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Funhouse-Mirror Fusionism

Like the traditionalists and libertarians, integralists and vitalists find themselves advancing analogous causes: one stands for a moral order and cohesive community, and the other for the exceptional individual.

· 14 min read
Images of Trump, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Aquinas.
Trump, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Aquinas.

After the end of the Second World War, the American Old Right underwent a transformation from being a loosely connected band of libertarians, nativists, and isolationists towards a more cohesive ideological conservative movement aimed at confronting the threat of collectivism and atheism posed by the Soviet Union abroad and the left at home. A small band of libertarians and traditionalists debated and discussed first principles, which ultimately resulted in what Frank Meyer termed “fusionism”—a compromise position that incorporated both traditions’ insights. 70 years later, after the Soviet threat was extinguished, that consensus has fractured, and a possible anti-elitist successor has emerged, colloquially known as the New Right. And as it’s begun to take form, it finds itself in an eerily similar place to the early conservatism.

To the New Right, whose influences range from Aquinas and Aristotle to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, post-war conservatism is incapable of contending with the twin forces of liberalism and a coterie of economic, cultural, and political elites bent on undermining Western civilization. The New Right contends that the existing politico-ideological infrastructure is insufficient to meet the moment and in need of drastic overhaul. And while the current right-wing critics of conservatism might seem foreign and strange, they’ve always been with us, lurking just beneath the surface of the fusionist project.

There’s always been a remnant of voices on the Right that never quite got on board with the fusionist project. For most of the history of the postwar conservative movement, those voices generally came from Catholics. Thinkers like L. Brent Bozell and Alasdair McIntyre were convinced that the entire liberal project was rotten to its core and that, at some point between the 15th and 16th Centuries, political thought had gone totally off course toward licentiousness and the denial of any natural limits for man. The violent delights of expressive libertinism and economic atomism had the most violent of ends in the millions of aborted children and a godless culture.

Their arguments weren’t particularly new either. Very similar criticisms of individualistic liberalism had been levied for centuries by the likes of Joseph De Maistre and Pope Pius X. The argument went that, for the ancients, the end of politics was virtue and the common good, whereas liberalism’s aim was an amoral individualism. For these thinkers, liberalism was not easily containable as a set of political institutions limited to the protection of certain basic rights. Within, it contained a destructive social philosophy that, rather than freeing individuals from the constraints of petty tyrants, enslaved them to their own passions. Nor did it provide statesmen with the tools to adequately govern a polity. For the most part though, such thought was buried deep within the tradition, accessible only to those who dared to look in the archives—that was, until relatively recently.  

In 2018, Patrick Deneen, then a relatively obscure political-science professor at the University of Notre Dame, resurrected this critique in a short book punchily titled Why Liberalism Failed. The book recapitulated all the old arguments made by McIntyre, Bozell, and their European forebears, but the timing of its publication made it seem fresh. At a time in which the American Right’s arguments and priorities felt stale not only to the public at large but to its own adherents, its radicalness gave it a kind of novelty that led even Barack Obama to take it seriously and review it positively. Two years later, a Harvard Law Professor named Adrian Vermeule, who identifies as an “integralist” (which is to say, he rejects the separation of church and state and advocates that Church teaching should provide the basis for civil law), wrote a provocative essay in the Atlantic on the need to abandon neutral theories of constitutionalism in favor of explicitly moral readings of the Constitution. He has since expanded that critique into a book evocatively titled Common Good Constitutionalism. He has also argued that the American Republic should be refounded as the “Empire of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

In the same year, a manuscript titled Bronze Age Mindset (BAM) was obscurely self-published under the pseudonym “Bronze Age Pervert” (BAP). Since its publication, the author has been identified as Costin Alamariu, a Yale Political Science Ph.D. who wrote his thesis on the relationship between tyranny and political philosophy. The book’s structure, tone, and scathing attack on modernity and philistinism were modeled on Nietzsche. Five years after its publication, it gained a cult following—its readership includes Trump Administration staffers and military servicemen—and has spurred think-pieces in the Atlantic, the New York Times, Politico, and highbrow journals such as the Claremont Review of Books.

