Building Dystopia

High architecture, that of grand buildings, is a bridge between God and man, and a sinew binding state and people, the ruling class and the masses. Low architecture, that of daily living and daily use, is key to satisfaction in the life of a populace.

Thus, a coherent and uplifting architecture, high and low, is, and has always been, necessary for any successful society. I will return below to what architecture we should have, why, and what needs to be done to achieve it. Today, though, we most definitely don’t have a coherent and uplifting architecture, and Robert Stevens Curl, in Making Dystopia, explains what the abomination of Modernism is and why it utterly dominates our current architecture.

Curl’s aim is to prove that both architects and society have swallowed the most appalling lies, and been in thrall to the most stupid delusions, for many decades. And since architecture is not mere abstraction, but rather something that affects the lives of everyone, this is a societal disaster of the first order.

Built on propagandistic falsehoods designed to conceal the ideological nature of the project, Modernism is a cult, devoted to destroying opposition and both unwilling and unable to defend its myriad fatal debilities.

It has destroyed the urban fabric all over the globe, and thereby hugely harmed the social fabric. So-called post-modernist successors to Modernism, namely Deconstructivism and Parametricism, are little better. Curl offers no quarter; Modernism and all its works should be erased.

The author is a well-known British art historian, author of more than forty books. This book, written as an “exposé of the ideologies of those responsible for an environmental and cultural disaster on a massive scale,” with its great heft, thick paper, and numerous photographs, screams “expensive”—too expensive, in fact, for the casual reader, unfortunately.

Moreover, there is too much repetition and too much rantiness; the book could have done with less variation on the same prose points and more pictures to illustrate the innumerable references Curl makes in the text and the voluminous footnotes.

And Curl makes little or no effort to make his text accessible to someone who is a complete novice to architectural history (nor, for the same reason, is it possible for someone not well versed in architectural history, such as me, to wholly say how accurate the history Curl offers is).

The result is a book that is self-limiting. But I don’t think Curl wanted Making Dystopia to be a best-seller. I think he’s aware of the book’s limitations. He is old, and most likely his target is not casual readers, but young architects—those who have been or are being brainwashed in the vast majority of architectural schools today (the sole exception he mentions, repeatedly, is the University of Notre Dame).

I suspect that he mostly hopes that select audience will read his book as part of their education, and that he will, after he is dead, thereby help to break the stranglehold of Modernism. He even offers the reader a drawing of himself, dead in a chair, with a personified “Death come as a friend to continue ringing the warning bell.” In this context, the book as written makes perfect sense.

Most of Making Dystopia is straight history of Modernism, focusing in turn on several different times and places, alternating (often on the same page) with hammer-and-tongs attacks on Modernism.

Since any style known as “modern” risks circular definition, Curl begins with classification. Namely, that Modernism in architecture and modern design is that style “opposed to academicism, historicism, and tradition, embracing that which is self-consciously new or fashionable, with pronounced tendencies toward abstraction.”

It originated, and the word first began to be used, in the 1920s, to describe “the new architecture from which all ornament, historical allusions, and traditional forms had been expunged.” Modernism, in its 1920s post-war context, made a certain type of sense as an experimental movement.

But for reasons Curl identifies, none of which are that “Modernism is better,” it swallowed the world, becoming the global compulsory style and destroying much of the world’s urban fabric with stale, ugly, unrealistic, short-lived, and expensive buildings that did not fit their environment and made no effort whatsoever to serve their actual primary purpose—to be places in which to live and work, or to make grand statements unifying the society in which they were built. Instead, Modernism created the inhuman, uncomfortable and divisive.

Modernism as a self-limited, organically-arising, change, where the style would have soon enough have passed on like Art Deco or Art Nouveau, might have made some sense. Change is in the nature of art, and while Modernism was a rupture, not normal organic change, it could perhaps have been accommodated as one of architectural history’s dead ends.

Some of the early Modernist architecture has a certain stark beauty, after all. But why should a few architects, standing in opposition to thousands of years of organic movement, have succeeded in destroying in the way they did?

Curl chalks it up to the general turn among the taste-making classes against tradition and in favor of anything cast as “original,” which while problematic in literature or food, was disastrous in architecture, a far more public form of art with far broader consequences than fads in more ephemeral areas.

Whereas prior to the 1920s even an average architect could create nice-looking buildings that fit their purpose, in the urban landscape and for the people who lived or worked there, simply by using pattern books, now a vulgar supposed originality was required.

Modernism aimed at Utopian social engineering totally unmoored from the past. And as with other similar twentieth-century ideologues, by convincing the right people, in this case the taste-making classes and, just as importantly, big business, Modernists were successful in their engineering efforts.

Still, they required a mythology, in the way of kings fashioning false genealogies. This was provided by Nikolaus Pevsner, who in 1936 published the still-influential Pioneers of the Modern Movement (republished as, Pioneers of Modern Design), an attempt to tie admired nineteenth-century styles such as Arts and Crafts to the modernism of men like Walter Gropius.

It was Pevsner who made silly claims, believed by nearly all today, such as that the Glasgow School of Art was a Modernist building, rather than “a brilliant eclectic design, drawing on Art Nouveau themes,” which was organically derived from other styles, instead of being a rupture with them.

Curl deconstructs Pevsner at some length, giving numerous textual and pictorial examples of his “selectivity and exaggerated claims,” propaganda “based on wishful thinking,” since proving that Modernism was a rupture is key to Curl’s criticism of it. Curl’s goal is to undercut this “Grand Narrative,” which is ubiquitous among architects today, and show that Modernism has no clothes.

The real origin of Modernism was sui generis, in Germany immediately after World War I. Everything was up in the air, so architecture was too, and all the visual arts. In 1919 the Bauhaus art school was formed by Walter Gropius under government aegis.

Nominally apolitical, the Bauhaus was in fact a den of radical politics (liberally larded with nuttiness), harshly opposed to all tradition, whose artists regarded art as a necessary herald and handmaiden of political change, and human life as meaningless without reference to politics.

Although architecture was not the main focus of the Bauhaus, in the ferment of the 1920s its principles rapidly infected German au courant architectural thinking, both in terms of design and in the rejection of the need for any underlying skills in craft.

German architects in the 1920s and 1930s not only embraced Modernism, they also embraced architecture as part of system building. As Thomas Hughes discusses in American Genesis, the 1920s were the time when technological inventions became servants to their own creations, large systems built around new technology.

Modernist architects embraced this as the wave of the future—that is, the future was technology and machines, and buildings, rather than reflecting human uses, should now reflect machine uses, from electricity to motor cars.

In architecture, the Bauhaus had ties to the Deutscher Werkbund of the previous decade, a group devoted to experimentation in architecture in pursuit of integrating modern mass production techniques into industrial design, and this type of system became part of the ground for further drastic change in architectural style.

Curl offers innumerable examples, in narrative and in picture, of different architects and architecture of this time. The most influential architect to emerge from the Bauhaus was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who over the period from 1910 to 1930 abandoned neo-Classicism for the so-called International Style of Modernism, much of which he originated.

Mies was a self-promoter eager to work for anyone in power; he was the last director of the Bauhaus, and having tried and failed to ingratiate himself with the National Socialists, he emigrated to the United States in 1937.

Many of the German avant-garde also emigrated; they later spun stories of their opposition to Hitler, some of which were true, but as Curl points out, the Nazis were not nearly as opposed to Modernist architecture as is often suggested—they were “ambivalent,” being most definitely not conservatives, but revolutionaries, and therefore attracted to certain of the ideological underpinnings of Modernist architecture. In particular, they “accepted Modernism for industrial architecture,” as well as for quite a bit of worker housing.

While some architects outside Germany expressed interest in Modernism, especially the long-lived and ever-varied Philip Johnson, making it a niche taste among the elite, it was only when many Bauhaus and Bauhaus-sympathetic architects emigrated from Germany (the “Bauhäusler”) that the International Style actually became international.

The Bauhäusler were eagerly promoted by ideological allies in the United States and Britain, and so rapidly became extremely influential, then dominant, then utterly dominant, in the Western architectural establishment, both among professional architects and among teachers.

It was not that a great deal of actually built architecture was modernist in the 1930s and 1940s; it was that all the taste-makers decided, nearly simultaneously, that the only type of architecture that was acceptable to the elite was Modernist. Architects who objected were pilloried, cast as bourgeois, marginalized, and sidelined.

The 1930s also saw the rise to international fame of the megalomaniac Frenchman Le Corbusier, that Rasputin, who became the most successful propagandist for Modernism, and established some of its most enduring dogmas, including divorcing all buildings from their context and siting, and pretending a house could be a “machine for living.”

This process continued, and even accelerated, after 1945, when actual construction of Modernist buildings began to dominate. For the next two decades, the cult resulted in the destruction of innumerable town centers and the construction of endless shoddy and ugly buildings totally unsuited for their claimed uses and unfitted for their sites, the very opposite of their claimed “functionalism.”

Modernism was never popular among people in general, but their betters told them what they needed. Without the eager cooperation of giant corporations, though, Modernism would never have succeeded in lasting as long or being as destructive.

Part of this was ideological (similar to “woke” corporate behavior today), through a successful propaganda campaign to cast Modernist architecture as representative of “progress” and “democracy, ” part of it was the desire to make profits by participating in industrial construction techniques (which, as Curl points out, were actually mostly more expensive than the classic techniques replaced, despite the claims of their proponents) and, as with General Motors, to destroy cities to make them better for cars.

(For that latter, Curl covers the famous revolt of Jane Jacobs against Robert Moses’s planned, and partly completed, destruction of New York). Anyone who disagreed was ignored or destroyed.

Curl also spends some time on post-Modernism, a varied set of styles, of which the two most prominent were, or are, Deconstructivism and Parametricism. The former, as its name implies, is deformations of Modernism, meant to provoke anxiety and unease among viewers and users.

The latter (of which London’s Shard is an example) is an attempt to use computer algorithms to construct non-linear buildings, mostly similarly disturbing but in a different way.

“Deconstructivism and Parametricism, by rejecting all that went before and failing to provide clear values as replacements, can be seen as intentional aggression on human senses, abusing perceptive mechanisms in order to generate unease, dislocation, and discomfort… Deconstructivism and Parametricism induce a sense of dislocation both within buildings and between buildings and their contexts. . . . By breaking continuity, disturbing relationships between interior and exterior, and fracturing connections between exterior and context, they undermine harmony, gravitational control, and perceived stability, [which is] crucial to any successful architecture.”

Now, I was curious what proponents of these post-modernist styles say about them. Maybe sense is coming back into fashion. So I went and read up what Patrik Schumacher, who named Parametricism in 2008 in a “Manifesto,” said. I knew we were in trouble when Schumacher called his own style “profound.”

Then he said tripe like “It cannot be dismissed as eccentric signature work that only fits high-brow cultural icons. Parametricism is able to deliver all the components for a high-performance contemporary life process. All moments of contemporary life become uniquely individuated within a continuous, ordered texture.”

Proponents of Deconstructivism say similar things. I wasn’t surprised, though I was disappointed. It’s obvious that both styles are merely the bastard children of Modernism, as can be seen by their use of the ancient technique of obfuscation through cant.

What does Curl want to happen? He calls for a reworking of both architectural education and the relationship of the public to architecture; the public should no longer allow itself to be treated as acolytes to the priests.

“Architecture is far too important to be entrusted to the products of talking-shops: as a public art, it matters hugely, and it cannot succeed unless it connects with the public in a positive way, conveys meanings, arouses resonances, reaches back to the past and forward to the future, and has the appearance of stability.”

Mostly, he wants a realization that Modernism is awful. He wants the spell to be broken; he offers less of a specific program than, like Puddleglum in C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, a stamping on the Witch’s enchanted fire and thereby recalling himself, and his friends, to what was actually real and beautiful, as opposed to the unreality the Witch was trying to sell them.

This is fine as far as it goes, but that’s not really far enough. We should ponder what is the purpose of architecture, of buildings. As Curl says, “Architecture is the one art form which plays an important role in everyday existence.”

It is frozen music. Destroy architecture and you destroy a key component in binding a society together, through its role in offering a common art and through that, a common culture.

“Without the ability to comprehend basic truths about morality and beauty . . . humans are truly lost, adrift in a sea polluted with the flotsam and jetsam of discarded toys promoted by fashion, with nothing to which they can hold fast. High culture has been suppressed, even superseded, by advertising and the mass media. . . .”

In other words, architecture is the art that binds a society together. It is an antidote to centrifugal forces, including those so common in the modern world, whose destructive force is ever-building, yet tamped down by promises of unbridled freedom and the fool’s gold of consumerism, for now.

Foundationalism, my own aborning political program, is really two things: the renewal of society, or the rebuilding of a crumbled society, and the long-term maintenance of that society, both along lines recognizing reality, with a strong bias toward traditional Western knowledge and modes of thought.

No society can long exist, much less be a strong society, without a unifying component of the spiritual, in a broader sense than simply religious. Because, as I say, a coherent and uplifting architecture is necessary for any successful society, architecture, the right architecture, is the second of the pillars of Foundationalism.

The goal of architecture under Foundationalism will be a form of emotional resonance, where all sectors and levels of society feel they have something in common that ties them together and which impels to virtue.

Since Foundationalism envisions a bound society, tied together by many threads and wholly opposed to atomistic individualism, binding forces are critical to its creation and maintenance.

In Foundationalism, architecture will not be a set of rigid beliefs, an aesthetic canon for the elite, as is Modernism; it will instead, like governance, be an organic new thing based on the wisdom of the past, intertwined with all the people, high and low.

Pushing art as part of Foundationalism may seem odd for me, since certainly I have little artistic or creative sense, and therefore cannot knowledgeably discuss architecture or any other type of art.

But I don’t need to—that’s the advantage of hewing to classic architecture traditions, that they can express any meaning desired, in a variety of languages, and offer beauty and continuity, along with enough originality to prevent seeming calcified. Foundationalism has no need to create anything that is new, though some organically developing novelty is to be expected.

Oh, I am sure there is a great deal more that someone knowledgeable can say about architecture as aesthetics, and how that matters to a society. Roger Scruton has written a whole book on it (The Aesthetics of Architecture) which I am sure it would be immensely profitable to read.

But a careful, philosophical parsing of architecture and society isn’t what I’m after. I oppose instrumentalism as the lens for viewing human beings; I am not so much opposed to instrumentalism in the works of men’s hands. What I care about is the function architecture will play under Foundationalism, and the implementation of that function.

The general type of high architecture necessary for this is entirely clear. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch said in Three New Deals, “Scholars gradually recognized neoclassical monumentalism—whether of the 1930s, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, or the Napoleonic empire—for what it is: the architectural style in which the state visually manifests power and authority.”

Neoclassical monumentalism, let’s be honest, impresses everybody. You are lying if you think Le Corbusier holds a candle to, say, the Jefferson Memorial. True, there are limits to this.

The monstrous proportions of buildings proposed, but never built, by Hitler and Stalin take this arc too far, becoming anti-human and enshrining the state as a false god (the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle portrays many of these buildings as if-built; this reality comes through clearly).

Any such program, especially one perceived as right-wing, therefore has an uphill battle, since the gut reaction is that here Albert Speer reborn. But monumental classicism has a long history apart from the regimes of the 1930s (which, as Curl points out, often approved of Modernism, especially Mussolini’s Italy).

And anyway, when my program is being put into place, those who would complain the loudest in that ideological vein will be picking sugar beets in Saskatchewan as part of my rustication and lustration program for those who did the most damage to our society.

Therefore, as far as high architecture controlled by the state, Foundationalism will kill two birds with one stone—every ugly government building built since the 1940s will be torn down, and to the extent new ones are needed, neoclassical buildings will go up. A lot fewer will go up than are torn down, since there will be far fewer government employees.

The extra land will be given over to parks, or perhaps public buildings tangential to government, such as libraries, which will also be done in classical style. Since we will not be exalting government as such, or government workers, we will not need giant new halls to act as the focus for our rulers; most new buildings will be actual monuments or multi-use, Roman Forum-type constructions.

(There will be, of course, government, and strong government. It will have limited ends, though, even if unlimited means, and will not aspire to order every aspect of daily life—far less than our current government does). And no private creation of any significant ugly building, Modernist or other, will be permitted. Those that exist already will be torn down as resources permit.

What of low architecture, that of daily life, of houses and workplaces? There, too, forms of classical architecture will be strongly encouraged, but the goal will be less monumentalism and more organic coherence with how people actually live and work, combined with beauty and the inspiration and joy in living that comes as a result.

The government will not mandate such architecture, as it will with high architecture, but rather encourage it, through education and subsidy. Such encouragement will take the form of only allowing government funding, and student loans (if those still exist) for architectural schools that, at a minimum, teach the execution of classic architecture as a priority.

All government contracts will only go to approved architecture, as will tax benefits for privately constructed buildings, which will, over time, ensure that architects tend to gravitate to where the money is.

The Foundationalist state will seek ways to ensure that honor and prestige, as well, accrue to architects of preferred styles. Moreover, given the well-known association of the Left with Modernism (something Curl spends a fair bit of time on, focusing on the nihilism and destructiveness common to both), since the Foundationalist state will, as its very first act, utterly and permanently break the power of the Left, that alone will clear the way for traditional architecture to rebound from the boot that Modernism has placed on it for so many decades.

Other aspects will have to be worked out; this is not an ideology, but a set of principles to use. (Prince Charles has recently put forth ten principles that are a good place to start, in a December 2014 article in The Architectural Review; he is pretty odious otherwise and not very bright, but he has always been sensible on architecture).

It is worth noting that Foundationalism does not idolize agrarianism. The rural life and culture has its place, and nature and its forms influence good architecture, but high culture, and the drive to create a successful society, always revolves around cities.

Foundationalism strives to offer a goal for, and outlet for, and inspiration for, human aspiration, and rural life does not build spaceports (aside from today not occupying the daily life of any significant percentage of the population).

And the Foundationalist state will take a similar approach to other art (though a more restrained one, since architecture is the most important art for the state), and we will return to the traditional approach where artists work in cooperation with the pillars of society, state and private, rather than being destructive agents of the Left as they mostly have been for the past century (a topic I intend to discuss the whys and wherefores of at some point, as it is not the natural order of things).

And, at that point, Making Dystopia will have accomplished the goals of its author, and be merely a chronicle of an overly long, and overly destructive, but fortunately vanished, period of architectural and societal distress.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows an Untitled piece by Zdzisław Beksiński.

The Real Vikings

In these days where man is held to be homo economicus, we are told that all people are basically the same, and what they want, most of all, is ease and comfort. Real Vikings prove this false.

Instead, they reflect back to us a strange combination of very bad behavior and until-the-last-dog-dies virtue. Tom Shippey wants to talk about those real Vikings, not the sanitized ones who were supposedly much like us, just colder. If you read this book, therefore, you’ll get the Vikings in all their bloody, malicious glory.

