Shattering the Cake of Custom

I’ve written previously (most recently here) about Lee Harris’ latest book, The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite.

I’m now reading Chapter 6, “The Life Cycle of Liberty”, in which Mr. Harris discusses the tradeoff that must inevitably occur between liberty and civilization. The general rule is: “The more civilization, the less liberty”. That is, the necessary conditions for civilized living demand more rules and constraints than, for example, life at a frontier outpost in the wilderness.

Liberty tends to come to the fore during times of great chaos and societal disruption. If the resulting cultural response does not emphasize innovation, experiment, and fresh thinking — if the group remains trapped in rigid modes of reaction — then the existing order will fall, and be overrun by other groups or outside invaders.

Lee Harris concentrates mainly on the United States, but the same principle may be applied elsewhere in the Western world. Our current civilizational stasis was made possible by the fiat money system and the welfare state, and when these twin functions fail — as they most assuredly will, within a generation at the latest — then we may expect chaotic conditions to emerge, accompanied by levels of violence and destruction that have not been seen in Europe since 1945, nor in the United States since 1865.

What will happen after that is anybody’s guess. If our libertarian tendencies are not strong enough to allow us to find new and creative forms of self-governance, then the most likely outcome is that the West will be overrun by Islam and enter a new Dark Age of indefinite duration.

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From pages 97-99 of The Next American Civil War:

In 1902 J. M. Barrie, the future author of Peter Pan, wrote The Admirable Crichton, a wildly successful stage comedy that would run for 828 performances. Barrie’s play offers a rare, amusing illustration of the topsy-turvy effects of catastrophe on a hidebound traditional order. A British aristocrat, Lord Loam, sails off on his yacht, with his family, friends, and servants, including his butler named Crichton. Lord Loam is a devout socialist: He believes that all men are equal. According to Lord Loam, there is no difference between him and any other man. He even condescends to say that he and his butler are brothers under the skin and therefore perfectly equal. Crichton, on the other hand, could not disagree more. Despite the fact that he is close to the bottom of the social ladder, Crichton is a staunch defender of the established hierarchy of his time. There must always be lords, and there must always be butters who wait on them. That is the way of things, and it is beyond human power to change the natural order. (Crichton would have approved of the politics of both Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke.)

A disaster at sea dispels Lord Loam’s socialist illusion. It is Crichton’s natural leadership ability that saves the shipwrecked survivors after they have scrambled onto the nearest desert island. Overnight a new inequality springs up. Lord Loam, helpless to look after himself, becomes Crichton’s butler. Crichton, now the chieftain of the island colony, plans to marry Lord Loam’s daughter, whom he has always loved in his heart of hearts, as she has always loved him in hers. Alas, their nuptial plans are cruelly disappointed when a ship appears out of the blue to “rescue” them. Back home, everyone returns, without much enthusiasm, to their former roles in society. The only change is the bittersweet sense of collective loss — somehow everything seemed better arranged on that island.

When a catastrophe shipwrecks a long-established social order, there will be a jolting return to the law of the jungle. This plunge back into chaos will bring down the mighty, but for others it will come as a golden opportunity. Individuals who counted for nothing before the catastrophe now find they have exactly those talents required for getting ahead in the shattered ruins of the ancien régime. Certainly luck will play a role, but by and large, the individuals who best adjust to the new circumstances will be those most fit to deal with these circumstances. If survival requires brute strength, then the brute will be the fittest; if cunning, then the cunning will be the fittest. The toppled aristocracy, formed by tradition and chosen by birth, will be quickly replaced by an oligarchy based on the possession of the requisite survival skills, often quite predatory and brutal skills. Nevertheless, a revolutionary new principle is at work. For in the emergent social order, success will be decided by merit and not birth status. A meritocracy always follows the shattering of the “cake of custom,” though what counts as merit depends on the nature of the crisis.

Because a monolithic tradition is virtually inescapable as long as everything is going smoothly, freedom and independence must originate in social breakdown, in chaos, in catastrophe, in eruptions of the unknown and the unfamiliar. It is only when the principle of social inertia has failed that men are forced to improvise their own rules and routines. Only then are men compelled to take charge of their own fate — compelled simply because there is no one else to take charge of it for them.

16 thoughts on “Shattering the Cake of Custom

  1. Then perhaps the coming civil/race/religious/economic upheavals might actually be a blessing in disguise?

  2. King Rat – the Clavell-novel about a misfit who rises to eminence because of his extraordinary making do and survival skills in a japanese prisoncamp during WW ll..

  3. This plunge back into chaos will bring down the mighty …

    The money-empowered mighty, perhaps — but those empowered by a collapse of the ancien regime are likely to include the most ruthless and vicious commanders of military and police units, who will then be quite capable, with their followers, of imposing their own brand of tyranny. One oughtn’t to assume that a gun and an attitude will turn one into a superman in such a brave new world.

  4. I’d bet on Chinese expatriots everywhere, to step up and run things for their own benefit. The trend of white people keeping their heads down isn’t seen much among the Chinese, both immigrants and assimilated Chinese-Americans. They know who they are and have a natural social cohesiveness. The Muslims had better watch out, once the Chinese are in charge. Of course, the round-eyes will work for the Chinese.

    Does Harris say anything about the Chinese? I think he lives in Georgia, and unless one lives in an emerging Chinese colony like I do, it’s easy to miss the trend.

