The following was delivered to The Catalyst Club on 8th January, 2015. The audience response was very positive, I'm pleased to say. Readers who are already familiar with NRx will probably notice that this talk was, arguably, less about NRx than Neocameralism, though I do throw in some stuff about The Cathedral and hint at Gnon.
Biggest lacuna: not mentioning HBD.
There is a difference between being interested in an idea, in entertaining an idea, and agreeing with that idea. Wanting to discuss an idea, and being curious about its ramifications if put into practice, does not equate advocating that idea. What I am going to be talking about tonight are not necessarily things that I believe or disbelieve in, they are simply things that I am interested in. Tonight, I am going to talk to you about something called ‘Neoreaction.’ You may have heard of it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t. It is somewhat obscure, and it haunts areas of thinking that most normal, healthy folk prefer to leave unthought.
Fortunately for you, I am not one of those normal, healthy folk. I’m of the grim variety, preferring to dress in black and listen to 80s electro and pretend I’m in a cyberpunk movie. Early last year, a series of coincidences lead to me coming across a most unusual bunch on the Internet. They were drawn from many strange and diverse backgrounds, and seemingly didn’t have much in common: they included traditionalist Catholics, neo-Pagans, ultra-libertarians and even a few with this funny idea about bringing back feudalism. Indeed, it seemed that these peculiar people were better defined by what they didn’t believe in than by what they believed in.
They have a name for the ideas they disagree with, and the institutions that perpetuate them: The Cathedral. They have a name for themselves too: they are Neoreactionaries.
Now, to make a few things clear before we continue:
There is not a Neoreactionary ‘movement.’ Neoreaction is, what I like to call, a meta-movement. It is more like Marxism than a Communist Party. It is a web of ideas and theories, discussed and promoted and held by a web of individuals. There is no Central Committee, though there are big names who hold more influence than others. It exists pretty much exclusively online, primarily in the form of blogs (I’ll provide a list of links to anyone who’s interested).
The Cathedral is why the western world (and by hegemonic extension, most of the rest of the world) is how it is. The Cathedral is not the Illuminati, it is not a conspiracy. It’s more like, to use an example from the blogger Scott Alexander, what feminists call ‘The Patriarchy.’ The Cathedral’s foundations are attitudes and beliefs, its spires and buttresses the institutions and individuals who hold and promote these attitudes and beliefs. These institutions include the media, the universities, and governments. The people are typically middle-class and well educated, commanding a great deal of moral authority, even if they have little directly obvious political sway. What The Cathedral does is form public opinion, both on the left and the mainstream right (although the right accepts Cathedralist ideas with much more hesitation than the left). The Cathedral is like an ideological feedback loop: it generates ideas that it already considers to be correct, and presents them as self-evident, criticising dissenting ideas, institutions and individuals accordingly.
The ideas that form The Cathedral are of a distinctly Enlightenment feel, emphasising the notion that the world can be regulated or ordered systematically, that historical progress is real, that things can (and will) only get better. The Cathedral, according to Neoreaction, is probably where more-or-less all of your ideas about politics and history come from.
The Cathedral is why you believe that there is no better form of government than democracy.
The Cathedral is why you believe that human beings are equal.
The Cathedral is why you believe that everyone, deep down, is a member of one great big human family.
The Cathedral, says Neoreaction, is wrong.
The Cathedral as a concept was outlined by the infamous blogger ‘Mencius Moldbug.’ The Cathedral is the name he gives to the institutions that promote the ideals of Modernity, in particular the notions of democracy, equality and universalism, and the idea that history is a clear progress from a worse way of life to a better one. The standard narrative The Cathedral holds is that we can see a clear line of progress throughout recent history. Beginning with the monarchies of feudal Europe, we see, in The Enlightenment, the gradual (or in some places rapid) seizure of power by the educated and mercantile classes and the decay of the authority of the Church, allowing for the rise of modern science and technology, the establishment of democratic government and the recognition of the essential equality and fraternity of humanity. This is presented as a clear progression from an evil, irrational way of organising things to a good and rational way.
Moldbug questions this narrative. I shan’t go into details about Moldbug’s theories about where these ideas come from, but it is suffice to say that he considers them to be historically contingent and, ultimately, arbitrary products of the environment that produced them. As such, they’re not necessarily good ways of organising society. Indeed, Moldbug and Neoreaction think they’re pretty darn stupid ways of doing it.
This is because they deny reality.
Neoreaction has a vast number of internal divisions and disagreements, but a few ideas are held broadly in common: that human beings are in no sense (except, possibly, a spiritual sense) equal; that human populations are not ‘fungible’, but unique and distinct; and that democracy is not an efficient way of ordering a society. As such, Neoreactionaries typically favour the notion of a hierarchical, even autocratic society, or at least one with dramatically limited suffrage. Because I am short on time, I am going to focus on the democratic question.
The chief democratic flaw is the following: the assumption that a population, when taken as a whole, is capable of choosing a government that will actually be good at governing. Why do we think that an election results in good government? Because those elected know that if they do too bad a job of running the country, they’ll get booted out in the coming election. Except, of course, it isn’t as simple as that. A democratically elected government consists of people, and people are self-interested. The people that form a democratically elected government know that, even if they keep winning elections, they’re only there for a little while, a few years at the most. As well as this, even a government that is doing what in the long run would have turned out to be good decisions can still loose an election because of the unpopularity of short-term policies, regardless of the fact that these policies may have major long-term benefits if implemented and maintained. As such, the promises that they tend to make to the electorate are simply those that make them likely to win. And when in power, why not simply favour policies that will have an immediate, short-term benefit for those making the policies? They’ll be out of a job sooner or later, why not simply steal everything out of the office stationary cupboard before they go?
