Once again, I am writing a piece evaluating the content created by a Mr. Michael Anton. I welcome it as trying to explain his work to our crowd is an echo of how he tries to explain the world we consider old news to a normie crowd. We are both translators of sorts. I recommend you read the book, and to read it very carefully.
Marty Phillips’s reviews Michael Anton’s The Stakes and finds it wanting. Phillips’s first critique—that “our side” has heard all this before—may be mostly true, but also contradicts his final praise: that the book’s usefulness is its ability to radicalize NormieCons. Indeed, might that be Anton’s intention?
If so, Anton doesn’t make that explicit. Then again, how could he? Normies are shy critters. They must be gently coaxed toward the Red Pill. Any attempt to force them to swallow it whole will only scare them off and make later coaxing more difficult. Perhaps Anton knows this and has written accordingly?
Phillips accuses Anton of being a NormieCon himself. It seems to me that a genuine normie could and would not have written this book. Could not because The Stakes is shot through with explicit and implicit acknowledgements that the author is familiar with a great many arguments beyond the well-policed borders of Conservatism, Inc.—a point Phillips himself acknowledges when he writes that “[Anton’s] willingness to engage with the more controversial memes and arguments of the dissident right are refreshing and his use of many memes and terms of reactionary thought show that he has engaged with the thinking at least tangentially.” Would not, because even if a normie were aware of those arguments (which he wouldn’t be; unquestioning acceptance of convention and ignorance of alternatives are the essences of normism), he would never dare engage with them publicly.
Anton has elsewhere self-identified as a Straussian. Straussians are known for their belief in, and occasional practice of, “esoteric writing,” or “writing between the lines”: partially concealing while partially revealing a message that is not plainly evident on the surface. Could Anton be practicing that technique here?
Phillips’s own review highlights a feature of The Stakes which suggests that he is:
Anton, by his own admission at times, appeals to wishful thinking for goals that have no clear path to accomplish. He rightly points out that we no longer live in a state governed by consent, and that the left controls almost completely the financial, media and tech sectors along with the education system. In enumerating methods of pushing back against this system, the phrase “I don’t know how to do this” comes up more than once. I would argue that this is his placeholder phrase for “This needs to happen but there is no political solution.”
In logic, this is known as a syllogism. Premise, premise, conclusion. A = B, B = C, therefore A = C. One esoteric technique, which Anton surely knows from Strauss, is to state the first two postulates of a syllogism while letting the reader draw the conclusion. “We must do X” and “X is impossible in the present system” therefore implicitly means “We’re going to have to radically transform or even replace the present system.” But stating that too openly would be to blare an air horn in normie faces, guaranteeing they’ll bolt and stop listening. At the same time, stating such a conclusion is unnecessary for a reader like Phillips, who already knows. My read of The Stakes is that Anton consistently aims for a mean between too much candor and too little. He goes much farther than any real NormieCon would ever dare, but not so far as to frighten the fillies. His goal seems to be to go just far enough to show normies, without scaring them off, that they need to rethink not just their conservatism but their entire worldview.
Other features of the review warrant comment. Philips dismisses Anton as a “utilitarian,” on the basis of this sentence: “Traditions become established not because they don’t work or run counter to reality and human nature, but precisely because they do work, or at least don’t undermine or contradict human nature.” How, exactly, that adds up to utilitarianism is not explained, though I suppose Phillips hangs his claim from the verb “work”: Anton only cares about what works, not about what is good or true or right.
Leaving aside the fact that this is not the definition of utilitarianism according to its founders, Bentham and Mill, this seems to me a complete misreading of Anton’s point, which seems to me is to restate a rather typical Straussian assertion, borrowed from the ancient philosophers. In the pre-philosophic tradition, appeals to “tradition” are a form of the ancient identification of the good with the ancestral: our way is the best way because it’s old and it’s ours. But traditions can be bad, destructive, harmful, etc., as well as good, nourishing, life-sustaining. To take but one example, I assume that both Phillips and Anton would agree that traditional marriage is good. But America now also has a fifty-plus year tradition of homosexual “liberation.” Is that “tradition” therefore necessarily good, either because it’s gotten old or because it’s ours?
