31 May 2022

NRx — Neoreaction

This post assembles resources explaining who these “neo-reactionary” aka “NRx” folks are.

Critical overviews

  • RationalWiki (ongoing) offers a wealth of resources including relationships and contrasts with other movements, plus nerdy snark
  • TechCrunch (2013) has an overview with explanations of some key NRx vocabulary plus a pretty big index of links to other resources
  • Vanity Fair (2022) has a thoughtful deep dive by David Pogue looking at the culture of NRx and its relationship with other politics
  • Current Affairs (2022) has a roundtable discussion featuring Elizabeth Sandifer, whose book Neoreaction: A Basilisk (2018) is smart, witty, and suitiably unkind
  • QZ (2017) connects NRx to both tech culture and other far right movements
  • Mouthbreathing Machiavellis & Moldbug Variations (2014) from leftist culture commentary magazine The Baffler
  • Politico (2017) on Steve Bannon and his connection with both the “Alt Right” and NRx
  • Vox explains (2022) leading NRx thinker Curtis Yarvin aka Mencius Moldbug, and links him to Steve Bannon (2017)
  • Matt “The Dark Elf” McManus at Commonweal examines Yarvin’s peculiarities (2023), contrasting the anti-democratic “libertarianism” that he and Thiel represent against other far right movements
  • Mother Jones (2022) addresses Peter Thiel and Senate candidate Blake Masters (shading from NRx into Gray Tribe, see below)
  • The Darkness at the End of the Tunnel (2017) is a long discussion of the overlaps between NRx and a particular nerdy obsession with potential artificial intelligence, which Sandifer’s book linked above also addresses at length
  • Evil Nerd Theory (2024) explores the legacy of NRx and adjacent movements
  • Understanding The Tech Right (2023) is an instructive commentary from elsewhere on the far right by odious white nationalist Richard Hanania
  • Yarvin’s Case Against Democracy from the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal calls him “too elitist for fascism”

Movement source texts

  • The Dark Enlightenment (2013?) is an early sort-of manifesto for the movement, and Meltdown (1997) is a poetic evocation of its sensibilities; if like me you are a middle-aged weirdo intellectual who remembers the cultural-theory-punk 1990s, it is helpful to situate author Nick Land as a there-but-for-the-grace cautionary demonstration of how we could have gone badly wrong
  • Unqualified Reservations (2007-2014) offers the collected NRx writing of Curtis “Mencius Moldbug” Yarvin
  • Nerdblog Slate Star Codex offers an overview “In An Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell” and an Anti-Reactionary FAQ (2013) which are useful, but I include them among sources from the movement because it turns out that the author is too sympathetic to them.

The texture of the movement

I find this tweetrant by Jay Allen <@a_man_in_black> a useful elaboration of what NRx is:

NRx is Neoreaction. Racist, monarchist nerds, with varying degrees of emphasis on each. Their version of SJWs/cultural Marxists is “the Cathedral”, a liberal academic conspiracy to marginalize them. NRx is against liberal bullshit like immigration, democracy, and human rights. NRx-ers envision a racially-pure autarky with an autocratic leader. The difference between them and fascists isn’t clear to me. They like to take credit for the entire alt right but responsibility for no one, inside or outside NRx. So of course half of the NRx screeds are against intellectual cowardice. NRx is popular with the [4chan] /pol/ crowd, natch.

Fascists romanticize violence; NRx’ers don’t. Fascists don’t really care about policy; NRx’ers do. Still: too close.

Okay I lied I do know the differences between NRx and fascism. NRx doesn’t (usually) idolize the military or demonize intellectualism. They have utopian or colonial ideas about achieving racial purity. They’ll convince all the undesirables to move away or all move somewhere with no undesirables (or no settlement at all). More Zionist than Ein Volk, Ein Reich.

NRx eschews solidarity, too. They aren’t a movement or an ideology, just a vague pile of shitty ideas. Their term for themselves is often “the University”, emphasizing their “diversity of thought”, opposing the Cathedral of liberals. Paralleling Eric Scott Raymond’s writing about the Cathedral and the Bazaar, in free software. (ESR is not NRx.)

NRx-ers are often freethought/atheists, manosphere/MRAs, and free software types, so they have their meanings for those communities’ terms. NRx-ers “redpill” converts, for example. NRx exalts “western civilization”, which is pretty much code for whiteness.

They have a complicated relationship with religion. NRx-ers alternately love Catholicism as traditional and eschew “superstition.”

NRx has that particular fringe tactic of being so fractious that they don’t have to take responsibility for each other. Everyone else is no true NRx-er.

Differences from fascism

NRx and fascism are both far right authoritarianisms, and are cousins in the shape of their reactionary sensibilities. They overlap in their dread of modernity as a deep threat (while being unmistakably modern themselves), their rejection of democracy and universal rights, their romanticization of the better culture of a poorly-specified past, and their odd futurism threaded into reactionary fantasies.

But it is a mistake to see them as simply the same.

