The Genealogy of “Progressive” Government

Irrespective of personal political preference, everybody who has seriously studied the matter agrees that the decline of morals goes hand-in-hand with the growth of State power and a concomitant expansion of State surveillance, control, and regulation to the point of encompassing every aspect of life. The decline of morals is a disease of the soul; as though that weren’t bad enough in itself, its necessary inverse correlate can easily turn into a disease of the State.

The “progressive” world-view that dominates thought in our societies today has two principle metrics of “progress.” The first is the extent to which the individual has been “liberated” from the putatively oppressive bonds of religion, morality, and reciprocal social ties and obligations. The second is the number of rules and regulations issued under the State’s police power. Each additional rule and regulation, to the progressive mind, represents yet another step down the royal road of Progress towards the immanent Eschaton. The progressive mind notoriously imagines the police power to have magical, God-like powers to leverage into being any state of affairs technocrats and other progressive people deem desirable, to alter or abolish all others, and to generally make and re-make social and even physical reality in their own image by State fiat.

In principle, the police power cannot be restrained by jurisprudence and isn’t save in extraordinary cases, and so Constitutional checks and balances are next to impotent against it. Hence even in North America the senseless exercise, in the name of Progress, of this indispensable and perfectly legitimate power of State proliferates like an enormous snowball that not only threatens to crush everything in the general direction it is rolled, but the very authority that caused it to roll there. It has pathogenic effects on the national economy — the very cash-cow of the State — that retard economic growth and even produce economic crises. The asinine nature of many of these rules and regulations, and the comically perverse and unintended consequences they often produce, makes the State appear contemptible in the eyes of its subjects, who are additionally incentivized to subvert or violate rules that are difficult or even impossible for them to obey. All of this furthermore has the effect of driving the citizens into the arms of dangerous and morally deranged crypto-Anarchist ideologies such as Libertarianism that are pernicious to State, Church, and community alike. These are the pathological fruits of the disordered functioning of what is itself one of the chief social mechanisms for the ordering of human conduct.

I have long been perplexed by this phenomenon and so led to study the genealogy of its elements, which seems to run into the depths of Indo-European history. The Sanskrit-language Mahabharata, thought to have originated as long ago as nine centuries before Christ, in its twelfth book provides the following mythical account of the origin of sovereignty and the police power:

Yudhishthira said, “Whence arose the word Rajan (King), that is used, O Bharata, on Earth? […] [F]or what reason does one man, viz., the king, govern the rest of the world numbering many men possessed of great intelligence and bravery? […] O king, there cannot but be a grave reason for all this since it is seen that the whole world bows down to one man as to a god”.

Bhishma said, “With concentrated attention, O tiger among kings, listen in detail as to how in the Krita age sovereignty first began. At first there was no sovereignty, no king, no chastisement, and no chastiser. All men used to protect one another righteously. As they thus lived, O Bharata, righteously protecting one another, they found the task (after some time) to be painful. Error then began to assail their hearts. Having become subject to error, the perceptions of men, O prince, came to be clouded, and thence their virtue began to decline. When their perceptions were dimmed and when men became subject to error, all of them became covetous. O chief of the Bharatas! And because men sought to obtain objects, which they did not possess, another passion called lust (of acquisition) got hold of them. When they became subject to lust, another passion, named anger, soon soiled them. Once subject to wrath, they lost all consideration of what should be done and what should not. Unrestrained sexual indulgence set in. Men began to utter what they chose. All distinctions between food that is clean and unclean and between virtue and vice disappeared. When this confusion set in amongst men, the Vedas disappeared. Upon the disappearance of the Vedas, Righteousness was lost. When both the Vedas and righteousness were lost, the gods were possessed by fear. Overcome with fear, O tiger among men, they sought the protection of Brahmana. Having gratified the divine Grandsire of the universe, the gods, afflicted with grief, said unto him, with joined hands, ‘O god, the eternal Vedas have been afflicted in the world of men by covetousness and error. For this, we have been struck with fear. Through loss of the Vedas, O Supreme Lord, righteousness also has been lost. For this, O Lord of the three worlds, we are about to descend to the level of human beings. Men used to pour libations upwards while we used to pour rain downwards. In consequence, however, of the cessation of all pious rites among men, great distress will be our lot. Do thou then, O Grandsire, think of that which would benefit us, so that the universe, created by thy power, may not meet with destruction.’ Thus addressed, the Self-born and divine Lord said unto them, ‘I shall think of what will do good to all. Ye foremost of gods, let your fears be dispelled!’

God, the myth continues, did not see fit to simply snap his fingers and restore the Vedas and the rites, and the people to their original state of virtue, and leave it at that; he instead created the institution of kingship to put human affairs to order. To expedite this end, He compiled a treatise a hundred thousand chapters long (subsequently abridged into a mere thousand) outlining, for the State, a “science of chastisement” (Dandaniti) that provided for the restoration of the religion, but additionally went far beyond that to touch upon every conceivable area of human activity. “Chastisement,” according to the story, “governs everything.”

