In The Politics of Cultural Despair (a book I recommend, with reservations), Fritz Stern called the writers of the 19th century “conservative revolution” in Germany “intellectual Luddites.” Just as the original Luddites wanted to stop “progress” by breaking machines, so the intellectual Luddites wanted to un-enlighten the Enlightenment, wiping out “Manchesterism” to return to a largely imaginary communitarian, agrarian past. The “machine” the intellectual Luddites sought to break, Stern argues, was reason… or, at least, rationalism, which by the later 19th century was basically the same thing in most people’s minds.
They had a point, those intellectual Luddites. If you haven’t read up on the later 19th century in a while, it’s almost impossible to convey their boundless optimism, their total faith that “science” could, would, and should solve every conceivable problem. The best I can do is this: Back when they were still allowed to be funny, The Onion published a book called Our Dumb Century, which purported to be a collection of their front pages from every year of the 20th century. The headline for 1903 was something like: “Wright Brothers’ Flyer Goes Airborne for 30 Seconds! Conquest of Heaven Planned for 1910.”
That’s the late 19th century, y’all.
It’s not that the Enlightened — the sharper ones among them, anyway — couldn’t see the obvious problems with rationalism. It’s just that they didn’t care. David Hume is justly famous for declaring that you can’t derive “ought” from “is” — that is, that reason can’t lay down moral dicta — but David Hume is also the guy who argued that what we call “cause and effect” are probably just coincidences. And Hume was a piker compared to guys like Charles Fourier, Saint-Simon, etc., who argued, in all apparent seriousness, that disease and old age and death itself would disappear if only we all carried on all our affairs rationally. Compared to the French “utopian socialists,” Jeremy Bentham was a sane, decent man…
And their views seemed to be winning. The “Manchesterism” the conservative revolutionaries were arguing against was what we’d call, for lack of a better term, “old school liberalism.” You know, free trade, expanded voting rights, press freedom, separation of church and state, the whole schmear — in short, the idea that society can, will, and should be organized rationally. Let everyone pursue his own Enlightened [sic] self-interest, and the greatest good for the greatest number will naturally follow.
Taking their cues from the factories of the Industrial Revolution, the Manchesterites believed that the human mind — the human soul, though they’d rarely be so gauche as to speak of the soul — can be compartmentalized. The most obvious example being “the separation of church and state.” Think about it: If you really believe — if you really live your faith — then church and state CAN’T be separate. Democracy is the people’s revealed preferences in action; those preferences are — must be — shot through with religion, if the voters really believe.
To this, the Manchesterites would reply that they don’t mean to interfere in anyone’s private conscience. They’re not arguing for the abolition of religion, nor its banishment to society’s attic, Jane Eyre-style. What they mean is that the institutional church, the Church of England, should be kept out of social policy, which must be rationally organized to advance the collective good… and does everyone see where this is going? They expressed it in very pretty prose — no one wrote political rhetoric like an English Liberal circa 1870 — but it was a question beg for all that. What’s the point of “voting your values,” as the late 20th century would’ve put it, if the institutional expression of those values is just a building that stands empty for all but a few hours on Sunday morning?
“Rationalism,” as it turns out, is a far more jealous god than Jehovah ever dreamed of being. That’s what the “conservative revolutionaries,” the “intellectual Luddites,” were fighting.
But then a funny thing happened: Though Manchesterism won, rationalism, indeed reason itself, split the scene shortly after the victory.
Stern’s “intellectual Luddites” wrote a whole lot of supercharged, Sturm und Drang hooey about “national souls” and “blood spirits” and whatnot, but even their most Romantic fantasies about the Aryan Ubermenschen of yore paled in comparison to stuff like “Critical Race Theory.” Heinrich Himmler may have been the spiritual heir of Stern’s “intellectual Luddites,” but even he, playing with his live-action Castle Wolfenstein playset while the world burned, was a paragon of reason compared to people like Robin DeAngelo. Himmler thought “Nordic” runes were spiritual conduits to the mythic past, but our modern Elites believe, quite literally, in magic.
Magic dirt: There’s something about the Rio Grande, or the Ellis Island ferry, such that crossing it transforms 70-IQ campesinos into bourgie app developers. Magic shapes: Mold plastic into something that looks like a Glock, and anyone who sees it will be compelled to start shooting people. And of course the granddaddy of them all, magic words: Race, sex, these are all “social constructions,” such that a persyn who says xzhey are a woman really IS a woman, physiology be damned. Within the space of a generation, the same people who were smugly slapping Darwin fish on the bumpers of their Subaru Outbacks have declared the very basics of biology rank heresy.
Everyone knows that Karl Marx called religion “the opium of the masses.” It’s a fun quote, but it wasn’t particularly effective rhetoric back in the 19th century, since drug addiction wasn’t really a thing back then.* Far more effective was David Hume’s description — “sick men’s dreams” — but even that paled in comparison to the 19th century’s go-to tactic: Implied infancy. If religious belief developed naturally, in a predictable pattern — and who could deny it, having read the formidable logic of E.B. Tylor? — then anyone who still clung to his belief in a Magic Sky Fairy must belong, despite his physical presence here in this best of all possible worlds, to Mankind’s intellectual infancy. Of course we’re not saying that the religion of Aquinas and Galileo, of Newton and Boyle, was all piffle…. but come now, old sock, you must admit that the Thirty Nine Articles can only be understood “in a non-natural sense,” as Cardinal Newman (of all people!) put it. Are we not, in the face of all-triumphing science, all Robert Elsmere? Surely no one as obviously intelligent as yourself could possibly still…
Marx had that other quote that fits this situation much better, the one about “second time as farce.” Our Postmodern Elite, the I-Fucking-Love-Science crowd, has gone way past intellectual Luddism. They’re digital infants, chanting their hosannas to magic dirt, watching the same cartoon play out over and over again in Minnesota, in Chicago, soon enough in a neighborhood near you (infants love repetition). Tantrums, nom noms, and whee! A shiny!!
Such are the fruits of rationalism.
*Despite the easy availability of all kinds of highly addictive shit like opium and cocaine. Ponder that in the dark watches of the night, if you ever feel like giving yourself insomnia.Loading Likes...