Nationalism is a defining pillar of fascism; it yearns for a “strong” nation-state which reflects the character of its True People. NRx sees the nation-state instrumentally, and is sometimes directly skeptical of it as the right political form.

Fascism is resolutely irrationalist, imploring us to Trust Our Blood, enthusiastic about gut instinct and violence as positive goods triumphing over intellectuals and technocrats. NRx is not just rationalist but romantically rationalist, enthusiastic about nerdy technocrats controlling society, and insists that violence is unnecesary to achieve its aims.

Fascism dreams of a purge of the people who corrupt the nation — Everyone But The Volk — exemplified by the racism & antisemitism of the Nazis or the transphobia of MAGA. NRx dreams of eliminating the system of liberalism and liberal institutions which they imagine destroy our potential for greatness.

Because fascism’s authoritarianism leads to strong state interventions in the economy when fascists hold power, it is common to misunderstand fascism as having an economic policy agenda as communism and neoliberalism do, but fascism at root does not really care about policy any more than social & governance ideologies like monarchism or theocracy do. Neoreaction is not married to a specific economic policy agenda, but it sees economic policy as an essential function of governance, tending strongly toward enthusiasm for “unregulated” capitalism Unleashing The Genius Of Entrepreneurs And The Market.

This connects to different forms their authoritarianism takes. Fascism tends toward totalitarianism, the state intruding into everything, down to ensuring that art and architecture and individuals’ thoughts & feelings align with their vision. NRx loves the example of Singapore: a state unburdened by rights protections for individuals, but also hands-off in many ways, at once ruthless and minarchist.

Both yearn for “traditional” moral & social sensibilities, but come at it from opposite directions. Fascists see everything they want springing from A Strong Nation Of Virtuous People; they start from the fantasy of everyone to Living Right, assuming that quotidian policy questions of economics et cetera will just sort themselves out as a result. (I strongly recommend John Holbo’s long essay on that tendency among conservatives in general.) NRx starts from a libertarian-ish vision of Capitalism Unleashed Enabling The Best Of Us To Do Great Things, rationalizing from there that Science shows us that to achieve that we must cultivate a Smart, Industrious, Normal populace. To a lefty like me, both dreams are rationalizations of their aesthetic preferences in cultural norms, animated largely by misogyny and (usually) racist bigotry; we also see this in the turn some “libertarians” take to white nationalism. But the dynamics are different; libertarianism, fascism, and NRx are not simply equivalent.

Curtis Yarvin

Elsewhere on this blog, I said this about Yarvin:

Yarvin is an extraordinarily terrible person. Not just extraordinary in the degree of his terribleness, but in the kind of his terribleness.

Under the name “Mencius Moldbug” he wrote the blog Unqualified Reservations, in which he made very very long and complicated arguments about culture & politics which made him one of the leading figures in a small, energetic, strange, nerdy, evil movement of political ideas known as the “Dark Enlightenment” or “Neo-Reaction” or “NRx”.

Moldbug said that if one reads enough dead white reactionaries, one realizes that democracy stinks and liberalism is at war with human nature, so we would be better off if we appointed someone smart like Steve Jobs to be dictator of America. Or maybe we should clone Charles II and crown the clone king. After all, Singapore is authoritarian but a nice place to live and very economically productive. This long, tortured argument was full of repulsive asides like, “Golly, reviving slavery is probably not the best move, but while it is not a big deal to me, I have to admit that dead white reactionaries made a lot of persuasive arguments that slavery is actually a good idea, and if you think about it, Black people really are best suited to slavery, aren’t they? Not that I’m a white nationalist, though. Those guys are not as smart as I am.”

If you don’t know Moldbug, I know that sounds like a parody. It is not. That is a succinct taste of stuff the blog really said. I read a fair bit of it years ago, fascinated by its bizarre style and repulsive ideas.

Moldbug is not exactly a Nazi or a fascist; he reflects an idiosyncratic far right sensibility significantly different but equally horrible. Yarvin was not attached to a political movement which did anything real, they just said a bunch of crazy, evil stuff on the internet, but that is still quite bad enough. And though really just a blowhard, he is a dangerous, damaging blowhard. He has radicalized a bunch of nerds. Yarvin evidently had some kind of contact with the Trump campaign though the racist, fascist advisor Steve Bannon. Fascist or not, I cannot overstate how evil his ideas and influence are.

Rather than get fussy about which evil far-right nuts are According To Hoyle “fascists”, antifascists use the word “fash” as a term of art for the whole range of evil far right nuts. Moldbug is definitely fash, and I will refer to him as such here.

Yarvin & tech

This is deep geekery, but if you are digging into Curtis Yarvin, you may also want to know about his software infrastructure project Urbit and its implicit politics:

  • Popehat has about as accessible an introduction to what the heck Urbit itself is as one could hope for
  • Distributed Web Of Care has a smart critique of why Urbit’s structure is bad and concentrates power in some bad hands

Grey Tribe

In understanding these folks, it is also worth getting a sense of the adjacent-but-not-the-same “Gray Tribe” of libertarian-ish nerds disgusted by both liberal and conservative politics:

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