Like every virtual world, there is something seductive about the online realm of the new reactionary politics. Wading in, one finds oneself quickly immersed, and soon unmoored. All of the values that have guided the center-left, postwar consensus—the equal dignity of every individual, the guiding role of knowledge, government’s positive role in shaping civil society, a general sense that we’re moving towards a better world—are inverted. The moral landmarks by which we were accustomed to get our bearings aren’t gone: they’re on fire.
Trying to regain their footing, the mainstays of consensus thought have focused on domesticating the threat. Who are these Tea Partiers and internet recluses, these paleoconservatives and tech futurists, and what could they possibly want? The Atlantic mapped the coordinates of the “rebranded” white nationalism or the “internet’s anti-democracy movement” in the previously uncharted waters of 4chan and meme culture. In Strangers in Their Own Land, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild peers over the “empathy wall” between her and her rural Louisiana Tea Party contacts, while in Hillbilly Elegy, Ohio-born lawyer J. D. Vance casts a melancholic look back—from the other side of the aisle, but, tellingly, from the same side of the wall—on the Appalachian culture he left behind for Yale Law and a career in Silicon Valley.
These efforts follow a line of center-left thought that begins with Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Its guiding assumption is that those who balk at its vision are fundamentally mistaken: victims of an unfortunate illusion, perpetuated by big businesses or small prejudices, lack of education or surplus of religion. But now the balance of power has shifted, radically. And as reactionary ideology has grown—seemingly overnight—from a vague and diffuse resistance to a concerted political force, the veneer of objective interest and pastoral concern has started to crack.
“Darkness is good,” proclaimed Steve Bannon, the self-styled architect of Trumpism, to the Hollywood Reporter. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” This is the face the new reactionary politics presents to the technocratic elite: mysterious, evil and dangerously potent. It promises that some other way of doing things is possible. Since the election, the media, too, seem to be lured by it. As this alien force approaches, concern shades into fear, and fear starts to mix with attraction. Like Mulder in The X-Files, we find comfort in imagining some other power out there, even if it means us ill.1 The shame of seeing one’s own impotence laid bare can also feel like a relief: unshouldering the burden of Universal Progress, we make room for a secret desire to flourish.
The political imagination of the last thirty years has largely been shaped by the paradoxical belief that, as Margaret Thatcher put it, “there is no alternative”: that beliefs themselves are powerless to change the world. Life in the post-industrial West would be the happy end of history, and thus of ideologies, a calm and dreamless state. But the world into which we have settled has begun to feel cramped, and its inhabitants are increasingly restless. It is no longer possible to deny that there is a dream here, and it’s starting to seem like a bad one.
Since 1979 the divide between rich and poor has widened, while real wages for the non-managerial work that most people do have fallen and economic mobility has decreased. “Think different,” Apple urged in the Nineties: words of wisdom, to be sure, for the new economy, although the rewards seem to concentrate in the same place. Apple is 325 times bigger than it was in 1997; the average real wage for college graduates hasn’t increased at all. Like postmodern theory, Apple’s slogan makes “difference” into an opaque object of worship, a monolith or a space-gray smartphone: something intelligent but not quite human. “Think different,” not differently: the point is not to change your mind but to contemplate something else. Meanwhile, as the Silicon Valley tech giants grow ever more “different,” we sit around thinking about it in the academy, and living it on our phones. Tech executive or Uber driver, we find ourselves stuck in what Hito Steyerl calls “junktime,” an empty expectancy, somewhere between work and play and going nowhere.
It is in this context that the new reactionary politics have generated such a strange mixture of excitement and fear. The alt right seems really to want something. And within this nebulous (and mostly virtual) world, a group of writers who call themselves neoreactionaries offer the most concrete and detailed map of an “exit” from the status quo. Amid the diffuse politics and intractable ironism of the alt right, neoreaction promises a coherent ideology, a philosophical backbone and a political program directly opposed to what we have: they call it a “Dark Enlightenment.” If these thinkers are especially disturbing to read it is because, unlike the meme warriors of 4chan and Twitter, they seem to have reasons for the nasty things they say.
