Discover more from The UnPopulist
The Right Has a Deep Aversion to Equality: A Conversation with Political Theorist Matthew McManus
Maintaining fixed hierarchies is at the heart of its political project
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Reimagining Liberty, a project of the UnPopulist. I'm Aaron Ross Powell and this is a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom.
Over the last decade, the political far right has roared back into power. Not just with Trumpism in the US, but with populist movements around the globe. Understanding why this is happening and what we can do about it requires understanding the nature of the right as well as its history. That's why I was so happy to learn that my friend and frequent guest Matthew McManus has a new book, The Political Right and Equality, in which he traces the philosophical development of right-wing ideas.
Matt is a lecturer in political science at the University of Michigan, and it's my pleasure to have him back on the show to talk about the nature and motivations of the right.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: Your book is called The Political Right and Equality. They're frequently used terms but ones that are, definitionally, often slippery. As I like to do, let's start with a little bit of definition. What do we mean by "the right"?
Matthew McManus: Sure. Well, thanks a lot for having me here. It's always a pleasure to talk, Aaron, and a lot of fun to actually talk about this book that I've been working on for a long time. I think that in order to talk about the modern right we need a little bit of history, so I'm going to go backwards before I land in your definition. Do that annoying academic-y thing of adding context.
My story of my book actually begins with Aristotle and the antiquarian worldview or the Aristotelian worldview as I sometimes call it, which is defined by what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls a social model of hierarchical complementarity. That's a big term, but what it basically just means is that philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, saw nothing wrong with insisting that there are recognizably superior people in any given society, and they deserve to have higher degree of status, a higher degree of power, a higher degree of influence on their society. That doesn't mean that the people at the bottom rung of any given social period are inessential or can be disposed of.
Like any other period or pyramid, the base is as necessary as the top, but that doesn't mean that the base is entitled to the same kind of dignity or the same kind of worth as people who are at the summit. Taylor and other people like Gans point out that this model of hierarchical complementarity more or less was the operative conception for a lot of political theorists going all the way up until—depending on how you want to demarcate it—the 15th, 16th century. Around the time when liberal values really started to encroach on this vision of the world as predicated on a social model of hierarchical complementarity.
What you start to see with people like Locke and Hobbes is, actually, an inversion of this supposition where they say, actually, far from there being demonstrably or recognizably superior people who are entitled to more status, affluence, power in society, everyone in a state of nature is equal. If you're a Christian thinker, everybody is equal before the throne of God, and that's the baseline expectation.
What this does is start to put pressure on these hierarchical visions of how the social world should be organized because now the default expectation is that people are equal, and you have to justify inequality, not the other way around. My claim is that the modern right with [Edmund] Burke and de Maistre emerges around the same time as the various revolutionary movements that try to put these egalitarian philosophies into practice.
You think about the American Revolution, French Revolution, Haitian Revolution, a very important one that people, sadly, always forget about for a lot of colonial reasons, and what you see is the modern right wanting to restore something like this vision of hierarchical complementarity that existed in the antiquarian world but recognizing that it's no longer hegemonic or the default position that a lot of people just come back to or just suppose is natural or ordained by God.
“You think about the American Revolution, French Revolution, Haitian Revolution…and what you see is the modern right wanting to restore something like this vision of hierarchical complementarity that existed in the antiquarian world but recognizing that it's no longer hegemonic or the default position that a lot of people just come back to or just suppose is natural or ordained by God.”
You now actually have to offer original intellectual defenses of a vision of hierarchical complementarity and this idea that, as Hayek puts it, there are recognizably superior people in society. In order to do that successfully, you're probably going to need to draw very heavily on a lot of the insights and arguments that your enemies are bringing up, and so this is what people like Burke, de Maistre, and pretty much everyone else in the book ends up doing.
To give the shorthand definition, this is where I actually agree with F. A. Hayek in his little essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” where he says, listen, there are all kinds of good reasons why it is that liberals support various forms of social hierarchy. Liberals don't necessarily believe in equality in all respects, but what differentiates liberals from conservatives is this conviction that there are recognizably superior people in society and that social hierarchies should be organized to put the recognizably superior people at the top.
Another person I bring up in the introduction is James Fitzjames Stephen, a very famous critic of John Stuart Mill, where he says, listen, “to obey a ‘real superior’”—now, what is a ‘real superior’ is a tricky question—"is a great virtue”. It's the glue that holds society together. What we're going to see throughout the history of the intellectual right are many different attempts to define who this recognizably superior or “real superior” kind of person is. Every thinker's going to have a different understanding of what that means.
Aaron: It seems like there are a couple of ways we could think about hierarchy in—call it like a natural sense. One is as almost like a normative concept in the sense that at its clearest version, would be something like—some people, maybe certain races, are born superior to others, and so they are going to both in the scheme of things, be higher up in the hierarchy, and it would be actually morally wrong to interfere in the natural emergence of it, because you'd be taking these naturally superior people and making them low. There's something baked in from birth and people are categorized at a metaphysical level.
On the other hand, and this is the one that I see a lot of conservatives defend and a lot of free market people defend, is something more like a descriptive account of hierarchy which is that there obviously are differences between people. Like you and I have—you are a far more productive writer than I am and so if the two of us were building our careers around writing, the likelihood is that you're going to do better at it than me and so in the writing hierarchy you're going to be higher.
