Fractal Traditionalism

It can safely be said that everyone in neoreaction and related circles laments the rise of modernism and the concurrent fall of traditionalism.  Indeed, this is one of the primary reasons why reactionary movements in general even exist.  However, what exactly is meant by “tradition”?  When did this “tradition” exist?  Was it Victorianism?  What about the sort of traditional Catholicism found in the Middle Ages?  What of 1st century Christianity?  Ancient Rome? The Bronze Age steppes?  Evolian esoteric history?  What about outside of a Western context?  Don’t other civilizational groups have their traditionalisms as well, and aren’t these just as valid forms of “tradition” as our own?

The answer to all of these questions is yes, each to varying degrees.

It is helpful to think of tradition from an energy state perspective.  Thought of this way, we can recognize traditionalism as a low-energy state, one which is characterized by high levels of social stability and order, which are able to “sink” social energy, preventing it from overflowing into destructive channels.  Conversely, modernism is correctly described as a high-energy state system demonstrating instability and perturbed order.

Thus, I believe a very useful conceptual model to use to visualize tradition versus modernism is to map them out onto an abstracted three-dimensional space in which the z-axis is social energy, while the x– and y-axes are arbitrarily chosen and represent a blended mixture of civilizational “variables” relating to specific aspects of culture, as well as fundamental, underlying traits which define and direct how that culture manifests itself.  This 3D space will contain both valleys (low energy regions representing various types of traditional societies) and neighboring peaks (high energy regions representing various sorts of modernist transitional states between traditional schema.  Movement between any two points in this space will necessarily entail a change in z-axis height, increases or decreases in social energy representing movement toward or away from local “tradition minima.”

Human societies are extremely complex phenomena – “culture” goes far deeper than the relatively superficial externals of food, clothing, language, public rituals, etc. which outsiders to a culture typically observe.  Due to their complexity, we should understand human societies within the framework of “complex adaptive systems” (CAS), which have been defined as “dynamic, non-linear systems that are not in equilibrium and do not act predictably.”  Both of these conditions are important, but the fact that they are not in equilibrium is more relevant to my immediate point.

Experience and history tell us that even the most seemingly stable of social systems (cultures, civilizations, etc.) are not actually inert.  Ancient Egypt was a civilization which students today still perceive to have remained unchanged from its inception in prehistory all the way to its conquest by the Persians.  In reality, even Egypt saw changes and innovation over its millennia of independent existence.  People speak of the traditional societies in medieval Europe.  Yet, which period do they mean?  Life in France in 1400 AD was greatly different (and not just politically or geographically) from life there in 1000 AD, which was itself much different from that in 600 AD.

Yet, while cultures and other social systems are in a constant state of flux, this does not mean that tradition is a scattershot sort of thing.  It has definite frontiers and tendencies which cross temporal, geographic, and civilizational boundaries and which manifest similarities even cross-culturally at the core levels of civilizational concepts.

In many alt-Right circles, Evola is often discussed as an articulator of “big-T” Tradition.  While many of his criticisms of Christianity were childish, he nevertheless did have some important and useful things to say with respect to defining Tradition vis-à-vis modernism.  Indeed, the multifarious “small-t” traditionalisms are, in many ways, distillations and adaptations of Tradition, utilizing its concepts (see table below) while varying in the specifics.

Area Traditionalism Modernism
Social Organization Hierarchical Egalitarian
Centralization Decentralized, Localist Centralized, Urbanist
Metaphysical Organizing Principle Religion Materialism
Role of Religion Social Stability Buttress Power Structure
Source of Authority Sacral Popular
Structure of Authority Polar, Axial Distributed, Ambiguous
Authority Principle Legitimacy Raw Power
Legal Principle Honor based Contractual
Leading Castes Hieratic, Warriors Merchants, Workers
Form of Aristocracy Martial Commercial
Social Fabric Communitarian Atomized Individualism
Social Cohesion Rites, Festivals Sports, Entertainment
Familial Authority Patriarchal Matriarchal or State
Interaction between Sexes Rigid Gender Roles Egalitarian
Family Size Large, desirable Small, undesirable
Time Sense Cyclical Linear
Attitude toward Innovation Suppressive Embracing

As CAS, every society faces the struggle between emergence and resilience, i.e. between the tendency for social evolution (often through novel and unseen factors) and the tendency to resist the (possible) disruptions introduced by these factors.  It’s important to remember that traditionalism is analog, not digital. Every society will be a mixture of traditional and modernistic elements, though when a society is traditional, its tendencies will obviously lean far toward the direction of tradition.