As a rule the alt right is scattered, anonymous and obscure—thriving, as the curious metaphor has it, in the “dark corners of the internet.” By contrast, neoreaction is centralized and public: darkness enlightened. It revolves around two well-known figures. The first is Curtis Yarvin, a software engineer who made money in the first internet boom developing an early protocol for mobile browsers. His current startup Urbit—backed by Peter Thiel— is a platform promising to “reboot” the internet by privatizing the virtual real estate where cloud computing takes place. Since 2007, his other big project has been his blog, where, under the name Mencius Moldbug, he has written millions of words of revisionist history, pessimistic philosophizing, racist fearmongering and intellectual parlor games. His writing constitutes the canon of neoreaction, and it has found readers from Steve Bannon to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the finance expert known for predicting the 2008 crash, to New York Times editorialist Ross Douthat. While alt-righters trade memes about campus snowflakes, Moldbug one-ups the enemy soldiers of Enlightenment, drawing on David Hume, Thomas Carlyle and the obscure nineteenth-century English historian James Froude to prove that slavery is natural and monarchy is the only stable form of government.
Less prolific, but more charismatic, Nick Land is neoreaction’s guru. An academic philosopher turned gonzo theorist, Land baptized the emerging movement the “Dark Enlightenment” in a 2013 commentary on Moldbug’s writing. In the Nineties Land taught in the philosophy department at Warwick University, where his Deleuzian “schizoanalysis” of the postmodern world formed the basis of a group called the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (Ccru). The Ccru became a hub for radical thought about the intersection of technology, capitalism and desire. Out of it came a new school of philosophy (speculative realism), Turner Prize-nominated artists (Jake and Dinos Chapman), a hugely influential electronic music label (Hyperdub) and one of the dominant strains of Marxian political theory (accelerationism). For Land it catalyzed an eventual break—from sanity (too many amphetamines, he admits) and from the strictures of academic philosophy. Since the early 2000s he has been living in Shanghai, where he turned to blogging, and to the defense and encouragement of an unbridled techno-capitalism.
Land’s techno-Darwinist account of race (“hyper-racism,” he calls it) is strange to read next to his early academic work, in which he called for “feminist violence” against the racist patriarchy “without limit.” A YouTube search for Yarvin produces equally jarring results. Ponytailed and painfully self-conscious, he reads his poetry on nineties Berkeley public-access TV (“this is, um, dedicated to my mother”). One click away is Yarvin at a 2012 TED-inspired “unconference,” baby-faced and affectless, asking his audience to “get over [their] dictator phobia.”
Yarvin and Land continue to thrive in the liberal milieu into which they were born. “I live in San Francisco,” Yarvin brags, “I grew up as a Foreign Service brat, I went to Brown, I’ve been brushing my teeth with Tom’s of Maine since the mid-Eighties.” Both can be considered architects of the emerging tech- and knowledge-based economy; they are the “autistic nerds” that, Land says, “alone are capable of participating effectively” in the emerging economic system. But even they do not feel at home in this world they have helped to build. If the new anti-liberal politics runs on ressentiment, as commentators on both the left and right have suggested, the nerds of neoreaction channel this sense of betrayal at the heart of the American liberal project into an either/or Boolean clarity. Their passion rivals that of their avowed enemy, the “social justice warrior.” And what they believe is, quite simply, that everything about the modern world is a lie.
Western democracy, Mencius Moldbug tells us, is an “Orwellian system,” which means that its governments are “existentially dependent on systematic public deception.” Nominally, a democracy like the U.S. is founded on the separation of church and state, and more fundamentally, of government policy and civil society. With a state church, government power shapes what citizens think, which means citizens can no longer shape government policy. Rather than expressing or even guiding the will of the people, the state aims only to increase its own power by producing the people it needs. But a state church, according to neoreaction, is what we have: Moldbug calls it “the Cathedral,” and exposing it, critiquing it and trying to destroy it is neoreaction’s avowed goal. The Cathedral, like the Matrix in the 1999 film (a favorite reference point for neoreaction), is everywhere; it infects every experience, shapes all aspects of our waking lives. Its main centers of power are the university, the mainstream media and the culture industry.
