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Progressivism on Steroids: The "Conservative" Anti-Humanism of Jonah Goldberg

Way back when, as a student interested in the analysis of modern mentalities of government, I picked up the following, simple set of methodological procedures for going about the analysis of discourse, considered as the empirically observable point of access to mental phenomena that can't be studied directly. Assemble, as data for the analysis, a corpus of pertinent verbal statements (which can assume the form of texts, interview data, institutional rules and regulations, etc. as relevant to the purpose at hand), and construct a model that elucidates the underlying laws of construction ("rules of formation") of those statements. Then go and get some more specimens of statements associated with the particular discourse under study. Once such additional observations fail to turn up anything novel that you haven't seen already and that your model can't account for, then your model can be provisionally considered to have met the scientific standard of adequacy to its object, since it explains the facts empirically observed.

Following this protocol in applying myself to the study of the spectrum of contemporary political ideologies. I found myself reaching the aforementioned point of exhaustion, beyond which further analysis starts yielding diminishing returns to the point of becoming altogether superfluous, rather quickly. This is the reason why I almost never mention or critique mainstream political authors in what I write here and elsewhere in the Rightist underground. It's redundant, boring, and pointless. Most of this output is painfully banal and wholly predictable in its argumentation and other contents even to the casual observer without any special analytical tools or sustained interest, for it is as formulaic, standardized, and commodified as any other item of mass consumption bought and sold in the capitalist marketplace, held by industrial quality control to the same exacting standard of bland but reliable mediocrity as all the other mass-produced products that each day roll off conveyor belts and into the waiting mouth of the American consumer.

Once every so often, though, any QC process fails and an outlier slips through. A bag of frozen straight-cut French fries will have a curly fry in it, or a normie publication features an article far enough outside the norm as to actually be remarkable in some way. National Review, a magazine that historically led the way for others to follow in the industrialization of political analysis and commentary, which it reduced to a standardized set of stock platitudes that could be spat out with prodigious volume and speed by an ever-shifting set of interchangeably faceless line-grunt writers, has recently published just such an article. It was written by, of all people, Jonah Goldberg- the very face of industrialized journalistic facelessness, of the sort of Conservative cookie-cutter operator whose function should by all industrial logic, have either been automated or outsourced to a child-labour facility in some developing country long ago. But the rather unusual content of the article is no credit to either National Review or Goldberg. On the contrary, as we will see, it is extraordinary only in that it represents an extraordinarily depraved development of Progressive ideology, sociologically remarkable as a specimen of what may turn out to be the final stage of the congenital, chronic, and terminal illness of the Liberal tradition; and in any case an infamy for what used to be a Conservative magazine.

The backbone of the article, to be sure, is as uninspired and formulaic as this genre of writing comes a paean to "liberal-democratic capitalism" in the form of a rote recitation of all the familiar Enlightenment boilerplate about the progress of progress, articulated in terms of the hokiest of evolutionist narratives:

Humans are animals. We evolved from other animals, who evolved from ever more embarrassing animals and before that from a humiliating sea of primitive critters in the primordial stew.

For almost all of their history, humans were doomed to stagnate in a wretched existence as "[b]ands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food". Then, about three hundred years ago, what Goldberg calls "the Miracle" (capitalization his) intervened, a "glorious but inexplicable mystery" that raised these wretches from their state of brutality and barbarism to that of civilized beings by bestowing on them capitalism, the Liberal State, industrial technology and medicine, a much larger supply of money than previously, and finally, illustrious contemporaries such as Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.

The reader who doesn't keep a barf-bag next to his desk can rest assured that I have no intention of going into any more details of this cornball stuff since it is wholly unremarkable. What is remarkable, though, are the following statements:

Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Human rights are unnatural. [...] Almost everything we take for granted today- technology, prosperity, medicine, human rights, the rule of law- is a novel, unnatural environment for humans, created by humans.

From the point of view of good form, these statements are to the orthodox myth of progress what multiple-key clinkers are to a piano recital. For in the traditional narrative of Enlightenment, the terminus of Man's evolutionary journey, the immanentized Eschaton however conceived (Liberal capitalism, Communism, whatever), is supposed to represent the realization of human Nature- specifically, the restoration of an original human Nature that had been tragically disordered and corrupted by some accidental that is extraneous to that essential Nature and superimposed upon it: political despotism, the lies and ruses of priests, private property, or something else that disfigures and deforms Man, at once causing him to tragically lapse from his ideal essence in his real existence and thwarting him in his efforts to recover the original state of perfection that is once his birthright and destiny. Hence Man, according to the classic Progressive narrative of whatever political sect, is caught in a tangle of barbarism, error, and pathology (political tyranny and oppression, economic exploitation and alienation of the worker from the fruit of his labour, religious superstition and ignorance of science and medicine- take your pick) and bound to remain there until the Miracle intervenes to strip away all these historical accidentals and lay bare the human essence in its pristine purity. Loosed from its artificial bands, human Nature, restored to itself, at last, will be free to flourish unhindered, and a final, post-historical resting place of unlimited peace, plenty, and freedom arrived at.

