Neoreaction a Basilisk: Excerpt One

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In preparation for the May launch of our Kickstarter for it, we're running excerpts of Neoreaction a Basilisk. This is from quite early in the book while I'm introducing my three main characters of Eliezer Yudkowsky, Mencius Moldbug, and Nick Land.

And yet at every turn in Moldbug’s argument, Marxism seems to lurk, indeed, haunt the text. Every argument he makes about the Cathedral’s insidious suppression of the obviously preferable alternative has, to an even vaguely Marxist-familiar reader, an immediate counterpart pointing inexorably to the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is tempting to suggest that Moldbug is a failed Marxist in the sense that Jupiter is a failed star, its mass falling tantalizingly short of the tipping point whereby nuclear fusion begins. Over and over again, Moldbug asks questions much like those that Marx asked, and his answers begin with many of the same initial observations. But inevitably, a few steps in, he makes some ridiculously broad generalization or fails to consider some obvious alternative possibility, and the train of thought fizzles into characteristic idiocy.

The most obvious symptom of this is how rarely Moldbug actually takes a swing at Marx himself, despite the fact that he’s self-evidently the biggest single villain of his philosophical system. It’s not a pattern that’s quite noticeable on the paragraph-to-paragraph level; it’s just that when you do searches on his blog you discover that in the more than one million words he published as Mencius Moldbug he’s mentioned Marx a mere hundred-and-thirteen, and that’s including his uses of “Marxism” as a generic term of derision. And none of them constitute anything like an extended engagement with Marx’s thought. Sure, you can argue that this isn’t so much an oversight as a demonstration of contempt, but the fact remains - there’s a confrontation that’s obviously waiting to happen that Moldbug endlessly deferred. (Hitler, by comparison, makes four hundred and sixty-nine appearances.)

Indeed, at one point late in his blogging career he proclaimed (not for the first time) that he was finally going to offer the red pill in a compact form before dramatically unfurling the statement “America is a communist country.” He even reduces it to an acronym. “AIACC can be interpreted in countless ways,” he proclaims. “All of these interpretations - unless concocted as an intentional, obviously idiotic strawman - are absolutely true. Sometimes they are obviously true, sometimes surprisingly true. They are always true. Because America is a communist country.” And then, as you’d expect, he begins to go through various interpretations to show how they are either obviously idiotic or true. And yet there is one interpretation that, astonishingly, never seems to occur to him: “America is in some meaningful fashion run according to the philosophical principles of Karl Marx.” In fact, literally none of the hundred-and-thirteen uses of the word Marx appear in the essay in question, “Technology, communism, and the Brown Scare.”

Moldbug posted five more times on Unqualified Reservations after that essay, and then retired the pen name. These days, he dissociates from it actively, to the point of penning an essay under the name Curtis Yarvin in which he proclaims that he is not Mencius Moldbug. Thankfully (or, you know, not), neoreaction did not retire with Moldbug; indeed by the time he proclaimed that America was a communist country the future of the alt-right had already emerged. Which brings us to our third and in many ways strangest figure: Nick Land.

Land does not quite provide our desired Moldbug/Marx punch-up, nor could he, being neither Moldbug, Marx, nor a time traveller. Nor does he provide anything so straightforward as a Moldbuggian commentary on Marx, or a Marxist reading of Moldbug. Instead he does something far weirder: he splits the difference. On the one hand, Land is the other pole of the neoreactionary movement proper (as opposed to the broader Rationalist movement that Yudkowsky represents) - his essay The Dark Enlightenment essentially forms a triptych of core works of the movement along with Moldbug’s Open Letter and Gentle Introduction. On the other, he’s an ex-academic philosopher steeped in the Marxist tradition. And this isn’t anything so simple as a born-again conversion away from the leftist tradition, nor some sort of dull horseshoe theory that reveals the far-left and far-right to be closer to each other than the political center. No, this one’s a deep rabbit hole indeed.

No matter how you slice it, though, The Dark Enlightenment is clearly where the trail starts. Its title, after all, immediately became a virtual synonym for the neoreactionary movement at large - it’s the name of their subreddit, for instance. But it’s an astonishingly tricky essay, simultaneously addressing the leftist academic circles he used to travel in, to whom it serves as a deliberately scandalous “Dear John” letter, and addressing the already-existent neoreactionary movement. Indeed, for the most part The Dark Enlightenment serves as a summary of and commentary upon Moldbug.

