Submitted by C.A. Shoultz
I have debated for some time whether an essay of this nature is necessary in the year 2020. After all, I am far from the first writer to propose a return to hierarchical systems of government, over and against mass democracy and rule by the commons. It’s been done more than once; indeed, it’s been done several times, starting all the way back in the days of Unqualified Reservations. Nonetheless, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I believe my own, particular justification for being a monarchist and an aristocratist (an awkward word, but it’s the best I can devise) might be a useful addition to the conversation that has continued in the sphere of neoreaction, or what’s left of it. It might, moreover, be useful for those I have encountered on social media who have not been part of that sphere, but who might nonetheless be gaining an interest in hierarchical systems of government; I think mainly of many of my fellow Catholics, those who are seriously investigating the Faith and finding out that the Church and mass democracy are a bit like oil and water. These men and women may find themselves casting about for an alternative political perspective, but neoreaction may frighten them because of its unfortunate links to the alt-right and all the unsavory implications of that faction. As someone who has walked in neoreactionary circles, and still considers himself a sort of neoreactionary, but who also considers himself a faithful member of the Mystical Body of Christ, I wonder, perhaps, if I can thread the needle on this matter. At the very least, I think it would be worth my while to try.
You might note the title of this essay with some befuddlement. I claim upfront that my defense of monarchy and aristocracy is both “practical” and “aesthetic,” two avenues of intellectual consideration that seem, at first glance, to be at odds. Hard-headed considerations of the ‘real’ world, after all, and idealistic ‘dreams’ of how the world ‘ought’ to be, are classically placed in opposition to each other. This is another needle I will attempt to thread. It is foolish for me to pretend that there is not an aesthetic element to my defense of the old systems of kings, queens, doges, and princesses. Of course there is. I am, in my heart of hearts, a poet and a dreamer; I read the old romances of chivalry, the works of Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach, and I find them charming and delightful. The color, the chivalry, and the gallantry of that world, and the long shadow it cast over the following 800+ years, is extremely attractive to me; and, in fact, that attractiveness is an element that becomes central to my hypothesis. But if it is foolish of me to deny the aesthetic side of my argument, it would be equally foolish of me to make a purely aesthetic argument. Aesthetics, after all, are not going to win over people with a regular work week—not by themselves, at least. Fortunately, I believe that I have cold, hard facts and data on my side as well. I believe I can unite the aesthetic and the practical into an argument for monarchy and aristocracy, an argument that is stronger than any aesthetic or practical argument would be by itself. We shall see.
To begin, I think it is useful to consider the patterns of history. And the patterns of history, if we regard them clearly and dispassionately, are such that any serious defender of mass democracy, of rule by the commons, is going to tie himself into knots. I say this because I am ruthless by nature, or so I have become. And as a result, I look at enterprises with the end in mind, at least when these enterprises are political. The side of me that is a poet and a short story writer can appreciate the gentle flow of times and persons, the stops along the way. But in politics I get impatient, and want all activists and theorists to get to the point. If you are somebody who subscribes to Jacobin magazine, you may be able to live in your Brooklyn brownstone and go to brunch on the weekends, while hoping for an ‘end’ that never comes. But I am, again, impatient, and ruthless, and so I want to see where your project is leading, and what its end might be, as soon as possible.
So, what is the ‘point’ of the elimination of monarchy and aristocracy? What is the end goal of that project? It seems simple enough: it is a classless society, a society of almost equivalent prosperity. What did the Jacobins want? What did the Bolsheviks want? Why did King Louis XVI lose his head? Why was Tsar Nicholas II killed? Because of the creed which would be repeated, hilariously but succinctly, by the anarchists who ravaged England throughout the 19th Century: “No gods, no masters”. Or if you played the video game Bioshock in 2007, the slogan takes on a slightly different flavor: “No gods or kings, only man.”