Want to earn enough money to support your family? You’ll need a college degree, so you’d better learn how to write a paper on epistemic violence for your required Grievance Studies 101 class. Want to keep your job? You’d better brush up on climate-change talking points, so you can shift into regulatory compliance, the only growth industry left. Want to relax with your friends after work? It’s probably easiest if you like movies about gay people, pop music that celebrates infidelity and drug use, and books about non-Christian boy wizards. Want to communicate with other people? Better figure out how to use emoticons. Which race of smiley face do you use when your employer texts you on the weekend?
And so on. Living in the Cathedral, we may not notice this web of norms, mores and social rituals as such; it is simply the texture of our daily lives. But neoreaction is keen to point out that this constitutes a distinct vision, a way of life: they call it “universalism” or “progressivism.” Neoreactionary writing—and the whole culture of “SJW fail” videos and 4chan humor about political correctness that goes along with it—is directed to getting us to notice it, and to ask why we live like this. The idea is that once we start asking these questions, we will start to see things very differently.
But progressivism doesn’t just coerce people into seeing the world in a certain way; according to neoreaction, it also exacerbates the very problems it claims to correct. The Cathedral amounts to a massive system of what economists call “perverse incentives,” or in Land’s words, an “automatic cultural mechanism that advocates for dysfunction.” Yarvin’s excruciating “Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations”—11 parts, 100,000 words—essentially boils down to this claim:
The intended effect of the policy is to inflict some good or other on America, the rest of the world, or both. The actual effect of the policy is to make the problem which requires the policy worse, the apparatus which formulates and applies the policy larger and more important, etc., etc. … The consequence [is] a new system of government by deception—the Modern Structure.
On one level this is just econo-theism: every direct attempt by government to fix a problem, to play God, interferes with the unknowable logic of the all-powerful market, resulting in just the problems it aimed to fix. Imagine yourself above the market, and you will feel its wrath. But there’s a more savage bite to neoreaction. Why, the neoreactionaries ask, do we make this error in the first place? Or: why are we required to believe in political correctness, rather than simply being forced to accept progressive policy as the rules of the game for our time? And why, after all, are liberals so threatened by dissent?
The neoreactionary answer is that the goal of the policy is not to fix the problem. Progressivism is not self-defeating but massively successful (a mantra of Yarvin’s: “America is a communist country”). The dominant, liberal-contractarian understanding of democracy descended from Locke is that it is a crowdsourcing technique for the rational administration of common resources, a “free market” for political opinions. But the recent history of democracy offers scant evidence of its efficiency. It is enough, the neoreactionaries point out, to look at authoritarian zones like Shanghai, Singapore and Dubai, which combine high growth, significant personal “liberty” and almost zero political participation to see just how unnecessary democracy is—or has become—if the goal is simply capital growth. The neoreactionary account of democracy emphasizes something that its partisans, at least of the (neo-) “liberal” variety, do not: the ultimate justification for democratic politics is not good administration—the ordering of resources toward a particular goal—but rather, simply, more politics.
It is not an accident, then, that the keywords of progressivism, according to Yarvin—“humanity, progress, equality, democracy, justice, environment, community, peace, etc.”—are difficult to define; really they are “philosophical mysteries … best compared to Plotinian, Talmudic, or Scholastic nonsense.” Democracy is like the divine revels of the monk or the mystic, enjoyed publicly; its guiding concepts do not accomplish worldly goals but rather “absorb arbitrary mental energy without producing any rational thought.” In the neoreactionary view, democracy amounts to a belief in belief: it imagines that the world itself is a product of the collective imagination, something that we aim to realize and that, without our investment in it, ceases to exist. As the Cathedral becomes more and more powerful, it remakes the world in its image; beliefs start to matter, to give shape to our experiences. In such a world, as Land puts it, “nothing except politics remains.” (A sixties version: “the personal is political.”)
