A Gentle Introduction to Mencius Moldbug's
"A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations"
Peter A. Taylor
February 19th, 2013
There is no such thing as a gentle introduction to Unqualified Reservations.
— Mencius Moldbug,
"A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations"
Libertarianism vs. neoreaction
I used to call myself a "libertarian". Lately, I have been telling people that I'm a libertarian on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and a neoreactionary on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends. I find myself continually tempted to link to, or quote from, Mencius Moldbug at the blog, Unqualified Reservations, whom Nick Land described as "the supreme Sith Lord of the neoreactionaries".
But I often refrain. Moldbug is perhaps the most entertaining writer since H. L. Mencken, and maybe even my favorite ever. He is often informative and insightful. He can also back up what he says with a seemingly infinite supply of obscure or archaic literature. But he is also offensive, internally inconsistent, and sometimes nonsensical. Often I can't tell if he's joking. I was tempted to borrow the title "Guess which parts are sarcasm" for this article from Wyoh over at Simon Jester. I have sometimes described Moldbug as a "troll", who seems to be willing to say anything he can think of to jerk Progressives' chains. He tends to write long serial essays that start out brilliantly, but after the second installment or so, he typically goes off on a tangent into some intellectual territory that strikes me as utterly indefensible. Often, I suspect him of circumstantial ad hominem fallacies, saying insincere things that Progressives will find attractive in order to get them to read further than they otherwise would, the better for him to jerk their chains later.
The purpose of this article is to enable me to talk about Moldbug's worldview more easily, partly by identifying a few of his most memorable essays, but mostly by distancing myself from the most unreasonable bits. Having established a clear separation from the most radioactive parts, I can then allow myself to be associated with the good parts.
First of all, what is a "neoreactionary"? Arnold Kling wrote, "I call the outlook neoreactionary because it is sort of like neoconservatism with the gloves off." I think of them as feral non-Progressives, as opposed to domesticated "conservatives" such as National Review editor Rich Lowry (see Mark Steyn regarding the Derbyshire affair) or, in my opinion, Jonah Goldberg. (Lowry's "defenestration" of John Derbyshire (more here) reminds me of the recurring scenes in Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run where he keeps taking off and smashing his own glasses in order to preempt people who threaten him.) There was also a discussion of "reactionary" recently in the comments at Dennis Mangan's blog ("A reactionary is someone who vomits when something unpalatable is shoved down his throat; which happens now about once every half-hour."). Kling listed Mencius Moldbug, Jonah Goldberg, and Angelo Codevilla as examples of neoreactionaries. But I also disclaim Codevilla as a neoreactionary. He seems too much like a paleo-conservative: staunchly Christian, socially conservative, and not radical enough in his critique of democracy. I also take the prefix, "neo", to mean that a person's views have undergone radical changes. Codevilla seems like he was born that way. On the other hand, I take Moldbug to be the very model of a neoreactionary: an atheist with classical liberal (libertarian) values, but who rejects libertarian moral and political theories and engages in radical criticism of democracy. Moldbug seems more like the rationalists Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote about, who realized that the people around them (e.g. their parents) were insane, and had to go to heroic lengths to filter out the madness. Like Moldbug, my sympathies are libertarian, but libertarian political philosophy often strikes me as hopelessly naive.
The fundamental diagnosis of libertarianism - that today's democratic governments are much larger and much more intrusive than they should be - is obviously correct. The remedy proposed, however, does not have anything like a track record of success.
Oh, and you kind of have to be a little bit gay for Thomas Carlyle. Moldbug describes reaction as "the pure opposite of progressivism", and says it is "long since extinct in the wild, but it lives in Carlyle...." (I've only read a little bit of Carlyle. He's bombastic, which is fun, but as far as substance is concerned, he seems overrated.)
Immigration policy in particular illustrates the divide between libertarians and reactionaries. More generally, libertarians tend to take political stability for granted and take economics textbook assumptions too seriously. Reactionaries in general worry about political stability, and probably go too far in the other direction, sneering too much at economics textbooks. Libertarians tend to be into deontological moral theories, only loosely connected to utilitarianism. Neo-reactionaries tend to be explicitly consequentialist if they discuss moral theories at all.
Neo-reactionaries tend to take a different posture toward the classical liberal tradition in general; libertarians tend to jump up and salute it, emphasizing its historical respect for property rights, where reactionaries view it at best as a stalking horse for socialism and mob rule. Reactionaries tend to make specific, politically radioactive criticisms of democracy, where libertarians vacillate between disliking all government in the abstract and supporting Progressive ideas such as open borders and birthright citizenship in practice. Libertarians are committed to the individual as their unit of analysis. They say, "Lose the 'we'." Reactionaries are often willing to lump people together and look at tribes and cultures as their unit of analysis. For example, as a libertarian, I don't believe in collective punishment. As a reactionary, I am afraid that we might have to consider it in response to suicide bombing.
Also, a point of order: it's hard to find specific old posts on blogspot, where Unqualified Reservations resides, so you'll need an index. Fortunately, some anonymous nice person has made a very good start at producing one, at a website called Moldbuggery. There is also a dribble of Moldbuggy quotations (lightly edited) on Twitter, but unfortunately, they are impermanent. Martin Regnen has a good synopsis of Moldbug's views posted here. He links to the same Moldbug "Open Letter" series that Kling links to (which I discuss below). Moldbug himself presents a synopsis of his views in this YouTube video, but I'm afraid that neither the format nor the time limitations do justice to them. Update: you can download many of Moldbug's essays in pdf, epub, and mobi formats from More Right.
Progressivism as religion
Any compilation of Moldbug's greatest hits would have to include "A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations" (part 1, part 2) and "How Richard Dawkins got Pwned" (part 1, part 2). These are long series, and I don't especially encourage you to read past the first two posts in each series. See Moldbuggery if you want to read the rest. I link with some reluctance to Gentle, part 3 because Moldbug gets into somewhat radioactive territory regarding race.
My ideal future is one in which governments pay at most minimal attention to race. If that makes me a racist, so be it. But Orwell just came in his pants.
(In fairness, my problem in this particular case isn't so much that I think Moldbug's statements are technically wrong, as that he offers his enemies too great an opportunity to engage in racial McCarthyism. Moldbug uses a pseudonym. I do not. When I approach a topic that is capable of being conflated with race, I have to approach it with more delicacy than he does.)
The major theme in these four installments is the relationship between Anglo-American Protestant Christianity and what Moldbug usually calls "Universalism". Roughly, this is Progressivism or modern Political Correctness. I don't like the term, "Universalism", but as a member of a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church, I have to conceed that I am unable to identify much daylight between "Universalism" and what is typically preached in UU churches, so it seems like a fair cop. Moldbug uses Dawkins' analogy between genetics and the spread of ideas (Dawkins coined the term, "memes"), and claims that Universalism is an evolved form of Protestantism. I think Moldbug pushes this analogy a bit too far. I prefer to think of the relationship between Progressivism and Christianity as like that between a hermit crab and a nautilus. The hermit crab did not evolve from the nautilus, the nautilus died, and the hermit crab took up residence in the empty shell. Part of my problem here is that Moldbug attributes anomalously high levels of sanctimony to a specific religious/intellectual tradition, which he reasons about using (Mendellian) genetic analogies. I see sanctimony as a more-or-less universal constant with expressions that change by (non-genetic) Lamarckian processes.
But Moldbug's larger point is correct: Progressivism is functionally a religious movement, and it has largely replaced Christianity. These four installments are a real delight to read. If you read nothing else, read Gentle Intro, pt. 1. (But in order to experience the cream of the jest, you really need to follow the link to Professor Staloff, to appreciate how close Moldbug's version is to the original.)
