(Ed. Note: A version of this piece was originally published on Susannah Black’s blog Radio Free Thulcandra.)
This post is dedicated, with love, to my enemies.
Creator Chose Not to Use Archive Warnings, Moldbug/Calloway, Mencius Moldbug|Curtis Yarvin (Neoreaction/California), Caroline Calloway (Instagram/Cambridge), Dasha Nekrasova, Anna Khachiyan, Tara Isabella Burton, Mecha|John Garry (Twitter/NYC), Tom Z., Mary S., Ramona T. Susannah B., Pater Edmund Waldstein, Marianne Williamson, Eugene McCarraher, William F. Buckley, Jr., Rod Dreher, Matthew Peterson, John Locke, Niccolò Machiavelli, Adrian Vermeule, David Hume, René Descartes, Bronze Age Pervert, Κρέων|Creon, Nature|Φύσις|Natura, Plough Quarterly, The American Mind, National Review, Postliberal Thought,Postliberal Thots,Red Scare, Passing reference to substance abuse, Major character death (and rebirth), Alternate Universe-Canon Divergence, It’s your headcanon now baby, Sorry not sorry
It’s not just me. Others have noticed this too. Over the past several months, real life has begun increasingly to resemble some sort of bizarre crossover story. Characters from different political fandoms have begun showing up at each others’ events, drinking each other’ cocktails, finding freakish commonalities, disagreeing in new and unexpected ways. If this is political realignment, it looks a lot less like Nixon’s Southern Strategy and a lot more like one of those 40K word multi-chapter fics where Irene Adler and Dracula team up to fight H.G. Wells, who is the head of a Victorian instantiation of the Ministry of Magic, in which Beatrice Webb has what would later be Dolores Umbridge’s job.
We’ve gone quite a bit further down the rabbit hole this past weekend. Let me tell you what’s been happening– well, let me tell you some of it.
(For Part 1 of this entente cordiale between the dirtbag left and the NYC postliberal Christians, see Anna and Dasha’s interview with Mecha here; for Part 2, here’s Dasha at the Plough Beyond Capitalism issue launch at KGB Bar a couple of weeks ago, asking Gene McCarraher what he thinks of Marianne Williamson, and Gene copping to being, himself, moved by our neoplatonist white witch politician; I told Dasha afterwards that I thought that Marianne had by far the best political theology of anyone in the Dem debates, and I stand by that.)
Also here is a pic of me and Mecha at that same event; he really does look more like Balzac with every day that passes:
That, however, was a couple of weeks ago and not what I am writing about here. I’m writing about the live show last Sunday. The ladies were, as always, delightful; the first part of the podcast was a blast.
Anna: “Can we talk about how these impeachment proceedings are a continuation of Russiagate? They’re clearly trying to draw the Slavic Connection.”
Dasha: “Apparently there’s something called ‘venture capital.’ And it’s no good!”
Also, I bought a t-shirt! To support the show, go here; for merch, I guess maybe ask Dasha? Idk.
OK I will say one thing: given the quantity of amphetamines that William F. Buckley apparently took to fuel his own instagram-influencer-esque political trajectory, it’s not clear to me why an adderall addiction is a scandal? A terrible thing which will screw you up and in some cases lead to fusionism and endless wars in the Middle East, sure, but a scandal? And as far as I know, Buckley wrote all his own content, and did not behave badly towards the NR staff.
Let me say some things for a second about Tara’s novel, which you can buy here: It’s a novel about the moral world that we actually live in, the one where virtue ethics is real, and where being and goodness are conversible: whatever is real, whatever is solid, whatever is itself, is to that degree participating in the good. It’s a novel where it’s actually the case that only by growing in virtue – Homeric and Thomistic both – can we actually become ourselves. It’s a novel about what happens when you make many repeated choices to not do that, but to live a Fabulous Instagram Life instead. You will also note that “Social Creature” is a perfectly adequate translation of ζῷον πoλιτικόν.
We tried to go to the afterparty at Ginger’s but it was too loud to do the therapy levels of emotional and intellectual processing required after the show. But as we were leaving, a nameless friend messaged me something very interesting. I yelped, and showed the message to Mecha.