The neoreactionary looks upon this world incredulously, as an increasingly strange and disturbing spectacle, careening toward disaster. Democracy is “not merely doomed,” Land writes, “it is doom itself.” As the actors seal their fate in this tragedy by their very attempts to avert it, only one option remains: get out. But if the problem with this world is that it is a collective fantasy, what could they be imagining in its place?
There is a famous scene in The Matrix, near the beginning of the film. “Neo,” played by Keanu Reeves, is a corporate programmer by day and a renegade hacker at night. Something about his world feels wrong; it is a world compressed between grays and greens, and the pallid daylight in nondescript Mega City, USA blends uncannily into the neon glow of the MS-DOS underworld he haunts after hours. Cryptic messages referring to “the Matrix” have been appearing on Neo’s computer; increasingly curious and unsettled, he follows a trail of mysterious symbols and characters, and eventually finds himself alone in a room with a man named Morpheus. This legendary hacker, whose name recalls the Greek god of dreams, promises to reveal the secret, to explain to Neo what it is that’s been bugging him:
Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain—but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life: that there’s something wrong in the world.
This is the Matrix. The Matrix, Morpheus explains, “is everywhere. It is all around us. … It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” Neo has been on a quest to find out what the Matrix is, but it turns out that it was right there, all around him: indeed, it’s the only thing he knew. What he didn’t know is that it was fake. The Matrix is a computer simulation, an illusion—but an illusion so pervasive, so powerful, that it literally constitutes “the world.” Everything that Neo experiences is not just unreal but blocking reality: a world that “blinds him from the truth.” Morpheus offers Neo a choice: blue pill or red pill. If he takes the blue pill, he will return to his dull and easy life; this worldly prison will be a home again. But after the red pill, there’s no going back. Neo takes it, and he is ejected into the “real world”: naked, cold, alone and for the first time in his life, “awake.”
This is how neoreaction describes the Dark Enlightenment. The Cathedral, like the Matrix, is an illusion, a system of mass deception; at the same time, it shapes every aspect of our lives, constituting our world. Neoreactionary writing is “the red pill,” the “genuine article,” as Yarvin puts it. To read it is to see the Matrix from the other side: the “redpilled” neoreactionary, like the “woke” leftist, has escaped from a dream. Instead of the Cathedral’s comforting bromides, with the red pill you get something brutal, painful, unquestionably real: it has a “sodium core” and it “will sear your throat.”
But there’s a pleasure in this pain. Like the religious ascetic turning himself toward the joys of the next world by mortifying his flesh in this one, the neoreactionary’s painful process of “disillusion” offers its own satisfactions. Yarvin’s “Unqualified Reservations” promises to be “an ultimate ascent. Out of the Computer’s infinite fluorescent maze. Into the glorious air of pure, unfiltered reason,” but his writing lingers stubbornly in the “black, unthinkable madness” that proceeds it, describing in loving detail the Cathedral’s massive apparatus of deception. Part 9a of the “Gentle Introduction,” over eighty thousand words in, finds us still savoring “the true red-hot pill of sodium metal—now igniting in your duodenum. Smile grimly! You have almost passed through the flame.”
The Matrix trilogy has been a massive cultural and economic force. It made $1.6 billion at the box office, shaped how we saw the emerging internet-mediated world, and generated a passionate and vibrant fan culture, of which neoreaction is certainly a part. After its release, a flood of books with titles like The Matrix and Philosophy appeared; a decade later, neoreaction is trying to be something like “The Matrix and Politics.” The appeal is primal: like Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” which imagines the ordinary condition of human life—life, that is, without philosophy—as that of men who sit in darkness, chained together and enthralled by a shadow-play projected on the wall in front of them, The Matrix is a fiction that promises to lead us to reality, life unleashed from all arbitrary, social confines. The exquisite tortures of the red pill are supposed to lead us to a better world; with the right political theory, politics can finally fulfill its promise and get rid of itself. “We can hope to escape from history,” Yarvin argues, by coming to “understand how completely we’re still inside it.”
