There is a half-cocked theory in one of George Orwell’s essays that I have been eager to steal. It is not a true theft, of course, if I give some credit to Orwell for the inspiration, so this is my obligatory nod to that great essayist. I feel as if he stumbled on an idea so profound that it transcends his original subject matter; it was a political paradigm too good to leave half-cocked. I, therefore, have decided to take up the slack.
In his essay, Charles Dickens, Orwell examines the life and work of Dickens and in seeking to add some weight to his literary analysis, Orwell strays from the literary into the political. He places Dickens in his historical context, as a man from a rising middle-class family of puritans who were once obscure and fringe religionists in English society but who rose to prominence quite unexpectedly in the Victorian era due to the industrial revolution. They were hard-working, no-nonsense city dwellers who were a natural choice to be the managers and bookkeepers of Britain’s manufacturing boom. Dickens’s obsessions with the poor house, the damp, squalid streets of London, the greedy moneylenders in back alleys, and the preteen chimney sweeps were the obsessions of a city man preoccupied with work, and work is one of the foremost preoccupations of the puritan. Noticeably absent from Dickens’s world are battlefields, card playing and sherry swigging, poetry, pitchforks and plows, the slow sunset over a pond surrounded by frogs – these things belong to a world altogether alien to the urban puritan with his accounting logs and contracts. They belong instead to the world of the leisure class, that is to say, the landed gentry and the aristocracy.
This observation was so apt that Orwell missed an opportunity by not taking this thought and extending to British politics as a whole. This split between the puritan and the gentleman of leisure is found not only in the work of Dickens, but it is present in all English politics since the Reformation. This divide in the Anglo-Saxon psyche is so profound, so fundamental in its particulars, that one can almost couch it in spiritual terms, as if it were stamped deep into the hard wax of the Anglo-Saxon’s soul. It is so ever-present, in fact, that this divide turns up in every country where the English have emigrated in significant numbers: places like Canada, Australia, and most especially the United States.
On the one hand, there is the puritan, the round-head, the petty little naysayer who in an effort to make everyone as dour as himself attempts to make society miserably conformist. He mocks priests for their titles, he shuns aristocratic largess, and he is deeply suspicious of beauty, especially if it exists for its own sake. The puritan is an ideologue in that he places his ideals at the nucleus of his existence and judges everyone by how closely they are able to live in accord with these ideals. He is a prude and he is proud of it.
On the other hand, there is the cavalier, the dandy, the rapscallion, the reckless spendthrift who spurns manual labor but is willing to die in the service of some great cause, especially if it is a lost cause. He makes no effort to pick his battles wisely: he fights whenever he feels like it. The cavalier is an idealist but he is not an ideologue. He follows his own code of honor, even if it works sometimes to his detriment, but he does not demand that others follow him; in fact, he outright refuses it. His code of honor, like his brand of whisky or his cuff links, is something accommodated perfectly to his own taste.
Both men live for their ideals. To the puritan, sincerity is the highest ethic; to the cavalier, good manners. The puritan prizes efficiency; the cavalier, wit. The worst thing for the puritan is to be idle; for the cavalier, it’s to be craven.
It is not hard to see how the puritan has evolved into the progressive of our era. On a superficial level, of course, they seem to be different. The progressive despises Christianity, has lax sexual standards, probably has more than one tattoo, and has difficulty holding a regular nine-to-five job. But the similarities are there. The puritans sought to establish a utopian, shining city on a hill in the New World, using the word of God to perfect the fallen men of Earth. The progressive seeks to perfect who they see as the many wretched fallen men around them with their new Gospel.
The progressive hates Christianity mostly because it is a rival philosophy that is too close for comfort. If anything, it is seen as a less pure, less consistent form of progressivism in much the same way that the puritan saw Anglicanism as a less pure, less consistent form of his own puritan theology. The progressive has done the Christian a favor by carving out most traces of Christ from his beliefs, but his progressive ethic is still fundamentally the same as the puritan’s.
The puritan believed that people are fundamentally the same, that we are all God’s children, and that we are divided by our commitment to good works. Similarly, the progressive believes that people are fundamentally the same, that our genetic differences are negligible, and that we are divided by our commitment to good works. These good works have been altered somewhat in the conversion from the puritan to the progressive faith, but they are not dissimilar. The puritan felt that he should spread the gospel of Christ, build churches and statues, mold the minds of the youth with his theology, and use the state to stamp out heresy, which was practically any point of view with which he disagreed.
