HOW TO DEFINE “THE RIGHT”
The Distributist is a fascinating Youtube channel. I cannot recommend enough the systematic and deeply intuitive, insightful way with which this influencer analyses political thought on the left and right, and even cultural phenomena such as the horror genre. I was so struck by this thinker’s development of a nine-point framework of what it means to be right-wing, that I needed to sit down and pick his brain about it.
For as long as I can remember, I have considered myself “a man of the right” and I believe I can determine whether others are. But, recent conversations and questions have cornered me into a realisation – many I do consider my fellow rightists have very little understanding of what it means to be on the right. So, can we crystallise some quintessence of a definition?
Dave “The Distributist” Donovan has made a Herculean effort to be objective about things, setting aside his own traditionalist, Catholic, reactionary beliefs in order to define the right so as to capture the whole, whether right-libertarian, fascist, conservative etc. The piece is titled, ‘To be “right-wing”… (in 9 points)’. To summarise his work, we can describe fundamental right-wing beliefs as follows:
There is an essential meaning to human life and so there are virtues to realise that meaningful life. However, we naturally tend to fall short, entropically, from realising those virtues and ends of life. We, therefore, need ordering principles, customs, cultural institutions etc. to curb degeneration.
That’s it! Too simplistic? Well, to understand the Donovan’s wisdom here, this requires unpacking. Here is my interview with him (and do excuse the poor audio in the first several minutes); and, below that, are my own thoughts on his definition:
In terms of the first three of Donovan’s axioms, there is a meaning, a teleology to human existence which transcends the self; there are thus virtues or disciplined actions to pursue that meaning, to live a good life and meet a good death. As such, there is objective goodness and it is an end in itself – power or might are not necessarily right, but are only means to earthly ends. Echoing the don of Radical Orthodoxy, John Milbank, communities exist to sustainably manifest those virtues and that shared meaning of life, enculturating a particular people in a particular place to that end, and preserving those virtuous responsibilities qua customs across time, principally through families.
Practically speaking, even if the above is assented to, constraining forces are required to halt the entropic, degenerating nature of fallen man; furthermore, the very institutions designed to maintain such discipline become less observant themselves, according to Robert Conquest’s apocryphal “three laws of politics”. A classical understanding would be: we share a logos and an ethos, and to preserve these, we will have to manage our shared pathos. Donovan aptly paraphrases G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which is worth quoting fully:
‘We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things.’
And so, as hierarchies are inevitable – as in Robert Michels’ iron law of oligarchy – the chief problem of politics and metapolitics is the tendency of humans and institutions to corrupt. The responsibility for societal survival, vis-à-vis maintaining the virtues necessary for moral uplift, must therefore be undertaken at every level of all institutional hierarchies, to check and balance every other from inevitable degeneration – that is, from the promotion and pursuit of mere comfort and pleasure for their own sake.
To realistically expect such solidarity and shared purpose requires the alignment of the interests of rulers and subjects – all must have skin in the game to maintain accountability; thus, the tendency on the right towards monarchy, with rulers’ children benefiting from the common good of the body politic, and other political systems which imperfectly mimic this arrangement; similarly unsurprising are tendencies towards nationalism and degrees of subsidiarity – that is, some decentralisation of political decision-making.
Finally, to prevent the corrupting influence of clandestine “dark power”, from within or without, such as bribery or the seductions of wealthy international forces, very orderly, clearly delineated and formalised rules, offices, functions etc. are necessary wherever the potential for the accumulation of power is concerned. Essentially, the right-wing trend is towards maximising responsibility and minimising impunity.
Now, you may be thinking that this is all very Platonic, expressing beliefs or at least behaviours which indicate an implicit belief in objective truths; of course, this is in stark contrast to the individualistic spirit of modernity and the inevitable scepticism which has captured postmodernity. This does seem like a good starting point for identifying the kernel of philosophical difference between leftist and right-wing thinking. But, notice something: these categories, which we can use to make sense of the left vs. right dichotomy, platonism vs. scepticism etc., are fundamentally Western, European ones; and this is where I think Donovan’s definition falls short, and probably deliberately so. We could, of course, say that there are people in any given human society who will tend towards some of the above concepts, and certainly there have been in the other great civilisations, such as the Islamic and Chinese. But that is hardly defining the right and is, in fact, imposing that category or construct of Christendom onto other civilisational contexts.
Yes, Christendom! Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, being a reactionary, shied away from the more modern view of left and right-wings qua modern statist constructs, but he nevertheless used the terms to describe the general virtuous trends towards the shared logos as “on the right”, as they direct one towards Christ, who is the logos incarnate and seated at the right hand of God. The sinister/left was what deviated from this towards modern liberal secularising and, thus, away from a Christian cultural framework, a collective effort to halt the degeneration of man – his relinquishing of the responsibility to do what is right.
Even our understanding of leftism cannot escape its origins: From William of Ockham’s nominalism, in the Middle Ages, developed the spiritual individualism of Lutheranism, and rather inevitably on to moral consequentialism (in stark contrast to virtue as an end in itself) and, thus, the modern liberal ethics of moral relativism. This is how we arrived at the hyper-individualistic view, prevalent today, that most and maybe all collectively imposed moral obligations are immoral, with genderless individuals defining their idiosyncratic meaning of life.
As much as Donovan is to be commended for trying to develop a theoretical framework for the empirical definition and future study of the right (something which would not even occur to most right-wingers), our conceptual baggage of political left and right were born in and developed by the particular context of Latin Christendom. I must conclude by agreeing with the underappreciated Fr Aidan Nichols, that the Anglosphere owes all its truly conserving and ordering institutions and traditions, ultimately, to the Albion of Catholic England. From the attire of our judges to the rituals of our politics and military, the secularised Anglosphere animates itself on the skeleton of Christendom, and when we talk of “the right”, we are talking of approximations to that former order. We can no more escape that context than a fish can jump on land and start a new life.
So, is a pragmatic alliance of those religious and ideological communities which adhere to Donovan’s “9 points” possible? Well, it certainly was possible in history, under the emperors and kings of Christendom (and elsewhere, under similar arrangements), and pockets of this harmony are extant, but the question will always remain: Which ethos and logos will rule as King of kings? Christ, at the right hand of God, may be exactly what right-leaning folks, from various backgrounds, need in the West, but will they accept him or rather cry, ‘Barabbas’? With the acceptance of hierarchy on the broader right comes the problem of accepting another’s ethos to guide our rulers.
Donovan ends our interview by suggesting that the transnational threading of power in our current context allows little more than smaller communities in which traditional Christian values can act as the underlying framework for such non-pluralistic polities (which are almost purely hypothetical). The major disadvantage the right has is that, although the Catholic heritage of the West is ultimately where the cultural framework which undergirds the public discourse of the right lies, not all on the right are so accepting of this; the left, however, now have the framework of intersectionality to act as the map for their discourse and to separate their pereceived wheat from the chaff, and so the right is now vulnerable to the left’s superior ability to police the public discourse.
As such, the attempt to provide a framework makes Donovan’s valiant attempts timely and a necessary step to bring some balance to political discourse. Given the riots and lotting erupting across the West in 2020, I don’t exaggerate when I emphasise how timely it is. We now have a vantage point for the future.