Against Aristocracy

Submitted by Alfonz Cavalier

The American Sun recently published an article by a C.A. Schoultz titled ‘A Practical, Aesthetic Defense of Monarchy and Aristocracy.’ While I sympathise with the article’s heroic tone and agree with its points that hierarchy inevitable and attempts to reform a society by liquidating its upper class will always fail, I do want to make certain points about the nature of aristocracy and where it sits within reactionary thought.

Schoultz claims, rightly, that traditional aristocracy is aesthetically superior to any modern political system. More, he attributes the decline in standards of beauty in western art, architecture, music and culture to the decline in aristocracy in the 19th and 20th centuries.

There is certainly something to this. Beauty is hierarchical, this is why leftists are instinctively uncomfortable with it. It reminds them that there are standards, that some things are good and some things are bad and no amount of reason, theory or ‘activism’ will ever change that. Beauty is a point of instant connection to eternal and transcendent things larger than the self and can be a dizzying reminder of our own insignificance as individuals. Some people revel in that feeling of spiritual rapture, some people hate and fear it and seek to tear down beautiful things so they can build up themselves in their place. 

Asides from giving patronage to artists, commissioning great buildings, projects and so on, aristocracies encourage this ethic. A society that is explicitly hierarchical is comfortable with beauty, and therefore with transcendent values. Aesthetics are a form of leadership, they define everyday experience and understanding of the world at all levels of society. Nevertheless, there has never been an aristocratic monopoly on beauty. Aesthetics are the product of a culture and its metaphysics and, in previous ages, beautiful things were produced and valued at all levels of society. Renaissance-era peasants, for example, may not have had the means to commission paintings by Caravaggio or Botticelli, but they still built and created attractive buildings, implements, decorations and tools. The craftsman who actually made the palaces and cathedrals weren’t noblemen themselves, nor did they have noblemen standing over their shoulder directing their every chisel blow for maximum aesthetic impact. All people in ages like this participated, through membership in a social order and in a Church that emphasized beauty as a metaphysical good, in the life of the divine.

This is not intended as a blow-by-blow rebuttal or even a specific critique of that article. Instead, I think it is necessary to make a reactionary case against institutional aristocracy.Schoultz is quite right to state that hierarchy is an inevitable, necessary and good part of any human society, including societies like our own which claim to be egalitarian but are ruled by oligarchs and incapable of functioning without various hierarchical structures. Nevertheless, aristocracy can mean an awful lot of different things, and I wish to make a case for a hierarchical but not aristocratic social order.

I will start on the question of monarchy. Monarchy is probably the best form of government, but absolute monarchy isn’t making a comeback any time soon. Perhaps whichever warlord leads us out of this mess will have a great-grandson who builds a round table and introduces some very nice heraldry for his cronies. Like liberty and prosperity, liveries, traditions and the sort of classic aesthetics which monarchists are into are the fruit of order, not their cause. We’ll need some kind of authoritarian correction before we get all that, a Franco, a Pinochet, or worse.

I’m sympathetic to the fuzzball, Charles Coulombe type reactionaries who put monarchy above everything else, but I’m also a pragmatist. In Europe, it’s possible to imagine factions forming around some of the more high-profile monarchs if and when the current political order collapses.Where they still exist, monarchs are more popular and respected than almost all elected politicians. Most people insocieties which have monarchies like their monarchs and want to keep them, and monarchs still hold the formal legal power to exercise sovereignty, even if that is politically impossible under current conditions.

In Britain, there exists a very extensive royal shadow government of sorts, consisting of senior members of the aristocracy, ceremonial appointees like regional Lord Lieutenants, and highly capable professional aides, which could quite easily assert itself as a kind of backup generator sovereign power if the existing democratic regime were to collapse. This may seem far fetched for now, but these official positions exist to do more than just organise seating arrangements and cocktail orders for garden parties at Buckingham Palace: the royals and their advisors are not stupid and they know what their constitutional role really means.

Moreover, it is not insignificant that many key members of organisations within the power structure, especially the army, still swear loyalty to the person of the monarch, rather than any elected body, abstract principle, or set of laws. Progressives have done everything they can to pull western culture away from taking these sorts of things seriously, but such traditions have deep roots which can’t easily be dug up. It’s widely rumoured that the British army considered launching a coup against the elected Labour government at points in the ‘60s or ‘70s, with the intention of retaining Her Majesty as sovereign but installing Lord Mountbatten as a sort of aristocratic dictator. This obviously didn’t happen in the end, but does illustrate how hereditary office and the real power that stems from the barrel of a gun can be allied quite effectively.