Is it too pointed to tag the Jacobin/Bolshevik project with a slogan culled from Ayn Rand’s Objectivist nonsense? No, I don’t think it is. Because Rand’s thinking is not as far removed from the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks as current subscribers to Jacobin magazine would like to believe it to be. Objectivism is merely a capitalist coating on what is, essentially, a Marxist idea: that the removal of the hereditary upper class will pave the way for unbridled prosperity. This is the heart of the anti-monarchy, anti-aristocracy thrust. The landed gentry, so the thinking goes, have stultified society, have rendered the social classes static and immobile. If they are eliminated—if they are purged, as the Jacobins did in France during the Terror—then the roadblocks that hold back equivalent prosperity will be removed, and broad wealth, accessible to all peoples everywhere, will flourish. This is Marx’s central conceit. There is a reason he speaks of communism in utopian, fanciful terms in his works. Communism is a distant, hazy future, one which will be achieved long after all the hierarchies of aristocracy and capitalism have been cast aside. But how do we get there? Marx, that bearded twat with the live-in housemaid, does not say.
But Lenin thought he had a way. So did Robespierre. The French and the Russian revolutionaries thought they could kill their way to broad prosperity. They thought that if the hierarchies they confronted could be eliminated, eliminated by mass killings, then the utopia of prosperity for all could be achieved. So Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads, in the name of a better world. So Nicholas II and Saint Alexandra the Passion-Bearer were gunned down in a dirty basement, in the name of a better world.
But what was achieved, in the end?
Robespierre was violently dragged to the guillotine by his own supporters, who shouted in his ears that he was a tyrant. And what happened next? Within a decade, Napoleon Bonaparte had secured total control of France. The Emperor himself, in his memoirs, summarized his ascent pithily: “I found the crown of France lying in the gutter. I picked it up with my sword and put it on my head.” A whole new aristocracy was birthed form the ashes of the old, one just as sharp, just as hard, and just as cruel as the old one had been—perhaps even more so. France became a monarchy all over again, and worse than a monarchy, an empire, in which all power was derived from Napoleon’s unassailable head. Even after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon’s reformed monarchy haunted France, and still haunts it to this day. It should be kept in mind that monarchical rule was not ended in France with the Revolution, but persisted on for more than half a century afterwards, until it was finally eliminated with the social pressures of the late 19th Century, which had very little to do with the Revolution at all, in a direct sense.
Or, consider the Russian Revolution. Within a generation of the killing of the tsar, Lenin, Trotsky, and their ilk had been supplanted by Stalin, and Russia was again ruled by an absolute monarch. Stalin himself was the perpetrator of the idea of “socialism in one state,” an excuse to abandon ambitions for worldwide socialist revolution—an excuse for Stalin to consolidate power and rule Russia as a king. Even more than the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks were betrayed by one of their own, and their revolutionary dreams were scuttled, dashed, destroyed, and absolute rule was reinstated less than a generation after it had been abolished. The hierarchy of the Soviet Politburo replaced the hierarchy of the Russian landed aristocracy. What changed, materially, for ordinary Russians? Or, put another way: what changed, which might not have changed without the Bolsheviks? Would the hierarchy of Russia, its concentration of wealth and power, have been any different under the tsar than it was under Stalin?
These dramatic examples lead me to my broader point: that revolution has proven useless in the establishment of a better world. For all that I criticize them, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, the utopian experimenters of England, the United States, and elsewhere, were not totally blameworthy in pursuing the actions which they pursued. They were trying something new, something which had not been attempted before in the history of the West. And they did, after all, have the example of the United States, a country not as revolutionary as some would like, but more revolutionary than the West had seen before. The United States made revolutionaries across Europe for a hundred years and more think that a better world was possible in this life. The idea of material equality, of mass prosperity, seemed to hover in the air, attainable by all who dared wish for it, during the 19th and 20th centuries. Marxism itself, with its ‘dialectical materialism’ encouraged this. And we must not forget that the 19th and early 20th centuries were millennialist centuries, paradisaical centuries. From the English Romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley—through to Hegel, to Marx, and beyond, there was a belief that a greater world, a paradise, could be established in this reality. That Heaven on Earth could be achieved. That equality of status, equality of wealth, equality of happiness, could be spread across the entire population of the Earth, if only the old structures and limits were swept away. If only we could eliminate earthly hierarchies—if we could sweep aside the old aristocracies—then a great new world would be possible.
