It’s good to be king…

The only cure for a blank page is to start typing. The only cure for numb disbelief is to try and get a handle on the system of thinking that is difficult to believe.

So, late 2016, we have been presented with a number of unlikely events, but only three that I would previously have described as almost impossible.

  • Peter Thiel spoke at the RNC in 2016.
  • Actual, undisguised, racism is a mainstream global political current in 2016.
  • The worst thing one can possibly be in 2016 is an “expert”.

So, on November 9th, I started reading around these issues. The common current seems to be something called “Neo-reactionism” (NRx), and the prime reference that I kept seeing is a chap delighting in the nom de plume of Mencius Moldbug who kept a blog (“Unqualified Reservations”) during the latter part of the last decade. If you ask questions around the basis of the alt right generally, that blog is where you tend to get pointed. I’m not going to link to it here – no one needs to read that stuff (for clarity, I read the “gentle introduction” multi-post shitshow, the “open letter”, the “Formalist manifesto” and a couple of other posts.) Here’s a (long) 2013 Scott Walker summary of the “gentle introduction” which may suffice.

Another common reference is to someone I’ve been wanting to write about for ages, a former University of Warwick philosopher named Nick Land. Land’s research interests were around cyberculture (the “Cybernetic Culture Research Unit”). This is a useful (again long) 2009 summary by music journalist Simon Reynolds. Since leaving academia his best-known writing is a collection of blog posts entitled “The Dark Enlightenment” (again I’m not linking to a primary source, but I have read the collection).

(If you just want a general overview of Neoreactionism in 2016, this [by Dylan Matthews at Vox] is readable]

So I started to read this stuff.

And I stopped there. Terrified.

Because the last thing I was expecting was that these guys were me. Us. Tonally, structurally – the same tools and tropes I’d use here to talk about education technology or whatever the hell else are used to talk about this…stuff. Moldbug likes to mix quotations from diverse and “forgotten” primary sources with low pop-culture references, “gen x”-style irony and song lyrics. Nick Land… well, I’ll link to this: “Meltdown“, presented at an academic conference in 1994 (this version mixed with video material by his long-term collaborators 0rphan Drift).

If you go to any random “radical education technology” conference – say, perhaps, #opened16 – none of these tropes would seem out of place. After I’d stopped being shocked, I started wondering why I was shocked. After all, these are people:

  • that have been in and around the internet and cyberculture since at least the late 90s.
  • that have hung out and argued in online political discussions similar to the ones I hung out in.
  • that think and write about technology and how it affects culture, and vice versa.

They are us. They are us.

But it’s OK, right, because I’m now going to tell you all of the monstrous stuff they believe that we obviously don’t. Right?

Not quite.

So, in NRx, the worst things in the world, the causes of all of our problems as a global society, are universities and media organisations. Universities, in particular, have a huge amount of power and influence – which is used to shape the very political direction of civilisation. Which is always to the left. The famous quote is “Cthulu only swims left”. The less-famous idea is that the left (read “progressives”, “the establishment”, the two are used interchangeably within a grand idea of “the Cathedral” (not the one near the bazaar)) deals with enemies to the political right swiftly and without mercy, but with enemies to the left with tolerance and grace.

So it’s fine to be an academic marxist, but if you wanted to be an academic conservative you’d be out on your ear.

[Actually, I should add that one surprising weakness in Moldbug (other than the obvious massive racism and such) is his treatment of Conservatism as a political movement. To him, Conservatism is just the progressive ideas of about 20-50 years ago, an attempt merely to stop the march of progress rather than propose anything new. This utterly ignores the corporatist, or “neoliberal” if you must, trend on the modern right, and makes it easier for him to situate his own critique within a third tradition that includes Mises and the whole Austrian School of Economics – more on that to come, economics fans!]

And that, followers, is the big secret. Because the alt-right are obsessed with crappy Matrix references, they call it the red pill. Proving they at least have the sense to ignore the sequels…

Now – let us pause here. I hang around with a lot of people who seriously dislike the modern university, and have strong feelings about modern mass media. A position that suggests these things are terrible is hardly remarkable.  Indeed, I know many who hope to set up their own – alternative – university as a pure source of insight and education for a population that is otherwise reliant on an increasingly corrupt mainstream media to understand the world.

