The Darkness Before the Right

by Park MacDougald

It’s hard to talk seriously about something with a silly name, and neoreaction is no exception. At first glance, it appears little more than a fever swamp of feudal misogynists, racist programmers, and “fascist teenage dungeon master[s],” gathering on subreddits to await the collapse of Western civilization. Neoreaction — aka NRx or the Dark Enlightenment — combines all of the awful things you always suspected about libertarianism with odds and ends from PUA culture, Victorian Social Darwinism, and an only semi-ironic attachment to absolutism. Insofar as neoreactionaries have a political project, it’s to dissolve the United States into competing authoritarian seasteads on the model of Singapore; they’re nebbish Nazis with Bitcoin wallets, and they’re practically begging to be shoved in a locker.

While not wrong, as far as it goes, the tendency of snark to collapse neoreaction into cyber-fascism or nerd ressentiment makes it tough to figure out what’s actually going on here. It’s a little weirder than all that.

As the twenty-first century gets darker, politics are likely to follow suit, and for all its apparent weirdness, neoreaction may be an early warning system for what a future anti-democratic right looks like. So what is neoreaction, then, exactly? For all the talk of neo-feudalism and geeks for monarchy, it’s less a single ideology than a loose constellation of far-right thought, clustered around three pillars: religious traditionalism, white nationalism, and techno-commercialism (the names are self-explanatory). This means heavy spoonfuls of “race realism,” misogyny, and nostalgia for past hierarchies, leavened with transhumanism and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Unsurprisingly, they don’t always get along; if you want to preserve white racial purity, futurists trying to biohack us into a separate species are not your long-term allies. Still, similarities abound. All neoreactionaries reject “progressivism,” by which they mean democracy, egalitarianism, and a belief in more or less linear historical progress — and even the non-white-supremacists tend towards a hereditarian determinism that bleeds easily into outright racism.

Most prior accounts of neoreaction have focused on Mencius Moldbug (the blogonym of Curtis Yarvin), and with good reason: Moldbug is the closest thing there is to a founder of neoreaction. His book-length “Open Letter to Open-minded Progressives” is the centerpiece of the NRx canon, and he invented a number of the movement’s key terms and concepts. He’s also a ponytailed programmer, whose bloggy disquisitions invoke Thomas Carlyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ludwig von Mises in equal measure. You couldn’t find a better metonym for neoreaction’s strange blend of cultural influences, and the jokes write themselves. But the focus on him has tended to obscure the other, and in many ways more interesting, pole of neoreaction: the British philosopher Nick Land.

Land is the sort of strange, half-forgotten figure that might turn up in an Adam Curtis documentary ten years from now. As an academic philosopher at the University of Warwick from 1987 to 1998, he became something of an urban legend for his mix of eldritch intellectualism and odd personal behavior. Simon Reynolds put forward an idea of the mythos surrounding Land in a 1999 story: That he was the center of “outlandish and possibly apocryphal stories,” including speaking in numbers and intimating demonic possession; that he presented one conference paper as a multimedia happening, complete with jungle soundtrack; and that he even claimed, in the delirious preface to his book on Georges Bataille, to have returned from the dead, a characteristic he “reluctantly shared with the Nazerene.”

One of the recurrent features of accounts of Land’s Warwick years is an admiration for his “reckless integrity”; unorthodox, and perhaps even slightly insane, Land’s antics were not cynical branding but a function of how seriously he took his radical brand of philosophy. Though this alienated him from official academia, former colleagues are effusive with praise for his brilliance, and one, the writer and artist Kodwo Eshun, has (according to Mark Fisher) ventured him as “the most important British philosopher of the last 20 years.”

Philosophically, the nineties iteration of Land was one of the most significant modern descendants of the sceptical and nihilist tradition in Western philosophy. Like his heroes, Nietzsche and Bataille, he was unremittingly hostile to the liberal Enlightenment philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which he saw as a failed attempt at replacing God with sacralized reason following the collapse of religion as source of philosophical certainty. Once set free from this religious cage, however, thought proceeded to demolish reason as well as any other claims to truth; for Land, Enlightenment notions of rationality, free will, and selfhood were naïve efforts to save human consciousness (what he called the “Human Security System”) from being overwhelmed by the senseless and inhuman chaos of the universe — Lovecraft’s “shadow-haunted Outside” — whose truth was accessible only through the communions of art, death, ritual, and intoxication (of which Land enthusiastically partook).

