Curtis Yarvin is America’s newest and most controversial political theorist. By Jacob Siegel. Caution: Long but insightful.
In 2014, Yarvin — who had spent seven years blogging about politics and society under the name Mencius Moldbug — went silent, shifting his attention back to … building … software. …
But he recently did some podcasts:
“When I invited him to be a guest at that event, he was truly radioactive,” the podcast’s organizer, a young intellectual entrepreneur named Justin Murphy, told me recently. The scene brought out LA art hipsters, connoisseurs of civilizational decline, and PayPal founder Peter Thiel. The billionaire, who was one of the first investors in Facebook and has been a longtime patron of Yarvin’s, drank Pabst Blue Ribbon and ate pizza. Thiel’s car idled outside the club, engine on, driver behind the wheel, ready in case the need arose for a sudden exit. Rumor has it that Thiel takes this precaution wherever he goes, but it was not out of place that evening. Murphy, who spent several years in his 20s participating in militant “black bloc” anarchist protests, was worried antifa might show up to protest the event.
The night went off without a hitch. Yarvin had chosen an ideal venue to reemerge, with podcasts providing one of the only channels left to reach the public now that the glossy magazines, publishing houses, and other arteries for circulating new ideas had been choked off by the narrowing band of acceptable opinions.
The narrative people hate Yarvin. That’s interesting.
Starting in the late 2000s, his name — not his real name, he was still known then by his blogging pseudonym — began to be whispered among some of the most powerful people in the country, a secret society made up of disaffected members of the American elite.
Shortly after Donald Trump entered the White House, reports started to circulate that Yarvin was secretly advising Trump strategist Steve Bannon. His writing, according to one article, had established the “theoretical groundwork for Trumpism.”
Yarvin denied the rumors, sometimes playfully and at other times strenuously. But he was consistent in his criticisms of the Trumpian approach to politics. Mass populist rallies and red MAGA hats struck him as merely a weak imitation of democratic energies that had already died out. “Trump is a throwback from the past, not an omen of the future,” he wrote in 2016. “The future is grey anonymous bureaucrats, more Brezhnev every year.”
Yarvin had twigged to the fact that modern western societies are run by a decentralized oligarchy of bureaucrats. It’s the bureaucrats.
What Yarvin is, if one wants to be accurate, is the founder of neoreaction, an ideological school that emerged on the internet in the late 2000s …
Yarvin possessed a style that, even when discoursing at great length on the gold standard or obscure historical matters, never suggested powdered wigs. He wrote like what he was: a hyperintellectual Ivy League autodidact and wiseass tech geek masking his childhood insecurities with an aura of infallibility, who shared the same set of subcultural and sitcom references found in anyone else his age. At its best, this approach made difficult ideas accessible — not to mention viral.
In one of his earliest blog posts, Yarvin birthed the now-ubiquitous meme of “the red pill,” a metaphor he borrowed from The Matrix movies and turned into a worldwide catchphrase describing the revelation of a suppressed truth that shatters progressive illusions and exposes a harsh underlying reality.
In Yarvin’s worldview, what keeps American democracy running today is not elections but illusions projected by a set of institutions, including the press and universities, that work in tandem with the federal bureaucracy in a complex he calls the Cathedral.
“The mystery of the Cathedral,” Yarvin writes, “is that all the modern world’s legitimate and prestigious intellectual institutions, even though they have no central organizational connection, behave in many ways as if they were a single organizational structure.”
Living Americans might be able to glean a sense of the phenomenon Yarvin describes in the current public discourse. It has often seemed in recent years that every few weeks has brought a new instance in which journalists and experts instantaneously, almost magically converged on shared talking points related to the hysteria du jour — cycling through moral crusades to free children from cages at the U.S. border, save the post office from a fascist coup, label the filibuster a tool of white supremacy, and so on. The power of the Cathedral is that it cannot be seen because it is located everywhere and nowhere, baked into the architecture of how we live, communicate, and think. …
Who is Yarvin?
To his readers, his immense, fortresslike body of work offers one of the only redoubts where they can glimpse the realities of power behind the political circus.
