Behind the Internet's Anti-Democracy Movement
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is reportedly a reader of neoreactionary political theory. A tour through the pro-authoritarian philosophy gaining visibility on the right.
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has been in contact via intermediaries with Curtis Yarvin, Politico Magazine reported this week. Yarvin, a software engineer and blogger, writes under the name Mencius Moldbug. His anti-egalitarian arguments have formed the basis for a movement called “neoreaction.”
The main thrust of Yarvin’s thinking is that democracy is a bust; rule by the people doesn’t work, and doesn’t lead to good governance. He has described it as an “ineffective and destructive” form of government, which he associates with “war, tyranny, destruction and poverty.” Yarvin’s ideas, along with those of the English philosopher Nick Land, have provided a structure of political theory for parts of the white-nationalist movement calling itself the alt-right. The alt-right can be seen as a political movement; neoreaction, which adherents refer to as NRx, is a philosophy. At the core of that philosophy is a rejection of democracy and an embrace of autocratic rule.
The fact that Bannon reportedly reads and has been in contact with Yarvin is another sign of the extent to which the Trump era has brought previously fringe right-wing ideologies into the spotlight. It has brought new energy into a right that is questioning and actively trying to dismantle existing orthodoxies—even ones as foundational as democracy. The alt-right, at this point, is well-known, while NRx has remained obscure. But with one of the top people in the White House paying attention, it seems unlikely to remain obscure for long.
Yarvin’s posts on history, race, and governance are written in a style that is detached and edgy, to say the least. “What's so bad about the Nazis?” he asked in a blog post in 2008, writing, “we are taught that the Nazis were bad because they committed mass murder, to wit, the Holocaust. On the other hand... (a): none of the parties fighting against the Nazis, including us, seems to have given much of a damn about the Jews or the Holocaust. (b): one of the parties on our side was the Soviet Union, whose record of mass murder was known at the time and was at least as awful as the Nazis'.”
“It should be obvious that, although I am not a white nationalist, I am not exactly allergic to the stuff,” Yarvin wrote in 2007. In a 2009 post about the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s defense of slavery, he argued that some races are more suited to slavery than others.
Yarvin’s blog has been mostly inactive since 2014. He now is focusing on a startup, Urbit, whose investors reportedly include Paypal co-founder and Trump backer Peter Thiel. (Thiel has himself questioned some of the fundamentals of American politics, writing in 2009, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”)
For a group of people whose writings tend towards the verbose, neoreactionaries don’t show much interest in talking to reporters. Yarvin declined to cooperate when I reached out to ask about his alleged contact with Bannon, instead choosing to try to troll me into believing a Twitter user called @BronzeAgePerv is his contact with the White House.
“Think you should speak directly to my WH cutout / cell leader,” Yarvin said in an email. “I've never met him and don't know his identity, we just DM on Twitter. He's said to be ‘very close’ to Bannon. There are several levels, but most people just start out with his public persona.” @BronzeAgePerv’s avatar is of a muscular, shirtless man and his account’s biography reads: “Steppe barbarian. Nationalist, Fascist, Nudist Bodybuilder! Purification of world. Revolt of the damned. Destruction of the cities!”
“I know nothing about BAP personally, except that he lifts. DM him. He may not give you any info but he always responds,” Yarvin said. “Apparently there's a big underground movement of right-wing bodybuilders -- thousands. Their plan is to surface spectacularly this April, in a choreographed flash demo on the Mall. They'll be totally nude, but wearing MAGA hats. Goal is to intimidate Congress with pure masculine show of youth, energy. Trump is said to know, will coordinate with powerful EOs…” Yarvin denied to Vox that he has been in any contact with Bannon.
“Appreciate the message,” came the response from the Hestia Society, which is one of the newer NRx hubs. “Unfortunately, we prefer not to do interviews. Neoreaction.net might have more of what you're looking for.”
“Thanks for the email,” wrote Hadley Bishop, the editor of Social Matter, another node of NRx online thinking. “Social Matter does not give interviews. We’ve said everything we would like to say at neoreaction.net.”
“No,” said Nick Steves, the pseudonym used by one NRxer well-known within the movement. “It will only lend false credence to the misleading facts and outright errors you will inevitably print irrespective of my involvement.”