But this escape route from history, or fantasy, leads in a loop. Neoreaction borrows its “realist” politics from a fictional film, and sustains it through a thriving online subculture, sparking with arcane references and “meme magic.” What’s fascinating is that people love the movie. The “autistic nerds” and failsons, sitting in their man caves or their parents’ basements, dream of a world realer than their own: primal and gooey-thick, the real depth behind the flat image. But it is Neo who wakes up into this world; and Neo exists in our imagination, his image on our screens. If we wonder at the rise of the alt right—at the fact that the ideology most capable of galvanizing political passions is the one that promises to overcome politics once and for all—we should notice that their fantasies in fact look a lot like our reality. Man caves exist, and they shape our world; the neoreactionary is not the only one who lives in their shadows.
Neoreactionaries have another name for the Cathedral, which they take from the work of the early twentieth-century American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s synthesis of scientific detachment and occult mysticism reached an apex in the figure of the sublime, otherworldly sea creature “Cthulhu.” For neoreactionaries Cthulhu is a totemic image of the world they hate. The Matrix is from the future, an artifice laid on top of reality, a veil “pulled over your eyes”; Cthulhu is primitive, monstrous and natural, lurking deep, behind, below. “Cthulhu always swims left,” as Yarvin puts it in one of his most quoted koans. The mystery is in how he moves.
A sea monster—winged, tentacled, humanoid—he is unknown to men of science. He first appears in the strangely synchronized dreams, recounted to the narrator of Lovecraft’s tale, of “artists and poets”; further research reveals that others may have more intimate knowledge of his existence. While the artists and poets dream, “voodoo orgies multiply” in Haiti, “African outposts report ominous mutterings” and policemen in New York are “mobbed by hysterical Levantines.” Finally, the narrator, a reclusive New England professor, discovers the existence of an ancient cult, dispersed across the globe and yet strangely united in their reverence for this monstrous creature.
The connection is not, exactly, in the object of their worship: after all, Cthulhu himself is forever shrouded in darkness. It is something in the worshippers themselves. “Degenerate Esquimaux,” “half-castes” in “African outposts,” “hysterical Levantines” in New York: as Lovecraft details repeatedly, it is a “dark cult,” the men are “low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant,” the sites of worship in a region “of traditionally evil repute, substantially unknown and untraversed by white men.”
Lovecraft was a timid New England recluse who concealed his abject poverty with a veneer of Mayflower-descended gentility. In 1924 he moved from Providence to New York City, and his encounters with urban life transformed him. Vivid letters detail the “Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid” creatures that confronted him on the Lower East Side:
The organic things … inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of the earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities. … From that nightmare of perverse infection I could not carry away the memory of any living face. The individually grotesque was lost in the collectively devastating.
A strange and unknowable power lurks in these dark masses; their messy organicism dissolves clear distinctions, revealing some deeper, more primitive, “collective” thing. Lovecraft was thrown into a frenzy. “The New York Mongoloid problem,” he wrote to Frank Belknap Long, “is beyond calm mention.” “The Call of Cthulhu” was published four years later. The “deep-sea unnamabilities” now had a name, and other writers in his New York coterie (among them Belknap Long) began to build what is now a rich and diverse Cthulhu mythology.
Though neoreaction, unlike much of the alt right, does not identify with white nationalism as a platform—anyone, technically, can live in the authoritarian city-states they imagine—the figure of dark and threatening masses plays a similarly charged role in their writing. Yarvin makes constant, specious use of historical crime statistics, and he describes the “old cities of North America” as “overrun and rendered largely uninhabitable by murderous racist gangs” (he’s not talking about police); white flight, for him, is a form of “ethnic cleansing” inflicted on whites by non-whites. In sum: liberal democracy is Cthulhu, a creature so monstrous he cannot be known firsthand. In the frenzied pleasures of his worshippers, though, he makes his presence felt.
