My brain dates the quip to the 90s. Google comes up dry. For all I know, I might have said it myself. If not, I do so here.
In various venues, British philosopher Nick Land has been pursuing a radical recasting of American libertarianism. From it I’ve learned all sorts of valuable things, and, while I can’t say he’s quite passed the ideological Turing Test, he is certainly worth your time if you’re interested in libertarianism and its (many, many, many) discontents. And if you can stomach continental philosophy.
Libertarians, Land claims, are ultimately “looking for an exit.” A claim with many implications.
Exhibit A for him is the perhaps justifiably notorious April 2009 issue of Cato Unbound, which I edited. In it, PayPal co-founder and radical libertarian Peter Thiel declared, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” In Land’s gloss: “Even more than Equality-vs-Liberty, Voice-vs-Exit is the rising alternative, and libertarians are opting for voiceless flight.”
Are we looking for an exit? And what would that mean?
With Patri Friedman, Thiel is a key player in the seasteading movement, which looks to build free-floating modular communities on the world’s oceans. These communities would allow an easy and literal exit for all who wished—attempting, in short, to realize better than anywhere else in the troublesome world Robert Nozick’s “framework for utopia.”
In layman’s terms, the framework looks like this: When everyone has easy exit, things seldom get bad. And when they do, everyone leaves. Repeat the process often enough, and we’ll learn something along the way. Repeat it forever, and we might just approach utopia.
More modestly, seasteading’s proponents claim that it can gently correct the democratic process: If voice alone isn’t enough, let’s add some exit. Albert O. Hirschman would have done no less. (And must it be one or the other, voice or exit? Land seems to think so; Patri Friedman, however, clearly views seasteading as a supplement to democracy—it’s a means of changing incentives within democracy as much as it is a refuge from it. But Friedman’s claim only works if the democratic process continues.)
And let’s be frank: Seasteading could just be an instance of the old proverb about a fool and his money. Not for Land, however, who sees something…well…darker. It’s part of what he terms the dark neo-reactionary movement, within which he appears to play the role of a participant-observer. (Is he serious? Does he mean it? It’s often hard to tell: a calculated ambiguity. At least I think.)
Anyway. Dark neo-reactionary ideology is a three-winged beast composed of social conservatism, radical libertarianism, and purportedly Darwinistic white nationalism, as here Land explains with relative concision. Each of these tendencies reinforces the other, he argues, about which more later. Key for now is that they all hate democracy:
For the hardcore neo-reactionaries, democracy is not merely doomed, it is doom itself. Fleeing it approaches an ultimate imperative. The subterranean current that propels such anti-politics is recognizably Hobbesian, a coherent dark enlightenment, devoid from its beginning of any Rousseauistic enthusiasm for popular expression. Predisposed, in any case, to perceive the politically awakened masses as a howling irrational mob, it conceives the dynamics of democratization as fundamentally degenerative: systematically consolidating and exacerbating private vices, resentments, and deficiencies until they reach the level of collective criminality and comprehensive social corruption. The democratic politician and the electorate are bound together by a circuit of reciprocal incitement, in which each side drives the other to ever more shameless extremities of hooting, prancing cannibalism, until the only alternative to shouting is being eaten…
Civilization, as a process, is indistinguishable from diminishing time-preference (or declining concern for the present in comparison to the future). Democracy, which both in theory and evident historical fact accentuates time-preference to the point of convulsive feeding-frenzy, is thus as close to a precise negation of civilization as anything could be, short of instantaneous social collapse into murderous barbarism or zombie apocalypse (which it eventually leads to). As the democratic virus burns through society, painstakingly accumulated habits and attitudes of forward-thinking, prudential, human and industrial investment, are replaced by a sterile, orgiastic consumerism, financial incontinence, and a ‘reality television’ political circus. Tomorrow might belong to the other team, so it’s best to eat it all now.
Dark enlightenment: To which Land adds dark thoughts, dark techno-commercialism, and how dark neo-reactionaries “at their darkest…predict that the stubborn delusion of the political dooms humanity’s public-exoteric aspirations to catastrophe.” (An acolyte helpfully adds dark ecologies and “noir realism.”)
The fall of democracy is a catastrophe Land likens, at exhaustive, hair-tearing length, to a zombie apocalypse. Elsewhere his cyclopean oeuvre—which I don’t claim fully to have found, let alone mastered—there is apparently a “dark will” of capital and technology that “rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, dissolves subjectivities.” Land’s WordPress theme? Dark temptation. Of course.
(Here the jaded older goth pulls aside the earnest newbie and asks whether he’s taking things too seriously. Must the eyeliner always be black?)
And of course there are the tropes of incontinence, cannibalism, and the wow-is-this-making-anyone-else-hungry feeding frenzy. Which might be an apt description of democracy, if democracy were all we had, and if everything were always up for a vote: Eat now, for tomorrow we die.
But the central genius of liberalism is that it isn’t all up for a vote. Practically, of course, it never has been. And normatively, we’ve been crafting limits all the while. We are now quite ingenious about them. Increasingly, we are confident in their power. The democratic zombie apocalypse will not arrive: Some myopic pencil-necked lawyer will come along and argue them all to death. No really, he will, and it’s a hoot to watch. Worst case scenario? You head to the bodega and pick up some cheap, mass-produced, very effective zombie spray. Lather, rinse, repeat.
That’s what I believe. That’s what I signed up for as a meliorist market liberal. And I signed up only after seeing that it works. As another of my kind has put it: small steps toward a much better world.
But back to Land. What are we neo-reactionaries supposedly aiming at? What is that thing that he grasps consciously, and toward which we unknowingly, inexorably fumble?