Moldbug makes a similar point in "Why do Atheists believe in Religion?" and Our Planet is Infested with Pseudo Atheists. Is "religion" a useful philosophical category? We have the Disestablishment Clause in the US Constitution, but the distinction between "religion" and functionally similar "political ideology" obscures more than it illuminates.
Incidentally, the word "universalist" has at least three different meanings:
Identity politics is a form of particularism. My understanding is that, in order for democracy and trial by jury to work, the overwhelming majority of the people need to be universalist in the second sense, and not in the third sense.
For more detail on what this crypto-Calvinism thesis is and why I think it's stupid, see Appendix A.
Another major theme of Unqualified Reservations is "formalism" or "neocameralism". Moldbug discusses this in terms of Dungeons and Dragons alignments in What if there's no such thing as chaotic good? There are two important points here. One is that "good" is subjective, so when "good" people act in undisciplined ways, the result is, at best, people working at cross-purposes, and at worst, civil war. This result is "evil" for any normal person. The other point is that a great deal of the evil that governments do is done as a side effect of insecure governments trying to stay in power. Libertarians dislike governments that are "strong" in the sense of overfunctioning. Moldbug likes governments that are "strong" in the sense of not having to do desperate things in order to stay in power. I agree with his point that "chaotic good" in theory means "evil" in practice, but he likes to play word games (e.g. with "strong"), and I find this unhelpful.
Part of formalism is that the Just War doctrine applies to civil war: it's immoral to kill people unless there is a reasonable expectation of making an omelette that's worth the eggs you're going to break. In practice, this comes very close to being equivalent to the divine right of kings, or in other words, "Might makes right." This theme resurfaced just the other day.
Divine right of kings also has the advantage of giving the ruling family incentives to have a very long planning horizon. Moldbug seems to prefer a sovereign corporation, but considering our modern problems with corporate governance, perhaps the old ways were best. (He is inconsistent—sometimes he claims to be a neo-Jacobite and endorses the Stuart line.) Democracy, with its regular elections, suffers enormously from what in game theory is called the "last period problem". Congressmen seldom have more than a two-year planning horizon. See Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on John Adams as a "lame duck". There is also a saying that Bill Clinton could rent out the Lincoln bedroom, but he couldn't sell it.
There is partial truth in the claim that the evil governments do is in order to stay in power, but Moldbug carries this too far. See the Fnargland thought experiment. This thought experiment is intended to illustrate that greed in a truly secure sovereign is relatively harmless. As a quick counter-example, listen to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on EconTalk talking about King Leopold II in the Belgian Congo. Only some misgovernance is the result of actual or potential power struggles. Consider Eugen Richter's view that socialism wasn't corrupted, it was "born bad". Some tyrants are gratuitiously cruel (e.g. Stalin: See The Last Bolshevik and Trotsky.)
Another recent post also features the "might makes right" theme. But ask yourself what the purpose of some recent political maneuvers is. The Texas Republicans require women seeking abortions to undergo unnecessary, intrusive medical procedures, and the Democrats at the federal level require Catholics to pay for birth control. Are these measures necessary in order for the respective political factions to remain in power, or are they gratuitious attempts to humiliate political enemies, to the long term detriment of maintaining political power? Maybe this is how you maintain power as leader of a mob, but I have no confidence that gratuitious abuse will decrease if one political faction attains a more secure grip on power.
Moldbug's Patchwork series is as good as any illustration of the indefensible tangents that I complain about. He has a science fiction scenario involving soldiers whose guns have cryptographic locks, so that the authority that controls the cryptography keys can disable any weapons in the hands of soldiers staging a coup, rendering the authority secure. But the association between a government being secure in power and its being benign is a half-truth. The cryptographic lock trope carries a half-truth to its logical conclusion, but Moldbug never acknowledges it as a half-truth. In practice, I think he overstates both the stability and the orderliness of monarchies.
Part of his defense of formalism is the claim that his reactionary state will be attractive because it is an exit system rather than a voice system. The underlying idea is sane: Arnold Kling says that "If you value freedom, then I think that exit comes out way ahead of voice as a mechanism by which people can express their preferences." The Lenny Bruce version is that if you "get really rank with the clerk" at Macy's, you can always just go down the street to Gimbel's. That's an exit system, or "Capitalism". If you get rank with the phone company (the old land line monopoly), you "end up like a schmuck with a dixie cup on a thread". That's a voice system, or "Communism". (Hat tip: David Friedman, p. v.) The voice vs. exit issue is why Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman are so interested in seasteading. The problem is that voice vs. exit has nothing to do with the government's security against turnovers. The Kim dynasty in North Korea is less vulnerable to turnovers (including elections) than the US government, but there is no right of exit from North Korea. Or think about the Berlin Wall. And in practice, what made the US work as well as it did for so long may well have been the existence of a frontier, making the cost of a de facto exit from an overactive political system lower than it would otherwise be (see Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations).
One final point on formalism: From what does a government get its legitimacy? Another answer Moldbug gives, apart from "Might makes right", is by being "lawful", which I interpret as honest; following its own laws and telling the truth. In Gentle, part 1, he writes,
I'd say a fair definition of an Orwellian government is one whose principle of public legitimacy (Mosca's political formula, if you care) is contradicted by an accurate perception of reality.
On the face of it, honesty seems like a very bad answer to the legitimacy question. Can't a government be honestly tyrannical? Theoretically, yes, but in practice, governments that are behaving badly almost always lie about it. So as a proxy to the question of how legitimate a government is, you won't go far wrong if you ask instead how honest it is. He quotes Carlyle (here, for example),
No, at all costs, it is to be prayed by all men that Shams may cease.
But who lies more in practice, democrats or monarchists? I note that Moldbug seems to directly conflict here with Bernard Crick in In Defence of Politics, 4th ed., p. 182: "One peculiarity of the political system is that it is the only system of government in which telling the truth about how the system works does not endanger the system." Crick's "politics" is defined in terms of conciliation and compromise, if not democracy, and appears to me to be diametrically opposed to formalism. (Bruce Bueno de Mesquita also seems diametrically opposed to formalism: the path to benign government is to broaden, not narrow, the coalition that it needs to stay in power.)
But Crick also warns (p. 22) "Advocates of particular political doctrines...should beware of denying the context in which their doctrines can operate...." What is the context in which democracy can operate successfully? Moldbug has an excellent discussion of this context. (Update: his sick journey is also worth reading for the context in which libertarianism can work.) Are those conditions still met in a society that is as driven by identity politics and half-assed socialism as ours is? Crick writes that in Northern Ireland, democracy is part of the problem. Think about Yugoslavia and Iraq. Monarchy appears to be less sensitive to context. Benjamin Franklin wrote,
Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.
Moldbug also invites you to join The Froude Society by reading Henry Sumner Maine's 1886 Popular Government (nice pdf here). Reflecting on our Civil War, Maine writes (p. 123),
The short history of the United States has, at the same time, established one momentous negative conclusion. When a democracy governs, it is not safe to leave unsettled any important question concerning the exercise of public powers. I might give many instances of this, but the most conclusive is the War of Secession, which was entirely owing to the omission of the "fathers" to provide beforehand for the solution of certain Constitutional problems, lest they should stir the topic of negro slavery. It would seem that, by a wise Constitution, Democracy may be made nearly as calm as water in a great artificial reservoir, but if there is a weak point anywhere in the structure, the mighty force which it controls will burst through it and spread destruction far and near.Elsewhere he writes,
This warning deserves all the attention of Englishmen. They are opening the way to Democracy on all sides. Let them take heed that it not be admitted into a receptacle of loose earth and sand.
