Anxiety and deep insecurity are the characteristic responses evoked by the crisis in tradition. To experience them, it is not necessary for a people to be actively aware of what is happening to it. The process of erosion need only undermine the tradition and a series of consequences begin unfolding within the individual, while in institutions a quiet but deep transformation of processes occurs. Within the individual the reaction has been called various names, all, however, pointing to the same basic experience. Simone Weil identifies it as being “rootless,” Romano Guardini as being “placeless,” David Riesman as being “lonely.” Others call it “alienation,” and mean by that no simple economic experience (as Karl Marx does) but a deep spiritual sense of dislocation. Within institutions there is a marked decline of the process of persuasion and the substitution of a force-fear process which masquerades as the earlier one of persuasion. We note the use of rhetoric as a weapon, the manipulation of the masses by propaganda, the “mobilization” of effort and resources.
Within this context of spontaneous and unanalyzed responses to the experience of civilizational crisis, two basic organizations of response are observable: reaction and ideological progressivism. These responses are explicable in terms of characteristics inherent in the crisis. Both are predictably destined to fail.
The response of reaction is dominated by a concern for what is vanishing. Its essence lies in its attempt to recover previous order through the repression of disruptive forces. To this end, political authority is called upon to exercise its negative and coercive powers. The implicit assumption of this response is that history is reversible. Seemingly, order is perceived as a kind of subsistent entity now covered by adventitious accretions. The problem is to remove the accretions and thereby uncover the order that was always there. Such a response, of course, misses the point that in crisis order is going out of existence. More over its posture of stubborn but simple resistance is doomed to failure because of the metaphysical weakness of the existent form of order, once the activation of change has reached visible proportions. The most reaction can achieve is stasis, and a stasis that can be maintained only by the expenditure of an effort which ultimately exhausts itself.
Despite the hopelessness of the response, it is explicable in terms of the crisis of tradition itself. Since a civilizational crisis involves also a crisis in private interests and in the ruling class, reaction is normally found among those who feel themselves to be among the ruling class. Their great error is to mingle the responses typical of each of the three types of change. Since civilizational change is the most difficult to perceive and analyze, it seldom is given adequate attention. And the anxiety it generates is misinterpreted as anxiety over private interest and threatened social status. The basic truth in the reactionary response is to be found in its realistic assumption of the primacy of the real over the ideational. But this truth is distorted by its extreme application: the assumption of the separate existence of tradition. The reactionary misses the point that tradition exists ontologically only in the form of psychological-intellectual relations. Reactionary theories, for this reason, usually assume some form of organismic theory. In its defensive formulations, the theory will attack conscious change on the grounds of the independent existence of the community. In its dynamic form, it visualizes the community as the embodiment of an ontological force—the race, for instance—which unfolds in history. In both cases, the individual tends to be treated as an instrument of the organic reality.
When the reactionary response is thus bolstered by an intellectual defense, the characteristics of that defense are explicable only in terms of the basic attitudes of unanalyzed reaction. Reaction is rooted in a perception of tradition as a whole. It is a total situation that is defended: the “good old days.” There is no selectivity; even the questionable features of the past are defended. The point is that the reactionary, for whatever motive, perceives himself to have been part or a partner of something that extended beyond himself, something which, consequently, he was not able to accept or reject on the basis of subjective preference. The reactionary is confused about the existential status of a decaying tradition, but he does perceive the unity tradition had when it was healthy.
The second unanalyzed response to civilizational crisis we call ideological progressivism. With regard to the civilizational crisis itself, the ideological mind interprets the social disruption as a good. What the reactionary calls chaos, the ideologist calls the “open society,” interpreting it as a victory for individual freedom. What the reactionary calls loss of order, the ideologist calls the disappearance of old evils, the beginning of a new rationality. The ideological progressive connives with the erosion of tradition in the name of progress. His characteristic orientation is toward the future where he discerns a new order that man will create for himself. The ideological progressive, therefore, proposes a conception of progress that involves an existential discontinuity; progress without organic evolution.