You live in a world where Matthew Peterson has published Moldbug in The American Mind. I’m gonna call this turn of events Renewing the American Idea: The Afterparty. It’s not Harry Jaffa’s Claremont anymore, sweetie.
Go read it. It’s interesting. And it’s entertaining, though not quite as entertaining as the writing of Bronze Age Pervert, who I assume will appear, himself (as opposed to by proxy) in the pages of the Claremont Review of Books shortly. It’s not different than what he had laid out repeatedly in the ur-Neoreactionary blog Unqualified Assumptions. The vision of the world he presents is one that’s purely apolitical.
Man, for Curtis Yarvin, is not by nature a social creature, a zoon politikon. The world, he believes, is not one where virtue ethics are real, where they work: not even Homeric virtue ethics. It’s not the case that we have a telos which we might reach if we choose the good, if we come to have the taste for reality, the desire for our own joy, that is what it means to choose the good. It’s not the case that we might miss that telos by, for example, desiring and choosing something less than our good: the life of an Instagram-influencer grifter who does not write her own captions, or the life of a Silicon Valley IQ-ist blogger.
There is no such thing as politics, in the sense of the rule of men. There is no rule of men. There is only the administration of things: the administration of men as things. His vision—amazingly—turns out in some ways to not be very different from that of that vacuous proto-Progressive, Enjolras:
Courage, and forward! Citizens, whither are we going? To science made government, to the strength of things converted into the sole public strength… Citizens, the ninteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Then there will be nothing left resembling ancient history, there will be no cause to fear, as at the present day, a conquest, an invasion, usurpation, an armed rivalry of nations, an interruption of civilization depending on a marriage of kings, a birth in hereditary tyrannies, a division of peoples by Congress, a dismemberment by the collapse of dynasties, a combat of two religions, clashing, like two goats of the darkness, on the bridge of infinity; there will be no cause longer to fear famine, exhaustion, prostitution through destiny, misery through stoppage of work, and the scaffold, and the sword, and battles, and all the brigandage of accident in the forest of events; we might almost say there will be no more events, we shall be happy…
Fire Congress. End politics. End history. Start up a nice sustainable shareholder regime. Turn over the running of society, on a permanent basis, to a management team: they’re your new aristocracy, and they’ll give you heathcare and soylent. Who needs viscounts when you can have venture capitalists? It’ll be a relief. Everybody have a party. The Nineteenth century was great; the Twenty-first will be … nice. Peaceful, if by that you mean pacified. Orderly.
I mean, sure, if that’s what you’re into. Me, I’d rather make America great.
Moldbug believes himself, perhaps, to be an anti-liberal. He is no such thing. He wants order. He wants an end to conflict. But as long as order is in place, he does not have any opinion about the end towards which this “peace” is aimed. He is perfectly, blandly, neutral.
His primary influences (at least here, in his methodological prolegomena) are Hume and Descartes: he leans heavily on the Humean is/ought distinction (at least when he’s criticizing others), and methodologically he is Cartesian: apply universal doubt to all political stories that you are told, both in political philosophy and in political history. This universal doubt is the Clear Pill of the title. What it will (spoilers) reveal to you is that all political arguments, all claims about the common good or about justice, are just… stage magic.
What, then, does he think is the reality, behind the stage magic? It’s not difficult to spot. He uses the same word that we do, though he means something different by it.
“Today’s voters,” he wrote,
do not know how to manage the state, any more than Elizabeth II knows how to boss Whitehall. They may want to land at the right airport. They have no idea how to fly the plane.
That’s okay: they have no idea how to take over the plane.
Nature has joined weakness and servility at the hip. The weak, she has decreed, may only appear to reign. They can neither take nor hold power; they have never ruled and never will. Wherever a child-monarch reigns, someone else rules.
Nature, for Yarvin as for us, is the thing behind the stage magic. She is the one who rules him. She is his sovereign.
We would of course concur that she is the thing behind the stage magic. We would simply say that, though he knows her, he does not know all of her; he is missing a good deal of her biography.
She’s not just the thing behind the stage magic which debunks it. She is the real magic.
And she is not our sovereign: she is, herself, ruled by another. The equivocation that allowed Jefferson to hand-wavingly speak of “Nature and Nature’s God, who can say really, same-same,” the God of Abraham came down on fairly savagely, as I recall. “I made her,” he told us (I’m paraphrasing). “She’s mine. She bears the imprint of my character, as you do. You are part of her. You will not worship her.”