Hierarchy is natural and necessary in human social relations. This is a more important and fundamental maxim in power than anywhere else. A group of friends, a social club or a sports team can afford to be a bit democratic. It can have multiple heads or a revolving cast of leaders, self-appointed or otherwise. A state, corporation or large public institution cannot afford that sort of flexibility, because flexibility in this context is just a euphemism for instability. The buck has to stop with someone, an individual conscious will has to take the final decisions. Regardless of what various lawyers, academics and theorists have tried to posit since the enlightenment, all authority is ultimately personal and, hence, monarchical. The most bluntly efficient form of government would just be one man, chosen at random by either birth or lottery, sitting in a room and making absolute decisions based on the advice of those around him. He might not always be right but, provided he was unchallenged, you would never have any need for politics. 

The trouble is that authority is never unchallenged and so politics always exists. It is true that some cultures and belief systems encourage more deference to established authority than others: Confucianism, traditional Christianity, true Hinduism (as opposed to yoga thot navel-gazing) and Classical Greco-Roman paganism all spring to mind. However, it is quite natural for men to be ambitious, to question the decisions and competence of their superiors, and to seek to assert themselves. While liberal ideologies have encouraged anarchy and questioning of authority for its own sake in the past few centuries, it would be dishonest to claim that jostling for power and status is not a natural and intrinsic part of human affairs. Clans feud, and leaders have to put down rebellions. These laws are as iron cast as oligarchy and hierarchy.

From the 16th century, European monarchs became especially concerned with limiting the power of potential rivals. They did this by suppressing dissent from below and limiting the potentially disruptive power of deliberative assemblies (parliaments, diets and so on), and also by taking power away from the aristocracy. 

The former narrative is pretty familiar to anyone trained in the progressive school of history – it led to several centuries of institutional conflict, a number of bloody civil wars and the replacement of rule by men with rule by laws (or, perhaps, a few great men for a lot of small ones). The latter, however, requires a little more development and explanation. In the popular imagination, there is a continuum between aristocracy and monarchy, the two naturally complement one another. They are both based on the hereditary principle, they both find moral and aesthetic justification in high culture and religion, they both support a tendency towards hierarchy and deference at all levels of society.

However, there is a significant dialectic conflict between monarchs and aristocrats which has played out throughout history. Monarchs tend to try and centralise power in the hands of their own persons and courts, aristocrats tend to decentralise it and attempt to build up their own power bases around their personal estates. If magnates grow to be powerful enough, they can rival kings. Even if they don’t have the resources to do this, their vying for power and status between themselves can be disruptive enough, look at the history of the marcher lords in early Norman England, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or the Holy Roman Empire. The Duke of Burgundy was a consistent thorn in the side of the King of France, and the annals of English history are full of great lords whose power subverted that of the monarch: Stephen of Blois, Simon de Montfort, Bolingbroke, Essex and Northumberland. The intrigues and rebellions of men like this would lead to the elevation of parliament as a deliberative assembly where the English nobility could iron out their grievances in peace – and we know how that worked out in the long run.

To prevent aristocrats from building private empires and challenging their authority, kings could try a number of tactics. Asides from the traditional feudal methods of oaths of fealty, ties of blood through marriage or kinship and hunting together, kings could try to break up great estates and limit the amount of land in the hands of single families. Successive English kings would come to rely on intelligent but low-born advisers, men who were talented but ultimately disposable like Thomas Cromwell, Richard Rich, or John Morton. These men were ruthless enforcers of state power, generally trained lawyers who had no lands or fortunes to rely on if they fell out of favour with the king. They therefore had no option but to be absolutely loyal to their ruler. Even Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a clergyman who grew to be fabulously wealthy, came from humble origins as the son of a butcher in Ipswich. Kings knew the value of dependent clients – noblemen with family pride and independent means could not be relied on in the way that ambitious commoners could be.

