2014 is quickly coming to a close, so I’ll celebrate the last month of the year by finally replying to David Brin’s blog post of November 2013. At the time, I was so taken aback by Brin’s excitement and enthusiasm for the topic, I was speechless. Now that I’ve had more than a year to process it, I think I can muster a response. Brin cites me several times throughout his article as a “leading light” of the neoreactionary position.
It may help for you to go read Brin’s post first, so you know what I’m responding to. Brin’s comments are in blockquote.
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.
Best and brightest? Are you sure about that? A few people in the Bay Area does not best and brightest make. One stray critical comment of democracy by Peter Thiel does not mean he is a neoreactionary. Calling Moldbug, Nick Land, and myself “best and brightest” sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, I think. We’re fringe figures with little influence.
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.
Here, Brin makes the claim that aristocracy operated “badly” (in italics) for 99% of past human cultures. It’s worth asking–how? Did it operate badly in 17th century Austria? In 16th century Russia? In pre-Revolutionary France? In Imperial Rome? There’s something suspicious about taking a great diversity of modes of aristocracy, modes of governance throughout history (99% of it), and dismissing them all so effortlessly, with a broad brush. Were all great thinkers throughout history, including Plato and Metternich, simply idiots about governance, while David Brin and his modernist allies are right? Perhaps Brin is the one who is wrong and it was Plato and Metternich who were correct.
Later on, Brin also uses the phrase “getting things done” as something democracies are good at and aristocracies are allegedly bad at. According to what metrics? It’s worth being specific, so this can be debated. When Brin says that aristocracies operated badly, what exactly does he mean? I’ll try to identify substantiations of this claim as we continue.
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.
It’s no illusion, David. Some people come from better families than others. Though some deny this in the abstract, in practice everyone behaves as if it were true, because it is. It’s called revealed preference. Don’t you know how American communities actually work?
David’s denial of class reminds me of the introduction to the book Class by Paul Fussell, where Fussell says some people were angered at the notion that he was even writing a book about class in America. Their denial didn’t make class any less real, though. The entire book focuses on the differences between American classes, often in the area of simple aesthetics. Take this comic from the book, for instance, showing how different classes make use of the same clothing pattern, but in different ways, with different preferred beverages:
Another illustration from the book shows the infamous “prole gap”:
Through many subtle and not-so-subtle cues, Americans sort themselves into different classes. Within each class, there are different hierarchically ordered sub-classes. This is the way all societies have always worked. A recent comprehensive study of surnames in England and their associated socioeconomic status showed that families stay at roughly the same class level for centuries. None of these studies surprise neoreactionaries; our view is that this is natural. It sure surprises idealists who believe in Rousseau’s yarns about equality, though!
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.
David takes the time to include an evolutionary just-so story. Organic hierarchy is not a trick; it is the natural state of human nature. That’s why it requires big government and mass paranoia about inequality to beat it back even a few steps. Calling organic hierarchy a “voluptuous delusion,” when it has worked perfectly well in so many societies for so many centuries, is the product of rigid Enlightenment partisanship. David wants the benefits that he perceives Enlightenment brings, so he calls organic hierarchy a ‘delusion’. Perhaps others would benefit from this ‘delusion’, much in the way you benefit from ‘Enlightenment’, David. To us, you’re the one in a delusion.
For three hundred years, in realms as diverse as science, wealth-creation, error-avoidance, innovation, justice and happiness, [the Enlightenment] 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.
Industrial civilization has outperformed all previous societies in the domain of wealth creation. It has done this through the use of fossil fuel power, industrialization, and automation. Egalitarianism, individualism, pragmatism, and liberality are incidental. The Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution occurred in what were pre-democratic states. The fact that through bloody terror (the French Revolution and Reign of Terror) and colonial rebellion (American Revolution), liberal government had new populations to experiment with does not mean that the success of these countries is entirely attributable to ‘better’ government. We can attribute it to technological development and the human capital of its people. Whether liberality is a prerequisite for technological advancement is highly contentious, as plenty of technological advancement has historically occurred in non-liberal societies.
Liberality may be something that is good for certain societies and at certain times, but not all the time. Historically, European states have benefited from it, but today, it is harming them. That is why we are seeing a return to traditional values and increased support for ‘far’ right parties across Europe. It’s a prelude to the same thing happening in the United States in the near future. Arguably, it is already happening right now. Liberality has many components which can be evaluated individually and approved or disapproved on their individual merits. It isn’t necessary to view liberalism as a take-it-or-leave it monolithic package. Similarly, there is much contention among liberals about the specific implications of liberal principles being applied to individual cases.