I might be better at other things than you. In a free system, the market's going to pick what people in the aggregate value or don't. That may change over time, but differences in wealth, differences in social power, those are going just to emerge from the fact that people are different. That creates a hierarchy, but it's not a natural hierarchy in the sense of like Socrates saying people are born with different sorts of souls or a racist saying that race creates natural hierarchies. Are both of those what we're talking about when we talk about “The Right” or does “The Right” depend upon more the former, more the natural versus the emergent or descriptive?
Matthew: Well, I'd actually argue that there are two primary ways that The Right will try to defend division of social hierarchy. These are very different although they overlap in some respects with what you find when liberals try to offer a defense of hierarchy. Typically, when liberals will offer a defense of hierarchy, particularly utilitarian-minded liberals like Hayek, the argument is, look, people are clearly morally equal. In an ideal world everybody would have an opportunity for flourishing that was more or less equal to everyone else's. But we have got to be realistic about this and recognize that people also have divergences in terms of their natural talents, and the market will also reward certain kinds of natural talents more than others because that's just in line with what people's preferences are, and so the best thing to do in order to instill efficiency in society, particularly economic efficiency, is just to have a competitive race within the market.
Whoever's natural talents end up being rewarded, well, we weren't going to say that they're instinctually or naturally better than anyone else, but they are entitled to that as a reward for services rendered in terms of increasing aggregate utility. There are some conservatives who will sometimes flirt with these kinds of arguments but not many. In fact, if you think about somebody like Ayn Rand's critique of Hayek—precisely because he's not respectful or reverential enough of the “truly productive” class and what distinguishes them from the lower orders, that's a good place where you can demarcate a right-wing approach to understanding the market from Hayek's more liberal approach to understanding it.
To my main point, I think there are two ways that conservatives have defended hierarchy, or The Right has defended hierarchy, over the course of its history. The first one is called sublimation. This is a term I draw from Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France where he says, “wherever man is going to be put over man,” it's very important to ascribe what he call “sublime qualities” to the person who's going to be put over anyone else.
These sublime qualities can vary widely. You can think about the kind of honorifics that we associate with the monarchy, or the majesty that we would describe to something like the aristocracy right down to the pomp and circumstance. All of these are meant to suggest that there's something just innately better about these people that entitles them to rule over someone else.
Now Burke is actually remarkable in that he is quite self-conscious about the fact that these sublime qualities might not actually be intrinsic to these persons themselves. In fact, one of his criticisms of Enlightenment rationalism is that they strip away what he called “all the pleasing illusions” that made submission to the ruling elite easy. Once you just start to see, as he puts it, the queen is just a woman or the king is just a man, it's a lot harder to sit there and think, "Well, they should be set above me." Some very interesting things there.
You see examples of these kinds of efforts at sublimation all throughout the conservative tradition. For instance, one of Burke's contemporaries, a little bit younger, Joseph de Maistre, would often talk about how the founders of kingdoms were almost invariably kings, and they had been chosen by providence or even God because of their mysterious qualities that elevated them above the ragtag ordinary human beings.
What de Maistre is really innovative in saying is, listen, precisely because kings have this sublime quality to them, subordinating yourself to them is actually way more elevating than participating in a democracy because you get to become part of this grand project or grand enterprise that the king is exercising. Whereas if you live in a democracy, then it's just you and every “Joe Six-Pack” making decisions about things. It's nothing really that's all that elevated about that.
Now, sublimation is less common today than it was, say, around Burke's time because it's a little bit harder to make that case, but you still see many examples of it on the political right. One that I bring up is a good friend, Dr. Jordan Peterson, where he talks in his Conservative Manifesto Part 2, about how inequality seems, as he puts it, “deeply and mysteriously baked into natural reality itself.” How some stars have more mass, some rivers get more water, some oceans are bigger than seas. He gives a whole list of these things, which is, again, attempting to sublimate various forms of inequality.
The more common way of trying to justify inequality today is to naturalize it. This also has a normative dimension, to be clear. To suggest that, well, there are some people who are almost set out by nature or signaled out by nature as being recognizably superior. This, of course, can be more appealing to people in an Enlightened age or post-Enlightenment age because it usually will emulate the style and the empirical fascinations of liberal rationalism, but it's usually more muscular in insisting on the differences in terms of human worth that one can see within nature.
“The more common way of trying to justify inequality today is to naturalize it. This also has a normative dimension, to be clear. To suggest that, well, there are some people who are almost set out by nature or signaled out by nature as being recognizably superior.”
There are many forms of social Darwinism that can be found in this. One example that I bring up in the book is Nietzsche, for example. Nietzsche is very insistent, for instance, that he wants to reject “the lie” of equality of souls. One of the reasons for this is he says, look, once you reject the idea that we're all equal before the throne of God, because God is dead, what you need to recognize is that we are thrown back into a world where some people are just stronger than others, and there's nothing necessarily wrong about that.
