power, even when it is in our own hands; and a conservatism that is convicted of the corruptibility of all human beings, including ourselves.