The progressive feels that he should spread the gospel of equality, tear down churches and statues, mold the minds of youth with his egalitarianism, and use the state to stamp out fascism, which is practically any point of view with which he disagrees. Much like how the puritan was encouraged to go on missions to spread the gospel, the progressive is encouraged to join non-profit organizations and volunteer to “raise awareness” for progressive issues.
The puritans used every means possible to triumph over the unbelievers. They shamed people publicly, fined them, banished them, and even hung them. They outlawed gambling, prostitution, boxing, and even the celebration of Christmas and Easter. The progressive pushes a remarkably similar agenda. One can imagine them agreeing to banning each of those things for similar reasons: Christmas and Easter banned for anti-LGBT bigotry, boxing and gambling banned for being a sign of toxic masculinity, prostitution banned because it demeans women. Even their violent methods look similar, seeing as how Western progressives have used every means listed except hanging – and that, I’m sure, will be next on their agenda.
The similarities between the two are so numerous because their method of belief is nearly identical. Both the puritan and the progressive see their beliefs not as opinions, but as incontrovertible dogmas. Belief is therefore a moral judgment on their part. Those who disagree with them are not simply wrong, but immoral. This approach removes all middle-ground discussions, all compromises, all nuances and shades of meaning – there is belief and the rest is heresy.
Even the apparent differences between the two can be explained when one understands their innate prudery. The prudes of the puritan era were against premarital sex and bodily mutilation just as how today the prudes are for it: now having odd sex and getting tattoos and piercings are a way of signaling that one is indeed a progressive, that one has joined the team of believers, much like how the shunning of jewelry and wigs was one obvious identifier for the puritan. It is a means of discerning the chosen ones from the heretics.
I think it is also no coincidence that the training grounds of the puritan clergy, Harvard and Yale, are now the primary training grounds of the progressive left. It is true that the demographics of Harvard and Yale have changed noticeably since that time but even that, I would argue, is no coincidence. The new money Sterns and Goldbergs, who are now dominant at Harvard, are not much different than puritans: they both have strong in-group preferences, they both want to use the state to persecute rival groups, and they both use material gain as a marker of religious favor. The one point of divergence, the puritan’s loyalty to ideas over ethnic affiliation, only made him easier to manipulate in the end. The two are now wedded together in America’s higher education, which means that they set the tone for most academic discourse in the West.
Until this point, I have been glad to point out the very obvious parallels between the puritans and the progressive left. This idea is not original and would hardly warrant an essay on the matter if I did not carry the idea a little further: I would argue that not only the left, but also the modern right, has succumbed to puritanism. The 21st century so far has been a depressingly puritanical century and I can only hope that we on the right are capable, in the coming decades, of overcoming this trend.
If we examine the conservative parties of the anglophone world, the Tories in Canada and Britain, and the Republicans in the United States, we find a dismal puritanism at work. Although it is not as pronounced as the puritanism of the progressive left, it is there nonetheless. We need only look at the platforms of these conservative parties. What is the modern conservative’s solution to the world’s problems? Lower taxes. Create jobs. Trade more. Notice how these proposed solutions reveal a dogma that man is first and foremost an economic being and that his ills can be solved through the magic of money. This is puritanism. It reduces a man’s worth to the size of his bank balance. It disregards his virtue entirely. It effectively says that faith in the market is more valid than the results that are readily observable in one’s society. What will make ethnic minorities who have lived on welfare for several generations get off the dole? Work. What will reverse the trend of major corporations using their money and influence to further progressive ends? The free market, of course! These conservatives offer up the same dogmatic answers.
Even if one were to leave the everyday conservatives alone, they are easy targets after all, one finds just as much of the puritan spirit among the alt-right. They frequently accuse one another of not being hard right enough, that is to say, they are not inclined to tolerate shades of belief because their beliefs are dogmas. The long-standing dispute between ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism is the kind of struggle that would make a puritan feel right at home. One camp rallies around the notion that race should be the sole determinant of a nation-state, while the other camp thinks that there is some magical propensity in Western culture to make thousands of years of evolution and racial division irrelevant.