In fact, he once uses this very powerful metaphor where he says, "The sheep might look up at the eagle and think that the eagle is evil, but really, the eagle is just hungry when it preys upon them and there's nothing wrong with that. It's entirely natural." In the same way, it's natural that some human beings will be predatory and rule over others because that's just the way that the universe or the world operates. Very nice example of naturalization there.
More contemporaneously, you can see various attempts to justify racial inequality in very similar ways. A very famous example of this is Charles Murray and Herrnstein's book, The Bell Curve suggesting that if there are inequalities within society between people, that can almost entirely be attributed to differences in intellectual capability. They measure it by IQ. Obviously controversial, but let's just go with that.
They then very controversially go on to say there's a lot of this fear over racial inequalities and many people attribute that to white supremacy, a white supremacist society, but actually the real reason for this is that certain races of people are just genetically inferior, consequently predisposed to having lower intelligence quotient than others. There's nothing that we can really do meaningfully about that, so the best thing is to feel a sense of pity for these people, recognize that it's not their fault, but what are you going to do?
Some people can do higher math and some people can't. You just have to learn to live with that. That's another clear example of naturalization and trying to imply that there are recognizably superior people in society. They deserve what they get and the people at the bottom, you don't necessarily need to actively try to oppress them per se, but there's really not much that can be done for them.
Aaron: That naturalization is definitely a really common and, I guess, powerful argument that the right makes pretty frequently. I'm thinking of recently I did an episode with Gillian Branstetter of the ACLU about trans rights and gender and the idea that when—The way the argument's often framed is we recognize these natural categories and therefore they lead us to believe that such and such a hierarchy is itself natural, just, et cetera, et cetera.
More frequently, what you see is the arguing in the opposite direction which is, here's a particular hierarchy that I like. It aligns with my preferences. I personally benefit from it. I think it's better, so on and so forth, or it's just what I imagine to be traditional and what I'm used to, and this set of ideas threatens that hierarchy. This is a lot of the, like, I have my objections to things that critical race theorists say but most of the objections to the panic about it is because it threatens to destabilize certain lifestyles and sets of hierarchies that people benefit from or have a preference for.
When that happens or patriarchy sees transgender identities as a threat to male identity, when that happens, suddenly you go out and you start looking for—When white male status drops, suddenly all of these white male liberals get really interested in human biological diversity thesis. You go looking for the thing that you can now call your preferences natural as a way to defend against them versus what would be—I still think it's wrong—but the more intellectually honest, which would be to go out and look at what's natural and then derive your conclusions from that.
Matthew: Yes, absolutely. This is one of the points that I make in a recent article I published in Commonwealth on sublimation and naturalization. It's fairly easy now for progressives to debunk sublimation. In fact, it always has been. Mary Wollstonecraft, a wonderful liberal and a critic of Burke, described him as having a mortal antipathy to reason who was almost bizarrely attracted to these gothic notions of beauty and aestheticism.
She was like, "Yes, maybe you sit there and think that the king in his castle is resplendent and glorious, and we should defer to that, but my say that when the ivy chops up new growth, who wouldn't tear it down?" Very effective kind of criticism of Burke. I've played my own role in that and so have many other progressives. Marx was very talented at this as well. Deconstructing the forms of fetishism that people attach to power, but naturalization is much tougher for progressives to deal with.
I think in part because there are clearly natural differences between people in terms of their aptitudes, their tastes, their different talents. As you mentioned, I maybe write a little bit more than you, but I'm guessing that if you were to play a RPG campaign, you'll beat the pants off me. There are different aptitudes about this and to a certain extent that's a good thing as well. Any progressive would acknowledge that this kind of differentiation between individuals is something that adds richness and texture. Including differentiation between culture.
I think that there are many ways that we can push against the naturalization thesis. I'll just give two quick examples. Let's go with the patriarchy one to begin with. One of the things that's interesting about arguments in defense of patriarchy is that many people think that there's a lot of novelty to these responses to feminism. Actually, they go really way back. I really strongly encourage your listeners to read a book, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity by James Fitzjames Stephen which is a book-length rebuttal to John Stuart Mill by a very famous British conservative in the 19th century. Very smart book by the way.
One of the things that Fitzjames Stephens takes issue with when he is not arguing that to submit to a real superior is a great virtue is John Stuart Mill's feminism. Mill famously defended his feminism in liberal—I would add liberal socialist—terms saying look, women are human beings, they're entitled to the free development of their capabilities just as men are. Our society hasn't respected that for a long time, including within the family, and we need to do something about that by ensuring that they are more equal or at least granting them equal liberty.
Fitzjames Stephen takes issue with that by saying, listen, no. Women are biologically different than men. They are clearly the weaker sex, intellectually and physically, and he points to some evidence at the time he thinks that proves that. He says actually, if you were to throw women out there into a competitive market as legal equals without the protection of men, they're actually going to become less equal because they won't be able to compete with men in a free marketplace. They're going to get creamed, so why would you want to take these protections away from them when they so desperately need them in order to actually enjoy a certain level of equality with men, at least within the household, under the protection of somebody like their husband who will insulate them from the tos and fros of the world? This is a remarkable thesis that anticipates so much of what you see right now in terms of the defense of patriarchy.
