A few years belatedly, I have spent several recent days binge-reading the famous discontinued blog of Mencius Moldbug, also known as “Curtis Yarvin,” a computer scientist and entrepreneur who as some kind of half-advertent side project founded with his writings the small but noisome new school of “neoreactionary” (not his term) political thought (Down with liberal democracy! Restore the Stuarts!).
It’s a good read. It’s certainly more interesting than its demotic Twitter following — O irony — had led me to expect. There’s a lot of humor and a gift for skewering pretensions and a feast of trivia and allusion and a measure of genuine insight. You’ll especially like it if you’ve been searching for the mutant literary offspring of Friedrich Nietzsche and Philip K. Dick and are able to withstand toxic doses of smartassery. (I of course can’t defend Moldbug’s defense of slavery as a natural institution, which comes with a little casual racism — guess which continent produces the best slaves? — and a lot of equivocation on the definition of “slavery.” I trust your programming languages are more consistent, Curt.)
But whatever their merits as literature, as political philosophy Moldbug’s writings are completely daft. And it will be worth our while to spend a few minutes considering why, since it will give us occasion to think about the perennial trade-offs with which politics confronts us, and the perennial need for balance. A few minutes is really all it will take, because, on about your third day of reading Moldbug, by which time your inner Gertrude is positively shrieking “More matter, with less art,” it becomes pellucidly clear that this whole great outpouring, stripped of its gaudy costume and seen in the definite architecture of its skeleton, is a simple stick figure of an argument, standing, like most stick figures, on two legs. One leg is diagnostic, the other prescriptive. We proceed to chainsaw them off.
The diagnosis is that the Enlightenment was a great big mistake, the spread of democracy has been a great big disaster, and feudalism or absolute monarchy would be much, much better (though not best — see below). To make this point, Moldbug constructs a rambling armchair history of modernity, mainly the 20th century, and attributes its horrors, mainly the world wars and post-colonial conflict, to liberal democracy. The only improvements in mankind’s lot over this period have been technological, he maintains. We’ll call this sub-argument of our schematic skeleton the “tibia from violence”; it receives the lion’s share of Moldbug’s diagnostic energy.
A second line of critique — let’s call it the “fibula from governance” — focuses on the dysfunction of the American state: its inefficiency, its gridlock, its structural incentives for politicians to buy votes today with tomorrow’s tax dollars.
A third criticism, the femur from the ghetto, points mainly to urban malaise: crime, of course, but also street trash. Moldbug really hates street trash. I’m sure there was none of that in Charles I’s day.
There are kernels of truth — the reader will allow me to switch metaphors at will — to be found in this diagnosis. Totalitarian regimes have indeed come to power democratically; the imposition of democratic procedures on societies that lacked their cultural preconditions has indeed at times been disastrous; the United States indeed faces a looming debt crisis that neither party is seriously grappling with; and as someone who has lived in both Nanjing and New York City, I can tell you which one I’d feel safer being teleported into at 2 a.m. if the neighborhood had to be selected randomly.
And one can grow any number of familiar non-lunatic sprouts of wisdom from those kernels of truth: that the Iraq War and similar endeavors have been naïve; that decolonization should have happened more gradually and (better) colonization never should have happened in the first place; that mob passions make democracy dangerous when too direct and require moderation by civil society and a substantial infusion of republicanism; that there are things to be said for the comparative efficiency of parliamentary systems; that the need for “proactive policing” has not disappeared even if we must do a better job of giving a damn about the Fourth Amendment; that the time has come for pay-as-you-go accounting; that localism is splendid.
Reading Moldbug is like listening to somebody who informs you of his plan to take care of the termites by burning his mansion down and then starts romanticizing life in a log cabin despite never having lived in one.
And it should be conceded — although the concession cuts both ways — that one’s view of all that will depend greatly on how one prioritizes certain political and social values. Moldbug makes a big show of his allegiance to what is as opposed to what should be, but his whole position nonetheless rests on a gigantic unacknowledged should, namely that paramount importance should be assigned to order and security, and we should therefore accept whatever trade-offs their pursuit may require by way of restricting, say, privacy and liberty. (Moldbug’s ideal state, we will see, is as close to all-powerful and all-knowing as anything could be that wasn’t God.) There is always a lot of interesting discussion to be had among people who want to strike balances between competing shoulds, but when one side of the see-saw bears infinite weight, there’s not much of a game to play. Because his value preferences are, in this metaphor, an infinitely obese child, Moldbug goes straight from his diagnosis to “Restore the Stuarts,” giving scarcely a glance toward the general terrain of my last paragraph. That’s the thing about extremists. They go to extremes. Moldbug’s diagnostic argument is over right where it really ought to get started.