Asked what he thought I would print, Steves explained that “115 IQ people are not generally well equipped to summarize 160 IQ people” and that only one journalist, Vox’s Dylan Matthews, had “come close to permitting NRx to speak for itself.”
“You DO understand that, by the NRx view, journos occupy a major seat of power, viz. manufacturers of consent, in the current structure,” Steves said. “Thus you see why you are the enemy. No hard feelings of course. I'm sure you're a very nice person. But politics is war by other means, and war is, by definition, existential.” (Steves has written a “code of conduct” for neoreactionaries that includes the rule, “Don’t talk to the press about Neoreaction.”)
So, on to neoreaction.net, which states up front that “Neoreaction is a political worldview and intellectual movement based largely on the ideas of Mencius Moldbug.”
The worldview espouses an explicitly authoritarian idea, a rejection of the post-Enlightenment vision of a world that is continually improving as it becomes more democratic. Per the website’s authors:
The core of our problem is that there is no one with the secure authority to fix things. The core of our solution is to find a man, and put him in charge, with a real chain of command, and a clear ownership structure.
Real leadership would undertake a proper corporate restructuring of USG: Pardon and retire all employees of the old regime; formalize obligations as simple financial instruments; nationalize and restructure the banks, media, and universities; and begin the long slow process of organic cultural recovery from centuries of dysfunction.
Who will be the leaders? Well:
The only viable path to restoration of competent government is the simple and hard way:
Neoreaction’s touchstones include the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, a key progenitor of the “Great Man” theory of history; the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, a central influence on the American libertarian movement; and Bertrand de Jouvenel, a 1930s-era French political theorist.
Neoreaction is an ideology obsessed with both the mechanics of power and autocratic governance, and with aesthetics. Some neoreactionaries have a Tumblr devoted to their aesthetic vision, called Post-Anathema. The images tend to be futurist and hyper-masculine; soldiers with guns, tanks, spaceships, Greek gods. Cathedrals, too, a seeming reference to the Catholic traditionalist strain of the movement (“CRx”) and which, intentionally or not, calls to mind Moldbug’s use of “the Cathedral” to denote the elite academic and media establishment.
If it’s a little in the weeds compared to the by-now-familiar alt-right aesthetic—Pepe the frog, fashy haircuts, and the like—that’s on purpose. Neoreaction is explicitly and purposefully opaque, and has no interest in appealing to a wider audience. This puts it at odds with some of the alt-right or “new right” leaders who seek to take their ideas mainstream.
“NRx was a prophetic warning about the rise of the Alt-Right,” said Nick Land, the English philosopher whose Dark Enlightenment series is considered a foundational neoreactionary text. “As a populist, and in significant ways anti-capitalist movement, the Alt-Right is a very different beast to NRx.”
“The Alt-Right, I guess, is a 'movement'––NRx isn't,” Land said in an email when asked about how influential NRx is at this point. “As far as influence is concerned, it's still probably a little early to tell. I think it's fair to say that early signs are surprisingly NRx-positive. That's to say, the libertarian themes of the administration (de-regulation, appointments that "question the very existence of their own departments ...) are far stronger than might have been expected from the Trump election platform. Also, Steven [sic] Bannon is looking far less of an Alt-Right sympathizer than had been suggested (‘Judeao-Christian’ is a term that gives them the hives, even if his defense of Capitalism is far more hedged than NRx ex-libertarian types would see as ideal).”
Land says Bannon has never reached out to him. “I have no reason to think he is familiar with my work.”
Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, a site which under his tenure wrote indignantly about Yarvin being barred from a programming conference, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Of course, his reported contact with Moldbug isn’t the only sign of his radical vision; in public statements over the years, he has described a view of a world undergoing nothing less than a clash of civilizations, featuring a struggle between globalism and a downtrodden working class as well as between the Islamic and Western worlds.
The hiring of Michael Anton, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, to serve on the National Security Council staff is another indicator of this White House’s openness to decidedly non-traditional ideas on the right. Anton was recently revealed by The Weekly Standard as the writer behind Publius Decius Mus, the pseudonym Anton used for a widely circulated essay in September titled “The Flight 93 Election.”