To his skeptics, he is a minor fraud whose claims to be a truth-telling iconoclast belie a fundamental affinity with the status quo. Yarvin’s calls to do away with democracy and turn, say, Elon Musk into America’s new CEO king — that’s just the liberal technocratic system we already have on speed, an acceleration into the most dystopian aspects of the endless neoliberal present. …
Yarvin is not a nationalist or a populist, nor even a conservative. Rather, he is the signature example of a political theorist born after the death of 20th-century mass political movements, on the unsettled terrain of the internet. Whether you like it or not, Yarvin is the philosopher of, at the very least, our near future. …
Mightn’t some sort of monarchy be better than the current hidden clique of oligarchs, who answer to no one?
“My ideas really came from reading the Austrian School — Mises and Rothbard — and then Hoppe. Hoppe opened a kind of door to the pre-revolutionary world for me,” Yarvin has said. …
Hoppe theorized a distinction between monarchy, which he defined as “privately owned government,” and democracy, classified as “publicly owned government.” In the introduction to his 2001 book, Democracy: The God That Failed, Hoppe called “the transition from monarchy to democracy” a source of “civilizational decline.”
From Hoppe, Yarvin took the idea that “all organizations, big or small, public or private, military or civilian, are managed best when managed by a single executive.”
If democracy is so decrepit and ineffective, one might ask how it is that America became the world’s great superpower and maintained that position for the last century. Yarvin’s answer contains two parts: first, that nothing lasts forever. Second, while American supremacy may once have rested on innovation and growth, the country, now a bloated empire, has been surviving for decades on the power of myth-making and mass illusions. …
The US used to be a democracy, but after WWII, and especially from 1970, evolved into rule by unaccountable bureaucrats and their allies in big government:
Yarvin believes that one of the worst aspects of democracy is the fact that it rarely exists. Because democracy is the rule of the many, and the rule of the many is inherently unstable, democracies rarely last long.
Burnham argues that all complex societies are in effect oligarchies ruled by a small number of elites. To hide this fact and legitimize their rule in the eyes of the masses, oligarchies employ the powers of mystification and propaganda.
Indeed, Yarvin believes that America stopped being a democracy sometime after the end of World War II and became instead a “bureaucratic oligarchy” — meaning that political power is concentrated within a small group of people who are selected not on the basis of hereditary title or pure merit but through their entry into the bureaucratic organs of the state.
What remains of American democracy is pageantry and symbolism, which has about as much connection to the real thing as the city of Orlando has to Disney World.
In place of a functional democratic system, Yarvin came to believe, there now exists an industrial-scale symbolic apparatus that generates the illusion of political agency necessary for society’s real rulers to carry out their business undisturbed. American voters still go to the polls to pick their leader, but the president is a ceremonial figure beholden to the permanent bureaucracy.
The structure of democratic societies creates two tiers of power,” observed the French sociologist and eminent defender of liberalism, Raymond Aron, in his appraisal of Burnham’s book. While one tier of power is made up of industrialists, military generals, and other decision-makers operating in the shadows, in public their interests are represented by the second tier made up of “those who know how to talk.” The problem identified by the Machiavellians, says Aron, is that while the talkers are not necessarily competent leaders, they nevertheless gain power …
There you have the two paths to power in a democracy: secrecy for the plutocratic persons of action, or, for those in the public political class, skill at deceit. …
Democracy failed libertarians, but libertarianism also fails:
Perhaps the best known of the Silicon Valley democracy skeptics was Thiel. “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” Thiel wrote in 2009. “The great task for libertarians,” he declared, “is to find an escape from politics in all its forms — from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’”
Yet for Yarvin, even though libertarianism may be right about the best way to organize society, it fails because it is unserious about power. An all-powerful state is necessary, a sovereign Leviathan of the kind envisioned by Thomas Hobbes, to impose order by force on a level of such absolute authority that it can then disappear from day-to-day life. …
While Peter Thiel has since disavowed his rejection of democracy — in public at least — and is now financing the U.S. Senate campaigns of a new breed of MAGA 2.0 populists like J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, Yarvin has not wavered.
Power, according to Yarvin, is like computer code, binary. It is either on or off; final and absolute, or merely a glorified form of servitude.
Even the tech giants, which he considers the only efficient organizations left in the United States, are powerless. Facebook may be able to ban anyone it wants while controlling the flow of critical information to billions of people across the globe, but Mark Zuckerberg still has to answer to midlevel government functionaries — a relationship demonstrated by the Facebook CEO’s reluctant embrace of a Democratic Party approved fact-checking apparatus.