  5. Papa Whiskey: … those empowered by a collapse of the ancien regime are likely to include the most ruthless and vicious commanders of military and police units, who will then be quite capable, with their followers, of imposing their own brand of tyranny. One oughtn’t to assume that a gun and an attitude will turn one into a superman in such a brave new world.

    Papa Whiskey, please do all of us a favor by elucidating upon this theme. Few ― even among those in the counterjihad ― understand that the most rapacious among said tyrannous subscribers will cling to power like a boa constrictor entwined with its last meal on earth.

    PS: Paging matism to the white courtesy phone.

  6. Dont count the Christians out. They already saved Western Civiliztion from the predations of barbarian immigrants before….and turned them into the core of Western Civilization, Europeans.

  7. latte island –

    AND, unrestrained, the Muslims will be the Abds in that New Chinese World and treated brutally at that. The Han Chinese have an OLD SCORE to settle with Islam as do the Hindu Desai.

    Dr. Shalit

  8. Hey, Zenster:
    Some of us recognize “Law Enforcement” as the great enablers of evil in the US. Some military may be as well, especially those Perfumed Princes and Princesses such as those who convicted Colonel Lakin at his court martial. The Masters are not much of a problem on their own. Without their “Law Enforcement” enablers, NONE of them pose any threat whatsoever. Clean out the sewer, and the Masters can be dealt with in a leisurely and appropriate manner.

    Of course, the REAL issue is that if the evil is not cleaned within a matter of weeks, the remaining Masters will be glad to accept assistance from our Russian and our Chinese friends. The Perfumed Princes and Princesses will be glad to help them establish beachheads in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and probably Miami as well. Their numbers will be significantly more than that of US “Law Enforcement”. Their weapons will be slightly more destructive, and they will have even LESS scruples than the sewage in outfits such as the Pima County Sheriff’s SWAT team.

    That enough for now? It WILL be a target-rich opportunity. For BOTH sides.

  9. By the way, Zenster, your eloquence occasionally becomes a trifle long-winded. While the phrase “…cling to power like a boa constrictor entwined with its last meal on earth.” paints a vivid picture, a similarly accurate portrait can be done by the mere words “…cling to power like a pig with a donut.” Don’t you agree?

  10. One thing this post ignores is Who finally topples the social order, and Why they do it. It seems to suggest that social dissolution simply happens — sort of like the weather.

    The French and Russian Revolutions suggest otherwise. In those cases it is an irrational hatred for tradition that topples imperfect, certainly, backwards, perhaps, but more or less functional societies.

    Has Gates of Vienna become a crypto-Marxist blog?

  11. 35314 —

    That’s a good question. Rather than answer it, I will ask you a couple more:

    Who toppled the imperfect and backward regimes in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in 1989?

    Was it the crypto-Marxists?

  12. No, of course in at least one of those cases it was Bl. John Paul II. But, be careful what you wish for.

    It is in the nature of revolutions to end in disillusionment and disappointment. Zeal wanes; enthusiasm becomes forced. The moment of madness and euphoria passes. The relationship of the people and the revolutionaries becomes complicated: it appears that the will of the people is not necessarily monolithic and transparent. The temptations of wealth and position return, along with the recognition that one does not love one’s neighbor as oneself, and does not want to. All revolutions destroy things whose loss is soon regretted. What they create is less than the revolutionaries expected, and different.

    — Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution, Oxford, 1982/2001: pp. 8-9.

    Are you cheering the decline of social order, or lamenting it?

  13. 35314 –


    “Are you cheering the decline of social order, or lamenting it?”

    Would you be lamenting the impending demise, or better, bankruptcy of the “social order” enforced by our current welfare state system, the very same social order that has opened up our borders and lowered our resistance to the disease of Islam?

    I understand your concerns, but to liken the CJ initiative to the Bolshevik coup d’etat, is akin to comparing apples with orangutans. Restoration (like attempting to repair past progressivist mistakes) seems a more appropriate term to use than “revolution”.

    Kind regs from Amsterdam,

  14. A dog eats its own dirt.

    In the U.K. the social engineering of equality and multiculturalism was an exercise in self-loathing by both left and right though in some quarters it is political heresy to apportion blame any further right than mainstream conservatism.

    As the convoluted political and social hierarchies in UK collapse the left will be the first dog to eat its own dirt, processioned by the self-loathing dog of the right. Picture two dogs defecating and feeding off each other simultaneously. The self-loathing stench forthcoming from the dogbreath politics will be apocalyptical.

  15. 35314 —

    Are you cheering the decline of social order, or lamenting it?

    One of the interesting aspects of a loaded question involves the nature and quantity of the explosive packed in it. Black powder or semtex? Or maybe plutonium?

    The classic prototype is, of course, “Are you still beating your wife?” To confine your interlocutor to a pair of false choices is to force him to do battle on a ground of your own choosing, where he may be easily overcome and eviscerated.

    I decline to enter that field of battle. I decline the limitations implicit in your question.

    I was given the choice between “cheering” or “lamenting” a process, and to engage the question would be to accept the existence and importance of a “decline of social order”.

    I do not admit the false dichotomy implied, nor do I accept the background conditions as stated.

    In other words: I know when I’m being set up, and I refuse to participate.

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