The reactionary mind is obsessed with reified abstractions translated into symbolic visions and causes. This is seen with Edmund Burke’s moral imagining of the overthrow of the French monarchy (nearly a rape fantasy of the queen), to which Thomas Paine noted his lack of concern for the actual people harmed by that monarchy (more concern for the plumage than the dying bird). The reality was irrelevant. The whole point of the wardrobe of moral imagination is to dress ideology in fancy attire, to cover up the ugly truths of power that otherwise would not be palatable.
This reactonary affliction can be found among most modern people to varying degrees. One can see this among partisans in both parties and viewers of corporate media, as shown in how constructed narratives dominate nearly all public debate, in the process of silencing majority opinion and real concerns. But the greatest comorbidity is conservative-mindedness and so the strongest symptoms are found among the conservative persuasion.
Conservatism is inherently reactionary as it is entirely defined by its reaction to liberalism, in having been born out of counter-revolution. It’s never been able to shake its origins. Even when liberals turn reactionary, they tend to do so by becoming more conservative-minded — think of the Clinton Democrats with their police state law-and-order, neocon war-mongering, etc. Political correctness too, whether of the liberal or conservative variety, is reactionary. Still, it’s not equal levels of the reactionary.
In one sense, the primary meaning of conservatism is the state of being more or less permanently stuck in reaction. For liberals, it is more often a temporary or partial state, more often in reacting to something particular. But American conservatives find themselves reacting to the entire liberal order upon which the country was founded. They sometimes even call themselves classical liberals as a reactionary throwback to a prior era, whereas conservatism by itself has no specific meaning, other than a general sense of loss and nostalgia that can be applied variously as circumstances require.
Part of the reactionary mind is an anti-intellectual bent. After all, right from the start, it was a complaint against Enlightenment thought. Yet it’s been forced to jerry-rig it’s ideological agenda out of the scraps left over from the Enlightenment project. So, conservatives will typically praise modern economics, technology, etc while acting suspect of the very scientific thought and institutions of learning that made it all possible.
This kind of anti-intellectualism is not found to the same degree on the American left, as the evidence shows (see: Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science). There is no Democratic equivalent to the proudly anti-intellectual President Donald Trump, no left-wing equivalent to the anti-intellectual Evangelical movement. It simply does not exist. No one is immune from the reactionary contagion, but neither is everyone equally vulnerable to it.
That is the reason conservatives, not liberals, have most strongly taken up Burke’s moral imagination. It’s the reason for the incessant pounding of culture war issues going back centuries. Culture itself becomes an abstract ideology, contrary to the traditional view of culture, what distinguishes reactionary conservatism from non-reactionary traditionalism. The one thing that the reactionary right borrows from traditionalism is some of its symbolism, such as their love of religious pomp, military display, etc; although, in chameleon-like fashion, the reactionary will just as likely borrow from the left as needed.
This reactionary ideology of culture gave birth to ethnonationalism and the nation-state, a modern invention that helped destroy and replace the ancien regime, even as it made claims on being its heir. Up until the world war era, most Europeans and Americans still didn’t identify primarily with the nation-state but rather with local communities and regional populations. It was a much more grounded experience of culture, as opposed to the Platonic ideal of European culture, white culture, etc sold by reactionary conservatives — their own brand of identity politics.
For example, conservatives will argue that social democracy is possible in Scandinavia only because of some vague concept of culture, as if culture is an unrooted and unchanging reality that forces itself upon us like an archonic power. Yet they can’t explain why much of Scandinavia, in being so successful now, was economically impoverished and culturally backwards in the 18th and 19th centuries. Northwestern Europeans who are presently among the tallest people in the world once were among the shortest because of poverty and malnutrition.
Scandinavians, compared to many other areas of the West like France and Britain, were slow to end feudalism, urbanize, industrialize, and democratize. The 20th century social democracy we argue about appeared rather late and abruptly. It would’ve been completely unpredictable based on observations of Scandinavian culture in the centuries prior. Cultural fatalism, as some fossilized essence of national character, is an abstract ideology detached from historical and human realities.