It is not at all easy to bring home to the men of the present day how low the credit of Republics had sunk before the establishment of the United States.
Nick Land also quibbles with Moldbug over formalism. He makes some good points with regard to the nature of property rights.
Update: Scott Alexander has a long but excellent article on reactionary philosophy with a good discussion of the fable of Fnargl and "The Uncanny Valley of Dictatorship".
Oh, and Moldbug's claim that sovereignty is conserved is bullshit.
Moldbug has written a number of excellent, relatively short essays on specific, relatively technical topics. One of these topics is Keynes-Fisher macroeconomics (KFM). My favorite of these macroeconomics essays is his "Straightforward Explanation": Why do banking systems explode? Learn Nitroeconomics while exploring the Dungeon of Yendor. Seriously, I have read some of Milton Friedman's popular writings about the fractional reserve banking system, but I found Moldbug's discussion of maturity mismatch and maturity transformation more helpful. Part of his worldview is Austrian economics (i.e. Ludwig von Mises). He has also written a number of articles about fiat money vs. a gold standard, etc., but I don't understand the issues well enough to have much of an opinion about this.
Another recurring technical topic is scientific misconduct, especially in the context of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). He discusses this in some detail in Gentle Introduction pt. 3, but I especially liked his comments in "UR is on vacation":
Now, if we compare (a) the organizational structure of post-WWII Western science, to (b) the organizational structure of pre-WWII Western science, to (c) the structure of Soviet science, we see that (a) looks a lot more like (c) than like (b).
As an aside, you can get some interesting perspectives on the economics of global warming from David Friedman and Robert Laughlin.
The Civil Service
One of the "internally inconsistent" aspects of Moldbug's writing is his stance on democracy. Sometimes he claims that the problem with the US is democracy (Gentle, pt. 4),
For example: WTF is wrong with Washington? Why, for example, is it so grimly and joyously intent on crushing productive industries and rewarding inept ones? Such are the psychic mysteries that have baffled many a thinktank. Yet the royalist surgeon steps into the room, glances quickly into America's open skull, and scribbles a diagnosis as obvious as it is concise: republicanism. ("As bad a case as I've ever seen. Very little hope, I'm afraid.")
and sometimes he says that the US is run by unaccountable civil service personnel, and isn't really democratic at all ("Open letter to Ron Paul supporters").
As I've mentioned a couple of times, I come from a civil-service family. Horrible as it may seem, I was raised and educated on your tax dollars. And if there is one modern production which everyone who I have ever met who had ever been involved in government considers an accurate portrayal of the actual thing as it actually is, it is, of course, Yes Minister.
My own view here, having read some Nelson Polsby (The New Federalist Papers) and some Bryan Caplan is that these subordinates really are subordinates, subject to laws that Congress can change at their pleasure. They can be fired or drafted into the Army and sent to Greenland whenever a consensus develops within Congress that they've gotten too uppity. They have influence, not control. (Caplan writes of lobbyists, etc., only being able to operate successfully along voters' "margins of indifference".) Congress keeps them around because they are doing exactly what Congress wants them to do: providing Congress with plausible deniability. But my point here is to complain that Moldbug is inconsistent in blaming America's problems on a democracy that he denies we have. Maybe his claims could be reconciled by a more careful explanation of different meanings of the word, "democracy", but then I'm back to accusing him of playing unhelpful word games.
He's at it again in his most recent post, lampooning Charles Stross:
Could any more penetrating portrait of an American election be penned? "Not fundamentally different from calligraphy lessons."
This denies any moral agency to the American voter. I call bullshit on this. The American voters did not have the Social Security Ponzi game forced upon them, they supported it, and they have repeatedly punished any politician who dares touch this "third rail". The serpent can offer Adam and Eve the apple, but the decision to bite into it belongs to Adam and Eve. It isn't the serpent that we should fear, but the rationalization hamster internal to Adam and Eve. What is the difference between the "Democracy, cis and trans" that Moldbug writes about? The difference is whether or not the voter has a strong enough sense of honor to stand up to the rationalization hamster.
Incidentally, another juicy quote from the "Open letter to Ron Paul supporters":
If you're trying to save the old libertarian America, you've arrived on the scene a little late. Electing Ron Paul is like showing up at an autopsy with a live human liver. Yes, it's true - the patient did die of liver failure. But that was a week ago. I suppose it can't hurt to try and put the thing in, but I really doubt it will do any good.
I note that Moldbug has advocated voting for Obama on several occasions in order to hasten the collapse of American democracy and the restoration of order, if not monarchy. I thought I remembered a post from right after the 2008 election, mocking US voters for having made a horrible choice, but I can't find it.
[Update: Here it is. "Basically, dear Americans, this disqualifies you from voting ever again. You've been pwned. You're out. As I told the IvyGate blog:
There are - or at least, were - lots of plausible candidates for chief executive who don't have any kind of murky ties to murderous political fanatics. I mean, duh, you know, if history teaches us any lessons, I think one of them is: 'don't elect leaders with murky ties to murderous political fanatics.'"]
My initial reaction was that Moldbug can't be serious about wanting to hasten the collapse. I think it's stupid, and that we should want people to have as much time to rethink their views (and deal with the loss of face) as possible. As "Tedd" put it at Samizdata, "[T]he argument against collectivism and progressivism needs to be won before the collapse happens. Once the system collapses, people will assess blame according to the political paradigm they already subscribe to...." But Perry de Havilland pretty much takes Moldbug's view, and de Havilland seems to be serious. This makes no sense to me. Moldbug's comment that "Doubt is a slow flower" seems to contradict his enthusiasm for shock treatment.
Update (from the same update link above): Here's a relatively plausible Moldbug argument for hastening the collapse. The whole thing is worth reading.
But if you have fantasies of reforming this thing, of making it conservative or libertarian or whatever, you're either a fool or a fraud. Now and for the foreseeable future, you are for Washington or you're against it. And if we have Barry Obama to thank for that, God bless Barry Obama.
The next topic I would like to take up is what Moldbug calls "The Cathedral", known in other circles as "The Clerisy" (e.g. Tom Wolfe). This consists of the press plus academia plus the entertainment industry (e.g. Hollywood). I like to refer to these as society's "opinion-forming organs". This topic is hard for me to address because it's hard to separate from social class, political nomenclature, and quasi-religion. But I don't recall anything in Moldbug's discussion of the Cathedral from which I feel a particular need to distance myself.
You may find my view of media bias in an appendix to my review of Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter. Several Unqualified Reservations posts figure in it: America: vampire of the world (part 1), The Crimes of James von Brunn and Marcus Epstein, and Is Journalism Official?
The Cathedral is a continually recurring topic of discussion at Unqualified Reservations, but really, it's hard to beat part 1 of Gentle Introduction.
Certainly, the synchronization is not coordinated by any human hierarchical authority. (Yes, there are accreditation agencies, but a Harvard or a Stanford could easily fight them.) The system may be Orwellian, but it has no Goebbels. It produces Gleichschaltung without a Gestapo. It has a Party line without a Party. A neat trick. We of the Sith would certainly like to understand it.
There is another post that I think is particularly worth noting for its discussion of the Cathedral: Another interpretation of Obama at Columbia. It also illustrates the difficulty of discussing the Cathedral independently of social class. Maybe separating the two is a fool's errand. Normally, I don't read the comments, and normally, Moldbug doesn't participate in the comment section, but this post is an exception to both rules. This is some of his best explanation of how the Cathedral works. The signal to noise ratio is much higher than usual. From the comments section:
[P]rogressivism is a communicable disease, and stupidity provides immunity. The smarter you are, the more ways you have to fall for one of its little Jedi mind tricks.
