De Maistre: Defending the Social Order

One of the aspects of Joseph Maistre’s political thought that earns him scorn is his steadfast defense of the social order.  De Maistre’s social order largely stemmed from his Catholicism, where Catholicism – following the philosophy of the Logos – maintains that there is a rational order to society and that in this hierarchal order exists the only possible pluralism.  Part of the animosity against Maistre is his rejection of restorative egalitarianism (Rousseauianism, Jacobinism, and the “revolutionary left”) and the crushing and anti-traditional social progressivism of liberalism and the bourgeoisie.  Understanding the complexities of the social order is one of the keys to understanding Maistre’s larger thought and his deep critique of the revolutionary philosophies of modernity.

Part of the nuances of understanding conservative social order is that while it accepts hierarchy as social and empirical fact borne out by history and observation of nature, it does not celebrate the primacy of capital as being at the top of the social order (per liberalism).  Likewise, the egalitarianism of the left is degenerative and just as problematic as the bourgeois thrust to achieve the tyranny (or “freedom”) of capital as the ruling pinnacle of the social order.  De Maistre’s social order is a complex and interwoven – indeed, interconnected – web that makes up the order and hierarchy of society that achieves stability and allows for, albeit imperfect, some modicum of peace, order, and justice to exist in an otherwise blood-soaked, chaotic, and tyrannical nature.  (For Maistre, tyranny is the destruction of human nature in favor for the ideal of social engineering and the mentality that the ends justify the means – because that allows anything, tyranny is expansive while liberty is ordered.)

De Maistre, as with the larger Catholic tradition that underlay much of his thinking, maintained the only possible pluralism (meaning differences) possible is one in which a hierarchal metaphysics exists.  This idea is not unique to him, but he borrowed it from the Greco-Catholic metaphysical tradition of stacking, overlap, and interdependence.  Different people, different groups, different ways of life, etc., all intermix and interrelate with each other in a composite order of harmony bottom up.  This bottom up emphasis is important in understanding Maistre, for culture and civilization grows organically – bottom up from the roots – rather than being imposed top down (social engineering).

Whether we seek to analyze Maistre of being guilty of paternalism – which he would openly accept as true – his bottom up social order is one in which the top of the social order (the princes and “privileged” classes, particularly the landed gentry) have the responsibility to protect, help, and improve the lives of those beneath them.  This idea isn’t unique to Maistre, and neither is it unique to Catholicism.  We see this in Plato’s Republic where Socrates criticizes Thrasymachus’s view of justice in Book I.  It is also at the heart of Roman political philosophy with Cicero, but also in the relationship between the Patricians and Plebeians.

Like the ancient political philosophers that Maistre also drew upon, he was extremely skeptical of bourgeois politics.  In part, his opposition to liberalism (rather than Jacobinism which he opposed for other reasons), was predicated on his belief that liberalism – in promoting the interest of the merchant and moneyed classes, owed their allegiances only to themselves, their property, and their money.  The purpose of the State and constitutional commonwealth, as Locke himself states – and as did Locke’s disciples in France (the French materialists) – is the protection of the rights of what would become the capitalist class (the merchants, bankers, and lawyers).  This fundamentally rejected the basis of Roman-Catholic civil law, which – irrespective of all the other problems with it, and Maistre openly admitted to the many paradoxes and idiosyncrasies of the tradition he defended – was predicated on the opposite: it sought the protection of the laboring classes from the exploitative and destructive power of capital and its effects upon land and labor groups (the peasantry and craftsmen, etc.)

For Maistre, labor was the most important of the economic groups within the social order.  (Labor was also tied closer to the family in Maistre’s political theory.)  Land and labor solidarism was real, but only on the basis of its concreteness in life.  That people shared similar backgrounds, worked similar jobs and did similar tasks, all of which was rooted in either the labor of the land directly, or the labor of crafts from the land, tied people together with each other as well as to the land which gave them the fruits of their labor.  Solidarism is further strengthened, according to Maistre, when all groups within the social order recognize their relationship to each other.  Relational solidarity is the glue, once you uproot relations from society you destroy the fabric of solidarity, as well as attempting to transform the social order – which is precisely what liberals and Jacobins were attempting to do, but for different reasons.