At least in part, it’s white nationalistic race “realism.”
I mean, who’s whiter than the goths? And just look at the disease tropes, and cannibalism-vs-civilization, and the howling irrational mob, and the orgies. White nationalists more or less invented this rhetorical apparatus—to talk about Jews and blacks, back in the nineteenth century.
We neo-reactionaries, so called, want exit because we want to be racially pure: We shrug at least in part because we are white. To make the argument, Land leans heavily on the eccentric Mencius Moldbug and the closely allied strain of yeah-but-what-if-it’s-really-true race “realism.” (Which Moldbug himself doesn’t even really endorse.)
This is loathsome stuff, and Land’s case that white nationalism and market liberalism somehow belong together is strangely non-intellectual. It is more demographic than anything. One would think that with his continental philosophy chops he could gin something up, but he doesn’t.
Here’s his case for the Cracker Factory, his term for the uneasy alliance between libertarian market economics and white traditionalist isolationism:
The Idea of America [is] now inextricable from a vehement renunciation of the past, and even of the present, insofar as the past still shaped it. Only an ‘ever more perfect union’ could conform to it. At the most superficial level, the broad partisan implications of the new order were unmistakable in a country that was becoming ever more democratic, and ever less republican, with effective sovereignty nationally concentrated in the executive, and the moral urgency of activist government installed as a principle of faith. For what had already become the ‘Old Right’ there was no way out, or back, because the path backwards crossed the event horizon of the civil rights movement, into tracts of political impossibility whose ultimate meaning was slavery.
The left thrives on dialectics, the right perishes through them. Insofar as there is a pure logic of politics, it is that. One immediate consequence (repeatedly emphasized by Mencius Moldbug) is that progressivism has no enemies to the left. It recognizes only idealists, whose time has not yet come. Factional conflicts on the left are politically dynamic, celebrated for their motive potential. Conservatism, in contrast, is caught between a rock and a hard place: bludgeoned from the left by the juggernaut of post-constitutional statism, and agitated from ‘the right’ by inchoate tendencies which are both unassimilable (to the mainstream) and often mutually incompatible, ranging from extreme (Austro-libertarian) varieties of laissez-faire capitalist advocacy to strains of obstinate, theologically-grounded social traditionalism, ultra-nationalism, or white identity politics.
Reactionary white America wants out, and its admittedly clumsy vehicle is built in part from libertarianism.
Does that make sense? In fairness to Land, he knows perfectly well that it doesn’t:
The conjunction taking place in the Cracker Factory is…perplexing, entangling the urbane, cosmopolitan advocates of hyper-contractarian marketization with romantic traditionalists, ethno-particularists, and nostalgics of the ‘Lost Cause’…fundamental socio-historical forces are crackerizing libertarianism.
Now. I know the continental philosophy that Land likes to hide behind. I’ve read my Hegel and my Marx. And when it comes to markets, Land is simply wrong. Markets are dialectical. Maybe it’s true that conservatives can’t do dialectic (though, in fairness, we should probably ask a right-Hegelian). Whatever the case, markets can. Indeed, Land’s own case against markets—that they are senselessly destructive, that they dissolve political settlements and stand behind democracy with a tyrannical, unpredictable veto—is, if true, nothing less than an instance of dialectic.
Markets proceed through conflict and negotiation, they produce only provisional settlements—think commodity and stock prices—and they create the political landscape on which left and right contend. This much Land elsewhere charges, and I concede. The very dialectical nature of markets was what brought Marx to call himself a dialectical materialist. To that extent, Marx was right.
And that’s also why white nationalism is no friend of hyper-contractarian market liberalism. Here’s where the wheels fall off the car:
Normatively, white nationalism reaches for stability, while markets destabilize. And market advocates know this.
Practically, white nationalism is a nonstarter; classical liberalism is right now putting down new roots all over the world, in student and youth groups that stress the trans-political, trans-national, blessedly trans-racial market process.
Logically, a resemblance does not an identity make; as I said at the outset, not all who shrug are Atlas. Nearly all who shrug are cranks, and they’re doing it to get attention. Ayn Rand’s classic will forever be less an instruction manual than an allegory. Beware those who think otherwise, for they have too high an opinion of themselves.
Anyway. To my mind, white nationalism is an unbelievable cascade of failure, a joke at every point in its argument.
To be a white nationalist is first to ignore the evidence that skin color isn’t very good at predicting genetics. Next we must ignore the evidence that genetics predicts character only a little better than phrenology.
After that, we must ignore the evidence that even if race were a thing, our best strategy for dealing with it would not be racial purity, which is really just another word for inbreeding. Rather, we should prefer to crossbreed like mad, because hybrid vigor—or heterosis—trumps genetic purity every time.
To be a white nationalist, we’d have to set all that aside and loudly insist: Some Races Are Just Better Than Others, and Nothing Will Never Change. Why? Who cares! All that matters is that we believe it!
And then what?
Then comes comparative advantage, rather like the guy with a shovel who follows the elephants. And he tells us that the best economic strategy—genetics quite aside—is to trade with each other, all the time, and across all racial boundaries. Do you want the white race to get as rich as possible? Long term, you won’t get it by plunder. You won’t get it by segregation. You will only get it by swallowing your damn pride and making everyone else get rich too.
Markets are heterotic because life is heterotic. As a result, there is literally nothing that makes sense about racial or any other kind of a priori isolationism. It’s stupid all the way down. A good society is a heterotic society, a promiscuous society that creatively mingles things together, a society that trades ideas, and gametes, and values for other values.
In the heterotic market, shrugging doesn’t mean you’re Atlas. It just means you’re leaving money on the table. Which is nothing to brag about.