In continental Europe, by the dawn of Modernity the absolute monarchs of the nascent modern State were busily embarking on their own, no less inclusive project of governing everything, under the rubric of police. This endeavour was accompanied by the rise of a literature which, styling itself as “police science,” attempted to formalize a science of governing everything for the “well-ordered police-State.” An important work in this genre was the Traité de la Police (“Treatise of Police”) by Nicolas de la Mare, an officer in the administration of Louis XIV. A monster of a work in four huge folio volumes, exhaustively treating every detail of governable reality, the first chapter commenced with the following account of the origins of the police power of the police-State:

The love of society that men bear from birth, and of the mutual security that they continuously need, early on drove the first Inhabitants of the Earth to seek one another out and to join their several families together. Thus it came about that of their Cottages and rustic Houses […] they formed at first Hamlets and Villages. Progressing from these feeble beginnings, Towns were subsequently born: and finally of the union of several Towns, the great States were born.

An easy and peaceful life was the first object of these Societies: but self-love, the other passions, and error soon sowed trouble and discord there. To remedy the evil, the wisest amongst men took recourse to the establishment of Laws: That is the name they gave to these precepts drawn from right reason, and of natural equity that enlighten the spirit, correct the will, and put each thing in its order.

Clearly we are looking at a variant of the same etiological myth recorded in the Mahabharata, with a common core of themes, concepts, and images, and with a common narrative structure. Both myths aver that, in the beginning, men protected each other and governed themselves without any outside help, from their own virtue alone; that virtue declined, and human error and passions then threw society into a Hobbesian chaos; and that finally, an external contrivance — the police power — was created to put everything back into order, and a science of government created to direct the process. The correspondences aren’t really all that surprising in light of the linguistic family resemblances between French and Sanskrit, and in light of the comparative studies of Georges Dumézil that similarly established family resemblances between the myths and the social structure of the civilizations in which Indo-European languages are spoken. There are some important variances, though:

  • The French variant of the myth is wholly secular and materialist; God makes no appearance in it whatsoever.
  • While the Hindu “science of chastisement” is given to Man by Divine revelation, “police science” is strictly man-made. Its precepts are laid down not by God, but by “the wisest amongst men.” By default, in any Indo-European civilization this would be the definition of a priestly caste. But where the Hindu Brahmin is strictly a ritual expert and religious scholar, the cognate social caste de la Mare has in mind is a secular caste composed of intellectuals, experts, and elite bureaucrats — men just like de la Mare, who himself had been top administrator of the central bureaucratic apparatus of the police-State at Paris. The secular Brahmin, then, is a technocrat.                               

The technocrat, while not sovereign, nonetheless claims a charism in the form of a special wisdom indispensable to the task of directing the exercise of the sovereign police power. In previous European history, much the same charism had been claimed by the Church, which held that the supreme end for which the State was made was to assist in the social process of directing Man towards his final end in the next life, by upholding Divine and Natural law (as defined by the Church) in this life. But by this point in time, the temporal State had asserted a radical autonomy for itself vis-à-vis the Church. Although the Church still loomed large in public life and would continue to for a long time to come,  it nonetheless was already in the course of being reduced from the paramount social force it once was to just one civil-society-level institution among others, ever-more closely associated with the domestic, and with women. Meanwhile, the State asserted irreducible interests all its own as the final end of its actions, which actions were to stand above any scrutiny by the Church: this was the doctrine of “reasons of State” (raison d’État).

Accordingly, “police science” held that the supreme end of the State was to increase the material strength of the State in this life, and to this end was to exercise the police power with the aim of securing the good of the people, defined in strictly materialistic terms: public health, safety, and security, economic development and prosperity, strong military defense, and so on like that. To be sure, public morals were deemed to be important, too, but merely as instrumental means to the this-worldly end of securing the internal peace and order of the State. In place of leading the people to inner virtue by example, as the Church had previously exhorted the State to do, the police-State was to embark on an extensive project of externally leveraging public morality through regulatory fiat. Here is the pedigree of the infamous nuisance of petty laws banning smoking in public places, restricting the sale of alcohol, regulating serving-size portions, requiring that the ownership of handguns be restricted or prohibited altogether, and so forth ad nauseam, which continues to torment the citizen in every Western State to this day. It is worth re-iterating that this secular Dandaniti, unlike its Hindu religious counterpart, was not trying to conserve a Divine order, or otherwise much concerned — if at all — with pleasing God in the effort to enforce standards of cleanly and upright conduct.

We have seen that, where the Hindu “science of chastisement” was held to have emanated directly from the mind of God, “police science” pretended to the status of an empirical science in the modern sense of the term: a set of precepts arrived at by mortal men independently of Revelation through the application of Reason, and through a process of induction from, and subsequent validation by, a corpus of experiential data. (Hence de la Mare’s punctilious compilation of the whole historical archive of French law and regulation was intended to enable the police to “draw the rules of security and conduct for the present, and for the future.”)  To be sure, the “science of chastisement” summarized in the Mahabharata also constituted itself as a behavioural/social science — and a very sophisticated-looking one at that. But where a science given by the Divine in Revelation must needs have something of a sacred and thus immutable character about it, modern secular science proceeds from the assumption that any science not only legitimately can, but must, be subject to arbitrary revision and/or complete re-formulation from scratch the second it is deemed obsolete by its human practitioners. It is protean, and can be made to reach any conclusions technocrats need it to — or want it to.

