Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Shoring up a Dissolving Society

Reno – editor of the important Catholic magazine, First Things – is surely right that our crisis is not how to forestall the return of fascism but how to shore up our dissolving society.

Graham McAleer has written a review of R.R Reno’s new book, Return of the Strong Gods.  I will offer some thoughts based on this review; at some point I may get my hands on a copy of the book.

First, from the Amazon book review:

After the staggering slaughter of back-to-back world wars, the West embraced the ideal of the “open society.” The promise: By liberating ourselves from the old attachments to nation, clan, and religion that had fueled centuries of violence, we could build a prosperous world without borders, freed from dogmas and managed by experts.

Reno’s book is an examination of the liberalism of the West, a liberalism that took root in the Enlightenment and gave fruit – both for good and evil – in the twentieth century.  It is a difficult – even dangerous – topic to tackle, precisely for the good and evil that is attributable to Enlightenment thinking.  Yet, today, the dissolution of Western society appears to be the final – and some would say – inevitable – outcome.

Returning to McAleer’s review: The West is losing credibility.  This can be seen via China and Russia; it can be seen in Brexit and Trump; it can be seen in the arbitrary power of an unelected EU bureaucracy.

It can be seen in more: A West that doesn’t care about its history, traditions, or future; increased suicides and drug additions; the system’s obvious bias for the few and against the many; it can be seen in perpetual war.  It can be seen – but is rarely noted – that much of this is made possible only due to modern central banking.

For the horrors of WWII, leftist and libertarian thinkers – Popper, Camus, Hayek, Derrida, and Friedman, to name a few – blamed not perverse singular ideologies, but the West’s establishment.

I will not comment on specifics of these individuals named until I read the book.  Suffice it to say, they represent both the liberalism of the West and the pushback – but, perhaps, in a less than healthy direction – against that liberalism.

McAleer summarizes Reno’s views of these individuals:

A corrosive combination of progressivism and libertarianism, [Reno] claims, birthed a postwar consensus in which potent ideals – the “strong gods” of family, nation, noble sacrifice – were replaced by a neo-liberalism of open borders, markets, and currency flows, hitched to an educational ethos of skepticism and gentle hearts relishing diversity and multiculturalism.

It certainly is a reasonable summary of the social and economic ethos of the years since World War II.  It has bred disenchantment, replacing “hearth and home with fluidity, blendedness, and self-creation.”  As he sees Freud crushing the family, he sees Hayek crushing the state.

I will not get into Hayek’s muddiness regarding the state as evidenced in The Road to Serfdom.  I will offer that McAleer (and, perhaps, Reno) confuse the state with governance.  To the extent Hayek criticized the state as it has metastasized in the last centuries, he was quite correct.  To the extent that those supportive of governance can only find it in the state, they are deathly wrong.

In any case, this strong individualism (to summarize much thought in a single word) and its current extreme (and inevitable) manifestations are causing their own blowback:

The Left is right, racism is disgusting, but its ideas are a stimulant to the problem, not its solution.

It seems to me even worse, as the idea of racism – real, meaningful, violent racism – is almost non-existent in the West – at least by the so-called deplorables.  It is trotted out as a tool for control, nothing more.

Demonstrating something that I have felt for some time, what is understood today as the post-modernism of Derrida has much to be considered:

The postmodernism of Derrida is dismissed as subversion when he might best be characterized as a modern-day David Hume, a skeptic throwing down a challenge to the West’s belief in science, rational order, and Logos.

Diagnosis is one thing; treatment and cure is another.  McAleer offers a path forward, one apparently not considered by Reno:

…we might turn to the Scottish Enlightenment for a path forward out of our crisis. Reno assumes the alternative is between the weak loves of neo-liberalism and the strong loves of a revivified (European style) conservatism. There is another option: to further explore the resources of the ethics of sympathy.  Thinkers like Hume and Smith wanted to find a mechanism to balance the liberty of the individual with the solidarity offered by establishment.