Land’s greatest legacy was a philosophy now known as “Accelerationism,” a heady cocktail of nihilism, cybernetic Marxism, complexity theory, numerology, jungle music, and the dystopian sci-fi of William Gibson and Blade Runner. Land identified the critique that progressively dissolved all claims to truth as the philosophical correlate of a capitalist economic system locked in constant revolutionary expansion, moving upwards and outwards on a trajectory of technological and scientific intelligence-generation that would, at the limit, make the leap from its human biological hosts into the great beyond. For Land, as for Nietzsche, the death of God results ultimately in the desire to be destroyed, with capitalism the agent of this destruction. As Alex Williams writes in e-flux:

In this visioning of capital, even the human itself can eventually be discarded as mere drag to an abstract planetary intelligence rapidly constructing itself from the bricolaged fragments of former civilizations. As Land has it, through the acceleration of global capitalism the human will be dissolved in a technological apotheosis, effectively experiencing a species-wide suicide as the ultimate stimulant head rush.

If you’re searching for a pop-culture comparison, Rust Cohle meets Ray Kurzweil might be appropriate.

Land’s work was neither systematic nor positioned for academic success; it was stylish, aggressive, and polemical, and despite some formally conventional early work, by the mid nineties, Landian texts like “Machinic Desire” and “Meltdown” more closely resembled philosophically dense sci-fi than anything you’re likely to find on Jstor. Though a recent generation of philosophers such as Ray Brassier, Alex Williams, and Reza Negarestani have begun drawing heavily on Land’s work, this was not philosophy for the conference room. In 1998, he resigned from his position at Warwick to pursue more radical work with a group of loyal grad students, before ditching England altogether for Shanghai.

Land had always had an uneasy relationship with the left-wing politics of the academy; though a “Marxist” of some sort, he was an enthusiastic booster of capitalism, and tended to treat what he saw as a hopelessly nostalgist Left with mockery and derision. Not until his move to China, however, did Land emerge openly­­ as a major thinker of the far-right. The most comprehensive account of this transformation is his twenty-seven-thousand-plus word essay, “the Dark Enlightenment,” where Land lays out, among other things, a long critique of democracy. It’s unfocused, but it’s also one of the most-read pieces of neoreactionary writing on the web, and Land convincingly frames neoreaction as a direct descendant of older conservative, libertarian, and classical liberal thought. He also provides eye-grabbing quotes, like the following, useful for journalists attempting summary:

For the hardcore neo-reactionaries, democracy is not merely doomed, it is doom itself. Fleeing it approaches an ultimate imperative… Predisposed, in any case, to perceive the politically awakened masses as a howling irrational mob, [neoreaction] conceives the dynamics of democratization as fundamentally degenerative: systematically consolidating and exacerbating private vices, resentments, and deficiencies until they reach the level of collective criminality and comprehensive social corruption.

Land’s case for democratic dysfunction is simply stated. Democracy is structurally incapable of rational leadership due to perverse incentive structures. It is trapped in short-termism by the electoral cycle, hard decisions become political suicide, and social catastrophe is acceptable as long as it can be blamed on the other team. Moreover, inter-party competition to “buy votes” leads to a ratchet effect of ever-greater state intervention in the economy — and even if this is periodically reversed, in the long-run it only moves in one direction. In the U.S., racialized poverty makes this dynamic even worse. Because small-government solutions will always have a disparate impact on minorities, they will be interpreted and stigmatized as racist. Laissez-faire, in this view, is doomed to failure as soon as it’s up for a vote. Rather than accept creeping democratic socialism (which leads to “zombie apocalypse”), Land would prefer to simply abolish democracy and appoint a national CEO. This capitalist Leviathan would be, at a bare minimum, capable of rational long-term planning and aligning individual incentive structures with social well-being (CEO-as-Tiger-Mom). Individuals would have no say in government, but would be generally left alone, and free to leave. This right of “exit” is, for Land, the only meaningful right, and it’s opposed to democratic “voice,” where everyone gets a say, but is bound by the decisions of the majority — the fear being that the majority will decide to self-immolate.

