As such the universe of neoreaction perspectives and arguments is far too large for me to make anything like a comprehensive taxonomy, and most of the recent attempts to do so have not done it very well. I do flatter myself that I have something to say on the matter of institutional analysis, however, so I will be focusing on the institutional arguments advanced by three members of this peculiar community: Michael Anissimov, Nick Land, and the pseudonymous Mencius Moldbug. All three have technocratic visions of governance, though Anissimov, at minimum, would deny this.
Of the works of theirs that I have read, which is admittedly partial, I would say Anissimov offers the strongest institutional analysis, so I will begin with him.
Anissimov is highly influenced by Julius Evola’s concept of the organic state. I actually think that there’s a lot to this point of view, but the problem is that when institutions don’t look the way Evola or Anissimov expect them to, he doesn’t think they count as organic. He writes:
The structure in traditional societies such as Eridu and modern democracies such as the United States can be compared to the difference between an oak and a sandbox. In modern democracies, with their emphasis on human rights and discouraging social hierarchy as much as possible, we have an open stage to articulate ourselves, though there is a lack of social structure. They are like sandboxes. The focus is not on building lasting structures, but pursuing our goals in isolation, insulated from traditional social hierarchy by modernist and democratic principles. I specifically use the term “sandbox” to invoke open-ended games like SecondLife. SecondLife is a chaotic virtual world without much of a central organizing principle. When I use the term “sandbox” I am referring to this kind of virtual world, rather than a literal sandbox.
The oak vs. sandbox metaphor is not necessarily a bad one, but in my view he applies it both too restrictively and too broadly. Too restrictively, because it doesn’t seem to include the bundle of American institutions that have grown (like an oak) over the course of centuries. Too broadly, because if he wants to argue that monarchies include a market order—and he does—then they would include plenty of open-endedness and self-determination as well.
His strongest arguments are really historical. In the first part of his Monarchy FAQ, he demonstrates pretty convincingly that European monarchies were much more stable, less violent, and less dire in general than they are portrayed as being now that they are basically extinct. I didn’t need much persuading here, and I do think reading analysis like his is healthy for anyone who grew up with what can accurately be characterized as an American democratic religion. We have trouble thinking clearly about institutions other than the ones we were born into as is, and the American tradition includes a deep inculcation into a loyalty towards democracy in particular, and disparagement of the historic alternatives. Which is to the good, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
I have three problems with Anissimov’s arguments. First, he makes some assumptions about the nature of order that I think are false, or at minimum much more opaque than he believes. Second, he suffers from the same “how do you get there from here” problem that history-focused anarcho-capitalists have. Finally, he seems to think that there is one true institutional form that is more “natural” than any others, when it seems to me that history tells the opposite story.
Order must be discovered, not designed. Moreover, it’s never clear how much of order is bottom-up rather than top-down. Anissimov and many who sympathize with monarchy are quick to say that order comes as the result of a strong hand willing to apply that strength consistently; that is, for instance, the basis of Moldbug’s infatuation with Carlyle. Yet when apologizing for the turmoil in some specific monarchies, Anissimov states:
The relative violence and instability of many older monarchies is from the violent atmosphere of the time.
Never, however, does he ask the opposite question—that if disorder can result from a “violent atmosphere”, could we accidentally give monarchy credit for order which in fact was caused by an underlying peaceful atmosphere? Fellow neoreactionary James Donald would say so, I think. There’s a whole literature composed of research by people like Bruce Benson that would suggest so, as well. Under this interpretation, the main benefit of the persistent monarchies is that they didn’t screw up a good deal with they happened to luck out and end up with one.
Even if one conceded that monarchy was the best possible regime, the question of getting to it from here is nontrivial. The second part of Anissimov’s Monarchy FAQ, which is significantly weaker than the first, hints at this:
I don’t dispute that forming a modern monarchy might require some amount of bloodshed as well. If a monarchy forms on a spot of land, say somewhere in Europe, it may very well need to wage a military campaign to carve out its territory. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Fighting happens, the wills of men clash, and that is part of civilization.
The problem is that we have thousands of years of history of monarchy in which we arrive at some examples of extremely persistent, stable regimes. Radical regime changes tend to lead to prolonged periods of disorder, regardless of the intent of that regime change. Moreover, there are traditions and ground level knowledge that influence the path of radical regime changes. Historically, this meant that most conquerors would end up as kings. In China, it meant that foreign invaders often ended up adopting the existing institutions of government rather than attempting to create their own from scratch.