This results in a strange and ambiguity-laden tone. Certainly, by and large, Land seems amenable to Moldbug. Consider, for instance, his summary of the Cathedral: “it is necessary to ask, rather, who do capitalists pay for political favors, how much these favors are potentially worth, and how the authority to grant them is distributed. This requires, with a minimum of moral irritation, that the entire social landscape of political bribery (‘lobbying’) is exactly mapped, and the administrative, legislative, judicial, media, and academic privileges accessed by such bribes are converted into fungible shares… The conclusion of this exercise is the mapping of a ruling entity that is the truly dominant instance of the democratic polity. Moldbug calls it the Cathedral.” If anything, Land is prettifying Moldbug, layering in the pragmatic materialism that Moldbug’s Austrian School instincts lead him to eschew.

And yet Land never actually comes out and endorses Moldbug in as many words.  Indeed, there’s a curious detail to Land’s prose, in marked contrast with his subject. Where Moldbug’s prose is awash with the first person, endlessly espousing his beliefs, Land, remains absent from The Dark Enlightenment, using the first person only once, in a rhetorical aside during one of his many bouts of hand-wringing around the subject of race. And so an actual statement that Moldbug is correct in his premises and conclusions is simply outside the domain of what Land’s choice of styles and framings can offer in the first place. Certainly Land takes pains to be sympathetic to Moldbug, and he’s explicitly positioned Outside In, the blog he started in the wake of The Dark Enlightenment, within the neoreactionary community. But even there his sympathies are manifestly tactical; an alliance formed for a more esoteric and never quite stated goal - one that he is at times ostentatious about refusing to discuss, a tendency that is in turns beguiling and infuriating.

Indeed, this speaks to a larger ambiguity around Land - something both his admirers and detractors, and for that matter both his old academic audience and his new neoreactionary one, debate and speculate upon. Simply put, nobody’s quite sure if he’s serious. I mentioned earlier how every one of Moldbug’s arguments seems to have a secret Marxist double, a fact Moldbug is only dubiously aware of. Land has no such plausible deniability. His entire academic career, spent as part of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, a bunch of 90s cyberpunks loosely affiliated with the University of Warwick, was based around subversive and postmodernist readings of texts in the spirit of writers like Gilles Deleuze. Joining a far-right Internet subculture in an Andy Kaufmanesque piece of philosophical performance art is 100% the sort of thing he’d do. If so, though, it’s one played with an unwavering deadpan and nary a wink at the audience. All the same, it’s important to understand not only that this ambiguity hangs over his work, but that Land knows it, and knows that you know it, and knows that you know that he knows it. And so on.

But it’s also not all unwavering approval of Moldbug, especially once one starts to venture outside of The Dark Enlightenment and onto his blog, where Land expresses considerable skepticism towards Moldbug’s prescriptions for a post-democratic society. And this points to a larger and more fundamental difference  between Moldbug and Land: Moldbug is ultimately a utopian, whereas Land is a philosophical pessimist, and sees Moldbug as a perverse ally. To Land, what is most interesting about Moldbug is the fact he positions all of his calls for a restoration of monarchy within the libertarian tradition, libertarianism being a philosophy genuinely associated with a significant level of individualism. Early in The Dark Enlightenment Land makes note of libertarian icon Friedrich Hayek’s insistence that he was an “Old Whig,” which is to say, a true heir to the progressive tradition, in contrast with the progressives of his age, who have strayed from the true path, suggesting that “neoreaction” works as a similar formulation.

The point is not, however, to argue that Moldbug is a crypto-liberal. Rather, it is to suggest that liberalism is crypto-neoreactionary; that in the face of the reality of life under the Cathedral the neoreactionary position is the only logical response. Moldbug, in other words, represents the point where western liberalism finally owns up to its true nature. For Land, this is the right of exit, hence the first part of The Dark Enlightenment being titled “Neo-reactionaries head for the exit.” In Land’s view, what is interesting about Moldbug is that he reduces individual liberty to a right to say “no.” This is the idea of negative liberty taken to a brutal teleology - literally nothing more than the right to pick whatever bit of the threat comes after “or you can,” whatever the threat may be.

Once again, this is going to need some context in Land’s larger career. In 1997, Land resigned his position at the University of Warwick. He subsequently moved to China, where he began his rightward turn, in part inspired by the degree to which he preferred Shanghai to Warwick. In other words, he is someone who exercised his right to exit, consciously deciding that he preferred a more overtly authoritarian regime to the supposed comforts of a western liberal democracy.