In “The Flight 93 Election,” Anton compared the American voter’s choice in November 2016 to that of the passengers on Flight 93 on September 11. “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die,” Anton began. “You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.” The essay is a bracing middle finger to conservatism, written with verve, and it inspired a critique on the NRx site Social Matter by the pseudonymous writer PT Carlo, who liked the essay except for one thing. “The only problem with Decius’ radical and brilliant analysis isn’t that its assessment of the situation is incorrect, but that its prescriptions aren’t nearly radical enough,” Carlo wrote. (The reaction among movement conservatives was much less enthusiastic. “Grotesquely irresponsible,” wrote National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. “A shoddy straw man,” offered Ben Shapiro.)
Anton, before his unmasking, was identified by The New Yorker as one of the intellectual architects of Trumpism; The Huffington Post on Wednesday highlighted some of his more controversial writings, such as a defense of Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee as “unfairly maligned” and an assertion that “Islam and the modern West are incompatible.” Anton has also argued that diversity is “a source of weakness, tension and disunion.”
In a way, it is Moldbug who presaged Trump more than anyone else, in his writings defining his “neo-cameralist” philosophy based on Frederick the Great of Prussia’s “cameralist” administrative model. In 2007, Moldbug outlined a kind of corporation-state being run as a business: “To a neocameralist, a state is a business which owns a country. A state should be managed, like any other large business, by dividing logical ownership into negotiable shares, each of which yields a precise fraction of the state's profit. (A well-run state is very profitable.) Each share has one vote, and the shareholders elect a board, which hires and fires managers.” Moldbug even envisioned a kind of CEO at the top: “The personality cult of dictatorship is quite misleading - a totalitarian dictator has little in common with a neocameralist CEO, or even a cameralist monarch.”
In Moldbug’s absence, new NRx nodes have sprung up: Hestia, Social Matter, and Thermidor. The post-Moldbug neoreactionaries still draw on his foundational writings, but the movement is morphing and splintering, and characterized by a conflict between nationalists and “techno-commercialists.” There is, as well, a history of mutual distrust between some alt-right and NRx figures.
“NRx doesn't think the Alt-Right (in America) is very serious. It's an essentially Anti-Anglo-American philosophy, in its (Duginist) core, which puts a firm ceiling on its potential,” Land said. “But then, the NRx analysis is that the age of the masses is virtually over. Riled-up populist movements are part of what is passing, rather than of what is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.” (By “Duginist,” Land was referring to the ideas of the controversial Russian political scientist Aleksandr Dugin.)
Through a friend, I connected with @kantbot2000, a NRx-connected tweeter who was willing to talk over Twitter direct message. (Kant as in Immanuel.)
Kantbot complained that NRx is dead. “Visit the social matter forums, its an inactive scene,” he said.
“The European New Right stuff that [Alt-Right leader Richard] Spencer peddles is secondary to the impulse given to the altright by Moldbug and the other [techno-commercialists],” Kantbot wrote. “That impulse stresses good governance over ideological consideration. Good governance perhaps consisting of the dismantling of progressive institutions.”
“Moldbug is still very active,” Kantbot said. “More so than he lets on.” Kantbot said Moldbug is “reading comments, lurking.”
Under his real name, Yarvin did a Reddit AMA last year about his start-up Urbit, and addressed his Moldbug writings.
“It's actually quite possible to recognize that human population genetics has a lot of impact on politics and history, and also recognize that human population genetics has nothing at all to do with your individual, personal and professional human relationships. Nor does politics,” Yarvin wrote. He added that he has lots of progressive friends.
“Would anyone care about the 2016 election if Trump weren't running?” Yarvin wrote. “And Trump is a throwback from the past, not an omen of the future. The future is grey anonymous bureaucrats, more Brezhnev every year.”
Kantbot began as an atheist Democrat, he said, but grew disillusioned.
“The only thing outside of that space is conservatism and right-wing movements,” he said. “People like moldbug are going beyond that though, opening up possibilities of new cultural spaces that break out of that stagnant pattern, that can synthesize both progressive and conservative views in new ways.”
Kantbot warned that I might also be tempted by “the forbidden fruit” of these ideas. “Be careful or you too may be tempted to walk down the dark path of the altright,” he wrote. “This is what thousands of people are taking to the streets to protest. This is the dark intellectual center.”