Anti-democratic sentiment is uncommon in the West, so Land’s conclusions appear as shocking, deliberate provocations, which they partly are. But though his prescriptions for “corporate dictatorship” — adopted from Moldbug — are obviously radical, the critique of democracy isn’t. Land peppers his essay with quotes from Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and resurgent cultural hero Alexander Hamilton to drive home the point that our Constitution is built on a similar fear of the people (a point often made on the left), and his analysis owes much to mainstream political scientists like Mancur Olson and Jim Buchanan, who forwarded cynical accounts of how “democratic” government largely exists to serve entrenched interest groups and selfish bureaucrats. These men felt that (negative, economic) freedom could only emerge “through a particular legal and political framework — and not one to which the population as a whole would necessarily accede.” Neoreaction simply takes this to its next logical step by scrapping the need for electoral assent altogether. Pointing to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, it argues that economically and socially effective government legitimizes itself, with no need for elections. And this view isn’t limited to the internet right. Harvard’s Graham Allison has recently voiced similar opinions in The Atlantic and HuffPo. The fact that this sentiment is out in the open is less an aberration than a return to the norm.

This brand of authoritarian capitalism has a certain fascist sheen, but in truth it’s closer to a rigidly formalized capitalist technocracy. There’s no mass mobilization, totalitarian social reorganization, or cult of violence here; governing will be done by the governors, and popular sovereignty replaced by the market Mandate of Heaven. There is a strange sort of disillusioned cultural conservatism here as well, albeit one absolutely stripped of moralism. In fact, what’s genuinely creepy about it is the near-sociopathic lack of emotional attachment; it’s a sort of pure incentive-based functionalism, as if from the perspective of a computer or alien. If a person doesn’t produce quantifiable value, they are, objectively, not valuable. Everything else is sentimentality.

As an account of democracy, “the Dark Enlightenment” is, as they say, problematic. Leaving aside the screaming ethical issues (including a long portion of the essay devoted to tiptoeing around the uglier aspects of NRx racism), there are some factual concerns. For one, authoritarian governments don’t seem to be any more stable than democracies, and post-Citizens America, complete with creepy worldwide drone-murder apparatus and lawless chthonic deep state, is not exactly a democratic paradise. And while you might argue that the left dominates Ivy League humanities departments or the prestige media, that doesn’t equate to a vice grip on policy. Spending as a percentage of GDP has steadily risen over the last hundred years and we’ve loosened up about sex, but the trend lines for top marginal tax rates, CEO pay, median income and union density all suggest that any “leftward ratchet” is not nearly as simple as all that.

All that aside, Land’s politics are not simply the lunatic ravings of a reddit red piller; even if you hate them, they might be a fairly realistic description of what would need to happen to bring back laissez-faire capitalism. The most intriguing aspect of Land’s work, however, is not his “political philosophy” but the dark futurism onto which it is grafted. Though his politics have shifted considerably, and he’s now more likely to cite Austrian economists than French nihilists, Land never really abandoned his vision of capitalism’s end-game. If other neoreactionaries are concerned with order or the preservation of the white race, Land still sees capitalism as an inhuman machine sucking us into a dystopian future — and his project is to prevent us from dismantling it.

Capitalism, in this view, is less something we do than something done to us. Contra business-class bromides about the market as the site of creative expression, for Land, as for Marx, capitalism is a fundamentally alien institution in which “the means of production socially impose themselves as an effective imperative.” This means simply that the competitive dynamics of capitalism drive technical progress as an iron law. If one capitalist doesn’t want to build smarter, better machines, he’ll be out-competed by one who does. If Apple doesn’t make you an asshole, Google will. If America doesn’t breed genetically modified super-babies, China will. The market doesn’t run on “greed,” or any intentionality at all. Its beauty — or horror — is its impersonality. Either you adapt, or you die.

Accelerating technological growth, then, is written into capitalism’s DNA. Smart machines make us smarter allowing us to make smarter machines, in a positive feedback loop that quickly begins to approach infinity, better known in this context as “singularity.” Of course, since by definition you can’t reach infinity, what this singularity actually represents is a breakdown in the process of extrapolation; something happens — a “phase shift,” in cybernetic patois — that changes the dynamics of the entire system. This could be a system collapse, and in fact, positive feedback loops often burn themselves out once they consume all the inputs that made them possible in the first place. Another option, however, is the emergence of something totally new at a higher level of organization. An example might be the shift from single-cell to multicellular organisms, or, more to the point, biological to artificial intelligence.