Brin’s claim that post-French Revolution society has outperformed “all previous societies combined” is just outrageous hyperbole. It takes an astonishing ignorance of European history to make this claim. Brin believes in democracy and egalitarianism so strongly that he succumbs to the halo effect with respect to them, failing to appreciate the accomplishments of societies without them. He rejects the many great philosophical, artistic, martial, and technological accomplishments of Europe from Ancient Greece up until 1789, all of which occurred in non-democratic, non-egalitarian societies. How can he reject all this so easily?
Brin quotes Klint Finley from his anti-NRx article at TechCrunch, the one that started media coverage:
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.
Yes, we propose this. Brin further quotes Finley:
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.
Actually, this isn’t really true. Most neoreactionaries nowadays are not former libertarians. We come from a variety of political backgrounds. These backgrounds shouldn’t matter anymore since our views have changed.
Brin then quotes me:
“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. (And note how he slips in the Trojan Horse axiom that communism is a categorical cousin to democracy – the sly rogue!) “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.”
I stand by these statements. Aristocratic systems are more fiscally stable. They are more decentralized and less susceptible to failures of the central government. This is exactly the kind of “antifragile” governance our chaotic modern world needs. The current system is highly susceptible to catastrophic failure. We need less federal and state spending, and more local spending. It’s a question of resilience. Communities will shape their own fates; not have their fates shaped by compulsory entanglement with the federal and state governments. As for governance, private government is more reliable and predictable. Let others take their chances with public government. We’ve seen what public government can do, and we don’t like it.
There it is, the assertion that autarchies “get more done” than flighty, self-indulgent, bourgeoise polities.
They do. I couldn’t have put it better myself. For further background, see Evola here.
Is this just a fluke? No, the movement has been long-simmering.
Yes, it’s not a fluke. Many of us have held these views in private for some time, but only in 2012 or so did a lot of people get interested and talk about it publicly. Though people always cite Moldbug, I think it was Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: the God That Failed which really planted the seeds in 2001. The rest is history.
Or the way no ancient autarchy ever “got done” even a scintilla’s percentage of the accomplishments of any modern democracy.
This depends on a very liberal-centric idea of what “getting things done” means. Was the Scientific Revolution not getting things done? Was 2,500 years of European civilization not getting things done? Traditional Europe was not “autarchy,” it was aristocracy and monarchy, which are better for freedom than your liberal democracies are. As Erik von Keuhnelt-Leddhin said, it’s democracies that are anti-liberty, because they crush differences and inequalities. Democracies are always pressuring people to fit in, to be unexceptional. De Tocqueville realized that. “Equality” is fundamentally anti-liberty. The potential for inequality is the essence of liberty. Aristotle said, “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.”
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.”
Yes, we’re so deluded. Except that what we believe in is the same as what nearly everyone used to believe in for millennia. And, we came from the Enlightenment before. But we were reasoned out of it. Hence your panicky tone.
Adam Smith said lots of things. That doesn’t change the fact that we need aristocracy now. Democracy is Communism Lite. Reject Demotism. We need powerful representatives to stand up for our localist, particularist cultural interests. Hence the creation and formalization of aristocrats. Common nobodies, which is essentially me and everyone reading this, can benefit from powerful people who are aligned with our nativist interests. They stand as a natural counterbalance to the other (unwanted) forces of the world, like the USG and multinational corporations. Since International Communism is dead, the USG is the new greatest threat to traditional, localist interests. The behavior of USG reflects its nature as a manifestation of the Demotist, Universalist, Universalizing State. Its universalization-by-force behavior is explicitly or implicitly endorsed by a majority of the electorate. This is especially relevant in education, but can be observed in all spheres of government activity. Democracy is what enables this.
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.
Bourgeois citizens vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. They increase the size of government until it exceeds 40 percent and eventually 50 percent of GDP. Politicians from the Republican and Democratic parties only care about winning the next election and democratic politics is a charade, a big joke. This is all enabled by making government a public enterprise, which it never should have been. Just because a mob can storm a palace and murder a king in cold blood does not mean that democracy is the end-of-history best government ever. It’s an experiment, and perhaps an optima for certain times and certain places. Not an optima for every place, all the time. We are not claiming monarchy is the best system all the time, just that it can be good for certain situations.
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.
I refuted the most important claims of the Anti-Reactionary FAQ here, on this blog. I wrote a 22-page response to one of Alexander’s basic claims about monarchy. I then wrote a second response to specific points when someone on an image board was unsatisfied with my original response. I think I’ve responded quite strongly and cast doubt on Alexander’s original assertions.
Brin says a lot of other things, but I think I’ve made my core points, so let’s skip to the end.
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.
Mr. Brin’s heavy-handed dismissal of neoreaction and superlative praise of Enlightenment gurus only prompts us to question why he is so passionate about this issue.