Following up on my previous posting, about the rationalizations of the new aristocracy, this time I plan to reveal to you a pernicious trend among some of society’s best and brightest. But first, will you indulge me with a riff of background?
In Existence, I portray a grand conference, held in the Alps around the year 2045. The secret meeting has been called by a consortium of “trillies,” or trillionaire families, with the objective of commencing a new, world-wide era of Aristocratic Rule. But their goal is not just to re-institute the ancient pyramid of privileged domination, but this time to start off on the correct foot. To get it right.
Painfully aware of how gruesomely awful such pyramid-shaped societies were at governance, across the last many-thousands of years — how fraught with violence, delusion, waste and error — the trillie families are nevertheless unable to step back from the approaching time of takeover that their parents had conspired for, all the way back even to the Twentieth Century. Giving in to human nature, they nurse rationalizations about the failure of democratic systems, and their hired boffins supply them with plenty of incantations to support the coming putsch. And yet —
Yet, I also describe this particular lordly cartel as smarter than average. They know that the vast, educated middle class has access to powerful technologies that, should they become enraged, could make the guillotine look like louffa. Hence, they take their coming transition to rulership seriously, much as the Medici dukes of Florence did, during the Renaissance. Amid that alpine conclave, I show them calling on their hired intellectuals and house savants to take up the role of Machiavelli. To study and report what went wrong with past eras of oligarchy and feudalism, innovating ways to do it better, this time.
These are deeply cynical scenes! But still, they also contain my patented brand of optimistic faith in reason: in this case positing that a cabal of trillionaires would have enough honesty and self-awareness to know how badly their favored system worked, in 99% of past human cultures. That they would hire the brightest people they could find (among those who could be trusted to help them end democracy) and ask those boffins to develop modified approaches to aristocracy, based on lessons from both history and science.
For example, how to avoid catastrophic in-breeding and instead use meritocratic systems to invite the very best commoners upward to join their elite families via marriage and other alliances, at the top. Solving the illusion of superiority by making it — gradually — completely real.
== Fictional wishful-thinking? ==
Do I expect such calm and measured sobriety from the New Lords who are — even now — making their moves to restore the ancient social order? Replacing the middle class, enlightenment, diamond-shaped social order with a traditional pyramid of owner-lord privilege?
Of course not.
For every Lorenzo de Medici or Heny Plantagenet there were hundreds, thousands of fools who let flatterers talk them into believing ego-stroking stories — that they were lords because of their own genius, or inherent superiority, or God-given right.
As I have said many times, this is human nature. We are all descended from the harems of guys who pulled off this trick. Voluptuous delusions run through our veins, so strongly that it’s amazing the Enlightenment Miracle was ever tried at all, let alone that it lasted as long as it has.
== The rise of the Neo-Reactionaries ==
Till now, the Enlightenment had several things going for it: like the fact that it works.
For three hundred years, in realms as diverse as science, wealth-creation, error-avoidance, innovation, justice and happiness, it has outperformed all previous societies combined. But that is not the secret sauce. Its key trick, above all, was a very strong mythology of egalitarianism, individualism, pragmatism and liberality —
— the ideal of a level and fair playing field, in which good ideas should win out over bad ones, without interference by stodgy or biased authorities. Adam Smith taught us — and the American Founders instituted — ways to benefit from arenas of competition in which no single person’s (or narrow cabal’s) delusions may reign — but instead products, policies, theories and justice are wrangled, tested and refined in four great arenas — markets, democracy, science and courts — where avoidance of criticism or error-discovery is difficult, even impossible over the long run.
They never worked perfectly and were always under attack by cheaters. Still, these accountability arenas are the only systems that ever penetrated our species’s penchant for delusion in any systematic way. Leftists who despise competition in principle are fools who ignore both human nature and a cornucopia of positive-sum outcomes from the four arenas.
Rightists who believe competition works well without careful tuning, regulation, research, opportunity-enhancement, shared investment in infrastructure, and (above all) relentless prevention-of-cheating are even worse fools who ignore all our past.
