The political right is a diverse intellectual tradition and world-making project. But there’s one thing that unites every variant of right-wing ideology: the belief that society will improve if we give up on the dream of a world where people are equal.
Etching of political philosopher and writer Edmund Burke, London, England, ca. 1880. (Universal History Archive / Getty Images)
Since 2016, the political right has surged in many parts of the globe. From Brexit to Bolsonaro, and from Trump to Theresa May (we hardly knew ye), conservative populists and their allies have challenged liberal democracy and sought to establish or reestablish autocratic and hierarchical forms of society.
And yet “the Right” remains an ambiguous political ideology. Some of its most (in)famous figures defend capitalist markets as the only just form of economic organization. But others express skepticism and even hostility to the whole idea of bourgeois society. Many conservatives insist that they want to conserve society and uphold the status quo. But just as frequently the Right demands major social transformations, up to and including “counterrevolutions” and massively disruptive violence.
A new book by Matt McManus, The Political Right and Equality: Turning Back the Tide of Egalitarian Modernity, provides a careful analysis of the Right and its many permutations. Covering authors from Edmund Burke to Aleksandr Dugin, and from Martin Heidegger to William F. Buckley, The Political Right and Equality offers an in-depth guide and critique of right-wing thought as espoused by its most articulate defenders. Jacobin’s Ben Burgis sat down with McManus to talk about the Right, past and present.
One of the things that the book really functions as, even if it’s not the primary intention, is a really good crash course in a bunch of conservative thinkers — and in a few thinkers who it would be inaccurate to call conservatives. You’re certainly presenting a critique throughout the book, but it’s also just a really useful introduction to these guys. It’s essentially a guided tour of right-wing (and influential on the right wing) thought from Aristotle to Aleksandr Dugin.
Let’s start with Aristotle. So as you say, he’s obviously not a conservative — that would be wildly anachronistic. But he’s non-coincidentally massively influential on conservatism, once there actually is such a thing.
I’m deeply influenced by Aristotle. I think that there’s a lot of interesting things in his account of virtue, ethics, and human capabilities that the Left has to learn from. So what I’m criticizing is the Aristotelian worldview, as I call it, which has been profoundly influential for many conservative figures. And the basis of the Aristotelian worldview is this notion that society consists of ordered ranks and we need to appreciate that everyone has a role to fill within society, and each rank needs one another.
Down through the centuries, this idea of conceiving of society as an organic whole consisting of differentiated ranks set by nature really evolves and transmutes in a lot of interesting ways, but remains pretty constant.
But it’s by no means the case that all the ranks within society have the same kind of dignity or status ascribed to them. Aristotle is very explicit about this where he stresses that women possess a certain degree of deliberative reason, which means that they’re not entitled to the same kind of political rights and privileges that men are. Down through the centuries, this idea of conceiving of society as an organic whole consisting of differentiated ranks set by nature really evolves and transmutes in a lot of interesting ways, but remains pretty constant.
Even this nickel tour would be very incomplete without Edmund Burke. So talk to me about Burke.
Well, Burke is a very interesting thinker. I break from the conventional reading of Burke as a kind of pragmatist or traditionalist. I actually think that there are some quite radical things that he has to say, which are innovative and contribute something to the history of ideas — just not anything that I happen to agree with.
So the way that I tend to conceive of Burkeanism is drawing very heavily on the theory of aesthetics that he lays out in his early work. Fundamentally Burkeanism is a project that tries to sublimate social power or social institutions into authority. And this is an extraordinary project that he lays out very explicitly in Reflections on the Revolution in France where he says, whenever you set man over man, it is very important that you attach sublime qualities or sublime capacities to this person, because if they do not seem to have these kinds of sublime qualities, then it’s going to be very difficult for people to regard themselves as this individual’s subordinate.