This focus on abstract cultural ideology is specifically to distract from concrete actions of political organizing and economic restructuring, policy reforms and political interventions. Some of those Scandinavian countries came to social democracy through large-scale labor movements, nation-wide strikes, and workers parties. Some conservatives counter by pointing out that Scandinavian-Americans have also done well with lower rates of poverty and inequality. What they leave out is those Scandinavian-Americans, like their kinfolk back in the homeland, enforced their culture of fairness and trust through concrete actions: populist revolt, farmer-labor parties, farmer co-ops, Progressive reforms, sewer socialism, etc.
The US states with larger populations of Scandinavian ancestry, nonetheless, never had a majority Scandinavian culture, as the majority tended to be German-Americans. Even then, the individual US states could only accomplish so much because they didn’t have the full power and autonomy of actual nation-states. This made it harder for them to establish the kind of social demcracies that took hold in Scandinavian countries. It was more complex and challenging to implement a nationwide strike within dozens of states across the entire continent of the United States, as compared to a nationwide strike in a country smaller than many US states.
Still, it’s impressive how far these Scandinavian-Americans, with the help of German-Americans, were able to get with leftist organizing and democratic reforms. Declaring their moral and political authority in 1873, the Minnesota Grangers stated: “We, the farmers, mechanics and laborers of Minnesota, deem the triumph of the people in this contest with monopolies essential to the perpetuation of our free institutions and the promotion of our private and national prosperity.” Like their brethren across the Atlantic Ocean, these ethnic Scandinavians meant business. No wonder they made sure to create societies with low poverty and inequality whereever they went. It isn’t some mysterious cultural quality detached from politics.
As with cultural fetishism, this same pattern of reified abstractions turned into symbolic fantasizing is seen with many other right-wing reactionary views, particularly when the reactionary goes full conspiratorial. So much of the anti-leftist Cold War propaganda was dependent on conspiracy theory because it’s effective as both narrative and distraction. It maintains its hold for many Americans. Think of the paranoid obsession with postmodernism and leftism, such as with Cultural Marxism and QAnon, often combined with antisemitism (e.g., Jewish space lazers causing wildfires) as was the case with Nazi Cultural Bolshevism and Jewish Bolshevism.
A conservative we are familiar with is always ranting about this kind of thing, but we know that he has never talked to or read anything by someone who advocates postmodernism or Marxism. We pointed this out to him and his response was that he knows what he sees with his own eyes. That is an odd claim. Nearly all of his views come from secondhand information as gained from Fox News, Wall Street Journal, Imprimis, The Epoch Times, etc. Mediated reality has replaced his directly experienced reality, to such extent that the corporate media has come to feel like “his own eyes.”
A new favorite of this particular conservative is the reactionary Jordan Peterson who, as a member of the Intellectual Dark Web, is one of the popular ‘critics’ of (neo-)Marxism. Keep in mind that, at his debate with Slavoj Zizek from a year and a half ago, Peterson admitted to having never read anything by Karl Marx. So, his knowledge was also secondhand or maybe further distant. That means maybe millions of Americans who got their anti-Marxist views from him and his larger influence are several times removed from any knowledge of actual Marxism.
But to the reactionary mind, all of that is irrelevant. They already ‘know’ Marxism without actually having to know any facts about Marxism or to personally know anyone who is a Marxist. What matters is the symbolism and, to the reactionary mind, all of the culture wars is a battle of symbols. This is the power of what I call symbolic conflation. The real issues under debate are something else entirely. The point is to use the wardrobe of moral imagination to hide the real issues behind symbolic issues, to protect the moral order as a sociopolitical force.
It’s also why conservatives latch onto AIDS and abortion as symbolic issues, since a disease or pregnancy can be portrayed as carrying its own moral symbolism as punishment. This supports their ideological realism for the punishment is made to appear like a natural and inevitable consequence of the moral sin to be punished. For a liberal to support the cure of the disease and to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place, that would untangle the knot of symbolic conflation in showing that the ideological realism was merely yet another social construction of social conditions, not divine reality or natural law.
