I love the label “reactionary”. It’s far more useful as an anti-Right insult than those slightly more common slurs – Nazi, fascist, etc. – because, well, obviously no prominent right-wing leader islooking to Hitler and Mussolini as models of good government. The “reactionary” label, while less stinging, is at least believable. It doesn’t stink of hyperbole. You can say of conservative politicians like Tony Abbott, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson, “They’re just raging against the modern world,” and even those gentlemen’s most ardent supporters will have a hard time rebuffing your claim. Boris, by the by, is a new hero of mine. He speculated that President Barack Obama’s call for Britain to remain in the EU is “a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire”. As if we all haven’t been thinking the same thing.
But when conservatives describe themselves as reactionary, it’s like a nuclear warhead has detonated in the conversation. The “reactionary” accepts that the status quo – unstable globalist economies, unfettered immigration, cultural deterioration, and the like – are indeed hallmarks of modernity, and so they reject modernity out of hand. “This is the way the world is!” the Left insists, “You can’t stop progress.” To which the neo-reactionary replies, “Then the world is ugly and wrong. And if this is what you call progress, then it, too, is ugly and wrong and ought to be undone.”
But there’s another tack that modernity’s most virulent critics are taking: out-progressing the progressives. We see this in the Austrian elections, where Norbert Hofer, of the anti-mass immigration Freedom Party (FPO), placed first in the first round of voting with 35%. Marine Le Pen, leader of FPO’s French counterpart National Front (FN), said of the election, “In a huge number of countries in Europe, patriotic movements are surging vigorously.” (Le Pen is herself expected to perform very well in France’s presidential elections.) “This is becoming the way that history is pointing,” she added.
Ah! It’s almost as delicious as the reactionary line. The conservative is positively spoiled rotten: do we smash the false god of progress, or do we point out that, just lately, it’s intervening in our favor and obviously so?
Either way, it seems progressivism as we know it is on the way out. For decades the Left has been able to coast along on the boast of its inevitability, and the Right implicitly allowed those serried legions of activists to do so. But no more! No longer is it the greatest manifestation of our potency to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” or, as has ben far more often the case, run alongside it while wheezily yelling “For Pete’s sake, please slow down.” Now, or so it seems, history hasn’t only slowed, but paused to glance over its shoulder and wonder if it might have taken a wrong turn.
This is good news for us – though, in truth, it’s not a victory we earned. The masses in Europe and America are only beginning to rethink the West’s trajectory because the ghastly conclusion of radical Leftism is everywhere evident: poverty, crime, and social alienation. Which isn’t to say while we shouldn’t complain about the changing tide, we shouldn’t boast either.
It’s doubly bad news for the Left. Not only are they being discredited, and indeed discrediting themselves – you can read regret on the faces of Angela Merkel, David Cameron, and Barack Obama as if it’s printed in 132-point type – but their ideological muscles are completely atrophied after so many years of disuse. There’s not a single intelligent defender of progressivism to be found anywhere in the Western world. The old war horses, Jürgen Habermas and Noam Chomsky, seem totally exhausted. And that’s not only because they’re elderly. It’s also because their ideology is elderly. It has not contended with modern realities since the late Eighties. Their theories about multiculturalism and internationalism have been tried and they have failed, and they never thought to formulate a contingency plan. The leftmost intelligent opinion you’ll get is, in fact, from centre-right journals like the National Review, Quadrant, and the British and Aussie Spectator – publications who’ve led the charge against the radical Left while saying to the Hofers and Le Pens, “Let’s not get too hasty.”
Indeed, let’s not. The reactionary and ultra-progressive lines are good fun, and they’re useful in battering down the last ruins of the entrenched progressive narrative that still circumscribes our political debate. But let’s not repeat the mistakes of the Left by resting on the laurels as history accelerates along its current trajectory. C.S. Lewis, that remarkably placid thinker, gave the best advice to progressives and conservatives alike: “A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” But we have to work afresh just as surely as we have to go back. We may well find ourselves having to go back and start over again and again. But if we’re always looking nostalgically backwards or smugly forwards, we’re apt to discover too late that we’ve become just as fossilised as Habermas and Chomsky, useful only as museum pieces.