Land thinks this shift to AI is where we’re headed. For someone like Kurzweil, this intuition is suffused with a vaguely new-age mysticism and the promise of eternal life. For Land, it basically means species death. Land ridicules the idea that an AI vastly more intelligent than us could be made to serve our goals — after all, it’s unlikely that we would be able to program it more completely than evolution has ‘programmed’ us with biological drives, which we regularly defy. Attempts to stop AI’s emergence, moreover, will be futile. The imperatives of competition, whether between firms or states, mean that whatever is technologically feasible is likely to be deployed sooner or later, regardless of political intentions or moral concerns. These are less decisions that are made than things which happen due to irresistible structural dynamics, beyond good and evil. Land compares the campaign to halt the emergence of AI to the Lateran Council’s 1139 attempt to ban the use of crossbows against Christians, but he could have well cited the atomic bomb; the U.S. did it because we thought if we didn’t, the Germans would.

Of course, recognizing these trends, humans might reasonably want to try to stop them. And according to Land, that’s all politics amounts to. “The Cathedral,” typically identified by neoreactionaries as the media-academic mind-control apparatus, is for him more like the sum total of all political efforts to rein this machine in. He writes:

The Cathedral acquires its teleological definition from its emergent function as the cancellation of capitalism… ‘Progress’ in its overt, mature, ideological incarnation is the anti-trend required to bring history to a halt. Conceive what is needed to prevent acceleration into techno-commercial Singularity, and the Cathedral is what it will be.

The Landian meta-narrative goes like this: In the pre-modern world, humanity was trapped by hard Malthusian limits — growth led to population increase, exhausting the food supply, and collapsing backwards via plague or famine. “Escape” from this trap became possible once capitalism generated a feedback loop of technological and productive growth strong enough to break free from both environmental limits and the pre-modern religious and political structures that had kept the market from swallowing society. This escape, however, produced crisis and dislocation alongside material progress — the Dickensian horror of nineteenth-century Manchester. Eventually, in the West at least, society was able to “re-embed” the market in the form of social-democratic, welfare capitalism, blunting the market’s edge by subordinating it to human needs. This is what Land means by “progress,” and for him, it’s a world-historical disaster.

Libertarians like F.A. Hayek have typically argued that this sort of state intervention obliterates the price signals necessary for economic decision-making, producing distortions and malinvestment as an inevitable result. Land gives this a cybernetic twist — in his view, the politically motivated management of economies negates the market feedback necessary to sustain accelerative growth, dragging the system as a whole back towards equilibrium, where we may once again encounter those Malthusian limits. In this view, wherever capitalism is taking us, “the Cathedral” is what’s preventing us from getting there.

In the long run, however, capitalism is hard to corral. For one, social democracy doesn’t seem to be a sustainable fix. The golden age of the Western welfare state — roughly 1945 to 1973 — looks in retrospect to have been a freak accident of history. It rested, as Thomas Piketty has argued, on a number of special conditions unlikely to be repeated. Moreover, capital is elusive, global, and decentralized, while political sovereignty remains tied to bounded territorial units. Perhaps most deadly of all, capitalism is fast, while democratic deliberation is slow. The market generates new realities before we’ve even had time to agree on what to do about the old, and this trend intensifies exponentially (or hyperbolically) at higher levels of technological development. As Land writes of a recent leap forward in brain-machine interface technology:

The step from lunatic science fiction speculation to established technoscientific procedure is increasingly taken in advance of any engaged discussion, without an interval for serious social reflection. That’s acceleration as it concretely happens. It’s not a new topic for prolonged thought, it’s the fact that the time for prolonged thought — and its associated space for collective ethico-political consideration — is no longer ever going to be available.

As with all futurism, it’s difficult to tell what relation any of this has to reality. Prediction is hard. And even if wild sci-fi scenarios are all the rage among experts, the burden of proof is on those trumpeting the arrival of SkyNet.