It thus seems, as far as good form with respect to the narrative conventions of the myth of progress goes, downright bizarre to admit that the wish-list of desiderata that defines the essence of Progress for one's own political party is "unnatural"- since, in this particular language-game, designating something as unnatural is the move you make against the things you don't like, and thus wish to relegate to the status of the merely contingent, accidental, and transient with respect to the Natural in its immutable and invincible permanence; that which is time-bound, which has an historical origin and is thus destined to come to an end when history does and secular time relents before eternity. Thus, for the classical Communist, capitalism is just one time-bounded period among others in the history of human economic production, and the institution of private property a particular historical modality of the alienation of Man from his own species-being and thus destined to vanish right along with history and alienation themselves. For the classical Liberal, by contrast, capitalist property and exchange are direct emanations of the laws of utility-maximization inscribed by Nature in the hearts of men; they are the essential and eternal residue left over when the accidentals of State intervention in the economic (regulation, monopoly, fiat money, etc.), and all the attending market distortions and inefficiencies, are abstracted away. Hence the classical Liberal indignantly denies that there exists such a thing as "capitalism"- for, as he sees it, the market economy as such has no history; only the State and its imprudent efforts to hamper the Natural play of supply and demand do. And Whig history always predicts that the State itself, as that which belongs to the unnatural and strictly contingent, eventually must yield to the rule of Natural law just as soon as men are sufficiently well-instructed in their Natural rights to throw the yoke of the Norman conqueror off of their free-born English necks and restore the original sovereignty of the People once and for all.

In point of practice, of course, the Progressive project is nothing less than a cult of the artificial as against the Natural. This is vividly attested to by the Progressive fetish for all sorts of technological "innovations" and "improvements", and the corresponding superabundance of man-made artificial surrogates for everything from orange juice to religion- all hungrily consumed by progressive bourgeois, of whatever political persuasion, who measure a man's worth by the technological gadgets and gimmicks in his possession, live in residential neighbourhoods where every tree was ripped out of the ground by the developers as a matter of principle and each home has concrete painted green instead of a lawn in front of it, and who are medicated, hooked up to medical devices, and surgically operated upon on a cradle-to-grave basis. It is eminently fitting that this race of people today regards men surgically and chemically altered to pass as women with the same awe and reverence their ancestors would have reserved for the holiest figures of the world's great religious traditions.

For the longest period of time, however, the normal Progressive would never, ever have openly said that the artificial is to be preferred to the Natural. The classic Progressive tradition was way too bogged down in residual Christian piety and/or humanistic philosophy for that. Even the sort of control-freak technocratic central planning mindset for which the Progressive tradition became infamous could not go there, at least not without fear of contradiction- for to decry existing social arrangements as irrational and demand that the nation be governed by self-styled scientists according to scientific precept is to acknowledge that there exists a rational Nature of things to which men ought to conform, not the other way around. Held to close inspection, what this totalitarian discourse was actually saying is that the spontaneous wants and desires of men lead them away from their own Nature- considered as a rational telos or end-state to be attained through effort, not merely the shape of things the way we find them- and that it is the job of the wise and the virtuous to authoritatively discern that Nature and forcibly lead the ignorant and the vicious kicking and screaming towards it. This is a perfectly sound and indeed indispensable principle per se, although of course in the hands of Progressive technocrats grotesquely misconstrued and over-extended, and made to serve as the pretext for a cacophony of grave abuses and errors in government.

An important recent exception are various academic philosophical and social theories, articulated under the umbrella of "postmodernism", which explicitly style themselves as "transhumanist", "post-humanist" or better yet, "anti-humanist". Explicitly and ostentatiously seeking to "deconstruct" the "privilege" accorded to the Natural over the artificial, this body of thought, through its grip on much post-secondary education, helped popularize and normalize bodily mutilation in the form of the tattoos, piercings, sado-masochistic practices and paraphilias, and sex-change procedures once reserved for the ranks of criminals and sex fiends as the stigma of their former pariah status, but have now become either standard fashion accessories or, to the extent still rare, public signs of Grace and exceptional holiness analogous to the ascetic practices of various saintly Anchorites in more traditional religions. It also popularized the idea that technological mechanization of the human body, once the stuff of dystopian sci-fi nightmares of a totally dehumanized machine world of totalitarian complete control, is a good thing- the very telos to which the Progressive project should be striving, in fact. Here the hoped-for Eschaton is to be immanentized in the form of something very much like the Borg collective of the old Star Trek TV series.