A little further down:
These people just cannot conceive of a world in which they are wrong, and the Sarah Palin troglodytes are right. Unfortunately, democracy is a terribly efficient mechanism for making bad ideas fashionable. This means the good ideas tend to be unfashionable, although not all the unfashionable ideas are necessarily good. Understanding this principle is what makes one a reactionary.
Incidentally, this discussion of media behavior reminds me of Jesuitical reasoning.
George Tyrrell (1861-1909), once famous as a Catholic modernist and no admirer of the Jesuits, wrote that if you accused them of killing three men and a dog, they would invariably produce the dog alive and prove you wrong.
Moldbug also posted a lengthy excerpt from Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, As breathing and consciousness return. Apart from being a fine rant against the intellectual corruption modern people have experienced on both sides of the iron curtain, it explains why people are willing to tolerate poor quality in alternative media, and pleads for people, even if they are forced to participate outwardly in lies, to refuse to internalize the lies.
By the way, Eric S. Raymond had a nice comment recently on charisma. Refusing to internalize lies is part of the trick.
Most people are half-aware that they are almost constantly surrounded by a net of lies.... The charismatic who is honest and fearless brings a gift.
Finally, I get my news from the internet, from places like Instapundit, so I don't really have an opinion about Fox News, but Moldbug had an interesting comment about it in his Actual letter to a liberal friend:
One easy reaction is to blame Fox News. It is true: for the first time in a long time, the peasants have an exclusively peasant-themed mass propaganda channel. However, the objective observer notes quickly that Fox News is not so much telling its audience what to think, as telling them they are allowed to think what they already think.
Update: I suspect that the belief in "The Cathedral", the belief that Western civilization's opinion-forming organs are systematically corrupted and infested with groupthink, is the single most important characteristic of the neoreactionary movement. The best explanation of The Cathedral I have found is in Open Letter part 4. Basically, there are three ways to acheive consensus: 1. central command and control ("coercive power distortion"), 2. spontaneous coordination with everyone following intellectual fashions ("attractive power distortion" or an "intellectual peloton"), 3. scientific convergence on reproducible evidence (Karl Popper's "open society"). The Cathedral is an expression of method 2. Read the whole thing (part 4).
[I]n many ways nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth.
Another recurring topic at Unqualified Reservations is social class. Here the challenge for me is to disentangle social class from race, culture, and religion. Mostly I like to talk about culture, but I like to talk about it in terms of quasi-religion (see The Market for Sanctimony or my reviews of Lewy's Why America Needs Religion and Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter). Moldbug often writes about social classes or "castes", although he seems to view this as having more to do with the prestige of one's educational background than birth. One of his earlier discussions of this was a five caste system. A far more entertaining treatment was his later discussion of Sarah Palin: the proletarian candidate in terms of a three-caste system.
Earlier I complained about not being able to tell when Moldbug was joking. I'm pretty sure he's joking here:
Two years before each election, each candidate or potential candidate for the Outer Party nomination must submit to a secret ritual conducted in the license-plate room of the Skull and Bones house. First, trained ferrets relieve them of any remaining fringes of their original manhood. Candidates then receive 250ug Delysid. When the drug begins to take effect, the candidate is locked in a closet with a DVD player and the complete, 7-disc Yes, Minister series. The course ends with a West Point-style trivia drill on the machinations of the devious Sir Humphrey. Brief waterboarding sessions occur throughout. The full training takes a couple of days, but produces a highly tractable Republican "politician."
You see, there are all sorts of problems with Governor Palin. She does not fit the profile. She displays no appearance of any awareness that the reality show is rigged. She might even think that the "President" actually is the CEO of America. And I'll bet no one even told her to show up at Skull and Bones.
I'm 90% sure the bit about the trained ferrets was a joke.
Another post, Actual letter to a liberal friend, mentions Detroit and illustrates the difficulty of separating class from either race or ideology.
This three-caste system, and its relevance to the fate of Detroit is strongly reminiscent of the three-caste system described by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in their allegorical fantasy novel set in prehistoric Los Angeles, The Burning City. Some of the character names are anagrams. The elite "Lords" had long ago formed an alliance with the low-class "Lordkin" against the middle-class "Kinless". But these classes are based on kinship. My friends and aquaintences are all pretty much middle class, yet they are predominantly Progressives. Are they Lords or Kinless? Devin Finbarr makes a distinction between economic and social classes. His social classes are "SWPL" (Stuff White People Like), "Amerikaner", and "Ethnics". Elsewhere, I described the conflict as between "Roundheads" and "Cavaliers", with the armies being divided into "officer" and "enlisted" ranks.
It seems to me that it makes better sense to look at these divisions in terms of quasi-religion. What do I have to do or say in order to have high social status within my peer group? And how difficult would it be to switch peer groups? But I still feel like I'm missing something.
What insight can I glean from the fact that one of my co-workers has a tattoo? I don't have a clue.
Race, culture, and human neurological uniformity (HNU)
Race is such a thoroughly radioactive topic in US politics that I hardly know where to begin. The argument is sometimes made (e.g. by Foseti) that there are some topics (e.g. "strangely effective malaria control") that it is impossible to discuss honestly except using a pseudonym, and that this is one of them. Unfortunately, I need to distance myself from parts of the neoreactionary movement with regard to race, including both Mencius Moldbug and John Derbyshire, so I don't really have the option of ignoring the issue. Plus, I already brought the issue up in The Market for Sanctimony in the process of condemning racial McCarthyism. I may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.
One of the staples of political argument is the fallacy of ambiguity. The way this works is that political partisans use two or more implicit definitions of a word, and they quietly switch definitions in the middle of their argument. So there are weak definitions of "racism" that allow, for example, the villians in David Reich's thinly fictionalized memoir, The Antiracism Trainings, to define essentially anyone and everyone as "racist"; and there are strong definitions that apply only to people who are profoundly evil and stupid. Playing fast and loose with these definitions allows political partisans to "prove" that their opponents are profoundly evil and stupid, pretty much regardless of the facts.
Update: a friend suggests the following definition of racism: "Racism is making a judgment based upon a person's or people's race within a context where their race isn't relevant. When a person's or people's race is relevant, a judgment based upon their race is racial rather than racist. The political left thinks unclearly about race issues because it fails to distinguish between the terms 'racial' and 'racist'." I think he's being too generous regarding people's motives. But there's also the question of when race is relevant. When is it morally permissible to apply Bayes' theorem?
Another common fallacy of ambiguity exploits the ambiguity between "race" as being about genetics and "race" as being a sort of indicator variable reflecting a variety of other things (class, culture, etc.). For example, Larry Elder writes in Ten Things You Can't Say in America of visiting a library and seeing Hispanic kids outside the library on skateboards, and Korean kids inside the library studying. This is dangerous territory. Anyone who tries to carry on an intelligent conversation about culture is likely to be accused of "racism" and cast into the outer darkness. For example, Moldbug links to a Robert Weissberg essay describing the fate of Stuart Nagel.
There are also false dilemmas: Statistical anomalies are either 100% attributable to genetics or they have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with genetics.
It is generally impossible to get away from these fallacies and have an honest discussion because too many egos and too many political careers are dependent on them. Also there is a huge amount of hypocrisy, denial, and projection going on.
For the record, I am in the Mark Steyn camp.