And what’s fascinating about Burke is he never says that the person actually has to possess these sublime qualities in and of themselves, right? However, if you strip away the sublime qualities — or what Burke calls “all the pleasing illusions” that make subordination easy — then what you’re going to be left with is anarchy.
We’re going to skip the entirety of the nineteenth century, both for the sake of time and also avoiding the giant argument about Nietzsche…
I already get enough hate in my email about that.
We’ll stay instead in the British Isles and go to T. S. Eliot, which was a really interesting part of the book for me because I never thought about his work in terms of politics. It was just cool poetry, right?
I just want to make clear, I think T. S. Eliot is a brilliant poet. He’d be top five for me as well, particularly “Prufrock” and “Ash Wednesday.” But the main thing that I draw on is his nonfiction writing, particularly The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, where he really lays out his political program.
It’s worth noting that Eliot has had a pronounced effect on generations of conservatives, not least Roger Scruton. Scruton says nobody on the Left has ever reached the kind of depths of analysis that T. S. Eliot was capable of. To which I humbly posit, well, what about Leo Tolstoy?
Anyway, the long-story-short of it is that Eliot perceives modern culture in the twentieth century as moving in a lot of demotic directions that he doesn’t like, and he means demotic in many senses. Yes, there’s the advent of political democracy. He’s very critical of this. But one of the things that’s also singular about Eliot is he puts forward this idea that you can see elements of democratic society in things like the market or market society as well.
Now, that might seem like an odd idea coming from a left perspective where many of us are very critical of capitalism because it’s not democratic enough. But from Eliot’s standpoint, the pervasiveness of the market in the spheres of things like culture has resulted in the commodification of art and of culture, and the result has been a race to the lowest common denominator when it comes to things like the production of films, books, journalism, and of course poetry. And he thinks that we really need to push against this in some way.
You point out that in the worst hands, post-liberalism is nothing more than conventional reactionary concern about perversity dolled up with appropriations of populist liberal and left-wing rhetoric. A good example of this can be seen in Rusty Reno’s claim when he writes, “The class war, a war on the weak, is epitomized by the campaign for gay marriage. Marriage has become another plastic, open-ended option for the upper class.”
In one of my favorite lines in the book, you write, “The only response is to express amusement that one could even think that the biggest problem facing the poor is the prospect of a man marrying another man, and not being poor.”
When you read Rusty’s book, he really tries very hard to make this whole reactionary populism thing work. I’m going to date myself here, but the whole time I read it I was thinking of Mean Girls. Like, stop trying to make homophobia-is-class-war happen. It’s never going to happen. Let it die.
What the post-liberals want to do is reject liberalism, keep a few of its institutions and its insights but really go back to something that’s considerably more antiquarian.
At least do what Patrick Deneen does, which is attach your social conservatism to a genuine economic program that gives you a little bit of street cred when it comes to giving a shit about the lower orders. But Rusty’s just sitting there like, “We’ll worry about that whole ‘you’re poor’ thing later on. The number one thing I’m going to do for you right now is roll back Lawrence v. Texas.’”
People like Patrick Deneen describe their politics as post-liberalism. It’s a funny term because post-liberalism makes it sound like you’ve, I don’t know, sublimated liberalism, that you’ve gone through it and you’ve absorbed the best of it and you’ve transcended it, gone beyond it. Whereas a lot of this stuff sounds more like a revived pre-liberalism.
For example, opposing market society because it’s too atomized but also opposing socialism, and also thinking that the Church should get to decide what forms of birth control you can use. It doesn’t really sound like there’s anything “post” about it.
I mean, they’re post-liberals in the same way that Peter Lawler, who was an influence on them, was a postmodern conservative. He was intending to reject modernity, not transcend it. And for the most part, what the post-liberals want to do is reject liberalism, keep a few of its institutions and its insights but really go back to something that’s considerably more antiquarian.