More generally, the pre-modern form of State of both the ancient Hindus and the medieval West was tasked with the conservation and preservation of a natural and Divine order of things given in the immutable structures of the Cosmos. The modern secular State, by contrast, came into being in the very course of destroying, as opposed to conserving, this very social order. It freed the serfs, disarmed the aristocracy, abolished the latter’s houses of assembly and rescinded its rights and privileges more generally, sacked the monasteries, nationalized the Universities, replaced customary law with written codices, and established the religion of its choice in strict instrumental subordination to its own power interests — all in the course of establishing its singular, irresistible, and inscrutable supremacy.  The police power of this State, then, is necessarily open-ended and, moreover, forward-looking; it is congenitally inclined to see past and present as so much obsolete and irrational darkness, superstition, oppression, and disorder to be transcended, superceded, and uplifted in a cumulative, directional, and irreversible historical process. This eventually came to be called “progress,” or, after a present obnoxious fashion, “creative destruction.”

Following the great Bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, police-State government fell out of fashion for a time as an outrage against the Rights of Man, a relic of personal despotism disagreeable to the Democratic spirit of the age, and an undue burden on the productive forces of the burgeoning Capitalist economy. Adam Smith and the other partisans of laissez-faire deconstructed police science on its own grounds, by way of a scientific revolution that purported to demonstrate that society, by nature, is a self-regulating entity that, if left to its own devices and not wrapped up in police tape, of its own accord will produce truckloads of tax revenue for the State and serve the ends of Progress all by itself (“the invisible hand“).

Then, by the dawn of the 20th century, a new breed of progressive — a hybrid of the elite technocrat personified by de la Mare and a species of self-appointed, finger-wagging, and nominally Protestant social crusader — rediscovered police science, in part through the efforts of Albion Small. Small abhorred the staunch monarchialism of the old police science, but adored its simple faith in the ability of the State to clear the obstacles of the past from the road to the new socialist Jerusalem; and he saw that it would be possible to demotize its reactionary aspect without compromising its progressive aspect. The rest, as they say, is history — a history from which we have yet to exit. The march of Progress through this epoch seems to have carried our societies to a place that strikingly resembles the pre-political condition of moral lawlessness and depravity described in the Indo-European myths, with the difference that the State has not put an end to the disorder, but on the contrary facilitates and even encourages it.

The Dissenting Sociologist can be found also at his blog.


7 thoughts on “The Genealogy of “Progressive” Government

  1. I’m glad to hear that, and honoured to have published it here. The samizdat revolution is the greatest thing since sliced bread- there’s no way I could have published this kind of thing in an academic journal, what with having called Cathedral orthodoxy into question and all.

  2. Fascinating article. One which I hope receives many responses, as such a topic deserves rigorous analysis.

    >The modern secular State, by contrast, came into being in the very course of destroying, as opposed to conserving, this very social order. It freed the serfs, disarmed the aristocracy, abolished the latter’s houses of assembly and rescinded its rights and privileges more generally, sacked the monasteries, nationalized the Universities, replaced customary law with written codices, and established the religion of its choice in strict instrumental subordination to its own power interests — all in the course of establishing its singular, irresistible, and inscrutable supremacy.

    I find this analysis both rather intriguing. I am troubled by the lumping together of nearly 500 years of history. But I find it hard to fault your analysis.

    I suppose this is the ‘anarcho-tyranny’ that Samuel T. Francis was talking about.

    1. Thanks for showing interest Octavian. I admittedly did compress a lot of history into a single paragraph there, but all those things did happen in the course of the formation of the modern State. With respect to anarcho-tyranny, the nascent State, to its credit (and with a *lot* of help from religion), for all the social dislocation involved in the process of its emergence nonetheless managed to produce truly impressive amounts of order in that very process itself. I think that anarcho-tyranny as described by Francis is more of a phenomenon of our own time and its feckless leadership, which, decidedly unlike the old-school absolute monarchs and people like that, just doesn’t seem to take its job seriously anymore.

      1. Octavian:

        Upon reviewing some materials, it seems that in some cases the early-Modern State did in fact take resort to outright anarcho-tyranny in some cases, e.g. Emperor Joseph II of Austria. So you called it correctly after all.

  3. DS,

    Let me first apologize for taking so long to opine on this piece. That being said, I think it’s fantastic (as if I would expect anything less from you.) I’m thrilled you have finally decided to publish something on an off blog channel. You are probably one of the more nuanced thinkers floating around the reactosphere and your writing is several SD above the mean. I’d really like to see you publish some more stuff, here of course or perhaps at SM (which I think would be a perfect fit for you).


    1. Thanks for the kind words! Let me take the opportunity to return the compliment with respect to an article you recently wrote on the transgender mania (there was no comment section so I couldn’t say it there): the insight that a lot of modern degeneracy only superficially *appears* hedonistic is exactly the sort of insight needed to take Rightist social criticism to the next level.

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