There is no reason at all that a libertarian, such as myself, cannot favor martial law. I am free when my rights are defined and secured against all comers, regardless of official pretensions. Freedom implies law; law implies order; order implies peace; peace implies victory. As a libertarian, the greatest threat to my property is not Uncle Sam, but thieves and brigands. If Uncle Sam wakes up from his present sclerotic slumber and shows the brigands a strong hand, my liberty has been increased.
—Curtis Yarvin, An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives
If a typical reactionary is someone still trying to adjust to the French Revolution, one could say that Curtis Yarvin is an uber-reactionary—someone still bristling at the American Revolution. Even the downfall of the Stuart monarchy remains an open wound for this self-described “Jacobite.”
Lionel Trilling famously described reactionaries as expressing themselves in “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas,” and this would be a fair description of most of Yarvin’s writing. Still, it’s easy to see how Yarvin—formerly known as Mencius Moldbug—became an idol of twenty-first-century elitist ressentiment. In the excellent recent compilation Key Thinkers of the Radical Right: Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy, Joshua Tait describes Yarvin as:
a new type of radical Right activist at odds with the conservative mainstream: young, coastal, anonymous, secular, male, and adept at manipulating digital technologies to advance an anti-progressive agenda. The Unqualified Reservations blog garnered Moldbug’s outsized influence for an anonymous blogger. He became the founding theorist of the “neoreactionary” movement, an online collection of writers determined to theorize a superior alternative to democracy.
While Yarvin has since shed his alias and retired Unqualified Reservations, he remains very active online. He has a new substack called Gray Mirror, and can be seen on YouTube debating issues such as whether the United States was in fact soft on Communism during much of the twentieth century.
Yarvin describes himself as an unlikely far-right commentator. He was born in 1973 to a secular, well-off Jewish family with radical-left roots. In some of his early blog posts, Yarvin muses about his family being baffled at his reactionary turn, noting that his Communist grandparents would have been deeply disappointed. Yarvin started a PhD in Computer Science at the University of California at Berkley, but dropped out to join a tech start-up. It was then that he became deeply immersed in the libertarian culture of Silicon Valley. Right-wing libertarians and Austrian economists like Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises were important early influences on his thinking. This lasted until Yarvin came across Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Thomas Carlyle. The effect of the latter was especially important for Yarvin, who, in a pamphlet titled Moldbug on Carlyle, wrote, “I am a Carlylean. I’m a Carlylean more or less the way a Marxist is a Marxist. My worship of Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian Jesus, is no adolescent passion—but the conscious choice of a mature adult. I will always be a Carlylean, just the way a Marxist will always be a Marxist.”
The Carlyle Yarvin worships is the embittered reactionary, disdainful of the masses, who wrote, in Past and Present, that “man, little as he may suppose it, is necessitated to obey a superior.” Carlyle was baffled that so many of his contemporaries refused to accept their subordination.
Thinkers such as Carlyle convinced Yarvin that the kind of social-Darwinian “freedom” endorsed by right-libertarianism would never be compatible with a democratic society. Interestingly, Yarvin’s benefactor Peter Thiel had a similar eureka moment in the early 2000s, concluding that “since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women—two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians—have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” Yarvin put the point even more bluntly in A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations: “The basic problem of Tory democracy is that the masses suck.” When offered even fractional increases to their power by the democratic Left, Edmund Burke’s “swinish multitude” will obviously take them, dragging everyone into the plebian filth with them. Moreover, by distributing power so extensively, democratic societies make it harder to exercise it efficiently. This leads to a swelling of the state as it seeks to placate competing interests and overcome its continual structural limitations. It also leads to economic inefficiency, as creative capitalists are continually hamstrung by democratic pressures.
