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The Two Centuries of the Great Reaction

TODAY NRO has a piece on the end of the Soviet empire in 1989: "Reflections on the 'Revolution' of 1989" by A. Wess Mitchell. And how that was the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in 1789.

Mitchell "is a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs and a principal at the Marathon Initiative, an initiative focused on preparing the United States for great-power competition."

But Mitchell asserts that:

However momentous the changes of 1989 may have been in human terms, in constitutional terms they embodied the restoration of a Western legal and civic order to lands from which it had been uprooted.
Or, in my terms, it signaled the end of the Great Reaction of 1789-1989. What was the Great Reaction? Well, Mitchell has a good try by contrasting the American Revolution of 1776 with the French Revoluion of 1789.
The object of 1776 was the preservation of the accumulated rights of Englishmen[.]... By contrast, the object of 1789 was the dismantling of public order in favor of abstract concepts.


Already at the time of the British Glorious Revolution in 1688 people were beginning to appreciate that the new manufacturing offered an economy of limitless wealth that contrasted with the obvious limits of an agricultural economy. Wrote Carew Reynell in 1685: “Though we are a nation already pretty substantial... yet it is easy for us to be ten times richer.”
Do you see the point? If you are doing manufacturing, then agriculture is no longer the name of the game: nor is the conquest of land the royal road to riches. Now, in fact, Reynell was too pessimistic. We are in fact today 30 times richer than back in 1685. And we got here not by politics, not by conquest, not by land, but by manufacturing, trading, and the various technological revolutions on the way.

That is why, if you read the World Bank's study of the wealth of nations in 2000, the wealth of rich nations like us is 80% "intangible capital," or the capital between peoples' ears.

Notice the staggering changes in conventional wisdom: In 1700 conquest becomes passé. In 1800 slavery becomes a scandal. In 1900 the subjugation of any human becomes a scandal.

And yet, nobody was directing these changes; they occurred "organically."

Now I maintain that humans actually yearn to know that "someone is in charge." I think that the staggering changes that were already well in train by the mid 1700s is at the bottom of the Great Reaction, the great faith in politics as the answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

If there was not to be a monarchical will of the warrior king that protected us from all perils, then there needed to be a General Will of the people.

If there was not to be the eternal hierarchy of nobles lording it over peasants, then look out for a something that was bound to be worse, a hierarchy of capitalists over proletarians.

And if that weren't bad enough, what about the oppressive horror of whites over blacks, men over women, straights over gays!

Thus we have had a Great Reaction for the last 200 years that has believed that the only way to save the world is with political power.

But I say it has sown misery wherever it was tried, as in my maxim:
Socialism is neo-slavery; the welfare state is neo-feudalism; identity politics is neo-tribalism; reparations is neo-vengeance; activism is part neo-knight-errantry, part pro-regime street-thuggery, and part activisme, or gentry kids putting on a play; helpless victims are neo-sacrifice, social justice is neo-plunder.
 I am not really angry about this. My Hegelian instinct says that we should have expected that, when the need for political power went away we would expect a last ditch effort to build a shrine to political power and to make it into a golden idol and worship it.

But I say that humans are a hierarchical species, so how does hierarchy work in a post-political age? And humans are religious animals, lusting after the meaning of life, the universe and everything. So how do we do religion without it turning into an apocalyptic cult like Communism or Climate Change?

The truth is: I don't know. And I don't think anyone else does either.

perm | comment | Follow chrischantrill on Twitter | 12/09/19 8:48 pm ET


“Activists are fake revolutionaries.”

Christopher Chantrill Follow chrischantrill on Twitter

Christopher Chantrill (@chrischantrill) is a writer and conservative.

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