Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Field Guide to Neoreactionaries

Mencius Moldbug (Curtis Guy Yarvin)

I somehow missed this year's spate of exposes of the gang of right-wing cranks known as 'neoreactionaries'. Here is a fine summary of their principal doctrines and figures written by Corey Pein at The Baffler. I had heard of their ring-leader, who blogs under the handle Mencius Modlbug (A.K.A. Curtis Guy Yarvin), but I did not grasp the underlying principles of their political philosophy, nor understand the breadth of their influence in Silicon Valley, until reading Pein's article.

The one thing Pein seems to get wrong is the relationship between libertarians and neoreactionaries. Pein portrays the two groups of cranks as peas in a pod. To me they seem more like the Cain and Abel of contemporary critiques of the democratic republican system of government. They do share an opposition to the common view that democratic majoritarianism is the most fundamental principle, or the view that democratic majoritarianism is in any case more fundamental than other principles such as those of liberty or utility. (I'm not really sure what the fundamental principles are for the neoreactionaries, or even if they have worked out their view that carefully yet.)

However, the libertarians are bigger defenders of the principle of equal liberty than are the neoreactionaries. This is actually a big deal. It means that the libertarians clearly oppose inequality under the law, and are thus consistent opponents of racism, sexism, and other forms of domination by an elite ruling class over the class of the ruled. The neoreactionaries embrace elitism, as they regard rule by knowledgeable elites as superior (producing better social outcomes) than rule by non-elites. Their view resembles Plato's belief that only the wise should rule, and that the wise are a special class of humans separated at birth from the inferior classes of warriors and commoners. Equal liberty is nowhere in sight in Plato's ideal Republic (Kallipolis), and so it seems incompatible with the political vision of the neoreactionaries.

This split between libertarians and neoreactonaries can be seen in Yarvin's admiration of the 19th century British writer and philosopher Thomas Carlysle. Carlysle had an elitist view of history, noting and celebrating the outsized influence of the "Great Man" in history, and also penned an infamous tract in defense of black slavery ("Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question"). Libertarians, by contrast, are intellectual heirs of Carlysle's great opponent in debate, John Stuart Mill. Mill wrote an early, powerful, and influential critique of sexism (The Subjection of Women), and was generally an opponent of racism and classism as well, despite his occasional bone-headed lapses (for example: see his off-hand remark defending imperial rule over "barbarian" nations at the beginning of On Liberty, despite the fact that this is clearly inconsistent with what he argues for in the rest of the work).

So, even though it's true that the contemporary Silicon Valley tech elite seem to disproportionately fall for both libertarian and neoreactionary ideology, this does not really show that the two are somehow very similar in terms of their underlying principles. I mentioned their shared opposition to the principle of democratic majoritarianism, but even in this they show important differences. Many libertarians, perhaps most, support democratic majoritarianism as a system of government; they simply attempt to persuade the majority and those in power to support more libertarian political positions. And when libertarians criticize democratic majoritarianism for leading to bad outcomes, the criticism is not predicated upon the distinction between a wise elite and a foolish underclass. The neoreactionaties, by contrast, are generally opposed to democratic majoritarianism in principle, and the principle in question is that of Plato's 'aristocracy' or rule by the best.
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