Even that most-solipsistic of clades, the libertarians, used to declare fealty to Adam Smith’s process, albeit grudgingly. But you had only to look at their favorite books and stories to detect an undercurrent and foretell that it would emerge openly, someday, into betrayal of Smith. Idolatry of the Nietzschean ubermensch or superman — the figure every geek supposes himself to be — oppressed and kept from his natural place on-top by jealous mobs of bullies, like those who oppressed him on the playground. Where every young nerd (myself included) muttered: “just you wait till I come into my powers!”
From Ayn Rand to Harry Potter to Star Wars to Orson Scott Card, how many mythologies have catered to that fantasy, in all its voluptuous, masturbatory solipsism? In contrast, can you count any mythic systems — other than Star Trek — that encouraged a different view? Recognition that “I am a member of a civilization”? One that made million miracles possible? Not by unleashing a few demigods, but by stimulating the efforts of whole scads of bright folks who are merely way above-average?
Well, the pretense may be over, fellas and gals. Welcome to Nietzsche World.
Welcome to the Rapture of the Ingrates.
It is called the “Neo-Reactionary Movement” — a quasi-new cult that yearns for the ancien régime of monarchy and feudal rule. One that rejects Adam Smith and Franklin and the entire Enlightenment. And above all — democracy.
== Yearning for the “Return of the King.” ==
I’ll let Klint Finley describe this movement for you, in a few paragraphs clipped from his excellent article on the subject: Geeks for Monarchy: The Rise of the Neo-Reactionaries:
“Neoreactionaries believe that while technology and capitalism have advanced humanity over the past couple centuries, democracy has actually done more harm than good. They propose a return to old-fashioned gender roles, social order and monarchy.”
Finley continues: “Perhaps the one thing uniting all neoreactionaries is a critique of modernity that centers on opposition to democracy in all its forms. Many are former libertarians who decided that freedom and democracy were incompatible.”
“Demotist systems, that is, systems ruled by the ‘People,’ such as Democracy and Communism, are predictably less financially stable than aristocratic systems,” a leading light of this movement, Michael Anissimov writes. “On average, they undergo more recessions and hold more debt. They are more susceptible to market crashes. They waste more resources. Each dollar goes further towards improving standard of living for the average person in an aristocratic system than in a Democratic one.”
Is this just a fluke? No, the movement has been long-simmering. It reminds me of a statement made by Star Wars impresario George Lucas in an infamous 1999 New York Times interview. “Not that we need a king, but there’s a reason why kings built large palaces, sat on thrones and wore rubies all over. There’s a whole social need for that, not to oppress the masses, but to impress the masses and make them proud and allow them to feel good about their culture, their government and their ruler so that they are left feeling that a ruler has the right to rule over them, so that they feel good rather than disgusted about being ruled. In the past, the media basically worked for the state and was there to build the culture. Now, obviously, in some cases it got used in a wrong way and you ended up with the whole balance of power out of whack. But there’s probably no better form of government than a good despot.”
Every time I read that, it leaves me breathless. Stunned. I appraised that perspective – and its toxic lesson – in Star Wars on Trial. Indeed, I have elsewhere explored the emotional underpinnings of all this:
“Wouldn’t life seem richer, finer if we still had kings? If the guardians of wisdom kept their wonders locked up in high wizard towers, instead of rushing onto PBS the way our unseemly “scientists” do today? Weren’t miracles more exciting when they were doled out by a precious few, instead of being commercialized, bottled and marketed to the masses for $1.95? Didn’t we stop going to the moon because it had become boring?”
The temptation to wallow in romance — in fiction — is understandable. To prescribe feudalism for real life, though?
Oh, where to begin on this grotesque — and poisonously romantic — wrongheadedness? Shall we start with the way that these fellows erect edifices of assertions that, when examined, prove to be not only untrue, but spectacularly and diametrically opposite to true? Like maintaining that Hitler and Stalin were epiphenomena of democracy, and not absolutist-oligarchist reactions to democracy — attempts to throttle it to death, erecting new elites, complete with harems? Or the way no ancient autarchy ever “got done” even a scintilla’s percentage of the accomplishments of any modern democracy.