We can nonetheless ask whether the diagnosis of Enlightenment disaster is accurate on its own terms. And it is not, for it depends on an epic lot of trick accounting.
Consider the tibia from violence. First we have to ignore any distinction between sham democracy of the Nazi variety and genuine liberal democracy with deep cultural roots. In his more sober moments Moldbug knows there’s a difference and concedes, for example, that fascism was “a reactionary movement that combined the worst ideas of the ancien regime, the worst politics of the democrats, and the worst tyrannies of the Bolsheviks.” Just so.
Then we have to attribute both the mass slaughter of the 20th century and the lesser slaughter of the golden past to exclusively political rather than technological causes. And that is just absurd. How do you suppose the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb, the Thirty Years’ War, or — Mencius — the Warring States Period would have gone if air forces, heavy artillery, and nuclear weapons had been available? Not that one can’t make plenty of mayhem without them. Our good friend Wikipedia informs us that, in China and nearby environs, the Three Kingdoms War, the Taiping, An Lushan, and Dugan rebellions, and the Mongol and Qing conquests each managed to kill more people than World War I — and without either 20th-century technology or the dread Enlightenment contagion. (The Taiping catastrophe involved a Christian missionary tract, but the source of that is much older than the House of Stuart.)
As with the tibia from violence, so with the fibula from governance and the femur from the ghetto. The history of European monarchy is littered with sovereign-debt defaults, but never mind. Sprawling bureaucracy was well known before the Enlightenment — where do you think we got the word “byzantine”? — but never mind. Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg made it possible for me to take lovely all-night strolls through neighborhoods where two decades prior I probably would have been mugged, but never mind. The reader may continue this exercise at home if he wishes, but suffice it here to say that our neoreactionary accountant is consistently half blind. And the burden of proof is surely on him. Surely we should have a look at a fuller accounting, performed by, I don’t know, an actual historian, before we toss out the whole Enlightenment. Reading Moldbug is like listening to somebody who informs you of his plan to take care of the termites by burning his mansion down and then starts romanticizing life in a log cabin despite never having lived in one.
But then Moldbug, unlike a lot of his followers, doesn’t want to move into the log cabin, even if he’d take it over his current digs. So what’s the actual prescription?
It’s this: Democratic governments will be replaced with sovereign joint-stock corporations, their shares to be owned perhaps but not necessarily by property holders or residents of the realm. The shareholders will elect an executive, who will have plenary authority to rule as he wishes, kill as he wishes, enslave as he wishes, etc. But he won’t do such nasty things, because it would be simply incompetent. The corporation gets its income from property taxes; subjects of the realm may leave whenever they wish; and so genocide will be terrible for business. Should the executive prove to be incompetent, the shareholders may string him up at will and replace him with someone abler.
The logic here — and there is a powerful, simple logic — is to align incentives and allow for their efficient pursuit: The executive has a strong economic incentive for life to be pleasant, and he can immediately do whatever he must, unhindered by our ritual liberal-democratic procedures, to make it so. Freedom in the sense of political participation and popular sovereignty will no longer exist, but we are promised that because the realm is so well ruled, so secure, so all-around wonderful, you, the subject, “can think, say, or write whatever you want. Because the state” — the sovereign corporation — “has no reason to care. Your freedom of thought, speech, and expression is no longer a political freedom. It is only a personal freedom.”
Oh, and there will be world peace, since no executive would be so very incompetent as to wage a war of aggression. (It seems Moldbug has never heard of corporate raiders, who have often been extremely competent.)
In the abstract, this prescription has its appeal. And it’s kind of cute how Moldbug, again unlike a lot of his followers, actually likes the Enlightenment so much that he wants to sneak big chunks of it in through the back door: We’ll have total freedom of political speech even if we don’t call it that; we’ll have total freedom of movement (except for the unproductive members of society, who, if private charity fails to provide for them, will wind up permanently imprisoned in cells that contain “an immersive virtual-reality interface which allows [them] to experience . . . rich, fulfilling li[ves] in a completely imaginary world”); we’ll select or recall the executive, if we are shareholders, by means of an election.
