Shogun and the Universal Truths of Fusionism (Matthew Malec, May 2024, Fusion)

One of conservatism’s great virtues is that it understands that human nature is flawed and no one is infallible. Plans that come from the top down should be debated and even viewed skeptically. At its best, conservatism starts with the family, then builds out to civil society, and only then to a limited government that gives these smaller units the space they need to thrive. There is no (earthly) savior lying in wait. Whether coming from populists or post-liberals, we should be wary of any calls for regime change or working outside of the constitutional system that has served us well for nearly 250 years. When conservatism loses its skepticism and begins to look toward utopia, it has already lost.

The only answer to the challenges conservatism faces is a revitalized fusionism that focuses on limiting government and objective morality while working within our constitutional framework. Fusionists must cling tight to first principles, including distrust of human nature, and maintaining the ever-precarious balance between respecting individual rights and ensuring people have the communities they need for true fulfillment. If we do not step up, something else will fill the void, and it may well be a Toranaga-esque figure with little respect for rights and a thirst for power.


Review: Russell Kirk’s The Politics of Prudence (Paul Krause, May 17, 2024, Voegelin View)

This basic framework for understanding conservatism is then revealed through the chapters of this book, beginning with the “Errors of Ideology.” Ideology, as Kirk defines it, is a dogmatic approach to “transforming society and even transforming human nature.” The ideologue generally takes as their starting point a hatred of the current political order, a hatred of human nature, and a belief in progressive utopia from some thinker or book who revealed to humanity what could be. Ideology, as practiced by the ideologue, becomes “merciless” in that “march toward Utopia.” Drawing upon other thinkers like Eric Voegelin and Gerhart Niemeyer, Kirk sharply explains the essence of ideology as “promis[ing] mankind an earthly paradise.”

Conservatism, standing in opposition to ideology, isn’t about rejecting change or reform. Kirk, quoting Burke (one of his heroes), knows and affirms that change and reform are necessary (change is a natural part of existence). Change and reform can be good things too. However, the change and reform that conservatism promotes is within the limits of worldly and human nature—to make it better, not perfect. In the merciless march to Utopia promoted by ideology and conservatism’s opposition to ideological madness, Kirk implies that conservatism acts within the boundaries of nature (both earthly and humanly) while ideology seeks to eradicate nature to escape the limits of nature.


Peter Viereck’s Unadjusted Conservatism: One of the most insightful figures in postwar conservatism has been forgotten in our age of political chaos. (John D. Wilsey, 5/02/24, Law & Liberty)

His study of, and tragic experience with fascism moved Viereck to Burkean conservatism. He defined conservatism like this:

The conservative principles par excellence are proportion and measure; self-expression through self-restraint; preservation through reform; humanism and classical balance; a fruitful nostalgia for the permanent beneath the flux; and a fruitful obsession for unbroken historical continuity. These principles together create freedom, a freedom built not on the quicksand of adolescent defiance but on the bedrock of ethics and law.

Viereck’s is a beautiful articulation of the conservative disposition.

Viereck identified specific features of measured and extreme conservatism. He classified measured conservatism as evolutionary Burkean and extreme conservatism as reactionary Ottantottist. What did he mean?

Viereck argued that Burke’s Reflections birthed modern conservatism in a similar way that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels birthed international Marxism through their Communist Manifesto. For Viereck, what stood out most clearly from Burke’s conservatism was an orientation around tradition, especially the tradition of ordered liberty. Viereck also saw that the Burkean tradition was evolutionary, contrasted with the ossified, counter-revolutionary rightism expressed through French thinker Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821). For Viereck, both the Burkean and the Maistrian strands of conservatism hold up tradition in the face of revolutionary change, but Burkeans stand for traditional liberties whereas Maistrians champion traditional authority. Viereck called the Maistrian tradition “ottantott,” from the Italian word, ottantotto, meaning “eighty-eight.” Viereck wrote, “A reactionary king of Piedmont-Sardinia became almost a figure of fun by wandering about mumbling pathetically the word ‘ottantott.’ … Thereby he meant to say: all problems would vanish if only the world turned its clock back to 1788, the year before the Revolution.”