Yarvin sometimes writes as if his problem with the democratic Left is that it is committed to chaos. As he puts it in Gentle Introduction, “Right represents peace, order and security; left represents war, anarchy and crime.” But Yarvin’s own idea of a national “reset” to establish an American monarchy would mean seizing political power and using it to radically upend the established order. It is not quite right to call Yarvin a restorationist, since the United States has never had a monarchy as long as it’s been an independent sovereign state. In his more candid moments, Yarvin will admit that his real priorities aren’t order and stability—at least in the near term—but protecting the freedom of an elite by imposing strict laws on the lower orders.
Yarvin believes his kind of authoritarian libertarianism could be achieved only through a non-democratic state led by titans of industry like Steve Jobs or, more recently, Elon Musk. As Yarvin puts it in his Open Letter to Open Minded Progressives,
the tactical error of the libertarian…is to believe that the state can be made smaller and simpler by making it weaker. Historically, the converse is the case: attempts to weaken an authority either destroy it, resulting in chaos and death, or force it to compensate by enlarging, resulting in the familiar “red-giant state.” The pronomian prefers a state that is small, simple, and very strong.
Yarvin has thought a lot about how his “pronomian” utopia might come about. One option he frequently discusses is to stir the masses into a counter-revolutionary seizure of state power. He denies being a racist or a proponent of mass violence, but long stretches of Yarvin’s work express an unsubtle admiration for elements of fascism. In A Gentle Introduction, he half-jokingly acknowledges this: “[F]rankly, Hitler reads a lot like me, if I lost 25 IQ points from drinking lead soda, and also had a nasty case of tertiary syphilis. I may have some of Hitler’s talents—I will be the first to admit it. But I have no intention of applying for his job.” But Yarvin ultimately rejects the fascist-populist option for a few reasons. First, he points out that leftists and liberals are acutely sensitive to neo-fascist agitation—quick to spot it and quick to put it down. Second, Yarvin admits that Hitler, while a “genius,” is also an evil man who murdered innocent people and therefore not a suitable model for emulation.
Most importantly, Yarvin is disgusted at the demotic quality of fascism, which, as Robert Paxton has observed, was distinctive among far-right movements for its mobilization of the masses. As a reactionary authoritarian Yarvin is too elitist and too antimodern for fascism. Instead of a mob seizing power violently, he would prefer to see his intellectual elites take power through a sustained campaign of hegemonic transition—a march through the institutions. While his terminology has often shifted over time, this commitment to vanguardist elitism has remained a through-line in Yarvin’s writing. In a recent Gray Mirror post titled “You Can Only Lose the Culture War” Yarvin discourages the conservative “hobbits” who form the Republican base from imagining that they will wield real power if the liberal establishment is defeated. The job of the conservative base is instead to give “absolute power” to a new ruling class of “dark elves” who will implement conservative policies on the hobbits’ behalf.
The struggle for control of the state will last until a “coalition of the middle and upper classes—the civilized classes—can be formed” when “victory is certain regardless of the numbers of the underclass.” At this point Yarvin’s vaguely defined “reset” will occur and democracy will wither away. Everyone will then benefit from the kind of autocratic management that’s recently taken Twitter to new heights.
Yarvin likes to present himself as an intellectual dissident swimming heroically against the tide of democratic modernity. As Alexander Reid Ross put it in Against the Fascist Creep, Yarvin “warns of a conspiratorial node of liberal media, academia, and government bureaucracy, which he believes acts as the modern day ‘Cathedral’ to oppress the minds of everyday people.” This left-wing hegemon has won virtually every major battle fought against reactionaries. The consequence has been the gradual spread of democracy and socialism, which, for Yarvin, are essentially the same thing. He dismisses C. Wright Mills and Noam Chomsky’s claim that the wealthy constitute an unaccountable political elite in the United States. The real unaccountable elite, Yarvin claims, consists of people like Chomsky himself. In his Open Letter Yarvin claims that by the “Chomsky era, the military-corporate-financial conspiracy was approaching the plausibility, if not the maliciousness, of its international Jewish counterpart.” In A Gentle Introduction the conspiratorialism becomes even more sinister. Yarvin claims that the “standard terminology” of the Second World War is inaccurate. This is because the “Allies were an axis, cooperating ruthlessly and efficiently; the Axis was an alliance, cooperating grudgingly and without trust. The Allies were the Empire; the Axis were the rebels. The Axis never had a real plan for world domination, whereas the Allies had it figured out long before.”