But in 2020, we know how foolish this dream is. The 21stCentury is a great, dead corpse, a rotting body of the dreams of the 19th and 20th centuries that is feasted on by the vultures of reaction. I am a reactionary (or a neoreactionary, I suppose). And these times are a high tide for me and my kind. We know the foolishness, the stupidity, of believing that a revolutionary destruction of systems and hierarchies can achieve a better world. France and Russia are our great examples. In France, the king was deposed, and within a generation, Napoleon rose. In Russia, the tsar was killed, and within a generation, Stalin had triumphed. Eliminating hierarchies is a hopeless quest, a doomed endeavor. Robert Michels calls this the Iron Law of Oligarchy. I will call it the Iron Law of Reaction, and state it simply: Hierarchy is inevitable. Hierarchy is inevitable! When revolutionaries destroy an existing hierarchy, they don’t eliminate hierarchy completely and totally. When revolutionaries destroy an existing hierarchy, they merely set the stage for the arising if a new hierarchy, a different-but-similar hierarchy, a hierarchy that may appear different than the old one on the surface, but which has no material difference to the ancien regime which it replaces. What material difference was there between the Russian aristocracy and the Soviet Politburo? There was none. To destroy a hierarchy is merely to begin the creation of a new hierarchy.
And let us look, right now, at the world as a whole. Where are we, 200+ years after the initiation of the American Revolution? After two centuries of revolution, of upheaval, of the casting down of kings and princes, where are we now? We are right back where we started. We again have an aristocracy. We again have a small amount of people controlling all the power, all the wealth, and all the privilege in the West. The names are different (but not always). The tools and trappings are different. On the surface, the modern West does not look like the West of 1780. But the differences between that age and this one are merely skin-deep. The muscles and bones of the world are the same. They still betray a hierarchy, a stratified social order, in which a few have much and the vast majority have little.
The average subscriber to Jacobin magazine will view this fact and see it as a renewed call to arms. They will say, “We must fight harder than ever! A better world is still possible, if we just struggle harder!”. But they’ve fallen into the tired old trap. They’ve refused to learn the lessons of their predecessors. The Jacobins were doing something new. The Bolsheviks were doing something new. But today’s modern leftists, the modern would-be radicals, are merely retreading ground that their French and Russian and Greek and Italian and otherwise predecessors stomped all over for more than two hundred years. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? To hear the tired old drumbeats, the haggard old calls to arms? It’s stupid, isn’t it? I guarantee that if the subscribers of Jacobin magazine achieved their dreams of a socialist state, they would fall to gaming and sniping and factioning and bickering, just as that magazine’s namesakes did. And they would have a Robespierre among their ranks, just as the original Jacobins did, and he would become a tyrant, and there would be a hierarchy all over again.
This is the lesson. Hierarchy is inevitable. This is the truth. Leftists and radicals can ignore it, can hide from it, can run from it, but the great gilt reaper of Reaction always comes to teach them this lesson, always at the cost of their blood and their lives. Any radical, any would-be Jacobin, who still believes that he can fashion a world free from hierarchy is a fool, and he is destined to have his throat slit and his head cut off by the next emperor or dictator who sees him for the easy mark he is. This is what Napoleon and Stalin teach us.
So, then: what is to be done? The West is a burnt-out wasteland after two centuries and more of revolution and upheaval. The old utopian projects have ended in failure. We sought to eliminate hierarchy but we have come back around to being ruled by it. What is to be done?
I have a solution. A hypothesis.
And it is here that my argument for monarchy and aristocracy switches from being practical to being aesthetic. But as you might imagine, things are more complicated than how I initially presented them to you. As you may suspect by now, my aesthetic argument is not separate from my practical argument. I am not presenting two arguments here. I am, rather, presenting a single argument with two facets: I am presenting a whole person breathing with two lungs. I am presenting an argument that is all of a piece.
Hierarchy is inevitable. I believe that the 19th and 20th centuries bear this out. I believe that trying to eliminate hierarchy is a fool’s errand, one that often leads to disaster and mass bloodshed. So what is the political thinker’s response to this? If we are faced with the Iron Law of Reaction, the idea that hierarchy is inevitable, what is our move?
