Reflections on the neo-reactionaries.
It was 2004. I sat with my desk lamp reading Hannah Arendt and Hunter S. Thompson. Kerry went against Bush. And Kucinich against Kerry before that.
I realised that the United States and the Soviet Union were not so different. These were two revolutionary societies. The Soviets even copied elements of the US constitution, even though the words on that paper were meaningless in reality. The two nations were forged in reaction to the old aristocracies. They both worshipped Ford. Engineers came from the US to establish production lines in the USSR.
They were both anti-imperialist imperialists. They sent out their armies and advisors to transform the world. They wished to destroy the European empires. They would replace these empires with their own imperial structures.
They were both heirs to the Enlightenment project. They both had their own killing fields.
These ideas were an intimation of the thought system that was developed around 2008 by Mencius Moldbug, aka Curtis Yarvin. Yarvin is a computer scientist and sometime political theorist. He has come to prominence in recent years due to the rise of Trump, the neo-reactionary movement, and the alt-right. He is regarded as the chief theoretician of neo-reaction, and his blog Unqualified Reservations is the movement’s Gnostic Bible.
His basic thesis is that our Western societies are driven by a variety of Puritanism. It goes under many names: socialism, social democracy, liberalism, communism, progressivism, and post-modernism. It all amounts to the same idea in many different clothes – or stages of decay.
Ergo, America – homeland of the Puritans – is a communist country. She was the mother to the Soviet project. And she is fulfilling it still with her hybrid bureaucratic state-corporate structure, with its ideology of raising up the underprivileged on the basis first of class – and now sex and race.
This system beguiles us, partly because it presents itself as the eternal underdog. It has been, Yarvin contends, the overdog for many decades. It is only ideological necessity that makes it seem other than its true position.
This is not to say, my own megalomania not withstanding, that my thought somehow predates Yarvin. Many people before Darwin intuited that there was an evolutionary development in organisms.
But it was Darwin who had the thought, sailed the oceans collecting evidence, and then applied his behind to the task of writing an elegant theory.
It is only the same as the person who has ‘a brilliant idea that would make millions’ or ‘a plan for a bestselling novel’. Ideas are quite easy to come by. But finding a man who has the inclination to deal with the boredom, stress, and frustrations that go along with actually making a business or writing a novel is quite another matter.
Yarvin was the man with the idea and the inclination to elaborate on the idea. That he chose to do so at that moment perhaps indicates that many other people were thinking in the same direction. What they lacked was someone who would pull all the threads together and make a coherent worldview.
Yarvin is popular because he articulated in a cogent way what many people thought but could not say.
The year he began his blog, 2007–2008, was the year I concluded, heavily influenced by the philosopher John Gray, that there was no such thing as ‘progress’ in human affairs. It was another insight in keeping with Yarvin’s thought. And in keeping with aging into my mid-twenties.
If only I knew how many more disillusionments were to come.
Yarvin was perhaps, following Hegel and Thomas Carlyle, a man who embodied the zeitgeist.
There were millions awakening to this world historical moment. But only one man could substantiate it.
He did so, over hundreds of thousands of words, in style that is recognisably his own. Yarvin’s style might be termed ‘California samizdat’. He writes in a cautious, circumlocutory way that makes the reader think that he is being let into a great secret.
Perhaps California is more repressive, in the sense of social mores rather than laws, than I think, but much of what Yarvin wrote seemed to me to be common sense or widely known historical knowledge. Perhaps this is because I was educated in a conservative milieu and studied political theory. What seemed obvious and widely know to me may well amount to occult political knowledge in the tech circles of ultra liberal California.
There are indications this is so.
Read the work of John Dolan, aka ‘the War Nerd’, who relates life as an Irish straight male in 1980s Berkeley. He, amid ‘lesbian until graduation’ girls and with Jane’s Fighting Ships tucked under his arm, navigated a city of plenty slaved to a silky Maoism long on words but short on guerrilla warfare.
Does Yarvin’s project constitute a new fascism or Nazism? His critics say so. But they call almost everything fascist. If we mean fascist in the sense of the person who has a Hitler portrait over his bed and swastika bedsheets then the answer is ‘no’.
Yarvin is not a fascist or Nazi in the sense described above. But his thought is fascistic in the sense that he seeks to use the most up-to-date tools to institute a hierarchical order, somewhat based on biology.
