The last few years have brought me some surprising historical revelations I didn’t learn in college and I certainly didn’t discover in mainstream media. Without them, there would be no way to understand the current political environment.
Mostly it comes down to the following.
The triumph of liberalism in the 18th century – commercial markets, human rights, freedom of religion, strict limits on government, the randomized blending of human populations through freedom of association – unleashed unparalleled human creativity and prosperity that fundamentally changed the face of the earth and upended our expectations for what human life could be.
It also provoked a backlash, as early as the 1820s. That’s hardly surprising. Where there was control there was now choice. Where there was imposition there was now emancipation. What was top down became bottom up. The old order lost power and a new world replaced it. Entrenched interests resented it. They swore to take back what they lost.
That backlash came to take two forms: aristocratic and socialistic. Or replace the terms: Tory and Labor, conservative and fake liberal, Right and Left. The distinction between the two is fuzzy because both were ultimately reacting against choice and progress, the end of aristocracy and the advent of meritocracy, the end of slavery and the rise of universal volition and the seeming chaos that implies. What’s even more confusing is that both sides adopted the language of liberalism to sell their ideas.
This tendency toward two forms of reactionary ideology persists to this day. It’s why you get the left of 100 years ago agreeing with the alt-right today on eugenics, why the left today agrees with the right of 100 years ago on identity and biology, why the far left of the 60s agrees with the religious extremists today on free speech, why movements such as the New Deal that advertised themselves to unseat corporate power become corporatist themselves.
Further back in history in the 19th century, this produced seeming anomalies. You have conservatives decrying anti-slavery and free-trade movements. You have socialists and Tories alike opposing mass production in factories. You have leftists speaking like rightists in opposing women’s right to work, or maybe it is the rightists speaking like leftists.
Today you have Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump agreeing on trade with China, Bernie Sanders and Tucker Carlson agreeing on immigration and the evils of capitalism, and everyone left and right agreeing on the need to regulate new technology. All these impulses are ultimately anti-liberal; the particular flavor of anti-liberalism depends on political appeal and the sore spots that form the ideological resistance.
It can all get crazy confusing until you realize that some people just don’t want the world to be free of government authority. If you understand that, you can discern the underlying dynamic at work in modern politics. The dynamic stretches back two centuries. All the rest is detail.
There’s an even simpler way to understand this. Freedom was the revolution. All the rest is counterrevolution. Counterrevolution means an attempt to turn back, to harness the pace of history and recapture what was lost, first by disabling the forces of change and then imposing an imagined idyllic past. That past could be one in which strong men ruled, where a pious people happily lived out a public faith, a time of glorious equality, a society where people worked with their hands, some lost period of greatness. The specifics can be left to the intellectual imagination.
This model of revolution and counterrevolution is enormously helpful in clearing out the historical confusions and anomalies. Keep it in mind and much makes sense that previously seemed mysterious, such as why a conservative Germany ruled by Otto von Bismarck was the creator of the modern welfare state and patricians like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt would do the same in the United States. These “Progressives” were as misnamed as the “liberals” are in our own time. Their ambition is not to allow progress much less liberty but the opposite. Every socialist is a reactionary at heart, and every reactionary must ultimately rely on socialistic means to realize his ends.
In practice, it means the forces of classical liberalism are surrounded on all sides of the political spectrum. The threat ebbs and flows but never entirely goes away.
What’s odd about this outlook is not only its explanatory power but also how rare it is to find a thinker who can elucidate this with clarity. One of them was Edward C. Harwood, founder of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER). His 1951 book – written just a few years into the Cold War in which a former ally suddenly became the enemy again – was The Counterrevolution.
He beautifully describes the revolution:
Several hundred years ago Western Civilization consisted of many vast feudal estates, innumerable peasant holdings of small farms, uncounted villages, and towns, and a few cities, small by today's standards. For the most part, men lived as their fathers and grandfathers before them had lived; folklore and superstition were generally considered the intellectual keys to understanding, and scientific knowledge as we think of it today was almost unheard of; class distinctions were rigid in many parts of the civilized world; village industry was controlled by the guilds and other authorities; progress was not generally expected and often was not tolerated; most men were slaves, seemingly held in perpetual bondage by custom, fear, ignorance, and superstition. Only the more fortunate who had been granted dominion over the earth and the fruits thereof, seemingly by an inscrutable providence, could live much differently than did beasts of burden in that almost-forgotten age.
Nevertheless, within that civilization, an idea began to find increasing acceptance. In a word, this was the idea that individuals might be free; but its scope developed gradually, and even today we are not sure that we grasp its full implications.
The movement allied against that revolution became the counterrevolution in Europe and America. Harwood would know because he lived through and fought against a major element of this in the New Deal. The monetary reforms of 1933 that defaulted on gold contracts and stole money from the people inspired him to found the American Institute of Economic Research as a institution standing solid for the revolution against the despotism of the past.
The Counterrevolution has been republished again by AIER, with new editorial material by Edward Stringham, Pete Earle, and Fred Harwood. They explain the context and larger implications of the Revolution/Counterrevolution model for understanding political topography.
It’s fascinating to see how little has changed in 70 years. One the one hand, you have what we might call the merchant class that has the strongest interest in sound money, the freedom of trade, emergent social institutions, and constitutional government. This group does not think of itself as the inheritors of a revolution from centuries ago but that is what they are.
In opposition are those who want to weaken constitutional restraints, unleash power, depreciate the currency, throttle the pace of technological development, and restrict the freedom of trade and movement. This group does not think of itself as a counterrevolutionary force but that is precisely what it is.
The conceptual breakdown of revolution/counterrevolution is vastly better than any modern typology that too often distracts from the key issue: the place of power in our lives.
Join the revolutionaries.