Many of us yearn for a return to one golden age or another. But there’s a community of bloggers taking the idea to an extreme: they want to turn the dial way back to the days before the French Revolution.
Neoreactionaries believe that while technology and capitalism have advanced humanity over the past couple centuries, democracy has actually done more harm than good. They propose a return to old-fashioned gender roles, social order and monarchy.
You may have seen them crop-up on tech hangouts like Hacker News and Less Wrong, having cryptic conversations about “Moldbug” and “the Cathedral.” And though neoreactionaries aren’t exactly rampant in the tech industry, PayPal founder Peter Thiel has voiced similar ideas, and Pax Dickinson, the former CTO of Business Insider, says he’s been influenced by neoreactionary thought. It may be a small, minority world view, but it’s one that I think shines some light on the psyche of contemporary tech culture.
Enough has been written on neoreaction already to fill at least a couple of books, so if you prefer to go straight to the source, just pop a Modafinil and skip to the “Neoreaction Reading List” at the end of this post. For everyone else, I’ll do my best to summarize neoreactionary thought and why it might matter.
Who Are the Neoreactionaries?
“Reactionary” originally meant someone who opposed the French Revolution, and today the term generally refers to those who would like to return to some pre-existing state of affairs. Neoreaction — aka “dark enlightenment — begins with computer scientist and entrepreneur Curtis Yarvin, who blogs under the name Mencius Moldbug. Yarvin — the self-described Sith Lord of the movement — got his start as a commenter on sites like 2blowhards before starting his own blog Unqualified Reservations in 2007. Yarvin originally called his ideology “formalism,” but in 2010 libertarian blogger Arnold Kling referred to him as a “neo-reactionary.” The name stuck as more bloggers — such as Anomaly UK (who helped popularize the term), Nick Land (who coined “dark enlightenment”) and Michael Anissimov — started to self-identify as neoreactionary.
The movement has a few contemporary forerunners, such as Herman Hoppe and Steven Sailer, and of course, neoreaction is heavily influenced by older political thought — Thomas Carlyle and Julius Evola are particularly popular.
Perhaps the one thing uniting all neoreactionaries is a critique of modernity that centers on opposition to democracy in all its forms. Many are former libertarians who decided that freedom and democracy were incompatible.
“Demotist systems, that is, systems ruled by the ‘People,’ such as Democracy and Communism, are predictably less financially stable than aristocratic systems,” Anissimov writes. “On average, they undergo more recessions and hold more debt. They are more susceptible to market crashes. They waste more resources. Each dollar goes further towards improving standard of living for the average person in an aristocratic system than in a Democratic one.”
Exactly what sort of monarchy they’d prefer varies. Some want something closer to theocracy, while Yarvin proposes turning nation states into corporations with the king as chief executive officer and the aristocracy as shareholders.
For Yarvin, stability and order trump all. But critics like Scott Alexander think neoreactionaries overestimate the stability of monarchies — to put it mildly. Alexander recently published an anti-reactionary FAQ, a massive document examining and refuting the claims of neoreactionaries.
“To an observer from the medieval or Renaissance world of monarchies and empires, the stability of democracies would seem utterly supernatural,” he wrote. “Imagine telling Queen Elizabeth I – whom as we saw above suffered six rebellions just in her family’s two generations of rule up to that point – that Britain has been three hundred years without a non-colonial-related civil war. She would think either that you were putting her on, or that God Himself had sent a host of angels to personally maintain order.”
Yarvin proposes that countries should be small — city states, really — and that all they should compete for citizens. “If residents don’t like their government, they can and should move,” he writes. “The design is all ‘exit,’ no ‘voice.’”
That will probably sound familiar if you heard Balaji Srinivasan’s Y Combinator speech. Although several news stories described the talk as a call for Silicon Valley to secede from the union, Srinivasan told Tim Carmody that his speech has been misinterpreted. “I’m not a libertarian, don’t believe in secession, am a registered Democrat, etcetera etcetera,” he wrote. “This is really a talk that is more about emigration and exit.”