Still, all signs point to us living on the cusp of some major changes in humanity. Slavoj Zizek, the popular communist philosopher, has identified a number of twenty-first-century tensions he believes are insoluble within current democratic-capitalist frameworks, including ecological catastrophe and the changes wrought by biogenetics and other sorts of technological advance. Aside from minor quibbling over details, the proposition that Western-style liberal democracy may be pushed to its breaking point seems sound. If, as labor economists argue, forty-seven percent of American employment could soon be automated, Land’s authoritarianism looks more like a convincing account of what will be needed to preserve capitalism rather than doe-eyed paeans to the sharing economy.

More generally, critics of capitalism have often argued that it is an inhuman system, and that our task is to somehow subject it to our collective political will. If we don’t, it will destroy us all. Land agrees that this is the issue at hand, but sides with capitalism nonetheless. And if “the Cathedral” is the name for attempts to throw the emergency brake on the capitalist machine, Land’s neoreaction is a sort of secular Satanism, effectively suggesting that it would be better to just end it all anyway. Or — perhaps most frightening — that we no longer even have a choice. As the sci-fi author and artist Doug Coupland recently put it in the FT:

The darkest thought of all may be this: no matter how much politics is applied to the internet and its attendant technologies, it may simply be far too late in the game to change the future. The internet is going to do to us whatever it is going to do, and the same end state will be achieved regardless of human will. Gulp.

This is a startling conclusion, to be sure. It’s also highly speculative and may well be insane. But the present does offer some glimpses of the proto-reactionary tendrils that could coalesce into a Dark Enlightenment squid monster. For one, related ideas are already seeping into the GOP: As Evan Osnos recently detailed in the New Yorker, Trump’s campaign is — wittingly or not — a conduit for white nationalist politics to enter the cultural mainstream, and openly NRx-affiliated authors have begun appearing in grassroots-right media outlets like the Daily Caller. Moreover, while the establishment right has mostly accepted culture war defeats with grace, anger at this surrender is obviously bubbling beneath the surface. In a perhaps less threatening, but related phenomenon, Gamergate and the recent Hugo Awards drama — as well as the assorted PUA/red-pill subcultures — all point to an increasingly vocal contingent of mostly white, mostly educated, mostly men with illiberal sympathies of their own.

The Valley is famous for its impatience with formal politics. Rarely, however, is this as bluntly articulated as in Peter Thiel’s 2009 statement — gleefully cited by Land — that he “no longer believe[s] that freedom and democracy are compatible.” This is an incredible statement from someone in his position, and extremely telling. Even if Thiel is the only Valley titan brave or stupid enough to venture that opinion in public, one can be sure that many more privately agree. Anti-democracy, however, doesn’t need to be this explicit to be effective. Valley oligarchs don’t need to be convinced that democracy is the root of all evil, they just need to think that our existing democratic institutions are illegitimate or just not sufficiently optimized. Uber, in its campaign against New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio, was successfully able to argue that they were the true bearers of popular will against a government beholden to special interests and incapable of delivering service. Uber can give the people what they want, faster and better than the state. If there needs to be a vote, customers can do it with their wallets.

Nick Land, like Moldbug and many other neoreactionaries, typically shuns the term “fascist.” Admittedly, they have some good reasons to do so: despite NRx racism and authoritarianism, its political economy is closer to Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore than Hitler’s Reich. Yet there’s a problem. Land is an elitist, more loyal to IQ than ethnicity, and with a marked contempt for the “inarticulate proles” of neoreaction’s white nationalist wing. But Land himself notes that it’s precisely these “proles” that make up most of the actual “reactosphere,” and that “if reaction ever became a popular movement, its few slender threads of bourgeois (or perhaps dreamily ‘aristocratic’) civility wouldn’t hold back the beast for long.” It’s entirely possible that reaction never does become a popular movement — a new economic boom, for one, would do a lot to soothe the disaffection on which it feeds — yet if it were to grow, the proposed alliance of convenience between the tech elite and an intransigent white identity politics begins to look a lot like the Nazi coalition of German industrialists and a downwardly-mobile middle class. That doesn’t mean it’s “fascism,” a term both so broad and so particular as to be all but meaningless these days, per se. But in the twenty-first century, it may be that the Dark Enlightenment is what we get instead.