Bronze Age Pervert’s Guide to Philosophy
Costin Alamariu’s (AKA Bronze Age Pervert’s) doctoral dissertation is attracting a lot of interest but it doesn’t add up to much.

BAM is Nietzschean at its core. Justice is the will of the strong. Strength and vitality are paramount virtues. And as in Nietzsche, brilliant insights about the nature of man are sandwiched between intentionally outrageous, off-the-cuff statements. Comparatively few people remember that, despite Nietzsche’s influence on the postmodern and poststructuralist Left, he was a man of the Right. Egalitarian ideals and democracy were incompatible with the idea that the strong shall rightfully rule over the weak. The individual great man was to be cherished. Moreover, much like Nietzsche, BAM’s message is directed to the few supermen capable of understanding it and giving themselves new purposes and ends to strive for. Alamariu makes this clear from the outset: the book is not philosophy, but an exhortation to this narrow few. It’s for the lost few who will make up the small piratical bands that will lay waste to the modern landscape of liberalism: 

Here is my vision of the true justice, the justice of nature: the zoos opened, predators unleashed by the dozens, hundreds … four thousand hungry wolves rampaging on the streets of these hive cities, elephants and bison stampeding, the buildings smashed to pieces, the cries of the human bug shearing through the streets as the lord of beasts returns.

Alamariu also writes openly that the only legitimate form of government is military dictatorship. It’s Nietzsche taken to the logical fascist extreme. For Nietzscheans like Alamariu, the chief problem with liberal modernity is not that it removes constraints on individuals, but that it’s too concerned with the many, who can and should be sacrificed for the good of the few. Contemporary elites promote a sterile form of individualism that treats victimhood as a virtue and masculine vitality as a cancer, which sedates their would-be competitors and buttresses their own power. Where modern liberalism insists on the inalienable natural rights of each person, Nietzschean individualism is for the few, not the many.

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Integralism and vitalism make up the twin poles of the New Right. To adherents of both, traditional conservative commitments to American political institutions and classical liberalism are naïve at best, and pernicious smokescreens at worst—seductive rhetoric obscuring a paradoxically brutal and banal regime that drains its subjects of their own life force and spirit. And who are the sirens singing this lethal song? A set of political, cultural, and economic elites who celebrate post-industrialization, cultural progressivism, and the importation of millions of nonwhite immigrants.

Like the New Right, the early conservatives were an oppositional force. The early conservatives mobilized in response to a perceived (and real) common threat. Further, beyond responding to collectivism at home and Soviet communism abroad, their practical policy priorities weren’t that far apart. A minimal state was a hedge against collectivism’s drive to displace both organic communities bonded together through a shared moral and religious vision as well as exceptional, iconoclastic individuals in the economic marketplace. The First Amendment protected the rights of the individual to speak his mind and pray to the God he chose. Originalism, Vermeule noted, “enjoyed its initial growth because it helped legal conservatives survive and even flourish in a hostile environment … enabl[ing] conservatives to oppose constitutional innovations by the Warren and Burger Courts.” Libertarians and traditionalists could find common ground even if the ends to which each aspired were different. 

Nor were the actual philosophies far apart. Frank Meyer, the original expositor of “fusionism,” insisted that the two could be reconciled within the same larger Western philosophical tradition. Meyer understood that, while there could be no true dialectical synthesis of the two, they were mutually reinforcing. Individualism needs to be guided by a strong moral framework, whereas virtue depends on it being freely chosen and uncoerced. While “the tension between the traditionalist and libertarian emphases exists throughout the Western tradition and therefore exists within that consensual settlement,” he explained, “it had always been and remained at the time of the establishment of the Republic precisely that—a tension within a basic civilizational consensus.” It survived for as long as it did because it existed within a basic civilizational consensus that had been hammered out over centuries and found its practical apotheosis in the American constitutional order: 

The philosophical position upon which the American constitutional settlement was based had already brought into a common synthesis concepts which were placed in radical opposition by the European conservative-liberal struggle: a respect for the tradition together with a respect for reason, the acceptance of the authority of an organic moral order together with the fierce concern for the freedom of the individual person.

This isn’t a new story. It’s essentially canonical for many of us on the American Right. The irony of the current historical moment is that integralists and vitalists find themselves occupying a very similar position as the traditionalists and the libertarians. In 1945, traditionalists and libertarians were small bands of ideological minorities who found themselves in common cause against a left-wing opponent. The same is true today. 