But perhaps more significant is the way in which he did not exercise this right. I will be delicate here, and simply quote his colleague Robin Mackay about the endgame of Land’s academic career: “Let’s get this out of the way: In any normative, clinical, or social sense of the word, very simply, Land did ‘go mad.’” Indeed, Land wrote about the experience in a piece called “A Dirty Joke” in which he talks about himself in a completely dehumanized fashion, calling himself “the ruin” and “it,” and using the name “Vauung,” which he explains he took “because it was unused, on the basis of an exact qabbalistic entitlement.” The piece is genuinely chilling: “‘This is a cool radio station,’ it said to its sister. ‘The radio isn’t on,’ its sister replied, concerned. Vauung learnt that the ruin’s unconscious contained an entire pop industry. The ruin learnt that it had arrived, somewhere on the motorway. Nothing more was said about it. Why upset your family?”

Land positions this break at the endpoint of his philosophical inquiries; indeed, the Fanged Noumena collection that contains most of his pre-neoreactionary work ends with “A Dirty Joke,” making that teleology explicit. And, significantly, it’s a sensible endpoint. Land embraced a position of intense radicalism, driving himself deliberately to extremes such that it is impossible, reading his work linearly, to quite see where his madness becomes a corruption within it. His subject was always the violent destruction of the self - the idea that civilization was largely fucked, hurtling towards some awful end of its own making. His philosophical quest was always to find that end, and there’s a real sense in which his neoreactionary turn is the process of him finding it, at least for himself, and then declining to take it.

There’s an obvious echo of the “hit rock bottom and find Jesus” narrative here, and that’s perhaps in practice unsurprising given that both Land and Moldbug are consciously trying to open a dialogue with existing right-wing politics, including those associated with an overtly evangelical Christian worldview. For Moldbug this is generally a bit awkward - he can’t bring himself not to squawk about his atheism whenever God comes up. One of Land’s major contributions to the neoreactionary community, on the other hand, is the construction of a compromise between the largely atheistic technolibertarian crowd Moldbug emerged from and the existing paleo-conservative traditions he increasingly found himself adopted by, an essay called “The Cult of Gnon.” Gnon - arrived after an extended riffing on the phrase “Nature or Nature’s God” is described by Land as “no less than reality, whatever else is believed. Whatever is suspended now, without delay, is Gnon. Whatever cannot be decided yet, even as reality happens, is Gnon. If there is a God, Gnon nicknames him. If not, Gnon designates whatever the ‘not’ is. Gnon is the Vast Abrupt, and the crossing. Gnon is the Great Propeller.”

But Gnon doesn’t just bridge a cultural divide within the neoreactionary community - it serves as a crucial bridge within Land’s own narrative. He does not talk at great length about his breakdown, and you can hardly blame him for it, but the overwhelming sense he gives is that he did not find God so much as find Gnon - an awful, inescapable realization about the way the world is.

Comments

Matt 10 months ago

"His subject was always the violent destruction of the self - the idea that civilization was largely fucked, hurtling towards some awful end of its own making."

Totally agree.

"and then declining to take it."

Less convinced about that. Land still appears to want Capital to consume the earth and humanity via a technological apocalypse: http://www.xenosystems.net/re-accelerationism/

It's just that now he sees NRx as more likely to bring this about than doing philosophy seminars to jungle choons while mashed.

"He subsequently moved to China"

What's strikes me about this is that the old (pre-1991) retort to leftists was "If that's what you want then why don't you move to Russia?" Most of the notable NRx folks are content to live in the US (correct me if I'm wrong) or other liberal(ish) democracies. Land went to an authoritarian state with a strong focus on capitalism (of a particular variety) and technology. Walked the talk.

Altho I'm not sure how his desire for a techno-capital apocalypse meshes with their desire to reign over bitcoin-funded seasteads.

Land's writing style is distinctive. It consists of a series of performed pronouncements heavily laden with adverbs. Interesting ideas or brain-catching phrases pop out at regular intervals but it's not really trying to make an argument so much paint a picture. Sometimes that picture is distinct but more often it's an abstract impressionist blur with dabs of pomposity at the corners.

I can see why it's attractive to guys in their 20s - the constant reiteration that it's all Important and Exciting and Clever (look at the words! and the references!). But as I age I just can't be arsed with it. Especially as it gets more entangled with all that naughty "racism".

Wake me up when the apocalypse is over.

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Eve Schmitt 10 months ago

"America is a communist country. This can be interpeted in myriad ways. All of these interpretations are absolutely true. Because America is a Communist country."

Moldbug sounds like the sort of man you can't argue with.

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The Elder Dan 9 months, 3 weeks ago

That was true even when he was "just" Curtis.

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