Well, so does Moldbug – he calls his grand ambition the “anti-versity”. He’s not working on it now though – he’s working on a start-up called “Urbit” that aims to allow people to reclaim ownership over their online life via a bespoke cloud hosting service. Funded by Peter Thiel.

You see why I was terrified?

Anyway – his issue with progressivism, and indeed democracy, is that he doesn’t think that it works. To back this up he points to the existence of crime, and of what journalists love to euphemise as “the underclass”. (As usual with Moldbug the weaker points of his argument are backed up either by vague state-of-the-world conjecture or contextless lengthy quotations from dead white European guys.)

So the obvious solution is to restore monarchy in a joint-stock holding national corporation (with the aristocracy as stock holders) . Of course. Reasons for this leap include that Kings are nice, and aristocrats are nice (there’s a might conservative aestheticism under here). Monarchies never suffered from war, strife or insurrection, they provided societal and economic stability, and did I mention that Kings are nice? Any contrary understanding you may have around monarchy is simply the lies you have been fed by “The Cathedral”.

(You remember that South Park episode about Scientology where they had the caption “this is what Scientologists actually believe”?)

That “Cathedral” thing, by the way, is a path in to a religious metaphor about progressivism. It’s a religion! Because people believe stuff, and want other people to believe stuff. (Where as neoreactionism is, I guess, a cult – what with the initiation ceremonies and secret revelation and all that). And the religious underpinning of wider society is tied back to low-church protestantism via the American Civil War, which puts friend Moldbug on the side of the Anglicans and kind of makes me want to hope he reads Richard Hooker’s “Of The Laws Of Ecclesiastical Polity” as a crash course in minutely and at length (Moldbug’s blog posts are longer than mine!) arguing for a clearly ridiculous position.

But back to everything you believe being wrong. Having taken the “red pill”, we next must prove ourselves by denying three sacred Cathedral truths: anthropogenic global warming, fiat currencies/any post-WW2 economics, and human biodiversity.

Moldbug himself undermines the first – it is accepted that (i) more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes the earth warmer (since 1896!), (ii) we are putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than ever before, (iii) the Earth is (viewed on both a geological and human scale) warmer that it ever has been. There is discussion to be had on the precise relation between these variables, which is why climate modeling is a thing. His argument with this is the same as that one creepy Uncle you have would make – apparently scientists only get grants if they agree with everything all other scientists think, and only a small cadre of brave, embattled fossil-fuel company owning billionaires can see the (inconvenient) truth. #slowhandclap

Next up – apparently we need to… pauses for dramatic effect… get back on the gold standard. A finite money supply is better than fiat money because stability, and every economic theory other than what is broadly called the “Austrian School” – you know, the “rational actor”, “business cycle” stuff that led to so much stability in the past? – is wrong. I don’t think it’s even worth our while arguing about this, but economics is a broad church (except, counterfactually, in academia – read your Mirowski, who is sage enough to note the central place of neo-classical economics – Austrian School plus one – within what some call the neoliberal economics which… hasn’t been good for us recent). Also – doesn’t this sound like Bitcoin? similar set of roots ties together that whole world of crazy.

Not quite tied in at source, here, but relevant is the “rule of feet” idea that if a serf didn’t like a particular monarchic city he could always stroll off and serf for a different one – thus excusing a corporate disregard for surplus labourers and non-labourers with the lazy assumption that states that did care for temporarily non-working workers would grow faster (and thus provide more shareholder value) than those that don’t.