Further, like the traditionalists and libertarians, integralists and vitalists find themselves advancing analogous causes: one stands for a moral order and cohesive community, and the other for the exceptional individual. Traditionalists like Russell Kirk located the end of politics in virtue. Richard Weaver, like the integralists, traced civilizational decline to the end of the medieval period. Traditionalists, like integralists, saw an excessive focus on individual freedom as a distraction from the common good.

And while no serious person would try to conflate libertarian individualism with Nietzschean vitalism, they draw upon similar individualist impulses. It is a common story on the New Right for a young contrarian to be drawn into libertarian politics, only to eventually reject it in favor of the edgy authoritarianism of the alt-right. Additionally, libertarianism always had a Nietzschean temptation that found a place in Ayn Rand’s objectivism and the writings of H.L. Mencken. Even today, Richard Hanania, a prominent writer and commentator, openly identifies himself as a Nietzschean classical liberal and has praised Alamariu’s attempt to develop a post-Christian right-wing politics. Libertarianism also often had a complicated relationship with democracy itself—in that some of its expositors were willing to tolerate dictatorships such as Pinochet’s Chile. 

But if these similarities can be fairly noted, it’s worth noting that integralism and vitalism are sub-currents. They have never dominated American conservative discourse and have largely been confined to continental Europe—where the liberal tradition was always weaker. In America, they were fringe elements. They were the parts that got left out of the civilizational consensus that Meyer describes.

Integralism and vitalism are the funhouse mirror versions of traditionalism and individualism. Integralism is what happens when you remove republicanism from the traditionalist equation. It’s medieval Catholicism unrestrained by Montesquieu’s checks and balances. Vitalism is what happens when you remove the respect for other individuals from individualism. The superman is the only one that matters, not the natural rights of all individuals. 

If even fusionism has bent to the point of breaking these last few decades, then the New Right’s funhouse mirror version surely can’t expect better results. While there were obvious tensions within fusionism, the twin poles were mutually reinforcing. It’s very hard to see how Catholic medievalism, with its respect for the poor, the victims, and the meek, can be squared with a Nietzschean philosophy that calls it “slave morality” and celebrates the “creative suffering” of victims. 

Both agree on what to oppose, but vitalism and integralism have to actually govern. Fusionist conservatism ultimately delivered the end of the Cold War and an originalist Supreme Court. Can funhouse-mirror fusionism hope to accomplish something resembling actual governance? Overthrowing liberal-democratic capitalism is one thing, but what do you replace it with?

Take immigration and race, two of the biggest issues animating the New Right. Some integralists, like Adrian Vermeule, have openly called for priority to be given to confirmed Catholics, which he acknowledges “will disproportionately favor immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” Another integralist, Sohrab Ahmari, has written that “[r]ace chauvinism is an all too typical ‘meme’ these days, part of a global resurgence of particularism.” When your theology is held together by the proposition that each human being is created in the image and likeness of God, invidious racial preferences are hard to justify.

Vitalists like Alamariu, on the other hand, are openly opposed to immigration from nonwhite countries. Alamariu writes that “nations face extinction and an era of permanent civil war because this elite wants to … flood them with the shit of the world.” At another point, he refers to the “turd world.” Some religious New Right thinkers, such as Matthew Schmitz, have tried to square the circle by advocating “immigration idealism” and “Christian realism”:

A just immigration policy will recognize that whereas the Church welcomes all comers, no nation can. It will insist that migration policy give preference to those who share the history, culture, and creed of the welcoming nation. It will recognize that those who are, by reason of history and belief, hostile to the host culture cannot really aspire to join it.

“History and culture” are provisionally workable substitutes for race and ethnicity, but eventually the same old cleavages will reemerge in actual policymaking. Will integralists be satisfied with an immigration policy that turns away Nigerian Christians and welcomes lapsed French Catholics? It is hard to imagine that they will. The same problem remains.