The list of staggering rationalizations is too long for me to even ponder addressing, from ignoring Adam Smith’s denunciations of aristocracy as the core enemy of enterprise, to the bizarre belief that you can have economic freedom without any of the political kind, or that the clearly nasty and stupid rulership pattern of 6000 years should ever, ever again be trusted with anything more than a burnt match. Or that Communism was somehow a version of democracy, instead of a quasi-feudal theocratic cult that relentlessly spewed hatred at “bourgeoise democracy.” Or the way they rail against the Hayekian sin of “too few allocators and deciders” when it is committed by civil servants, yet justify narrow cliques of conniving group-think lords who do the same thing, just because they are “private.”
Above all, the hoary and utterly disproved nostrum that bourgeois citizens are fiscally less prudent than kings and lords, a slander that is as counterfactual as claiming day is night.
Fortunately, I do not have to refute this nonsense in detail, myself. Finley links to Anissimov’s manifestos — and many others’ — against modernity, democracy and enlightenment… so go ahead and give their own words a fair shake. Read the incantations! I have faith in you.
Then head over to a marvelous, point-by-point refutation provided by Scott Alexander showing, among other things, how neo-reactionaries overestimate by many orders of magnitude the stability or governing aptitude of monarchies. Alexander recently published an Anti-Reactionary FAQ, a massive document examining and refuting the claims of neoreactionaries.
Seriously, it is huge but painstakingly detailed, accurate and devastating. You need to give it a look. Alexander writes very well, entertainingly, and this vote of confidence in YOU needs to circulate as widely as possible.
== Disproof by example ==
Let me clip just one short part of Mr. Alexander’s devastating refutation of those who contend that absolute monarchy, following ancient principles, will outperform democracy, equal rights and all that decadent western crap. He starts by suggesting the simplest and most fair experimental test of rhe neo-reactionary assertion. That we take a very homogeneous country and split it in half.
“One side gets a hereditary absolute monarch, whose rule is law and who is succeeded by his son and by his son’s son. The population is inculcated with neo-Confucian values of respect for authority, respect for the family, strict gender roles and cultural solidarity, but these values are supplemented by a religious ideal honoring the monarch as a near-god and the country as a specially chosen holy land. American cultural influence is banned on penalty of death; all media must be produced in-country, and missionaries are shot on site. The country’s policies are put in the hands of a group of technocratic nobles hand-picked by the king.
“The other side gets flooded with American missionaries preaching weird sects of Protestantism, and at the point of American guns is transformed into a parliamentary democracy. Its economy – again at the behest of American influence – becomes market capitalism, regulated by democracy and bureaucracy. It institutes a hundred billion dollar project to protect the environment, passes the strictest gun control laws in the world, develops a thriving gay culture, and elects a woman as President.
“Turns out this perfect controlled experiment actually happened. Let’s see how it turned out!”
Some of you know the experiment to which he refers. North and South Korea.
Oh, but read this section. Read the rest. And marvel that bright males (almost no women, of course) are able to talk themselves into believing factually-opposite, example-free, history-ignoring, human nature-ignoring and cosmically stupid incantations, just because it flatters their playground-traumatized imaginations to imagine that — in a world of far more limited opportunities and justice — they would somehow get to be the ones with harems.
== We generate our own, home-grown enemies ==
It is said that every generation is invaded by a fresh spate of invaders — their children. In our case, western civilization has raised many generations steeped in memes of suspicion of authority and questioning the home-and-familiar, one of the most unusual things that any culture ever preached to its own offspring! I appraise this reflex favorably in my essay and book Otherness. These memes are what led to so many successive self-improvement campaigns, from constitutionalism to elimination of slavery. They led us hippies – for example – to march against horridly assumptions that all other generations took for granted — wasteful and inherently impractical superstitions like racism, sexism and environmental blindness. They also guarantee that new immunal rejection reflexes will be applied against the Boomers’ assumption sets by even-newer generations! So be it.
To an extent, this is a core element of the Enlightenment’s healthy process of advancement and renewal. Heaven forbid that the young stop getting in their elders’ faces, confronting their mistakes. But T-cells that go screeching through the body looking for mistakes are not always right! And many a sanctimonious twit of both right and left conveys more heat than light. More noise than value.