Burkeans and ottantotts differ in the way they understand the nature of change and how to respond to it. Burkeans see change as natural and inevitable, thus it must be managed by honest deliberation based on constitutional procedure, tradition, and prudence. Ottantotts are resistant to change, deploying nostalgia not for imaginative purposes, but as a test for truth. Ottantotts, since they are counter-revolutionary, seek disruption no less than leftist revolutionaries. They are utopian in a similar way to leftist revolutionaries: their political vision is predicated on obscurantist nostalgia, which is just as abstract as the leftist revolutionaries’ dreams of a perfected society. Both leftist revolutionaries and ottantott counter-revolutionaries seek to build temples in the sky, and have no use for the concrete experience of the past. Viereck saw the Burkean tradition as the predominant conservative tradition in American history. He thought the ottantottist tradition, emerging from the thought of Maistre, as the predominant conservative tradition on the continent of Europe. Considering the development of American conservatism since 1990, there seems to be a clear turn toward ottantottism, especially in its rising populist appeal due to the frustration among many Americans for Republican aimlessness in the opening decades of the twenty-first century.


The Origins of Conservatism’s ‘Gnostic’ Meme (Joshua Tait, 4/12/24, The Bulwark)

His moment came in 1951, when Voegelin was invited to the University of Chicago to give a set of lectures under the auspices of a conservative program that had produced influential books by Leo Strauss, George F. Kennan, Daniel J. Boorstin and others. Voegelin’s lectures were gathered into a book, The New Science of Politics. It was through this book that American conservatives were introduced to the concept of Gnosticism in its political and ideological application.

VOEGELIN’S GRAND HISTORY begins with the priestly kings of antiquity who united the secular and spiritual order under their rule. Over time, the unity of their authority developed cracks, many of which resulted from the growth of Christian belief in an omnipotent God who is ontologically separate from His Creation. Society became more secular as the created world was de-divinized, but the spiritual energies were not scoured from the Western imagination—they were merely sublimated. This is where Gnosticism comes into play: For Voegelin, it names the true motivation of anyone who advocates any substantive change to the political order. It is the attempt to bring “our knowledge of transcendence”—our inchoate sense of the Kingdom of Heaven, the eschaton, the endpoint of history—into secular reality through politics.

Voegelin experienced the rise of both Nazism and Bolshevism, and he came to see Gnosticism at the motive core of both movements. “The totalitarianism of our time,” he wrote, “must be understood as journey’s end of the Gnostic search for a civil theology.” But Voegelin was interested in more than endpoints. He saw Gnosticism in a variety of dynamic and emerging ideologies including liberalism, progressivism, positivism, scientism, and still other outlooks and systems. Few could escape his novel, encompassing metaphysical critique.

If Gnosticism involves self-deception—no advocates of the ideological systems Voegelin targeted would accept it as a characterization of their true political motives—it also runs afoul of a self-defeating contradiction, Voegelin argued: Its gnosis, the special knowledge upon which these movements are based, is ultimately false. In his view, Gnostics see their program as an end state that they insist upon in defiance of reality. When Gnostics triumph politically, they only manage to build a dreamworld— fundamentally flawed social arrangements that create a “very complex pneumopathological state of mind”—which he elsewhere defines as the “condition of a thinker who, in his revolt against the world as it has been created by God, arbitrarily omits an element of reality in order to create the fantasy of a new world—among anyone unfortunate enough to live under them, including the Gnostics themselves.

The Summers of Theory (Peter E. Gordon, 4/09/24, Boston Review)

On the one hand, “theory” carried a hint of privilege, the cultivation of exquisite skills in reading and interpretation that were accessible only to an elite. On the other hand, it implied the hopeful idea of an emancipatory practice, since presumably anyone who wished to “do theory” did so because it promised, someday and somehow, to link up with the moral and political business of transforming the world.


A Reagan-Haunted America: a review of Ronald Reagan’s Enduring Principles by Donald Devine (Richard M. Reinsch II, Law & Liberty)

Devine quotes Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual (2014) to undergird the thesis that the “morally equal individual” became the centerpiece in Western culture and tradition because the God of the Bible placed the individual as “the deciding moral agent,” who could lean “toward freedom or toward tradition in concrete situations.” But this created both a profound conservatism and a revolutionary emphasis because the person “was free to reject the family and traditions” available to them or that had formed them. Christianity itself finds its power in metaphysical unity, but it’s a unity that combined the concrete diversity of Greek rationality and Jewish tradition, as found in the embodiment of the Divine Person who did not create a kingdom for this world, nor guarantee temporal perfection, but did provide the means and end for man to find peace, among other gifts.