Shippey (a professor of Old and Middle English literature, and one of the world’s leading authorities on J. R. R. Tolkien) tells what we know about the Vikings, primarily from their own stories about themselves, the sagas.

He combines this with other sources, including archaeology and the written histories of those with whom the Vikings came into contact, to create a vivid and compelling narrative. It may seem strange to treat the sagas as history, since fantasy elements, from dwarves to dragons to Valkyrie, are ubiquitous, and many were written down centuries after the events in them took place.

The author takes the position, apparently not uncontroversial, that the sagas can nonetheless be used as history, though with caution and only in some instances. Either way, the sagas show the Viking mentality, not so much through the plots of the stories, but through the actions of the people in them. Most of all, it is this Viking mindset that Shippey cares about; he calls it “a kind of death cult,” which does not seem an exaggeration.

Shippey is well-versed in the languages in which the sagas were written, including Old Norse; he does his own translations. Given the bowdlerization that is common in pre-modern translations, this is very helpful to the reader. The stories in the sagas are very complex, largely due to the tangled webs of kinship they portray.

These are not fairy tales, with a simple story and simple moral, but Shippey does an excellent job of exposition. He emphasizes that sagas aren’t meant to be beautiful or delicate; they aim instead to follow extremely strict rules of rhyme and meter, and are full of complex grammar and obscure allusions. The creation of excellent poetry was regarded as a high virtue and accomplishment for men in their off hours, when they weren’t killing other men.

Vikings are often incorrectly seen as synonymous with Scandinavians. In Old Norse, vikingr meant simply pirate or marauder. “It wasn’t an ethnic label, it was a job description.” Shippey rejects revisionist accounts that try to paint the Vikings as settlers, or traders, or nice people who just occasionally got caught up in fighting.

Plenty of Scandinavians were settlers, traders, and nice people—just not the Vikings. For three hundred years, they stole and murdered across much of northern Europe, especially England, and got as far as Constantinople and southern Spain.

“To the modern mind, it is amazing, almost incomprehensible, how so many thousands of men, over generations, took appalling risks in small boats and continuous hand-to-hand and face-to-face confrontations with edged weapons, for what do not seem to us to have been very great financial returns. Viking armies were often defeated, even exterminated, but there never seemed to be any difficulty recruiting another one.”

What made this possible was the Viking mentality.

Shippey’s book is both analysis and history. The history begins where Viking histories normally begin, with the sack of the monastery of Saint Cuthbert on Lindisfarne, in A.D. 793. It ends with Harold Godwinson’s defeat, in 1066 at Stamford Bridge, of the giant Norwegian king, Harold Hardrada (whose name Shippey translates, roughly, as “Hard-Line Harold”).

The actual causes of the eruption of the Vikings are not completely clear, because there are almost no written records from Scandinavia of the time, but they probably have to do with upheaval and a power vacuum in Scandinavia. Intertwined with history, Shippey offers his careful and detailed parsing of sagas, combining that with evidence from archaeology.

Much of this seems vaguely familiar to the reader, because Vikings have been staples of popular culture for two hundred years, but the more you read about real Vikings, the less familiar it seems (although a few works of modern fiction, such as Eric Rücker Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, do manage to capture a real Viking feel).

As he moves through history, Shippey itemizes core features of the Viking mindset; then illustrates and expands on them. The single overriding feature was an absolute need to be brave. Cowardice was utterly disgraceful. Part of that was never giving in.

Fighting to the last man was a baseline Viking expectation. We can understand that; it’s to some extent part of our own culture (or was, until we were pansified). Another feature, though, is harder for us to grasp—losing isn’t the same as being a loser.

Vikings lost all the time; there was no disgrace in that, as long as you kept the right attitude, which was not giving in. If you had to give in physically, not giving in mentally would do. And the best way to show that was to die laughing (hence the title of the book). That laughter wasn’t ironic or self-referential, though. It was malicious.

If you laughed as your enemies killed you, because you knew how they were going to die soon too and you’d get your vengeance, that was admirable. The goal wasn’t stoicism (which was often the goal of other martial societies, particularly the American Indians); it was getting one over on your enemies, and knowing it.

Or if you bided your time as a defeated slave, forming a plan to kill and mutilate your enemies, then chuckled over their bodies, that was admirable too. (It is, as Shippey says, no coincidence that our word “gloat” comes from Old Norse.) Waiting to get back at your enemies so as to do it well is high-class behavior; it’s low-class thralls that lose their tempers and strike back hastily.

And if you simply can’t get vengeance, you can make a dark joke, like the saga hero who, cut terribly across the face in hand-to-hand combat onboard a ship, grabs his gold, says “The Danish woman in Bornholm won’t think it so pleasant to kiss me now,” and jumps overboard to sink beneath the waves.

Being humorously nasty is also admirable, like the man who, as he is about to be decapitated after a battle, asks for one of his enemies to hold his hair back so it doesn’t get bloody—then, as the axe falls, jerks backward so the helper’s hands are cut off, and dances around, laughing and shouting “Whose hands are in my hair?!”

Being comfortable with losing continued even after death. Those warriors chosen for Valhalla were not promised eternal life or eternal happiness; they were promised a good time until Ragnarok, the final battle, whereupon all of them, and all the gods, were to lose and die permanently.

In the Viking ethos, this makes sense, because you can only show that you will never give in if you can be defeated. The goal isn’t to avoid defeat, certainly not by switching sides to gain advantage. It’s to show your worth, come what may. Many have pointed out that the gods in the Iliad are, in a sense, lesser than men because their immortality makes everything they do ultimately trivial. Not so for Vikings, or their gods.

Fighting was the number one Viking activity, of course. In all the sagas, there is a definite exaltation of strongly masculine behavior, mostly fighting but wine and women as well. Vikings had a general love of constant violence, including games intended to create violent disputes among friends out of nothing.

They also invariably reacted with a hair trigger to insults; and when they lost their lives, as they expected to someday, if not laughing ideally offered dying last words that were not self-pitying but were laconic, such as “bear to Silkisif and our sons my greeting; I won’t be coming.”

Self-control was extremely important—showing any weak-seeming emotion or offering any reaction (other than violence or laughter) was looked down on, even if severely injured or having lost a child or wife.

Vikings didn’t cry, ever. All this behavior was, collectively, drengskapr, basically a code of honor, the function of which Shippey analogizes to later European dueling, which served important functions tied to the core male need for validation and hierarchy.

Its opposite, naturally, was dishonorable behavior, such as killing the defenseless, cowardice, or breaking an oath; such actions meant either a loss of face or expulsion from the community.

Despite the inherently masculine nature of drengskapr, women appear often in this book. Shippey notes that in the sagas women are “not themselves Vikings by trade, but often the most determined instigators and proponents of the heroic mindset.” The “sagas of Icelanders especially are full of dominating and aggressive women.”

Numerous sagas turn on the actions of women, seeking revenge for slights or harms to them or their families, or rejecting an ambitious warrior until he achieves more fame. Old Norse even has a special verb just for women taunting men as cowards.

Beyond the sagas, as with all the peoples descended from “Germanic” barbarians, women occupied significant roles in society. This is in sharp contrast to the East, where women were kept hidden and exercised influence purely behind the scenes. Women were out and about in Viking society (and in other Germanic societies, such as the Franks, causing scandal in Outremer among Muslims during the Crusades).

They ran businesses, owned property, signed contracts, and generally acted with a great degree of independence. Vikings had no harems—although Vikings made a lot of money supplying young women to Muslim harems (and some high-status Viking men kept concubines).

Slaves were the Vikings’ number one cash generator, and Muslims their number one market, since Christian Europe strongly disfavored slaves, even at this point, and Scandinavia itself didn’t have the money to buy a lot of slaves.

In other words, contrary to the modern propagandistic myth, there’s no indication women as women were oppressed in Viking society (which is true for most, if not all, Western societies throughout history).

As usual, relations between men and women were a constant negotiation where everyone was trying to muddle through together. In conflicts, women usually gave as good as they got, and exemplified similar courage as men.

Voluntarily choosing to die, “[Brynhild] regards Sigurd as her real husband, her frumverr or ‘first man’; she means to go with him. Of course, she also had him murdered, but that does not affect her real feelings or her sense of what’s right.”

Where women appear not a single time in this book, however, is as warriors, because Viking women warriors are a total myth. Last year widespread coverage was given to a claim that the grave of a Viking woman warrior had been uncovered. Fake news, which was quickly disproven, though that was not given any coverage at all in the popular media.

Viking women warriors simply didn’t exist. “Viking warrior” is a tautology; “Viking woman” is an oxymoron. Neither history nor saga mentions women as warriors. What about the famous “shieldmaidens,” you ask? A thirteenth-century Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, created that legend out of whole cloth in imitation of myths about the Amazons.

The sole mention in any actual saga of any woman warrior is in The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, a thirteenth-century mashup of several earlier sagas, where part of the plot revolves around a woman, Hervor, who takes up arms after her father and brothers are killed (summoning her dead father, Angantyr, from his barrow grave to give her his sword, Tyrfing). (She was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Eowyn of Rohan, depicted, like Hervor, as golden haired in golden helmet).

This is all obviously just fantasy no different than that about dwarves and dragons. Such fantasies aren’t new; people have been projecting their fantasies onto Vikings for more than a thousand years. In the ninth century A.D. the Muslim ruler of Spain, Abd al Rahman II, sent an embassy to the Vikings, led by an ambassador, nicknamed al-Ghazal (“the gazelle,” for his good looks).

It’s not clear precisely where he went or whom he met, because in what he wrote he was less interested in writing useful detail, and more in telling us that the custom of the Vikings was “no woman refused any man,” and that the queen of the Vikings was infatuated with him. Al-Ghazal’s writings show, as Shippey says, “we are deep in Male Fantasy Land,” and the same is true of Hervor.

(Muslims, and the Byzantines, did interact quite a bit with the Vikings; more accurate than al-Ghazal was the record of the tenth-century Ahmad Ibd Fadlan’s mission to the Rus, which forms a large part of the backstory to the movie The Thirteenth Warrior and which Shippey discusses at length, mostly to show that the Vikings were fine with sex slavery, ritual murder, and gang rape.)

Along similar lines, you often hear that the Valkyries were women warriors, a trope that shows up, for example, in modern movies based on the Marvel comic books. Shippey makes clear that they were nothing of the sort (addressing the question directly never comes up for him, any more than discussing whether the Vikings carried iPhones or used machine guns).

The Valkyries were Odin’s servants, acting as harvesters, or rather recruiters, who picked which warriors would die in battle, and thus join Odin in the halls of Valhalla. They often picked the strongest men, who were brought low by seeming chance, but actually by the Valkyries or Odin himself—a way for the Vikings to explain the seeming randomness of death in battle. But the Valkyries weren’t warriors.

At all. They were more like the Greek Fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos; and overlap with the Norns, the Norse rough equivalent of the Fates. Nor were they aspirational figures for women in Viking society.

Silly claims about female Vikings are part of a larger problem with the corruption of everything by ideology—news, science, history. A claim that a Viking woman has been found is useful.

It can be, and is, used to support idiot actions like allowing women into the military, and more generally to aid the ongoing massive propaganda campaign to pretend that not only are there no real differences between men and women, but that women can do anything that men can do, only better.

(We have seen this on display in recent weeks in the blanket coverage given to the Women’s World Cup, an unimportant event that very few Americans care about, and the winning of which is equivalent to being the world’s tallest midget).

Thus, such a “discovery” is feted around the world and the “discoverer” briefly becomes an international celebrity, before returning to a promotion and permanent job security. A claim that a male Viking burial has been found is boring and gets the claimant nothing.

Along similar lines, Shippey notes several attempts to feminize Viking history, such as when in 2014 the British Museum censored the translation of a runestone inscription to change phrases such as “They fared like bold men far for gold” to “They fared far for gold.” As Shippey says drily, the word men “is not favored academically.”

Fortunately, this book is not marred by any such distortions. It’s an uncut presentation of Viking behavior, straight up, no chaser. After you read it, you’ll probably be glad you weren’t around when and where the Vikings were.

Still, as you order some knickknack off Amazon to give you a brief rush of consumer enjoyment, briefly beating back your ennui, you’ll probably feel some tug toward the grandeur and glory of the Viking mindset, and wonder whether modern life, lacking any transcendence, is as hollow at its core as it seems.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “Funeral of a Viking,” by Sir Frank Bernard Dicksee, painted in 1893.

The Politics Of Structure

I have always found structural engineering fascinating, though I’m a consumer of the results, not a producer like Roma Agrawal. No doubt the life of a structural engineer is number crunching, not glamour. But the result is something useful to mankind, and even sometimes beautiful, so it must be satisfying for an engineer to see what he creates. Both facets of the engineering life come through in Agrawal’s book, Built, an upbeat look at engineering through the lens of her career, though the book is marred by some ideologically driven fictions.

Agrawal is based in London, but grew up in India, and spent a few years in her childhood in New York. This has given her a breadth of vision that informs her book. Her claim to fame, if she makes one, is that she worked as part of the team that did the engineering for the Shard, a London landmark completed in 2012, which is still the tallest building in the United Kingdom. Built weaves together engineering principles well explained to the layman, Agrawal’s personal experiences, and examples of implementation of engineering, all to create an interesting, readable package. You may like it more if your interests run to How It’s Made rather than Jane Austen, but you’d have to be pretty dull yourself to find it totally uninteresting.

We cover ancient times and modern times. We cover construction and collapse. We cover solutions for earthquake zones and for tall buildings in wind. We cover bricks and concrete, steel and glass. We cover force and torsion, underground and aboveground, bridges and tunnels.

The book offers a judicious combination of history and science, and comparing and contrasting along both axes. Scattered throughout are many very well-done drawings (apparently done by the author), along with some black-and-white photographs, which are unfortunately mostly terrible, since you can’t see the details that are being highlighted.

The piece I found most interesting was on the stabilization of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Mexico City, built by the conquistadors on the site of a leveled Aztec human sacrifice pyramid, using stones from the destroyed temple of the Aztec god of war Huitzilopochtli (that’s awesome). Mexico City’s soil is a soup, since much of it was formed by dumping dirt into the lake on which the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was built.

The Spanish were perfectly well aware of the engineering challenges, and cleverly built a raft foundation, with an overlaying raised foundation floor designed to sink. But it sank unevenly, so four hundred years later, one corner was eight feet higher than the other. Basically, this was like fixing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, on a far grander scale.

The solution was digging large cylindrical access shafts down through the foundation, thirty-two of them, and then digging at right angles 1,500 holes, removing the dirt in a pattern calculated to gradually lower the high points. The work was finished in 1998, but the system remains in place, covered up, so it can be reactivated if future problems (carefully monitored by lasers) show up.

To her credit, Agrawal does not spend any relevant time in the text trying to make political points about women in engineering. That’s not how the book is sold, however—the blurb in the book is full of cant about “underrepresented groups such as women” and Agrawal’s supposed “tireless efforts” on their behalf.

There are very good, indisputable, and insurmountable reasons both why there are few women in science and engineering, and why the top accomplishments in those fields are almost always those of men.

But aside from that, two sections of this book shows how falsehoods become embedded in the public consciousness, because they are useful lies to advance an ideological agenda, in this case a tale of supposed oppression of women (and implicit denial of the real reasons why there are few women in science and engineering).

This type of ideologically-driven falsehood spreads like an oil slick because nobody dares to contradict such untruths, knowing if they speak truth they will be attacked without mercy as sexist, racist, and so forth. As a result, more and more lies become embedded in the public mind as truth.

The most egregious example in recent years is the fantasy that Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer, which you hear everywhere, even though it’s equivalent in truth to saying she was the first Egyptian pharaoh. But there are many, many, others, being piled up to the sky.

In Built, we can observe the creation of such a new myth from whole cloth, and the extension of another. Marc Brunel and his son, the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, built the Thames Tunnel in the early nineteenth century, a fantastic engineering marvel using many techniques created by the father-son team. Agrawal describes their accomplishments in great detail.

But then we are treated to this parenthetical: “Sophia, [Marc] Brunel’s elder daughter, was nicknamed ‘Brunel in petticoats’ by the industrialist Lord Armstrong because Marc Brunel, unconventionally, taught his daughter about engineering. When they were children, Sophia showed more aptitude than her brother [Isambard] in all things mathematical and technical—and in engineering—but it was her misfortune to be born at a time when women had no such career possibilities. She is the great engineer we never had.”

Now, this sounded interesting, but also forced and reaching. No source was offered, so I went looking. Sophia appears to be totally obscure; she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia squib about her, much less a biography. (Her mother, also Sophia, gets considerably more mention).

No mention other than one noting her existence is made in the Wikipedia article about Marc Brunel, or the one of Isambard Brunel, and you can be certain that if it were commonly held that Sophia was a proto-feminist genius/martyr she would have a large section devoted to her in both articles, as well as her own article.

However, I did manage to find the phrase attributed to Lord Armstrong, “Brunel in petticoats.” It comes from a 1937 biography of the father and son, by Celia Noble, and is quoted in Angus Buchanan’s 2003 biography of Isambard, where the context is clear. Namely, that Sophia “understood her father’s and brother’s plans.” No mention is made of her aptitude, much less her superior aptitude, or her supposed education, in either book, and Buchanan is somewhat mystified about the claim, since Armstrong only knew Sophia when she was in middle age. Buchanan makes no other mention of Sophia in his lengthy book.

The logical next question is whether some other source fills in the gap. The only relevant mention online of the phrase “Brunel in petticoats,” out of a total of ten results in Google (including two to this book), is a pamphlet from the Brunel Museum, which looks like an intern wrote it, and which attributes the quote, without sourcing, to Lord North. Nothing is said about aptitude or training. I could find no other mention of any such thing, or any mention of the younger Sophia Brunel at all, anywhere, other than of her existence in the context of her father and brother. I ordered two books on the Brunel family, along with what could be found on Google Books, and found nothing inside any them.

What appears to have happened is that Agrawal heard an urban legend circulated among female engineers, told to each other to further the myth of persecuted talent, probably based on the Armstrong quote taken out of context, and on her own initiative embellished it with falsehoods that sounded good.

But I can assure you, that in ten years we will frequently, in the engineering context, hear as fact that Marc Brunel and Isambard Brunel were decent engineers, if toxically masculine, but the real hero was their oppressed daughter and sister, who would have been certain to spin straw into gold, if the patriarchy had not put its boot on her.

Probably new falsehoods will be added: I predict one will be that much of Isambard’s work was actually done by Sophia. Any academic or engineer who points out none of this is true will find his career immediately over. Thus, as in Communist societies, are lies woven into the fabric of reality.

Once might be an accident, but twice is a pattern. We can prove definitively that Agrawal modifies the truth by examining her discussion of the Brooklyn Bridge. She discusses the Bridge, built by Washington Roebling, at length. The giant supporting towers were built using caissons, excavated reinforced holes, held under high air pressure.

