Populism or Vanguardism?
A reply to Greg Johnson on the Ukraine Issue
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Greg Johnson replied to my Substack article (now free to read in its entirety) where I commented on his debate with Mark Collett. This is an important discussion we should be having—it gets to the heart of what nationalism is, and what we stand for as would-be dissenters from the status quo.
Greg made a number of points, including that American humiliation in Ukraine would not imperil the current regime but would simply make our lives harder. This is not the argument I want to focus on, except to say here that we should be wary of arguments to the effect that a loss for the regime would mean a crackdown on dissent. Of course it would, but whatever the path to victory—whether through populist uprising or intra-elite conflict—a loss for the regime will bring a crackdown on us. The alternative to being suppressed is to go home and catch the game instead of doing politics. Most in our sphere accept that yet another humiliation for the American empire in Ukraine would damage it and would be more likely to force a circulation of elites than would the empire continuing to stack wins. The real question, and the one just below the surface of Greg’s response is the question of populism vs. vanguardism—which is just to say, the question of sovereignty.
The heart of Greg’s argument is as follows:
Why can’t you put your own interests first while recognizing that it is not just inevitable, but also right for other individuals, families, and nations to do the same? Let’s say that ethnonationalists get the world we want. All empires are dismantled. Every people that aspires to autonomy has a homeland of its own. Is conflict in such a world inevitable?
No, not if all nations abide by the same rules, and rule-breakers are punished by other nations. What should the international rules of an ethnonationalist world order be? Simple: Each nation can put its interests first and allow other nations to do so as well by abandoning force and securing alliances and resources through voluntary, mutually beneficial exchanges.
This is a conversation that we should be having. We aren’t statesmen yet. We are a tiny, marginal, powerless minority. Yet, we have made astonishing progress in injecting our ideas into the political mainstream, largely because we have the courage to speak forbidden truths to censorious elites.
A few questions arise. First, as for the rules-based order envisioned here, what gives the rules force? Who decides what rules? Who interprets? The subtext here is that we have something like the rule of law, on an international scale. Second, success depends on us injecting our ideas into the mainstream, as we have already done. But ideas, however true, don’t make policy. Who does, ultimately? Where is the seat of power in our society? The subtext is that the people are in the driver’s seat. Greg’s case turns on popular sovereignty.
Sovereignty isn’t much discussed in the radical right, which is a shame. It’s seen as an abstract concept with little practical application, and while it’s true that a lot of the debate that goes on within our circles is quite impractical, this is not so with sovereignty. Not for no reason did we publish two books on this topic (Maistre’s Study on Sovereignty and Filmer’s Patriarcha).
The question of sovereignty is, unfortunately, muddled. Sovereignty is not a question of in whose interests the ruler should act. The father should act in the interests of his children; the children are not ipso facto sovereign over the family. Sovereignty is also often thought to be exhausted by the question of legitimacy—who ought to rule? But there is no ought without can. If it’s not even possible in principle for the proletariat to rule, then the question of whether it should rule is moot. Who can rule? This question needs to be addressed first.
But even before that, the concept of sovereignty itself must be questioned. Do we even need this concept at all? Can we not all just agree to the rules? The affirmative answer to this question is known as rule of law, expressed pithily by Thomas Paine where he says that for absolutists the king is law, whereas for republicans the law is king. But the law can’t issue executive orders, nor can it wield an M16 or deploy the national guard—you need a man to do that, a man with agency to defend the law and judgement to interpret it. The law is a tool for governance, but a tool can no more govern than a blueprint can build a bridge. The law can’t rule, and because it can’t rule, questions as to whether it should rule are unintelligible.
So, if we can envision a global patchwork of nation-states adhering to a set of rules, we must also envision an agent enforcing those rules. But why can’t this agent be everyone? Can’t all states check each other? Our first clue that they can’t is that this is the same argument given by anarcho-capitalists, but on a smaller scale, for a stateless society. Robbing and cheating people will get you ostracized, and in a tiny village this may be enough for custom to prevail for a time. But before long, you’ll need a council of elders, convened by one primus inter pares, and later formalized into a king. At anything much beyond the family (and maybe not even that far), you will end up with a state in embryo. An organized minority will always rule over a disorganized majority—if this is so at the level of the clan, how much more so at the level of the nation? Or the whole world?
One of the marks of sovereignty is the right of final appeal. If your ability to decide is governed by someone else’s veto, you are not sovereign. If Canada wanted to invite the Chinese to place chemical weapons facilities on its southern border, America would swiftly shut that down. Much as it pains me to admit, Canada is not a sovereign nation. There are perhaps three or four sovereign nations today, and neither Canada nor Ukraine are among them. A world where every nation is autonomous is not idealism, it is a fever dream. This in no way contradicts the true meaning of nationalism, which is to stand for one’s own national interests; it is simply to admit that those interests can be advanced from within an imperial framework. And even if we grant for a moment that imperialism contradicts nationalism, how anti-imperialism will be advanced by cheering on unipolarity in the form of the US and NATO is beyond me.
With sovereignty properly understood as more than a mere prescription or wish, the logical conclusion of popular sovereignty is something like the views of Stefan Molyneux. Corporations (or nations) who do wrong will be punished by the public (or a bloc of all nations) because order arises spontaneously from the bottom-up. This is the concept of deism repurposed for the political sphere—all we need to do is to set the rules in motion and the system will run like clockwork indefinitely with no one to govern it. Popular sovereignty is not really a kind of sovereignty, but the rejection of the concept of sovereignty altogether. It is hard to see how this view can lead to an idealized world of autonomous nations.