The French writer Michel Houellebecq explains Lovecraft’s deep racial animus as ressentiment; Lovecraft, he suggests, “knows full well that he has no place in any kind of heroic Valhalla of battles and conquests; unless, as usual, the place of the vanquished.” His anemic, professorial heroes are “stripped of all life, renouncing all human joy, becoming pure intellects, pure spirits tending to only one goal: the search for knowledge.” The only thing left for them in this world is the meticulous cataloguing of their own obsolescence. Yarvin begins many descriptions of the Cathedral with sentences like this: “Suppose you are an alien…” In this act of imagination, the neoreactionary seeks to dissolve his human form, to become a pure thinker like one of Lovecraft’s heroes—or, for that matter, like an Anglo-American philosopher.2 Supposing himself an alien, he aspires to a voice at once purely objective and totally ironic, infinitely exacting and light-years away. “The Western civilization show has been discontinued,” Nick Land wrote in “Circuitries,” from 1992. In his last philosophy classes, he would teach class lying on the floor, referring to himself as the collective entity “Cur” and monologuing nonsense intercut with lines from the poetry of Artaud. Around 2000, Land suffered a schizophrenic break; this was the end of his academic career, and the beginning of his life as a political guru.
Writing on the Alternative Right blog, Land eschews backwoods “ordinary racism” for a futuristic “hyper-racism,” according to which accelerating technological progress will create intense and highly specific evolutionary pressure: for example, the traits needed by Mars colonists, or the reproductive success afforded to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The result will be not just eugenics, but “neo-speciation” on a fantastic scale. You get to become the something else that ordinary human “races” prefigure—or to use another phrase of Land’s, “think face tentacles.”
The neoreactionary imagines his back turned, as others warm themselves by this strange fire, call it the cult of Cthulhu or the cult of progress, Enlightenment. “Coldness be my God,” proclaims Land’s Twitter bio. But ultimately the fantasy is to get sucked up into this omnipotent, alien force, whether it’s an artificial intelligence or a dark and primitive other. Networked computers or slimy masses, the advent of the Matrix or the return of Cthulhu: the neoreactionary looks for signs of the arrival of this strange entity, either the origin or the destiny of man, and either way his end. In the meantime, the neoreactionary waits, listening for the call. By describing it, he hopes to slip away without having to respond. When Cthulhu came, Lovecraft wrote,
The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.
Life in the Cathedral is nasty and brutal, a nightmare: this is the picture neoreaction paints. What they want, though, is not exactly to destroy it. They want rather to get outside of it, in order to, as Morpheus promises Neo, “know what it is.” In the end the problem with the Cathedral is not that it’s bad, but that it’s dishonest. So what would honesty look like?
Basically, the internet. If a state church exists in the U.S. present, “Google” is probably a better shorthand for it than “progressivism.” The only real problem, according to neoreaction, is that we haven’t made this explicit: that we don’t yet know that our lives are lived inside an Internet of Things.
Yarvin and his friends are one step ahead of the progressive policy nerds: while the beltway wonks look to Silicon Valley for innovative techniques for “disrupting” social problems, Yarvin the entrepreneur-theorist wants to cut out the middleman and “reboot” the state himself. He has a simple plan: dissolve the U.S. government and replace it with a “gov-corp.” Retire all government employees (“R.A.G.E.”), “draft ten thousand Googlers,” and perhaps—as Justine Tunney, former Occupy Wall Street leader, current Google engineer and vocal advocate for neoreaction, proposed on a Whitehouse.gov petition—“hire [then-CEO of Google] Eric Schmidt as the CEO of America.” Or better, break the country up into smaller city-states: maybe a red and a blue America, an Apple America and a Ford one. Right now the U.S. is the “Microsoft of nations”—much too bloated. Smaller, affinity-based states will be leaner and more efficient. What you choose is up to you; “if you like your country, you can keep it,” as Balaji S. Srinivasan promised in a talk (“Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit”) at Y Combinator’s Startup School.