As a result, the men doing the work, including Roebling, got “caisson disease”—i.e., the bends. Since her husband was debilitated, Emily took over as the frontman, dealing with the press, politicians, and the investors, shielding her husband from having to have direct contact, and acting as his intermediary and, to a degree, project manager. Such a central role is not uncommon for strong women married to strong men, even when they are not debilitated; it is true that behind every great man is usually a great woman.

But Agrawal strongly implies, and clearly believes, that Emily replaced Washington entirely. “With unwavering focus, she started to study complex mathematics and material engineering, learning about steel strength, cable analysis and construction; calculating catenary curves, and gaining a thorough grasp of the technical aspects of the project.” She concludes that everyone knew that Emily was really doing the engineering, from such evidence as occasional addressing of letters to her instead of her husband.

We are meant to conclude this is another example of a woman whose true contributions have been ignored; the bridge did not demonstrate the power of man, as contemporaneous speeches said, but “the power of woman.” She “excelled and triumphed” “even [though] she was not a qualified engineer.” In some, accurate sources (not specified) “she is highlighted as the true force behind the project. In other sources, there is absolutely no mention of her at all.”

Most of what Agrawal says about Emily Roebling is obviously cribbed from David McCullough, in his comprehensive 2012 edition of The Great Bridge (the only book on the topic listed in the bibliography, and all the other facts Agrawal adduces are taken directly from there). But McCullough directly contradicts Agrawal. It is evident, reading the source, that Agrawal deliberately distorted the truth.

What McCullough actually says is that while Emily Roebling necessarily acquired “a thorough grasp of the engineering involved,” as she needed in order to speak competently to her various audiences she expertly juggled, “She did not, however, secretly take over as engineer of the bridge, as some accounts suggest and as was the gossip at the time.”

“Some accounts,” of course, mean modern ideological distortions like Agrawal, which embellishes the truth nearly beyond recognition. Still, again, I am sure that any mention you hear of this topic in the future, or any future history of the bridge itself, will embed a fictional treatment of Emily Roebling, even more embellished, and thus will another folktale turn into historical fact.

Why should we care? Aren’t these tales just nice, feel-good stories that make everyone happy? Don’t I need to prove I’m not a misogynist? (No, I don’t.) We should care because it is a corruption of reality, and there is far too much corruption of reality in the modern world. Sex differences, their immutability and their very existence, are regularly denied as equivalent to believing in the Little People, only with supposedly worse consequences.

A toxic blend of demands for emancipation from fictitious oppression, past and present, with the modern Left vision of all human relations as power relations, means that we are force fed lies, day and night.

The goal is not just the destruction of reality, but the inversion of the masculine and feminine, with women adopting masculine traits, and men becoming unnecessary, often buffoons, such that the feminine traits are lost entirely. (This pattern of propaganda is ubiquitous in modern movies, as Jonathan Pageau has shown, from the recent Star Wars movies to Incredibles 2).

Destroying those who would destroy human flourishing, that is, those pushing these ideological lies (of which those about sex differences are only one manifestation) begins with declaring that Reality Is, and shattering our enemies is made possible by forging an axe from that Reality. Like Truth, Reality will always out, but let’s help it along. Live not by lies, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said.

Aside from false history, we are treated by Agrawal to occasional carping about how women are treated differently in her profession. Here more unreality crops up. “I’ve heard stories from other women in the industry about how they’ve been (illegally) asked in job interviews when they plan to get married and have children.” Illegally, perhaps, but totally rationally. The reality is that women, far more than men, choose to leave their careers, or not achieve maximum competence in them, in order to have children.

They always have, and they always will. That’s a good thing, as it happens, and wholly natural given the biological differences between men and women. A society that deludes itself into thinking that men and women should both share equally in providing and caregiving is a society going nowhere but down. (Along these same lines, I increasingly think that some men, such as those with families, should be formally privileged over women by employers and society in certain jobs).

That doesn’t mean women shouldn’t work in some circumstances, but the baseline assumption should be that men should be, whenever possible, the main providers for a family, both because it is economically rational for companies, and, far more importantly, probably critical to a decent society. But that is a longer discussion.)

For example, in my former profession, law, you often hear whining that while a majority of new associate hires are women, relatively few big firm partners are, and this is necessarily attributed to some kind of discrimination, though what that is nobody can seem to determine, or bothers to guess. In fact, it is men who are massively discriminated against at law firms. Law firms are slaveringly desperate to keep female lawyers, both because of their own ideology and because of (illegal) demands placed on them by woke corporate clients.

No law firm would ever criticize, much less discipline, or (horrors!) fire, a woman for failings that would instantly get a male associate instantly bounced. For the same reason, law firms offer many months of paid leave to pregnant associates, hoping they will return when they have a child, sweetening the pot by promising reduced work loads and no movement off the partner track (that is, illegally discriminating against those who produce more, mostly men, by shifting the competition in favor of women). In the majority, perhaps the great majority, of cases, the woman takes the money, has the child, and says sayonara.

The exceptions are women who need the money, and a handful of women who really like the job (which is rare—almost nobody, male or female, really likes the job, so certainly the woman’s choice to leave is wholly rational). But that professional firms should ignore these truths is asking them to stick their head in the sand—again, with the denials of reality. We should not permit it.

Oh, none of this means you shouldn’t read this book. But forewarned is forearmed; don’t let the lies sink into your brain.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “La Danse” by Jean Dupas, a drawing from the 1920s.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe And The History Of Man

Hans-Hermann Hoppe!, they cried. Hans-Hermann Hoppe! They told me that if I read his books, it would change my life. This is not the first time I have heard that promise; it has been made to me of many books, from Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

The promise has always failed me, but each fresh tomorrow brings the possibility that next time, it will not. Thus, I read this book, which aspires to give the history of man in one hundred and fifty pages, as an introduction to Hoppe’s thought. It was interesting enough, but I have gone away sad, for that looked-for tomorrow is not today.

Oh, as far as I can tell, I largely agree politically with Hoppe, who is alive and still writing, though he seems to have written less than I would have thought, given how often he is mentioned among circles on the Right. A professor at UNLV, he has been intermittently persecuted for speaking his opinionated mind, among other things for making the unexceptional and obvious point (also made by Niall Ferguson) that homosexuals have less investment in society than, and different perspectives from, normal people.

He is particularly known for attacking democracy as inferior to monarchy on economic (and therefore, to him, moral) grounds, a claim I first read of in George Hawley’s fantastic Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, and while he discusses that claim in this book, he has written another whole book on it, which I am planning to read.

My main reservation about Hoppe, which could be overcome, is that a strong smell of ideologue rises from everything Hoppe writes in this short collection of three essays.

I have often noticed ideology is a besetting sin of the hardcore libertarians. And hardcore libertarian is what Hoppe is. The Mises Institute published this book, and Lew Rockwell wrote the Foreword. Just in case we’re unclear, the subtitle is “An Austro-Libertarian Reconstruction.”

Very frequently, Hoppe acknowledges his tremendous debt to Ludwig von Mises or to Murray Rothbard (or both), and when he departs from their orthodoxy, he bows his head to them first, as heroes leaving the Last Redoubt of Men in William Hope Hodgson’s classic tale of the far future, The Night Land, submitted themselves to the Monstruwacans, to be cleansed before leaving their protection and confronting the horrors beyond.

All this is, in case we miss it, outlined with crystalline, lime-lit specificity up front in the Introduction, where Hoppe summarizes, “What distinguishes my studies is the fact that they explain and interpret the history of man from the conceptual vantage point of Austro-Libertarianism: with the background knowledge of praxeology (economics) and of libertarianism (ethics).” For the former, it is Mises; for the latter, it is Rothbard.

I have nothing against Mises or Rothbard. Frankly, I know little about them. Theirs are also on the list of books that I am told will change my life; I have copies already of Human Action and Ethics of Liberty, though so far they gather dust. I’m just always a little, or a lot, wary when informed that The Truth has been discovered by This Specific Modern Man, and I should sit still, open my mind, and get ready to receive.

Exacerbating my mistrust, like all libertarians, Hoppe’s primary frame of viewing human society is economic; gain and exchange, never transcendence, virtue, or valor. Unlike Phlebas the Phoenician, Hoppe does not forget the profit and the loss. In fact, so far as I have read, that’s most all he ever thinks about.

This book is exactly what it claims to be, a “short history of man.” It is divided into three chapters: “On the Origin of Private Property and the Family”; “From the Malthusian Trap to the Industrial Revolution”; and “From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy.”

In the first chapter, like Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, Hoppe is much exercised by the so-called Cognitive Revolution, wherein homo sapiens, already homo sapiens, apparently suddenly developed the capacity for abstract thought and speech.

Fair enough, although my confidence was undermined by errors, such as Hoppe telling us incorrectly that the Flores Island “hobbits,” genetically identified as homo floresiensis, are homo erectus. He also relies heavily on Luigi Cavalli-Sforza’s claims about the movements of humans in pre-history, which as David Reich has recently shown, have been made obsolete by genetic research.

That said, these are not central items, and Hoppe has worthwhile points to make about hunter-gatherer societies. His focus, as befits his frame, is property. He observes that hunter-gatherers were probably quite egalitarian, in terms of sharing property, but that doesn’t mean that there was much individual autonomy.

To a modern leftist, those two things go hand-in-hand, but there is no reason they should, and in fact communitarianism, egalitarian or not, implies lack of individual autonomy, a point I intend to expand upon in a separate analysis.

Quickly Hoppe reaches his core point, which is that hunter-gatherers were necessarily parasites, mere consumers, not producers. The necessary result was small populations, kept low by warfare and migration. While within a group, of no more than around one hundred and fifty people, cooperation was possible based on division of labor, no cooperation between groups was possible, since cooperation is only possible if both groups are producers with something to trade (though Hoppe ignores the trade in women, common in many primitive societies).

Even intra-group cooperation was limited by the law of diminishing returns—exemplified here by the Malthusian Trap, that eventually more inputs to labor, in the form of more people, diminishes per capita return. So far, a fairly ordinary history, although Hoppe shows subtle notes of the obsession with the genetics of intelligence that later become more prominent. In any case, driven by these spurs and limitations, and reacting to changing climactic conditions, humanity spread around the globe.

The big change was the Agricultural Revolution, what Hoppe calls the Neolithic Revolution. This, no surprise, he views through the lens of who was deemed to own “ground land” when in human history, asserting that the key step in farming was the ownership of land, a change from the former mere parasitism of humans. Similarly, with animals. This alleviated the effects of diminishing returns to labor and allowed more people to exist. (I suspect that this analysis is meant as a response to other analyses, presumably Marxist ones, but I don’t know enough about it to say, and Hoppe does not say either.)

We then turn to social structure. According to Hoppe, the family had never existed before the reduction of land to ownership, because for hunter-gatherers, as he puts it, both the benefits and costs of additional offspring were socialized.

Thus, everybody had “group marriage,” like a permanent, smellier version of a 1970s key party. When agriculture arrived, though, it made sense for individuals to capture the benefits of more offspring (and pay the costs), since, no longer being mere parasites, they could expect a return on investment in creating more people.

Hoppe concludes that this new social organization was economically superior, encouraging production and preventing free-riding, and so it spread, displacing the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Now, this claim that the family is of recent origin is highly controversial. It’s obviously nearly impossible to get archaeological information on what the social arrangements of hunter-gatherers were, and modern advocates of free love have for quite a long time been happy to believe laughable things about primitive societies if they fit preconceived notions (most famously in the case of Margaret Mead, hoodwinked by the Samoans).

Thus, you would think that Hoppe would offer strong evidence for this thesis, to reinforce his analysis. Nope. We are instead referred, extensively, to mainly one source—Friedrich Engels, writing in 1884. The mind boggles.

In fairness, Hoppe buttresses Engels with one other source—some guy named Lewis H. Morgan, writing in 1871. Hoppe even notes Engels’s conflict of interest, that he eagerly wanted to promote free love, but still buys what he’s selling, without saying why, or adverting to the century and a half that has passed since. OK, then. And that’s the end of the chapter.

In the next chapter, Hoppe turns to the creation of the modern world, something on which it is easier to deliver concrete evidence. He begins with a reiteration and expansion of his earlier discussion of the Malthusian Trap, citing among others Gregory Clark for the data showing that only in the Industrial Revolution did (part of) humanity escape.

The causes of this, the Great Divergence, are hotly debated, but Hoppe does not address various theories, merely noting that “the standard answer among economists,” by which he means Mises and Rothbard, is that private property rights had developed by the late eighteenth century enough to permit this takeoff. With due apologies to his mentors, Hoppe disagrees.

The core of his disagreement, that Mises and Rothbard are factually wrong, is pretty obviously correct. Property rights were, in most of Western Europe and particularly in England, quite firmly established by around A.D. 1200, or earlier—better, Hoppe claims, that today, which is probably true, though more variation existed in earlier times.

(Films like Braveheart and many others have given the average person a grossly false idea of the amount of chaos and lack of rule of law in European medieval times. It’s as if people in A.D. 2400 used Saving Private Ryan to judge the daily condition of Europe since 1800). Certainly, private property is necessary to the takeoff, but not sufficient.

Hoppe’s explanation is economic, of course, but with a gloss of science. It is that eventually some people got smarter, because “it takes time to breed intelligence,” and only then could they kick-start the Industrial Revolution. What led to the Industrial Revolution was technology invention, by intelligent people, and also that technology gave something for people to invest surpluses in, namely expansion.

No more detail is offered; Hoppe appears to think that intelligence self-evidently self-executes awesomeness. As to the origin of this purported increase in intelligence in some human populations, Hoppe offers a potted and unoriginal explanation, combining Toynbee’s observations that too-easy or too-hard climates produce little forward movement for humanity, with offerings from controversial modern scientists (notably Richard Lynn) who claim to find gradients in IQ, lowering from north to south.

His conclusion is that as a result of challenge-and-response some people, most of all Europeans, became smarter, and thereby, through some inevitable mechanism, escaped the Malthusian Trap.

Questions of intelligence across human populations don’t exercise me; I think that any society simply has to work with the different types of people that make up that society, or other societies.

But Hoppe’s reasoning is not remotely convincing. Narrowly focusing on Europe, there is exactly zero evidence that in earlier times Europeans were less intelligent than now, or than in 1750, and much reason to believe the contrary. Nor could there be evidence—people like Lynn purport to offer evidence about modern populations, but neither Stanford nor Binet was wandering around Europe in the Middle Ages.

Moreover, the idea that somehow people reached a step-function tipping point of intelligence in 1750 doesn’t make any sense. Why a step-function? If intelligence is normally distributed, and increasing over time, shouldn’t invention increase linearly over time? None of this makes any sense, really. I’m willing to believe that more intelligence, all other things being equal, leads to more progress over time, but Hoppe jumps from that to a set of totally unsupported premises and conclusions.

But Hoppe’s point in all this is not just history; it is to attack the institution of the State. He and Albert Jay Nock would get along well. (No doubt Hoppe has a tentacled voodoo doll in his office, labeled “The State,” which he sticks with pins when he’s bored).

His claim is that in a pre-Malthusian society, the state is merely a type of pest, self-limiting since there is only so much the host of a parasite can take. But in a post-Malthusian society, the state has no natural limit, for if per capita output keeps going up, the state can “continuously grow without lowering the per capita income and reducing the population number,” thereby becoming “a permanent drag on the economy and per capita incomes.”

Worse, the post-Malthusian state allows the stupid people to breed by removing the tie between getting money and intelligence, creating dysgenics, rather than Hoppe’s desired eugenics, and so the “population stock becomes increasingly worse.”

Finally, in the third chapter, we get the meat of Hoppe’s political claims, why democracy is a terrible system and what we should install instead. I can certainly get one hundred percent behind democracy being terrible.

On the other hand, the reader’s confidence in Hoppe’s analysis is eroded in the first paragraph, when we are instructed that all human conflicts result from only one cause, the “scarcity of goods.” This is self-evidently false; Hoppe ignores that man is not homo economicus. Did Achilles lack goods?

Hoppe then declaims that the modern state, arbiter of all things and judge in its own cause, is a contradiction, and only an insane person would submit to it, in the same way only an insane person would agree that someone with whom he has a conflict should assume all power over him.

This suggests that Hoppe adheres to some type of contractual theory of the origin of the state. But that’s not right; it’s much more organic that that, in Hoppe’s narration.

In Hoppe’s reconstruction, the natural human default is a system where what each person owns is clear and agreed-upon. If that were possible, permanent total peace and harmony would automatically result. Of course, it’s not possible, since disputes always arise about who own what.

To settle these disputes, someone has to decide somehow—that is, in Hoppe’s words, someone has to discover the law, a valid exercise, as opposed to make new law, an inherently illegitimate exercise. In Hoppe’s telling, the progression from earlier forms of government to the modern liberal democratic state (we will ignore here whether the modern Western state is actually either liberal or democratic) is a story of decay, not progress.

Hoppe even inverts the claim, most forcefully made by Steven Pinker, that progress is shown by us being richer. Rather, he says that we would be far richer if we had stayed with an earlier system, namely mixed government consisting of an aristocracy combined with elective monarchy. Such a system is best at discovering the law in a way that preserves everyone’s property.

Hoppe observes that to decide disputes outside of a government framework, people most often turn to other people (they could turn to violence, and sometimes do, but that’s expensive).

Not just random ones, though—to those with “intellectual ability and character,” whose decisions are more likely to be sound and more likely to be respected by everyone. Such people are the “natural aristocracy….Due to superior achievements of wealth, wisdom, bravery, or a combination thereof, some individuals come to possess more authority than others and their opinion and judgment commands widespread respect.”

Such authority tends to accumulate in families, “because of selective mating and the laws of civil and genetic inheritance.” As a result, “It is the leaders of the noble families who generally act as judges and peacemakers, often free of charge, out of a sense of civic duty. In fact, this phenomenon can still be observed today, in every small community.”

Critically, these decision-makers, given authority to decide disputes, are still under the laws like everyone else. They can “only apply law, not make it.” This distinguishes them from the state. For more details, Hoppe refers us to another book of his, Democracy: The God That Failed.

In essence, though, he recommends that society be structured as an idealized version of early medieval Western Europe, where (an elected and removable) king and aristocracy ruled jointly, unable to tax without consent and unable to make new law, which was a contradiction in terms.

It’s not that Hoppe says this system was perfect; it was merely “a natural order,” unlike modern orders. Most importantly, the king maximized the value of the society, in the interests of benefiting himself in the long-term (as well as, potentially, his heirs). That is, in Hoppe’s terms, he has a “time preference” that weights the future.

This system went to hell, though, when “feudal and then constitutional kings” replaced the elective kings. These new kings made new law, arrogated to themselves the unilateral ability to tax, and in effect turned all private property into their own property.

Moreover, the kings increased violence, since in the past the costs of violence were generally borne by those who chose to engage in it, whereas the kings could externalize the costs onto “tax-payers and draftees.” And how did the kings manage to put themselves in this position, when other men of power in the society would naturally resist?