For better or for worse, modern radical regime change means either democratization or dictatorship, whether permanent or intentionally temporary, as many Latin American military takeovers are. I’m not saying that this spectrum is ideal, I’m saying that all of the ground level knowledge that is alive and in the world today exists along it. So any revolution with an articulated desire to set up a monarchy of the sort that existed during the Enlightenment is much more likely to end up with just another 20th century style dictatorship.
Finally, Anissimov seems to think that he can identify, with reason and research, the perfect form of government for modern western countries. It isn’t even monarchy; instead it’s Enlightenment-era monarchy. This weakens his argument, as it’s a far more historically unproven subset of monarchy—consider that the time period he focuses on is not dramatically longer than the run of the American federal government so far. More to the point, I think history provides plenty of evidence against the “one true model” approach to thinking about institutions. Europe has had a ton of wacky, idiosyncratic decision processes in its day that have persisted for quite a long time—though, granted, monarchy was in the supermajority for the period he’s looking at. Moreover, Anissimov concedes that monarchy didn’t go very well in England. Rather than attempting to straightjacket reality with ideal models, it’s better to embrace institutional particularism.
I could discuss Anissimov much longer than this, but I also want to cover Land and Moldbug. All three share sort of negative-technocratic approach to diagnosing the apparently inherent unsustainability of democracy. Land’s Dark Enlightenment series provides the clearest and most comprehensive argument to this end.
Contra my friend Jason, this series is not a white nationalist screed. Land’s whole point is that “it’s time to move on” from “the dialectics of racial terror”. The Cracker Factory is not an aspiration but a diagnosis of the white-trashification of libertarianism that is occurring as a result of the crushing weight of this racial dialectic. Indeed, Land himself is quite candid in his fear that neoreaction ascendency would have ugly consequences, unintended by him or his closest cohorts:
It’s a ‘six degrees of separation’ problem (and more like two, or less). Start digging into the actually existing ‘reactosphere’, and things get quite astoundingly ugly very quickly. Yes, there really is ‘hate’, panic, and disgust, as well as a morbidly addictive abundance of very grim, vitriolic wit, and a disconcertingly impressive weight of credible fact (these guys just love statistics to death). Most of all, just beyond the horizon, there’s the black hole. If reaction ever became a popular movement, its few slender threads of bourgeois (or perhaps dreamily ‘aristocratic’) civility wouldn’t hold back the beast for long.
Democracy, to Land—as well as Moldbug—is nothing but a process for turning sovereignty into a vast commons, which thereby turns it into a dog eats dog feeding frenzy.
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.
Moldbug and Land fall on the privatization side of the classical privatize-or-regulate spectrum of solutions to the commons problem. After all, private property aligns incentives neatly, increasing the time horizons that people are optimizing towards—it diminishes our time-preference, and as Land puts it, “Civilization, as a process, is indistinguishable from diminishing time-preference (or declining concern for the present in comparison to the future).”
The problem is that this framing of the commons problem is far too academic. Elinor Ostrom came crashing into this space years ago after finding the reigning theoretical paradigm rather divorced from reality. Human beings did not sit around waiting for economists to sort out when to regulate and when to privatize.
Some scholarly articles about the “tragedy of the commons” recommend that “the state” control most natural resources to prevent their destruction; others recommend that privatizing those resources will resolve the problem. What one can observe in the world, however, is that neither the state nor the market is uniformly successful in enabling individuals to sustain long-term, productive use of natural resource systems. Further, communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time.
Moldbug and Land are operating on pre-Ostrom logic. In their mind, there is nothing more obvious than that democracy creates a commons. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, whom all three of our subjects quote approvingly, took this logic to its obvious conclusion—that the answer is to privatize the government! Or rather, to create a residual claimant, to make sovereignty into property. Hoppe, an anarcho-capitalist, meant to literally privatize the government. But he also spilled a lot of ink waxing poetic on how monarchy is inherently superior to democracy because it creates just such a residual claimancy.
If forced to choose between monarchy and democracy, Hoppe would go with monarchy every time. But he claims he is not a monarchist, because:
But this leaves the question open whether or not a state is necessary, i.e., if there exists an alternative to both, monarchy and democracy. History again cannot provide an answer to this question.
To which Moldbug chortles:
History also cannot provide an answer to the question of whether there are any blue dragons on Neptune – only that none, so far, have been observed.