I didn't agree with Derb on many things, from Ron Paul and talk radio to God and science. For his part, he reckoned I was a bit of a wimp on what he called "the Great Unmentionables." He thought that neuroscientists and geneticists' understanding of race trumped my touching belief in "culture." I'm not so sure: Why is Haiti Haiti and Barbados Barbados? Why is India India and Pakistan Pakistan? Skin color and biological determinism don't get you very far on that.
[Update: Pushback from Nick Land here and here.]
Also Charles Murray (Losing Ground), and many other writers have pointed out that prior to a number of genius Progressive policy moves (to be fair, not all cultural changes are politically driven), social statistics for American blacks (e.g. out-of-wedlock childbirths) used to look a lot better than they do now. Genetics doesn't explain how the statistics have changed over time.
[Update: Pushback from Handle here.]
So on the one hand, the so-called "race realists" are correct that it is not biologically plausible to anyone who takes the theory of evolution seriously that evolution, which differentiated humans from chimpanzees, should suddenly stop at the human neck. There is abundant evidence that Ashkenazi Jews are measurably smarter on average than Gentiles, to take one example that has a relatively short half-life and appears to only be an alpha emitter. So our social statistics are never really going to look pretty, and there isn't really anything the government can do to "fix" this other than falsify the data. On the other hand, I think Steyn is correct in accusing Derbyshire for the most part of barking up the wrong tree. Derbyshire should be far, far more worried about culture than about genetics.
Derbyshire only dug a deeper hole for himself with his recent vade mecum. He does the same thing the multiculturalists do (including libertarians like Bryan Caplan), defining "culture" in a trivial way (e.g. Caplan: watching Seinfeld) so that he can dismiss it as unimportant, leaving his preferred story as the last narrative standing. Derbyshire's equating "culture" with "history" is like arguing that if a Windows computer has been in the same room with a bunch of Linux computers for several years, then any important differences between the computers can't be due to the software that is installed; it has to be due to hardware.
Having said that, I see no reason whatsoever not to mock the race hustlers mercilessly. In fact, in the name of sense and decency, it is a moral obligation. And done by a master, it is a thing of beauty.
Here is my modest proposal for healing the open sore of race in American society. This solution, though some may find it shocking, has two key advantages. First, it's a Pareto optimization - it makes life better for everyone, or at least everyone honest. Second, it is reactionary to the bone, freezing your soul with its deep Sith chill. You may feel it's wrong. But can you say why?
Step A is formalization. It's a reality of modern American life that race confers privilege. As a reactionary, how can I possibly object? A society without hereditary privilege is like a cheeseburger without cheese....
Technically it's not quite a Pareto optimization, but only if you're committing race fraud.
We move on to step B, which will warm the cockles of Hayek's dead heart and bring happiness to liberaltarians everywhere. Advancing from status to contract, we take our newly-securitized race rights, and make them transferable. Let a sweet wind of capitalism blow!
Moldbug may be a sort of "troll", but he is a sophisticated, brilliant troll, and most of the people he is trolling richly deserve it.
We have already seen Moldbug practicing his Sith mind tricks in his Actual letter to a liberal friend. Also, Moldbug's aforementioned excerpt regarding Stuart Nagel, Since some people seem to still think I'm exaggerating this stuff, is short and well worth reading as a reminder of the moral imperative of mocking political correctness.
Finally, although Dale Amon is a libertarian rather than a reactionary, he seems to embody Arnold Kling's "gloves off" attitude and not being afraid of being hanged for a sheep, so I'll give him the last word on this topic:
I was struck by the tone of an article I recently read by a conservative journalist who simply could not understand why libertarians have not abandoned Ron Paul now that the supposedly deadly leftist power word has been uttered against him along with great waggling of magic wands.
My answer to him and others is that we are a tough lot and I laugh in the face of the PC power words. Unlike Conservative journalists I do not wet my knickers at the thought of someone attempting to tar me with it. Since I know I am not a racist, I simply do not care what anyone says or writes. I am immune, and that is perhaps one of the things which makes people like me and other libertarians even more frightening to the powers that be. We lack proper fear.
History and US foreign policy
US foreign policy is another one of those areas in which Unqualified Reservations takes on that "guess which parts are sarcasm" flavor. Parts of the worldview he describes are truthful and brilliantly stated, if perhaps exaggerated. Other parts appear to me to be designed to maximize Progressives' consternation, in reckless disregard of the truth.
A theme I take to be serious, if exaggerated, is his division of the US government into a "Red Empire" (most of the Department of Defense) and a "Blue Empire" (just about everything else, but especially the State Department) that have been working at cross purposes, often to lethal effect, for many decades. (See The secret of anti-Americanism.) His critique of pacifism appears to me to be spot on. His comments about counter-insurgency warfare seem fairly reasonable (i.e. mostly consistent with Ralph Peters' views in "COIN Lies We Love", Armed Forces Journal, May 2009, or Endless War). His comments on the American Revolution (e.g. Gentle Intro, part 2, and especially Thomas Hutchinson's, Strictures upon the Declaration of the Congress at Philadelphia) are mostly reasonable and help explain some anomalies I discovered while helping my daughter do research for a paper on the American Revolution. I note that William Bernstein's explanation of the Boston Tea Party makes much better sense than the standard history book my daughter was working from: Yes, it was a tax revolt—smugglers (e.g. Samuel Adams) were protesting a reduction in taxes, which undercut their business model. Moldbug's old-right isolationist views are also, in my opinion, generally reasonable. He likes the Treaty of Westphalia. (There's no such thing as chaotic good.) He doesn't like Samantha Power.
The polite version of isolationism was perhaps best articulated by John Quincy Adams (speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on July 4, 1821):
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she [America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
Moldbug's impolite version was articulated by Thomas Carlyle's fictional character, Flimnap:
Tumble and rage along, ye rotten waifs and wrecks; clash and collide as seems fittest to you; and smite each other into annihilation at your own good pleasure. In that huge conflict, dismal but unavoidable, we, thanks to our heroic ancestors, having got so far ahead of you, have now no interest at all. Our decided notion is, the dead ought to bury their dead in such a case: and so we have the honor to be, with distinguished consideration, your entirely devoted,--FLIMNAP, SEC. FOREIGN DEPARTMENT.
So far, so good. We have a patriotic Red Empire trying to protect American interests oversees, and a quasi-religious Blue Empire trying to undermine any power, foreign or domestic, that competes with it for social status, including most especially the Red Empire. This Blue Empire is supported by the Cathedral to such an extent that it is hard to distinguish between the two. While it is an oversimplification, the broad outline of this Red Empire vs. Blue Empire view of US foreign policy makes a lot of sense to me. See also neo-neocon on Vietnam (parts 4A-4C and 7B) in her series, A Mind is a Difficult Thing to Change.
This leads to some interesting interpretations of the relationship between the US and USSR in general, and the Cold War in particular. A Progressive would probably say that Joseph McCarthy was wrong in saying that the State Department was full of Soviet agents. A "domesticated" conservative might look at the evidence and say that McCarthy was right. Moldbug looks at the evidence and says, no, McCarthy was still wrong, because he had it backwards: it wasn't so much that the State Department was full of Soviet agents as that the Soviet Union was a State Department pet.