Here, then, is the tension of the West, the quest for divine perfection within an imperfect world and the humbling news that even in our best efforts, we fail. Most humbling of all, even when we’re sure that we’re right in our pursuit of the good, we will still fail ourselves and others in incalculable ways. But the awareness of transcendence and of our weaknesses produces “the dynamism that gave the West its creative and dominating culture.” Such fusionism, Devine observes, pieces together disparate episodes: “from the caves of Lascaux,” to Athens and Jerusalem, Augustine and the Romans, Europe and Aquinas, and on to John Locke and the American Founders, “to its dislodgment by progressivism in the early twentieth century.” Of course, this dilemma, as Meyer also learned from Voegelin, frequently leads to the desire to surmount it through ideology, to purify our politics through an overarching scientific or religious ideology.

The recovery in American political thought from New Deal Progressivism began, Devine thinks, in Hayek’s 1944 classic The Road to Serfdom, a book read closely by Reagan and Meyer. In Hayek’s later work, Law, Legislation, and Liberty (1973) he announces that “the most widely held ideas” of the twentieth century—a planned economy, liberation from “repressive and conventional morals,” and “permissive education”—will come to be seen as “superstitions” based on a wrongful faith in science and what it can provide us. The view of tradition as senseless and meaningless, Hayek thinks, will be rejected because we will understand that tradition lays down “foundations on which our capacity for rational thought rests.” Devine notes that Hayek sought in tradition and morality the “foundations” of “a free society.” Law and custom together, working with free markets, could achieve a new voluntary society, one also decentralized, that could bring new life to the West.

Reagan understood these principles, Devine notes, and attempted to place them at the center of his efforts at American revival. One note worth recalling comes from the book Reagan In His Own Hand (2001) where he elegantly voices his belief in the equal moral stature of citizens and why they shouldn’t be ordered around by bureaucrats:

But you I wonder about the people in those cars, who they are, what they do, what they are thinking about as they head for the warmth of home & family. Come to think of it I’ve met them—oh—maybe not those particular individuals but still I I feel I know them. Some of our social planners refer to them as “the masses” which only proves they dont [sic] know them. I’ve been privileged to meet people all over this land in the special kind of way you meet them when you are campaigning. They are not “the masses,” They are individuals. or as the elitists would have it—”the common man.” They are very uncommon. individuals who make this system work. Individuals each with his or her own hopes & dreams, plans & problems and the kind of quiet courage that makes this whole country run better than just about any other place on earth.

These lines sound like an American populism that is worthy of admiration. Yet Reagan, unlike many of our contemporary populists on the Left and the Right, sought to join his belief in the folks with constitutional and free market revival, freedom, and prosperity by way of firm limits rooted in a constitutional framework.

The centrality of Man’s Fall to our culture insulated us from the utopian isms.


Conservatism’s Path Not Taken: In the age of Trump, the right should revisit the neglected Humanist Conservative tradition (JEFFERY TYLER SYCK, JAN 10, 2024, Persuasion)

This brief sketch highlights the five main strands of Humanist Conservatism.

First, it is committed to compassionate capitalism. Humanist Conservatives believe that free market competition is vital to a healthy economy, but that the sometimes-brutal tendencies of capitalism must be offset with generous welfare and jobs programs. Instead of slashing welfare (as Fusionists want) or drastically expanding the regulatory state (as National Conservatives want), Humanist Conservatives long for a more efficient entitlement system that gives money to those who deserve it without unnecessary bureaucratic bloat. Through a generous, semi-public healthcare system, solvent retirement plans, jobs programs for the unemployed, and other reforms, the United States can work to revitalize all geographic areas and not just its urban centers.

Second, Humanist Conservatism seeks to preserve communities. It directs much of its energy towards ending the gradual collapse of American civil society. It adopts this stance partly out of the conviction that human life is best lived in a community with others, but also out of a belief that genuine self-government can only exist in those institutions we inhabit in our daily lives. In practice, this means using government to support and shield what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons”—those intermediary institutions that stand between the individual and the state such as school, church, trade union, town hall, and so on.

Third, Humanist Conservatism stands for pragmatic internationalism. It understands that no nation can simply ignore the universal struggle for freedom across the globe. But Humanist Conservatives also appreciate that promoting international harmony and human rights is no easy task—that to advance such goals requires a painful awareness of our own limitations. In our current moment this would mean providing critical support to allies like Ukraine and Israel. However, it would also mean avoiding the hawkish war mongering that is common on the right. There is no reason to level all of Palestine, provoke a coup in Iran, or goad Vladimir Putin into attacking NATO. Humanist Conservatives understand better than most that as bad as things are now, they can always get worse. The goal of foreign policy is not just to improve the international situation but to prevent it from deteriorating.

