In his 1950 defense of American liberalism, Lionel Trilling famously said that conservatives expressed themselves in “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” In his recently published The Reactionary Mind: Why “Conservative” Isn’t Enough, Michael Warren Davis seems to celebrate this charge. His book is, at its heart, a series of irritable mental gestures aimed at contemporary liberal and mainstream conservatism nostrums. One will find individual critiques but no sweeping ideological program or synthesis of data. The book appears at a time when reactionaries are experiencing something of a boomlet. From Catholic integralism to Bronze Age Pervert, some on the American Right seem fed up with defending American republicanism and existing political institutions. What is odd is that Davis’s particular reactionary position is one that has had much less of a share in this boomlet—the old Chestertonian distributist living on his farm, smoking his pipe, and working only to live a modest, cultured life.
The book is difficult to review. On the one hand, Davis does not seem to take himself very seriously, but, on the other hand, he wants to write a serious book. The reviewer is left in a bind. To write a review, it is necessary to take both the author and his book seriously. I have no choice but to treat the entire book as a serious effort, but in doing so I place myself at risk of taking Davis too seriously, to wit, “Come on, man, it’s not that serious.” I can only say, in my defense, that if Davis was serious enough to write this book, then I owe him a serious review.
The Reactionary Mind has two parts. The first part addresses the history and development of reactionary ideas, and the second is a reactionary prescription for contemporary ills.
Davis is an example of what I have heard described as a “Chesterbro,” or a twenty-first-century man attempting to recover the worldview of early twentieth-century British conservative authors like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and G. K. Chesterton. For Davis, the best life is that lived in a village of farmers and craftsmen capable of living out happy lives unbothered by the excess of industrial capitalism and the secular, bureaucratic state. Such a life is the life of a Hobbit in Hobbiton, eating bread and cheese, drinking at the pub, and working honest work with one’s hands. It is a thoroughly apolitical vision, especially for the purported reactionary. “The whole point of reactionary politics,” Davis says, “is to minimize the political.” Davis seems to be speaking for himself; other reactionaries like Joseph de Maistre and Carl Schmitt stoked a friend and enemy distinction precisely to restore the political to its central position and then foment conflict between friends and enemies to yield a result. Davis, on the other hand, is an oddly liberal version of a reactionary.
Reactionary politics historically has sought to use industry and the state to reconstruct a traditional order like the Salazar propaganda poster, “A Lição de Salazar” (Salazar’s Lesson) in which a man enters his house with a knapsack over his shoulder, his wife at the hearth, and his children rushing to greet him. The bottom of the poster says, “Deus, Pátria, Família: A Trilogia da Educação Nacional” (God, Fatherland, Family: The National Education Trilogy). The content of the poster is deeply traditional, but the method of its production was industrial, as many of the same posters were printed and distributed, and it was under the sponsorship of an authoritarian state led by António de Oliveira Salazar. In essence, Davis wants the poster without the regime behind it. More precisely, he wants to live in the poster.
Moreover, Davis believes that the world in this poster was once the world people like Davis lived in. While Catholic integralists imagine Christendom from the commanding heights, Davis imagines it as a contented peasant, which is perhaps why Davis dismisses Catholic integralism as an anachronistic reading of modern politics back into the Catholic Middle Ages. Davis favors the medieval social order himself but not because of its Church-State relations but rather because “the locus of power wasn’t those great castles or cathedrals. Real authority was found in the avenues of common life: minor liege-lords and humble parish priests, guilds, and fraternities. … All government was local government, and all businesses were small businesses.”
Given Davis’s love of medieval Europe, the reader should not be surprised that the first half of the book is replete with arguments about the deforming influences of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, industrialism, capitalism, and socialism. Davis prefers the hierarchical unity of the peasant under the lord and both under the Church. The dramatic changes to this order are purely external, like plagues or famine. How could they not be? Everyone in medieval Christendom already lived the best life; no one in the hierarchical order would want any other life.