But the whole setup depends on the assumption that the kingly or queenly executive will make no serious mistakes, or that if she does — in another endearing mark of his egalitarianism, Moldbug makes the executive a “she” — she’ll choose to keep playing this particular game: departing office if she’s recalled, letting the residents emigrate if they’re unhappy, permitting the press to trash her instead of smashing it. A computer scientist would think this way: You just set up the rules and your mechanism follows them.
Humans in the flesh are not like that. They’re particularly not like that when they possess tremendous power and are threatened with the loss of it. There is a reason history affords not a single example of a regime that suppressed political freedom while allowing anything like the degree of “personal” freedom Moldbug cherishes.
This — if I may digress into a micro civics lesson — is why we democratic republicans prefer to separate powers and respect civil society while lodging final sovereignty with the people who are governed. Popular sovereignty keeps incentives ultimately aligned and satisfies the bedrock requirement of political justice. And it’s still up to all of us, collectively, whether we want to keep playing the game. But the distribution of operational and social power makes it comparatively easy to contain the occasional bad apple who doesn’t. Is there a cost in efficiency? Absolutely. But efficiency, like technology,* is only an accelerant, neutral with respect to any desideratum. It’s more than worth it to give up some efficiency if you care about freedom — or even long-term survival, since rapid catastrophic failure can be impossible to recover from. (Another one of those ineliminable trade-offs.) Concentrating sovereign power in the hands of a single individual has been and forever will be a recipe for both tyranny and catastrophe — not because there cannot be and have not been relatively enlightened rulers, but because in an absolutist system there is nothing to restrain the inevitable psychopath or idiot or (more common among CEOs) deluded charismatic megalomaniac who pops up among them.
Sovereignty over Moldbug’s realm turns out to belong ultimately to technologists.
Since Moldbug knows perfectly well that his recipe for Singapore could easily turn into a recipe for the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, he presents a lame techno-utopian solution: “the cryptographic chain of command. Ultimately, power over the realm truly rests with the shareholders” — hello again, approximation of popular sovereignty! — “because they use a secret-sharing or similar cryptographic algorithm to maintain control over its root keys. Authority is then delegated to the board (if any), the CEO and other officers, and thence down into the military or other security forces. At the leaves of the tree are computerized weapons, which will not fire without cryptographic authorization.”
This solution is lame not because the technology couldn’t work but because it would have to be applied by human beings — who by definition wouldn’t have to apply it. Since the shareholders cannot plausibly authorize every individual use of every individual weapon, the executive (in some writings called the “Delegate”) could do untold damage before the guns got turned off. Moldbug admits this without quite admitting it: “If the Delegate turns on the proprietors [i.e., shareholders] they may have to wait a day to authorize the replacement, and another day or two before the new Delegate can organize the forces needed to have her predecessor captured and shot.” That leaves plenty of time to massacre the proprietors, doesn’t it? They’re supposed to be anonymous, but it’s hard to imagine that a sovereign corporation with the surveillance powers Moldbug envisions — it will track literally every move you make — wouldn’t know or be able to deduce where they are, since they’d have to be identified by some real-world criterion (property ownership, say) at the founding of the realm.
Maybe they live outside the realm, of course — maybe they aren’t its subjects. Still, they have to impose their will by force. And what is to prevent me, when I am the Delegate, from secretly manufacturing weapons that lack cryptographic locks and fighting the forces that come to dethrone me? The manufacture will probably look suspicious if all the employees’ movements are being tracked, but who’s going to do the suspecting? Remember, I’m running the realm — its surveillance service reports to me and is led by members of my cabal. We can game the thing out endlessly, but you’ll find that we’re always stuck with our trade-off: Either I have operational control and can become a super-efficient catastrophe, or operational control gets distributed in order to contain me but I’m no longer super-efficient.
And maybe I don’t even need to make new weapons. What stops me from modifying the existing ones so that they fire either by cryptographic authorization or by my sole command? The cryptography can be as strong as you like — information-theoretically secure. We still have to connect it to the firing mechanism somehow: and so what, in principle, prevents my reconnecting that firing mechanism to something else? (Does super-duper highest-tech self-destruct mode kick in? Okay.) Sovereignty over this realm turns out to belong ultimately to technologists. A computer scientist would think this way.
Stick to computers, Curt. For political engineering, I’ll take the Founders plus Lincoln plus a healthful dash of the Roosevelts. Although if you can figure out a way to bring back the Bach family along with Frederick the Great, maybe I’ll reconsider — where I want hierarchy is in art.
* The illusion that technology is necessarily good arises from the happy general truth that it is used more often for good than for ill.