I don’t know Srinivasan, but it sounds like he’d find neoreactionary views repulsive. And exit is a concept that appeals to both the right and left. But there are others in the Valley pushing ideas much closer to the neoreaction. Patri Friedman, who co-founded the Seasteading Institute with Peter Thiel, specifically mentioned Yarvin’s blog in a reading list at the end of an essay for Cato Unbound, and Yarvin was scheduled to speak at the Seasteading Institute’s conference in 2009 before his appearance was canceled. Thiel, meanwhile, voiced a related opinion in his own article for Cato Unbound: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
Incidentally, Thiel’s Founders Fund is one of the investors in Srinivasan’s company Counsyl. The co-founder of Yarvin’s startup Tlon was one of the first recipients of the Thiel Fellowship. Anissimov was the media director of the Thiel-backed Machine Intelligence Institute (formerly known as the Singularity Institute). It’s enough to make a conspiracy theorist’s head spin, but I’m not actually suggesting that there’s a conspiracy here. I don’t think Peter Thiel is part of some neoreactionary master plot — I don’t even necessarily think he’s a neoreactionary. But you can see that a certain set of ideas are spreading through out the startup scene. Neoreactionary ideas overlap heavily with pickup artistry, seasteading and scientific racism (more on that later), and this larger “caveman cult” has an impact on tech culture, from work environments to the social atmosphere at conferences.
To be clear though, pure neoreaction is an extreme minority position that will probably never catch on beyond a tiny cult following. But there has been an explosion of interest since late 2012, despite the fact that Hoppe, Sailer, Yarvin and others have been writing about this stuff for years (and neoreaction’s European cousin archeofuturism has been around even longer). And this interest just happens to coincide with growing media attention being paid to the problems of the tech industry, from sexism in video games to “bro culture” in the tech industry to gentrification in the Bay Area.
And many professionals, rather than admit to their role in gentrification, wealth disparity and job displacement, are casting themselves as victims. This sense of persecution leads us to our next neoreactionary theme.
Neoreactionaries believe “The Cathedral,” is a meta-institution that consists largely of Harvard and other Ivy League schools, The New York Times and various civil servants. Anissimov calls it a “self-organizing consensus.” Sometimes the term is used synonymously with political correctness. The fundamental idea is that the Cathedral regulates our discussions enforces a set of norms as to what sorts of ideas are acceptable and how we view history — it controls the Overton window, in other words.
The name comes from Yarvin’s idea that progressivism (and in his view, even today’s far right Republicans are progressive) is a religion, and that the media-academic-civil service complex punishes “heretical” views.
So what exactly is the Cathedral stopping neoreactionaries from talking about? Well, the merits of monarchy for starters. But mostly, as far as I can tell, they want to be able to say stuff like “Asians, Jews and whites are smarter than blacks and Hispanics because genetics” without being called racist. Or at least be able to express such views without the negative consequences of being labeled racist.
Speaking of which, neoreactionaries are obsessed with a concept called “human biodiversity” (HBD) — what used to be called “scientific racism.” Specifically, they believe that IQ is one of — if not the — most important personal traits, and that it’s predominately genetic. Neoreactionaries would replace, or supplement, the “divine right” of kings and the aristocracy with the “genetic right” of elites.
To call these claims “controversial” would be putting it lightly, but they underpin much of anti-egalitarian and pro-traditionalist claims neoreactionaries make. Delving into the scientific debate over race, genetics and IQ is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ve included some links on the topic in the reading list.
It’s not hard to see why this ideology would catch-on with white male geeks. It tells them that they are the natural rulers of the world, but that they are simultaneously being oppressed by a secret religious order. And the more media attention is paid to workplace inequality, gentrification and the wealth gap, the more their bias is confirmed. And the more the neoreactionaries and techbros act out, the more the media heat they bring.
We don’t need more public shamings and firings — what we should want is for neoreactionaries to change their minds, not their jobs. As Jessica Valenti wrote for The Nation about the firing of John Derbyshire — a cause célèbre for — neoreaction: “After all, what’s more impactful—a singular racist like Derbyshire or Arizona’s immigration law? A column or voter suppression?”
I’m not sure what to do about it. It’s not like I think the media should ignore the tech industry’s misdeeds. But maybe recognizing that cycle is the first step towards fixing it.
Neoreaction reading list
Foundations of neoreaction:
Genetic Similarities Within and Between Human Populations by D.J. Witherspoon et al.
Correction An earlier version of this story accidentally misidentified Pax Dickinson as Pax Dickerson.
[Photo: Flickr/epSos .de]