The king enlisted the benighted masses; he “aligned himself with the ‘people’ or the ‘common man.’ ” What he offered them was appeals to envy, freedom from contractual obligations, and an improved economic position that they did not earn.

At the same time, he defanged the aristocrats by offering them baubles in the form of court positions (which seems like a trade they would not accept), and flattered intellectuals, so they would “produce the necessary ideological support for the king’s position as absolute ruler.”

Such support took the form of falsely claiming the past was bad and imagining that the people had agreed to the king seizing property and making new laws. Here, as throughout the book, Hoppe is pithily nasty. “The demand for intellectual services is typically low, and intellectuals, almost congenitally, suffer from a greatly inflated self-image and hence are always prone to and become easily avid promoters of envy.”

Eventually absolute monarchy mutated into constitutional monarchy, which is even worse, since at least under an absolute monarchy some memory of the past system is retained, and the king has an incentive to maximize long-term societal value, but under a constitutional monarchy, it is forgotten, and the mass of people delusively believe that they have more freedom than under an absolute monarchy, when in practice they have far less. And, in turn, we were subjected to “an even greater folly,” democracy.

The egalitarian sentiments the kings had encouraged were turned against them. Democracy, though, is not a return to the natural law, but the creation of a system in which, in theory, every person can aspire to be an absolute monarch, seizing the property of others and making new law to his own benefit, enforcing his will with the power of the State.

So-called public officials, that is, agents of the government, are the recipients of this power. “Everyone can participate in theft and live off stolen loot if only he becomes a public official.” Rather than a natural aristocracy, those in power are universally “morally uninhibited demagogues,” supported by plutocrats who use the mechanisms of the state to enrich themselves by theft and thereby control the demagogues.

This leads directly to evil outcomes, and it also means that all of society becomes politicized, because people can aspire to live by handouts and favorable redistribution, whereas under aristocracy the vast majority of people got what they got from their own “value-productive efforts.”

Such redistribution is not only from the rich to the poor, it is just as, or more, often from the poor to the rich, since “After all, the rich are characteristically bright and industrious, and the poor typically dull, lazy or both. It is not very likely that dullards, even if they make up a majority, will systematically outsmart and enrich themselves at the expense of a minority of bright and energetic individuals.”

The result it that democracy is a value-destroying system, where unproductive behavior is encouraged and productive behavior discouraged. And not only in production; war is also more likely and more destructive (echoing Carl Schmitt’s point that when wars are conceived of as for human rights, they are far more brutal).

Moreover, the State then debases the money supply (it would not be a book of Austrian economics without a plug for gold). The end result is an ever-growing and ever-more-exploitative state, pushing war and offering circuses, until an inevitable economic crisis and the state’s collapse.

By this Hoppe explicitly means not just states in general, but the United States, which no longer protects life and property of its citizens, instead through its ruling class of politicians and plutocrats engaging in exploitation, oppression, and global war.

With any luck, Hoppe says, the current system, globally, will be replaced with government along his preferred lines, perhaps along the lines of Swiss cantons or the Hanseatic League.

This is dubious history but pretty good abstract analytics. I can get behind, for example, that we would probably all be richer under a restrained monarchy, not just in that we could keep more of our property, and use it to multiply our property, but that science and technology would advance more quickly (a double-edged sword, to be sure).

And certainly a natural aristocracy is exactly that. But Hoppe, at least in this book, offers a very narrow version of history. He does not explain the political development of states east of the Elbe, much less Ancient Egypt, or Ancient Greece, or Rome or other empires of the classical era (say, the Sassanids), and nothing is said about government in Asia or the Americas. How does the Pax Romana fit into Hoppe’s analysis, I’d like to know?

In fact, Hoppe doesn’t even begin to attempt the kind of historical analysis that others, such as Francis Fukuyama, have offered on the development of political systems. I suspect Hoppe’s narrow focus on Europe is because he wants to ascribe the success or failure of societies to mechanical effects, easy to delineate and possible to quantify.

Parsing history is messy, because history is messy. That would detract from Hoppe’s attempt to instruct us that he has found the formula for human success, and it is paint-by-numbers, if only we will listen.

But quantification is exactly not what human nature, and therefore human action, is subject to. I think that the exact same limited monarchical system that works ideally in one culture would be a disaster in another.

Many important variables affect culture, obviously, not only the history of a place, but the religion, the climate, the geography, and much, much more. Hoppe, like all ideologues, claims to have found the universally applicable perfect system, and even aside from any errors in his analysis, that is extremely unlikely.

I suspect I will be told I should give Hoppe more of a chance; that is the usual response from acolytes of ideologues when one attacks the Leader. I did watch a lengthy video of him. It was boring.

On the other hand, maybe his book on democracy has more meat on the bones, and answers some of my questions. So, as I say, that’s up on the reading list, for the simple reason that whatever the details, I agree with Hoppe that democracy as practiced in the modern world is both stupid and doomed.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “Effigies of Crusaders in Round Table Church, London, after damage enemy action,” by Norma Bull, ca. 1940-1944.

The 21 Martyrs

This book is, brought to the temporal sphere, Revelation 20:4. “I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”

Martin Mosebach’s The 21 is an exploration and explanation of the twenty-one Coptic Christian migrant workers killed by Muslims in 2015 for refusing to apostatize from their Christian belief, a martyrdom made famous by the slickly produced video through which the killers broadcast their bloody work.

The 21 also embodies how, and under what circumstances, Muslims could be allies with Christians in the American wars to come, against a ruling class whose totalitarian doctrines they both oppose, concluding that while many obstacles exist, that was theoretically possible, and certainly desirable.

But this book shows that in what Muslims call Dar al-Islam, the House of Islam, those places where Islam has once been supreme, there can be no such cooperation, since there by definition there Islam must rule, and no observant Muslim would disagree, although what that exactly means is interpreted in different ways.

The martyrdom of the Twenty-One was a planned operation. The killers researched the names of the workers, who lived together as they gathered money before returning home. They took them, and held them for two months, before marching them out to a nearby Mediterranean beach and sawing their heads off with knives.

They then released the video, titled “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” By that nation, they do not mean America, as Americans probably assume (and Mosebach also seems to assume, at least in part), but explicitly “Rome.” That doesn’t mean Pope Francis, either, who is no threat at all to Islam.

Rather, it means, in this brand of Islam, Christians collectively, especially as represented by their national powers, since Islam’s main objection is not to Christian belief as such, incorrect as it supposedly is, but to Islam not ruling in the temporal sphere, a pattern of thought that non-Muslims find hard to understand.

Those who murdered the Twenty-One hold a mainstream, though not majority, view of what must be done to achieve and maintain the supremacy of Islam. In their minds, they are responding to the crimes of Christians.

Their video begins with footage of Barack Obama apologizing for those supposed crimes, and to them the killings are the blood price, for a simple apology is inadequate. (We can ignore that Obama should, objectively, never have apologized, for there is nothing that any part of Christendom or the West, America or other, has ever done as a collective entity that requires any form of apology to any Muslim, including, especially, the Crusades).

We should not focus on the killers, though; they do not appear except as bit players in this book. Rather, what The 21 explores extensively is primarily Egypt’s Coptic Christians, strangers to the West, and secondarily their relationship with Egyptian Muslims, who invaded and still occupy their lands.

The author, a German journalist (this book was originally written in German), set out to learn more about the martyrs, traveling to Egypt to talk to the great and the small among the Copts. He learned about their families, their religious and political milieu, and, most importantly, why they acted as they did.

Mosebach divides the book into twenty-one chapters, each headed by a picture of one of the martyrs, some taken from the video of their deaths, some from hagiographic iconography made after their deaths. The book packs a tremendous amount of information into relatively few pages—since Americans know almost nothing about Egypt, and even less about the Copts, and both are alien to American sensibilities, the reader learns a lot.

True, Mosebach shows cognitive dissonance. He shows empathy, sympathy, and admiration for the martyrs, and offers an informative view of the Coptic Church, but every single time he pulls back to examine the broader world, of Egypt, of Islam, or the entire globe, what he has to say is Merkel-ite nonsense. Fortunately, most of the book is narrowly focused on the Twenty-One, not the globe, so this is a relatively small defect.

The martyrs were mostly young men in their twenties or thirties who had gone to Libya to find work. Sixteen were from the small town of El-Aour, in Upper Egypt; the others came from other Egyptian towns, except for Matthew Ayariga, from Ghana. He was not Coptic; it is not even clear if he was originally Christian, but as with other saints throughout Christian history, he voluntarily joined, receiving, if no other baptism, the baptism of blood.

Ayariga is visually central to all depictions of the martyrs; with his black skin, he stood out, and both the killers and the iconographers put him in the center of all group depictions. Mosebach did not talk to his family, and little is known about his background, but as Mosebach notes, he was like Saint Adauctus, whose name means “added man” since his real name was unknown, who volunteered his Christianity when he saw Saint Felix being led to death during the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian, and was then also executed.

I’m familiar with the basics of Coptic theology and history, but how those things translate to the modern world I didn’t know. The Copts split from mainstream Christianity when their position, called Miaphytism, that Christ had only one nature, combining human and divine, rather than a separate human and a divine nature (unconfused and indivisible) was rejected at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451.

This division created the Oriental Orthodox, of whom there are about 100 million in the world, and whose liturgy and organization is very similar to the Eastern Orthodox, with whom they are not in communion, although to an outsider, they are nearly indistinguishable.

Mosebach does an exemplary job of trying to understand and get inside the Coptic mind, despite that he appears not be religious himself. Most of all, he correctly identifies the centrality of the Divine Liturgy. “From the very first moment, it is clear that the exclusive intention of the holy devotion is the realization of God’s presence, and everything that happens in this liturgy has to serve this extraordinary purpose. . . . Time and eternity are bound together as one, in a sphere where past, present, and future have always already happened, and at the same time are now happening again.”

The Orthodox believe that once a church is consecrated, an angel stands by the altar, forever in and out of time worshiping the Triune God, so that when we enter the church, we are not commencing a worship service, we are joining one already in progress. You cannot understand the Copts, or the Orthodox, without grasping the numinous nature of the Liturgy, where seraphim serve at the altar alongside the priest, uniting Heaven and Earth in an unbroken chain of timeless moments.

What unites all the Copts is steadfastness in faith. Since nobody paid much attention to the Twenty-One when they were alive, they are somewhat one-dimensional. Their families offer similar generalized characteristics: “He was quick to forgive.” “He was calm, obedient, and quick to confess.” “He gave alms even though he was poor.” “He was compassionate and strove to help others.”

But their deeds, both their refusal to apostatize and their calm demeanor when being led to execution, with only low cries to Christ as they died, exemplify that steadfastness, and their witness to Christ at the most basic and essential level. It is this steadfastness that seems to unite all the Copts, an eternal cord binding them together.

You could transport today’s Copts to the age of Nero, and nothing would be much different, neither daily life nor their resolve in the face of persecution.

Mosebach visits the local Coptic bishop, who embodies this steadfastness in faith and combines it with an untroubled feeling of superiority to Islam, a latecomer as far as he is concerned. Mosebach describes the bishop as “the absolute archetype of a pragmatic, forward-looking reactionary—a kind of leader utterly unknown in the West.” It does not bother them, quite the opposite, that theirs is the Church of the Martyrs.

This same attitude permeates all the Copts, including the families of the martyred. While they have the normal human sadness, it is greatly exceeded by their unalterable conviction that their beloved sons and brothers have received the crown of martyrdom, and they offer iconography in that vein. In most of their families’ houses, they also have and show the video of their killing, proud, rather than traumatized.

And they ascribe miracles to the Twenty-One, small ones, local ones, but all in the ancient tradition of martyrology. They embody, as one of the fathers says, King David’s behavior in II Samuel, who when his son died, did not mourn anymore, for “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” As Sarah Ruden notes in her excellent book on Biblical translation, The Face of Water, this verse in the original Hebrew conveys the meaning that the child will never return—but the father will keep moving toward the child. So with the families of the Twenty-One.

Beyond their cohesive religiosity, it is apparent that the Copts are, in the manner of many minorities in Muslim lands, both second-class citizens and more materially successful than the majority population. Mosebach says that Egyptian Muslims see all Copts as rich (while still having contempt for them), and although that’s obviously not true, since many are merely poor farmers like the Twenty-One, it is more true than not.

No doubt this is because the Copts are not bound by the inertia and fatalism, along with male laziness, that characterize Muslim societies. Plus corruption—according to Mosebach, even though (like all Muslim countries) Egypt makes it very hard to build new churches, still, new Coptic churches are springing up everywhere, because the Copts bribe the authorities to look the other way.

The Copts also run large related institutions, such as hospitals (including “the largest and most modern in Upper Egypt”). That is, the Copts are bound up with the world. Other than monastics (something that has revived in modern times), they do not retreat from, but rather engage, the world.

Can this ancient Coptic way of life can survive modernity? It is not a promising sign that within living memory Coptic villages have changed from their ancient form of order and cleanliness to ugly, trash-filled sprawls of half-finished concrete block buildings.

The old roles, where everyone had a place in an extended family, have faded. Atomization has increased, even if it is not anywhere near as bad as in the West. According to Mosebach, these changes are not the result of increased wealth, but flow from some other source, which he does not identify, although he implies the Aswan Dam had something to do with it.

My guess is television and increased ability to move from the place of one’s birth, but I don’t know. Most importantly, Mosebach does not address whether the Copts are having children, which is all that really matters. Yes, there seem to be many young Copts, and Mosebach relates how they are enthusiastically religious, like the Twenty-One, but if Egypt ever becomes wealthy, will the Copts fall away, leaving their faith and contracting like other societies around the globe? These seem to me to be the essential questions, and not ones the Copts are asking themselves.

Whatever happens, though, the Copts will still be oppressed by the Muslims. They have been oppressed for fourteen hundred years, ever since Islam conquered Egypt. Like many Middle Eastern Christians, when Islam arrived they unwisely did not perceive Islam as much of a threat, or even welcomed it, tired of taxation from the Roman Empire, then sited in Constantinople, and of being viewed as heretics by most of Christendom (not to mention that Islam itself was initially viewed by many as merely another Christian heresy, not all that different from other brands of Christian belief).

As always with Islam, which has no interest in proselytizing, only in the dominance of Islam, the treatment of the Copts varied over time, with the one constant that their subordination was always enforced. Mosebach mentions how all the mighty churches of the Copts were torn down and “the columns and Corinthian capitals of those venerable ruins have been visibly incorporated into Cairo’s most beautiful mosques.” He seems to think that should make the Copts feel better.

For the most part, though, the Muslims and Copts historically managed to co-exist. It is only in the modern world, with a newly militant resurgent Islam and the technology of global communication and new weapons, along with oil money, that the Copts, like all Middle Eastern Christians, are threatened with expulsion or extermination.

Mosebach says “violence isn’t an option, probably not even for fanatical Islamists, because there are too many Copts to simply drive them all out or murder them. In other words, the Turkish solution for Armenians and Greeks is no longer on the table.”

But he gives no reason why that’s true, and for large numbers of Muslims, though probably far from a majority in Egypt, that solution is very much on the table. And since it only would take one such successful campaign to wipe out the Coptic presence in Egypt (ask the Chaldean Christians—thanks, George W. Bush!), the Copts will always be at risk, whatever wishful thinking Mosebach wants to engage in.

How the Copts are to solve this problem is unclear to me. Fighting isn’t going to work—even if the Copts really are a quarter of the Egyptian population, as they claim, they don’t have the weapons, and aren’t going to. Mass conversion of Muslims to Christianity, transforming the Middle East, sure would be nice, but such a thing has never happened in human history—Islam is a strong religion highly resistant to the lure of conversion.

True, as Mosebach quotes Tertullian, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” but there have been a vast number of Christian martyrs in Muslim lands over the past fourteen hundred years, and mass conversions haven’t started yet, though the martyrs doubtless do strengthen the Church.

Israel conquering the Middle East and converting all the Muslims to Judaism would be a good alternative, although that’s even less likely. Probably the best approach, if not solution, is to ensure that the Middle East isn’t infected with democracy, something that in Muslim countries leads at best to the unleashing of Muslim hatred against Christians in a stable system, and often to genocide against Christians when the political system collapses, as it always does in these societies for which democracy is not a good fit.

Instead, the Copts (and us) should support, or at least not oppose, strongmen such as the Assads, or the current Egyptian military dictatorship, because those men both maintain order, which benefits minorities, and tend to rely on Christians as a counterweight to Muslims who want a theocracy.

Thus, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi keeps the Muslim Brotherhood down, which is a service to the world in general and to Christians specifically, if you ever read Seyyid Qutb. Mohammed Morsi would, sooner or later, have turned to exterminating the Copts. And America would have ignored it, since the Left is fine with Christians being exterminated, and the Right, or at least Republicans, are too cowardly and weak to take any action that is seen as benefitting Christians specifically.

Mosebach’s proposed solutions to the “Coptic question,” that is, the oppression of the Egyptian Copts by the Egyptian Muslims, are equally stupid. He sounds like a clueless Eurocrat, peddling old and tired cant. “We shouldn’t resign ourselves to a permanent state of injustice and violence. . . .

After all, there are think tanks working hard to solve the world’s problems. These thinkers, of course, would know exactly what questions to ask: Isn’t there any way that the Coptic community and Islamic majority might eventually live in peace and harmony?

What kind of international peace conference, United Nations intervention, peace mission, transnational roundtable, or moderated conflict resolution might take care of the ‘Coptic question’?” Blurg. Mosebach’s “solutions” are so obviously dumb and ineffective as to be offensive. No such mechanism has ever solved a single problem in the Middle East, and none ever will.

Mosebach’s Pollyanna attitude toward Coptic survival is just one example of his general geopolitical blindness. Most of this stems from the same source—the author’s desperate desire to assign some share of blame to the United States, and to the West more generally, and to exonerate Islam from blame. Thus, Mosebach early on preaches “One must be careful not to view this massacre as one more chapter of an ongoing religious war—that would be false use of religion.”

Instead, Mosebach entertains the idea that the killers were “mercenaries who can be bought to commit all kinds of bloodshed, perhaps to benefit the Americans or the Russians, or maybe the Syrians or the Muslim Brotherhood.” Or maybe they were just “pawns on a board whose actual players and goals are unknown to them.”

This is a dumb fantasy; the killers were ISIS militants, part of a much larger group with coherent ideals and many other similar acts to their name, and both their actions and justifications are part of a long and coherent tradition within Islam. One more chapter of an ongoing religious war is exactly what this is. Reaching for tinfoil-hat theories to explain that obvious fact away makes Mosebach seem like a clown.

Such blinkered stupidity is on display more than once. The American prison at Guantanamo Bay, where a few hundred captured Muslim enemies were held (although by any other country, and in any other past war, they simply would have been summarily executed), in conditions of comfort where they are allowed to practice their religion and any disrespect to their religion is punished, is “where the United States has permanently ruined its reputation as nation that respects the rule of law.” No, Saint Joseph was not a “migrant worker.” No, the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia was not killed in a religious dispute. And so on.