It appeals to biological facts about the inequality of women and then, in fact, inverts arguments for equality into an argument for inequality by saying that actually, women are more equal in a patriarchal familial setting than they would be if they were declared equal under the law and given equal rights to men because then they'll just be creamed in a competitive marketplace.
“This is a remarkable thesis that anticipates so much of what you see right now in terms of the defense of patriarchy.
It appeals to biological facts about the inequality of women and then, in fact, inverts arguments for equality into an argument for inequality by saying that actually, women are more equal in a patriarchal familial setting than they would be if they were declared equal under the law and given equal rights to men because then they'll just be creamed in a competitive marketplace.”
Most of us, I think right now, would reject that. There's probably a few conservatives out there that would say we should go back to the days of formal inequality and formal discrimination between women, but I think if we look at the aptitudes that women have demonstrated when being allowed to compete on the same terrain as men, it's quite extraordinary. So James' thesis just doesn't seem applicable any longer unless you're on the alt-right and you buy into a lot of that stuff.
Sometimes experience can testify to the wrongness of efforts at naturalization. There's another way that people have tried to naturalize inequalities and another response that I think we can make to that. Let's take Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve as another example. I've always thought, and in fact he thinks, that the most effective way to respond to that isn't by pointing out that it's shoddy empirical scholarship—Which it is, by the way.
I think Stephen J Gould proved beyond a doubt that a lot of the stuff in there that's talking about racial inequalities is just crap from an empirical or social scientific standpoint. But let's say that we take seriously this idea that, look, some people just have more natural talents than others. There's nothing that we can really do about that. At least in a deeply meaningful way. Losses must fail where they lie. If some people just are able to exercise their natural talents and wind up better off than others, who are we to define nature in that respect?
I think that a good Rawlsian response to that is, no, if you acknowledge that these differences are immutably set by nature, then to a certain extent they're morally arbitrary. You didn't do anything to deserve your natural talents any more than I deserve my natural talents, whatever they happen to be. So why should that be determinative of where someone ends up in life? Especially if we take seriously the idea that your investment in your life going well is as important to you as my investment in my life going well is to me.
“I think that a good Rawlsian response to that is, no, if you acknowledge that these differences are immutably set by nature, then to a certain extent they're morally arbitrary. You didn't do anything to deserve your natural talents any more than I deserve my natural talents, whatever they happen to be. So why should that be determinative of where someone ends up in life?”
That's a Rawlsian way that you can respond to these kind of naturalization arguments that I think is very powerful, and it's one that I'd like to see the left using a little bit more when confronting these usually bad but sometimes impressive empirical cases for why it is that inequality is just natural and there's nothing we can do about it.
Aaron: Let's change directions for a second and ask about another definitional thing, which is we in common conversation about politics in the [United} States, use conservatism and the right as synonyms. We call someone on the right, you can also call them conservative, and we take those to mean the same thing. Is that correct? Is conservatism the same thing as the right as you've defined it?
Matthew: No, not at all. The political right is just as diverse if not more diverse than the political left. It pains me to say that, but it's true. Actually, this diversity has contributed to a real problem in right-wing or conservative studies as it is sometimes called. That's not just me as a leftist saying this. You can read Edmund Neill's really fantastic book Conservatism. Edmund is a little moderate Tory, Burkean kind of figure. He, in the introduction of that book, is like, we've had a really hard time pinning down what it means to be conservative or on the right precisely because there is just so much diversity on that end of the political spectrum.
Now, I think there are reasons for this, but I'll just make a quick analytical distinction. Conservatism of the sort that you see emerging in say, Burkeanism, tends to argue that what we need to do is preserve social institutions the way they are and that if we are going to change them it needs to be done slowly and gradually. Conservatism essentially means changing what you must in order to conserve what you can.
That's a venerable tradition on the political right. It has many prominent advocates and it's usually the way that the political right has been understood in the United States for example. It by no means exhausts the array of views that you can see on the political right. I'll just give a few examples. In instances where conservatives or people on the right think that the left or liberals have been, to use Corey Robin's term, “in the driver's seat” for too long in society, they can sometimes become very radically opposed to conserving much of anything.
That's not just me spit balling. You can read Glen Ellmers’ recent essay, “"Conservatism" is No Longer Enough” for the American Conservative, where he says, look, the left has been in the driver's seat for a very, very long time. They completely changed the culture. We now see the widespread toleration of LGBTQ rights, trans activism is taking off, the welfare state is getting ever bigger, he thinks—I contend with him on that—so what's left conserve? There's nothing left to conserve.
What we need is radicalism instead. There are many radical figures on the political right who will emerge typically in these time periods where they see liberalism or progressivism as hegemonic. In these kinds of instances, they can demand dramatic transformations of society and the state that rival or sometimes outdo anything that you can see coming from even the radical left.
Probably the most spectacular instance of this is of course, fascism in the early 20th century, or the radical right more broadly in the early 20th century, when many people in Italy and Germany were deeply concerned about the emergence of strong communists, social democratic movements in their countries. In Italy, there was a deep concern about the rise of the Communist Party and the transition to parliamentarianism, and in Germany, it was even worse. You had the social Democratic party literally create the Weimar Republic in the aftermath of the First World War.
