Most thinking conservatives believe that the modern West has gone off the deep end, and most of them also identify a particular historical event as the start, or at least the first major symptom, of this development. For many modern cultural conservatives, that event was the moral revolution of the 1960s; for some on the American right, it was the Civil Rights movement, the New Deal, or the end of the Civil War; and for certain counterrevolutionaries, it was the French Revolution.
But for a loose affiliation of conservative bloggers and authors who have recently taken to calling themselves “orthos”, the sources of our modern malaise lie farther back in time, and are more deeply embedded in our presuppositions and prejudices. Their critique of the modern Left is far more philosophically substantive and, for better or worse, far more radical than most of its competitors. Their main target is not postmodern relativism, redistributive left-liberalism, Frankfurt School cultural radicalism, or Marxian socialism; for although they deplore these things, they also regard them as mere symptoms of a deeper problem.
I pause here to note that it is difficult to summarize the orthos' beliefs succinctly. This is partly because of their often high level of philosophical abstraction, and partly because the orthosphere (the orthos' term for the network of blogs and websites they administer and write for) is a loose coalition of people who do not necessarily agree about everything. Still, I think the founding idea of the orthosphere can be fairly oversimplified into this sentence: “The problem with the modern world is modernity itself”. For the orthos, the philosophical core of modernity is the rejection of the Aristotelian-Catholic idea that there are objective essences and purposes in the world. Many of the orthos trace this idea back to the nominalism of late-Medieval scholastics like William of Ockham, although they would also argue that it did not culminate until the 18th century and the Enlightenment. In philosophy, this modern nominalism gave rise to the idea that the world consists of nothing but meaningless, purposeless matter, and thence to modern atheism, materialism, relativism, and finally the complete nihilism which today is increasingly engulfing America and Europe. In ethics and politics, it produced a worship of autonomy – the idea that every individual can and should define its own purpose and destiny, unfettered by tradition, authority, or higher truth – which became the founding idea of every modern political ideology, from the classical liberalism of Locke to the redistributive leftism of the modern state. (The American philosopher Edward Feser, while having given no indication that he considers himself part of the orthosphere, provides an excellent overview and critique of this modern anti-essentialism in his book The Last Superstition.)
This is a radical idea, and it entails a radical conservatism. The orthos reject the Enlightenment project entirely, and espouse many ideas that are unfashionable even on the Right, including theocracy, censorship, and absolute monarchy. Their ideology centers around the defense of particular loyalties and moral communities, of traditional authority, traditional morality, the monarchy, the patriarchal family, the ethnos, and the Church. Many of them draw inspiration from the throne-and-altar conservatism of counterrevolutionaries like Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Juan Donoso Cortés, and seek to rescue the Middle Ages from the historical scrapheap. Needless to say, orthodox Christianity is central to the their thinking (hence the name) – in fact, I have yet to come across an ortho who is not a traditionalist Catholic or a conservative Protestant.
But beyond the ideas, who are the orthos themselves? Although the term itself was only coined in late 2011, most of them have been active for much longer. My own introduction to the movement came in early 2010 through the blog Throne and Altar, “devoted to defending the legitimate authority of God, tradition, fathers, and kings against the diabolical partisans of freedom and equality”, which is run by an American Catholic who writes under the pen name Bonald, a reference to the 19th-century French counterrevolutionary. Considering that Bonald appears to have no formal education in most of the subjects he writes about, the breadth and erudition of his thinking is truly astounding. Of particular note is a series of essays, with titles such as “In Defense of Tradition” and “In Defense of the Patriarchal Family”, in which he ably explains and defends his basic ideas. Another American ortho is known as Proph, and runs Collapse: The Blog, which is devoted to “making sense of our ongoing social catastrophe”. Although he began his blogging career as “a Druckerian pseudoleftist” who was largely preoccupied with economics, Proph gradually moved to the Right and increased the scope of his writing, culminating in his recent (and still incomplete) conversion to Roman Catholicism. Also of note are the Australian Mark Richardson of Oz Conservative and Bruce Charlton, the author of the recent book Thought Prison, in the comments section of whose blog the term “orthosphere” was coined. While the American authors Lawrence Auster and James Kalb have not, to my knowledge, commented extensively on the phenomenon, their ideas are very similar to the orthos' in a number of ways, and are frequently cited with approval by the orthos themselves.
It is ironic that virtually all of the orthos come from the English-speaking world, since many of the ideas they oppose are British or American in origin. They themselves appear to be well aware of this irony. In an essay entitled “Can there be an American conservatism?”, Bonald contradicts virtually everyone else on the American Right and strongly repudiates the Founding Fathers, whom he describes as «liberals who hated tradition and piety» and «traitors who deserved to be hanged». (However, he goes on to caution that while Americans should reject – and indeed, in practice, have rejected – the radical liberalism of the Founders, they should still revere their symbolic role as fathers of the nation.) Bonald goes against the grain in other ways as well – for example, he is less hostile to Islam than many others on the Right, and has even suggested that American and European conservatives might benefit from an alliance with socially conservative Muslims.
It would be wrong, though, to think of the orthos as mere iconoclasts. For one thing, they themselves would reject the label – they are, after all, self-described authoritarians who see no inherent value in dissent and radical change. For another, their arguments and ideas, which I have not done justice in this article, are far too serious and substantive to be labeled so glibly. We may disagree with them, but we can not dismiss them. And although they are mostly American, British, and Australian, their thoughts are in many ways inherited from the European Right. Agree with them or not, those thoughts may provide just the intellectual reinvigoration we on the continent need.