Beyond the Copts, as to the core geopolitical problem the book details, Muslim mass murder of Christians (on display yesterday in Sri Lanka; tomorrow on display somewhere else), the correct solution is the one Donald Trump implemented and brought to a successful completion recently—kill in battle all Muslims who fight for ISIS or any similar brand of Islam.

True, that that would be less necessary if we had not destabilized so much of the Middle East, since the local Muslim rulers would have done it for us, but that’s water under the bridge. But as I say above, these are stopgap measures; in the modern world, there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence on equal terms between Islam and Christianity on at the level of the nation-state, so long as Islam’s adherents actually believe.

There never has been such coexistence, and there never will be. Any society with a large number of Muslims will face the problems inherent to and generated by Islam. This is unfortunate, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Certainly, it is equally true that on an individual level Muslims and Christians can get along fine, but to confuse personal relations with the relations of power that must characterize any human society is a basic mistake.

This English translation of The 21 was sponsored by, and the book published here by, Plough, the publishing house of the Bruderhof. The Bruderhof are practitioners of radical Christianity, “they renounce private property and share everything in common in a life of nonviolence, justice, and service to neighbors near and far.” In other words, they live the life of the very earliest Christians.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if all Christians lived that life. Would they simply be exterminated by their enemies, as would seem to be the logical and inevitable result, especially in the modern world? Or would their example change the world to be something different, and better, than it is?

I worry, sometimes, too, that I err by advocating meeting, and preparing to meet, the enemies, rather than adopting the simple Christian life. But, like the scorpion, it is in my nature, and the Christian tradition of armed defense has nearly as long a pedigree as pacifism.

If I am wrong, at least I am in good company, and this book suggests I am not wrong, even if the Twenty-One took another path.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “The Twenty-One Martyrs” by Wael Mories, a Coptic painter.

Quilette, Or Insipid Modernity

As American politics splinters, the artificial limits that have calcified journalism for decades also fragment. It is like seeing an expanse covered by acres of concrete suddenly shatter, and, a short time later, the emergence, through the shards, of plant life, freshly exposed to water and light. Some of those new plants are weeds. But some are new and valuable, though whether they are fragile ornamentals or robust plants with real value remains to be seen.

Quillette is one of the fastest-growing of those plants, and my project today is to examine its role in today’s political scene, especially as it relates to my own overall political project and goals.

This may seem more purely analytical than most of my writing, more akin to, say, metallurgy than politics as such. But analyzing participants in the wars to come is crucial, for strategy is all. Actually, as Lenin said, timing is all, but strategy is a close second—without strategy, you are reduced to pure reactivity, which does not lead to unbridled winning, and that latter is my goal. My project today, therefore, is to discuss what the success of, and appetite for, Quillette says about the Right in these days of flux.

To be sure, Quillette does not self-identify as Right. At first glance, its program is non-political, or cross-political. In its own words, “Quillette is a platform for free thought. We respect ideas, even dangerous ones. We also believe that free expression and the free exchange of ideas help human societies flourish and progress. Quillette aims to provide a platform for this exchange.”

The word that reoccurs constantly when Quillette discusses itself is “heterodoxy,” which implies a commitment to challenge all orthodoxies, Left and Right. Moreover, “heterodoxy” does not mean “anything goes.” Unsavory types, most notably racists, Marxists, and so forth, will not find any forum here.

Despite, as we’ll see, several gaps between my thinking and that which Quillette, in general, represents, I am not down on Quillette. I wish it, and its organizers and writers, nothing but the best. I note that I am personally acquainted with some of its writers, and, full disclosure, several months ago I had a desultory email correspondence with staff at Quillette about publishing some of my reviews. But they wanted something exclusive, not re-warmed, and I have not gotten around to offering them anything fresh cooked, though no doubt they are all sitting around waiting.

(Also, I was annoyed when they recently gave Steven Pinker a platform to puff the first anniversary of his Enlightenment Now—not because they gave him a platform, but because Pinker listed forty or so reviews of his book to which he was responding, and did not list mine. Sad!)

On the Right, the magazine has gotten a lot of attention, not from boring movement conservatives, past their use-by date, such as Jonah Goldberg and the National Review crowd, but from the bubbling ferment of people most prominent on modern electronic media. Notable among this group is Jordan Peterson, who seems to have a close, if informal, relationship with Quillette, but also Dave Rubin and others in the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (IDW).

In practice, Quillette writing overlaps on both issues and perspectives with the IDW, if it’s even possible to define that group in a meaningful way, but we are here to talk about Quillette, not the IDW. On the Left, the magazine has gotten much less notice, but that seems likely to change, especially if, as I expect soon, an organized kill campaign of the highest intensity is launched against Peterson.

So much for structure and background. Let’s move on to substance. In practice, Quillette embodies much of the tendency on the Right that I have named Agnostic Pragmatic Libertarianism. Certainly, there is diversity among the authors, but very few stray far from this philosophy, nor does it appear that any of the four editors, led by founder and chief editor, Claire Lehmann (an Australian) hew to any other tendency. We can look at this from two perspectives, that like two sides of a mold, combine to form the whole—first, what Quillette cares about, and second, what Quillette does not care about.

What Quillette cares about, primarily, is free speech. Looking at the site will show mostly topics tied in one way or another to this theme. For example, as I write, the top, “Spotlight” article is “Young Adult Fiction’s Online Commissars,” on the Left’s censorship of that genre in the name of “social justice.”

The content of the speech can cover a wide range of topics; it is its suppression that is usually Quillette’s focus. So, for example, race, being a topic that is often suppressed by the Left, appears fairly frequently—not with the annoying “neural biodiversity” barely concealed racism of the “Dark Enlightenment,” but rather following the Jordan Peterson or Thomas Sowell dry, analytical approach. What is being said about race is less important to Quillette than defending the right of the speaker to speak.

But if you step back a little, you will see another connection among most of the articles that goes beyond simple calls for free speech. That is reality—the desire to acknowledge reality, and to push back against attempts to obfuscate reality, or, worse yet, remake it. This bias toward reality pushes Quillette toward the Right, whether they desire it or not, given that reality is an endangered species on the Left, and the only such species the Left actively encourages hunters to kill.

For example, because a major program of the Left currently is the attempt to destroy or deny the reality of sex differences, through the joint vehicles of a mutating definition of feminism and the ideology of transgenderism, topics connected to sex and gender crop up very frequently in the magazine.

No doubt there will, soon enough, be a new Left anti-reality campaign seeking a new frontier, for the revolution can never end. (I have been predicting radical animal rights, aiming to erase the distinction between animals and humans, for a while, but am still waiting. And it looks like pedophilia may beat animal rights to the starting gate).

When that new campaign begins, if we do not first manage to put the Left on the back foot, Quillette will, if not stand athwart history, at least publish pieces that the Left finds distasteful, and so it will continued to be viewed by the Left as right-wing.

So that’s what Quillette cares about. What does Quillette not care about? Anything that does not fit squarely within Agnostic Pragmatic Libertarianism, and quite a bit that does fit. Religion—atheism is frequently celebrated (Pinker and all the other New Atheists, and their hangers-on, either show up regularly or are open admirers of the magazine), but actual religion appears to be off limits, except to be criticized or dismissed as outdated.

Abortion and related life issues such as euthanasia—an entire recent article on racist Virginia governor Ralph Northam managed to never once use the word “abortion,” or make any reference to his endorsement of infanticide. Limitations by the community or the state on sexual behavior. Guns. Economics in general; most notably, there is no J. D. Vance or Tucker Carlson here calling out the corporatist Right and Left. Fiscal policy. Immigration, in America or in Europe. International relations, except occasionally as news. In other words, Quillette offers a daring-sounding, but very narrow, approach that has nothing in common with the concerns of most conservatives.

Yes, to be fair, a few of these topics get a very occasional mention (along with fairly numerous quasi-political articles on academic topics)—but not in a way that is identifiable on the political spectrum. Thus, Quillette is only, in fact, opposed to the modern Left in a narrow, though important, portion of life.

In Agnostic Pragmatic Libertarianism, all transcendence is rejected, and a blend of relativism and utilitarianism offered wholesale. The renewal of men’s souls or the encouragement of virtue, or even acknowledgement of virtue, is not on the agenda.

As far as I can tell, every single editor or prominent writer for Quillette is an avowed atheist; Lehmann certainly is. One gets the distinct flavor that the Quillette circle, if they knew who he was (and he were alive), would regard Russell Kirk as a leprous Jeremiah, to be avoided at all costs—an embarrassment, like any social conservative. The one mention of Alasdair MacIntyre on the entire site is an attack on him. And so on. I cannot find, although perhaps I missed one, any favorable mention of any social conservative as social conservative.

Those at Quillette think, and they are right, that it is very heterodox to point out that women, if given the choice, will at high rates choose traditionally female pursuits, instead of soldiering or foundry work. But they would be horrified at the idea that a well-run society would reject women’s ability to choose either, because killing is not the telos of women and smelting iron is not an appropriate job for women. Unconstrained free choice is everything for Agnostic Pragmatic Libertarianism.

This flavor, of aggressive libertarianism which is necessarily antithetical to social conservatives, becomes even more pronounced when one moves outside the actual writing and focuses more on the people in Quillette’s orbit. The magazine recently began a podcast. It also recently held its first social event, a large party in Toronto. Excerpts from speeches given there formed an episode of the podcast.

Six people were featured; it seems fair to conclude that this mosaic is how Quillette wishes to present itself. No American conservative not libertarian would have found anything of much interest or resonance in the speeches, other than a general agreement on not suppressing speech. All would be horrified at, for example, editor Toby Young’s suggestion on an earlier episode of the podcast that the best way to solve the problems of the underclass is to offer them free impregnation with embryos chosen through IVF for genetic awesomeness—killing the rest, of course. And very few people still believe that the irritating Bill Kristol, who got his own whole podcast episode, is any kind of conservative at all.

Or, in order to examine someone with a more expansive public record than any of those formally associated with Quillette, let’s take Dave Rubin. He hasn’t published in the magazine; no surprise since his platform is YouTube. But he has close ties to many people who have and whom Quillette admires, and is regarded as the man who kickstarted much of this intellectual ferment on the Right. He does speaking tours with Jordan Peterson and he has hosted several of the Quillette stars, such as Christina Hoff Sommers, on his own show.

Rubin describes himself as a classical liberal; he’s smart, funny, and engaging, a happy warrior somewhat in the Reagan mold. I agree with him on a lot of immediate political issues. He seems like he’d be a fun guy to drink with.

The problem is that Rubin’s view of life is not really compatible with my reactionary view of life, or with any conservative of any traditional stripe. He thinks abortion is just fine. He has a husband. He thinks the Enlightenment is great. He just thinks we’re slightly off track, and if we give ourselves a stiff double dose of Aeropagitica and John Stuart Mill, it will dispel the phantoms of identity politics and collectivist thought suppression, restoring America to the way it should be, a land of no limits. That is to say, Rubin buys fully into some Left campaigns (his thoughts on Obergefell and cake baking are a farrago of incoherence) and not into others. Where is the dividing line between people like him and people like me? It’s pretty obvious—what they exalt is atomized individualism.

All these people completely endorse the Enlightenment, and the Left idea that emancipation is the prime end of society, and the more emancipation, the more destruction of all unchosen bonds, the better. Their objection to today’s Left is that in search of that emancipation, they have erected political correctness and groupthink, undermining the goal of ever more liberty. They emphasize equality less than the progressive Left, but they reject the same societal limits rejected by the Left. They just want those freedoms the Left wants to suppress to also remain unsuppressed; they are simply truer to the Enlightenment principles of atomized freedom, more left than the Left.

Thus, Quillette is, for many but not all purposes, indistinguishable from the Left. If Claire Lehmann were World Ruler and her sub-editors her World Lieutenants, it’d be better than a world run by the Davos Left, or by the Bernie Sanders Left, or the Antifa Left, but not by all that much, since we’d still be sprinting down the track into the brick wall that delimits the end of the Enlightenment experiment, just at different speeds in each case. Yes, we’d be less harassed and annoyed on the way, which is something. Laissez les bons temps rouler, and all that. But the wall will be just as hard in either case, and as they say of vertical speedy movement, it’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop.

I once had a friend who used to say, of the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “I forget six—but I remember the seventh, ‘Begin With The End In Mind.’ ” That has stuck with me—begin with the end in mind.

What is the end at which I aim? Victory, of course—the destruction and permanent incapacitation of the Left, and the creation of a new society, reactionary in the sense of being a new thing built with reference to the wisdom and experience of the past. An Augustan society with a Christian backbone, in sum, the outlines of which I have sketched in various places, and which is being fleshed out as we speak. (Implementation; there’s the rub). What, then, does Quillette offer on the path toward victory?

This is really the mirror image of a question I have dealt with at some length elsewhere, and intend to return to again. Of what use or profit, if any, are allies who are unsavory to others, but with whom you actually have some, or even much, common ground on specific political matters?

It is not that Quillette is unsavory—what I mean is that I have roughly as much in common, in practice, with Claire Lehmann as I do with Richard Spencer, which is to say, not much. But in both cases we agree on some things, in ends if not in philosophy or even means.

It seems to me that the approach to achieve victory should therefore be like the Communists used in the old Popular Fronts. That is, close cooperation with those with whom you have something in common, while keeping in mind the need, if any real power is gained, to control certain crucial nodes (e.g., the Ministry of the Interior). And always keeping in mind the reality that the alliance with your new friends will someday have outlived its usefulness. Incompatible visions of the good cannot coexist as the spine of a society, so ultimately, one must form the basis for the future. There can be only one, both as between Left and Right, and as between versions of the Right that cannot be reconciled.

But let us talk of now. In any reasonable strategy to achieve victory, the immediate goal must be breaking the power of the Left. One of their main superpowers today is complete control of the media that sets the Overton Window. That is, through their control of what the news and culture is permitted to be, they make it what they want.

Even if our ultimate goals are different, Quillette has, I think, an important role to play in breaking this monopoly, and therefore should be strongly encouraged. If Claire Lehmann, directly or by inspiring other individuals or publications, can help drive a stake into the heart of the New York Times, as unlikely an event as that newspaper probably thinks it is, she will have done all of humanity a service, and I, for one, will both applaud and donate.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “Le Roi et la Reine entourés de Nus vites,” by Marcel Duchamp, painted in 1912.

Monopolies, Or More Is Less

The death of the free market at the hands of monopoly has gotten a lot of recent attention. By far the best book about this problem is Tim Wu’s The Curse of Bigness, which through a “neo-Brandeisian” lens focuses on how monopoly destroys the core frameworks of a free society.

This book, The Myth of Capitalism, comes to much the same conclusion from a more visceral starting place—why have wages stagnated even though the labor market is tight and corporate profits are soaring? The answer is corporate concentration, and Jonathan Tepper is, like Wu, offering concrete solutions.

The problems that monopoly causes are not disputed in any relevant way by anyone but a few University of Chicago ideologues. The difficulty is that all possible solutions are opposed by the ultra-powerful, ranked in armed array.

One traditional way of dealing with such concentrations of power is populism, of the Left or Right. On a good day, we get Theodore Roosevelt; on a bad day, someone less attractive. It is therefore no surprise we see populist realignments arising across the political spectrum, with both conservatives and liberals girding for battle against the neoliberal kingmakers who dominate the Republican and Democratic parties. The question is whether the populists have enough will to start, then finish, the fight. As Warren Zevon sang, “Some have the speed and the right combinations / If you can’t take the punches, it don’t mean a thing.”

If the new populists, the neo-Brandeisians, do have the will, this book offers some tools. It is less cerebral than Wu’s, aimed at people who have to be told who Leon Trotsky was (“a Marxist revolutionary,” if you’re curious). Tepper’s basic point is that we no longer have the free market (what he incorrectly calls “capitalism”), because most industries no longer have relevant competition.

It is not because of monopoly, which is usually very obvious, but rather the less noticeable oligopoly, where a handful of firms dominate but competition, to a casual observer, appears to exist. The inevitable result of oligopoly, as Tepper (along with what appears to be a co-author, Denise Hearn) shows and nobody who lives in the real world doubts, is tacit collusion on all fronts, pricing and otherwise, to avoid competition. In an oligopoly collusion is nearly as certain as death and taxes, even if done without any formal agreement.

Tepper demonstrates in several compelling ways that competition is dying. Mergers have reduced the number of firms in almost all industries, while antitrust enforcement has declined over the past four decades to nearly nothing. Since 1995, the word “competition” has declined by 75% in annual reports to shareholders of public companies.

Tepper offers a variety of technical measures to demonstrate his point, and I don’t think anyone disputes this. (If anyone does, I’ve missed it). He then lists an astonishing number of industries that are nearly totally consolidated (although someone should tell him that Purdue is the university and Perdue is the chicken company). Airlines and cable TV, obviously, but also beer, bacon (all those different brands in the store are owned by Smithfield), milk, eyeglasses, drug wholesalers, crop agriculture, and very much more.

Why is collusion to avoid competition bad? Tepper believes that oligopoly is literally destroying the country, and he’s pretty much right (though a lot of other unrelated things are simultaneously destroying the country). Obviously, everyone pays higher prices. But higher prices are the least of collusion’s evils.

The most evident problem for most people is that oligopolies, in Tepper’s words, killed your paycheck. Stagnant wages, the problem that sparked the writing of this book, lead to higher inequality, social tension, and societal destruction.

And a big cause of stagnant wages is corporate concentration, which directly lowers wages for workers, since oligopolies act as monopsonies (buyer price-setters) in the labor market, especially in smaller labor markets. It is not an answer to say that workers should go where the jobs are. The wages are often no higher there, and people are loathe to leave their communities and people, as they should be. (This is one of the key points of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy).

It’s not just monopsony. Tepper also focuses on a particular burr that chafes me, non-compete agreements. These have exploded, and are commonly found now even in burger-flipping jobs. They are an abomination. (None of my employees, in any position, has to sign a non-competition agreement, on principle. I don’t care if my employees compete with me. Of course, I’m so wonderful to work for that nobody would ever quit).

Non-competition agreements are an offense against God and man, and it is not a coincidence that California has, for 150 years, forbidden them and developed Silicon Valley as a result. That rule should be extended nationwide, immediately, federalism be damned.

Beyond wage stagnation, lack of competition leads to lack of innovation. Again, this is a commonplace, known when the Sherman Act was passed (in 1890), but conveniently forgotten when the money flows to the right political pockets. Less competition means less investment in winning competitions.

Oligopoly also means that startups can be bought out with offers they can’t refuse, not dissimilar to Pablo Escobar’s famous demand to choose “plata o plomo.” And aside from buyouts, startups suffer direct attacks made possibly by the disproportionate power of oligopolists, such as Google’s suppression of, or theft of the data of, any type of business that might compete (not just in search, but in any type of data that Google thinks it can monetize).