We thought the Cathedral was about politics, but actually it’s economics; we thought we were choosing, but in fact we are merely pawns. Freedom for the neoreactionary then means simply knowing that you are “a slave.” While the cyberpunk reference points for neoreaction (The Matrix, Blade Runner, Neuromancer) are usually called dystopian, neoreaction amounts to the wager that if you could figure out how to actually live in these fantasy worlds, they would be good. Since they’re imaginary, you can do whatever you want, like Neo—stopping bullets, flying around—when he figures out that the rules of the Matrix are “no different than the rules of a computer system.” In other words, absolute; but once you know how they work, infinitely hackable. The Matrix is about getting out, but all the cool shit happens inside (“I know Kung Fu”).3
The goal of neoreaction is to harness the power of the state church by getting rid of the fantasy that it is an expression of popular will, that we want it. Seeing the collective imaginary as an autonomous, alien force—call it technology or capital, ideology or world-spirit—rather than a form of human life (i.e. politics) paradoxically frees us to embrace it. In Silicon Valley they call this force “the Singularity.” Those who believe in it predict that computers will soon learn how to improve themselves, resulting in a “liftoff” moment in which technology becomes autonomous and self-sustaining, rapidly freeing itself from the biological limitations of its human creators.4 In The Singularity Is Near, futurist prophet Ray Kurzweil, who is also the director of engineering at Google, writes that by allowing us to “transcend [the] limitations of our biological bodies and brains,” the Singularity (always capitalized) will erase the distinction “between human and machines or between physical and virtual reality.” He pictures this as the moment in which humans finally get “power over our fate,” but it could also be described as the moment when we finally submit to it. The idea of the Singularity implies that technology is not just humanity’s essence, but ultimately a force that transcends it.
In Silicon Valley, the Singularitarian hears the rumblings of this primitive, chthonic power as it prepares to shrug off its merely human form; by acknowledging this force’s absolute supremacy, he hopes ultimately to upload himself into the cloud, to become part of it and live forever. “We have come to the end of the series,” Land wrote in an early essay, still published as academic philosophy. “Can what’s playing you make it to the next level?”
Trump’s election, in which the alt right’s ideological warfare certainly played a part, is not the end of this story. Bannon, for one, described him as a “blunt instrument for us” who may not, himself, “get it.” But the imaginative investment in Trump, however temporary, reveals something important about politics in the present. If he can be, as posters on 4chan put it, “memed into existence,” then perhaps miracles can happen; a route out of the omnipresent Cathedral starts to seem mappable.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference last February, Reince Priebus, flanked by Steve Bannon, described his excitement: “We love being here,” even though “we actually hate politics … What we were starving for was somebody real, somebody genuine, somebody who was actually who he said he was.” It’s not so ironic that Trump played this redemptive role for Priebus: though insincere, Trump is in a sense “authentic,” a word which (not just for the right) has become almost an antonym for “politician.” Trump is nothing if not an exemplary product of the system the neoreactionaries want to tear down. But this is his virtue. His brand of politics is “pure” in that it does not pretend to aim at anything other than increasing its own power. Like Neo, so crushingly ordinary in his day job—or Keanu Reeves, so fantastically vacant in his acting—Trump serves as a pure vessel for something else.
We cannot explain away the strangeness of the current moment in U.S. politics. But we should not turn away from the even deeper strangeness it reveals. From Puritan fantasies of an American apocalypse to the Manson Family’s hippie inferno, American culture has always been obsessed with the thought that its utopian visions might flower into something rotten. The American dream is of a waking life like a dream, a definite world with no limits; it is the dream of a society bound together by individuals’ pursuit of just whatever they want. It’s a dream that slides easily into a nightmare, of a world that, without any limits, careens straight into the abyss. The Puritan patriarchs ruminated endlessly, in their private journals, about the unprecedented corruption into which their new world had fallen. In the virtual world of the neoreactionaries, our modern priestly class of professors and technologists make these apocalyptic fantasies public.
The fear of political life—of the uncertainty that comes with wanting and doing things with others—has long been a driving force in modern democratic politics. The fantasy worlds of reactionary thought present themselves as an absolute break with the postwar liberal consensus, even with “politics” as such; they are not that, but they are not just illusions, either. In the end, the dream of an “exit” from the contingency and unpredictability of worldly life is still a human one. Against its own claim that “there is no alternative,” neoreaction’s fantasy of an “exit” from history gives evidence, as brutal and real as it imagines, of the political life that we are destined to share.