The fact of discontinuity is frequently overlooked because the order of the future is validated as the order men have always striven for. Yet the discontinuity is not only present but derives from the basic orientation of the ideologist toward social reality. Civilizational crisis, it must be remembered, is constituted by a unique type of change: Existing form is not displaced by emerging form, but by emerging formlessness; the change is from order to disorder. Since the ideological mind, insofar as it seeks social order, looks to the present and the future, it finds only an ontological void. It is a matter of attitude rather than science that this void, constituted by the disruption of interpersonal relations among men, is interpreted as the good of freedom. But given the void and the attitude, the ideologist cannot conceive of himself as co-operating with an objective evolution of form. His commitment to the process of becoming consequently involves commitment not to reality but to ideas. The becoming central to his attention is a process whereby mind informs reality, a process that involves the movement from the abstract and the ideational to the real. The ideologist thinks in terms of creative action, informing action, not in terms of cooperation with an objectively emerging form. What “ought to be” is achieved by a break in being, not by an evolution of being.
The true discontinuity occurs, moreover, in the content of what “ought to be.” For when tradition begins to “fall out of existence,” the essence of the “fall” lies in the withdrawal of ideas from the concrete historical integration called society into the isolation of an ideational existence in the minds of unrelated individuals. Thus the ontological disruption of society is concealed by the perdurance of ideas in the minds of men. But even here, in the realm of thought, there is a further discontinuity. For in their movement from the real to the ideational, the substantive ideas undergo a sea change, a metamorphosis of meaning. When the ideas had ontological status in historical society, their meaning was determined by their position as part of a complex of ideas polarized into a world view. In their ideational existence, they become merely the debris of the earlier tradition and their meaning changes, for the ideas lose their coherence. They become individual absolutes. Where they once were the form of the society, they now become the goals of creative action.
In pursuit of these goals, the ideologist, like the reactionary, depends on political authority in its coercive form. The end of authority, however, is not to repress change, to recover form, but to create and impose form. Government thus is conceived of as having a creative role among men. And its action is validated by the goals which in seeking to realize, it represents. The claim is that the new order is what the people want. Therefore, by the principle of consent, the government, in imposing order, represents the people who are the recipients of that order. Involved in this way of thinking is a profound confusion concerning the ontological status of ideas. The people, unformed because they need to be informed, are considered the source of the form to be imposed. This way of thinking, of course, can be sustained only by virtue of a confusion between the ideational and the real. However, once the confusion is achieved, the ideas which are the prototype of the new societal form may be imposed politically without prior debate in the democratic process. Nor need they be sustained by theoretical argumentation. For they are, as the Declaration of Independence tells us, self-evident. Those who oppose them are obviously corrupt and can be handled only by coercive repression. Thus, by a curious development, the proponents of the open society become the champions of the closed idea. The chief evidence for this development may be found in the substitution of propaganda for discussion in the conversatio civilis. Men become the matter to be informed. It is claimed that they want to receive the form possessed by the ideological mind. Propaganda, which imposes forms in the human intellect without the process of persuasion, becomes a kind of divine praeveniant action whereby the ideologists enable men to act freely.
Thus, the essence of the ideological progressive response is to be found in the primacy of mind over reality and in a utilitarian test of truth. Both these premises necessarily follow from the ideological conception of the problem of order. The ideologist finds himself with a set of ideas that seemingly, by their very essence, call for ontological existence among men. In this posture there is no universale in re, for social reality is “open.” Nor is there a universale post rem, for the idea in the mind was not derived from reality, but acquired by virtue of the transubstantiation of ideas during their depolarization. There is only a universale ante rem: The ideas that exist in the ideologists mind as the unmeasured measure of reality. From this it follows that the only standard of truth in human action can be that of the utility of the action for implementing the model ideas. If something is necessary, it is legitimate by that very fact. This standard is not applied universally. Where the central model ideas are not involved the ordinary standards of morality are retained. But when they are involved, the model in its capacity as ultimate standard becomes the source of a new morality.
Thus both unanalyzed responses come to the same general authoritative conclusion by different routes, one by demanding submission to an ontological necessity, the other to a self-imposing ideational entity. Both, moreover, feel in a blind, groping fashion for something to assuage the deep anxiety evoked by civilizational crisis.
This is the second essay in a series of three essays; the first essay may be found here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring 1961).