There is a kernel of truth here. The US Government does seem to have been on both sides of practically every conflict that came along within the last hundred years. Political ideology (i.e. quasi-religion) has a lot to do with this. But the problem with Moldbug's writing is the signal-to-noise ratio. His kernel of truth is embedded in a series of fallacies of ambiguity as bad as those of David Reich's race hustlers. The worst of these fallacies of ambiguity involve political labels such as "left" and "right", but that is an entire subject unto itself. For now, just consider the question of moral agency: to what extent are American Progressives responsible for the chaos and destruction associated with foreign governments that are nominally either independent of the US or hostile? Moldbug's answer (Gentle, part 8) is,
The Anglo-American progressive establishment, having spawned the Bolshevik monster in their minds, inflicted it on the chief backwater of Europe, shielded it from its foes in its youth, and fed it money and equipment, not to mention lives and territories, in its prime. It is therefore indicted, on the good general principle of Roman law in which the master is responsible for the deeds of his servant, for the crimes of the Soviet Union.
That it never actually ordered the murders at Katyn, for example, is not particularly relevant. It arguably made them possible. It is certainly an accessory after the fact, because it accused the Nazis of having perpetrated them, while knowingly closing its eyes to the truth.
And if you want to know how I can put USG in the same category as the Third Reich, that is my answer. I consider both criminal regimes which history will rejoice to see abolished, because I feel that Washington can no less escape the crimes of Moscow than the Wehrmacht can escape the crimes of the SS.
I agree that English-speaking Leftists share some responsibility for the crimes of Moscow, but Moldbug is too quick to excuse the non-English speaking idiots in this sordid tragedy, and too indiscriminate in his assignment of blame among the English-speakers. By Moldbug's standards, was Ronald Reagan a "Progressive"? Was Reagan part of the problem or part of the solution?
In The secret of anti-Americanism Moldbug writes:
The US Army did not shoot all the professors in Europe and replace them with Yankee carpetbaggers, but the prestige of conquest is such that it might as well have.
This is complete nonsense. The German economic miracle depended precisely on Ludwig Erhard not deferring to Lucius Clay. It certainly doesn't correspond with my recollection of US relations with France and Germany in the last half century. It doesn't even make chronological sense. How did France get into trouble in the first place? Was it a hotbed of monarchism and capitalism from, say, 1789 to 1938? Richard Fernandez quotes Paul Berman, explaining the Socialist French government's acquiescence in Germany's occupation of the Rheinland:
The anti-war Socialists of France did not think they were being cowardly or unprincipled in making those arguments. On the contrary, they ... regarded themselves as exceptionally brave and honest. They felt that courage and radicalism allowed them to peer beneath the surface of events and identify the deeper factors at work in international relations-the truest danger facing France. This danger, in their judgment, did not come from Hitler and the Nazis, not principally. The truest danger came from the warmongers and arms manufacturers of France itself ... who stood to benefit in material ways from a new war.
To what extent can fashionable opinion makers in one country dictate intellectual fashions in other countries? Is this a one-way street, or are there feedback mechanisms? Is this a monopoly or is there joint production? In so far as one clique are the leaders and other cliques are followers, who gets to be Batman and who is stuck with being Robin? Perhaps we should ask someone from the Frankfurt school? I note that the printing press has been around for a very long time, and has been available on both sides of the Atlantic (and English Channel). The same is true of the telegraph and trans-Atlantic passenger service. Radio has been around since about 1907. All of these things provide two-way international communication. I also note Moldbug's recognition of traditional "Revelationist" Christianity as a counterparasite for "Universalism". But the counterparasite population collapsed far earlier and more completely in Europe than in the US. These "stitches" in Moldbug's story are at least as difficult to explain as the ones he complains about in the Progressive narrative.
Moldbug has lots of interesting essays on foreign policy, but his foreign policy essays always seem to end up in self-parody because of his tendency to deny moral agency to anyone but English-speaking leftists.
Slow history and the mysterious 20th century
The Reuther memorandum, 1961
The kiss: "Stalin was feeling extremely gay"
America: vampire of the world (part 1, part 2)
In Slow history, he writes,
Communism is a form of American liberalism, or progressivism. It is not, as so many anti-communists liked to suggest, an exotic foreign import. When imported from exotic lands, it's because we exported it there in the first place. In America it may speak with a Russian accent; in Russia, it speaks with an American accent....
America has no surviving intellectual tradition besides progressivism - which is no more than a synonym for communism.
Was Ronald Reagan a "communist"? I'm okay with defining a word in a very weak sense, so long as you are clear that that's what you're doing. But here, the fallacies of ambiguity have gotten so out of control as to put us in Discordian territory:
All statements are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true and false and meaningless in some sense.
At the risk of engaging in Bulverism, Moldbug is a zealot. He wants so badly to rub the Progressive puppy's face in the poo on the rug! And rightly so. The tragedy is that he undermines his own argument because he over-reaches so far.
What do "left" and "right" mean?
In many ways, Moldbug's An open letter to open-minded progressives (part 1) seems like a distillation of both his best and his worst writing. It's full of juicy bits:
It is good, very good, to be a black nationalist.... On the other hand, it is bad, very bad, to be a Southern nationalist.... Similarly, it is good to be a Vietnamese nationalist. It is still bad to be a German nationalist, or a British nationalist, or even a French nationalist. Germans, Brits, and Frenchmen are supposed to believe in the common destiny of all humanity. Vietnamese, Mexicans, or Czechs are free to believe in the common destiny of Vietnamese, Mexicans, or Czechs. (Actually, I'm not sure about the Czechs. This one may have changed.)
But the series also contains some of his worst nonsense, namely where he tries to depict National Socialism as an ill-conceived reactionary backlash against Progressivism. (part 2)
Unfortunately, the waters here are freshly muddied by a half-educated bestseller which argues that fascism was really a left-wing movement. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a far better writer, made the case far earlier and far more eruditely. He was still wrong.
My initial reaction to this Open Letter was that this was a circumstantial ad hominem, bait to draw in Progressives so that Moldbug could better humiliate them. On a second reading, I'm not sure.
There are really two questions here. What does "the Left" mean (when used by someone honest)? And what does "fascism" mean (ditto)? To belabor the obvious, different people use these words differently. What does "Left" mean?
Maybe Moldbug really does look at politics through the lens of social class to such an extent that he classifies doctrines according to the social class of the people who typically hold them rather than according to the doctrines themselves. (I think it more likely that he is (1) trying to puncture the Progressives' image of themselves as underdogs by making them seem invincible and (2) trying to depict the Progressive movement as more cohesive than it really is.) Part 1 again:
The status relationship between Brahmins and Townies is clear: Brahmins are higher, Townies are lower. When Brahmins hate Townies, the attitude is contempt. When Townies hate Brahmins, the attitude is resentment. The two are impossible to confuse. If Brahmins and Townies shared a stratified dialect, the Brahmins would speak acrolect and the Townies mesolect.
In other words, Brahmins are more fashionable than Townies. Brahmin tastes, which are basically better tastes, flow downward toward Townies. Twenty years ago, "health food" was a niche ultra-Brahmin quirk. Now it's everywhere. Suburbanites drink espresso, shop at Whole Foods, listen to alternative rock, you name it.
Look at the entire lifecycle of conservatism. The whole thing stinks. Virus X replicates in the minds of uneducated, generally less intelligent people. Townies are, in fact, the same basic tribe that gave us Hitler and Mussolini....
Chaos umpire sits,But what about when power is secure? Did Cromwell switch from left to right (or right to left?) when he became Lord Protector?
And by decision more imbroils the fray
By which he reigns
Suffice it to say: unless you're over 78, America is a communist country and has been for your entire life. What is communism? Democracy without authentic political opposition.
I'm going to go with 5b for present purposes: in so far as the "Left" label has any enduring meaning at all, it means contempt for private property. This is not clearly distinct from 7 if you're a Brahmin. But the vast majority of left-wing voters are not Brahmins.