And I want to be very clear, I think that Patrick Deneen, after the death of Roger Scruton, is probably the greatest Anglo-American conservative philosopher. He’s a very sharp guy. He’s very well-read, and he does take the Left and Karl Marx more seriously than 99 percent of conservatives out there. That’s about as far as it goes, though.
The last figure you talk about in the book is Aleksandr Dugin. I’m not somebody whose instinct is to fill in the blank with the word “fascist.” I think it’s often kind of intellectually lazy. But reading the Dugin sections, it’s like, yeah, okay. If the jackboot fits.
I’m completely with you. Years of studying the Right has made me appreciate that the Right is as, if not potentially more, diverse than the Left in a lot of respects. I say potentially more because the Right, wherever it’s emerged, has drawn very heavily upon relative and specific cultural and nationalist conditions to try to argue for the retention or expansion of various kinds of social power in hierarchically organized ways. It’s a very diverse political alignment, and it looks different wherever you go. Fascism is just one species of right-wing thought, and it has very specific permutations. But sometimes it is warranted. And in Dugin’s case, I think it absolutely is warranted to call him a fascist.
My definition of fascism draws very heavily on Roger Griffin, who essentially argues that we need to understand fascism as a form of what he calls “palingenetic ultranationalism.” What this basically means in plain English is that fascists project this myth or ideal of the ultra-nation, which usually doesn’t conform to the specific national boundaries, which they feel themselves constrained by. The ultra-nation gives meaning and vitality to life, and it’s supposed to elevate ordinary people above their own mundane existence by allowing them to participate in something that’s greater than them. Palingenesis refers to this idea of rebirth or resurgence.
The basic idea is that our grand ultra-nation has been wronged, has been defiled, has been humiliated. And this is largely at the hands of liberal and leftist forces, both internally and externally. We’re absolutely on the knife’s edge of falling into a period of irredeemable decline, but if we give ourselves to the fascist movement, then the ultra-nation can be restored. Our people will once more be elevated. We’ll crush the decadent, democratic leftist, communist, and liberal forces that oppose us.
The ultra-nation gives meaning and vitality to life, and it’s supposed to elevate ordinary people above their own mundane existence.
In Dugin’s book Foundations of Geopolitics, what really comes through is this idea that Russia is in a period of decline. It’s lost its empire to the Americans, who have advanced and humiliated Russia in every conceivable way. And what’s worse, Russia is at this very moment internalizing the value system of the enemy, liberalism and capitalism.
Both of these are very foreign to Russia’s way of organizing things. That’s one of the reasons why the country has kind of lost faith in itself. And what it needs to do is resurge in important ways by establishing this Eurasian Union or Eurasian Empire, however you want to connote it, in alliance with various other reactionary and anti-liberal forces around the globe — including white nationalists, Islamic fundamentalists, all kinds of good people. And once the Eurasian Union or the Eurasian Empire has achieved enough power, it’ll confront the decadent liberal, socialist, materialist nations of the Atlantic world. Rivers of blood will be shed. They will all be condemned to hell.
Among your reasons for taking an interest in the details of right-wing thought is that we need to understand them to argue effectively against them. But it’s also the case that looking into the distorted mirror of a world without basic regard for human equality can help us think a little bit harder about what we believe and why we believe it, right?
This project did give me respect for the intellectual aptitudes of the Right, but ultimately I wasn’t more convinced by conservatism or the Right at the end of it. If anything, I was more convinced by liberalism and progressivism at the end of the book, because my own belief system had been clarified through this contest of ideas.
This is the discussion that opens the book: the idea that there are demonstrably superior people, that there are people whose lives matter more and have greater cosmic significance than others. I think that the humblest person in the streets of Niger or on the streets of Los Angeles has just as much of an entitlement to lead a good life as I do or as King Charles does, or as Aleksandr Dugin does.
I think that we should be aiming for a world where people are regarded as free and equal. The political right, to the extent that it poses a barrier to that, is something that we need to respect in order to understand, but ultimately something that we need to overcome.Original post