But “Human Biodiversity” is a scientific-sounding terminology that allows entitled white boys to say racist stuff. Let’s let Frank Zappa explain:

Eventually it was discovered
That God
Did not want us to be
All the same
This was
For the Governments of The World
As it seemed contrary
To the doctrine of
Portion Controlled Servings
Mankind must be made more uniformly
Was going to work
Various ways were sought
To bind us all together
But, alas SAMENESS was unenforceable
It was about this time
That someone
Came up with the idea of TOTAL CRIMINALIZATION
Based on the principle that
If we were ALL crooks
We could at last be uniform
To some degree
In the eyes of THE LAW

That’s about the long and the short of it. People are fundamentally different, so we should treat them differently, and not expect equality. Which sounds almost reasonable until you realise it means in this case that “only people like me should have the opportunities that I have”. This is situated firmly on the “nature” side of the nature/culture debate that has being going on in social sciences since Plato, and uses the gloss of genetic analysis to make it not look like the backward leap it is. The (trigger warning:stupid people trying to sound smart whilst being racist) talk page of the wikipedia article on Human Genetic Diversity is an instructive read on the way the argument plays out. There is actually an ongoing academic debate on how meaningful or otherwise the idea of “race” as a classification is in genetic terms (spoiler: maybe a little, but not very much), and for a taste of that some kind soul has curated a great set of links at the article on Lewontin’s Fallacy.

Interestingly, Austrian economics explicitly speaks out against the idea that people’s economic activity is sensibly considered in aggregate based on societal groupings. Which feels rather ultra-modern at the moment, what with our progressive distrust in everything from learning analytics to FiveThirtyEight, but utterly alien to the HBD world. Which can’t happen here

Oh and – good news – you can justify misogyny via HBD too! and ableism! and homophobia!

You may think at this point that neo-reaction is simply philosophical cover for being a dick to people. I could see how one could argue that. Certainly, believing that “experts” have lied to you about everything: maybe they lied to you about the good points of not being a dick too.

This concludes our little whistlestop tour of neoreaction and how it links in a number of places to concerns current in radical education technology. Which has been intermittently entertaining, but still unconnected with our 2016! WTF! starting point. (But keep an eye on Peter Thielhe’s a big fan)

In the latter parts of his “Gentle Introduction”, Moldbug talks about how to bring about a neoreactionary revolution. These are the three steps to hell:

  1. Passivism
  2. The Anti-Versity, building an alternative power structure
  3. Prepare to accept power when offered

Now I don’t think we take them at face value (that Moldbuggian irony!), but basically this is a riff on the old Freidmanite shuffle – get out of the existing argument, build a new one and then wait for a crisis to come along so you can build an alternative.

The big difference to the “plan” is the absence of an anti-versity. It was a dumb idea anyway, in that universities have little power and less influence, and what would be done if the anti-versity discovered facts that did not accord with the chosen world view? Deliberately biased resources that correct the perceived bias of other resources are seldom pretty. Instead of a university at the head of an anti-cathedral imagine an alternative mainstream media. Where do people get their news these days, and who invests in it?

The passivity here explains the absence of active mainstream right-wing intellectuals (I mean, name one…), and thus an amplification of the perceived liberal effect of the media. For maximum awful we could ensure that newspapers can’t afford to pay journalists properly, and draw on the noble truth that a think piece gets more clicks than actual reportage. This shadow cathedral (death star?) has been sitting quietly off to the right warping public perception and turning politics into an antagonistic us-vs-them affair.

And then hail King Trump?

Is Trump a king? Well he does try to act like one… the royal court, the favoured children, the droit de seigneurthe whole Louis XIV decor… and Moldbug does call for a CEO as king (he suggested Elon Musk).

But on the converse he’s actually not a very good CEO (by any reasonable measure), and he’s a bit – well – common. Aesthetics and decorum are a huge deal for the neo-reactionaries: they want nobles who are truly noble (with elegant, long, royal fingers…)

But he’s a placeholder. Now we’ve normalised the idea of CEO as global leader it’s easier to argue for a better CEO, using the intervening time and Trump’s love of being hated to remove democratic checks and balances as far as possible (maybe by securing power with the unelected administrators before the next guy abolishes them)

[We’re abolishing a lot of parliamentary checks and balances in the UK, incidentally.]

[And see also: Charlie Stross on the Russian angle]

So this is – as far as I can tell – the thread that links our three impossible activities together.

We are living through a Restoration.

[Further notes and resources: on Feuilleton]

51 thoughts on “It’s good to be king…”

  1. On the reddit threads they often refer to Trump as “God Emperor.”

    I love that you link to Charlie Stross (I hadn’t seen that piece yet.) He’s one of my fav writers and its amazing how he engages on social media. His dividing line was instructive:

    “By ‘we’, I mean folks who think that the Age of Enlightenment, the end of monarchism, and the evolution of Liberalism are good things. If you disagree with this, then kindly hold your breath until your head explodes.”