The French Court of Versailles was conceived as another strategy for mitigating aristocratic power. By basing himself in a single location outside of Paris, the King of France forced his courtiers and vassals to move to him, and built the greatest epicentre of luxury, beauty, courtesans, rich food and lavish entertainments in the western world to entice them, closer to a Sultan’s harem than a European warrior king’s court. Say what you will about the moral decay and decadence of Versailles, but it did its job. The French aristocracy stopped rebelling and gave into hedonism instead. They became stuck in a single, physical setting where Louis and his advisers could keep an eye on them.

Outside of Europe, various empires tried even more drastic measures to prevent their nobles from rebelling against them. Imperials China did away with a landed aristocracy as much as it possibly could. The emperors couldn’t prevent wealthy families from accumulating land, but they could cut them off completely from the levers of power by maintaining professional standing armies controlled directly by the emperor, and a huge class of low and middle born bureaucrats, selected for their intellectual ability rather than their social rank. The notorious Imperial Examination, a gruelling test of intellectual ability, was the only way for a boy born into urban China’s clerical class to get anywhere near status and power. The examination has its echoes in Chinese history today, with its punishing emphasis on educational discipline and its ultra-centralised bureaucratic state. The Ottoman emperors did something similar but crueller: they bred a caste of intelligent slave boys without testicles to prevent rival dynasties from forming and based their army around a core of kidnapped Christians raised to be soldiers – the Janissaries and Mamelukes. 

Any hereditary power structure is vulnerable. You may have a great man who establishes a powerful dynasty. He may even manage to have great sons – look at Friederich-Wilhelm I and Friederich II of Prussia, or Phillip and Alexander of Macedon. Good traits in a ruler – wisdom, athleticism, ruthlessness, a good work ethic, a talent for reading people, charm – do run in the family, but only up to a point. You can never be certain what the genetic lottery is going to throw up, whether your heir will be born with physical or mental defects, or your line will simply succumb to inbreeding generations down the line. Sooner or later, you end up with a Charles X of Spain or a Henry VI of England, a chinless simpleton who is easily ruled by other, better men. A power struggle emerges between aristocrats and the state becomes oligarchical rather than authoritarian, there is no longer a single centre of power but many, all competing with each other, often with violence. What is an aristocrat but an oligarch with a fancy family crest? One man’s noble duke is another man’s brutal magnate. Perhaps a century or so from now, the Russian oil and gas clans will have coats of arms, family colours and dynastic histories composed for them. Every aristocratic house existing today was founded by an opportunist thug in an earlier era.

One of the best insights of Neoreaction (remember that?) is that many of the problems of the modern world come from having an open system of power. If power is open to all, then all public life becomes a struggle for power between competing ideological and demographic factions, stirred up by unelected institutions, mass media and oligarchs operating via proxies. We have enough material prosperity and organisational hangover from saner eras for this not to have broken out into open civil war – for now.

Aristocracy and monarchy are both good systems for hedging against this up to a point. Because they are hereditary, they are closed systems of power, I am the duke, because my father was the duke, you owe me taxes and obedience to my laws, I will send my men round to force you to comply if I need to. That is the end of the conversation. Power becomes contractual but not as a partnership of equals, it is based on a chain of relationships and personal obligations that stretch upwards, eventually reaching the king, who is answerable to his ancestors, his successors, and to God. You might get the occasional Nero but mostly you don’t get Crowned Stalins, there is no incentive for a king to ruin his kingdom with mad laws or cruel policies, because the kingdom is his personal property and he will want to look after it for posterity. There is no incentive for kings to persecute rivals and set up elaborate systems of surveillance either, because they are already the king. They are secure in their role, granted legitimacy by inheritance and the Grace of God. Only scheming aristocrats or destructive ideology can dethrone them.

Make no mistake, scheming aristocrats have been a problem throughout history. They will probably never cease to be a problem, whether for kings, presidents, military juntas or god-emperors. Modern apologists for the bureaucratic liberal state tend to exaggerate the violence of wars between kings and aristocrats – the Wars of the Roses, for example, were fought within a shared cultural and religious framework of understanding between people who had mutual obligations and codes of honour and were even related in a lot of cases – there were bloody episodes, but they were contained. There was no Dresden or Katyn in the Wars of the Roses. Game of Thrones, which claims to be based on them, is fiction. No-one aspiring to rule a kingdom burns it to the ground and stacks the corpses of his future subjects on the pyre. Why would you do that – what’s the incentive? European warfare between clans has always been about shock and awe – limited demonstrations of power by violence in order to reach an amicable settlement. It took ideology, first in the Reformation and then the Enlightenment, to disrupt this balance.

