This may be the worst well-written book I have ever read. That is, most awful books are bad in their writing, bad in their organization, bad in their reasoning, and bad in their typesetting. No such badness is evident here—How Democracies Die hits all the points it intends to, and reads crisply and smoothly. But it is ruined by a meta-problem: its utter cluelessness and total lack of self-reference. The authors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, are very much like the Ken Doll in the Toy Story movies—vain, preening, and, most of all, utterly unable to realize, not that the joke is on them, but that they themselves are the joke.
A disability afflicts nearly all conservative arguments today. Rather than being a robust picture of vigor and health, as they should given their firm ground in reality and the fantasies that underlie their opponents’ cancerous and bankrupt ideologies, conservative arguments present themselves at the door like starving beggars clad in rags. This is bad, but even worse is the source of this weakness, for it is not imposed from the outside, but voluntarily, by conservatives choosing to cut themselves off at the knees. How? By crippling their arguments through larding them with preemptive apologies.
This is a book that rewards patience. The problem is, I am not a patient man, nor do I think that the reward here would be commensurate with the effort. Thus, I spent enough time, which was quite a bit, to grasp maybe half of this book. I think the rest escaped me. That’s partially my fault—but it’s also the author’s fault, since an elliptical writing style combined with frequent use of untranslated French phrases (even the educated don’t generally learn French anymore), along with scatterings of Greek, does not conduce to good communication. And aside from foreign languages, Arendt’s thought sometimes is so obscure as to be ethereal, an odd trait in a book that (in this edition) features a clenched fist on the cover, which is really not truth in advertising.
I sometimes think of my project to pass Reaction through the refiner’s fire as beginning with the raw material of a simple stout tree, which has grown straight but has many branches. My task is to examine and prune those branches, and to plane down the tree to its core, creating a smooth and solid piece of wood, to which can be fitted a forged head—a lance of destiny, we can call it. This book, Guillaume Faye’s Archeofuturism, is one of those branches, and today we will lop it off, though perhaps some of its wood can be used to fuel the forging furnace. That said, this book is mostly insane. But not completely. And, if I am being honest, it prefigures, in part, my own preoccupation with a future that combines the politics of Reaction with the technology of tomorrow.
Etienne Gilson is one of those men who shot across the sky of the West in the first half of the twentieth century, and were mostly forgotten by the end of the century, thrown overboard in the general wreck of Christendom. He combined in his thought any number of now-unfashionable currents: a love for Roman Catholicism and high medievalism; a focus on Thomistic thought; a dislike for the downsides of the modern world; and many more. No wonder he has slipped from our memory, or more accurately, been erased by neglect. But, as with other thinkers from his vanished time, from Carl Schmitt to Henri de Lubac, there are signs his star is rising again (though to some it is a baleful star), so I am here to summarize a little of his thought.
For some time now, I have been claiming that what we are likely to get, and probably need, whether we like it or not, is a Man of Destiny. The original man called that was, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte. Neither my claim nor Napoleon is popular nowadays. We have gotten used to hearing that individual men don’t matter—that history is instead, take your pick, a matter of struggle for economic advantage, or of the opinions and actions of the masses, or of blind and random fate, or of group politics of one type or another. This book, Andrew Roberts’s generally positive take on Napoleon, shows the falsehood of those claims, and proves that what matters is men. Not men in general, but a tiny subset of men who make, and have always made, the world what it is, and what it will be, good and bad.
In the past year, several high-profile books have been published that purport to analyze the future of democracy. All are reactions, and not positive reactions, to the election of Donald Trump. All are written by people of the Left, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are either wrong or bad, although there is certainly a very strong correlation between being Left and being both wrong and bad. As part of my own analysis of a future Reaction, of which the death or massive alteration of so-called liberal democracy is a necessary part, I am slogging through these books (and also doing so in order that you may avoid doing so). How far I will get through the stack I am not sure, but I did get through this book, David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends.
Given that zombie survival manuals and similar how-to books are today all the rage, on sale at every Costco, Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook seems like a selection from the same genre. Namely, of somewhat jokey books that purport to tell you what to do in a strange, disastrous situation, while effectively acknowledging that if you do end up being chased by zombies, hurriedly turning to the index, finding the entry “When Being Pursued,” then scrambling to locate page 102, isn’t probably the best tactic for survival. But instead, this book is the real thing, I think—an actual practical handbook on how to overthrow the state. More precisely, how to overthrow a weak state, a banana republic, though I will give some thought to relevance in the modern American context.
Philip Bobbitt is best known for his earlier work The Shield of Achilles, a thousand-page work tracing the development of the modern state. This book, The Garments of Court and Palace, focuses more narrowly on the inception of the modern state, through the prism of Machiavelli’s writings. At the same time it claims to be a new interpretation and synthesis of Machiavelli’s thought, rejecting many widely held beliefs about it, including that he denied the importance of virtue and morality in politics. Bobbitt posits that Machiavelli instead had a specific conception of virtue, and he wrote with a precise constitutional purpose: he was the midwife of the European princely state, superseding the feudal state, and therefore the herald of the modern Western state, in all its versions.
For some time now, I have been telling my children, none of whom have ever lived through any event that significantly harmed America, that sooner or later, history will return. The older ones roll their eyes; the younger ones have no idea what I mean. This book shows what I mean, through a fictionalized look at a 2020 nuclear attack by North Korea on South Korea, Japan, and the United States.