Modernistic eras represent periods whereby one or more traditional societies undergo large perturbations which introduce more social energy than the traditional system can dissipate.  Hence, the emergence / resilience disequilibrium, already extent in one direction or the other, swings far enough to the emergence side so as to greatly change several of the underlying parameters in which the system operates.  This creates changes in the social system which drive the energy level higher and higher – instability occurs, order is lost, and eventually the system will fall apart.

However, an important point we need to understand, and which I believe we can observe from history, is that after the collapse of a modernistic system for whatever reason (internal or external), new traditional forms will establish themselves.  These may differ from the previous traditional society in the externals, perhaps, but they will reflect the same essential tendencies of Tradition.

Human societies seem to exist around and circle a strange attractor representing Tradition.  While they never do quite reach the basin of “pure” Traditionalism, they nevertheless tend to fall back into the orbit of the attractor’s basin after their periodic bouts with modernism. (Please note that my references to concepts from chaos/complexity theory are not meant to be mathematically rigorous, but are being used analogically.)  This attractor is “strange” because it seems to display fractal behavior whereby iterations upon iterations of the society’s activities each day, each year, each lifetime and generation map out a complex path tending toward the attractor basin, except when grossly perturbed by the introduction of modernistic tendencies.

This attractor may also be considered chaotic because of the tendency on the part of a society’s trajectory to depend sensitively upon initial conditions.  Also, two societies may be initially close to each other in form but can, after undergoing a tradition-modernism-tradition (TMT) transition, be arbitrarily far from each other both in the extent of their traditionalism (i.e. closeness to the attractor basin) and in their external forms (their coordinate position around the basin).

Further, traditional societies may be considered fractal other than just in the “attractor” sense, but are so in an observational sense as well.  By this, I mean that the organization of the society across all levels can come close to displaying self-similarity (a system does not need to be absolutely self-similar before it can be considered fractal). Each level will display similar traditional features: the family → the church/religion → local region → province → kingdom → view of deity/deities/overarching theo-ontological system.  Within a modernistic system, multiple of these layers will begin to diverge and the system falls apart.

So, what is it that perturbs traditional systems so that they drift into modernism and find themselves irrevocably warped after decades or centuries have gone by?  I believe the primary motivator for this is the generation of social change created by the introduction of radically new technologies and the social ideas/structures that go along with them.  Most evidently, material techniques represent the visible aspect of a culture’s existence and ideas,

“…technical knowledge and the goods produced with it form the material assumptions of a culture and, consequently, manufactured objects are especially able to transmit a visible and archaeologically comprehensible expression of that specific culture.” (Barbara R. Armbruster, “Approaches to Metalwork: the Role of Technology in Tradition, Innovation, and Cultural Change,” Atlantic Europe in the First Millennium B.C.: Crossing the Divide, Eds. T. Moore and X.-L. Armada, pp. 417-438)

If radical new technologies (and this may include social and organizational technologies instead of or in addition to purely material ones) are introduced into a traditional society at a rate faster than the ability of the society to assimilate and “tame” them, that society can become destabilized and develop more and more modernistic tendencies.  Sometimes these new ideas or systems arise internally, but often they are introduced from outside.

However, the existence of technology is not, in and of itself, a cause of modernism.  Likewise, it is not a perpetuator of modernism such that the only options are to either stay modernist or to “go Amish” and reject large chunks of technology and technique.  Once a technology (or technologies) has become an established feature of the landscape after the social evolution if has wrought, the new traditional society that emerges will be able to integrate it into a restored traditional system, using the technology while rejecting the “inevitable” assumptions which the technology was formerly thought to require.

Many examples of the process of TMT transition due to this can be seen, though a few will suffice.  One thing which is important to keep in mind is that “tradition” and “modernism” should not be equated with “back then” and “right now.”  Just because a society existed in ancient times does not mean that it didn’t have its modernistic phase(s).  Ancient societies were certainly capable of developing decadent, modernistic traits.