Well, how about this: what if hierarchy is inevitable, but the nature of that hierarchy is not? What if the shape, the detail, the particulars of that hierarchy, are a thing which can be shaped, which can be altered? If the bones cannot be altered, what if the skin, and perhaps some of the muscles, can be altered? The shifting details of the hierarchies of revolutionary governments in the 19th and 20th centuries seem to point to this. We cannot choose not to have a hierarchy in our society. But we may be able to choose what our hierarchy looks like. We may be able to choose the nature of our hierarchy. This may be afforded to us. History seems to bear this out.
So, then: what would the best sort of hierarchy look like? What is a hierarchy that we would prefer, versus one we would not?
And here is where aesthetics come in. This is where we must speak of literature, and poetry, and music, and art.
It has been an endless lament among certain swaths of the online commentariat that art has not been in a right place since the middle part of the 20th Century. In music, there has not been a truly great composer since the death of Sergei Prokofiev in 1953. The popular music of the 1950s and 1960s clanged to a halt with the breakup of the Beatles in 1970. The end of the 1960s is also when visual art falls apart; the early dynamism of pop art and abstract art, which had animated so much of the 1950s and 1960s, dissolves into drivel by 1970. Most of the great novelists of the postwar West, from Günter Grass to Philip Roth to Graham Greene to Evelyn Waugh, had reached the peak of their powers by 1970 or before. Literature persisted in great works longer than the visual or the auditory arts; this may be owing to the ability of the writer and the poet to isolate themselves from the world, in a way that the composer and the artist cannot. But even so, by the 1980s, it was generally acknowledged that the West was not producing literary and poetic masterpieces any more.
Certainly not like what had been produced before. Why? That is the question that confronts us, when we see the barren desert of contemporary artistic works: why? Why does it seem that the modern world cannot produce universally acknowledged works of genius in visual arts, in sculpture, in music, in poetry, in prose? Certainly not compared to what transpired in times before. We may argue, as Samuel Johnson does, that great art needs the judgment of the passage of time. But great genius can be acknowledged in its own day. So Tolstoy was. So, too, was Mendelssohn. Going further back, the geniuses of Mozart and Rembrandt and Goethe were acknowledged within their lifetimes. In the 20th Century, Joyce was acknowledged as a genius in his lifetime, as was Aaron Copeland. We know genius in art when we see it. It gives off a vibration, a scent, an aspect, that is visible to even the blindest of eyes.
So what has changed? Why can we no longer produce art like Bach, like Michelangelo, like Dante? What has deprived us of equivalent geniuses in our own time? Surely we have not gotten stupider? Indeed, by the measure of IQ, we are more intelligent than ever. So why are works of artistic genius denied us? What do we lack that prior times possessed?
At this point in the essay, perhaps the answer to that question can already be suspected. But I will put it plainly: the hereditary hierarchies of Europe and the Americas, from the 5th to the 20thCenturies, may be thought of as responsible for the great flourishing of art that existed in those regions in those times.
Why does a Bach not exist in our own day? Because Bach’s social and political circumstances were precisely tuned to create someone like him. He was a genius, a singular, particular genius, it is true. But genius cannot exist in a vacuum. Genius cannot help but take its shape from the world in which it springs up. To be sure, a genius will always have a singular element, a distinct element. But geniuses are like plants. They can grow from a seed, but they need proper sunlight, and proper water, and proper fertilizer, to grow to their fullest extent. What are the conditions of genius’ growth? How does a genius exist in an environment?
This is where the aesthetic nature of my argument truly comes into focus. We lament a lack of great art in the modern world—a lack of great art in painting, in sculpture, in dance, in music, in poetry, in prose. What we have not been willing to address is the fact that the great art we admire was created in sociopolitical conditions which are different than our own. Specifically: all this great art, the art of Haydn and Titian and Johnson and more, was created within a sociopolitical environment of hereditary monarchy and aristocracy, an environment of kings and emperors and dukes and barons and princes. We cannot divorce our artistic geniuses from their times and their conditions. And we cannot deny, however much we may wish, that our own times cannot produce great art, great genius, precisely because we lack the sociopolitical circumstances that generated the great art of the past.