As well as this, Neoreactionaries don’t believe democracy to be particularly democratic anyway. It was put somewhere that in a society where theoretical power is held by the people, real power is held by those who form public opinion, which for Neoreaction is The Cathedral. As such, it is really The Cathedral that holds power in the West, albeit mostly indirectly.
It is important here to note the major libertarian influence on Neoreaction. There has been an attitude among some right-libertarians, or anarcho-capitalists, for a long time now that, to paraphrase Peter Thiel: democracy and liberty are not compatible. It is felt by Neoreactionaries that democracy, as a cultural force, can only lead to the growth of government, its increased intrusion into the lives of its people, and the continual mismanagement of the country, often under the guise of a utopian, typically socialist or otherwise populist or nationalist spirit (again, The Cathedral). What, then, ought to be done about it?
Well, if we begin by accepting that governments are made of people and people are self-interested, and go on to recognise that democratic government is so organised that what is to the advantage of those with power is not to the advantage of those ruled over, the only effective option is to create another kind of power-structure, either outside of or instead of the prevailing democracies, a power-structure where there is not such a conflict of interest.
In other words: replace the democratic state with a joint-stock corporation.
Or, as some Neoreactionaries prefer: a king. Literally, a king. A hereditary monarchy and feudal aristocracy.
The latter suggestion is the one most people who have heard of Neoreaction associate with it, but it is the former that I’m more interested in. As such, what follows shouldn’t be taken as ‘the official Neoreactionary position,’ and there are a sizeable group of Neoreactionaries who reject the notion of corporate government in its totality.
The theory of corporate government goes something like this: if the country, or city-state or whatever, is governed by a corporation that delivers services like- guaranteed safety in public places, guaranteed neutral arbitration of contracts and efficient public transport, and charges residents a fee for these services, and (very importantly) guarantees the right to leave with one’s family and property if one chooses- so long as the corporation delivers on its guarantees, why complain you don’t get to choose the CEO? You can’t choose the CEO of any of the other businesses you have anything to do with, so why would you expect to choose the CEO of this business? Even better, if there are numerous, competing corporate-states, each one can tailor itself to a particular market, attempt to outdo the others with exclusive lifestyle offers (like to get high? I’d bet that BrightonCorp would like to make you an offer…). The wonderful thing about this is that the corporation isn’t answerable to its customers, except through consumer choice, and it is in the direct financial advantage of the rulers to rule well, that is, to satisfy its customer’s demands for personal freedom and security.
Of course, The Cathedral stands in the way of this. The Cathedral has such faith in its ideals that it does not even attempt to justify them. Why, for example, are we so insistent that it is always a good thing when a country becomes more ‘democratic’? What if some cultures flourish better under an authoritarian government?
Typically, Neoreaction does not seek to overthrow the prevailing system of government in a traditional sense (revolutions are far too populist, and Neoreaction is defiantly elitist), though there are exceptions who praise the growing illiberalism of Russia and Hungary, even going as far as to describe Russia as a potential Neoreactionary nation-state. The particular current of Neoreaction I have been discussing, the post-libertarian, typically describes its position as secessionist, valuing the right to exit over the right to have a voice. They don’t want to change the society they live in: they simply want to Get Out.
The desire to Get Out is informed also by a fear that as The Cathedral is a simply unsustainable model of living, when it collapses things will get a little messy. One of the most popular sayings in Neoreactionary circles is ‘Winter is coming.’ That is: once The Cathedral finally falls, if we haven’t Gotten Out it will take us all with it. The crisis in Ukraine, the rise of Islamic State, the growing support of extreme right and left political parties are all interpreted by Neoreaction as omens that the myths The Cathedral has being feeding us (that we’re all one great big happy human family, and that, deep down, human beings really just want to co-operate and so on) are starting to lose ground, and that the harshness of reality, Kipling’s Gods of the Copybook Headings, are preparing to return with ‘terror and slaughter.’ That Cthulhu is finally stirring… And, as The Cathedral cannot be directly opposed, what other option is there other than to run?
Bringing this to a close, I’m going to briefly address why I find Neoreaction so fascinating.
I graduated last year, and after three years of experiencing student politics, the only variations of which tend to be complete indifference or half-arsed communism, encountering a lot of clearly clever people who were right-wing was an exceptionally novel experience. In particular, I find their speculation about alternative ways of ordering society to better maximise freedom and stability very compelling. There is certainly something almost romantic about the secessionist impulse, the desire to cut oneself off from the modern world and go and do things very differently. I want to see a patchwork of corporate states set up simply to see what would happen. And, if I’m being honest, the sheer pessimism they have about the future appeals to the horror fan inside me. If nothing else, Neoreaction provides us with a platform for criticism. In a similar way to how Marxism acts more as a source of critique than a source of solutions, Neoreaction gives us a narrative alternative to the prevailing one. There is value to it simply in that. Most importantly, I feel, is that Neoreaction calls on us to question the role those who inform us play, to question the assumptions that they work under and present us with, and to question the agenda that they may or may not have. Regardless of the answer we may get, there is value simply to the questioning.