And what does "fascism" mean?
Before we go any further with this, I highly recommend George Orwell's Politics and the English Language.
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality....
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.
I also refer readers to Sheldon Richman's entry on fascism at the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:
As an economic system, fascism is socialism with a capitalist veneer.... Where socialism sought totalitarian control of a society's economic processes through direct state operation of the means of production, fascism sought that control indirectly, through domination of nominally private owners.
As Bryan Caplan explains it (referring to Herman Rauschning's book, Hitler Speaks),
We don't need to take your cow so long as we own you. Who cares about whether we actually own the firm in name? So long as we have complete control over the people running it, that's good enough.
My reading of Liberal Fascism is that the divisions Goldberg describes within socialism are analogous to some divisions I've seen within libertarianism. (I am using the word "socialism" here as a broad category, as Goldberg does, unlike Richman.) Within libertarianism, there are several limited government factions, but there are two distict anarchist factions: "abolitionists" and "gradualists". The abolitionists (e.g. Murray Rothbard) want to abolish our government now, and think we'll do fine without it. The gradualists (e.g. David Friedman) want to dismantle it slowly, piece by piece, and think that there are parts of it that we haven't yet figured out how to do without at all. There is a similar division among socialists, between revolutionary and gradualist types: what Goldberg calls "Marxist" and "non-Marxist". Revolutionaries want to create their utopia immediately, through violent class warfare. The various evolutionary or gradualist socialists want to build the same basic utopia, but want to get there with less bloodshed (at least internally). This has led to a number of fundamentally similar gradualist socialist movements, including Fabians, Progressives, Fascists, and National Socialists. (Also, despite the supposed internationalism of the Communists, they were too closely associated with the interests of the Soviet state.) There was also the fact that socialists in countries like the US and the UK simply didn't have the political support necessary for a successful revolution.
The "non-Marxist" label strikes me as misleading. The fascists took Marxist moral premises ("From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs") and ideas about class warfare very seriously, and went to great lengths to use nationalism as a tool for avoiding the latter (at least the worst excesses). Fascism is "non-Marxist" just about the same way that Iceweasel is "non-Firefox". In Richard Fernandez' words, it's the same dog with a different collar.
Honesty is also an issue. The "capitalist veneer" is a genuine difference between fascism and honest socialism. The Canadian health care system is honest socialism. The American system is privately owned in name, but tightly controlled by government in reality. The essence of ownership is control, so the US system is fundamentally dishonest (i.e. "fascist" in the Sheldon Richman sense).
So how did fascism and National Socialism get classified as "right-wing" (i.e. lumped into the same category with libertarianism)? Elsewhere, "EV" asks,
Now in what conceivable universe is this a "right-wing" program in the Anglo-American sense? Sure, Hitler hates the Bolsheviks, but that's like saying because the Crips hate the Bloods, they're on the side of law and order.
Jonah Goldberg explains (ISBN 978-0-385-51184-1, p. 9):
After the war, the American progressives who had praised Mussolini and even looked sympathetically at Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s had to distance themselves from the horrors of Nazism. Accordingly, leftist intellectuals redefined fascist as 'right-wing' and projected their own sins onto conservatives, even as they continued to borrow heavily from fascist and pre-fascist thought."
To throw one of Moldbug's most memorable quotations back in his face (Gentle (part 8)),
The 20th century was the golden age of lies. The liars of the 20th century, like the painters of the 16th, will be remembered forever as the Old Masters of their art.
For a trivial example of the gleichgeschaltet media redefining labels in order to allow Progressives to hide their embarrasing historical ties, note Tim Russert's reversal of the colors red and blue for left and right on the US electoral map.
Update: I think Moldbug makes a better statement of his right=order, left=chaos viewpoint in
From Mises to Carlyle: my sick journey to the dark side of the force. Maybe what Moldbug is really trying to do is to shock libertarians into rethinking some of their positions (i.e. better distancing themselves from political correctness) rather than taunting Progressives. He has some valid points about flaws in the classical liberal and libertarian traditions, which I
intend to write more about elsewhere. But Moldbug's statements on order and chaos are as confused as the ones he's criticizing. His formalist ideas call forth the same
T. S. Elliot rebuke as do libertarian ideas about "self-enforcing constitutions":
They constantly try to escape from the darkness outside and withinMoldbug complains in the comments here of libertarianism having a spiritual component that he doesn't understand. It's simple. As David Friedman explains in The Machinery of Freedom, the restraints on a sovereign government are fundamentally internal to the men with guns. (Or in Moldbug's case, the men who control the cryptographic locks.)
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
What is the relationship between classical liberalism and socialism?
Earlier I mentioned the Roundheads vs. the Cavaliers as a metaphor for modern Anglo-American social and political conflict. This analogy was first brought to my attention by Iain Murray, who used to blog at a site called "The Edge of England's Sword", named after a line from Thomas Babbington Macaulay's poem, Naseby. Daniel Hannan used this same analogy in The New Road to Serfdom. Hannan described the American Revolution as the second act in the English Civil War, and the current Tea Party movement as a third act.
Recall the Moldbug quotation, "When Brahmins hate Townies, the attitude is contempt. When Townies hate Brahmins, the attitude is resentment. The two are impossible to confuse." Now read "Naseby". My reaction is that it is impossible to overlook the seething resentment of the Roundheads for the Cavaliers. And it is hard to argue that Macaulay is making this up. Are King Charles and Prince Rupert low-class, and the Puritans upper class? Clearly the Puritans are right-wing if we take Moldbug's view of social class seriously.
But his crypto-Calvinism claim depends on the Puritans being left-wing. In The ultracalvinist hypothesis: in perspective, Moldbug links to a Wikipedia article on the Diggers. The Diggers are certainly "left" in my book. The Diggers were basically communists, but they were only one faction, and they were not accepted by Cromwell's faction. The whole situation strikes me as a complete muddle. Moldbug wants his readers to accept that classical liberals, with their stereotypical concern for "life, liberty, and property," are the same thing as socialists, who are utterly contemptuous of property and whose concern for liberty is limited to things that piss off conservatives, like flag-burning and pole-dancing. But if we strip the fallacies of ambiguity and the false dilemmas from his argument, there is nothing left.
My explanation of the relationship between religion and property is that they are basically orthogonal. People have biases that made sense in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), 100,000 years ago. Many of these biases are maladaptive in a society that practices agriculture and has more than a few hundred people in it (i.e. for much of the last 10,000 years). When new religions spring up, they are usually started by crazy people with romantic ideas about living in harmony with cognitive biases that haven't made sense for 10,000 years. When religions start to be successful, they are usually taken over by relatively sane people, but there are constant waves of reformers who want to take the religion back to its romantic roots. (Perhaps I am overgeneralizing in extrapolating to other religions, but Christianity at least seems to have had romantic ideas about what human societies can be like from its inception.) There is nothing especially Calvinistic about this. What is important about leftist apologetics, whether you associate it with Protestant "social gospel", Catholic "liberation theology", or Humanist "scientific socialism", is that it relies on intuition (i.e. cognitive biases) and pseudo-rational "analysis", and has no respect for historical experience.
I mentioned false dilemmas. Moldbug falls into the authoritarian "conservative" stereotype that F. A. Hayek complains about in "Why I am Not a Conservative".
Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention of authority, which, for this purpose, must be allowed to do what is required by the particular circumstances and not be tied to rigid rule.