In this case of the neo-reactionaries, you have a cult of ingratitude that should incur at least a burden of scholarly proof. Certainly not being allowed to get away with blithe assertions and bald-faced lies. For example, I have again and again pointed out recent evidence — such as Steven Pinker’s book on declining world violence — that we have good news to build upon. Open and reciprocal criticism helped to make the violence decline happen! Along with steep plummets in world (per capita) poverty and so on. That’s a lot of accomplishment to overcome, in claiming that kings could do better.
In fact, I know — and rather enjoy — some of these fellows, such as Anissimov and Peter Thiel, whose other accomplishments are respect-worthy and whose lively, vivid minds make up for abstract disagreements. There are areas of common ground! Like the long range goal of a world that overflows with empowered and sovereign individuals, needing little in the way of regulation or constraint, a shared dream, even if we part company over how to get there.
Indeed, some of them have legitimate complaints — in the nitty gritty of the details of running a complex, democratic civilization. Fine. Want to propose alternatives? Experiments? Deregulations? Criticism is a feature, not a flaw of demotic life, part of the completely unique ferment that generally keeps us moving forward. (For example, I have no objections — only questions – regarding Thiel’s endeavor to create new sovereignties out at sea.) You want to offer innovations and solutions and evidence, along with those wild-eyed assertions? Well, you know…
…we’d all love to see your plan.
== We are still the revolution ==
Alas though, they tend not to view things that way. Here I am speculating: but I believe that some of these fellows have swung this way because they are too smart to be fooled any longer by the undead thing that has hijacked American conservatism, sending poor Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley spinning so fast that Arizona and New York draw electricity from their graves. Having driven off all the nation’s scientists, teachers, doctors and every other clade of “smartypants” professionals, the New GOP could hardly hold on to brainiac Silicon Valley libertarians, who can see the unalloyed record of catastrophic governance and universally bad outcomes from the Bush years.
But what’s the alternative? Preachy, smarmy, compromising-consensualist and preachy-progressivist liberalism? Never.
Let’s give them points for imagination, then, finding a new — or rather, ancient — direction to call their own. Even though Neo-Reaction winds up as delusional as any dogma issued by the House of Ailes.
Rather than picturing themselves as part of Adam Smith’s flat and open competitive churn, Neo-Reactionaries prefer to envision a kind of uprising or counter-reformation. An up-ending and reversal of what they see as a decadent experiment in mob rule, gone wrong, demanding that we return to the beastly way of life that oppressed and limited and cauterized all of our ancestors (including the lords!) — only getting it right, this time. A way of life that (I admit) is the natural human attractor state! One that caters to every romantic impulse behind the popularity of fantasy tales of Martin, Lucas or Tolkien. One that is darwinistically so compelling and natural that it probably snared most intelligent races in our galaxy — a top potential explanation for the Fermi Paradox. An attractor state called feudalism.
An attractor that is yanking hard on us now, as would-be lords deliberately instigate a fresh phase of Civil War to cripple American pragmatism and institutions, throwing into imbalance all four of those great, positive-sum accountability arenas upon which our Great Experiment relies. But it won’t work.
They do not get to call themselves rebels! We and our Enlightenment are the revolutionaries, still, beating down the repeated, clawing assaults of oligarchists from all sides, some of whom called themselves “communists,” but always prescribing the same, boring pyramid of power.
These guys face a steep burden of proof that we should reject the social contract that brought them to their high status, in a civilization that may — in just two generations — embark upon interstellar adventures, bringing light, at last, to the galaxy.
Amid the Rapture of the Ingrates, they are welcome to contend (it’s a free country) that we’d all be far better off if the west had not followed the advice of Locke and Montesquieu and Franklin and Smith and all the other heroes — the greatest our species ever produced — who rebelled against oligarchic rule, giving us one chance — perhaps only this one — to try something else.
They are free to offer that assertion. But I am (nodding thanks to all those heroes) equally empowered to say bullshit.