Harvard Law Professor Submits Modest Proposal; Heads Explode

After many years of playing on the small stages of small journals, Catholic fascism hit Broadway last month with an article by Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule in The Atlantic.

In Beyond Originalism, Vermeule stars as a unkempt boy who pounds sweaty weak fists on a dinner table, demanding that kale be transformed into pudding in the apparent hope of eating pudding for dinner. The table-pounding gives way as the spotlight turns to what appears to be a homeless beggar, unnamed but goes by Albert Nock if you asked, who wakes from yet another feverish nightmare that had begun when he first read The Republic in school. Nock, of course, had thought he’d shaken off the power of pseudo-collectivist delusions somewhere between Mein Kampf and John Keynes, but the table-pounding haunted his dreams like the martial goosesteps of a black regimen committed to pudding transmogrifications.

Modern Catholic fascism is the proposition that the Catholic church (no other Christians qualify) should be integrated with the state, such that the state carries forth the Church’s mission. In this conflagration of authorities, the church provides the existential and moral substance so lacking in modern discourse, and the state issues parking tickets, etc. etc.

Despite the thunder of tiny fists, I haven’t found a substantive response to Vermeule . There’s the argument that Catholic fascism is only the desperate result of decades of Catholic failure to successfully engage the public. Then there’s the tepidly perverse argument that Catholic fascism is more authoritarian than liberal leftism (which is true but entirely misses the point; also, they are equally theological). But none of these arguments seem to recognize the fundamental question at hand. The multitudinous wrongness of Vermeule’s argument leads one to question whether he’s serious or just an Andy-Kaufmanesque troll, and yet any argument that conjures the possibility of a jackbooted Michael Bloomberg pounding on doors in the middle of the night to measure your vices in teaspoons demands something of a response.

From strident leftists such as the Young Turks and Jimmy Dore to those on the right, it’s axiomatic to everyone not named Nancy Pelosi that something is deeply wrong (e.g. President Trump). The West is adrift without moral compass, Asia is consumed with consumption, nativists in Europe are facing off against Turkish invasions (again), Beijing clings to mandate-from-heaven recidivism (again), our billionaires are lamer than the lamest Gilded Age barons, and the press fiddles amidst the glowing embers of Enlightenment ideals. And yet, is the solution a unification of Catholics and state?

Spoiler alert: Catholic fascism has only been attempted in Catholic countries.

One cannot employ perturbation theory to get from one country to another, and certainly not any other country to the United States. Demographically, the United States is wildly unique, and yet everyone seems make a freshman error of working their way with political theories or education statistics or economic policies from Sweden or Finland or Spain or Argentina to the United States. This assumes the inputs (homo sapiens, presumably) are the same and thus the same outputs are obtainable if only the process is the same. QED: same process, same output.

The social sciences have built empires atop this fallacy. But, of course, this is never empirically true. Over the previous two centuries, substantial resources have been given to the care and feeding of the Victorian fetish of taxonomic homogenization. Reduction to taxonomic label enables the fiction of control, manipulation, and prediction. This is the recipe for delusion and disaster — delusion for autocrats of all sorts and disaster for homo sapiens — but modern analysis is implicitly and reflexively tethered to such depthless incoherence. But any credible conclusions that what works in Catholic Italy would work in Catholicer Spain and would work in unCatholic America must dive into the sui generis of each.

In the elegy to scholarship Guns, Germs and Steel, the scribbler Diamond opines that successful civilizations are determined by resource happenstance. In one of many rebuttals, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty argues that the success of a civilization is largely determined by the degree to which its economy is dynamic. While Why Nations succeeds where Guns fails, it still suffers from the myopia of scholarship; Why Nations views economics as primary, and it was informed largely by economic analysis and thus is blinded to the reality that diving into the sources of national success does not end with the economy; dynamic economies (and concomitant banking systems) usually rely on a trusting community or, at least, a credible, predictable legal system.

So, is the Vermeulen urge to plunder the Constitution for reform correct? A trusting community or a credible, predictable legal system are not causes but effects; the prime mover is communal aspirations entrusted to and perpetuated by an institution.[1]

“Eh,” says our protagonist with alchemical visions of puddings. “And that institution is the Catholic Church.”

The prime mover is communal aspirations transubstantiated into institutions; the process is organic. Thus differences between the organic communal aspirations of Catholic Spain and uncatholic America become rather central. Enforcing Catholicism on the uncatholic will have the same approximate success as enforcing Leninist agrarian policy on peasants. The socialisms of Scandinavia work because they are expressions of their culture; as those cultures becomes less cohesive, socialism becomes less socialistic. Successful political structures tend to be born from their cultures; of course this rather porridgous assertion entirely contradicts the Victorian/Marxist view that political structures are concocted in backrooms and foisted onto peoples with false promises of Tennessee Valley Authorities and Homeowner Refinance Funds.[2] [3]

But is it fair to reduce the law by observing that the law is but an extension of the culture and is but an effect resulting from other causes? That the promises of the law can be only fulfilled if enabled by the polity and culture in which it is embedded? That more important than the law is the stability and dynamism of the culture?

Fair or not, that’s Vermeule’s argument.[4] Stability and dynamism are, indeed, rather foundational to a functioning society. Stability allows for predictability (courts, banks, food supply) and dynamism allows for timely responses to change and challenge (pandemics, Goths).

