Mises Wire

Civil Society and Counterrevolution against Progressivism

When Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell defined the paleolibertarian doctrine, they simply wanted to break the clock of social democracy and repeal the twentieth century, during which some of the greatest horrors in history were created from the deranged ideas of power-hungry nineteenth-century intellectuals by applying these ideas with the full might of the state, costing millions of human lives and the complete degeneration of the social and economic order.

However, we wouldn’t be at this point in history without a process that has been slowly destroying our social protections as individuals, first against the state and now against big business, which is nothing but the result of four centuries of political and even theological formulas of the Enlightenment.

For instance, in his “Cost of Enlightenment“ lecture given at the 2019 Austrian Economics Research Conference, Daniel Ajamian offers an account of how all the “bads” of the Enlightenment, “not so readily admitted by its proponents: communism, eugenics, racial purity, selective breeding, National Socialism, Fabianism, Progressivism, fascism, egalitarianism, modern democracy,“ as well as many others, came to be and how our mainstream, progressive thinking is preventing us from breaking away from its spell of abstract freedom and material equality under universal fraternity.

Ajamian credits his ideas to various nonlibertarian thinkers, using their work to describe how the Enlightenment destroyed the free, organic, and spontaneous order of the Middle Ages, in which church and crown could outrank each other in different spheres and in which a plethora of institutions, such as extended family clans, guilds, municipalities, and associations, were free to thrive and incorporate individuals into like-minded communities.

Conversely, from the works of John Gray, we discover the logic from which modern progressive thinking descended from the Enlightenment, based in the superstitious idea of progress, the belief that greater individual and political freedom invariably go with the expansion of rational thinking and the advancement of technological and material standards, which can only be achieved by breaking away from community and tradition.

By World War I, it should have already been obvious that this progressive mindset was not only mistaken but also dangerous, as the war itself showed it could twist the ideas of individual religious and political freedom into moral relativism and mass conscription.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe in some ways regarded World War I as the end of civilization because it was the main cause of the fall of the remaining Christian empires in Europe (Protestant Germany, Orthodox Russia, and Catholic Austria-Hungary) and its equally religious neighbor, the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Hoppe’s perspective implies that the massive military mobilization undertaken during the Great War would not have been possible if Christendom’s traditional system had still been in place, for the modern tyranny of numbers—in elections, warfare, and industry—could not have been supported by a network of small communities locally organized and guided by a common religion.

Yet, the religious empires were not the bulwarks they seemed to be as all tried to harmonize their intermediate bodies with the political changes imposed by the progressive spirit of their ages. For instance, in Prussia and then the German Empire, the idea of cameralism was developed to incorporate the leadership of autonomous universities into the centralizing public administration. In Austria-Hungary, given the various nationalist uprisings of the nineteenth century, various federalization projects along ethnic lines were undertaken under the patronage of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In Russia, serfdom was formally abolished and a system of local self-governing assemblies, the zemstvo, the was put into place, and in Ottoman Turkey, the Tanzimat reforms tried to adapt traditional institutions such as guilds and dhimmi-protected ethno-religious minorities into analogous Western institutions, such as factories and self-governing provinces.

Nonetheless, none of these reforms prevented these empires’ ultimate collapse under atomizing Western progressivism, for its mass-man doctrine of democracy, production, and conscription was at odds with the historical freedom of the intermediate bodies and small platoons that had organically developed from local traditions, and if reform did not destroy them, total war eventually did, as the liberal West had become more adept at its dynamics than them.

This is because these were the protecting elements of the past order that progressive modernity destroyed, given that its whole doctrine leads toward the absolute restriction of freedom, a point we are currently reaching with increasing levels of government intervention and woke culture.

Intermediate bodies, small platoons, and sphere of sovereignty all refer to what Alexis de Tocqueville called “civil society,” the network of self-governing individuals organized in “associations operating outside the sphere of government and economic life,” or, as Robert Nisbet and Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira thought of it, institutions that were between isolated individuals and the all-powerful government, preventing the latter from dominating the former. For Edmund Burke, this was “the little platoon we belong to in society, … the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections…. the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”

For Abraham Kuyper and Juan Vásquez de Mella, these institutions provide competing spheres of sovereignty, organized according to moral principles in a way that allows people to participate in production, civic matters, and their family lives without interfering in the other spheres, making people free to act within all of them only subject to the moral framework common to all members of society, with Vásquez de Mella including church and locality as intermediate bodies in their own sovereign spheres.

None of these thinkers are libertarian but conservative and traditionalist, but sharing a strong defense of private property and markets within intermediate bodies, as these two institutions allow for the material prosperity of society, whereas the little platoons themselves provide for social organization within the shared moral framework of religion, Tocqueville pointed out in Democracy in America.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the state, under various forms of progressivism, first that of the French Jacobins and then that of the Marxists and other totalitarians, imposed its full might to destroy intermediate bodies, beginning with locality and guild and then going after the family and religion, for they all compete with the state for the people’s full loyalty.

But what makes the twenty-first century more dangerous is that the progressive regime no longer needs the state to destroy intermediate bodies, as it can weaponize the private sector with the cathedral to do so, beginning with the indoctrination of the managerial oligarchs who both run and regulate big business through the state, asphyxiating private entrepreneurs through intervention and causing the remnant of civil society to degrade into nothingness.

In his 2022 Rothbard Graduate Seminar commencement address, Joseph Salerno explained how interventionism is the progressive regime’s main tool to impose its program: by controlling and capitalizing on the economy, the state, under the fanatical influence of progressive doctrine, can destroy the material foundations of civilization and then proceed with the destruction of its social and theological ones.

Government intervention not only has pushed for a frenzied economy, but has also granted a few cronies control of key sectors, making them virtual masters of certain markets. These cronies, whose power tool is scarcity, impose the progressive religion as a show of loyalty to the establishment and to erode civil society with woke “social justice” by attacking self-governing intermediate bodies and ultimately making people subject only to the state and its corporate cronies.

Many libertarians still don’t understand that an egoistic, atomistic view, erroneously understanding the individual person as isolated and self-sustaining and big business as “private” enterprise, supports the progressive project, in which freedom means liberation from all social bonds, equality means the same material misery for all, and fraternity means submission to the corporate state.

As such, the “call to become openly and gloriously reactionary” against the progressive regime, as put by Rothbard and repeated by Salerno, is appealing, but I do not think “reaction” is the right term, for the progressive religion, as an historical phenomenon, has always adopted the guise of revolution, as Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn explained, given its true objective of returning to the “classless” and “egalitarian” state of nature of primitive communism.

Progressivism is opposed to freedom, but not merely abstract liberty: its main enemy is a strong, self-governing civil society, composed of autonomous little platoons and organized by a common, objective morality, which means our struggle against the progressive regime must not be merely a reaction, but a true counterrevolution, working to restore intermediate bodies and reverse all the damages progressivism has done to society.

And for our counterrevolution to succeed, we shall not only repeal the twentieth century, but also repeal the egalitarian mirage it implanted in history.

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