The Road to Serfdom is Paved with B.S.

A review of 'The Reactionary Mind: Why “Conservative” Isn't Enough.'

A few weeks ago, I saw a rave review in the American Conservative of a new book, The Reactionary Mind: Why “Conservative” Isn't Enough. Judging by the review and what I know of the reviewer, I fully expected to hate it.

I got the book, picked it up, and … I loved it. It’s written in brisk, inviting, oddly unpretentious prose. The author, Michael Warren Davis, is a knowledgeable, confident writer, who writes of cobwebby things with remarkable clarity and verve. It’s fun, informative, thoroughly quirky in a good way, and full of things—mostly of secondary or tangential relevance to his thesis—that I agree with to one extent or another.

And now that I’ve gotten the sure-to-be-unexpected, blurbable praise out of the way, I should get to my primary criticism: It’s b------t.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Davis’ advice at the end about how to live a good life is lovely and constructive, if not necessarily universal or wholly practical in its applicability. His proudly reactionary interpretations of history are fun and occasionally enlightening, but also on many occasions jaw-droppingly wrong.

To drive the point home, the first chapter begins with an astonishingly wrong assertion of fact. Davis writes:

Imagine a land where the average citizen lives on about twelve acres of land, and the poorest of the poor get by with just one. None of them have ever seen the road darkened by a skyscraper or heard the air split by the sound of a passing airplane. Nearly 100 percent of the population lives and works in the great outdoors. Their skin is a healthy bronze; their hands are strong and calloused; their muscles are hard, taut, and eminently practical, earned through long days of wholesome labor.

And:

For the most part, these folks walk everywhere they need to go. It keeps them fit and limber. Besides, they’re never far from town: everything they need is, at most, a few miles from the front door. Not one of them has ever seen a throughway or a byway, and no tractor trailer has ever disturbed the quiet of this little domain. The only sounds a man hears are the whistle of the scythe as his son mows the barley, the low of the heifer as she brushes away flies with her tail, and the voice of his wife calling him in for lunch.

He goes on for pages like this with palpable envy for the more fulfilling and authentic life of the humble serf, writing about how, in the spring, men feast on roast pig and craft beer while boys chase rabbits through the briar and woo girls with memorized poetry. (Autumn is similarly idyllic.) And then, he declares, “Welcome to a day in the life of a serf.” 

Davis’ depiction of serfdom reads like the promotional literature for some five-star rehab resort, where the idle rich can detox through New Age organic diets and strenuous labor. Davis concedes that this Dark Ages as Dude Ranch, serfdom as summer camp is “a slightly romanticized view… but only slightly.”

I guess slightness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The reality of the serf’s existence was, by any objective metric, horrible. Serfs were not, in the strictest sense, slaves, but they weren’t far above them, either. They could not leave their lands without permission, and when they did leave it was on the orders of their lords to carry brutally heavy loads (often on their own backs) great distances while risking death at the hands of highwaymen. The feudal custom of angaria empowered lords to compel their serfs to be beasts of burden. Even when they weren’t on the road, the serf’s life was defined by backbreaking labor. “Peasants labored harder, sweated more, and collapsed from exhaustion more often than their animals,” writes William Manchester.

Nor was village life an idyllic fairy tale of good Christians wishing peace on their fellow man and living under the noble protection of their lords. “Although homicides were twice as frequent as deaths by accident,” Manchester notes, “English coroners’ records show that only one of every hundred murderers was ever brought to justice.” Those lords were judge, jury, and, often, executioner. “Medieval Christians, knowing the other cheek would be bloodied, did not turn it. Death was the prescribed penalty for hundreds of offenses, particularly those against property,” Manchester continues. “The threat of capital punishment was even used in religious conversions, and medieval threats were never idle.”

The feudal lord had little respect for the family beyond the role it played in maximizing the efficiency of labor. The lord could, and very often did, tell women whom they could marry. And as a rule, no woman could get married without prior approval and payment for a license. Men, too, could be forced to marry widows or other available women if the lord felt it was a useful way to consolidate lands. Women were often required to obtain permission to have children and still paid a fee when they got it.