But then—and I still find this incredible—he goes on to suggest that we should adopt a system of government structured like a joint-stock corporation. It’s not the suggestion itself I find incredible so much as the fact that he would laugh about Hoppe’s anarchism as absurd and ahistorical and then turn around and suggest something equally so. Who is dwelling on blue dragons now?
Rocket science is a perfect analogy. Every time NASA fires off some colossal shoulder of techno-pork to some random, godforsaken interplanetary destination, it ships one or two hundred custom widgets, each of which is designed to work perfectly on the first try. Often, all do. Sometimes, one or two fail. Then backups take over, and work a little less well.
Political engineering is rocket science, too. It demands no less cogency and care.
There is no such creature as “political engineering”. In correspondence, Moldbug rejects this criticism categorically; citing the school of thought dating back to Machiavelli and historical examples such as Napoleon’s legal code, which persisted across continental Europe long after the emperor himself was permanently dethroned. Maybe there’s something here. I remain skeptical; but for now will leave it at that.
All three thinkers write off democracy as universally nonviable on very simple premises—Nick Land goes so far as to say that “Behavioral reality knows only one iron law: Whatever is subsidized is promoted”. From this derivation of econ 101 principles (which are far from singular) he writes off a system hundreds of years old.
Yet Ostrom’s legacy is to show us that the leap from blackboard principles to the world outside the classroom is not nearly so straightforward. Rather than applying formulas, institutions and norms have emerged to help communities manage the resource in ways that avoid overuse. They do not look like simple property rights and they certainly don’t involve crowning a king to take care of matters for them. But they work.
Whether a country is a democracy, monarchy, republic, or something else, is in many ways the least interesting question. For example, there exists today, in America, an institution that looks a lot like Anissimov’s ideal picture of an oak. It’s the US military. While political scientists bicker about whether we should keep the electoral college or if ranked voting is the best kind of democracy, no one’s asking what to me is one of the most interesting questions: why is no one afraid that there will be a military coup anytime soon?
I’m not saying that it’s likely to happen—quite the opposite, I take this lack of fear to be well grounded. But as the son of a Cuban father, and as someone who has lived in South America for a time, I know that most of the world does not sleep so soundly on this question as it pertains to their own military.
Institutions are processes, structured by tradition and by ground-level knowledge and norms. High level questions like whether we are a republic, direct democracy, or monarchy are less relevant to day to day life in a nation than, say, whether the military inculcates its members with respect for the established governance arrangement. This is why I happen to think that America’s democratic religion is a healthy part of this country’s culture—because people who enlist in our voluntary military establishment usually believe it, wholeheartedly. Because for the centuries that we have had a military, they have believed it.
Moldbug claims to have crafted an ideology “in which order is simply good, and chaos is simply evil.” Yet his technocratic style of analysis belies that point—with no more than a few rationalist preconceptions he and his fellows are willing to throw out institutions that have survived centuries. I’m sure one could draw on enough credible social science to make a case that the Swiss canton system is on the verge of collapse, but given that that system is among the oldest in the world, I think we should extend it the benefit of the doubt.
The same courtesy, to a much lesser degree, should be extended to the American institutions of democracy. These institutions have weathered an enormous storm—the onset of the Industrial Revolution. And it has been a storm, in spite of the fantastic explosion in living standards that it produced. It has taken a people that were agricultural for thousands of years and propelled them into urban, cosmopolitan life. It’s not clear how our norms and institutions will make the transition, and we are certainly nowhere near there yet. That any of our institutions have survived the transition is astonishing, that they have been visibly scarred is far from surprising.
The most visible of the scars, in my opinion, is the proliferation of organizations competing for clout, autonomy, and taxpayer dollars, much like a culture of bacteria festering on an open wound. The ballooning of the relative size of governments is unlikely to be caused by democracy, however; the source is more likely the fundamental structural changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Again, no one can know how mankind will adapt to this new reality, and it’s far from obvious that current American institutions won’t find a way to do it.
Institutions are particular to times and places; they emerge organically and take feedback from, and provide feedback to, the populations that comprise them. The thick space where most people live their lives is not really a binary between complying with government and exercising property rights. Instead there is a vast, invisible web of norms, institutions, and implied obligations that make human social life possible on the scale that it exists at present. If order is your goal, do not start from first principles and try to build the perfect, orderly government. Instead, look to those institutions that have lasted. Rather than seeing yourself as above them, participate in them.