Even if Zuckerberg wanted to raise an army to stage a coup, it’s not clear what target he could strike. “[F]or all practical revolutionary purposes,” Yarvin wrote in May of 2020. “the ‘deep state’ is as decentralized as Bitcoin, and as invulnerable—to ballots and bullets alike.”
Because the goal for Yarvin is to force power out of the bureaucratic shadows and make it visible, he sees the brute force approach of China’s government as a positive example. After all, what is the opposite of the U.S. deep state with its esoteric … dogmas, if not the overtly state-worshiping ideology of the Chinese Communist Party where the government’s capacity for violence is never far from the surface? …
Prediction come true:
On Feb. 1, 2020, before any COVID cases were reported in the United States and a few weeks before his comeback podcast appearance, Yarvin published an essay warning that the novel coronavirus could become a devastating global pandemic. He also predicted that it wouldn’t matter. He pronounced America a failed state, unable to envision, let alone muster the capacity to take the kind of decisive action that, according to Yarvin, was being modeled by China’s “zero-COVID” approach to the virus. “The hard truth,” he wrote a few months later, “is that the virus is not just a test of our government. It is a test of our form of government.”
The following summer, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan while barely firing a shot. America’s trillion-dollar investment in the Afghan Security Forces was exposed as a Ponzi scheme and collapsed overnight. In the final chaotic days of the war, U.S. forces struck a deal with the Taliban, their sworn enemy of the past two decades, to provide security at the airfield where final evacuations were taking place. Shortly after that, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the airport killing 13 American service members and some 170 Afghan civilians.
No general or political leader was blamed for America’s longest war ending in humiliating defeat. No one was fired or resigned. Moreover, the total lack of accountability for a catastrophic systemwide failure is, according to Yarvin, not a problem that could be solved by electing better leaders or applying more political will, because it is an essential feature of the system’s design.
“Why did this happen?” Yarvin asked. “Very simply: because no one is in charge of the government.”
Not the wrong people; no one.
No one is in charge, it’s just a decentralized ruling clique that is becoming increasingly incompetent:
Without losing your balance, try to work back through the many sharp reversals of public policy and elite opinion since the beginning of the pandemic.
In February 2020, when Yarvin first issued his warning, it was considered a sign of right-wing racial paranoia to be worried at all about the virus in China. “The actual danger of coronavirus: fear may fuel racism and xenophobia that threaten human rights,” intoned The Washington Post. A few months later, the Great and Good changed their minds and declared the pandemic an unprecedented emergency demanding a nationwide shutdown. Schools and playgrounds were locked. Children were masked. The police were called out to break up weddings and prayer services held by religious communities that insisted on endangering the rest of the country by carrying on with their primitive rituals. Then the Black Lives Matter protests began that summer, and the switch was flipped again. Now, national leaders and public health officials donned the kente cloths of their own religious rituals and joined the throngs. A dazzling new form of Jesuitical argumentation was invented in which the crowding of tens of thousands of people together in the streets was not merely justified in spite of the risks, but redefined as a public health measure to combat the chronic threat of white supremacy and thus not in conflict with “the science.”
Witnessing this spectacle, I have found it easy to picture myself as the member of a captive audience watching a parade of soldiers march by in crisp uniforms, executing their synchronized movements to form images of hammers, surface-to-air missiles, and other icons of the glorious people’s republic. Only here it was not North Korean conscripts marching but the best fed and most thoroughly educated Americans –- university professors, journalists, scientists, surgeons general — who clicked their heels and pivoted in unison. How, one had to wonder in amazement, did they always stay on message even as the messaging changed so often and abruptly?
Yarvin’s answer, of course, is the Cathedral. At one and the same time, the Cathedral is simply a name for the uncanny degree of agreement between the media, universities, and other organs of elite culture, and a theory explaining how the aggregate effect of that agreement is a system of Orwellian mind-control that projects an illusion of freedom so powerful it blinds people to reality.
The question many people have, of course, is whether such a structure actually exists. After two years of COVID, following the disintegration of the liberal state, and the emergence of evermore eccentric ideological impositions, coordinated on what seems like an hourly basis by an invisible yet apparently all-powerful hand, which has no need to account for its nakedly visible contradictions and failures, the answer seems obvious: Either you see it, or you don’t.
I like his analysis; his prescription and suggestions not so much. Much more at the link.