Monolithic architectures scale more quickly but lack dynamism and are brittle under pressure. Distributed architectures scale more slowly, but they are resilient under stress. This may be applied to computer systems or nations or nearly anything in between. Such distributed systems are as dynamic as monolithic architectures aren’t.[5] If you don’t want brittle and static (particularly over time), then you want a system architecture in which power is widely distributed.

Why Nations is relevant not because it identifies the correct end-point (the economy) but rather the correct feature: dynamism. Dynamic societies can respond to challenges, produce innovations, and enable flourishing. The result of such dynamism is not, for example, that wealth is created. Great wealth is produced by monolithic societies. Rather, dynamism is evidenced in non-violent wealth destruction. In monolithic societies, wealth (or power) destruction is often prefaced with a battalion of rented Hessians.

And so, a monolithic approach seems to be a quick solution to an identified problem, but it will fail when new problems inevitably arise. And thus, a marriage between church and state to create a monolith of moral and coercive authority will be stillborn.

One of the barriers to effective social analysis is that we’ve trapped ourselves in Victorian taxonomies then increasingly reduce labels to binary choices until analysis is no more than a series of capitalism or and individuals or choices. The result is a process of least evil analysis.

The language of much of the social sciences is no more than normalized Victorian taxonomic fetishes. Do classes even exist? If they did, then why didn’t the workers of the world unite? Quite possibly because the French worker has more in common with the French oligarch than he does with the Moldavian worker. Assuming we’re empiricists, “class” is not more than a description of one’s wages, a single data point from which one can assume or predict very little and serves, like all Victorian intellectual fetishes, to conceal more than reveal.

Individual or community is another false choice the exploration of which begins with the observation that the modern individual is probably an Enlightenment weapon fabricated to assault institutions and on which to foist the fantasies of capitalists and Marxists alike. Any individual or analysis must first establish that these post-Enlightenment “individuals” even exist.

And according to economists, choice is driven by incentive, and the key incentive in economics is profit. And yet, perhaps the market most free of government regulation — 17th century New England — witnessed few economic choices driven by profit. Maximizing profit would have been viewed as deeply immoral. How then did such a market free from government interference regulate itself? Those regulations that demanded fair prices were embedded in the culture.

Any discussion of these commonly-held beliefs and their related terms requires an exploration of whether or not our definitions contain permanent substance or are the Waterloos of modernity.

And yet a thorough recitation of the problems of Vermeule’s modest proposal isn’t necessary. Unlike the neo-marxists, neo-conservatives, and neo-liberals before them, these neo-fascists are polemicists — completely earnest about their evaluation of the problem but less so about the solution, which is no solution at all but rather a spotlight. The key to being a good polemicist is to never reveal that your seeming extremism serves as lodestar not destination. Catholic fascism is not an end but a means, and Beyond Originalism is a rhetorical rope-a-dope.

And so, the table-pounding in Vermeule’s Beyond Originalism is not a demand for Catholic fascism, that this kale of ours should be transubstantiated into pudding. Rather, the argument is that nobody should be eating kale.

Having conceded the problem but rejected the solution, one should expect that Vermeule’s next move would be to simply inquire: what is your solution? Having none, Catholic fascism begins to twitch back to life, the dead undead, resurrecting from forlorn rhetorical device to last-man-standing. And the screw turns.

The answer, though, is quite simple. Civilizations have had strong moral compasses and potent cultures under weak governments (17th c. Massachusetts Bay, 6th c. BC Athens). Notably, such examples are usually small societies under local control.

After the surrender at Yorktown, the colonies formed into states, established capitals, and began the usual government peregrinations. As tax bills were conveyed from Boston to the towns, Samuel Otis, rebel-cum-Secretary of the Senate (and would be for twenty-six years), commented from his home on Cape Cod that he did not fight the war to exchange London for Boston. Many of the Founders were aware that such localism creates tight cause-effect feedback loops that tether culture and policy to responsible action.

The predilection for solving social problems by centralizing coercive powers makes for a brittle, remote structure that addresses short-term challenges while sowing the seeds of its own destruction.

Kale seeds, probably.

Note

I haven’t read any Vermeule that addresses Romans 13:4 and must assume he’s working on something. Here’s a good starting point for him. (You’re welcome, Adrian.)

[1] https://medium.com/@nathan.a.allen/bill-gates-bamboozled-out-of-10b-6c80e4a505ab

[2] Porridgous means “like porridge,” in the Dickensian/boring sense. But you probably haven’t read it before because I just made it up.

[3] https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/obameter/promise/15/create-a-foreclosure-prevention-fund-for-homeowner/

[4] https://catholicherald.co.uk/there-is-no-middle-way-between-atheism-and-catholicism-says-harvard-professor-who-is-converting/. Vermeule said, “I put little stock or faith in the law. It is a tool that may be put to good uses or bad. In the long run it will be no better than the polity and culture in which it is embedded. If that culture sours and curdles; so will the law; indeed that process is well underway and its tempo is accelerating. Our hope lies elsewhere.”

[5] Want victories versus a monolith (USSR, CCP, etc)? Simply change the terms of the game rapidly; the monolith cannot adapt. This is precisely what Kissinger fails to understand. From Reagan’s “We win; you lose” to the Wuhan Flu, efforts to adapt by a monolith usually stresses the structure beyond repair.

Agitator.