Everyone on the radical right looks at this and says, we're not conserving any of this. We're not interested in conserving the Weimar Republic. The Italian fascists are definitely not interested in conserving Italian parliamentarianism. What we need to do is completely upend the system. Fascists will develop their own very complex and very brutal vision of a palingenetic national utopia that is intended to look very different from the left's vision of utopia while also being different from what Italian and German conservatives wanted.
Both Italian fascists and German Nazis will say things that are very similar to what Ellmer said about the conservative movement in the United States today. That conservatives have proven utterly incapable of halting the tide of liberal and progressive reform. They're way too sclerotic, lazy, flabby, and so what we need is radicalism of the right in order to combat that. Not this kind of wishy-washy RINO stuff.
Aaron: How does individualism fit into this? Individualism has often been seen as the opposite of leftism. You mentioned Ayn Rand earlier, she was always accusing people on the left of being “collectivists” and in opposition to the individual. That kind of thinking is pretty common, but we certainly have seen lately a rise in what we might call communitarian conservatism or “right-communitarianism” and often an explicit rejection of saying, "The problem is…" Josh Hawley used to write about this before his political career. The problem is individualism, and we need to get away from individualism.
Individualism doesn't seem to be necessarily intentioned with the hierarchies that the right wants to support. You could say everyone is an individual. There isn't a collective identity. You shouldn't subsume your identity to a collective, but there's still individuals doing, their individual things are going to create a hierarchy either because of innate characteristics or different preferences or different metallic souls or whatever, but that doesn't necessarily entail rejecting individualism, so what's the relationship there?
Matthew: Well, I think this is very complicated, but it helps to historicize this a little bit. I still will see sometimes people use these terms, “individualism” and “collectivism,” as a way of demarcating left and right, but it's important to note that that only really became common parlance in the 20th century in the Anglosphere. Then only within a very small subset of Anglo-liberals and “ordered liberty conservatives” for whom this kind of distinction makes sense.
Let's be very clear. From the very beginning, many on the political right, particularly in Europe, but also in the United States, had their own vision of what a kind of meaningful collective would look like, and they projected that as the kind of ideal society was supposed to aspire to. Many conservatives, including in the United States, but especially in Europe again, were very critical of what they saw as the libertine permissiveness and egalitarianism that underpin things like liberal individualism or socialist demands for emancipation.
It's also very much the case that many on the political left could have been extraordinarily insistent on the importance of individualism as being at the epicenter of progressive concerns. Let's just go back to John Stuart Mill. John Stuart Mill—you won't find a much more articulate defender of individualism than Mill, author of On Liberty—also argued that for a moderate socialism out of the workplace cooperatives, and his argument was, look, individualism requires that we foster human capabilities in a very deep and robust way.
If we don't foster those capabilities, then people won't actually be empowered to express their individualism in the same kind of—In the meaningful ways that we want and so we need to have a state that will intervene and provide things like certain level of sustenance, being militant in opposing things like patriarchal domination, in order to allow individualism to express itself.
I've just never thought of the individualism-collectivism binary as very helpful in terms of mapping the left-right binary. You can find forms of leftism that are very anti-individualist. Let's be clear about that. You can also find forms of leftism, whether Mill or anarchism, et cetera, that are highly individualist in their orientation. Similarly, you can find figures on the political right that are committed to a kind of individualism.
“I've just never thought of the individualism-collectivism binary as very helpful in terms of mapping the left-right binary. You can find forms of leftism that are very anti-individualist. Let's be clear about that. You can also find forms of leftism, whether Mill or anarchism, et cetera, that are highly individualist in their orientation. Similarly, you can find figures on the political right that are committed to a kind of individualism.”
Think about somebody like Ayn Rand, for example, or Nietzsche in some moments, even though he claimed he wasn't an individualist but was concerned with rank ordering. Many people have interpreted it that way. You can also find plenty on the political right who will be profoundly critical of decadent bourgeois libertinism and all its associated crassness who will insist that one needs to invest oneself in the destiny of the nation, for example, or in the destiny of one's race, in order to be truly elevated above the mundane crudeness of market society.
I've just never seen this as being very useful. I think it was a relic of the Cold War era where, again, Cold War liberals and conservatives like to make this bifurcation between collectivism and individualism because it was nice and simple and clean, but it doesn't really tell us very much about these things historically, and certainly not contemporaneously.
Aaron: We've heard a lot about the left opposing free speech and cancel culture and campuses clamping down on free and open debate. There's a line in your book that I came across in the introduction that I'd love for you to unpack a bit because it cuts against that narrative. You say, "The political right has always been uncomfortable with the idea of universal critical thinking and permissive free debate so beloved by the liberal tradition." What do you mean?
Matthew: Well, I think I mean just what I said I mean. A lot of people are shocked at the anti-CRT initiatives that are taking place in Florida under DeSantis' auspices or Chris Rufo's auspices really. My argument would be there is nothing shocking about this. If one goes back to the origins of the political right, and the work of people like Edmund Burke or Joseph de Maistre, you certainly don't see a robust defense of free speech, at least for everybody. Absolutely you do not see a robust defense of critical thinking.