Why, precisely, is hereditary aristocracy a better fit for the production of great art than our modern, mercantilist sort of aristocracy? We could postulate various answers to this question. Perhaps the stability of rule by families and houses flattens the troubles of society, allowing artists the freedom to develop in prosperity. Perhaps hereditary aristocracy allows for the stability of patronage; and perhaps great geniuses in art thrive best when they can rest secure in their lifestyles due to the patronage of a wealthy nobleman. Perhaps the visible presence of aristocratic hierarchy serves as an outward sign of invisible, metaphysical truths. Perhaps to see the king or the duke on his throne is to see a distant echo of God Almighty, King of the Universe, who rules Creation unquestionably. And in this respect, perhaps monarchy and aristocracy are Platonic ladders, vectors of ascent for the minds that can perceive them. Perhaps to see the king on his throne is a temptation to drive one’s mind to the highest heights, a temptation that great geniuses cannot help but put to the fullest use. Even Beethoven, as much as he despised princes, could not help but have his gaze drawn heavenward by their very existence.
These are all speculations. But the plain, hard facts are a solid as iron. We have had no universally great art since the middle of the 20th Century. And it was right in the middle of the 20th Century that the last, faint vestiges of monarchy and aristocracy died out of the West. The 70 years since that time have been a wasteland of great genius, great art, great expressions of beauty, goodness, and truth. Is there a connection? I believe there is. I believe this because I am an artist myself, and I know more than most that an artist’s environment, their sociopolitical circumstances, plays an outsized role in the sort of art they produce. And I know the barrenness of our present sociopolitics better than most. This age stifles breakthroughs. To fight against it is to be a reactionary, in more than one sense.
And if there is any more evidence at all, we might find it in the United States of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. These circumstances are a good test case, because, on the surface, they are not like the hereditary aristocracies of Europe. But they existed in its shadow, and the men who became astoundingly rich in America’s Gilded Age—Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, and others—had to look over their shoulders at the barons, dukes, and princes of Europe. So they were compelled, despite their lack of hereditary strength, to behave like aristocrats. The results speak for themselves: these men and more built incredible museums, sculptures, parks, and concert halls, and sponsored paintings, poems, compositions, and countless other works of extraordinary art. Non-hereditary, capitalistic aristocracy does behave well, and does generate good art… when it has the example of hereditary aristocracy to shame it and chastise it. When it is left to its own devices, when hereditary hierarchy is gone, it behaves as it has for the past 70 years, from the end of the 20th Century to the beginnings of the 21st. And so we get trash art, trash music, trash sculpture, trash novels, and trash poems. See what happens to culture when the Age of Kings is gone?
Men need beauty. Women need beauty. People need beauty. Human beings need to have their lives “furnished with beauty,” as Mr. Peter Hitchens once put it on a popular television program. Yet our non-aristocratic, non-hereditary hierarchy has proven incapable of generating the beauty that even the poorest of the poor need in their lives. A poor man can eat, can sleep, can socialize, but does he not need more? Would not the subscribers of Jacobin magazine agree to this? But can those subscribers give the poor man the beauty he needs? Can they give it to him in the same way that dukes, barons, electors, and princes can give it to him, through the art that their society generates?
We love all this stuff, these trappings of monarchy and aristocracy. Do we not? We love the classical music. We love the towering, moving architecture. We love the great houses, the great castles, and their great gardens. We love the paintings. We love the sculpture. We love the epic poems, and the haunting novels. We love them, but if we love them, we must take heed of why they are the way they are. It is not just the individual genius of great men and great women. It is those geniuses shaped by the societies in which they lived. We must ask ourselves, how can we create the environment, the sociopolitics, that will again generate such towering art? How can we create new art that achieves what Bach achieved, what Raphael achieved, what Dante achieved, what Shakespeare achieved?
I have an idea. It is the same idea I have stated in this essay. The Iron Law of Reaction states that hierarchy is inevitable. So if we love this beautiful art, and if we must accept the inevitability of hierarchy, then why not strive for a hierarchy that is capable of generating this great art? If we cannot escape hierarchy, we should at least have a hierarchy that can cultivate works of artistic grandeur and beauty.
And I think I know what that hierarchy looks like. I think I know the sort of hierarchy that can generate great works of artistic genius. I think it looks like kings and emperors and dukes, crowned by bishops and popes.