A mythical conception of the past haunts us everywhere from almost every ideological angle. What long-dead people said or did is repeated again and again by those looking for change. It is usually referred to as ‘traditionalism’ and amongst other things it is the driving force of political conservatism. In this approach, the facts of today are measured against past records and it is said that in previous times, life was generally better for those that appreciate their own liberty and autonomy. Thus, the conservative believes that if we can ‘return’ to the values and institutional structures of that time, we will be able to achieve what they believe to be an ideal state of being.
Let me first say that I do not completely disagree with some elements of the paleoconservative/libertarian reading of American history. It does indeed appear that many people were once generally more independent and enjoyed greater autonomy in varied areas of their lives than they do today. The imposition of taxation (theft) was very much limited in most cases to wartime – and indeed many completely avoided any taxation either through not being required to pay it, or through the administrative and technological limitations of the era. It seems logical therefore that a return to such a state of affairs would be preferable compared with maintaining the incumbent paradigm. The supporters of this past paradigm however tend to over-value these historical societies and want to use them as templates for their own idealised society. It is important that we do not look at the past with misty-eyed longing ,for that vision is blurred and in some cases completely manipulated by both the limitations of historiography and by propagandistic intent.
There is a very popular phrase amongst those in the ‘freedom movement’: “The answer to 1984* is 1776.” This statement means that the move towards greater authoritarianism across the glove in the modern age can be quelled by a return to the values that spawned the American Revolution. Whilst paleoconservative values are certainly much better than the lack of values that is imposed upon us today, there exist certainly far better and more consistent ideas for achieving real personal freedom and autonomy. Adherence to the principles of voluntaryism is preferable to paleoconservatism in so many ways – including, but not limited to, the fact that such an adherence does not require the pragmatic endorsement of heteronomy or the propagation of false ideas and notions such as ‘nations’, and their derivatives – ‘national sovereignty’, ‘national interest’, ‘national security’.
One of the major issues with this event-specific usage of language is that one is encouraged to accept not merely elements of ‘1776’ thinking, but the entire package itself, as derived from study of ‘the event’ itself. So heavily associated with a historical event is this term, it appears that those who would follow this call for freedom see themselves as repeating the American Revolution. It is not an approach that could lead to modern liberation but a philosophy of re-enactment, bedecked in the anachronistic attire of ages past. The flag-waving ‘tea-party’ conservative that results from a subscription to these ideas is nothing short of tragic; a desperate and confused figure attempting to reconcile an obsession with foundation mythology with a yearning for real freedom.
This association with the tri-cornered hat-wearing brigade hinders transmission of those elements of the paleoconservative thinking which are indeed positive, making them seem outdated, eccentric and simply impractical to the outsider. Fetishism for the past does no favours for those wishing to express and support ideas of liberty and autonomy and falls far short of a truly emancipating framework.
Thus, any movement for future prosperity must be at the very least divorced from the aesthetics of the past and the worship of historic figureheads. Indeed, it is a lazy argument to continually reference long-dead men and women whose ideas one may only even partially agree with (slavery, anyone?). I am not interested in a biased history lesson and I think most others are not either.
Furthermore, attempts to argue this ‘traditionalist’ point tend to lead to claims that these are ‘American’ ideas. Not only is it absurd to claim that an idea is part of an ‘essence’ of an imaginary construct called ‘The United States of America’, but it is completely ridiculous to conclude that because an idea is considered to ‘be’ an ‘American’ idea, that it is somehow unquestionably correct. Ideas are then lumped into a strict dichotomy of ‘American/un-American’ ideas whereby the ‘un-American’ are derided simply for simply ‘being’ un-American, without any further inquiry. Apart from the fact that this approach dooms one to poor historiography, this is also how nationalism metastasises into fascism.
The quicker that that history is laid to rest as history and nothing more, the faster those freedom-seekers will realise that there are new and better ways forward.
*For those that don’t know, 1984 refers to George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949) where a totalitarian state rules over the former United Kingdom.