“A lot of people are shocked at the anti-CRT initiatives that are taking place in Florida under DeSantis' auspices or Chris Rufo's auspices really. My argument would be there is nothing shocking about this. If one goes back to the origins of the political right, and the work of people like Edmund Burke or Joseph de Maistre, you certainly don't see a robust defense of free speech, at least for everybody. Absolutely you do not see a robust defense of critical thinking.”
We'll start with Burke. Burke, in a speech he gave to Parliament, once said that it's a real tragedy when people inquire too deeply into the origins of nations. Now you might think that's a little bit weird for somebody who seems as interested in history as Burke, but the reason he gives is very clear. Once you go back and inquire too deeply into the origins of nations, a lot of those sublime qualities you associate with the monarchy or the aristocracy start to get stripped away, and you realize that William of Normandy just decided that he wanted his ass on the throne of England.He landed with 6,000 men, Harold Godwinson made a couple of mistakes in the Battle of Hastings, and that's why we have the monarchy that we did. Very easily could have cut the other way. He points out that the same was true when the French revolutionaries started needling at the origins of the French state saying, do we really need to pay so much attention to this Bourbon monarchy that installed itself through violence and theft and expropriation, et cetera, et cetera?
Drawing upon these histories and aligning them with various critical arguments. Burke is very skeptical of these things precisely because too much inquiry of this sorts strips away, again, all the pleasing illusions that makes subordination easy. Now he's a little bit more comfortable with free inquiry of a certain sort as a moderate Whiggish Tory than some others on the political right are.
Joseph de Maistre his contemporary, is far more emphatic where he states, Enlightenment philosophy is fundamentally a “destructive force.” That's his term. “Destructive.” The reason is because it submits authority and power to the needlesome criticism of the mass, every single person, and everyone thinks that they are entitled to now have an opinion on who should be in charge, why they should be in charge, and has different motivations behind that.
He says when you submit power to this endless series of criticisms, you destroy it because you delegitimate it fundamentally. Instead, power needs to be treated not as something that everyone is entitled to critique, or really anyone is entitled to critique, but instead, you defer to power as an article of faith. Are you treated as something dogmatically. You don't question dogmas. You defer to them, and they answer your questions.
Throughout his work, you find this remarkable critique of enlightenment rationalism and precisely the way it has this “disintegrationist” or destructive quality to it. There are just huge numbers of examples of this kind of anti-intellectualism that you see emerging on the political right all motivated by precisely the same kinds of anxieties that you see Burke and de Maistre articulate far more clearly.
Yoram Hazony is a very good example of this recently. Yoram is a “frenemy” of mine. I know him personally. He's a nice guy. We get along well. In his recent book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, he makes exactly the same kind of de Maistreian objection to Enlightenment reason by saying, listen, all that reason does is raise endless series of questions that very few of us could ever comprehensively answer.
This makes establishing stable organizing hierarchies impossible because everyone will then have different opinions that reason directs them to about what the appropriate form of social organizations should be, so we should defer to tradition instead. Deferring to tradition doesn't mean that tradition is true according to some rationalistic standard. It's just been taken to be true or taken to be moral for a long period of time, and it seems to be working, at least for the people who benefit from those traditions, so why not defer to that?
Again, you see DeSantis and Chris Rufo making the same kind of arguments. In fact, Chris Rufo makes exactly this argument and his new book on the cultural revolution that Nathan Robinson and I are reviewing together where he's like, listen, the average American understands in his instincts that there's something bad about critical race theory and the way that it deconstructs what he calls the “myths” about the Founding Fathers, about the country. We don't want that.
If we don't buy into these myths, and we deny what our instincts tells us happens to be true by inquiring too deeply into whether Jefferson was a slaveholder and whether that might have some bearing on whether he took slavery all that seriously, then it's going to divide us and [sunder what] we need for a sense of unity.
My response to this is always like, listen, all of the pleasing illusions that make submission genteel and easy might be something that works really well if you happen to see yourself as a beneficiary of social hierarchy and social institutions as they exist now, but one person's benign set of pleasing illusions that makes subordination easy are what I would call a kind of ruling hegemony or ruling patriarchy or ruling white supremacy.
I think there's really something to being fiercely critical of them. I would argue that there's a very Enlightenment spirit to that which is why somebody like Joseph de Maistre was very hostile to it from the very beginning.
Aaron: Your mentioning Hazony's argument, just immediately what flashed was the exhaustion a parent feels when they've asked a kid to do something and the kid just keeps asking, "Why," and eventually, you just have to—I confess I am guilty of this myself of falling back on a version of, "Because I said so."
Matthew: Oh, me too. Sometimes I get students will send me like 15 emails. I'm like, "Listen, this is just what the text says. Defer to the text, and if not, listen to what I said." We've all been there.
Aaron: This raises the interesting issue about elites versus working class or the populace within the right. If the right on the one hand is about preserving hierarchies and it kind of sneers at the unwashed masses thinking too much about things and that is a threat to those—
Matthew: They call them the “swinish multitude.”
Aaron: —yes. Then, on the other hand, we tend to think of the right as an anti-elitist and lower classes movement. That certainly tracks in the polling data, the rural communities. The rural poor communities tend to be much more right-wing than the cosmopolitan elite urban enclaves that are higher income and higher educational attainment and so on. I understand the appeal of preserving hierarchies to the people who are at the top of the hierarchies, but what is the appeal to the people who are at the bottom?