Or take political economy. On the surface, there exists the potential for a social-democratic synthesis. Ahmari has written positively about right-wing social democracy, cheerfully accepting the label of “pro-life new-dealer.” In Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen likewise laments the decline of the white working class and capitalism’s “profound new form of geographic alienation, the physical separation of beneficiaries of the globalized economy from those left behind.” Alamariu, too, criticizes the ruling elite for the decimation of the white working class. However, the vitalist sympathy for the white working class is less a product of collectivist economic theory than it is a product of racial politics. The white working class is a politically expedient hook for the vitalists rather than the natural outgrowth of vitalism.

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Further, Nietzschean vitalism is openly disdainful of the masses. Nietzsche was contemptuous of “last men,” the passive and contemptible public which is only concerned with its own comfort. So is Alamariu. And similarly, Nietzschean classical liberal Richard Hanania’s embrace of creative destruction seems to be a natural corollary of his belief that “some humans are in a very deep sense better than other humans.” Social Darwinism is an unfair epithet that’s been used against libertarians more broadly, but it fits neatly with Hanania’s and Alamariu’s vitalism. With Nietzschean vitalism, the piratical bands are small. Why then, would vitalists be concerned about strong collective bargaining and family policy—some of the integralists’ preferred policies? Wouldn’t concern for inequality be a constraint in the way of the exceptional few? The center cannot hold.

Nor is there a stable regime to be found in Alamariu’s thought. In Michael Anton’s review of Bronze Age Mindset, he writes:

BAP at any rate cannot be unaware that the practical questions … form insurmountable barriers to any stable, just, and lasting regime based on inequality. I suspect he would say: nothing lasts, much less anything great; your silly regime based on “equality” didn’t last either and gave us bugrule to boot; better a short period of rule by the highest men than centuries of bugdom; wouldn’t you rather have some greatness rather than none?

Integralists at least have the ambition of sustained rule and how to actualize it. Vitalists on the other hand are more interested in tearing things down than figuring out what comes after. 

If Alamariu’s piratical bands were to somehow lay waste to our decadent landscape and install the kind of fascistic military dictatorship prescribed in BAM, could the integralists save face by insisting on an explicitly theocratic legal order that bound society at large but vested legitimate governing authority in vitalists? After all, if the only thing that matters is gaining and maintaining power, why should the vitalists care if they have to rhetorically pledge themselves to the church while ignoring its dictates? The Catholic Church briefly coexisted with fascist Italy. Perhaps it could happen again, but the integralists would ultimately chafe and rebel against the sheer barbarity of it. Ultimately, there’s no place for Hitlerian brutality in an Empire of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

Fusionism was contingent upon traditionalism sometimes prevailing over individualism, and vice versa. Integralism and vitalism don’t allow for that kind of give and take. Integralism insists that all human beings are created with equal dignity. Vitalism says that some people are inherently inferior. Integralism demands natural law handed down by God. Nietzschean vitalism says that God is dead, and it’s good that we killed him. Only one of those can win. There’s no compromising—philosophically or practically. 

What this means is that neither can find sufficient common cause to actually govern. Much like the Old Right, which was a loosely connected band of reactionary thinkers incapable of forming a governing coalition, the New Right is a loosely connected band of reactionary thinkers incapable of forming a governing coalition. What’s new is actually old. As Mark Twain is supposed to have said, history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. 

But if funhouse-mirror fusionism isn’t capable of governing, it is capable of destroying. This was Francis Fukuyama’s great fear in The End of History and the Last Man. With liberal democracy’s triumph and no external enemy to challenge it, the major questions about how to structure polities had been answered. It was cause for celebration, but also caution. Fukuyama wondered aloud whether the End of History would be unsatisfying. The great risk was not that a genuinely novel ideology would emerge to challenge liberalism, but that life under liberalism would be boring. Existential questions and challenges would cease, giving way to restlessness and rebellion against comfortable liberal society. Further, any remaining problems would be amplified in people’s minds creating further angst. Those living under liberalism would opt to restart History anew.

As fusionism can be fairly credited with bringing about this triumphal moment, it’s fitting that the biggest challenge to it should emerge from the Right. There’s nothing new about vitalism and integralism. But there’s something appealing about them in societies like ours where there’s a crisis of meaning and purpose. The would-be barbarians are, and have always been, inside the gates. Lincoln himself dealt with this very problem. “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Let us choose wisely.

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