Nevertheless, if I were to design a system of government from scratch (which is impossible but bear with me) I would do as much as I could do mitigate the power of aristocrats and oligarchs. This does not mean that I would want all power invested in a single central authority – that would be mad. Power can still corrupt, people can forget the concerns of those they’re governing and start plundering them. You need someone who’s ultimately in charge, the applier of the final seal that ends debate and determines policy, and that would ideally be a monarch for the reasons we’ve outlined. But we would not want to be in a situation where this final seal was applied to everything and in all areas of life, from the grandest affairs of state to the management of gas stations in Boise, Idaho. It’s usually best to have as many decisions as possible taken close to where they will have an impact, by people with a stake in getting a good outcome – skin in the game, basically. 

I think you have to be American to glamourize aristocracy too much. Most Europeans have too much folk memory of the contemptuous lord, the punitive taxes, the back breaking twelve hour shifts on manorial land to feel the same way. This makes it very difficult to place too great a store in absentee landlords and grand families, the squire might have known you personally and lived close to your hovel, but this doesn’t mean that he had any respect for you or your concerns. Sadly, it probably is true that most apologists for aristocratic systemsimagine themselves somewhere near the top of them. It’s also certainly true that nice heraldry, grand houses you can never visit and the occasional parade in livery can’t compensate for poverty or powerlessness over your own life. The happy serf is a meme. Most peasants worked hard and suffered. 

There is an irony to all of this is as well. Despite their egalitarian and anti-traditional ideology, our present elites comprise a sort of aristocracy, and certainly an oligarchy. The left likes to crow about how much wealth in the modern west is inherited and how much public affairs are dominated by certain grand families, the Clintons, the Kennedys, and many other clans with murkier dealings and origins in business. What are Bill and Melinda Gates, Jeff Bezos or the Koch brothers if not aristocrats without responsibility? Societies are either governed by autocrats or by oligarchies, and ours has one of the worst forms of oligarchy in history because it refuses to acknowledge openly what it is. As a result, there is no sense of accountability or connection to the consequences of their power. This makes our oligarchy resistant to reform and immune, for now, to the only thing that could really destroy it, grafting a head onto the snake, introducing a real and open centre of power in the form of a single leader. 

There will always be hierarchy, there will always be great families, but this doesn’t mean you can’t have a state that rewards merit or widespread ownership of property throughout a society. My ideal state would be authoritarian, without taking an excessive interest in the private lives of its citizens. It would be hereditary, without being closed off to talent. It would be composed of landed estates, but there would be tens of thousands of these, not dozens or even hundreds. It would have dynasties and traditions, but these would be liable to rise and fall, to adapt to challengers and move as required. It would be a clan on a great scale, based on personal authority and reciprocal relations of power, without sacrificing efficient decision making or advanced technology that would make it prosperous, healthy and capable of defending itself. There would be coats of arms, but there would also be armour-plated laser cannons. 

Then again, I’m not designing my ideal state, nor will I ever be, and I’d quite happily accept a Franco or a Pinochet right about now. We’re overdue an authoritarian correction. God save the King.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Liquid Phosphex says:

    “I will start on the question of monarchy. Monarchy is probably the best form of government, but absolute monarchy isn’t making a comeback any time soon. Perhaps whichever warlord leads us out of this mess will have a great-grandson who builds a round table and introduces some very nice heraldry for his cronies. Like liberty and prosperity, liveries, traditions and the sort of classic aesthetics which monarchists are into are the fruit of order, not their cause. We’ll need some kind of authoritarian correction before we get all that, a Franco, a Pinochet, or worse.”

    FFS, just admit you want Adolf Hitler back.


    1. Alfonz Cavalier says:

      @LiquidPhosphex I don’t think this is a very considered response

      Liked by 1 person

  2. thomaspasket says:

    Not sure where LP is going with that, but good article. The required change of course will require a strong man such as the one you outlined. One that’s not just all bark like the one in office, but has bite. The way things are escalating, it’s not an if, but when.


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