Moldbug seems to regard anything that limits the arbitrary power of the sovereign as a form of communism. You are either a Jacobite (authoritarian) or a communist (authoritarian). Fine. But this kind of reasoning looks very familiar to me. Moldbug claims to be a Jewish atheist. If I wanted to give him a taste of his own medicine, based on his penchant for false dilemmas, I could claim him as a Christian by invoking Matthew 12:30.
Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
Consider the four main points that Moldbug associates with Calvinism in The ultracalvinist hypothesis: in perspective and Cryptocalvinism, slightly tweaked. We have (1) the universal brotherhood of man, (2) the futility of violence ("Violence only causes more violence."), (3) the fair distribution of goods (Rawlsian social justice), and (4) the managed society (mandarism).
1. There is nothing in "the brotherhood of man" that is peculiar to Calvinism. Jesus was telling the parable of The Good Samaritan nearly 2000 years ago. It seems like every religious kook in history has said something like that, except for jokers like Malaclypse the Younger ("If they are our brothers, how come we can't eat them?"). These impulses are part of standard human evolutionary psychology. Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind (p. 220) of humans being "90% chimp and 10% bee". The brotherhood of man is the "hive switch" being triggered. It is everywhere in religion (see Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh). Emile Durkheim (Haidt, p. 225) said that Homo sapiens was really Homo duplex, existing at both the individual and group level.
2. Was Calvin acting on a belief in the futility of violence when he had Michael Servetus burned at the stake? Is this what informed Cromwell's behavior at Naseby, and in beheading Charles I? Is this what motivated the American Revolution? How did pacifism inform the Union's behavior during the American Civil War? Was the Republican Progressive, Teddy Roosevelt, also a pacifist? Was the Democratic Progressive, Woodrow Wilson, motivated by pacifism in pulling the US into WWI? What about Franklin Roosevelt and WWII—was that also an expression of pacifism?
Moldbug would have been better off taking the opposite tack, and saying that Progressivism is full of the "Onward Christian Soldiers" vibe. He even seems to acknowledge this in The mystery of pacifism. He can only rescue his thesis by redefining "pacifism" as a form of insincerity. Is there a pattern here at all? Yes, but it's the one that Jonah Goldberg identifies: Progressivism is a quasi-religion, and its zealots are perfectly willing to use violence on its behalf, although they have also often engaged in denial and projection. But their fellow travellers over-did the violence, and so, ever since WWII, Progressives have been over-doing the denial and projection.
3. The fair distribution of goods is another evolutionary psychology invariant. Did economic demogogery originate in Geneva? Funny that it's a Greek word. The ancient Jews had their jubilee. The Romans had their panem et circenses. You can rationalize away the "circuses" part, but it's hard to make the "bread" part go away. And if this is a Western European idiosyncrasy, then Mike Munger's explanation of microfinance stops making sense.
4. And if "the managed society" is a Western European idea, why does Moldbug turn to Chinese to find a good word for it (mandarism)? This is warmed-over aristocracy, which is as old an idea as greed, pride, and idolatry. Homo sapiens has been a hierarchal social animal since before we separated from chimpanzees.
But I digress. My point here is not that it is silly to equate Calvinism with Progressivism, but that it is silly to equate the classical liberal tradition with socialism. I will grant that classical liberalism was flawed, but it wasn't that flawed. There was an ill-considered and internally controversial "Democracy über Alles" theme (always of dubious sincerity), but property rights were critical. The relation between personal liberty and legal protection of property was unclear. The relation between freedom and political schism was unclear. The relation between private property and sovereignty was unclear. The moral arguments were too closely tied to religion. I agree with Moldbug (and Crick) that Locke's "right of revolution" is nonsense. Crick, p. 27:
There is no possible "right" of revolution to check this, as John Locke tried to argue: revolution is the destruction of a particular order of rights.
To elaborate on the insincere support for democracy, the game is played like this: if my faction has a majority, then "democracy" means majority rule, and it is a moral imperative that we get our way. If your side has a majority, then what "democracy" really means is not majority rule, but protection for human rights, which my side gets to define. But my point is that the protection of private property is a core value of a classical liberal, and the erosion of it is a core value of a Progressive. In H. L. Mencken's words,
To argue that these aims are identical is to argue palpable nonsense.
Moldbug mentions the Overton Window in Gentle, part 1. This is an important point. It's hard to carry on an intelligent conversation with a leftist if he's measuring distances relative to the leading (left) edge of the Overton Window in 2013, and I'm measuring distance relative to James Madison or Calvin Coolidge. But this also presents another opportunity for a fallacy of ambiguity. How do you describe the people on the trailing (right) edge of the Overton Window? They are left-wing when Moldbug wants to depict the entire country as being "communist", but they are right-wing when he wants to isolate the Puritans as being especially closely related to Progressives.
UR commenter Rob S. (RS) has mentioned the genetic fallacy, and that's worth some pixels. Moldbug tries to make hay out of the dubious connection between Puritanism and Universalism. The latter is in some ways a reaction against the former, although they share ideas about congregational polity. (Moldbug might actually be able to get somewhere by discussing the implications of congregational polity, but judging by my reading of Larry Iannaccone's Deregulating Religion, it isn't likely to be anywhere to Moldbug's liking.) What can you deduce about an organism based on its ancestry? First of all, it's a bad analogy: belief systems don't reproduce sexually. But even if memetic DNA actually existed? Ants and termites have similar bauplans, but they are genetically very different, related, respectively, to wasps and cockroaches more than to each other. Is my son's black dog closely related to my daughter's black cat? If porpoises are mammals, does that mean they are good at climbing trees?
If you want to read an intelligent discussion of the evolution of ideas, you would be much better off reading Friedrich Hayek's Why I am Not a Conservative.
The more I learn about the evolution of ideas, the more I have become aware that I am simply an unrepentant Old Whig - with the stress on the "old."
Hayek opens with a quotation from Lord Acton on both the necessity and the danger of forming political alliances. Where Moldbug sees a linear spectrum, Hayek sees a triangle. Hayek goes on to explain how, in many ways, conservatives resemble socialists more than they resemble genuine liberals. Hayek observes,
This may also explain why it seems to be so much easier for the repentant socialist to find a new spiritual home in the conservative fold than in the liberal.
Appendix A: Crypto-Calvinism
I can't tell if Moldbug is sincere about this or if he's acting as a troll. My suspicion is that he's just being a troll. Progressives often set store by how different they claim to be from "fundamentalists" or "Puritans", so there is a strong temptation to try to embarrass them by depicting them as that which they despise. Much as I sympathize with this endeavor, I oppose it because bad analogies and genetic fallacies get in the way of actually persuading skeptical audiences. The crypto-Calvinism thesis goes something like this:
Some religious or quasi-religious (or ethnic?) traditions have a greater tendency than others do to try to impose their views on outsiders. For lack of a better word, I'll call this "moralistic aggressiveness". Islam has a reputation for being one of the worst ones in this regard. Buddhism has a reputation for being one of the least aggressive. We're talking about general tendencies, so there are lots of counter-examples.
Suppose, following Wikipedia, we divide European Christianity into four groups: Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, and Arminian. (Note the acronym, TULIP.) My understanding of Moldbug's argument is that:
Thus, my view is that the Progressives' big problem is the exact opposite of what Moldbug says it is. Furthermore, by promoting an untenable thesis, he has scored an "own goal" in his contest with them.
(Part of my problem here is semantics. Supernaturalism is too central to Christianity. If you re-invent Christianity without God, you really need to find another name for it. Progressive Humanists are right to distance themselves from "Christianity". The problem is that they are wrong to pretend that their new quasi-religion is social "science".)