On Neoreaction

Image: Jimmy Change

Saturday 29th September, 2018

By Roger Burrows

On the final day of the Undisciplining conference in June 2018 I was asked, at short notice, to participate in a ‘fireside chat’ session concerned with ‘defending the social.’ My contribution made mention of a philosophical position, which I characterized as a form of Deleuzian Fascism. Not surprisingly, a number of people approached me afterwards to seek clarification. I hope this brief article provides some useful - albeit deeply troubling - pointers. Those requiring a bit more detail can find it in a forthcoming book chapter, whilst those requiring a book-length critical treatment might read Sandifer’s recent Neoreaction: A Basilisk.

Having left the UK academy some two decades ago, Nick Land has recently re-emerged as a central figure in the promulgation of, what has come to be known as, neo-reactionary (NRx) or sometimes right-accelerationist philosophies. These are philosophical positions that not only provide a basis for much alt-right political activity, but are also supported by right-wing political strategists such as Steve Bannon and, crucially, multi-billionaire libertarian technology investors such as Peter Thiel.

Land’s work is chaotically scattered across the web, but there does exist one long-form piece, some 28,000 words, called The Dark Enlightenment. It has come to be viewed as one of the clearest systematizations of NRx philosophy. It is, in essence, a collection of engagements with the work of a blogger and Bay Area programmer called Curtis Yarvin, who goes by the online moniker of Mencius Moldbug. Yarvin is the author of a series of long blogs such as An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives and A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations. Although he is viewed by many as the ‘founder’ of NRx the manner in which Land takes his material and rearticulates it using discursive strategies derived from a particular materialist reading of Deleuze opens up NRx thinking to audiences who would not otherwise engage with what can only be described as neo-fascist modes of thought.

Whatever the analytic worth(lessness) of NRx, it is important to recognise its ideological function and the powerful actors supporting its propagation; not least those investing in myriad technologies in Silicon Valley who have seemingly been convinced by Land’s notion of hyperstition – the creation of fictional entities that can make themselves real. As Haider puts it: ‘If the builders of technology are transmitting their values into machinery this makes the culture of Silicon Valley a matter of more widespread consequence’.

The life and times of Nick Land at the University of Warwick in the 1990s have been well documented elsewhere. Described by MacDougald as ‘a heady cocktail of nihilism, cybernetic Marxism, complexity theory, numerology, jungle music, and the dystopian sci-fi of William Gibson and Blade Runner’, it is perhaps understandable how – in the dark days of Thatcherism - such a melange developed a cultish appeal.

But by 1998 things had turned crazy and Land, who had long written about ‘neo-China’, relocated first to Taiwan and then, in 2002, to Shanghai. How it was that he, in 2012, holed up with his family in Shanghai, writing travel guides, horror fiction and occasional blog posts should come across the on-line meanderings of Mencius Moldbug, and then take them seriously enough to produce The Dark Enlightenment, and the texts that have followed, is hard to fathom.

Moldbug/Yarvin, a software engineer, supported by Thiel is, seemingly, a voracious reader of all manner of political theory and philosophy. It was the posts made on Moldbug’s Unqualified Reservations blog that Land seemed to find so enticing. Moldbug offers up turgid idiosyncratic prose that meanders all over the place. He combines elements of the work of Thomas Carlyle, Ludwig Von Mises and various strains of individualist libertarianism to offer a long view of history, which concludes that Prussian cameralism, in which a state is conceptualized as a business that owns a country, offers a viable ideological model for a future 21st century politics. Originally called ‘neocameralism’, his position soon became known as NRx and then, once rearticulated by Land, as The Dark Enlightenment.

The Dark Enlightenment itself might be best thought of as the application of Land’s accelerationist framework to Molbug’s neocameralism. It is a difficult and provocative read, purposively designed to unsettle the dominant sensibilities of progressives; members of what NRx terms the Cathedral. Space precludes a detailed exegesis here, but we might attempt an ideal typical characterization of the position under five broad headings: an opposition to democratic forms of governance; an attempt to construct a new patchwork of (city-) state forms in which ‘exit’ is the only ‘human right’; an attack on discourses that foreground notions of human equality; a (welcoming) belief in the inevitability of an approaching singularity in which AI and bio-technologies begin to meld with the human form; and, for now, the necessity to undermine actors who promulgate ideologies of democracy, equality or who advocate for the regulation of science and technology – members of the aforementioned Cathedral.