Such fees are particularly cruel when considered against the backdrop of larger cruelties of serf and peasant life—and death. Estimates vary considerably, but somewhere between 15 and 30 percent of children in the Middle Ages didn’t survive their first year. Large numbers of women often died giving birth and even more died from postpartum infections. And let’s be clear: Serf life was gross. They lived in hovels, often lightless and windowless, full of disease-carrying vermin, and, very often, livestock. They cooked their food inside, filling their huts with smoke that saturated everything. Most serfs wore the same coarse, uncomfortable clothes every day. Everyone defecated outside, but not that far from where they lived. Workplace injuries were common, particularly for children, and the treatment for things like burns was often a mix of dung and animal fat. Serfs rarely if ever got to see a doctor, not that it would do much good. Almost no one could read, and even if they could, they couldn’t afford books or candles to illuminate them (daylight was for work after all).

I am happy to concede that these are generalities and conditions varied by region and century. Indeed, having read quite a bit about precapitalist Europe for my own book, Suicide of the West, I was actually looking forward to some effort on Davis’ part to rebut the historical consensus about the plight of serfs, and humans generally, in the Middle Ages. And it seemed like he was going to do just that. Right after conceding that his Norman Rockwell serfdom is “slightly romanticized,” he writes, “Our view of the Middle Ages has been clouded by centuries of bad history piled on top of one another. So, before we go any further, we must clear up three common misconceptions about our friend the serf.”

But rather than offering new data, surprising historical examples, or research of any kind, he engages in philosophical apologetics and a very strange form of whataboutism. The three misconceptions we moderns have about serfs are “The Serf Was Oppressed,” “The Serf Was Ignorant,” and “The Serf Was Miserable.”

But under none of these headings does he actually make the affirmative case for any of these misconceptions. Instead, he argues, the serfs were not oppressed because we moderns are the ones oppressed by a riot of consumer choices. Sounding a lot like an old school Marxist or Bernie Sanders ranting about how there are too many brands of deodorant, Davis argues that capitalism is the real oppressor for weighing us down with too many options pushed on us by advertising and other forms of manufactured desire. There’s nothing about the intergenerational bondage of serfdom; the arbitrary cruelty enshrined in law and custom by “banal Lordship.” We are always free to choose, but never free from choice,” Davis writes. “We lack the greatest freedom of all: freedom from desire, otherwise known as gratitude.” By this logic, the freest people in America are those lucky souls in maximum security prisons. He concludes with rhetorical flourish of nonsense that would do Herbert Marcuse proud: “So we can’t say that the serf was oppressed merely because he lacked choices. In fact, I would argue that he was freer, because he was free from meaningless choices. If he wanted bread, he baked it.” Of course, even a cursory review of the literature would tell you that often the serf could not bake bread on demand, which is why so many died when the crops went south.

He plays the same game with the idea that the serfs were ignorant. It’s beside the point that serfs couldn’t read, most never saw the world outside their village, and all lacked the basic knowledge of medicine and hygiene to make their lives a little less miserable. The real ignorance on display could be found in those who thought improving the lot of the serfs might be a worthwhile endeavor: “It never occurred to these men that most people might not want to be lettered.”

And then there’s the myth of serf misery. There’s no nod to the plagues, the starvation, or the mandatory bondage under arbitrary rulers. But there’s a lot of whataboutist fooferall about how Christianity is the cure for contemporary unhappiness. I have no objection whatsoever to Christians believing things would be better if more people got some religion in their lives. I even agree, albeit with all manner of caveats. But I stop nodding when I read statements like this, “We cannot remake the world as twelfth-century France, but what we can do is recognize that a happy society would look much more like twelfth-century France than twenty-first-century America.”

Again, I get his point. But it is predicated on so much B.S. that would take such effort to clear away that Hercules’ cleaning of the Augean stables is the only appropriate metaphor. In the aforementioned piece in the American Conservative, the reviewer sums up Davis’s treatment of serfdom thus: “The argument at the center of the book is that life was just better eight centuries ago; the medieval serf, for all his technological primitiveness, at least had the advantages of an integral social order and an integral worldview.” It’s a fair summary. But is that a trade you really find all that tempting? I mean, an integral social order—whatever you think that means—might be awesome. But if it comes at the price of antibiotics, plumbing, decent food, healthy children, and electric light—not to mention human liberty and the rule of law—I’m squarely on team “thanks, but no thanks.” 

A good Christian or sincere adherent of some other faith might say it profits a man nothing to gain the creature comforts of modern living if it costs him his soul. And they may be right. But your soul is not what’s on offer here. “Integral social order” is not salvation. It’s a fancy way of saying that we need to make other people live the right way, even if it costs them dearly.