Occasionally one hears the halfhearted response that we have monopoly or oligopoly because big companies provide what consumers want and do a better, more efficient job. Tepper, like Wu, sneers at this explanation. The reality is that most giant companies are actually less efficient; there is such a thing as diseconomies of scale.

Even back in the day, when Standard Oil was forcibly dismembered, the pieces collectively were more valuable than the monopoly. Again, nobody with any sense defends oligopoly; they just dodge or ignore attacks, and laugh all the way to the bank (Jamie Dimon’s bank, or another one of the oligopolist banks).

Covering all the bases, Tepper also criticizes common ownership cutting across publicly traded firms, noting that index fund investing has exacerbated the problem, since entities like Fidelity have large stakes in nearly every company, including those that are putatively competitors. He touches on the problems with CEO pay, too, which are covered in more detail in Steven Clifford’s The CEO Pay Machine, suggesting better alignment of incentives through workers being granted shares, restrictions on stock buybacks, and lockups on manager-held shares.

Government actively assists the process of oligopoly formation, and not just by failing to enforce the antitrust laws. Enforcement of those laws is corrupted by the ideology of Robert Bork and by highly compensated economists who spin fantasies of future consumer price reductions that never arrive.

On those rare occasions when the government attempts to enforce the laws, the courts side with the oligopolists (as in today’s decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, rejecting the Trump administration’s attempt to block Time Warner’s merger with AT&T, where, bizarrely, the burden of proof appears to have been put on the government).

For another example, Congress forbids the sale of insurance across state lines, effectively creating oligopolies; Obamacare, largely written by insurance companies, did not change that at all. And Congress, along with administrative agencies, eagerly obeys the commands of oligopolists to increase regulation.

That may seem odd, until you realize what many people miss, that big companies always favor any regulation that falls harder on smaller companies, both due to compliance costs and as barriers to entry, and moreover they often write the laws and rules specifically to favor themselves.

The classic example of this is Mattel, when found importing toys contaminated with lead paint, got a law passed that required expensive third-party lead testing for all toy sellers—except for themselves, who were allowed to do it cheaply internally. Or, to take another example, what penalty did Equifax pay for massively exposing consumer data due to incompetence? None, because if you’re big enough and spread enough gold around, the regulations don’t really apply to you.

Government action is even worse and has greater impact than it appears, because beyond simple inefficiency and inequality, many of these oligopolies now themselves exercise the powers of government. Tepper offers Progressive economist Robert Lee Hale’s definition of government: “There is government whenever one person or group can tell others what they must do and when those others have to obey or suffer a penalty.”

By that token, certainly, all the Lords of Tech, from Google to Facebook to Amazon, are government, as are, in their own spheres, all the other consolidated industries. (And, of course, often these companies impose penalties on those who do not toe the line on their political ideologies; it is not just business penalties that are at issue). We are not that far off the classic science fiction dystopia where corporations are the government, and can impose their will on all sectors of society.

If everyone not in the pocket of oligopolists agrees that corporate concentration is a problem, why isn’t anything being done about it? Silly rabbit, it’s because all the money and power is on the side of the oligopolies. All these companies spend huge sums lobbying, and it’s been shown they get massive returns on the dollars spent.

They lobby to prevent antitrust enforcement; Google was the second-biggest source of campaign contributions to Obama. They lobby to add regulations. But it’s also the revolving door, at every agency and every level of government, that means oligopolists get what they want. Google, a particular target of Tepper, is one of the biggest offenders, with hundreds of its employees shuttling back and forth into and out of the government, collecting money and power both coming and going.

So far, so bad. These companies also use their power in perniciously creative ways, some of which Tepper does not mention. For example, it is well known that Amazon is the major source of income for many smaller businesses (and plenty of larger ones) that sell on its platform, and uses the data it obtains about such sales to benefit itself and eliminate the profits for those businesses, increasing its own monopoly power.

I don’t sell through Amazon; I’m a contract manufacturer, and thus invisible to Amazon. But one day last year an Amazon functionary called me up. They asked us to develop a brand in our industry (in essence, food, which we put into containers) which would be sold on Amazon. We could set the prices; the proposed deal was that we’d both profit if we developed an attractive brand, since Amazon would push it and we’d make money on the sales.

I figured this was a scam, since I am cynical and think Jeff Bezos should be put in a ducking chair, but set up a conference call anyway with a team of Amazonians. After buttering me up, they glibly mentioned in passing that, among other standard boilerplate in the agreements they’d send me to sign, which were of course trivial (but not negotiable), there was an unimportant standard provision: that at any point Amazon could buy this entire new brand from me, lock, stock, and barrel, for the lesser of $10,000 or fees actually paid to lawyers to register trademarks.

But, they assured me, this was just so they could “help me if there were any legal challenges.” A total lie, of course. What they were, and are, doing is suckering people who, unlike me, are not former M&A lawyers, by, at no cost to Amazon, throwing up hundreds or thousands of brands; seeing which succeed; then stealing them from their creators, who eagerly sign documents without paying any attention, hoping to hit the big time. A small thing, perhaps, but indicative of a cheater’s mentality. Fifty lashes for Jeff Bezos at the whipping post in the town square!

Tepper offers a long list of excellent solutions. Vastly more aggressive antitrust enforcement, using bright-line numerical rules about corporate concentration. Slowing down the revolving door. Common carriage rules for internet platforms that sell third-party services (not only Net Neutrality, presumably, but also other services, such as Amazon’s selling platform).

Creating rules that reduce switching costs, such as portability of social media data. All these are good, though I’d go farther. For internet common carriers, I would include rules that forbid viewpoint discrimination. I’d break up all major tech companies, and probably break up almost all existing corporate concentrations. I’d totally forbid the revolving door. Regardless, I find nothing deficient in Tepper’s solutions.

But these are all egghead solutions from eggheads, vaporware in the ether. Billions of dollars are being raked in by the powerful, and then distributed to protect their interests. The oligopolists will never accept a single one of these solutions.

Tepper works as an advisor to hedge funds (it is no surprise that those particular concentrations of power, which are also extremely pernicious and often eagerly participate in creating and extending the problems identified in this book, receive a grand total of zero attacks in this book). He is lucky he does not work for a think tank or other vulnerable entity.

Google, for example, brutalized Anne-Marie Slaughter’s New America Foundation in 2017 when it dared to have on staff an academic team who suggested that more antitrust enforcement against Google might be a good idea. Attacking the oligopolists is like chasing a demonic greased pig—even if you catch him, he’ll probably wriggle out of your grasp, and if he can’t, he’ll kill you.

What’s the answer, other than pitchforks? (I’m all for the pitchforks.) Well, divide and conquer, probably. We should serially use Saul Alinsky’s Rule 13: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

This will probably have to be done at the intersection of two other unpredictable factors. First, some especially spectacular bad behavior by a target, which implies that the each sequential target will have to first identify itself. Second, action by ambitious politicians, probably of the Left but maybe of the Right, willing to use this as a signature issue.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be an economic illiterate, but she’s ambitious and self-promoting enough to take on such a task, and tough enough to ignore the pressure and attacks from the oligopolists. Bernie Sanders maybe, too, but he’s so old his heart probably can’t take the punches. This is a task for the young.

On the Right, I can’t think of anyone—Trump, of course, but he lacks the discipline and has shown a disinclination to actually act populist (thanks, Jared and Ivanka)! Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney aren’t going to do it. Maybe J. D. Vance, if he ever runs for office, but he strikes me as not nearly vicious or ambitious enough.

But with any luck, the problems themselves will call forth the problem solvers. History shows us that for every action, a reaction—though, unfortunately, often one with unintended side effects. Within reason, though, I’d happily risk the side effects to destroy the oligopolists.


Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “Puck & the Mechanical Knight – A Modern-Day David & Goliath,” a political cartoon from the later 19th-century.

Population And Its Decline

Anybody who has been paying attention has long grasped the truth: under-population, not overpopulation, is our problem. This will soon be true on a global scale, it is already true in most of the developed world. Empty Planet explains why this is undeniably so.

Unfortunately, the explanation is shrouded in confusion and ideological distortion, so the authors are never able to provide a clear message. Instead, they offer rambling, contradictory bromides combined with dumb “solutions” until the reader throws his hands up in despair, as I did. But then I got a stiff drink, finished the book, and now am ready to tell you about it.

The authors, two Canadians, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, offer an apparently complete story. Every part of the world is becoming more urbanized. Urbanization causes a drop in the fertility rate, for three reasons.

First, when off the farm, children are a cost center, rather than a profit center. Second, urbanized women choose to have fewer children. Third, urbanization means atomization of social life, such that the networks in which people were embedded, most of which exercised pressure to have children, disappear, and if replaced, are replaced by friends or co-workers who do not exercise the same pressure. “Family members encourage each other to have children, whereas non-kin don’t.”

These causes of population decline are exacerbated by two other factors not tied to urbanization—the worldwide decline of religious belief, and lower infant and child mortality, which means people don’t have children as insurance. And the end of the story is that when the fertility rate drops far enough, it is, in the modern world, permanent. It is the “fertility trap,” analogous to the well-known “Malthusian trap.”

Why do urbanized women choose to have fewer children (aside from the other two stated reasons, expense and less family pressure)? The authors cite the desire for a career; the desire for autonomy and empowerment; the desire to escape the control of men; and the desire for “crafting a personal narrative.”

All of these things the authors tie to “education,” or, in their unguarded moments and more accurately, “being socialized to have an education and a career.” That is, modernity leads to women choosing to have fewer children, often no children at all, and far fewer children than are necessary to replace the people we have now.

Why the fertility trap? It’s due to two totally separate causes. One is mechanical—if a society has fewer children, obviously there will then be fewer women to bear new children. But the other is social. When there are fewer children, “Employment patterns change, childcare and schools are reduced, and there is a shift from a family/child oriented society to an individualistic society, with children part of individual fulfilment and well-being.”

In other words, it’s not a trap, it’s a societal choice. Interestingly, according to the authors, drops in the fertility rate, and therefore the fertility trap, are not the result of legalized abortion and easy contraception, as can be seen from examples of fertility problems prior to the 1960s.

For example, the birth rate was briefly at less than replacement in much of the West prior to World War II, when contraception was much less common, and abortion very much rarer (it is a total myth that illegal abortion was widespread prior to the modern era, at least in the West).

But abortion and contraception certainly contribute to the fertility trap. That is, it is societal factors that cause the fertility rate to drop, but all else being equal, the easier it is to prevent (or kill) children, the harder it is to climb back up. In any case, the result is the same—fewer people, getting fewer.

Empty Planet then sequentially examines Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. There is a great deal of annoying repetition. Nonetheless, there is also much interesting data, all in support of the basic point—population everywhere is going to go down, soon and fast. True, the United Nations predicts that global population will top out at eleven billion around 2100, and then decline.

The authors instead think, and make a compelling case that, the United Nations overstates fertility in the twenty-first century. The authors say, and do a good job demonstrating why, population will top out at nine billion by around 2050 (it is seven billion now) and then decline. Some declines will be precipitous and startling—China, currently at 1.4 billion but deep into the fertility trap, will have 560 million people by the end of the century.

Strangely, the authors do not calculate global population estimates around, say, 2150, but eyeballing the numbers, it appears they will be around two or three billion, maybe less—and heading downward, fast.

Bricker and Ibbitson are not kind to overpopulation doomsayers. They note how completely wrong those of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the infamous Paul Ehrlich, have been proven. (Charles Mann does it better in his excellent The Wizard and the Prophet).

Bizarrely, Ehrlich is unrepentant, to a degree that suggests he is unhinged; the authors quote him as saying in 2015, without any reasoning, “My language would be even more apocalyptic today,” and analogizing children to garbage.

They don’t believe modern doomsayers are any more correct. Most just have no factual basis for their claims, which are basically just anti-human claims of a religious nature, and the authors even dare to note the obvious fact that the United Nations, a device primarily used to extract money from the successful economies of the world and give it to the unsuccessful, has a vested interest in exaggerating the problems of the backward parts of the world.

So what problems result from an aging and then declining global population? Economic stagnation is what the authors focus on. This is driven by less consumer demand, but also, less visibly but more importantly, by less dynamism.

Old people are takers, not makers. Moreover, they don’t do anything useful for driving society forward, let’s be frank. Not that the authors are frank; they skip by the dynamism problem without much comment, though at least they acknowledge it. But the reality is that for human flourishing, the dynamism of the young is everything, and far more important than consumer demand.

One just has to think of any positive accomplishment that has changed the world, in science, art, exploration, or anything else. In excess of ninety percent of such accomplishments have been made by people under thirty-five. (Actually, by men under thirty-five, for reasons which are probably mostly biological, but that is another discussion).

The simple reality is that it is the young who accomplish and the old who do not. And when you have no young people, you have no accomplishments. Our future, on the current arc, is being the Eloi; hopefully there will be no Morlocks.

Governments from Germany to Iran recognize this problem. The authors give numerous examples, all failures, of trying to resolve the problem by, in effect, begging and paying women to have children. Even here, the authors feel obliged to tell us “The idea of governments telling women they should have more babies for the sake of the nation seems to us repugnant.”

We are not told why that should be so, probably because it is obviously false, but regardless, it is clear that a modern government merely instructing or propagandizing women isn’t going to do the trick.

What is the authors’ solution, then? They don’t have one. Well, they have a short-term one, or claim to. Much of the back half of the book is taken up with endless variations on demanding that the West admit massive amounts of Third World immigrants.

The claimed reason for this is necessity—without immigration, Europe and North America will not have enough taxpayers to support the old in the style they desire. They realize the disaster that’s befallen Europe by admitting alien immigrants with nothing but their two hands. (They claim to reject the Swedish “humanitarian” model. But all their soaring language of untethered and unexplained moral duty implicitly endorses the humanitarian model).

Instead, they recommend the Canadian system to America, where only the cream of the crop, educated and with job skills, is admitted—but we must, must, must immediately admit no fewer than 3.5 million such immigrants every year.

And, of course, they fail to point out that the cream of the crop is by definition a tiny percentage of the overall amount of immigrants, so how exactly we are going to welcome only these worthwhile immigrants is not clear, especially if other countries are competing for them.

Nor do the authors point out that at best, this is a short-term solution—if every country in the world will soon have a less-than-replacement birth rate, emigration will soon enough become rare, so no amount of competition will attract enough people.

Therefore, their “solution” is no solution at all, and beyond this, Brickell and Ibbitson have nothing to offer, except muttering about how it’ll be nice to have a cleaner planet when there are no people to enjoy the clean planet.

I note that the authors do not tell us how many children they have, which seems highly relevant. If you are going to be a prophet, best inspect your own house, or acknowledge that others will find it relevant. If you dig, Bricker has one child, a daughter. Ibbitson appears to have no children. I cannot say why, of course, and it would be unfair to assume a selfish choice.

But whatever the reason, it is undeniably true that as a result they have less investment in the future than people with children. (Since you ask, I have five children. I am part of the solution, not part of the problem.) Maybe this is why finding a solution isn’t very important to them.

The book has many annoying inaccuracies that seem to be endemic among this type of popular writing, where editors appear to be permanently out to lunch.

It is not true that the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie” refers to the Black Death. The authors offer a half-page so parsing the rhyme, but that’s an urban legend—the rhyme first appeared around 1800. (Even Snopes, the left-wing political hack site notorious for lying propaganda, is correct on this, probably because there is no political element).

The word “dowry” only refers to payments made to the groom’s family; similar payments made to the bride’s family are “bride price.” The G.I. Bill did not create the American interstate highway system. The term is “cleft palate,” not “cleft palette.”

India’s economic stagnation for decades after independence was not due to “protective tariffs;” it was, as everybody who is not a Marxist admits, due to socialism, exacerbated by refusal of outside capital, along with the Permit Raj. (Tariffs make perfect sense for many developing countries that rely on import substitution to grow their economies; both the Britain and the United States used them extremely successfully.)

The fifteenth-century Portuguese caravel was not based on Muslim technology. The wave of migrants into Europe that peaked (maybe) around 2016 was economic, not because of war, and not a single person in Europe believes what the authors repeatedly claim, that most of those people will return to their countries of origin soon. Or ever.

Sloppiness of this type makes the reader wonder about the other, more critical, factual claims in the book.

So that’s Empty Planet. All of it could have been said in twenty or thirty pages. On the surface it’s a pat story, though one without a happy ending. That’s not for the authors’ lack of trying to be happy. Normative judgments abound, all of them oddly in tension with the gloomy top-level attitude of the book toward the problem of under-population.

Thus, the authors assume that large populations are necessarily terrible for anyone who lives there; adjectives such as “miserable” abound for any people born in a high birth-rate country. Not for them any acknowledgement of Angus Deaton’s point in The Great Escape that people in poor countries are generally very happy.

All population control is referred to with adjectives such as “beneficent.” We are didactically instructed that “Sex education and birth control [are] good things in and of themselves.” And in what may be the single most clueless paragraph in a book chock full of them, the authors offer this:

“Small families are, in all sorts of ways, wonderful things. Parents can devote more time and resources to raising—indeed, cossetting—the child. Children are likely to be raised with the positive role models of a working father and working mother. Such families reflect a society in which women stand equally, or at least near equally, with men in the home and the workplace. Women workers also help to mitigate the labor shortages produced by smaller workforces that result from too few babies. It isn’t going too far to say that small families are synonymous with enlightened, advanced societies.”

Given that the entire point of the book is that small families are a disaster for humanity, even though they try to deflect this obvious conclusion by unpersuasive and unsupported claims such as, “Population decline isn’t a good or a bad thing,” this type of thing suggests, to be charitable, cognitive dissonance.

Not to mention that cosseting children is not a good goal, although it’s not surprising that two people with one child between them think so, and that sending more women to work outside the home when sending women to such work is part of the problem seems, um, counter-intuitive. But as we will see, this paragraph gives us a clue to what is really driving human population collapse.

Let’s try to figure out what’s really going on, because despite seeming to be so, the authors’ story is not complete. If you look at the story from another angle, not the one of received wisdom, strange unexplained lacunae appear within the text.

The fertility rate in the United States and Britain begin to drop in the early 1800s, but only at the end of the 1800s on the Continent, even though urbanization came sooner in the latter, and the United States was almost all agricultural in the early 1800s. “In France, oddly, fertility declines were already underway by the late 1700s. No one is sure why. . . .” “Fertility rates appear to have increased in France and Belgium during the Second World War, even though both countries were under German occupation or control and supplies such as food and coal were increasingly scarce.”

Some countries that are largely poor, uneducated, and not urbanized (Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay) have extremely low fertility rates, while other, very similar-seeming countries still have high rates (Paraguay, Honduras, Guatemala). Uneducated Brazilian favela dwellers, normally the type of people who have lots of children, have experienced a big drop in fertility.