The Jacobins, for Rousseau, were fundamentally misguided in their assertions of egalitarianism.  Egalitarianism destroys plurality be definition.  This is a simple syllogism of logic.  Equality equals sameness.  Pluralism equals difference.  You cannot be egalitarian and pluralistic, that’s a contradiction.  The only way to achieve equality, then, is through universal and homogenizing sameness.  And Maistre argued that this is the fundamental tyrannical impulse in men.  The liberals were deceptive liars, much like the fallen angels, in that they preached liberty and equality, but they really retained (deep down) the hierarchal metaphysics they knew to be true.  The difference was that the liberals and their class interests needed an agitated labor and peasant class to propel them above the natural law and natural social order of the landed gentry.  The liberals, Maistre argued, were out to overturn the traditional social order rooted in landed and labor relational solidarism to one where capital and the exploitation of land (for the gain of more capital) would take primacy in society.  In doing so, it would uproot people, and transform concrete human-to-human relationships into human-to-capital relationships and even to a form of commodity fetishism (though Maistre doesn’t use that language) where people are viewed as means to an end in material consumerism.  In other words, liberals were nothing more than resentful individuals angry that they were not at the top of the social order, and were willing to use the poor and oppressed to propel them to the top of the social order while claiming to “be on the side of the poor.”  And this, for Maistre, is evidenced from the fact that the liberals who cheered on the Revolution blamed the unruly mob for taking control of the Revolution and sending it down the course of the Reign of Terror and the international wars that followed.  Liberals had nothing but contempt for the poor and were only ever out for themselves and would use the plight of the poor for the pretext of revolution to overthrow those who were above them in the social order.

For Maistre, love of land (patrie) and love of self and others (concreteness) is the basis of civilization.  Civilization is premised upon hierarchal relations that also exhibit a sense of belonging and solidarity.  The anti-civilizational trends in Jacobinism (through its iconoclasm and commitment to “returning” to a state that never existed) and liberalism (through the uprooting of people from land and concrete relationships and their replacement with money) exhibit the dangerous trends that lead to the alienation, estrangement, and growing violence, within man and human society.

De Maistre agreed with the longstanding Biblical and Christian maxim that “money is the root of all evil.”  What Catholic tradition understood that passage is implying is twofold, and both reasons relate back to this idea of a natural social order rooted in relationships and concreteness, in solidarity rather than atomization or animosity.  First, the love of money can corrupt the poor and laboring classes (it’s the love for the want of money).  This leads to the lower classes estrangement from the upper classes and the landed classes, leading to social antagonism and hatred.  If we recall, Maistre believes civilization is rooted from the bottom rather than the top, so when the plebeians revolt, civilization dies from its roots and cannot be reconstituted.  Second, the love of money can corrupt the upper classes upon whom the lower classes have a relationship with, and to whom the upper classes also have a relationship with.  The love of money from the upper classes detaches the upper classes from the lower classes, which can lead to an animosity from the lower classes “feeling betrayed.”  The love of money, rather than the common love of land, self, and community, uproots and atomizes society.  Money is not something concrete but external to humans, no amount of money can ever quench the hole that emerges from the existential death one suffers from detaching himself from his roots.  He wanders aimlessly at first, but then lashes out violently – at his common inheritance and past, as well as at others.  Man digs his own grave in the process.

Moreover, the love of money destroys the dignity of labor for Maistre.  One doesn’t always have to labor to make money.  One can have others labor for him to make money.  One can engage in collusion, black market deals, and other shady practices.

Capital, to be sure, has its place in society.  Don’t get Maistre wrong – or those whom he leans on like Aristotle, Cicero, and others who also have very harsh things to say about what wealth does a society and civil political order.  But it has a specific place in the social order (and it’s toward the bottom because money isn’t the most important thing in life – after all, it is root of evil).  All things have their proper place in the social order, and the tricky part to civil society is making sure every aspect of the social order, to which all things are interconnected and related to each other: like the relationship between agriculture and the urban city (for the urban city built on commerce and labor cannot exist without the rural farmstead providing the food), or the relationship between the farmer, manor lord, and the mason (for the farmer works the land, the manor lord manages the land and protects the land, and the mason builds the warehouses and homes necessary for people who work the land to store their tools, goods, and to house themselves at night), everything exists in an relational order with each other.

The problem with the Jacobins is that they seek to tear down the entire edifice of the social order on the presumption that a universal egalitarianism is what original life was before “the fall” or “corruption” of society.  Likewise, the problem with liberalism was that it forcibly destroyed the relationships of the social order in order to advance the elevation of capital and capital-oriented consumerism.  The relations and boundaries that were in place to keep community, the homestead, the rural countryside and commons, as well as the personable concrete to concrete relationships between the community, were barriers to the advancement of capital.  And with the State and its laws (which, for instance, forbade usury or condemned those who would turn their brother in need) constructed to protect the bottom groups of society (because they were also the roots of society), meant that the free flow of capital and commerce were contained to protect communities, the homestead and family, the commons, and the craftsmen and guilds from the destructive power that would be unleashed if capital was not contained.

Beneath and in between Maistre’s complex and intricate web of the hierarchal social order is a series of rooted relationships which bind all levels of the social order together with each other.  This is true solidarism.  The attempts to destroy this social order, in Maistre’s eyes, directly led to the bloodshed of the Reign of Terror, French Revolution, Revolutionary Wars, Napoleonic Wars, and was also behind the Industrial Revolution, the destruction of the countryside, and the exploitation of labor in a way that not even feudalism could have ever achieved.

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