Both sides of the dispute have become too extreme to take very seriously. A Serb and a Croat have genetic profiles that are almost indistinguishable from one another, and yet these two peoples have proven throughout history that they cannot live together. Race is clearly not the sole determinant in the formation of a nation-state. I think that most reasonable people can agree that culture is a significant factor in nationhood.
But one cannot go so far as the alt-lite and the civic nationalists. One cannot say that the West’s culture will be capable of erasing the differences between a Somali and a Scotsman and that the two will be capable of integrating perfectly. We cannot say that importing millions of intelligent, but clannish programmers from India and scientists from China will work to the nation’s benefit. If you think the takeover of America’s tech industry by upper-caste Indians can be attributed to their programming abilities and not to their sense of ethnic loyalty, then you are very naïve.
These two extremes require some sort of happy medium, a golden mean solution that is based more on nuance than dogma. But, as one might expect, the puritan despises nuance. These two camps remain as firmly entrenched as ever.
Another, more pernicious influence of the puritan over the alt-right can be found in the movement’s senseless bickering over religion. Pagans attack Christians constantly and Christians often attack one another. The pagan accuses the Christian of being beholden to a crypto-socialist Jew, the Orthodox attack the Catholics for being beholden to a not-so-crypto socialist Argentine, the Catholics attack the Protestants for being beholden to no one but their own sense of narrow pride. This is another case where the puritan rears his head: each group has to rally around its own banner and the notion that we all contribute to this great tradition known as Western civilization is entirely lost on them. The arguments degenerate instead into who is pure and who is impure.
As a direct descendant of cavaliers, I am disappointed with the right wing at present. I expect the progressive left to be puritanical and I have no desire to change them. I enjoy the fact that the other team is a bunch of miserable sourpusses because that tells me that my cause is just and that I have chosen the right side. Voltaire famously wrote that he only offers one short prayer to God and that is to make his enemies look ridiculous; I cannot help but think that God has granted us right-wingers that favor. The progressive left truly is ridiculous.
But having ridiculous enemies does not matter if one is not much different than one’s enemies. The right-wing needs to exemplify a way of life that is different from the progressive’s. It is better that the right shelves the moral outrage, the thought policing, and the groveling repentance. These are puritan tactics.
It calls to mind the idea that the right needs to be not just a political foil for the left, but something deeper, something much more fundamental. It needs to be an independent aesthetic.
I hope that someday the right can return to good manners and that we can disagree amicably with one another. I hope that we can face our puritan enemies with that good old aristocratic sangfroid: the kind of polished nonchalance that suggests we will not beg for our lives even when we are accused of thought crimes and taken to the scaffold. I hope that we can move on from shock humor and oven jokes and name calling and return to wit and irony. In my mind, this is the best way to defeat the progressives; it is to be different from them not just in our opinions but in our very being. It is not enough for us to think differently than them, we must also live differently.
As right-wingers, we are supposed to believe in hierarchies. We are supposed to believe in aristocracy, in quality over quantity, in a man’s worth over his market value: we are natural elitists but we make almost no effort to win over, or if need be, take over the elite. The right has ceded everything to the left, from academic institutions to government agencies, because it has allowed the left to determine the cultural aesthetic: the right has been transformed into a kind of tepid puritanism that pretends to be an opposing faction.
When Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide after a doomed coup, he did not do it because of inflationary economic cycles and bracket creep. He did it out of love for what the imperial throne represented to Japan. When a besieged militia suffered communist shells and starvation for a month at the Alcazar, they did not do it for a point-based immigration system. They did it out of a love for Christ and country. Acts of sacrifice are not prompted by a dry acknowledgment of facts. They are emotional. They require an aesthetic feeling so profound that they might be categorized as religious. It is clear to me that the right-wing needs an aesthetic at odds with the puritanism of this era: it needs its own hymns, its own art, its own fraternities and clubs, its own clothes, its own architecture, and its own unique sense of humor.
I hope the right-wing can recapture the spirit of the cavalier: the wit, the cheerful courage, the snobbish sense of its own heritage and tradition. If we were to behave this way again the puritan would very quickly lose his hold on culture: he is too dour and too hysterical to hold on to the popular imagination in a time of stiff competition. It is telling that after nineteen years of puritan rule, the English people welcomed back their Stuart king and a royalist parliament.
I think it is time that we on the right dealt with the puritan in the most decisive, the most merciless way possible – by killing him in our own psyche.