This particular development can with justice be thought of as Progressivism on steroids- not least of all because, according to this way of thinking, there is not is not only no reason why anybody should be forced to rely on the gifts and talents God gave them and reject the use of Man-made performance-enhancing drugs and prostheses, but every reason why they shouldn't be.

This sort of reasoning tells giant pharmaceutical and biotech companies exactly what they want to hear for obvious mercenary reasons. It also tells the democratic and leveling agendas and interests of the Progressive parties exactly what they want to hear for political reasons- since the differences between humans given in Nature comprise the foundations of the ties of interdependency that bind human beings into the solidary organic social hierarchies that the cult of Progress strives to demolish. And with this coincidence of economics and political power, and all the attending material incentives their combined forces make available in terms of cash and status in exchange for services rendered, it was perhaps only a matter of time before some miserable hack writer on the marginal end of mainstream journalism discovered that this anti-humanist transvaluation, hitherto the province of a lunatic fringe on the Left self-consciously seeking to transgress traditional social norms as far as possible, is really what Conservatism has been trying to conserve all along. Hence the following, astonishing assertion:

Why stress that the Miracle was both unnatural and accidental? Because Western civilization generally, and America particularly, is on a suicidal path. The threats are many, but beneath them, all is one constant, eternal seducer: human nature. Modernity often assumes that we’ve conquered human nature as much as we’ve conquered the natural world. The truth is we’ve done neither. We simply restrain each from generation to generation. If you’ve ever owned a boat, car, or house, you know that nature needs only time and opportunity to reclaim everything. Rust doesn’t sleep. Termites respect a grandfather clock no more than an outhouse. Abandon a car in a field, and all nature requires to turn it back to the soil is time. Preventing decay and entropy from reclaiming everything built by human hands requires vigilant upkeep. As Horace said, “You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back.” What is true of physical things is also true of civilizations. And the termite threatening the Miracle’s foundations is human nature itself.

In keeping with the sense of a publication that claims that the Conservatives are the rightful governing party of the nation because they are more faithful to Progressive principles than the Progressives, the foregoing is in fact even more extreme in its hostility to Man than the aforementioned anti-humanist discourses of the "postmodern" Left. The latter merely deny that there actually exists such a thing as a trans-historical human essence or Nature. They don't actually go as far as to openly say that Man or Nature is the eternal foe of the Miracle writ large. For the postmodernists, the critical act of deconstruction proves that there is no real ontological boundary between Natural and artificial- an opposition that is dismissed as purely an artifact of language- and no human attribute that isn't merely a time and culture-bound, man-made, and intrinsically plastic "social construct". We could perhaps credit Goldberg with at least not yielding to the extreme nominalism of his counterparts on the anti-humanist Left, but his doing so only makes a bad thing even worse; for the po-mo people are content to merely scorn the idea of human Nature as laughably provincial and naive. They don't take it seriously enough to hold it up as the mortal enemy of all civilization, something they aren't keen on defending in any case.

Having established that it is the task of Conservatism to defend all that is unnatural, contingent, and man-made against the eternal and immutable order of Creation, Goldberg reads this grave and solemn duty into Scripture, too:

Judaism and Christianity consider human nature sordid and dangerous. Turning to God requires turning away from our natures, particularly the flesh’s “corruptions.”

To actually write stuff like this must either be a feat of extraordinarily brazen sophistic effrontery or comprise proof that its author is really, really stupid. In the cognitive universe of the Ancients- and for that matter, any civilization truly worthy of the name- the idea that Nature properly so called can corrupt anything is nonsensical to the point of the obscene from a philosophical point of view. Nature does not corrupt and is not corrupt, but the very ideal standard against which existence can be judged and found to be corrupt- that is to say, defective, deformed, and lacking in the attributes that define the full complement of formal properties of its wholesome essence. To judge somebody or something as "corrupt" means precisely that they have lapsed or degenerated from the order of their Nature, and moreover that, when humans and human institutions are judged to be corrupt, it was some inordinate spirit of willfulness, rebelliousness, and folly, itself extraneous to the rational order of Nature, that is to blame for the lapse and degeneration from that order. If there is any lack of accord between the Man-made and the Natural, by definition it is the Man-made that is defective, disordered, and corrupt, not the other way around.

