Mencius Moldbug I

The Ninety Degree Revolution

This article on Aeon Magazine proposed a new political dichotomy based on (as ever) views of human nature and what kind of future we are prepared for.

The new dichotomy: Green (or DownWings) vs Black (or UpWings). [As opposed to Red/Blue (or Blue/Red if you’re American) Left-Wing/Right-Wing]

Of course, the strength of any dichotomy is also its weakness: obviously it filters information in a way that supposes a certain kind of dialectic, and it ignores ideas that don’t fit easily on its single dimension, etc. But categorizing makes thinking of matters much more manageable. If we all admitted that all dichotomies are false and left it there, we’d still have to grapple with the practically infinite different concepts and artifacts out there that compete or cooperate or resemble or negate each other. Better to struggle with the simple tools- they’re flawed but they’re useful enough. If you need to capture new data, build a new dichotomy. Or, if you need more dimensions, go for it- but more dimensions doesn’t mean more Truth (if you’re still into that capital-T stuff), and it is not a sure thing whether it means more Usefulness either (although it certainly can be).

I’ve decided to continue, for a little while at least, to survey more literature of interesting DownWing thought. UpWings have enough cheerleaders already, they couldn’t keep my interest easily right now since I’ve been surrounded by them for years.

So, who in my mind qualifies as a DownWing? Broadly, those who subscribe to a declinist future (I’ll call them Fatalist Greens) or those who are foundationally reactionary (or outside of our current accelerationist/skyward zeitgeist- Intentional Greens. They’re not necessarily politically reactionary, many ecotechnics are pretty radical). Spengler is a great proto-DownWing, in that he saw Cultures as entities with limitations, that eventually constrain and deconstruct themselves. The Archdruid is a(n only) slightly more intentional DownWing, believing that we can construct a livable future and prepare for the hard limits of our natural resources that will curb our skyward ambition. There are still more optimistic (and to me, wildly less interesting) DownWings who see an Earthbound future as simply more desirable (instead of inevitable). I also want to read more reactionary political thought to try to grapple with the range of ideas a little more constructively- I can’t articulate what I’m looking for there. I keep instinctually piling DownWings in with reactionaries but that’s not fair half of the time.

I am currently in the middle of Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technology. It is a book with DownWing sympathies, describing how a combination of tight-coupling of events and interactive complexity can create incomprehensible system accidents. Some of these systems can be approached in ways that reduce this threat, but others may have to be abandoned. I smell a bit of my earlier experiences with Taleb here, with his provocative Harvard-Soviet Delusion.

I am also reading some literature from Mencius Moldbug. I was introduced to him on LessWrong some years ago. I actually have difficulty buying Moldbug as a “reactionary” per se- his persona does beg for the label, but his project is a radical one if you ask me, a refactoring of ancient texts. I am not even sure (unless his oldest posts have been recanted) that he necessary believes what he claims. But I’m not really interested in Moldbug the Person(a). His name and personal history are out there if you’re interested but it’s no concern of mine. I’m starting with his own introductory sequence.


Orwellian States

The twentieth century saw the rise and conflict of three Orwellian mind-control schemes. Moldbug is careful to say that this is not a moral equivalency argument. From the first chapter of A Gentle Introduction to UR:

But in 1938, three systems of government were contending for global supremacy. One of them is still around: yours. Anglo-American liberal democracy. Had military luck favored either of the others—National Socialism or Marxist-Leninism—we can also be sure that it would have discovered and reveled in its foes’ every misdeed, and that it would have approached its own, if at all, tentatively and ambiguously.

If only one can survive, at least two must be illegitimate, and irredeemably criminal. And the survivor will certainly paint them as such. But suppose all three are irredemably criminal? If the third is an Orwellian mind-control state as well, its subjects are unlikely to regard it as such. It will certainly not prosecute itself.
The third, our third, is very different from the other two. We must remember that American democracy is categorically distinct from National Socialism and the people’s democracies in too many ways to count. Since there are too many ways to count, we will not bother counting them. We remain entitled to notice parallels. (For instance, it is almost more aesthetic criticism than political or economic analysis, but do read Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Three New Deals.)