Matthew: Well, that's an extraordinarily complicated question, and it's a fantastic question I should answer. I'm sorry, I should say it's not something that my book tackles, as thoroughly as it should—just doing a full confession—because part of this is, truthfully, because people usually gave me a lot of shit when I wrote my Rise of Post-modern Conservatism book which we talked about ages ago.
They're like, "Well, you're pathologizing the right," or "You're dealing with—treating the right as a symptom of something. You're not taking its intellectual argument seriously." This book was really my attempt to answer those criticisms. To those of you who know me, I do listen to criticism. I was like, no, I'm just going to take the more rarefied forms of conservatism seriously and deal with the bigwigs.
The Burkes, the de Maistres, the Nietzsches, the Heideggers. Ignoring the kind of Trumpist dimension to this. What I think you can see by looking at the conservative intellectual tradition, particularly starting with de Maistre, and I'm very clear about this in the book, is an acknowledgment—this goes back to what I said initially in our interview—that the old appeal to various forms of social hierarchy as just common sense is not going to cut it in a post-Enlightenment age.
That to a certain extent, this egalitarian supposition advanced by liberals and then later re-articulated by socialists, is really gaining ground on this expectation that we just live in a society that's organized by hierarchical complementarity. You need to find ways to make hierarchy more palatable, including to the masses at this point. What you've seen, especially starting in the 19th century, is a truly remarkable set of intellectual exercises by conservatives who are usually very successful at making hierarchy palatable to segments of the masses.
There are a few different examples of this that I'll give, but again, the left and liberals seriously underestimate the right if they don't understand its capacity to be demotic in this sense. One example I give in the book is again, de Maistre, who says listen, people argue that democracy, or French republicanism, really, is elevating for the common man which is why we should move towards a democracy or a public.
I say to you, actually, that there is no political form that is more elevating for the ordinary person than monarchy and aristocracy because “monarchy and aristocracy allows the ordinary person to participate in its splendor” without actually having any kind of say in how political or institutions are organized. That's very important for him. You can see this kind of leadership principle and this idea that you participate in the splendor of the leader re-articulated by many, especially on the far right going forward.
Think again about fascism and Nazism. That you are elevated through submission to the leader and, in fact, there's something almost democratic about willfully submitting yourself as a group to the leader and allowing the leader to re-articulate your will. Then later on, let's just go with the fascism example, you find Carl Schmitt deeply influenced by de Maistre, making exactly the same kind of argument in a 20th-century context where he says, listen, liberals believe that parliamentarianism as a kind of democracy. Is it really?
All that parliamentarianism is rule by the majority at most. Right? If you look at the United States and how often the Republican party wins, not even rule by a party that's voted in by the majority. A party that's kind of gaming the system. He says if you really want a democracy what we could do is install a dictator that actually has the support or constitutes the support of the general will of the nation, and then when the leader acts, he's acting on behalf of the people or he's expressing the will of the people in the this demotic way that parliamentarianism could only ever dream of.
This is from his book Constitutional Theory where he says, Rousseau was absolutely right about the need for—to generate a general will in order for a state to be sincerely legitimated. He's just wrong about how to go about doing that and assuming that the mass of people should actually participate in politics. Instead, you have this leader who constitutes the general will for the nation. Another extraordinary example of a conservative intellectual, in this case a kind of fascist intellectual, finding ways to make a form of social hierarchy and authoritarianism seem almost a democratic submission to leadership.
Those are two European examples I can give of how conservatism or the far right moves in a populist direction, but it's by no means foreign to the United States as you well know. Let's take the race issue as one that's deeply unfortunate, really. Unfortunate is the wrong word. Deeply appalling. In the 19th century, around the 1950s and 1940s, (Ed.- 1850’s & 1840’s) what you see is an extraordinary pivot in the way slavery is justified. Including to the white working class in the American South.
There's a realization on the part of people like Stuart Townsend or John C. Calhoun that slavery is increasingly being perceived as immoral by many Americans. They're deeply concerned that if they lose the white working class in the American South then there's really nobody who's going to be invested in maintaining the slave system in a way that slaveholders want. It's a legitimate worry.
What you start to see is this mass effort to argue that, in fact, poor southern whites, even if they don't own slaves themselves, benefit in certain kinds of ways from the retention of the slave system. There are a number of pamphlets that are produced by defenders of antebellum slavery that make this very explicit. You have southern senators who will say things like, “in the North, a white worker, sits there and is at the very bottom of the totem pole. He's the bottom of the rung. Here in the South, any white worker is part of the nobility.” They get to sit there and look down upon the slaves even if they don't own themselves from a position of infinite remove, and that they know when they're a white worker and they're called to labor on these plantations, that they get to sit at the supper table with the master. He will call them by name and address them as “sir” or “mister” in a way that he would never address the slaves.
There's this kind of equality with the slave-owning aristocracy that the white working-class individual gets to benefit from, that the slave is entirely denied. That's extraordinarily malicious, I almost want to say demonic, effort that was very successful at convincing the white working class in the American South that, look, you benefit from slavery even if you don't own slaves because you get to sit there and look down upon the slave from this position of infinite remove and know that even if you're poor, you're still better than them.