The fascists and Nazis wished to do this with the technology of the 1920s and 1930s. They had no time for the discredited aristocratic hierarchies. They wished to build a hierarchy based on spirit, will, and contemporary technology. It is as the Italian Futurist Marinetti saw the world: a quest for speed and action. Their tools were the cinema, the radio, and the automobile.
Yarvin’s thought is not enraptured with the parachute, aeroplane, and aluminium. Those are yesterday’s technology. He is with the network, the Internet, and the blockchain. He seeks to rebuild the world of hierarchy on the foundations of post-modernism and information technology. It is the same quest continued in a new technological world. He mentions the possibility of DNA authenticated handguns at one point in his blog. This is his equivalent to the fascist romance of speed in the 1930s. The romance of DNA. The romance of Microsoft over FIAT. The Bay Area over Turin.
It is also, in a strange sense, the salvation of liberalism. Liberalism, real classical liberalism, whereby a rational, educated elite is legitimised by the populace was threatened by mass liberalism, socialism, and communism. We are ruled, on Yarvinian terms, by an imitation of classical liberalism. The only way back to a true liberalism is through authoritarian methods.
This, in turn, reflects the dark secret of fascism. Fascism is in many ways the state of emergency of classical liberalism. Lenin justified his system of politics as a state of emergency whereby the extra legal measures to achieve socialism would be used. Fascism attempted to save the elitist nature of classical liberalism through a mirror state of emergency to frustrated Leninism. There is always a strange liberal aspect in fascism.
Unqualified reservations indeed.
But the neo-reactionaries, those people who yearn for an age of kings, are somewhat stranded. Their traditions have been shattered. And their potential tech overlords at Google or Amazon are as likely to promote the pseudo-egalitarianism of the Puritans as a hierarchical order. But it is still to technology that Yarvin looks for salvation from the Puritan purity spiral that gifted us communism and political correctness.
The neo-reactionaries stand in the same relation to the past as Russian writers like Eduard Limonov and Alexander Dugin. These are people who are writing amid the shattered mirror of a revolutionary regime. They look back over their shoulder with coy admiration at the fallen Tsarist regime and the glory of the European monarchies.
They want to get back to the pre-Soviet period, but they cannot discard the Soviet times without discarding Russia. They cannot deny their own formation by the Soviet system.
They cannot fully embrace an admiration of the ancien regime. They are products of the modernist revolutionary period. All their traditions were smashed to atoms long ago. If they are Americans, they never had these traditions in the first place.
The neo-reactionary also knows that those regimes were flawed. Whatever glories those regimes produced were entangled with their fall. Carlyle, hero to the neo-reactionaries, saw the French Revolution as a form of rough justice upon the aristocrats who had failed to live up to their duties as a ruling class. This was not simply a matter of being lazy. The aristocrats cultivated, through patronage, an intellectual cadre that riled the mob against them.
The fault of the old elites gifted us our current system.
There is no simple way to go back. Those old political settlements were flawed and died. The reasons for this fall and decline have not changed.
Yarvin is, in this sense, typically American. He has the naive American sense that history can be changed. We may have new elites. His reactionary politics is neo-reactionary because it is infused with Silicon Valley optimism. This is, again, what makes it like fascism. The fascist is an optimist. He believes everything can be made over anew with a new hierarchy.
But the power of hierarchy and tradition cannot be invented in a generation. It reflects a slowly accreted evolutionary wisdom. Only those infused with the revolutionary spirit of the Enlightenment would think it is easy to start again. The6 are revolutionaries who do not know they are revolutionaries.
Gloomy old dogs, like Oswald Spengler, shake their heads. The effort to begin again, even through extraordinary technology, merely recapitulates the old mistakes in a new form. And so the fascists, Communists, neo-reactionaries are all alike in their silly utopianism.
There often seems to be a strong element of historical re-enactment in contemporary politics. I noticed this on the left years ago. So many people are like those middle-aged men who dress as Roundheads and Cavaliers on a weekend. They dress as Bolsheviks on the left and Nazis on the right. And the neo-reactionaries dress as courtiers to a long vanished European court. This tendency to ‘Live Action Roleplay’ has been noticed online. People sneer at a demonstration for featuring ‘too many LARPers’. We all LARP, in politics and life, to an extent, but our age of unreality allows the descendants of the republican Founding Fathers to LARP as aristocrats (never the lackey), and even for Donald Trump to LARP as president.
Pessimists, meanwhile, laugh with reactionary (nothing new about it) scorn at the vanities of our declining world.