The early Roman Republic was a traditional system in most of the ways found in the table above.  However, as the Republic began to acquire territory outside of Italy, riches began to flow into Rome, usury became even more rampant and destructive, wealth became the measure of worth rather than sacred virtue and military glory, the traditional small freeholder was dispossessed and underbid by large slave-manned latifundia, and the Marian reforms eventually professionalized the army, turning it into a paid police force of landless men.  The culmination of Rome’s (first) modernity was seen in the civil wars and eventual triumphs of the Caesars.  However, once established in power, Augustus’ principate saw an attempted (and even partially successful) return to traditional virtues and mores, though in an obviously far different system than was seen in the earlier Republic.

Another example would be the ancient Iberian peninsula.  Spain in its Bronze Age (as best we can tell from archaeology) boasted a relatively decentralized population, probably made up of a larger body of freemen, who tilled large tracts of land non-intensively.  However, during (or perhaps because of) the transition into the Iron Age, which was accompanied by both an intensification of land use (more grain grown per acre) and the introduction of outside trade via the Phoenicians, Spanish societies became much more centralized.  This was apparently caused by the outside trade as polities sought to grow more so they could sell more, and this trade led to the rise of a smaller elite of aristocrats who could control the trade and the flow of prestige goods, and who centralized their populations into larger oppida for better control of the now-tenant farming peasantry.  This was surely a shocking disruption of the Bronze Age traditional society which evidently led to social upheaval, but this eventually worked itself out and became the new traditionalism which the Romans found when they conquered it in the 2nd-1st centuries BC.

Or what about the modernistic tendencies in Europe during the High Middle Ages?  Prior to this period, European societies were very traditional.  However, with the coming of the Crusades, Europe’s vista was opened, wealth started to flow into the continent, and modernistic forms from commercialism and exploration began to arise, continuing until the arrival of the Black Death and the subsequent (and not entirely unrelated) reaction against these forces that rose in Europe prior to the Renaissance.

What is often misunderstood about the emergence of modernism is that many of the social changes that result from the innovations are not themselves the innovations, but are often responses to the perturbations (and may even represent attempts at reaction against the innovations), ones which must exist within the already-evolved context of the society undergoing the transition to a high energy modernist state.

For example, take the Puritans.  “The Puritans” often serve as a bugaboo representing modernity in NRx and other reactionary circles.  However, the origin of the Puritans was specifically as a reaction against the rise of the non-martial, commercial system of oligarchic landlords who captured and controlled the Tudor and early Stuart monarchies.  Only later, especially after their rejection by moderate elements in the Church of England and after the Revolution of 1688, were the Puritans truly and permanently captured by the commercial elements in England.  Initially, however, the Puritans had been revolting against a trend towards materialism and monied interest which had been exhibiting itself in both England and France since before the Reformation.

The lesson from this is that we should not mistake cause for effect.

Further, we should not expect that a new traditional society arising at the end of a TMT cycle will be the same as the previous.  While some similarities to the old may appear by virtue of shared status as traditional (and even some which may consciously be built into it through judicious action), the new will not simply be a continuation of the older one, as if the unfortunate and possibly centuries-long modernistic disjunction could simply be ignored. What if the Puritans had managed to defeat the commercial oligarchy early in the 17th century and stave off the continued trend towards commercial whiggery?  They may have restored a traditional society, but it would definitely not have been the old traditional society which England’s drift into materialism in the 16th century had already effectively destroyed.  Likewise, traditionalists today should not get their hopes up that they’re going to be able to restore Europe’s feudal system in all (or even most) of its details.

This all has some obvious ramifications for the hopes for a Restoration entertained by neoreactionaries.

First, during a perturbational period, that sensitivity to initial conditions mentioned above will still exist.  As such, well-timed and well-placed actions, even seemingly small ones, can result in alteration of the direction of an evolving (re)traditional system toward that which we might hope for it to go, at least in a broad sense.

However, we should not be surprised when the unpredictability of social changes in a CAS results in directions which we did not envision or plan for.  One kick start will not result in a Restoration.  The process will require constant attention and the application of directive remedies which will “de-stress” our social system (thus lowering energy, moving the transitional state towards a more traditionalist minima) and move it in the direction we want.