Sadly, we've seen many instances of this kind of attempt to make racism a democratic project that the white working class can participate in successfully deployed throughout the history of the United States. George Wallace and Trump's campaigns are just two more modern instances of this. I find it very frustrating that this trope has proven as successful as it has over time.
“Sadly, we've seen many instances of this kind of attempt to make racism a democratic project that the white working class can participate in successfully deployed throughout the history of the United States. George Wallace and Trump's campaigns are just two more modern instances of this. I find it very frustrating that this trope has proven as successful as it has over time.”
Again, the left underestimates it as a peril because let's look at what happened in the American South around the mid-19th century. Millions of poor working-class whites did rise to defend the slave-holding system. They were willing to die in order to preserve it, so one should never underestimate the appeal of these kinds of things.
Aaron: This seems to present quite a problem then. You and I, for example, have our political disagreements, many of them quite deep, but we can have persuasive arguments and fruitful conversations about them, because I think that we're both—that the underlying values and, to some extent, a picture of the ideal world at least have enough overlap that our philosophies can come into conversation with each other.
The right, as you've described it, seems to be something fundamentally different. The world that this kind of hierarchical, anti-intellectual, anti-individualistic right wants is just, at its base, entirely incompatible with liberalism broadly defined and a liberal society, a dynamic and open society and so on. Unlike, you and I where we want roughly similar things, we just have disagreements about the best way to achieve it, you and I versus someone on the right as you've described it, want wildly divergent things.
As you mentioned, we've seen the right rise in power. The far right took over the White House, it's taken over at a lot of the state levels. It may or may not gain power again next year. What do we as people who engage with this stuff at an intellectual level do about that? You have read, I think, more books by contemporary right-wingers than is healthy for anyone—
Matthew: My wife would say the same thing.
Aaron: —What do we do about it? How do we have conversations with these people? How do we have arguments with them? How do we engage in persuasion with them? Is there any hope for that?
Matthew: I do think there is hope. Like I said, I'm friends with a number of conservatives and right-wingers. We don't agree about anything because we start from very different premises about what a good society would look like, but as long as we're aware of the fact that we start from very different premises about what a different society could look like, we might be able to have a meaningful conversation without talking past one another.
Although I'd be the first to acknowledge that it's very difficult. I'm sure you've seen me on Twitter. There are some points where I deal with right-wingers, and I just sit there and there's nothing that we can say to one another because it's just going to be a parade of insults back and forth and that's all there can be to it. Let's take a step back. Somebody like F. A. Hayek, for example, or the libertarian tradition, I feel a lot of kinship with.
Now, I know that's odd coming from a democratic socialist and Hayek was famously not exactly forward about his fondness for democratic socialism, but when it comes to core principles, Hayek was deeply committed to this idea that all human beings are equal. He was deeply critical of meritocratic arguments that there were recognizably superior people.
Fundamentally, his argument is about what's the best way to instantiate respect for a society of moral equals who are entitled to a high degree of liberty in order to express their individualism? He has his solution to that riddle, I have my solution to that riddle, but fundamentally, we're aspiring to the same kind of end. We just have very different means of going about that.
The nice thing about that then is then we can have what ultimately are empirical debates about this. Does Sweden do a better job of respecting individual liberty while securing respect for moral equality than the United States circa the 1990s or 1980s under Reagan-Clinton? We can debate about that, right? We'll fire facts back and forth at one another, and we'll argue about whether workplace cooperatives are consistent with liberty or antithetical to liberty and all that.
The political right operates, again, and I think Hayek is right about this, from a very different standpoint. With this notion that there are recognizably superior persons in society and the best kind of society is one that acknowledges that and grants to the recognizably superior people liberty, power, and authority to do what is best for everyone while denying the same kind of entitlements to people at the bottom. However, it is that that's conceived.
Now that's a very different set of premises from say, my disagreement with somebody like F. A. Hayek. I think that in order to have a meaningful discussion there needs to be an acknowledgment of these different premises, a deep interrogation of the root of these very differentiated convictions. Then maybe you can start to try to find points of interces where you might agree about this issue or that issue.
Ultimately, the reality is that I just don't believe that there are recognizably superior persons. I believe completely that there are people who have extraordinary talents that I lack, and that other people lack and that should be celebrated and acknowledged. But in terms of is their life more valuable than mine or should they be more entitled to political power than me or anyone else, I would just emphatically say no.
“Ultimately, the reality is that I just don't believe that there are recognizably superior persons. I believe completely that there are people who have extraordinary talents that I lack, and that other people lack and that should be celebrated and acknowledged. But in terms of is their life more valuable than mine or should they be more entitled to political power than me or anyone else, I would just emphatically say no.”
Aaron: Thank you for listening to Reimagining Liberty. If you enjoyed the show, please take a moment to rate and review it on Apple Podcasts. You can also join our Discord listener community and book club by following the link in the show notes. Reimagining Liberty is a project of The UnPopulist.
The UnPopulist invites interesting thinkers from across the political spectrum to foster a wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation to advance liberal values, including thinkers it may—or may not—agree with.
© The UnPopulist 2023