Similar considerations led the ancient philosophers to conclude that there must be a standard above and beyond tradition by which to judge tradition. Phillips admits as much when he writes that:
many tired and disillusioned Americans on even the moderate right do not want to hear that they should defend what their forefathers did because “it’s worked so far” but because it was fundamentally and unassailably right. The Founders themselves said that rights were inalienable and God given, not just things that have worked so far in liberal societies.
He writes these words as if they contradict Anton’s claim when in fact they merely restate his claim! Anton’s very plain, non-esoteric point here is that while appeals to tradition can be beneficial and even necessary, they are never or rarely sufficient. For tradition to be helpful, it must be good, and its goodness is not rooted in its being traditional. Rather, the reverse is true: most traditions become established because they are good. The American founders are in this sense heirs to Plato, Aristotle and Cicero because they seek to build a regime based on the eternal good that preserves and protects all good tradition. I don’t know how Anton could have made that any plainer, or how Phillips could have missed it.
Another misreading follows. Phillips writes that “Anton debates the ‘LARPing’ (his word not mine) of those who say that the founders ought to have relied on a more substantial or centralized leadership system such as monarchy.” Actually, Anton brings up LARPing not in the historical but in the present context, to criticize those who think a return to or fresh establishment of monarchy or aristocracy is both possible and desirable. Phillips does not wrestle with Anton’s central contention here, which is a defense of the American founders’ political philosophy and statesmanship against those who say their alleged theoretical and practical errors led directly to the present morass. It is at times hard to tell whether Phillips sees himself as defending the founders against perceived attacks from Anton (which is how the utilitarianism passage reads) or attacking them for taking too narrow a view of America that does not include the wider West.
Phillips certainly attacks Anton for, allegedly, holding that latter view. Which is odd, given The Stakes’ not infrequent references to Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Montesquieu, and to ancient, medieval and early modern history. Granted, the references are rarely thematic, but The Stakes is a current events book, not a work of philosophy or history. Harder to excuse on this score is Phillips’s complete silence on Anton’s seven-page thematic treatment of the ancient polis (or “city-state”) and theory of the cycle of regimes, in which Anton explicitly links the West together as a civilizational “sect” the fortunes of whose parts must rise or fall together.
Then in a bit of slight-of-hand, Phillips applies Anton’s qualified defense of tradition (that good traditions stick around because they “work”) to the entirety of the present neoliberal oligarchy: Phillips puts into Anton’s mouth the claim that the present regime “works,” imputes to him the claim “that America has a healthy future ahead of it” and accuses him of “paint[ing] things as better than they really are.”
But that’s laughable. As Phillips himself admits a few paragraphs later, chapter 3 of The Stakes is an extended polemic against the rottenness and corruption of the present regime. Similarly, the second half of chapter 6 lays bare the inherent contradictions, impossibilities, and anti-nature elements of that regime which, in Anton’s telling, already make its operation rickety (in addition to unjust) and render its longevity doubtful.
Did Phillips and I read the same book? In his opening paragraph, Phillips says that Anton “does seem to be eyeing the blackpill across the room from his writing desk with some measure of morbid curiosity. The book is largely doom and gloom.” That claim is truer to the book I read than any notion that Anton thinks the present regime “works” or “has a healthy future ahead of it.”
