The term ‘reactionary’ is a part of the conservative lexicon, referring to those opposed to progressive or liberal politics. In general terms, the reactionary harkens back to imagined histories, recoiling against the ‘improvements’ of liberalism and the destruction of a happier, often bucolic past. Things were simpler then. As Tony Soprano says, ‘What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.’ The reactionary abhors what is called ‘political correctness’, ‘safe spaces’, and the idea that everyone is somehow entitled to their own personal truth about the world. The reactionary seeks a common view of the world that he and his kind can share in. The world, in the mind of the reactionary, is not a complicated place, it’s pretty black and white.
It seems there has emerged a new reactionary in the victories of Donald Trump and Brexit. The classical reactionary core has persisted, an illiberal nostalgic set that verges on (and sometimes indulges in) racism, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia. But there is another kind of reactionary force that neither seeks a return to the past or an elimination of the liberal conception of progress: these reactionaries seek to blow up the system itself, this image of the world that has failed. This is often poorly articulated, but finds voice in those who respond to claims that Trump or Brexit will cause huge disruption with a shrug of the shoulders. ‘So?’ they would say, ‘That’s why I voted for him/Brexit!’ They are fed up with left and right; they didn’t vote for a party, they didn’t vote for an ideology: they voted for an explosion.
The new reactionary has more in common with anarchists if the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. They are reacting to the inequality that both the conservative right and the liberal left are seeking to preserve and perpetuate. The right seeks to stop the liberal socialist agenda and maintain a historic position of ascendancy that has been successful for them; while the left seeks to perpetuate the progressive politics that serve their people better, with their cosmopolitan / Utopian view of the world. Each of them has little to offer the marginalised, the less well educated, the impoverished, whose numbers continue to swell. The electoral calculus is less between the parties, and more between the disenfranchised and the voters, between the numbers of unequals who choose to vote, and those who do not. And even were they to vote – who would they vote for? Brexit wasn’t a who, but a what – and that was a box they could tick. Similarly, Trump wasn’t really a Republican – the GOP hated him almost as much as the Democrats – and that meant avoiding a red/blue choice entirely.
On top of all of this, history is served by that group deciding between left and right. This isn’t quite the same as shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic; these ‘leaders’ aren’t even on the same boat as everyone else. It may work, in the short term; but our history is a short lived thing. In the greater scheme of things, hubris to one side, what exactly are these people – those in titular power – trying to achieve? Can they articulate that? There is a detachment of power from populous, where the architecture of State is not governed by the people but merely navigated by them. Moises Naim’s 2013 book The End of Power is a useful assessment of this new alienation, and helps to inform what happened in 2016; but it doesn’t explain how those in putative control persist their ambition, itself an atavistic, out-dated model.
The alliance of these two groups – the opportunist elites and the marginalised poor – is a strange one. They share an objective on one level – that of blowing up the status quo – but their ultimate aims are both nebulous: the marginalised just want to shout that ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more’, while the elites merely want to acquire power for power’s sake. Neither is a substantive ambition beyond immediate electoral success. Ultimately, having succeeded in the first part of their plan, the question is a simple one: Now what?
3 thoughts on “Anarchist Reactionaries”
Your description of Trump’s supporters is similar to my own. I’ve described voting for Trump as like throwing a grenade into a bunker. To the reactionary mind, there is nothing that follows reaction other than more reaction. It becomes an all-consuming worldview of reaction perpetuating further reaction, in fantasies of violence and destruction.
It’s the apocalyptic visions that takeover in certain societies, such as the Semitic people in the desert who would later become the Jews. It was also seen in the plains Indians who developed an apocalyptic religion after experience mass devastation and genocide. More recently, it’s exemplified by Christian fundamentalists dreaming of the Second Coming and Islamic fundamentalists hoping to force God’s hand.
All of fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity, as fundamentalism did not exist prior to modernity. I think it’s Karen Armstrong who explains this, including a discussion of the odd behavior of Islamic terrorists flouting Islamic law. Reactionary behavior only makes sense within the reactionary worldview.
There is no after Apocalypse, no next stage, second step, or plan B. That is it. Apocalypse itself is the final solution and conclusion, the ultimate endpoint and culmination. This is taken as a cosmic war or something akin to it and, as such, it’s total war.
This is the reactionary not as a mild infection but as a full blown disease. This is the reactionary impulse in its purest form and pushed to its furthest extreme. It’s a resignation of sorts but the resignation of a suicide bomber who will have justice in his own mind.
Such Apocalyptic fantasizing is what people turn to when the stress, anxiety, and trauma of society becomes too overwhelming. When all hope is perceived as lost, the demand for hope doesn’t disappear but takes a dark turn. The problem is that it’s hope without a clear vision, without any way forward.
That is when an authoritarian demagogue can step in and take advantage of the populist outrage and social unrest. The reactionary may have no answer other than the fight itself but a social dominator might offer promises and plans of progress or else nostalgic redemption.
If nothing else, reactionaries can make for useful tools, the goons and good Nazis. They will be willing to do what they are told needs doing without moral qualms. They will gladly punish perceived enemies, eliminate those in the way, and round up the malcontents, the inferiors, and anyone who is perceived as other.
If there is something coming next, that is what is most likely. That is assuming we the public allow it to happen, allow history to repeat itself. The question of ‘Now what?’ will be answered if and only when they seize power. Even reactionaries can’t tell you where it’s heading, otherwise they wouldn’t be reactionaries.
Thanks David. My wife is a big fan of Karen Armstrong, though I’ve not read much I”ll confess. Sounds like I should! Great links thanks, I’ll get to them 😉