This gets to my fundamental problem with the new “integralists.” When they talk of the “common good” they aren’t speaking to how they want to live, but how other people should. And buried in that Trojan Horse are any number of absurd assumptions about their ability to design society and the economy in ways to bring in the collective redemption they desire. 

This is all on display in The Reactionary Mind. Davis’ discussion of feudal economics reads like it was gleaned from a romantic painting showing well-fed peasants loading carts or dancing around maypoles.The integralists have many fine, or at least plausible, critiques of the dysfunctions and disorders of modern life. But they often act like they’re the first to discover these critiques, when in reality these arguments were old before they were born. Marx was prattling on about alienation nearly two centuries ago, and Rousseau was making similar arguments more than a century earlier. Nostalgia for the serf’s cooperative life is little more than the Hippie communitarianism and Frankfurt School Marxism of the 1960s and 1970s with some paleo-bro testosterone caulked into the seams and some ultramontane Catholic gold leaf slapped on. 

In Davis’ defense, he offers something a little different: crankery. And I have a huge soft spot in my heart for conservative cranks out of step with the times. My own father was in some ways this sort of guy. He couldn’t march with the crowd because he could only hear the drummer inside his head. When I was no more than five or six, my brother and I made protest signs that read “Bring Back the Czar” because we knew my dad would approve. Some of my favorite conservative intellectuals wore capes. One of them, cited by Davis, was Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a brilliant, polymathic weirdo who pined for the restoration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I love that stuff.

And Davis clearly does too. He is under no illusion that we can restore the coherent moral order that brought us serfdom, as much as he allegedly pines for it. He is rather the latest stranger-in-a-strange-land conservative who cannot forgive mankind’s wrong turn. He quotes Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “For the average person, all problems date to World War II; for the more informed, to World War I; for the genuine historian, to the French Revolution.” Davis argues that “For the reactionary, it goes back much further than that, because he knows that the Jacobins did not just fall from the sky.” He goes on to indict the Renaissance, but in the opening pages he puts Aristotle in the dock for the sin of claiming that “All men by nature desire to know.” 

There’s a grand tradition of this stuff on the right. Erik Voegelin and a few others thought everything went ass-over-tea-kettle with Joachim of Fiore’s Gnosticism. Again, I love it. But I also like counterfactual fiction that asks, “What if the Germans won World War II?” or “What if Gavrilo Princip missed?” It’s fun to talk about, but it offers little insight into how to solve today’s problems.

The danger is that people will take this kind of thing seriously. For example, Davis wants to be ruled by a king. He claims that “genocide is the great vice of republics, not monarchies,” and puckishly argues that even if a king wanted to kill his subjects, he lacked the technological wherewithal to do it.

There’s more sleight of hand here than a Doug Henning show. For starters, plenty of monarchs did their best to be genocidal, and even Christian rulers got in on the deal. For instance, Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars of France, killing between 200,000 and a million people. More importantly, Davis’ framing—monarchies versus republics—allows him to take totalitarian marketing at face value. After all, most of the mass killing of the 20th century was conducted by self-declared “Peoples’ Republics.” Lumping actual democratic republics in with totalitarian regimes amounts to a fairly grotesque slander against liberal democratic societies. A better understanding of modern genocides—in the USSR, China, Nazi Germany, et al.—is that this kind of bloodshed is what you get when you try to reestablish absolutism based on non-democratic, non-Christian lines. Stalin is more recognizable as a modern czar than as a defender of republicanism. Kim Jong-un is no small-r republican. He is the latest monarch in a hereditary line of monarchs, whether they use the term or not. (And North Korea actually has serfs today, by the way. Anyone want to trade places?)

Davis would obviously want a monarch bound by Christianity—though Russia had plenty of those, and it didn’t work out too well for my great-great-grandparents. But that’s almost beside the point. The real problem is suggesting that the answer to our individual misfortunes or concerns lay in rejecting liberal democracy in favor of some salvific ruler.

As a meditation and exploration of one writer’s crankery, I enjoyed and profited from The Reactionary Mind. As a guide for individual improvement—ignore politics, devote yourself to family, etc.—it’s a welcome contribution. As a guide for how politicians should actually organize society, it’s a massive step—800 years backward—in the wrong direction.