Note: I have a new post up on Taki. This is a bigger brain essay on the nature of modern democracy. For something smooth-brained, I have a post behind the green door on the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
A decade ago the left-libertarian, Arnold Kling, coined the term “neo-reactionary” to describe the on-line community calling itself the Dark Enlightenment. These were mostly fans of the blogger Curtis Yarvin, writing under the name Moldbug, but there were others writing about the same ideas. English philosopher Nick Land added some academic legitimacy to the project. He was the first person to use the term Dark Enlightenment in an essay of the same name.
In many respects, neo-reaction was a forerunner of the alt-right movement, in that it made on-line politics fun and interesting to a growing number of young white males dissatisfied with conventional politics. Reading the blogs and participating in the communities turned esoteric topics into a sense of community. Later, the alt-right would follow the same model, drawing in young white males around a more simplistic critique of modern liberal democracy and multiculturalism.
Of course, the alt-right also followed neo-reaction into obscurity. Almost all of the sites and characters from neo-reaction have either moved onto to other things or disappeared entirely. Curtis Yarvin has moved into the nationalist camp, writing for more mainstream sites. Nick Land has moved onto other things, having been exiled from the academy for holding unpopular opinions on taboo subjects. No one flies the neo-reaction or Dark Enlightenment flag these days.
While it is easy to see how the alt-right collapsed, the failure of the neo-reaction movement is a bit of a puzzler. Most of the bigger names writing on those topics were sensible about what they were doing. They avoided the media and did not have delusions of grandeur like so many in the alt-right. They were happy to stick to their blogs and forums. They even tried to practice good optics by avoiding the spicy language that is common in right-wing forums.
The first problem with neo-reaction, the one that probably led it down a dead end, is that they never got to the heart of the problem of democracy. They were good at criticizing egalitarianism and multiculturalism, but those are the leaves, not the roots of the problem of modern liberal democracy. Like all right-wing movements, they made the mistake of thinking that facts and careful analysis would be enough to counter the moral arguments that are the power source of liberal democracy.
Montesquieu observed that the engine of aristocracy in honor, while the engine of despotism is fear. In a republic, it is virtue. The citizen of the republic respects the logic of the political order and the institutions that maintain it. In liberal democracy, the engine is civic morality. Everything must point toward that vaguely understood sense that the arc of history bends toward the perfectly egalitarian society. Anything that opposes this, even reality itself, is assumed to be the enemy of democracy.
Another big problem for the neo-reactionaries is they often sounded like young men who spent too much time playing video games. Their image of aristocracy often sounded like escapism, rather than serious politics. Then you had the writing style of Curtis Yarvin, which gave the movement a cult like vibe. The meandering and cryptic writing style along with the insider language was more about building a cult of personality than trying to fill out an alternative set of political beliefs.
Probably the thing that did the movement in was the embrace of the term neo-reaction, which allowed the Left to define the movement. This is how the Left steals the moral high ground. They assume they are on the right side of history, following the arc to the final destination of society. Anyone that disagrees is a reactionary. The opposition is not based in logic, but in fear and ignorance. This recasts the dispute as good versus evil, smart versus dumb and moral versus amoral.
This is the reason that what we call the Left in America has gone from triumph to triumph since Gettysburg. Holding the moral high ground allows them to frame every argument without having to establish their claims. The choice of the opposition is to accept it and try to find a way to achieve other ends using liberal morality or simply leave the field entirely. The latter is what neo-reaction argued, if not directly, then indirectly through its escapism.
Neo-reaction largely petered out when the big names could not figure out where to go with it. Yarvin dropped out to make money in Silicon Valley and has now re-spawned as a nationalist. Land moved onto accelerationism, while others have moved back to the conventional Right. Much like the right-libertarianism of Hans Hermann-Hoppe and the citizenism of Steve Sailer, these ideas can only work if the Left goes along with them, which can never happen as long as the Left exists.
That said, these failed efforts are useful to anyone working toward an alternative to the prevailing orthodoxy. We learn more from failure than success. What all efforts to counter the Left have in common is the failure to appreciate that they faced a moral framework, not a set of ideas. You don’t talk people out of their beliefs. Instead, you offer a better set of beliefs, a better moral framework, one that allows them to believe they are on the side of angels.
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