And on, and on, strange tidbits that jut out from the authors’ narrative, not fitting into the just-so story of urbanization followed by an inevitable and necessary choice to stop having children.

What could explain all these facts? The authors certainly don’t know. But I do. What brings together all these seeming outrider facts, and in the darkness binds them, is the inevitable human tendency toward selfish self-interest. Once this was universally recognized as vice, but it has always been recognized as a large part of what drives human beings unless we struggle against it.

The creation of virtue, through self-discipline, self-control, and, in Christian thinking, caring for others at our own expense, aiming at true freedom and the common good, was once the ideal.

Virtue helped control our baser impulses, and was the goal toward which a good and well-formed person was expected to strive and to lead others. It was, and is, the opposite of “living as one likes,” of the quest for supposed emancipation.

Having children is among the least selfish and most self-sacrificing things a woman, and to a lesser extent a man, can do; thus, when being selfish and self-centered both become exalted, we have fewer children. It is not a mystery.

How did we get here? As the result of two late-eighteenth-century developments.

The first, the fruit of the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, is wealth. I have pondered whether a rich society can ever stay a virtuous society, and population decline is merely a subset of this question.

The second, the fruit of the Enlightenment (which had nothing to do with the Scientific Revolution or the Industrial Revolution), is the exaltation of individual autonomy, of self-actualization as the goal of human existence.

The problem with urbanization and its impact on birth rates, especially in the West, is not something inherent to urbanization, but that city dwellers are more wealthy (or at least exposed to wealth) and have, in practice, fallen prey more easily to Enlightenment ideas.

Either of these anti-virtue developments can crash fertility by itself. Combined, they are lethal to human progress. For example, a rich society, such as Venice in the 1600s, can never undergo the Enlightenment, but wealth alone will lead to depopulation, as virtue fades and pursuit of self becomes exalted.

And a poor and not urbanized society, such as late 1700s France or early 1800s America, can experience an ideological erosion of virtue solely through embracing Enlightenment principles. Or, to take a more modern example, the South American countries with high rates of fertility are those that are still strongly Christian, and hew to the Christian virtues.

The authors themselves note this correlation, but gloss over the implications. Similarly, poor Brazilians are not converted to the gospel of self directly by Rousseau and Locke, or by wealth, both of which they totally lack, but indirectly by both—by obsessive watching of telenovelas, the plots of which, as the authors note, “involve smaller families, empowered women, rampant consumerism, and complicated romantic and family relationships.”

For a final set of proofs, it is obvious from Empty Planet’s own statistics, though apparently not obvious to the authors themselves, that as the material blessings of the West finally spread around the world, fertility rates drop in tandem with adoption of the West’s techniques for acquiring wealth, further exacerbated when countries adopt Enlightenment values.

And to the extent the country’s elite push back against Enlightenment values, such as in Hungary and Russia, some progress can be made in increasing birth rates. Similarly, when a country’s people experiences shared challenges, social pressure against atomized Enlightenment individual autonomy can increase greatly, resulting in more children.

Such was apparently the case in wartime Belgium and France. It is also why Jews in Israel, alone among advanced economies, have a birthrate far in excess of replacement, even if you exclude the Orthodox. They value something beyond their own immediate, short-term desires, which counterbalances the natural human tendency towards vice.

We can now explain what the authors could not. The real, core reason for population decline is that children reduce autonomy and limit the worship of self. Children reduce autonomy even more for women than men, as a biological reality, so as women are culturally indoctrinated that they must have autonomy, they choose to have fewer children. (Men also want more autonomy, of course; that is why men support legal abortion more than women).

True, women don’t really get freedom as a result; for the most part, they get the opportunity to join the rat race for more consumer goods, and as is easy to demonstrate, they are no happier as a result. Probably most are far less happy, and very often, if not nearly always, regret having not had children, or more children.

Modern societal structures make this worse. To take a bitter, if funny, example, eating dinner with a group of young couples in Brussels, who between the twelve of them have two children, the authors note, “Most of the men are students or artists, while the women work and pay the rent.”

When men won’t fulfill their proper role as breadwinner and protector, it’s no wonder that women find bearing and raising children less attractive, totally aside from their own personal desire for autonomy.

And, finally, back to consumerism, the belief among both men and women that both they and their children must have the latest and mostest consumer goods, and that if something has to give to make that possible, it should be bearing children, is yet another manifestation of the cult of self.

The problem of declining population is fatal for any progress for the human race, so, naturally, given my desire to organically remake human society to flourish, expand, and accomplish, it’s necessary to solve this problem. (Not just for me, of course—any political program must deal with the underpopulation bomb).

I don’t think this is a narrowly resolvable problem—that is, there is no technical solution that does not also involve remolding human society, or at least some human societies. Certainly certain structural measures can and should immediately be taken in any well-run society.

Economic incentives are part of it, including cash payments to mothers of children, increasing by number of children, and increasing to the extent they stay home to take care of the children. Societies where women are expected to both do all the work of raising children, but are also required to earn money, notably Japan, Korea, and Italy, have among the lowest birth rates. Cash isn’t an adequate substitute for family frameworks, but it can help at the margin. Perhaps more, if enough cash is devoted to it.

Hungary, for example, yesterday announced a massive package of such incentives, including that women who have borne and raised four or more children are permanently exempt from all income tax. There should also be an enforced absolute ban on abortion in all circumstances, as well as on no-fault divorce (and the party at fault in a divorce should face severe financial penalties).

Other structural incentives for women to bear and raise children should similarly be put into place. Those are not only cash-based—for example, the Hungarian initiative also raises the social credit, as it were, of child-bearing and child-rearing. A woman who is called “breeder” by her friends when she says she wants a second or third child is less likely to do so than one who knows she will instead be admired and envied by both friends and strangers.

But all technical structural measures are completely inadequate without genuine societal change. You have to create a feedback loop. That’s how we got here, after all—more atomization leads to more atomization. Under the right circumstances, more virtue can lead to more virtue. It seems to me that the only hope for this is a societal rework, which, not coincidentally, is precisely what I am pushing.

The problem is that my end-state doesn’t comport with inherently selfish human desires. Thus, a feedback loop is harder to create and maintain. It probably requires some external goal for a society, combined with an outward-looking optimism that cannot be artificially created or maintained, but must be a groundswell within society, beginning with a virtuous and self-sacrificing ruling class (no points for guessing if that’s what we have now).

I suspect the only way forward is to provide such as societal goal that supersedes selfishness, while permanently ending the failed Enlightenment experiment on every level, and creating a new program that, in many ways, resembles earlier Western structures.

Even so, I am not certain it is possible to create an advanced, wealthy, urban society, not dedicated to extreme personal autonomy, with a high birth rate. But let’s say it is, and we can get there, and global population continues to expand, or rebounds, to more than current projections.

Considerable increases in current human population, maybe to fifteen or twenty billion, probably would be good for humanity overall. True, large populations can be challenging, and can, in certain circumstances, result in massive problems. Some of those circumstances are physical—it would be very difficult to have 100 million people live within 50 miles of the Arctic Circle.

But most of those circumstances are culture—when you have an inferior culture, it makes it much harder to provide for everyone. The converse, though, is that if you change your culture, your opportunities expand. (Nor should we forget that England created the modern world when her population, at the time of Malthus, was nine million in a world population of a billion, so small numbers can do great things, and culture is everything).

I am a big believer in, to use Charles Mann’s words, the ability of Wizardry to provide solutions to challenges such as increasing population. If that is true, an increasing population with many young people is a dynamic population, and as long as global culture is not deficient, but rather contains much excellence, then having not an empty planet, but a filled planet, is highly desirable.

Therefore, I am not as pessimistic as Bricker and Ibbitson. But we will all be long dead before we find out who is right, so all we can do is try to lay the groundwork for our children, and their children—and to make sure all those people exist.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “The School Walk,” by Albert Anker, painted in 1872.

Eumeswil, Or Whither Human Excellence?

Ernst Jünger’s Eumeswil, one of the famous German’s last works, published when he was eighty-two years old, is often regarded as an exposition of libertarian thought. This is understandable, but completely wrong. Such a reading attempts to shoehorn concepts in which Jünger had little interest, or toward which he was actively hostile, into an exploration of unrelated themes.

Moreover, it ignores that in this book, though somewhat masked, Jünger has more contempt for so-called liberal democracy than dislike for what some call tyranny. Thus, this book is not a call to rework society, or individual thought, along libertarian lines. It is instead a call for human excellence, and a criticism of the modern West for failure to achieve it, or to even try.

One cannot really understand Eumeswil without reading, preferably first reading, Jünger’s earlier The Forest Passage, which was published in 1951, twenty-six years before Eumeswil. On the surface, they are very different—this book is cast as dystopian science fiction, and The Forest Passage is a work of philosophical exposition.

But Jünger himself explicitly ties the two books together, linking the earlier book’s concept of the “forest rebel” with this book’s concept of the “anarch.” In both books, the author’s focus on freedom, specific to each individual, is easily misinterpreted, because what freedom means to most people today is not what Jünger means by the term. Jünger means an internal, spiritual freedom, an elitist freedom, not the freedom of license and consequent ennui. This confusion drives all the misunderstandings of Eumeswil.

While they fit together, a key difference between the books is often, or always, overlooked. Both are analyses of how a man should live under tyranny. But the tyrannies to which the protagonist in each book reacts are completely different.

Thus, while there are some differences between the forest rebel and the anarch, those differences are best explained not by developments in Jünger’s thought, but by the differences in the tyrannies examined in each book. That is to say, Jünger is looking at a general problem of stifled freedom from two radically different angles—in the earlier book, from the perspective of those trapped by Communism or other totalitarian ideologies; in the later book, from those trapped in a much different type of tyranny, one into which Jünger saw the West decaying, having nothing to do with Communism.

It is the difference between 1951 and 1977, one which often escapes us now, but was very evident to a person of the time, and should be even more evident to us today, since the defects found in 1977 in bud form are now in full and poisonous flower, while the evils of 1951 have disappeared entirely.

Not much actually happens, plot-wise, in Eumeswil. Most of the book consists of the private musings of the protagonist, Martin Venator. He lives in the city-state of Eumeswil, somewhere in today’s Morocco, after an unspecified global apocalypse some time before. (The name comes from Eumenes, the most clever of the Diadochi, the “successors” of Alexander, who fought over and divided his empire. The theme of such decline is everywhere in this book, starting with the city name itself). Eumeswil is ruled by a man referred to only as the Condor, a soldier who overthrew the “tribunes,” the leading men of a broad oligarchic and quasi-democratic order, the “republic,” whose adherents viewed, and still view, themselves as beneficent and liberal, in contrast to the Condor, whom they naturally loathe.

Venator, a young man, has two jobs. By day he is a historian, or rather some type of graduate student; by night he tends bar in the Condor’s palace, at the Condor’s private bar. This permits him to observe the Condor and his aides, as they interact and discuss both high and low events. In Venator’s dispassionate telling, the Condor and his men are far from fiends; they are competent and genial men, highly intelligent and rational, concerned mostly with possible rebellions in the city, maintaining order, keeping the people happy, and not getting on the wrong side of people more powerful than they.

Of those latter, there are really two—the Yellow Khan, apparently either a very powerful neighbor or some sort of overlord, who sometimes comes for state visits that are a combination of pleasure and peril for the Condor and his men; and the vague “catacombs,” subterranean realms of some kind from which come advanced technology, still being developed by unspecified people, not unearthed from dead ones.

To accompany these external forces, to the south, across the desert, lies the “Forest,” a mutated, wild land, where (spoiler alert) at the end of the book the Condor leads an expedition, joined by Venator, and none of them are ever heard from again.

Under both the tribunes and the Condor, Eumeswil is a place that is waiting, passing the time, forever, so far as can be seen. There are no grand plans or any real hope for the future. Here, at the end of all things, not much happens. Perhaps it will come around again, though there is no sign of it. (As M. John Harrison says of “defeated, resigned landscapes” in The Pastel City, “Or was it just waiting to be born? Who can tell at which end of Time these places have their existence”)?

Those in Eumeswil birth few children; two maximum, not by law but because people can’t be bothered and see no reason to have more children. Abortion is illegal but ignored in practice, along with other vices, such as pederasty and drug use. From a libertarian perspective, pretty much everyone is free to do as he wants, as long as he does not overtly upset the public order (and does not challenge the ruler, on whom more later). History is mostly ignored; the entire society smacks of what is today called postmodernism. In other words, Eumeswil is a stand-in for the modern West, and its people, regardless of their formal type of government, are not analogous to those under Communism in The Forest Passage, but to Jünger’s West German compatriots of the 1970s.

Martin’s father and brother do not approve either of his job with the Condor or of his disinterest in politics. They were prominent partisans of the tribunes, although they were not punished upon their overthrow. (It is not even very risky to oppose the Condor, who executes nobody except a handful of criminals, and governs with a very light touch, though he does exile the most problematic dissidents to offshore islands).

They talk politics incessantly, making family dinners unpleasant, while they hedge their bets, preen themselves, and do nothing, just like all their class. Venator has little sympathy with them (exacerbated by, as he repeatedly notes, his father unsuccessfully having tried to get his mother to kill him in the womb), but fulfils his filial and family obligations.

Venator’s repeated references to his father’s attempts to kill him do not seem incidental; what Jünger appears to be saying is that men like Venator’s father, supposedly devoted to freedom, are in fact mediocrities with no future, happy to serve their own interests (“his rights,” as Venator bitterly calls his father’s attempt to murder him) when push comes to shove, and afraid to take responsibility or take action. They are, thus, the opposite of the forest rebel.

Venator respects the Condor; he has nothing but a distant contempt for the tribunes, even though they seemed to offer more political freedom. They “had stylized the word ‘human’ into a sublime concept.” But their lofty ideals “all cost money, which, however, they collected from concrete and not ideal human beings.”

The tribunes, moreover, were addicted to regulation, such as forbidding private collection of salt so as to maintain their tax revenue, “patrolling by customers inspectors, who ambushed the poor.” They even required the salt sold in government stores to have “mixed in additives that their chemists praised as useful, even though they were injurious.

The fact that men with such minds consider themselves thinkers is forgivable; but they also claim to be benefactors.” Worst of all, the tribunes offered, if not utopias, abstract visions. “ ‘There is no progress,’ I often hear my [father] say; he seems to regard this is a misfortune. He also says, ‘Standing still means going backward.’ ” The little people, in contrast, are satisfied if everyday life remains constant; they prefer to see their chimneys smoking, not their houses.” The type of progress that Venator’s father looks for, in other words, is not progress at all, but false forward movement paid for by others.

Much of the book is taken up with disjointed thoughts, ranging from discussions of how the Condor’s palace, or citadel, the Casbah, is situated a few miles outside the city (complete with references to Machiavelli on such placements), to talk of Venator’s girlfriend, to lengthy expositions of the thought of Venator’s various teachers.

To make sense of Eumeswil, you have to pay close attention, pick out, and weave together what Venator says. The only steady and obvious thread is that he clearly and repeatedly identifies himself as an “anarch”; we can presume, I think, that Venator is here a stand-in for Jünger himself. “Such is the role of the anarch, who remains free of all commitments yet can turn in any direction.”

The anarch is emphatically not an anarchist. The anarchist is focused on overthrowing the existing order, which inevitably leads to its replacement by something not to the anarchist’s taste. The anarch’s goal is, on the contrary, to remain aloof from all political systems. He obeys the law of the state, just as he obeys, automatically, the laws of nature. His internal freedom is what matters.

This concept, of internal freedom, is as far as most mention of Eumeswil ever gets. Venator says, “I am an anarch in space, a metahistorian in time. Hence I am committed to neither the political present nor tradition; I am blank and also open and potent in any direction.” He does not oppose the rules of the society in which he lives. “One must know the rules, whether one is moving in a tyranny, a demos, or a bordello. This holds, above all, for the anarch—it is the second commandment, next to the first: ‘Know thyself.’”

Usually, this conception gets a nod as a type of pure, Zen-like freedom: the sovereign individual, keeping himself internally liberated, but not choosing to fight for formal freedom in the temporal realm. In other words, as with The Forest Passage, a common present-day interpretation of Jünger’s politics is as libertarian—the freedom to do as one chooses, which is what we would have if everyone could take the actions that germinate in an anarch’s head. This is completely wrong. Jünger is instead pushing an elite freedom, the freedom to avoid the mediocrity and oppression of the collective, not the freedom to do as one pleases. The anarch can move in any direction, true, but to what end?

It is the petty and controlling, fake benefactory and semi-utopian, nature of the tribunes to which Venator objects, rather than to their laws as such. The key is that he rejects the tearing down of authority. “Although an anarch, I am not anti-authoritarian. Quite the opposite: I need authority, although I do not believe in it.”

Those would who have unbridled freedom are parasitical and destructive. “Why do people who leave nothing unchallenged still make demands of their own? They live off the fact that gods, fathers, and poets used to exist. . . . In the animal kingdom, there are parasites that clandestinely hollow out a caterpillar.

Eventually, a mere wasp emerges instead of a butterfly. And that is what those people do with their heritage, and with language in particular.” That’s what Jünger really thinks of libertarians, and it’s not pretty. And for the same reasons, Jünger pretty obviously had no use for what liberal democracy has become, with its closely related destructive rush to atomized freedom and total emancipation.

Most of all, Venator objects to the tribunes’ utopian schemes. Remember, in my reading, the tribunes, and Eumeswil itself, are stand-ins for the modern society of the West, which by the 1970s was offering so-called liberal democracy as a utopian panacea, with an insufferable smugness that reached its high point only a few years later in Francis’s Fukuyama’s “end of history.”

Jünger, a man who lived through all the horrors the twentieth century had to offer, had no interest in offering utopias, whether political or philosophical, and had seen first-hand who pays the price for dreams of false progress. At an early age, Venator, and doubtless his alter-ego, Jünger, “formed [his] conviction of the imperfect and peaceless nature of the world.” Given that conviction, all utopias are a mistake, because they are impossible, and only result in misery.

Along these same lines, Venator endorses the core idea of Carl Schmitt that pinning rationales for war on utopian visions of an abstract humanity, rather than a recognition of who the enemy is by nature, results in far worse killing. “If humanity is written on the standard, then this means not only the exclusion of the enemy from society, but the deprivation of all his human rights.” The implication is that for all the supposed freedom under the tribunes, which Venator’s father and brother claim to miss so much, it did not mean anything at all that mattered, and cost more than it brought.

On the other hand, Venator seems to have little objection to the Condor. Yes, Venator regularly, though dispassionately, refers to the Condor as a tyrant. But is he really? If he is, he has nothing to do with modern totalitarianisms. More than once Venator ties him to Periander, the Tyrant of Corinth who died in 585 B.C. Periander was one of the Seven Sages, men of wisdom and power, who also included Thales of Miletus (to whom, among others, the Delphic maxim “Know thyself” is attributed), and Solon of Athens.

