Against The Grain: Reactionary History

Reading Against the Grain: Why should we study Reactionary History and Thought?

Been reading Joseph V.Femia’s Against the Masses: Varieties of Anti-Democratic Thought since the French Revolution. As Femia will tell us there’s a good reason to study the reactionary in history. In establishing an inverse relationship between complexity and popular control, the classical elitists provided good reason to feel pessimistic about the future of democracy. As we shall see, globalization, the erosion of national sovereignty, and the fragmentation of the political community due to social and geographic mobility—all manifestations of increased complexity—pose a grave threat to such democracy as we have. While the material analyzed by the elitists did not justify their conclusion that democracy was impossible, their analytical framework is helpful in showing us why democracy is imperiled.

Knowing one’s enemy is as much of a task as knowing one’s friends: the razor runs both ways, and the knife is sharp for both. Reactionary thought does have a history and various branches that one should understand, study, and be able to counter if one is to actually put forth a left leaning platform. A. O. Hirschman, once identified three broad forms of ‘reactionary’ thought, each obeying its own logical imperatives. He called them the perversity thesis, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis. These ‘major polemical postures and maneuvers likely to be engaged in by those who set out to debunk and overturn “progressive” policies and movements of ideas’.

According to the perversity thesis, ‘any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy’. Indeed, ‘this action will produce, via a chain of unintended consequences, the exact contrary of the object being proclaimed and pursued’. The perversity thesis derives its power from the common observation that, however lofty or noble our intentions may be, our actions often have counter-productive (and counter-intuitive) effects. We witness this in our everyday life, and, on the level of public policy, it is undoubtedly true that supposedly progressive policies or innovations sometimes generate perverse outcomes.

The futility thesis ‘holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing’, that attempts to ‘right’ a social or political ‘wrong’ will have no appreciable effect. Any alleged change, to quote Hirschman, ‘is, was, or will be largely surface, façade, cosmetic, hence illusory, as the deep structures of society remain wholly untouched’. The futility thesis underlines and perhaps celebrates the resilience of the status quo. It expresses a world-weary cynicism, completely at odds with the ‘can-do’ optimism of the purveyor of ‘change’, confident that he can bend reality to fit some prefabricated mould. An illustrious exemplar of the futility thesis was Max Weber, who, by placing capitalism and socialism under the same conceptual umbrella of bureaucracy, disturbed the reveries of those who demanded the socialization of the means of production. For if capitalism and socialism were similar in being bureaucratic, then there would be little profit (or loss) in substituting one for the other.

By comparison with the other types of reactionary argument and rhetoric, the jeopardy thesis seems relatively commonsensical: it asserts that the proposed change, however desirable in itself, involves unacceptable costs or consequences of one sort or another. Progress in human societies is so problematic that any newly proposed ‘forward move’ will endanger, or (on a stronger version of the thesis) cause serious injury to, one or more esteemed values. The jeopardy thesis is, in principle, more moderate than its two rivals, embodying assumptions and rhetorical strategies that could easily find favor with progressive thinkers. Isaiah Berlin, for example, built his brand of pluralistic liberalism around the assumption that our cherished values will often conflict with one another, forcing us to make difficult choices in practice.

Progress has always been touted with the expectation of indefinite, open-ended improvement, but even more than the insistence that improvement can come only through human effort, it provides the solution to the puzzle that is otherwise so baffling— the resilience of progressive ideology in the face of discouraging events that have shattered the illusion of utopia. Liberalism was never utopian, unless the democratization of consumption is itself a utopian ideal. It made no difficult demands on human nature. It presupposed nothing more strenuous in the way of motivation than intelligent self-interest. As Christopher Lasch once remarked

The idea of progress alone, we are told, can move men and women to sacrifice immediate pleasures to some larger purpose. On the contrary, progressive ideology weakens the spirit of sacrifice. Nor does it give us an effective antidote to despair, even though it owes much of its residual appeal to the fear that its collapse would leave us utterly without hope. Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it. It rests on confidence not so much in the future as in the past. It derives from early memories— no doubt distorted, overlaid with later memories, and thus not wholly reliable as a guide to any factual reconstruction of past events— in which the experience of order and contentment was so intense that subsequent disillusionments cannot dislodge it. Such experience leaves as its residue the unshakable conviction, not that the past was better than the present, but that trust is never completely misplaced, even though it is never completely justified either and therefore destined inevitably to disappointments.2

For pessimists like myself such hope is beyond reckoning, as is progress and improvement. The optimistic faith seems too close to the old Puritan world vision and work ethic, a thing of the past that has had its day. What comes next is already here but that’s another story altogether. Why do I return to the reactionary thinkers from Burke to Land? Why? Because unlike the optimists of the progress they have no exuberant religion to call them to the righteous cause of secular improvement or universalist discourse. No. Instead they have taken off the blinkers and developed the critique of progress we need if we are ever to get out of this quagmire of modernity. And, I hesitate, because it may be we’re all already in an end game in which humanity itself is going to be the greatest loser. Sadly we have to face what is coming at us… without shutting our eyes.


  1.  Joseph V. Femia . Against the Masses: Varieties of Anti-Democratic Thought since the French Revolution. Oxford University Press; 1 edition (October 18, 2001)
  2. Lasch, Christopher. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (pp. 80-81). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

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