This is demonstrated most clearly by the abortion debate, the first nut cracked in revealing the tender pulp of symbolic conflation. It quicky became obvious that the debate was never about facts or about lives, much less the facts about lives. Conservatives, when confronted by the data showing abortion bans on average increase the abortion rate, will unsurprisingly dismiss the data. But if one keeps pushing the issue, some conservatives will reveal their more honest opinion in baldly stating that, rhetoric of baby-killing aside, the moral concern is not actually about the lives of babies. Rather, it’s about the principle.
Listen to that. It’s about the principle, a principle abstracted from not only lived experience but abstracted from actual lives. It’s similar to the abstract nature of cultural ideology and culture wars in general. What makes this possible is the lack of concrete experience. Most of what conservatives know about Scandinavian social democracy, Marxism, postmodernism, etc is from right-wing media, not lived experience and personal relationships. That is the key component, in how right-wing media repeatedly hammers the very issues that are the most disconnected from the experience of their audience.
Theoretically, conservatives could simply seek out liberals and leftists in order to hear their views firsthand or maybe pick up a book written by such people. For example, an anti-choice activist could visit a family planning center to learn how preventing unwanted pregnancies prevents abortions and improves lives; or they could look at the data that, rather than being black-and-white, most Americans support both women’s choice in most situations while also wanting strong regulations of certain areas of the abortion issue.
But then, in the issue becoming concretely and personally real, the symbolic conflation would lose all symbolic power. The conservative realizes this Achilles’ heel and so, in keeping issues as abstract symbols, protect against this threat. This is why undeniably concrete issues like climate change and police shootings cause particular fear and anxiety to the conservative mind. It’s much more challenging to counter these with symbolic conflations, and hence a greater tendency to simple denialism.
That is partly what makes the American left different. Leftists criticize American-style inequality and poverty, class war and plutocracy, corporatism and neo-fascism because they experience it in their everyday lives and see it in the world around them, as leftists criticize the corruption and oppression of this banana republic because it is forced upon their experience, or as leftist criticize Christianity from the perspective of having been raised in it and surrounded by it in this Christian society. Because of this, leftists know capitalism and Christianity better than rightists know communism and atheism. In fact, the average American atheist has more knowledge about the Bible and Christian history than do most Christians.
So, for the left-winger, these problems of the right-wing social order aren’t symbolic issues, abstract concepts, and distant realities. They can’t be avoided, as long as one remains in this country. Such concrete experience and factual knowledge is less prone to reactionary fantasizing and symbolic conflation. That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of reaction on the left, more than is desirable, but not to the same extent, not even remotely close to being equivalent. Partly, this is because the American left-wing mostly overlaps with liberalism, specifically liberal-minded traits that are pretty much defined by not being reactionary. Left-wing ideologies are fundamentaly about egalitarianism and it’s difficult to be for egalitarianism while against liberal values of freedom, openess, compassion, tolerance, and fairness.
That said, the liberal-minded might find it harder and harder to hold out against the reactionary over time. Mediated reality might quickly become the norm and the rise of deep fakes might rock the world. It’s not clear that liberalism will survive this onslaught on reality. All of American society could become ever more reactionary. The symbolic style could become more of a force on the political left. Consider how the Black Lives Matter movement gained majority support of Americans, including white Americans, through social media where videos of police brutality was shared. That is an example of mediated experience changing perception and public opinion.
The resuts may be positive in this case if it eventually does lead to police reform. But once we come to rely on media in this fashion for collective action, and as media technology advances, we could become ripe for reactionary fear-mongering and manipulations. Unless we find a way to democratize media, particularly the internet, but also democratize the larger society and economy, it might be a rough time ahead. If we become more divided and isolated, unmediated reality could become a rarity.
At present, it’s hard to imagine our plutocratic society even further dominated by corporate media and tech companies that would not become full-on reactionary, with liberal-minded leftism disappearing or becoming so distorted as to be dysfunctional. The craziness of media-fomented QAnon movement, already having infiltrtated Congress (in more than one way, legally and illegally), might be a sign of the future to come for the entire political system and society. Cultural experience, abstracted from concrete experience, might come to look more like a media echo chamber. Never before seen group identities will be constructed and we might become ever more dissociated and dislocated.