Anything else is not just absurd, but blasphemous the second Christianity comes into play. If God's creation is corrupt in its very design, then logically it necessarily follows that the Creator isn't really God at all, but just some kind of Demiurge; no omnipotent Sovereign can be judged corrupt, since obviously there is no higher standard of perfection against which He or His work can be judged defective or lacking to the very extent that He is omnipotent and the final source of authority in the universe. The Natural order per se, therefore, isn't corrupt and cannot possibly be; rather, it is Satan that turns men against their Nature and causes it to become disordered and corrupted. If flesh corrupts and is corrupt, it is owing to original sin.

To be sure, there is a long and unfortunate tradition of moralizing authoritarianism (of the fussy and overbearingly meddlesome sort that gives authoritarianism a bad name) that, slurring over the distinction between essence and existence, carelessly uses the term "Natural" to cover all the disordered and disorderly desires and impulses of men as we find them, that is to say, congenitally corrupted by original sin. Vastly over-estimating the depth and extent of this innate depravity, this discourse draws a radical opposition between the individual and civilization, which it sees as perpetually locked in a zero-sum death struggle. The individual is portrayed as the carrier of a festering and incorrigible malevolence that constantly menaces civilization, considered as social peace and order hard-won in the struggle against the intrinsic disorderliness of the individual and at the expense of the individual's freedom. The individual, for his part, even when outwardly reduced to order by the "civilizing process" incorrigibly remains a potential force for mayhem that can be counted on to try to shatter the perilously fragile veneer of civilization as soon as he gets the chance. This discourse, although it really belongs to the tradition of totalitarian Statism in politics and the Puritanical tendency in religion, is often articulated under the general umbrella of Rightist thought and is clearly what Goldberg is trying to appeal to in order to gain Rightist-looking cover for his radical Progressivism and anti-humanism.

Goldberg, however, suggestively puts a novel twist on this authoritarian discourse- to the point of inverting it altogether. Moralizing misanthropic authoritarianism construed the putatively indelible forces of malevolence lurking within with the individual as specifically anti-social, radically and unrelentingly hostile to all human society and association. Man, Hobbes argued, isn't made for society by Nature, but fitted to it by discipline. But for Goldberg, it isn't any real or imaginary ingrained anti-social instincts in the hearts of men that threaten civilization and the Miracle. On the contrary. For Goldberg, unlike Hobbes, Man is by Nature sociable- and it is these very pro-social instincts are what menace civilization and the progressive Miracle, and what must be rigorously suppressed if civilization is to exist at all:

Nearly all of our laws and customs...restrain human nature. For instance, nepotism and favoritism are natural. People prefer family and friends in every society that has ever existed. Westerners often consider developing countries such as Afghanistan corrupt because their political systems proceed from tribal reciprocity. But Afghans and others argue that their ways are ancient and natural. And they’re right. Our system of merit, contracts, blind bidding, etc. is what’s unnatural.

The story of Western civilization, and really civilization itself, is the story of productively sublimating human nature. The Catholic Church had to establish elaborate rules against familial favoritism. We get the word “nepotism” from the Italian nepotismo, which referred to popes’ and bishops’ installing “nephews” (their children and other relatives) in powerful positions throughout the Church [...]

Such tactics worked, temporarily. But groups’ natural tendency to assert their self-interest made such techniques untenable. That is because we’re wired with a “coalition instinct,” an evolutionary adaptation from millennia in which our species sought safety in the tribe against other tribes...This coalition instinct forms the heart of what people mean by the modern American rise of “tribalism.” Every kind of identity politics- from racial solidarity to ethnonationalism to ancient notions of hereditary nobility- feeds off this instinct.

There. There you have it. At least it's original, I'll give it that much. For the abovementioned traditions of misanthropic Statism and fanatical Puritan moralizing, and the corresponding chauvinistic narrative of the triumphant march of "Western civilization" over "barbarism" at home and abroad (which perniciously continues to be mistaken as a Rightist enterprise- sometimes, and most unfortunately, by soi-disant Rightists) did not consider the traditional and local-familial social arrangements they earmarked for obliteration as "barbarous" to comprise social arrangements at all. Non-Western peoples, those in the West who continued to prefer family and friends to strangers and foreigners and impersonal bureaucratic norms, and others yet to be aufgehoben by the State and reformatted as carbon-copies of the proselytizing bourgeois moral crusaders appointed by the State or by themselves to civilize these evident wretches, were deemed to live in a non-social "state of Nature". The apparent solidarity of their barbarous tribes was deemed a mere superficial appearance, the product, not of social instincts to mutual benevolence and reciprocity, but of the anti-social lust for domination of a primitive patriarchal despot that the weaker members of the tribal non-society feared.

