In the normal telling, history is driven by visionaries and revolutionaries. If you studied history in school you probably plowed through book after book about this revolution or that one – the American Revolution or the French, the industrial revolution or the information one. In the normal telling of the past, events are driven by revolutionaries, and the few reactionaries who stand in the way get run over.
But really, history is often a volley between revolutionaries (who take control in some periods) and reactionaries (who drive events in others). Today, as the Columbia political theorist Mark Lilla points out in his compelling new book, “The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction,” reactionaries are in the saddle.
Reactionaries, whether angry white Trumpians, European nationalists, radical Islamists or left-wing anti-globalists, are loud, self-confident and on the march.
Reactionaries come in different stripes but share a similar mentality: There was once a golden age, when people knew their place and lived in harmony. But then that golden age was betrayed by the elites. “The betrayal of elites is the linchpin of every reactionary story,” Lilla writes.
Soon, they believe, a false and decadent consciousness descended upon the land. “Only those who have preserved memories of the old ways see what is happening,” Lilla notes. Only the reactionaries have the wisdom to turn things back to the way they used to be, to “Make America Great Again.”
“Reactionaries are not conservatives,” Lilla continues. “They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings. Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of entering a new dark age haunt the reactionary.”
Reactionaries are marked by a militant, apocalyptic mindset, a crisis mentality. They are willing to take extreme, violent action to turn back the clock. In their narcissism, they think they alone understand the crisis and are in a position to reverse the trends.
It’s understandable that we would be living in a reactionary moment. The periods after financial crises are always bumpy politically. Whether it was the 1890s, the 1930s or today, such periods often thrust up ugly, backward-looking ideologies.
Eras after mass immigration tend to be bumpy, too. There tends to be a repulse against the sudden influx of new people. Moreover, for many groups, especially the less educated working class, life genuinely is worse than it was in the mid-60s. It’s no wonder such people buy Donald Trump’s paradise-lost narrative.
The more serious problem is today’s pervasive and self-reinforcing pessimism, which feeds the reactionary impulse.
The belief systems that used to reinforce a faith in progress have become less influential. First there was moderate religiosity, the belief that God is ultimately in control, that all things are ultimately fashioned toward the good and that the arc of history bends toward justice. This was the mindset that made Martin Luther King Jr. fundamentally optimistic, even in temporarily dark times. Then there was humanism, the belief that people are learning more and more, inventing more and more, and so history is a steady accumulation of good things.
As humanism and moderate religion have withered, gloom has pervaded that national mind. It doesn’t matter how much living standards rise or the poverty rate falls, it makes you seem smart and woke to be alarmed and hypercritical. Every dour attention-grabber wants to claim that the elites are more corrupt than ever.
The paranoid style of conspiracy-mongering has become the lingua franca of the internet. Public conversation is dominated by people’s ahistorical insistence that this country is sliding toward decline. As Arthur Herman writes in his book “The Idea of Decline in Western History,” “The sowing of despair and self-doubt has become so pervasive that we accept it as a normal intellectual stance – even when it is directly contradicted by our own reality.”
The best weapon against the reactionary is not bubbly, blind optimism. It is, frankly, temperamental conservatism. It is the belief that, thanks to the general spread of market freedom and cultural pluralism, our society is becoming stumblingly but gradually richer, more just and more creative. But economic and technological dynamism needs to be balanced by cultural cohesion.
It’s stupid and impossible to turn back the clock. But history is a repository of wise cultures. Each historic culture – Ming dynasty China, medieval Germany, Victorian England – contained some piece of wisdom and had its own strengths and weaknesses. Classical Greek culture could produce epic courage but was weak when it came to compassion.
The conservative looks fondly to the past not as a paradise to return to but as a treasure trove of experience to borrow from. The conservative seeks to revive, restore and reconstruct – to use the gifts of the dead to make the present a little sweeter and deeper. Many of history’s most inspiring leaps forward (the Renaissance) came from a blending of past cultural and spiritual wisdom with present technological advance.
The global pluralistic marketplace is a permanently revolutionary force. If you don’t balance it with the communal, humanistic and spiritual countercultures from the past then the people, naked, will try to reject it altogether. They’ll succumb to the angry extremism of reaction and discard progress whole cloth.
That impulse is on the march just now.