Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West
by R.R. Reno. Regnery. 178 pages. 2019
One of the rare consolations of the Empire of Lies is occasionally encountering an island of truth. Such an event reassures us that kindred spirits are still pushing back against the insanities of the age.
One such spirit is the American Catholic author and editor of First Things magazine R.R Reno and his 2019 work Return of the Strong Gods.
Like American philosopher Patrick Deneen and Polish philosopher Ryzsard Legutko, Reno illuminates the errors of the age. He neither succumbs to the easy evasions of the left nor to the vulgarity found on reaches of the right.
Ultimately, it’s a book that rejects the notion that our post-war era has been the best of all worlds. Divided into five sections and written in simple and succinct prose, its theme is that the West has stumbled into an abyss of openness. Reno traces our failings back to our dismay at Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the determination that “never again” would we bear witness to such horrors.
This led to the “postwar consensus”. This involved marginalising or outlawing the noxious isms which led us to 1914-1945. Nationalism, militarism and anti-Semitism had caused those horrors and had to be expunged from the public square. The “strong gods” were too dangerous.
Reno says that the strong gods “are the objects of men’s love and devotion, the sources of the passions and loyalties that unites societies”. Not all of them are malignant. Still, the chief lesson of the 20th century was that the strong gods of “militarism, fascism, communism, racism, and anti-Semitism” brought ruin.
To this end, the Western post-war consensus — led by the United States — was to prioritise cultural weakening in the form of a near-unlimited openness. Out were truth, certainty and exclusivity; in were relativism, doubt and diversity. If these trends were ever queried, one only needed reminding of 1945 and was soon brought to heel. The post-war consensus – and its Manichean framing: either “openness or Auschwitz” – was thus brought into being.
‘The open society’
“The open society” is a notion coined by Austrian philosopher Karl Popper and his two-volume Open Society and Its Enemies. The book was written in obscurity in New Zealand during the Second World War. For Popper “our civilisation faces a choice.” We “can live in a tribal or ‘closed society’… or we can break free from this ‘collectivist’ impulse and build an ‘open society’”, one that “sets free the critical powers of man.” Our future depended on choosing the latter.
Popper’s socio-cultural openness was echoed in economics by Friedrich Hayek, author of The Road to Serfdom. In a strange symmetry, the West ended up with two Austrian emigrés erecting the twin pillars of the post-war world: Popper’s commitment to cultural openness and Hayek’s free markets.
As Reno remarks, these two men were “united by a commitment to individual freedom and a desire to prevent the return of authoritarianism.” This sums up the last eight decades as well as any other and has been reinforced by organisations like the Mont Pelerin Society, of which Popper and Hayek were founding members, and by Popper’s most famous student, the bête noir of the right, George Soros.
The open-society characterises modern Western socieities. Reno explores this in an impressive overview of the main philosophical notions and figures of the era. After Popper and Hayek he examines the Americans Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley; then the German-speaking giants, Sigmund Freud and Max Weber; ending with the French philosophers Albert Camus, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Weber and his notion of the disenchantment of the world – i.e. the scientific erasure of the supernatural – is a key figure. As Reno observes, Popper, following Weber, wanted to rid us of the metaphysical. As Reno adds, it’s been imperative to eliminate “the vestiges of sacred authority that blinker men’s reason”. Reno argues that this is suicidal as it “drains away the substance of Western Civilization’s beliefs in robust metaphysical truths” –I.e. it erodes the religious substrate that has enabled us to flourish.
From this, the cultural imperatives follow: we must “celebrate diversity”, “cultivate transgression” and “problematize” our traditional ties. This is accomplished by our elite as they “drive old loyalties to the margins of respectability, and otherwise advance the cause of an open society and open minds.”
Metaphysical poverty, “openness”, and an obsession with free markets have led us to our current impasse. This explains Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. Voters clamour for figures brave enough to call out the failures of the liberal order.
The role of elites
Reno notes the economic, cultural and demographic disasters that have arisen under the aegis of openness. These have been overseen by an inept and unpatriotic elite – “Leaders without Loyalty”.
Simply put, our elites are hypocrites. They insist on “openness for thee, but not for me”. As Reno notes: “For all their talk of an open economy and open society, those in the upper echelons of our society work very hard to protect [themselves and] their children”. They live in “neighborhoods with good schools” and condemn “traditional norms as authoritarian, but… keep their [own] marriages together.” In essence, “they shelter themselves and those whom they love” from the destructive effects of openness as they praise its putative virtues publicly.
Nowadays the post-war consensus is straining under the weight of its own contradictions. As a result we have the “return of the strong gods” — an inevitable result of the liberal order.
Although peaceful and prosperous, the post-war consensus has failed. Socially, it fails to recognise the darker elements of the soul, like parochialism and “a love of one’s own”; politically it neglects a sense of belonging, a common culture and stability. Economically, free markets have left us financially and socially precarious.
Reno calls for a return to the politics of “shared love”. The liberal order rendered us homeless, lost in a sea of apathy. Liberals treat this crisis “as an illusion”, with Trump and Farage mere manifestations of an ignorant electorate, but Reno regards them as the inevitable result of the liberal order.
Populism is not an epiphenomenon of short-term economic and social angst; it represents deeper and entirely legitimate “questions about national identity, immigration and foreign policy, all of which cast doubt on the legitimacy of the established leadership class in the West.”
In advancing openness, our elite has eroded the solidarity we seek. As Reno remarks, they are “so thoroughly blinded by the postwar consensus”, that they neglect “the actual problems we face — atomization, dissolving communal bonds, disintegrating family ties, and a nihilistic culture of limitless self-definition.”
We thus need a return to the strong gods of love, solidarity and genuine community. We should demand that our leaders “ask questions they have been trained to supress”. As philosopher Leo Strauss observed – in direct opposition to Popper — society by nature is closed. Blood is thicker than water.
Although the liberal desire to prevent future holocausts was laudable, these dreadful events did not change human nature. We still seek solidarity and a sense of the sacred; we still see our “private interest as part of a larger whole”; we still have a “love of our land, our history, our founding myths, our warriors and heroes”. What we need is a renewed patriotism.
This is a highly commendable work. Like Deenen’s and Legutko’s, it is one of a handful of recent books that speak to the heart of our malaise.