But no number of categorical distinctions from the other two can alter our estimate of the third’s criminality. There are as many ways to be a criminal as there are crimes. That we hang the murderer does not mean we must award a prize to the thief.

Moldbug outlines that in order to believe in democracy, one must believe that “the levers of power terminate with the voters.” This is the idea, he argues, behind our concern with the separation of church and state: if the churches dictate to voters what to think, the politicians may as well skip the voters and go to the churches for guidance, closing the power loop.

If you’re familiar with conservative doctrine, you may know where this is going (I did- it felt like beating Encyclopedia Brown to the answer). Quoting Moldbug, himself quoting Professor Daren Staloff’s “Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts”:

Professional intellectuals and intelligentsia comprised a collective interest. They were the great unexamined class in modern political history, whose will to power occasionally took the form of revolutionary ideological politics. I had a greater appreciation for the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred’s claim that the Puritan divines were the precursors of the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks.

This is the introduction to what Moldbug would later call The Cathedral: the University+Media complex that dictates thought in the United States, a “Party Line without a Party”, an “Orwellian State with no Goebbels”, the synchronization across the nation on ideological issues that concern Moldbug in that the center of balance always tilts leftward, more and more away from order and tradition and towards entropy, anarchy, complexity, chaos. Public Opinion is almost always unidirectional, from the University to the bureaucrats, from the right to the left.

Moldbug sets himself up as a Varys to the Left’s Littlefinger.

In short: intellectuals cluster to the left, generally adopting as a social norm the principle of pas d’ennemis à gauche, pas d’amis à droite, because like everyone else they are drawn to power. The left is chaos and anarchy, and the more anarchy you have, the more power there is to go around. The more orderly a system is, the fewer people get to issue orders. The same asymmetry is why corporations and the military, whose system of hierarchical executive authority is inherently orderly, cluster to the right.

Once the cluster exists, however, it works by any means necessary. The reverence of anarchy is a mindset in which an essentially Machiavellian, tribal model of power flourishes. To the bishops of the Cathedral, anything that strengthens their influence is a good thing, and vice versa. The analysis is completely reflexive, far below the conscious level. Consider this comparison of the coverage between the regime of Pinochet and that of Castro. Despite atrocities that are comparable at most—not to mention a much better record in providing responsible and effective government—Pinochet receives the fullout two-minute hate, whereas the treatment of Castro tends to have, at most, a gentle and wistful disapproval.

This is because Pinochet’s regime was something completely alien to the American intellectual, whereas—the relationship between Puritan divines and Bolshevism being exactly as the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, says—Castro’s regime was something much more understandable. If you sketch the relative weights of the social networks connecting Pinochet to the Cathedral, versus Castro to the Cathedral, you are comparing a thread to a bicep.

Moldbug means to take his Cathedral phrase literally, arguing that our globalist ideals are rooted in our national religious identity, calling the United States an “actual, genuine, functioning if hardly healthy, 21st-century Puritan theocracy”. Personally, I think that if he had talked to Greer at some length about secular religion he might’ve suggested some necessary rethinking on this end, but it was an interesting rhetorical exercise anyway.

Moldbug’s attack on progressivism does not begin when “progressivism” did. He goes way back- considering himself a Tory, denouncing the American Revolution as a criminal act (only vaguely related- HBO’s John Adams really was excellent, and its sort of un-gallant picture of the American masses was actually pretty powerful. Moldbug didn’t think much of the series but he did aside that the Samuel Adams depiction was “spot on” according to the sources he chooses to trust).

As I worm my way through A Gentle Introduction to UR I may have other notes and observations. Likewise with Normal Accidents.