Lastly, seeking a Restoration out of a TMT event is a long-term project.  We cannot fall into the error of thinking that temporary victories are themselves the Restoration.  The Peloponnesian War can be thought of in terms of a struggle between modernism (Athens) and traditionalism (Sparta) in classical Greece.  While Sparta may have won, the war against modernism as it expressed itself in the Hellenic context was already lost because of Greece’s inability to combat the orientalizing tendencies and commercial expansion already introduced in the 6th and 5th centuries BC which led to the sorts of social innovation represented by Athenian democracy and supra-polis centralization, and from the changes in agricultural and trade techniques.

My desire is that the information presented above will provide some conceptual frameworks which neoreactionaries and other alt-Righters can use to think about the hows, whys, and uses for social changes.  Far from being either completely random or subject solely to psychological or economic forces, social change – and social restoration of traditional forms – are accessible to rational methodologies which carry with them the potential, at least, for manipulation and direction.

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8 thoughts on “Fractal Traditionalism

  1. “Thought of this way, we can recognize traditionalism as a low-energy state, one which is characterized by high levels of social stability and order, which are able to “sink” social energy, preventing it from overflowing into destructive channels. Conversely, modernism is correctly described as a high-energy state system demonstrating instability and perturbed order.”

    Obviously false right off the bat. Traditional society is often very unstable and disorderly. The correct heuristic is the polarity and ordering of masculine and feminine.

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    1. Not sure how you figure this. Traditional societies can (and have) survive for multiple centuries, even millennia with relatively little effort. Modernising societies (and not just those since the “Enlightenment”) rarely last more than three centuries, and much of that is filled with strife and discord.

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  2. Your point about endogenous causation is always worth repeating; your conclusion that a society can become “more traditional” in the generic sense but can almost never return to its exact previous state is one I agree with strongly. (A fortiori, it certainly cannot return to *all* of the previous states of traditionalism *at the same time*, which unfortunately some on the right have difficulty understanding.)

    But I’m a little at sea with your spatial model and your tables. In the culture-space, what do the vectors represent – cultural systems? individual traditions? populations? societies? I have a vague sense of what you’re getting at with the principal components (something like the abstractly 2-d “phenotype”-manifold population genetics uses, where the z-axis is fitness?), but if you could provide a concrete example it would help.

    As for the table – maybe I don’t understand exactly what claim the rows and columns are making, but as far as I can see, in most of these polarities a tradition can embody either pole (in which case, degeneration will embody the other). Even one country, you can see that at one point the destruction of tradition was driven by urbanization, then

    Moreover, this table of polarities seems to abandon the central claim of your trifunctional model — i.e., if different social constellations are inherently drawn to different equilibria, that not only permits but *requires* that degeneration will take the form of the decay of democratic traditions on the frontier and the decay of royal traditions in the metropolis, no?

    Not that you need to be consistent. But it’s not clear why you’d be committed to this position in the first place. It seems much more consistent with the premise of a “fractal” traditionalism to see that a concept like “centralism” or “hierarchy” can apply on dozens of different scales simultaneously, and that to the extent the centers and orders at each scale compete with the others, every centralization on one level is always accompanied by decentralizations at others. (Consider the growth of the latifundia, and later of the feudal villages and burgs, concomitant with the collapse of the metropolitan center…)

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    1. Your point about endogenous causation is always worth repeating; your conclusion that a society can become “more traditional” in the generic sense but can almost never return to its exact previous state is one I agree with strongly. (A fortiori, it certainly cannot return to *all* of the previous states of traditionalism *at the same time*, which unfortunately some on the right have difficulty understanding.)

      Indubitably.

      But I’m a little at sea with your spatial model and your tables. In the culture-space, what do the vectors represent – cultural systems? individual traditions? populations? societies? I have a vague sense of what you’re getting at with the principal components (something like the abstractly 2-d “phenotype”-manifold population genetics uses, where the z-axis is fitness?), but if you could provide a concrete example it would help.