The three “stories” that Yarvin is planning to address (and debunk)– the three noble lies and pieces of political magicianship which he thinks constitute the three available political options—are progressivism, constitutionalism, and fascism. By constitutionalism, I assume he means old-school Americanism, some form of Lockeanism, with a commitment to the idea of the social contract, to natural rights in the modern sense, and just rule as alienated self-sovereignty. If that is what he means, then it is striking that in his list of the three possible political “stories,” he does not include the Western political tradition as it had been understood until, say, 1513, when a friend of his was imprisoned, tortured, and sent into exile on his family’s property in San Casciano just outside of Florence.
Exponents of that older tradition would, of course, agree entirely with Moldbug’s assessment of the make-believe nature of claims about alienated self-sovereignty, and with the idea that it is nonsense to claim that the demos is sovereign in the United States. They would agree too that it is not the case that they should be. But what they would mean by nature would be otherwise quite—not entirely—different.
Yarvin’s natural law is gnon, the NRx inverted acronym for Jefferson’s tagline: among other things it is the right of the stronger. There is, for him, here at least no Humean guillotine: the strong do rule, and so they should. Here, I made a thing for you all; enjoy; make it the background of your phone:
This is of course not what we mean by natural law. At all.
Gnon, popularized a couple of years ago on sites like Social Matter, was an invention of the last decade; many of its supporters conflate what they are talking about is what, say, pre-Lockeans meant by natural law—natural law without all that natural rights nonsense, natural law that takes what is as normative—understanding what is in a very particular way, which unfortunately brackets out a lot of what, you know, actually is. Gnon posits that “there are certain immutable laws of human sociability based on hereditary factors—these days almost entirely expressed in terms of evolutionary psychology—which, once violated, must inevitably trigger a civilizational downward spiral.” The sexual revolution, they’d posit, is one of these violations. Racial diversity is another.
Recently, the brilliant and eccentric reactosphere commentator Carlsbad wrote a brief post explaining (well, beginning to explain) why this is not what the actual tradition means by natural law.
The underlying fallacy of this approach is closely related to how the average person uses the word “nature.” In short, the term is inherently loaded in favor of primitivism. Man’s nature is held to be his nutritive or vegetative soul, the lowest in the Platonic triad of the human soul. This is simply wrong. Boethius defines the human person as an individual substance of a rational nature, and what is properly man’s nature is the rational soul, the capability by which he can grasp the underlying forms of things.
Indeed, Francisco Suarez… notes that natural law emerges not only from God as first efficient cause but also as an actively proscribing lawgiver, nonetheless the prohibition or precept is not the whole reason for the goodness or badness found in obeying or transgressing the natural law. Free moral agents can deduce them.
Nature is not static, it is something that must be cultivated and perfected… If man is governed by certain moral laws and possesses ontological moral freedom, the ability to choose good or evil, then there exist several pathways to development, and if there is development then it follows there is evolution in the orthogenetic and teleological sense.
This perfectionism would seem to be alien to any aspect of Neoreaction. For readers in that tradition, let me point out that here, at least, Nietzsche is on our side, and not on yours: “Become who you are,” he says. That’s a teleological imperative. And that appetite for one’s own telos is one of many appetites, one of many commands of Nature, that Yarvin seems not to know what to do with, or not to believe will be satisfied.
The appetites he knows are those for mastery, and for the smashing of idols. Those are good, they’re real. But for him, they pull in different directions. He punctures false pieties– and so he should. But he suspects that he will be left with nothing, no “true story.” There is no true piety, no nobility as it was understood, no worthwhile goals, no political good. This is where you get—he thinks—after he’s applied his universal solvent. Shake off your programming and you will be left with nothing—no real story, no real political good. And, as he says, “Absence of political conviction implies abstinence not only from political action, but ideally even from political desire—the thymos of the ancient Greeks.”
He doesn’t say that one must stay there—but he thinks that this is, on some level, reality. There is no good to which the will ought to correspond. There is only will. Moldbug is, in fact, the perfect lib.