Eumeswil is not even a police state. In fact, it allows all sorts of ordered freedoms, and many disordered freedoms, within the constraints of not too directly challenging the ruler. A modest amount of vice is allowed and it appears that there is a sizable amount of low-level corruption greasing the skids of day-to-day life. What shows most of all that he’s not a real tyrant is that Condor can and does openly move around, “discreetly accompanied,” on the public streets and the waterfront, talking to and joking with the people, with whom he is popular. If he is a tyrant, he is a tyrant in the mold of Augustus.

The Condor is explicitly not a despot, by which Jünger means capricious or interested in degrading people to show his power. As far as is evident, Eumeswil has the rule of law. A moderately free press exists. The justice system works. “Tyranny [i.e., the Condor] must value a sound administration of justice in private matters. This, in turn, increases its political authority.”

The Condor does not offer any ideology and is pleased to encourage education and what culture there is, as well as try to improve himself. “The Condor sticks to Machiavelli’s doctrine that a good military and good laws are the fundaments of the state.” Really, the Condor is not dissimilar to Machiavelli’s “new princedom,” like that of, say, Francesco Sforza (who took over Milan in the fifteenth century). (I suspect that a close reading of The Prince with Eumeswil would show quite a few interesting overlaps).

The Condor is fiscally prudent, ensuring a hard money economy and restraining state spending, all of which benefits the common people (and is in contrast to the tribunes, who talked of the common people but despised and harmed them).

ünger may not regard the Condor as ideal, but he regards him as having a form of excellence, of aristocracy, and he thinks little of the mass of the population of Eumeswil, and especially the political class of Venator’s father and brother, where language is degraded, history is ignored, and nobody is very interested in excellence, or, for that matter, true freedom—all just like today’s liberal democracies, but not like Augustan-style “tyrannies.”

Jünger makes it explicit that the anarch is the same as the forest rebel—or at least one conception of the forest rebel. In Eumeswil, however, Jünger seems less enamored of actual action by the forest rebel in The Forest Passage. He denigrates partisan bands and other commitments to political change (such as anarchism), as “stuffy air, unclear ideas, lethal energy, which ultimately put abdicated monarchs and retired generals back in the saddle—and then they show their gratitude by liquidating those selfsame partisans.”

Joining the partisans makes on dependent on them; the anarch’s goal is to avoid dependence, even while he serves someone, whether the Condor or someone else. “The difference is that the forest [rebel] has been expelled from society, while the anarch has expelled society from himself.” Really, though, that’s a distinction without a difference, because the result is the same.

Perhaps, I think, what Jünger is saying is that under a totalitarian tyranny, that of the forest rebel, action may make more sense (something covered in The Forest Passage in some detail), but under the modern tyranny of liberal democracy, action is futile, because it is not the government that is the problem, but the society. If you extend Jünger’s line of thought, the Condor points toward a possible solution to the flaws of liberal democracy, not something against which rebellion is either necessary or desirable.

So what does that imply for the anarch, who can turn in any direction, but presumably will, at some point, choose a direction? Jünger is explicitly not a reactionary in the sense of wanting to return to a better past. In the words of his alter-ego, “It is not that I am awaiting a return to the past, like Chateaubriand, or a recurrence, like Boutefeu [a Nietzsche-like figure]; I leave those matters politically to the conservatives and cosmically to the stargazers. . . . No, I hope for something equal, nay, stronger, and not just in the human domain. Naglfar, the ship of the apocalypse, shifts into a calculable position.”

Naglfar is the ship, in Norse mythology, that will ferry dead men to fight the gods in the final battle, Ragnarök. That is, Jünger wants a renewal, but he sees no way that Eumeswil can be renewed in the usual course of life. The Condor cannot do it, nor does he try. But it is significant, in this context, that the book ends with Venator and the Condor marching into, and disappearing into, the Forest, seeking that which they would find. That is, the book ends with the Condor himself turning forest rebel.

It is just as significant that Venator, the exemplar of the anarch, chooses wholly voluntarily to accompany the Condor as his servant, as his “Xenophon,” on this expedition. Both of them seek excellence and a renewal of things through human action; they are the opposite of José Ortega y Gasset’s “mass man,” the necessary end product of liberal democracy. As one of Venator’s teachers tells him, urging him to go, “A dream comes true in each of our great transformations. You know this as a historian. We fail not because of our dreams but because we do not dream forcefully enough.”

This is not the language of libertarian inertia or pleasure maximization; it is the language of Godfrey in the gate. Nor is it random (nothing in this book is random, even if frequently it is opaque) that in the very brief postscript written by Venator’s brother, committing Venator’s writing to a sealed archive (presumably because his thought is dangerous), he says smugly, “A great deal has changed in the city and, if I may say so, for the better.

The Casbah is now desolate; goatherds pasture their goats inside the walls of the stronghold.” The Condor, and the anarch, may have failed in their goals, but at least they dreamed great dreams, and, even more importantly, took risks to achieve them, unlike the decayed people of Eumeswil, ruled by the even more decayed class of the tribunes.

Thus, despite the common misconception (including that of the excellent Introduction by Russell Berman), this is not a book about the tyranny of Communism, or about tyranny in general, such as that of some banana republic authoritarianism. It is about the specific tyranny and flaws of liberal democracy, the fatal defects of which Jünger saw clearly long before most.

Like Václav Havel, Jünger did not believe that liberal democracy was the solution to much of anything, even if it was better than totalitarianism. Jünger may not have seen, or anticipated, all the specifics of the defects of end-stage liberal democracy, the core problem of which is Ryszard Legutko’s “coercion to freedom.” (Jünger does explicitly prefigure Legutko when he has Venator remark that in Eumeswil, “freedom was consumed for the sake of equality”). Nor did he, at least here, narrate the inherent defects of the Enlightenment project of atomized freedom.

Presumably someone more familiar with Jünger’s voluminous output (much of which is untranslated and which, in the German, runs to twenty-two volumes) could offer a more precise answer, and a more precise slotting of this book into Jünger’s thought.

But still, it is fascinating that Jünger saw our current future long before most, and, perhaps, he also saw possible paths toward, if not finding a solution, at least addressing the problems. Maybe that path is something less dramatic than disappearing into the Forest—but maybe it is marching into it, for nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “Arbeit schaendet” (Work is a Disgrace), by Georg Scholz, painted 1920-1921.

Traditionalism, Or More Insanity

This book is an academic study of an obscure movement, Traditionalism. The name has a specific meaning; it does not mean traditional forms of belief, that is, generically, conservatism. Rather, “Traditionalism” is a type of Gnosticism, holding that a core of hidden knowledge, contained within all true religion, is the cure for what ails the modern world.

I certainly think that the modern world needs curing, though I don’t think that Traditionalism is what the doctor ordered. Still, the pull of Gnosticism across time and space must mean something. But what? Mark Sedgwick’s book helps us begin to answer that question.

I read Against the Modern World as part of my ongoing analysis of the lesser-known branches of modern right-wing thought. I was dimly aware of one Traditionalist thinker, the Italian self-described “superfascist” Julius Evola, about whom there was a burp of interest in 2016 when Steve Bannon mentioned his name as someone with whom he was familiar.

George Hawley’s excellent Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism spent some time on Evola and other Traditionalists, expanding my minimal knowledge; it noted an overlap between Traditionalism and the French New Right, wellspring of people like Guillaume Faye and his Archeofuturism.

No Traditionalist is a household name; I therefore read this book hoping to gain more insight. I learned facts I did not know, but as far as insight, I was disappointed—although, to be fair, given that I expected no new wisdom, I can’t really complain.

Sedgwick’s writing isn’t great; he’s an academic, not a popularizer. But he seems to know an awful lot about his subject. Though British, for a long time he has worked in Denmark as a professor of Arab and Islamic Studies, so he is very familiar with the different threads of Islam, essential since the majority of Traditionalists have a close relationship to Islam (more specifically, Sufism).

In fact, his enemies say that Sedgwick long ago converted to Islam, which as far as I know he has neither denied nor confirmed. If that’s true, it does not appear to affect his writing in any way, so for these purposes it’s irrelevant.

Most of his book revolves, in one way or another, around Rene Guénon (1866–1951), the French founder of Traditionalism. Guénon espoused and spread what he viewed as the “Perennial Philosophy,” or “Perennialism,” the idea that there is some “primal truth” that precedes, and is contained in, many (but not all) of the world’s major religions.

The term arose with the Renaissance priest Marsilio Ficino, who tried to reconcile Plato and Christianity, and as whose heir Guénon viewed himself. This idea of reconciling Greek philosophy and Christianity wasn’t new with Ficino, of course—although Sedgwick doesn’t mention it, Christian Neoplatonists, such as Saint Augustine, worked along the same lines, and the tradition of an underlying truth had continued up until and after Ficino, both within Christianity, and, to a greater degree, among movements like Hermeticism. But it had died out in the early modern world, as modernism and materialism came to dominate the West.

What brought Traditionalism back was the perceived defects of the modern world; hence the title of this book. Sedgwick doesn’t do a great job of describing what defects Traditionalists saw (and see); they seem to revolve around spiritual anomie and excessive materialism, which are viewed as inevitably leading to collapse and barbarism.

The modern age is often thought of as the Hindu kali yuga, the fourth and final stage of human degeneration before the cycle begins anew. Such preoccupation with decline and collapse is a very twentieth-century preoccupation, and part of the larger culture beyond Traditionalism—Oswald Spengler being the most obvious example. The Traditionalists, however, put a specifically religious gloss on both the projected collapse and its solution.

My key initial objection, or concern, is that we are never told with any precision, by Sedgwick or anyone else, what the claimed tenets of the universalist “Perennial Religion” are. I don’t think that’s Sedgwick’s fault, but rather the Traditionalists’.

There is much talk of “ancient wisdom,” but nobody seems to think it particularly important to actually identify or specify that wisdom. The only belief that seems evident is in a transcendent deity of some type, source of all wisdom and perfection. The other characteristics of this deity seem opaque, and it is not because they are deliberately hidden in the Gnostic manner—Traditionalists wrote many books.

There is talk of “the sacred unity of reality,” whatever that means. As a side dish, there is muttering about the “Absolute which is indescribable,” which may be accurate, but is not very clarifying. What it all seems to boil down to is generic mysticism; a claimed path to approach, and to understand, the divine and ineffable without, and outside of, detailed rational thought.

Now, mysticism has a long and respectable pedigree in most of the world’s religions, tied to and found as an extension of core doctrines. In contrast, though, most or all Traditionalist mysticism seems to be solipsistic navel-gazing, unmoored from religion. It pays lip service to religious belief, but really thinks religious doctrine is fiction. To Traditionalists, that is probably a feature, not a bug, but it feels a lot like more sophisticated Oprah, pushing The Secret, talking about how the “Universe” wants each of us to have a new car.

One way to understand Traditionalist mysticism, from what I can tease out, is as an accelerated, shortcut, hobbled version of Orthodox theosis, union with the divine energies of God (but not with the divine essence). However, Orthodox doctrine, and thought outside doctrine, is extremely specific about the characteristics of the divine, what God requires, and in what manner it is necessary to approach God. (I imagine the same is true of other religious mysticisms, such as Sufism or those found in Hinduism).

Blathering about “ancient wisdom” and “unity,” beyond feeling like it was derived from a fortune cookie, seems calculated to impress other humans, not set one on an actual path to mystical experience. Probably that’s why, it seems, a lot of Traditionalists end up partaking of various rituals, many newly manufactured, to unlock the key to the divine presence.

Whether to prevent being sullied by the uninitiated, or to prevent being ridiculed, these are rarely publicized (hence the “secret intellectual history” of the book’s subtitle). That’s not new, either, though—the reason we know little about the original Christian Gnostics, other than that some of their thought was suppressed, is that, like all such movements throughout history, they were obsessively secretive about their “hidden knowledge,” a necessary element of their attraction.

At first glance, Traditionalism is thus just another in a long line of quasi-religions that have a strong shyster element. The most obvious precursor is late nineteenth-century Theosophy, progeny of the earlier Spiritualism and mishmash of fraudulence and silliness, associated with the conwoman Helena Blavatsky (died 1891), which lasted some decades as an undercurrent in American intellectual circles.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau had ties to it; later on, Henry Wallace, sometime Vice President to Franklin Roosevelt, lost his chance to become President, and impose Communism on America, by being exposed as a Theosophist. Sedgwick spends a good deal of time parsing various other related movements, such as Martinism (tied to Freemasonry). None of this is surprising—as Chesterton did not say, but should have, when men cease believing in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything.

Or, as Sedgwick names it, citing Bryan Wilson, we get a “cultic milieu,” where, like the Island of Misfit Toys, fringe beliefs collect to support each other in their fringiness.

Today we get New Age beliefs and various other clownish schools of “thought,” which, to be fair, are even more degenerate in their stupidity and lack of intellectual sophistication than Theosophy and its relatives. (Admittedly, these modern beliefs aren’t Gnostic, which makes them somewhat different in structure and approach. Maybe that’s confirmation of Traditionalist beliefs about modern degeneration—today, we can’t even manage a decent Gnosticism.)

The core of all Gnosticism has always been to promise initiation into some hidden, esoteric knowledge. Thus, it is no surprise that most Traditionalists end up connected to, and many formally received into, Sufism. Christianity has always treated Gnosticism as a heresy and held that truth is available openly to all.

Sufism, on the other hand, offers both orthodoxy and a distinction between exoteric and esoteric belief. All (or nearly all) Sufis are devout Sunni Muslims (despite occasional tension with those finding mysticism unpalatable), but they add a layer of esoteric belief. This maintains the precise certainty for believers, something that Islam offers most of all among the major religions, while also offering the feeling of secret knowledge, and thus superiority and being on the inside track, all at the same time, a neat trick.

A few of the Traditionalists profiled in this book tried to combine Perennialism with Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy, but the inherent tensions in that project seem to always pull them either toward orthodox belief or its opposite, formal universalism.

A few others, Evola being the most prominent, combined Traditionalism with a total rejection of monotheistic religion, focusing on what to them were real, earlier pagan gods.

Most Traditionalists seem to find much of value in Hinduism—easy to do in Hinduism, with its many threads and voluminous, opaque writings, which they pick and choose from as their starting point, but I suspect that actual, devout Hindus would not agree with Traditionalist thinking, and anyway all the Traditionalists seem to abandon everything but a few cherry-picked elements of Hinduism, moving on to focus on other religious traditions—from which they also cherry pick, since universalism is rejected by all such traditions.

Back to the history. Probably the reason Guénon got as much traction as he did was because in the early twentieth century mysticism was in the air, and more mainline figures, such as the prominent Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain, initially sponsored his writing to some degree.

As with almost all Traditionalists, Guénon soon thought himself into being fundamentally opposed to actual Christian doctrine, as being both too exclusive in its claims and being a religion of enervation and femininity (shades of Nietzsche), so he went his own way.

A circle formed around Guénon and a new journal in which he was involved, The Veil of Isis, from the name of which you can tell which way they headed, toward secrecy and supposed Eastern wisdom. World War I helped Guénon’s project, in that it made the idea that modernity was fundamentally broken hard to argue. Still unsatisfied, Guénon ended up a Sufi, moving to Egypt and going native.

Sedgwick’s covers two basic periods, before and after Guénon’s death, in 1951, since his death caused divergence into several vaguely connected movements, and turned an already nebulous philosophy into a mishmash. In fact, at least according to Sedgwick, most of the influence of Traditionalism in the past several decades has been through what he calls “soft Traditionalism,” not always easy to identify.

Basically this consists of academics in various fields (all in the humanities), who dislike modernity and hold to the universalist beliefs popularized by Guénon, such that elements of Traditionalism appear in their works, but they are by no means necessarily devotees. Such soft Traditionalism extends to men like E. F. Schumacher in his book Small Is Beautiful, and even to Prince Charles, who to external appearances is mostly just soft in the head (though if he is pulled toward Traditionalism, this, more likely than actual devotion to Islam, explains his frequent positive comments about Islam).

In Russia, though, Traditionalism has lately had some apparent real political impact, through the “Eurasian” program of Alexander Dugin, alleged to influence Vladimir Putin and the Russian government (and having a great deal in common with Faye’s Archeofuturism).

Sedgwick talks about so many people, all obscure, that they are hard to keep straight. Thus, for the most part, I think this book is most valuable as a reference work, although to understand the overall framework you really have to read the whole book.

A few people stand out, or maybe they just stand out to me because these are the ones I’ve heard of. Isabelle Eberhardt, Swiss woman of dubious mental stability, who converted young to Islam, moved to French Algeria (cooperating with the French colonizers but also assisting the locals, and conducting a tangled relationship with Hubert Lyautey, the French officer and Legionnaire in charge), and died before she reached thirty.

The Italian Julius Evola, pagan occultist, worshipper of what he called the Absolute Individual, kept at arms’ length by both Mussolini and the Nazis, because he thought they did not go far enough in maintaining hierarchy, and that they were too materialist by believing in racial, as opposed to spiritual, superiority.

After the war he abandoned politics for his vision of “riding the tiger,” i.e., surviving modernity by ignoring it until it collapses (similar in some ways to Ernst Jünger’s concept of the Forest Rebel, or his related concept of the anarch).

Frithjof Schuon, whom I know of because he lived nearby while I was at school at Indiana University; what I did not know was his adoption of the usual cult leader practice of sleeping with his disciples’ wives, a practice to which he gave the elevated name of “vertical marriage.”

He only died in 1998, after a scandal involving naked carousing with underage girls; apparently even the Bloomington police have limits. Since then, only Dugin has any relevance today, so apparently, at least as against Traditionalism, the modern world is in the ascendant, despite more than a hundred years of effort.

What all the many people Sedgwick profiles had in common was subscribing to the Perennial Philosophy. Again, though, I can’t figure out what that means. I doubt if Eberhardt and Evola had much in common, other than a declared belief in some kind of transcendent unity of all things. What that implied for life meant very, very different things for them, and for most of the Traditionalists.

It seems to me that something that has no predictive value, that ex ante cannot describe the acts or thoughts at any relatively narrow level of generality of any person, is not a useful categorization.

I’m all for attacks on the modern world. This is a difficult argument to make today, because Steven Pinker isn’t wrong, that in a great number of important ways, we are better off than we used to be.

The ways in which we are not better off are harder to quantify, and counterintuitive—for example, excessive personal autonomy is bad, but it feels so good. Yes, there are external indicia of the problems, most notably the failure of all modern societies to reproduce themselves.

But Traditionalism is not a cure for modernity. It makes historical claims that are easily falsifiable. Its theology, to the extent it has any, smacks of pandering to the self-absorbed.

What is needed is a much more grounded philosophy and political program. I am working on it, you will be glad to hear. In the meantime, this book is an interesting exploration of a dead end.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “The Punishment of Loki,” by James Doyle Penrose, a work on paper, published ca. 1912.