    He’s not wrong and his whole piece is a useful reframing of the issues into a bigger frame. But if history’s anything to go by, this “we” hasn’t been able to get it together en masse for a *long* time, if ever.

    To end on a cheery note – “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of state and corporate power.” – Benito Mussolini

    1. There’s a Moldbug post were he directly calls out Stross after the latter explored a corner of this stuff back in the day. Also some of the (non-Laundry, non-Halting State) Stross fiction explores a few of these issues… I keep telling people to read Neptune’s Brood, and you should if you feel you need a post-human political thriller about macro-economics and the history of accounting in your life.

  2. David, thanks for this. I’m working on a piece on this topic as well, that will take a slightly different perspective, but have to finish reading my Polanyi first.

    1. I really want to read what you come up with! The links between this stuff and the open ed/radical edtech movement are… chilling.

      1. I share the chill, especially now that I have followed you into some of these ‘radical’, ‘anti-establishment’ spaces. The question is how we differentiate left and right radicalism – and ensure they are differentiated in the mainstream media, which loves to equate them. I suggest we need to
        (a) Defend the institutions of the liberal democratic state. We can be critical but we can’t be equivocal at this point in history. That means not only defending universities, but institutions like an independent civil service (e.g. Office of Budget Responsibility) and the High Court (euch!), because if we end up with a populist authoritarian government we are going to need them. Reformists are floundering because they thought that winning the cultural arguments (left liberalism) and keeping the welfare state tottering on would be enough. Revolutionaries never thought this was going to be enough. We have an analysis of capitalism in crisis and how it needs to pay for the crisis – so we are actually better placed to defend the economic gains of reformism than the reformists are (and we must work with them).
        (b) Continue, as you are doing here, to trace the historical roots of reactionary ideas (neo or otherwise): whose interests have they served, how they have used the popular vote when they have managed to achieve it, what have the outcomes been for the poor, the unemployed, the left behind, the displaced? Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
        (c) Build connections between people’s local grievances and struggles, and a big picture critique of late capitalism. This isn’t easy and it needs organisations that have local roots as well as international links, that persist over time, that have an ongoing analysis and sense of history. I’ve been back in the Labour Party since the last election. Critically (and equivocally), but it’s better than twitter.

  3. Western democracy is failing. It will not recover in its current form where the mass of the population has been betrayed by the political, financial and media elites. We are at a point where a large part of society is focused on there own struggle for existence. This makes easy meat for the right who focus on “things to blame” (usually other struggling people). The left (I refuse to use the term “progressive” – at best a euphemism, at worst a milksop term) fails to effectively engage the strugglers because it insists on focusing on “big things” – “big things”, for example climate change, really do matter of course but to people struggling to find work, afford somewhere to live, get health treatment etc they are not the things that mobilise people. The one “big thing” to focus on is financial inequality – the manifestation of why our societies are failing – this gives the left both “things to blame” and (better) things to actually propose as solutions. I’m reminded of an old female US anarchist who said something along the lines of “never fool yourself that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth” – that is where we are getting to I’m afraid.

  4. Brilliant and absorbing. I’m still trying to engage with this a week after first reading it. You’re certainly right to look beyond Trump: he lacks the psychological robustness and ideological commitment to see any of this through, and we focus on his personal flaws at our peril. The people around, behind and after him will be terrifyingly more purposeful. We must take the advantage of the disarray that will follow when he proves less than fit for the task (which will be soon). I think you’re right to focus away from the incoherent rhetoric that people voted for – though we still have to address the many forms of exclusion and disillusionment that it spoke to – and look at the coherent ideology that is being constructed, and for which people’s anger is being exploited. I’ve taken a deep breath and followed you a little way into the swamp (Reddit – WTF happened there?) and yes, you’re right that the 1930s is too easy and close a historical parallel. We need to go further back. This piece about the counter-enlightenment (the Throne and the Altar) fills in some of the history between reactions to the French revolution, C20th nationalist fascism, and the current wave of Dark Enlightenment (another term the neo-reactionaries, neo-fascists and white supremacists like to use – and yes there are debates about the value of a pro-fascist or conciliatory monarch on their discussion lists). Given the conservative christianity that has accompanied many of these movements in the past, I’m interested that the current wave is so relatively so secular – the evangelical wing of the GOP were late and fairly reluctant to the Trump party. Why do you think this is?