Fourth, Humanist Conservatism promotes a pluralist society. It seeks to build a state whose main purpose is to protect the rights of individuals and ensure a multitude of cultural communities can live in harmony. Rather than arrange a battle royale between secular progressivism and our distinct cultural traditions, as National Conservatives do, pluralism permits both to exist harmoniously.

Finally, Humanist Conservatism embraces moderate politics. Polling data shows that most voters are relatively moderate on issues like abortion, transgender rights, and guns. Humanist Conservativism reflects the views of this largely neglected demographic.

These five principles offer a viable alternative to Fusionism and National Conservatism alike. Humanist Conservatism is moderate, broadly appealing, and committed to human flourishing.

The future of all American policies is the past of W.


Liberalism and the Politics of Theism (John F. Doherty, 12/17/23, Public Discourse)

Which kind of earthly politics best assists man’s path to God?

Not long ago, many theists thought the answer to this question was found in liberalism. At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church reaffirmed its longstanding respect for the dignity of the person and his freedom of belief, which are at liberalism’s core. Twentieth-century Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce, in The Problem of Atheism, called liberalism “the modern world’s greatest truth.”

He said it presumes “a generically Christian theology.” Liberalism recognizes “a reality higher than man” to which man is subject—the absolute realm of truth, or God, expressed in terms of natural law and rights. It recognizes that the individual is the beginning and end of society, not its instrument, and that he must pursue truth freely. Finally, it recognizes that the scope of politics is limited—not just because man’s final end is God, rather than the state, but because fallen human nature cannot be corrected by temporal measures: the politician can minimize sin but not eliminate it.


Have Faith A New Fusionism Can Work (William Ruger, Aug 12, 2020, American Conservative)

It seems as if many American conservatives—a particular brand of conservatism that has always aimed at conserving the authentic classical liberal political tradition of America while also espousing a certain cultural vision of virtue, personal responsibility, and community—have lost some faith in their tradition and the distinctly American ideals and institutions that it supports. Yet this moment is just when we need to embrace them. A new fusionism could be found by reengaging with that tradition and energetically applying these insights to our country’s challenges today.

Coolidge, after being elected state senate president in 1914, reminded his fellow Bay Staters that they too needed to stay true to what Massachusetts stood for and had produced. He noted that: “In some unimportant detail some other States may surpass her, but in the general results, there is no place on earth where the people secure, in a larger measure, the blessings of organized government, and nowhere can those functions more properly be termed self-government.”

The rest of the essay exemplifies a philosophy that American conservatism has traditionally stood for: representative government, the moral dignity of all, the protection of natural rights including those of the less powerful, personal character and thrift, honest work and industry, and the just acquisition and protection of property.

Conservatism needs to double down on a faith in America exemplified by the principles that Coolidge extolled. We need to see power in the ability of its people to do great things when they are free to do so. Indeed, we need to harken back to the best of the American experiment and away from the siren songs of government control, a managed economy, and the centralized warfare/welfare state. It is the ideals of the Declaration and the institutions of our constitutions that have served America so well since our founding.


The Disappointed Liberal: A recent volume of essays seeks to reconsider, and reclaim, Vilfredo Pareto’s intellectual legacy. : a review of Vilfredo Pareto’s Contributions to Modern Social Theory: A Centennial Appraisal, Christopher Adair-Toteff, ed. (Alberto Mingardi, 3/04/24, City Journal)

Arendt writes of Pareto’s “despair of the working classes,” perhaps not realizing that Pareto sided with them in the struggle against “bourgeois socialism,” which today we might call “crony capitalism.” In fact, in the passage above, Pareto was revealing the disappointment of a true liberal, who understood that liberty was too precious to be entrusted to “liberals,” many of whom pursued their own interests more energetically than the cause of liberty itself. Such people criticize power when it is held by others but deem it perfectly benevolent when they hold it themselves.

In our era of obsessive partisanship, such political skepticism is perhaps hard to understand. Adair-Toteff reminds us that Pareto was “anti-socialist, anti-state intervention, anti-colonialism, anti-militarism, anti-racism, and anti-anti-Semitism.” This series of “antis” may define the man more than any single political label.

…you aren’t paying attention. Likewise, if you don’t forgive us.