But for Goldberg, society isn't the opposite of barbarism, but the very substance of barbarism; not the telos of evolution, but that which must be discarded by it. In this respect, I'll grant that the cult of Progress on steroids is at least honest with itself and about itself here. Society must be destroyed to safeguard the Miracle of civilization; and man's instinctual propensity to mutual aid and association on a personal and intimate basis- that is, to form human relationships- is to be suppressed in order that impersonal bidding and other bureaucratic procedures administered by an impersonal bureaucratic State can take their rightful place as the ordering principle of a globalist anti-society of de-socialized bugmen at once promiscuously thrown together and rigorously isolated from one another. While I have earlier invoked the dystopian imagery of dehumanizing technological mechanization and disfiguring of the human body, to the extent that men are being governed this way their dehumanization is already more or less complete, and all the fanciful prostheses and technological "singularities" being promised by diverse evangelical con-men in order to solicit funds for dubious tech firms from gullible Silicon Valley transhumanists with too much money, if actually delivered, would amount to so much trivial cosmetic surgery.

From there, the argument trails off into a jumble of self-contradictory gibberish. He makes some pro forma, Burkean noises about the importance of virtue, and the indispensable role of family and civil society in inculcating virtue in the people at large. He has the nerve to tack on these disclaimers after having denounced, in the strongest possible terms, the very "coalition instinct" that motivates people to form families and enter into civic association, to begin with. Do people who would rather see a job or contract go to someone they never met through impersonal merit-based bidding procedures and whatnot than to their own children and relatives really want to form families? Are people who prefer strangers and foreigners above those they know and trust, who live in the same neighborhood, have the same ancestry, speak the same language, follow the same religion, work in the same industry, etc. likely to form robust civic associations? If the answer is "no"- then are civil society and the family corrupt and corrosive? Goldberg already answered in the affirmative as clearly as he possibly could have, and for good measure adds that:

In The Fatal Conceit, Friedrich Hayek argued that humans evolved in small tribes. In this “microcosmos,” the rules differ from the rules in the “macrocosmos” of liberty’s extended order. [...] When people say that the government or the nation is- or should be- like a family (or a military unit or any other microcosmic group), they argue for erasing everything that enables the Miracle.

Sociologically speaking, the reasoning is completely sound- which is why every universalistic political ideology from Liberal-democratic capitalism to Communism does whatever it can to erode local, particularistic and personal ties and loyalties, above all those of family and kinship, since the principle, "as above, so below" applies as much to the relationship between the "macrocosmos" and "microcosmos" in sociology as it does in hermetic mystical imaginings. The State is the summit of social relations, and the shape of things on top mirrors that of things on the bottom and vice-versa. Throne, Altar, and Parliament stand atop a social order whose constituent units are the family, the Church, and the civic association; an administrative State of faceless bureaucratic pencil-pushers, atop a mass of faceless and isolate democratic atoms.

No amount of Conservative-sounding disclaimers can hide Goldberg from these inexorable logical implications, and he doesn't even seem to be trying all that hard to hide from them:

Why did the Miracle happen? [...] What [Donald] McCloskey calls “bourgeois virtues” were vices until John Locke’s time. Innovation, viewed suspiciously by every ruling class worldwide historically, was sinful in Europe for millennia for challenging the established order of throne, altar, and guild. Then, suddenly...[t]he Lockean ideas that...we’re citizens, not subjects, that the fruits of our labors belong to us, because the individual- not the state or tribe or class- was sovereign took hold [...] The American Founding’s glory is that those English colonists took their cousins’ tradition, purified it into a political ideology, and extended it farther than the English ever dreamed.

It represents a pathetic denouement for a journal whose founder taught that the task of the Conservative is to "stand athwart History yelling, "Stop!" to exalt the historical permanent revolution whereby the traditional social order was demolished by the bourgeoisie and the individual pulled up by the roots in the name of techno-economic and political "innovation". This passage could have just as easily been written by another well-known author who insisted that the fruits of our labour belong to us, and who also sought to purify the Progressive tradition into a political ideology and extend it farther than its initial carriers ever dreamed.

What am I saying, could have? He did! And with much more precision, flair and erudition than Goldberg, I might add:

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. [...] Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned...

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe...The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. [...] National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. [...] It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

[...] At a certain stage in the development of [the] means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged...had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder. Into their place stepped free competition, accompanied by a social and political constitution adapted in it, and the economic and political sway of the bourgeois class.

Donald McCloskey, Jonah Goldberg: meet Karl Marx. I'm sure you have much to talk about.

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