    1. god knows (ha!) I’ve been wondering about the evangelical right recently – what’s happened to those guys? (at least partially the same diversity that has happened to most of the traditional right – but how *does* one square discipleship with Trumpism. So that’s something else that I now want to dig in to….

  5. @Mark, I completely agree that the centrist left has been too focused on the easy arguments. I agree that reformism (making things a little bit better within the current system) has run its course. But isn’t the whole point that we have to link the global crisis of capitalism with its local effects? I’ll give you a concrete example. Last month I was out campaigning as part of Labour’s education day of action. I spoke with lots of people who could see a local piece of the picture – the academisation of their kids’ school, the burden of student debt – and we talked about the wider causes. Today I was doing the same for the day of action on the NHS. I’ve just written a four-page submission on behalf of our local branch about the threatened closure of community hospitals. People are angry about this – they are seeing people they care about suffering. I spoke to several who I’d also seen the month before who said ‘it’s all part of the same thing isn’t it?’ And at that point we had the conversation about how capitalism needs to row back on all the concessions that were made after the second world war – basically on the welfare state – and how we can fight back.
    Capitalism bears down differently on working people in the UK and India and Brazil; it bears down differently on women; it bears down differently on refugees, teachers, the unemployed, the ‘just about managing’. Icecaps are melting and seas rising because of capitalism’s rapacious need for growth. Surely it’s up to us to create the connections, and build solidarity.

  6. @Helen. I don’t disagree re the global dimension and the need to understand it. My concern is the we on the left have a long history of trying to engage people in such discussions long before their own engagement has led them to question such things. We need to start with issues like how the tax avoided by the Duke if Westminster would single-handedly pay off the NHS deficit and how we would address such things before trying to put that into a global context. If people start feeling empowered by seeing results at a “local” level they will be more likely to make the connections with the larger situation. Success is depended on the mass of the people owning the movement for change. The far right is getting worryingly good at getting people to think they own the movement for change (even though no such thing is true of course)

    1. We are on the same page. The leftist parties need to get much more agile and much better at working together at all levels (our electoral system doesn’t help here). My worry is that there is less and less room for local victories, and if we wait for them to build a movement we may wait a long time. Where I live, the tendency is to the hyperlocal: get out of the money economy by growing your own food or investing in a community wind turbine, or buying shares in a community building project. For well-resourced communities these solutions can work, and they support our better instincts in a society of consumption and competition. But these are not solutions for the desperate and the left behind, and they are being held up by the current government as a reason for dismantling the ‘public’ services that genuinely redistribute opportunity.
      Our solutions have to be new ones: bringing back all the manufacturing jobs that have been outsourced is not a realistic goal. The workplace will never be the same again. Class will never be the same again. Things that unite the underprivileged, such as the welfare state, are being dismantled. If there is a group of people that can organise for genuine change it is probably young people (it was the old that voted for Brexit and Trump). Solutions that have come from the young in recent years: we are the 99 per cent; occupy; yes we can (podemos); another world is possible… Is there hope here?

      1. Our solutions have to be new ones: bringing back all the manufacturing jobs that have been outsourced is not a realistic goal.

        Reminds me – neo-reaction does often support ideas like the citizen’s income, oddly enough. But as a very sparsely worked out corner of corporate monarchical city states I hasten to add. Moldbug suggests it during a digression on “what to do with sociology professors”.

  7. Just a short anecdote to exemplify my last point. (I’m old remember). Back in the 70s I remember watching some workers coming out of the GEC factory (during the miners strike) and being drawn to a young man selling a left wing publication with a headline in support of the miners which the men approved of. Said young man tried to engage them in the “wider context”. The men walked off and I over heard them say “tedious little prat”….

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