To the extent that the child of Hume and Smith offer something approaching sympathy, it is a pale facsimile of the real thing.  The mechanism was offered long ago, and can be only found, I believe, there.


The West needs transcendent purpose, a sense of home, not deflation. But how to re-populate this metaphysically barren world?

I know where it will not be found.  It will not be found in anything approaching the modern state; it will not be found in the offspring of Hume and Smith.  It will only be found via churches, universities, and other educational and thought-leading institutions teaching and calling for a transcendent purpose, a sense of home.

For my more detailed thoughts on this, start here.


It should be noted: the thinkers not named in this review.  Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard wrote often enough about tradition, family, community.  In this, one can discover one reason among many why these two are ignored by the mainstream to the favor of Hayek and Friedman.


  1. “But here is the challenge of our times. When I became Bishop of Durham in 2003 somebody asked me at the opening press conference to summarize the task facing the church in our day, and I said, perhaps assuming too much, that our task was in prayer and faith to lead the way through postmodernity and out into the as yet undiscovered world of post-postmodernity. . . . Postmodernity, from Nietzsche to Derrida and beyond, has blown the whistle on modernist arrogance, but it can’t stop it in its tracks. . . . We have no idea what to do because the Enlightenment worldview gave us no story, no script, for such a moment. We make things, we sell things, we vote every so often, but WE HAVE FORGOTTEN HOW TO LOVE. . . . But the good news is that, though there is a long way to go, the gospel of Jesus, once liberated from its cultural captivity, from the exile of ‘private religion’ to which secularism has tried to banish it, has unparalleled power to transform the world. That is why the secularists, not least the eager advocates of atheist scientism, are so keen to keep it out of sight. Our job is to bring it back again. When we really grasp this nettle, we’ll find that its roots go right down to the heart of our present dilemmas.”

    - NT Wright http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/09/05/wouldnt-you-love-to-know-towards-a-christian-view-of-reality/

  2. "It certainly is a reasonable summary of the social and economic ethos of the years since World War II"

    Is it though? I think modern anti-libertarian writers look back on history and give the influence of libertarian thought way too much credit.

    1. It depends on what you mean by libertarian - because to most people I think it is defined otherwise or incompletely.

      When he writes "open borders, markets, and currency flows" I think he is defining what he means by libertarian which - while it is a subset or a result of libertarianism to many - is certainly not wholly libertarianism. It is also consistent with how many people understand libertarianism, I suspect.

      Now, I certainly disagree with the idea that "open borders" is libertarian; I also would not agree that what passes for markets today is consistent with the NAP; and currency flows involve fiat currency, but is otherwise a market or trade.

      But he gave his definition, and I agree that per his definition (and how the mainstream understands the terms) this "libertarianism" represents the economic ethos of the last several decades.

    2. Fair enough I s'pose. So much is dependent on defining terms and using them consistently. In reading Kirk's "Conservative Mind," I'm finding that, if Kirk's characterization of Edmund Burke is accurate, Rothbard's vitriol towards Burke may have been a result of Burke's loose use of the word 'state', which to Burke (again if Kirk is to be believed) meant basically 'society'.

  3. Great post, thanks.

    I see the younger "right-wing" dissidents disparage "libertarians" all the time. Some think libertarians are even worse than "boomers". I think it all comes from definitions.

    For a long, long time around the world there were "liberals". Then the world changed to mean nearly the opposite of what it used to mean. So people said they were "classic liberals" to differentiate. So someone decided "libertarian" meant what "liberal" did in 1800 or thereabouts.

    But the libertarianism of we Rothbardians is far more to the right than what they are thinking of. We need a good term that shouts --- "I am very right wing and HATE the STATE". But, when you say you hate the state, they think you hate any governance at all. Sad, sad, sad.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you, Mark. C Jay Engel is taking a crack at pulling on this string, via his website and magazine: Bastion.


      Depending on how he develops his thought, it has the possibility of extending the work of Lew Rockwell and the Mises Institute.

  4. Thank you ever so much for the link. Much appreciated.