On Not Throwing Away Your Shot
Political desire as it was classically understood is not just will, not just drive, but worthwhile drive. It is, in part, the desire to make a mark, to make a difference—the way our ancestors would have put it, is that it is related to your commitment to your own honor. That means that it can’t be something unlinked from an end. It’s called from within you by an object that’s intrinsically desirable. In this way it is not different, of course, than eros.
How much do you value yourself? How much do you value your blood? Would you risk your life, stand back to back with friends to win the world, for the sake of … more efficient last-mile transportation for mascara? With nothing worthwhile to desire, honor dies. Thumos withers. And with no thumos, there can be no real mastery.
The only alternative then is living for momentary distraction or low pleasure, satisfied with “peace” that’s actually just a lack of street violence. But this is a half-human life, this living for the moment. And, as one of your own poets has said,
Scratch that This is not a moment, it’s the movement Where all the hungriest brothers with Something to prove went Foes oppose us– we take an honest stand We roll like Moses, claiming our promised land I’m past patiently waiting I’m passionately smashing every expectation Every action’s an act of creation I’m laughing in the face of casualties and sorrow For the first time I’m thinking past tomorrow–
This is the spirit that conquers. This is the spirit that knows how to love. This is the spirit that’s willing to suffer present pain for the sake of a higher good, a higher joy. Denying this spirit is perhaps the primary weakness of liberalism, including Moldbug’s liberalism. Much of the current disgust with the political conversation is, Adrian Vermeule writes,
a deep human revulsion at this muffled, perpetually repressed, and indirect anti-political politics. One cannot perpetually stand at a remove from the substance of our common life, pursuing a shadowy half-life of consumerism in the commercial Market while seeing the civic Forum through a glass darkly. Human nature wearies, sickens, and eventually rebels. The Second Vatican Council speaks of man’s restless desire to “live fully according to truth.” It seems to increasing numbers of people that living fully means living according to the truth not only in the family and local community and marketplace, but in the polity. Liberalism, in its myopia, has left this out of its calculations, and as a result the liberal order is not ultimately compatible with the deepest desires and beliefs of its subjects. The Achilles’ heel of liberalism is this hunger for the real as expressed in politics, the hunger to come to grips with the substance of the common good.
Moldbug’s liberalism is a subset of this broader liberalism. The strong do as they will; the weak suffer what they must. And that shall be the whole of the law.
But if that is the whole of the law– if one excellence, the ability to command the obedience of others, is the only one that is recognized– all other excellences fall by the wayside. To put it differently,
Your edict, king, was strong But all your strength is weakness itself against The immortal and unchanging laws of God They are not merely now: they were, and shall be, Operative forever, beyond man utterly.
Without that good-beyond-us, there is no excellence other than that one, no justice. For all his gestures towards hierarchy, it is a leveling instinct. Every will is the same as every other; there is no well-tuned or well-ordered will. He refuses to pursue “substantive excellence and justice,” the substantive common good that is the only worthy object of our political passion. There is no food to correspond to our ravening hunger for the good. There is no beauty which, imperiously, commands our desire. As is the case in all forms of liberalism, for Yarvin, there is no such thing as a good will, a will aimed in the right direction, because there is nothing that is intrinsically desirable.
His new aristocracy, however many others they may command through technical means or pandering or, if absolutely necessary, the deployment of mercenary police (because of course in his society there would be no such thing as public servants, only shareholders, employees, and clients/dependents/slaves), are the subjects of whatever they happen to want. It is an aristocracy of slaves. And what mastery it has is a mockery of the real thing, because the real thing is not and cannot be divorced from the ruler’s own self-command towards his own telos, and from his ability to command his subjects towards their own true natures, their own teloi.
Deny this, deny the raging appetite to fight and, if necessary, spend yourself fighting for the political common good and true justice, and you deny nature: your own nature, human nature, and the violin-strings of moral order that run between men and that run upwards, too, into a sky that is not empty.
And Yarvin is right about one thing: Nature will not be denied. She will always, always bite back.
Well, maybe he will get around to addressing the Western political tradition later, who can say? Moldbug’s back, with a brand new look for Fall 2019, and his Instagram captions will rock your world. And I promise you, he writes all his own content.
Rod Dreher ghost wrote this blog post, but it’s all aboveboard; he has a contract to do so, and gets 35% of my gross; the arrangement we have is that I swan around NYC in fantastic clothes and he writes my stuff.*
Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.