Moldbug Magic

A magician conjures birds out of thin air.

“Vavoom! Everything you thought you knew is the exact opposite!”

For several months in the beginning of 2015, Aristokles and I struggled to put together a comprehensive critique of Neoreaction. We had many good points, but somehow the article didn’t seem to gel. Then events abruptly brought the things into stark relief. What we had been thinking of as a diagnosis suddenly became an autopsy.

It dawned on me what we had been missing. We had compiled an account of Neoreaction’s philosophical and practical defects, but we had overlooked the plain truth, one which many people had told us plainly: Neoreaction is not a philosophy or a plan. Once that plain truth finally sunk through my thick skull, I saw quite clearly what Neoreaction actually is: Neoreaction is a rhetorical style.

Taking Neoreaction qua Neoreaction makes this point hard to see. The rhetorical style is the very grain of NRx, the manner and method by which it grew. To see its longitudinal structure, we have to slice across the grain. Allow me to draw a line between NRx and an orthogonal point, specifically Mencius Moldbug’s current hobby, Urbit.

Here the prophet himself gives a pitch for Urbit:

Moldbug/Yarvin talks fast and slays sacred cows with sleight of hand to produce titillation. Notice how the audience twitters when he delivers one of his “shock” lines. It’s the same psychology that NRx acquired, that of the rhetorical magic trick. Yarvin reminds me of a diminutive techie version of Penn Jillette.

The thing that’s really interesting about the video, though, is you can see that the audience sort of gets that it’s a trick, and so does Yarvin. He has just the traces of a mischievous smile on his face. Do self-identified Neoreactionaries get the joke too? I think some do, some don’t. I didn’t at first.

One of the few public presentations Moldbug/Yarvin gave on the ideas that seeded Neoreaction was called “How to Reboot the U.S. Government”. Again, a not-so-subtle switcheroo is involved here. Most people are at least superficially familiar with the idea of rebooting a computer. But what does it mean to reboot a civilization? The contents of a computer’s memory can be wiped clean with little consequence. The contents of a civilization represent millions of human lives. Social continuity cannot simply be read from a hard disk and restored. Once it is broken, it can take hundreds of years to reestablish.

Yarvin’s justification of kicking out the struts of the United States and/or the Internet is that both have “failed”. Failed utterly? Evidently, enough to justify a total reboot. But failed by what standards? The United States has failed in its promise to be an ideal constitutional republic; the Internet has failed to make all communication open and free. But what could be more utopian than holding large, complex systems to such simplistic ideals? The United States and the Internet are surely both deeply flawed, and have not fulfilled their full potential, but then again almost nothing ever does. To believe that one can sit down and design a formal replacement for either from scratch is hubristic and naive.

The rhetorical style of NRx can be broken down as follows:

  1. State a problem with a grain of truth, but overstated in an unqualified way for shock value. The problem is often based on a general comparison to an ideal state that is a fantasy.
  2. Propose a drastic solution based on an overextended analogy often based on computer science.
  3. Choose just the “best” pieces of many old ideas, pluck ideas from out of their historical, intellectual and philosophical context, and stitch them together into a Frankenstein’s monster ideology.

This is a broad outline; there is some variation in the style between specific examples. Sometimes step 1 is more of a counterintuitive revelation than a problem, and step 2 is omitted.

Step 1 provides the emotional hook. This is where a sacred cow gets slain. The idea here is to demolish some cherished belief held by the reader in a way that makes them feel privy to revelation. Here are some examples from the Neoreactionary canon: “Liberals are Puritans”; “The United States is communist”; “the wrong side won WWII”; “racism is based in facts”; and of course Yarvin’s “the internet has failed”.

Now that you’re softened up by the emotional force of revelation, you’re ready to be sold a bill of goods. The general bill of goods is that civilizations can be re-engineered like software systems. “Reboot the U.S. Government”, for example. Rewrite the civilizational code by inventing a syncretic religion for the proles to follow, complete with rituals. Break up the United States into five or six separate nations.

At this point, the danger is that the reader may begin to think for himself. It’s time to snow him with an avalanche of patchwork ideology. For Urbit, that’s the technical details of the system, all bizarrely named and described as opaquely as possible. Urbit is made of up several modules which nest, one inside the next, forming a distributed development platform. Neoreactionaries treat their political philosophy in much the same way, taking single tropes from history, treating them as software modules, and plugging them together. Urbit probably works. Patchwork philosophy, not so much.

There’s a name for a rhetorical style divorced from any coherent metaphysical core. The name is sophistry. Hopefully by outlining the technique, we’ve made it easier to see and taken some of the shock and awe out of it.

4 thoughts on “Moldbug Magic

  1. Excellent piece. I started reading NRx material about a year ago. Much of its diagnoses about the state of the West are spot on. Yet, as I read more of it, something didn’t quite fit for me. It did break me out of my more libertarian views, so it’s not useless as an ideology (or rhetorical style in your analysis).

    NRx fails to understand the organic flow of history, as you pointed out. Moldbug’s claim that the world has been awful since 1789 is absurd; I dare them to live as pre-industrial subsistence farmer without the advantages of modern medicine, tools, and agriculture.

    Enlightenment philosophy had its time, as did absolute monarchy. We cannot predict the future. However, the next age of Western society will be something new that considers Enlightenment philosophy and aristocracy, I think, but it will not be ‘turning back the clock’ to some idealized premodernity.

    A final aside, many in Neoreaction and some on the broader alternative right chide mainstream conservatives for wanting to return to the 1950s, as if they don’t long for an idealized 1750.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Moldbug is, if nothing else, one of the great reading lists out there.

    He got me to read Carlyle, Henry Maine, Chesterton.

    The idea that we can also completely reject our whole modern system, that conservatives never conserve anything, that the whole thing needs to go in order to have something truly different, also rings true.


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