Both Moldbug and Land point towards a key essay by Thiel in Cato Unbound in which he declares that: 'I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible'. Land goes much further, suggesting that ‘democracy is not merely doomed, it is doom itself.’ In this model democratic forms of governance are viewed as the primary dampeners of deterritorialisation processes. For Land 'democracy consumes progress…the appropriate mode of analysis for studying the democratic phenomenon is general parasitology’.

The NRx alternative seems to be to, first ‘Retire All Government Employees’ (RAGE) in order to ‘reboot’ the economy, and second, to replace democratic institutions with a CEO (or even a Monarch!). The resulting ‘gov-corp’ – a society run as a business – can then be regulated not via the voice of its citizenry – there will be no democracy – but via their ability to exit as consumers in a free market for states. Land has become obsessed with the ideas contained in the classic 1970 treatise of Albert Hirschman on the distinction between Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. For Land, democratic voice and the irrational ‘warm’ solidarities of loyalty must be opposed, as they will cut ‘out all high-frequency feedback mechanisms’.

Architectures of exit thus become of paramount importance; indeed for Land, quoting Patri Friedman (the grandson of arch neoliberal Milton Friedman) ‘free exit is so important that…it [is] the only Universal Human Right’. Friedman, another NRx entrepreneur-cum-philosopher backed by Thiel’s dollars, leads The Seasteading Institute, an organization busy designing permanent (almost Lovecraftian) cities at sea – seasteads – prefiguative gov-corp’s outside the territory claimed by democratic governments. They are just one example of the NRx envisioning of the emergence of a complex patchwork of small, and competing, gov-corps – autonomous gated communities, city-states, even ‘off-world’ communities (think Elon Musk) - much as described in the hyperstitious novel Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson as far back as 1992.

The anti-democratic impulse of NRx sits alongside its profound disavowal of any discourses advocating for socio-economic equality. The Dark Enlightenment is, at its core, a eugenic philosophy of what Land has termed ‘hyper-racism’. In Land’s schema, the consumers ‘exiting’ from competing gov-corps quickly form themselves into, often racially based, microstates. Capitalist deterritorialization combines with on-going genetic separation between global elites and the rest of the population resulting in complex new forms of ‘Human Bio-diversity’ (HBD). Land’s apocalyptic argot reads like an accelerationist version of Charles Murray’s infamous The Bell Curve, but it is more than that, because it is not just neo-eugenic technologies that Land views as pushing us towards neo-speciation. These technologies are part of a far greater assemblage directing us towards the singularity and a post-human future:

‘As blockchains, drone logistics, nanotechnology, quantum computing, computational genomics, and virtual reality flood in, drenched in ever-higher densities of artificial intelligence, accelerationism won’t be going anywhere, unless ever deeper into itself’.

Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai, all prefigure NRx urban futures. Land has long been interested in ‘neo-China’ imaginaries and it is little wonder that he has located himself where he has in order to produce the texts and interventions that he has; ever hopeful, one imagines, of their potential hyperstitious potentialities.

Of course such hyper-neoliberal, technologically deterministic, anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, pro-eugenicist, racist and, likely, fascist ideas have proven to be very unpopular within the academy, and amongst progressive liberals more generally. For Land and Moldbug the ideology of this group, and the various practices that it informs, is at the very heart of all that that is wrong in the world. They have come to think of the universities, the civil service, and the media – the old Althusserian ISAs – with its orthodoxy of egalitarianism, democracy and social constructionism, as the Cathedral; a quasi-religious structure that functions hegemonically to supress dissent. This recognition of the inverted hegemonic functioning of the ISAs in order to stymy accelerationist uncompensated capitalism thus requires, within NRx philosophy, attempts to construct counter-hegemonic ideological strategies of the sort described by Angela Nagle in her chilling 2017 book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumbler to Trump and the Alt-Right. As ideological battles have moved online and away from the traditional institutions of the ‘Cathedral’ the likes of Steve Bannon, Thiel and Freidman (all informed by NRx thinking) have invested in their own form of alt-right Gramscian politics. This is a world where Silicon Valley (white male) billionaires attracted to the ideologies of Ayn Rand curate the rise of the alt-right, the new populism, and the mainstreaming of, inter alia, misogynist, racist and fascist discourses, via the hyperstitious fables of NRx. This is the discourse of, inter alia, ‘post-truth’, the critique of expertise and online culture wars of various sorts. This is now an ideological struggle over articulating principles.

Roger Burrows is Professor of Cities at Newcastle University and also Visiting Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has published mainly on: housing and urban studies; the sociology of digital technologies; health, illness and the body; methods; and the metricization of higher education.

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