More specifically, Phillips accuses Anton of being a typical NormieCon Constitution-worshipper who cannot see that the document is already dead. Again, did we read the same book? The very title of chapter 2 is “Torching the Parchment”—i.e., the Constitution. A section of chapter 6 is entitled “Goodbye, Constitution.” Phillips writes, correctly, that “the Constitution does not need to be thrown out, merely tactically redefined or ignored,” as if this thought doesn’t occur to Anton. Looking for passages which demonstrate how wrong this charge is, I found too many to quote them all, so I will leave it at this one:
To give new practices a veneer of continuity, in the manner of Augustus Caesar insisting he was just another senator, the more the ruling class departs from the letter and spirit of the Constitution, the more they will (at least for a while) pledge ever greater fealty to the Constitution. Which in practice will mean only one thing: they will still hold elections every two, four, and six years, and the terms of office will remain the same length. These are, for the average American, still uncrossable lines and also impossible to fudge.
Beyond this, the entirety of chapter 3 is a discussion of how America is no longer ruled by the Constitution or the founders’ regime and how both remain, de jure, the law of the land, but are, de facto, defunct. I don’t see how Anton could have made that any plainer.
Phillips’ overarching point is that Anton is too timid and/or lacks imagination. Perhaps one or both of these claims is true. But if so, not in the way Phillips says. His main criticism is that Anton allegedly believes a political solution for the present crisis is possible. At one point Phillips accuses Anton of believing that we can “vote ourselves out” of our present dire situation. Did he miss the page (50) where Anton specifically says “you’re not voting your way out of this”?
In any case, much hinges on what Phillips intends by that word “political.” He seems to mean politics narrowly construed: working within the confines and institutions of the present system. And it’s true that Anton ends his book with a chapter laying out a series of proposals to do exactly that. But Phillips seems to have missed (again) a gigantic caveat to Anton’s argument. As the author himself puts it,
I expect others to insist that what I here propose is impossible. All I can say in response is that, if they’re right, then America’s future must and will be one of the possibilities discussed in chapters 6 and 7.
In other words, Anton explicitly hinges his whole (narrowly construed) political project on a giant “if”: IF America can do all the political and policy things that Anton calls for in chapter 8, THEN what’s left of American democracy and constitutionalism can survive a while longer. What are the real prospects for that “if” becoming reality? Chapters 1-5 more than suggest that Anton doesn’t think they’re high. Which means that, if I’m reading him correctly, Anton must believe that some outcome other than a restoration of American constitutionalism is likely.
Chapter 7 of The Stakes is, as far as I know, the first extended discussion by anyone even remotely adjacent to mainstream conservatism to think through or “game out” what America’s post-constitutional future might be. Anton makes no overt judgements on the relative merits of the scenarios he paints. But the fact that he paints them at all shows that he has not, contra Phillips’s charge, placed all of his eggs in the constitutional-legal basket. More importantly, all those other scenarios are “political” in a higher sense than merely legal or legislative. Hence it’s true that Anton believes that a political solution is possible, but not in the way Phillips means it. All narrowly-construed legalistic politics rests on a foundation of extra or supra-legal acts which, because foundational, are more, not less, political than the narrow politics of the here-and-now. The supreme such act is the founding of a new regime.
On that score, in chapter 2, Anton outlines the founders’ account the natural right of revolution, the right of a people to overthrow and replace a tyrannical and unjust government. In chapter 3, 4 and 5, he all but calls the present government of the United States tyrannical and unjust. In chapter 6 he explicitly says that if present trends continue and the neoliberal oligarchy gets everything it wants, this government will be de jure no less than de facto a tyranny. Readers of The American Sun can draw the inevitable conclusion.
But perhaps in the end Anton’s esotericism gets the better of him. Writing between the lines is a tricky task. One can do it so well that no one notices, or so sloppily that everyone notices. Either defeats the purpose of esotericism, but at least in the latter case the message gets heard—though often with dire consequences for the messenger, which is one of the chief reasons why esoteric writers write esoterically.
If I’ve read Anton correctly, then judging from the almost complete silence on his book from the conventional and non-conventional right, and from the widespread misreading of those few who’ve engaged with it, it appears that Anton’s esotericism has successfully protected himself at the expense of communicating his message.
That’s too bad. The surface of The Stakes would help our side gain ground—if anyone were to read it. Its depths would help our side gain even more ground—if anyone were to read it carefully.