      The z-axis is “social energy,” think of this as being the level of stability vs. instability in a society. Is the society essentially harmonious? Is there constant civil strife? Is it somewhere in between? Because of the large number of variables that could possibly be involved in terms of a “culture,” I’m considering the spatial axes to be “blends” of cultural and social traits, perhaps we could draw them from those listed on the table, distilling them into more finely drawn distinctions (i.e What *kinds* of rites and festivals? How does the patriarchal system manifest itself?). The “distance” on the axes is arbitrary and should simply be understood as an abstraction to map out the fact that when you move toward or away from certain cultural characteristics, you will abritrarily increase or decrease your social energy, thereby invoking a rise or fall in the z-axis measurement.

      As for the table – maybe I don’t understand exactly what claim the rows and columns are making, but as far as I can see, in most of these polarities a tradition can embody either pole (in which case, degeneration will embody the other). Even one country, you can see that at one point the destruction of tradition was driven by urbanization, then

      I think we can safely claim that traditional societies of whatever type will not embody the sorts of traits seen under the “Modernism” header in the table. Or simply put, just because a degenerate society embodies modernistic traits for a couple of centuries does not necessarily make these degenerate modernistic traits “tradition,” in and of themselves. The connexion between Tradition and tradition is one that I think has a good deal of relevance, even though Evola himself was kind of a kook. I *do* think he did a service in recognising fundamental traits of human societies which repeatedly recur (deriving from whatever source, I have some ideas on this that may eventually find their way into a future post, probably to much derision), and which repeatedly degenerate in remarkably similar ways.

      Moreover, this table of polarities seems to abandon the central claim of your trifunctional model — i.e., if different social constellations are inherently drawn to different equilibria, that not only permits but *requires* that degeneration will take the form of the decay of democratic traditions on the frontier and the decay of royal traditions in the metropolis, no?

      Not necessarily. This is assuming that all three of the general forms in my trifunctional modern are “traditional,” when at least one of them (frontier, drawn towards democratic tendencies) would not be. The USA, for instance, was founded as a frontier society and early embodied democratic traits. At the same time, I would not say that the USA has *ever* truly been a traditional society, though it did derive from an earlier, more traditional English society that existed prior to the rise of whiggery. The USA *has* incorporated some elements of a traditional society (e.g. the overtly religious element as an organising principle, for instance), but overall has been a modernistic child of the Enlightenment from its inception.

      Not that you need to be consistent. But it’s not clear why you’d be committed to this position in the first place. It seems much more consistent with the premise of a “fractal” traditionalism to see that a concept like “centralism” or “hierarchy” can apply on dozens of different scales simultaneously, and that to the extent the centers and orders at each scale compete with the others, every centralization on one level is always accompanied by decentralizations at others. (Consider the growth of the latifundia, and later of the feudal villages and burgs, concomitant with the collapse of the metropolitan center…)

      Heh, why should I start now, eh? (LOL)

      But to the point, yes, the tendency we see is for hierarchy, order, etc. to scale at multiple levels. I’m not sure that centralisation at one level is necessarily accompanied by decentralisation at other levels. Indeed, the opposite seems to be the case. The growth of latifundia, per your example, was accompanied by a vast centralisation into urban centres (Rome, mostly, but others like Ephesus and Antioch as well). The two levels of centralisation went hand in hand. Likewise, when France was moving towards greater centralisation of power into the hands of the monarchy under the later Louises, this *was* accompanied by a decline in the power of the aristocracy…but not a decentralisation of the provinces that had previously been under greater aristocratic control. Instead, royal power became greater in the provinces as well as in the royal estates in the Isle de France.

      Thanks for the comments! Enjoy them as always!

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  3. The problem with Evola’s idea of Tradition, when you really look into it, is that it is based on a speculative reconstruction of pre-historical civilizations. This is different from Spengler’s attempts to find patterns among actual historical civilizations for which we have records, regardless of whether you find his presentation convincing. Like it or not, we are all Modern men, and it will be difficult to take Evola’s approach seriously, given the obvious problems in reconstructing past epochs for which we have so little archeological evidence.

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    1. Hi JQP,

      Well, yes, Evola as much tells us upfront that his history isn’t really meant to be taken literally, I think. I believe the main point to be drawn from Evola is his conceptualisation of ideal Tradition, and the adaption of relevant principles to the exigencies of our current circumstances.

      Thanks for the comments!

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