This sense of being confronted by overwhelming leftist power is where Yarvin’s famous metaphor of taking the “red pill” came from: “We’ve all seen The Matrix. We know about red pills. Many claim to sell them. You can go, for example, to any bookstore, and ask the guy behind the counter for some Noam Chomsky. What you’ll get is blue pills soaked in Red #3.” All this gave Yarvin’s work a kind of pseudo-countercultural quality that invited readers to regard themselves as simultaneously the innocent victims of a giant conspiracy and the members of a high-IQ elite who deserved a status well above what they got within decadent democracies.
Yarvin’s writing is of a very low intellectual quality, even compared with other neo-reactionaries like Paul Gottfried or Alexander Dugin. He comes across as a kind of third-rate authoritarian David Foster Wallace, combining post-postmodern bookish eclecticism with a yearning to communicate with and influence young disaffected white men. His writings are full of dubious historical claims usually mixed with thinly veiled bigotry and a powdery kind of middle-class snobbery.
Some of his arguments are simply bizarre. In A Gentle Introduction, Yarvin claims:
it is in fact very difficult to argue that the War of Secession [his term for the American Civil War] made anyone’s life more pleasant, including that of the freed slaves. (Perhaps your best case would be for New York profiteers and Unitarian poets who produced homilies to war.) War destroyed the economy of the South. It brought poverty, disease and death.
He does not mention that it also brought emancipation and some measure of justice, despite the efforts of white supremacists to reassert their power through violence and anti-suffrage efforts. Then there are the many places where Yarvin insists that the United States, from Wilson onward, handled Communism with a velvet glove. He simply dismisses the fact that Wilson sent soldiers in to crush the Bolshevik Revolution and jailed members of America’s socialist party. Such facts, he thinks, are misleading and mentioning them demonstrates progressive historical bias.
In a particularly obnoxious section of his book on Carlyle, Yarvin takes aim at tiny Haiti as an exemplar of all that went wrong with the transition to democracy:
In Haiti, we see one aspect of life without promises made and kept: poverty, corruption, violence and filth. In a word: anarchy. Haiti is the product of the persistence of human anarchy, and an excellent symbol because it symbolized exactly the same thing to Carlyle and Froude. The latter visited; his observations are recorded in his travelogue of the trip, The English in the West Indies; Or, the Bow of Ulysses. Haiti is far more anarchic now than it was in 1888, of course, whose Port-au-Prince is a paradise next to today’s. Froude gets all enraged because he sees a ditch full of garbage. The 19th century’s Haiti is the 21st’s whole Third World.
All of this is wildly misleading. Haiti was founded by heroic men and women who launched the first successful slave revolt in history. After several unsuccessful efforts to take back the island by force, the French King Charles X ordered the Haitians to pay upwards of 40 percent of their national income to former slaveholders in reparations or face further violence. Thomas Piketty estimates that the French owe the Haitians at least $28 billion from this extortion. Not to be outdone, the United States—which Yarvin contemptuously describes as the most left-wing country in the world during the nineteenth century—isolated Haiti to prevent the precedent of slave revolt from spreading across the conservative southern plantocracy. Given Yarvin’s description of the Union as a force of “gigantic mendacity and ruthless violence” directed against the slave-holding South, he would probably defend this policy.
But to focus on the flaws in Yarvin’s thinking is to miss the point. What has made him appealing to so many on the Right isn’t the quality of his reasoning but his undeniable ability to express reactionary ressentiment in a twenty-first-century techno-hipster vocabulary. The ressentiment of the political Right is different from that of the Left. Historically, left-wing ressentiment has been directed at the upper classes by those who have little or nothing. This usually takes the form of conceiving of oneself as a victim and demanding freedom from “oppression.” Right-wing ressentiment, by contrast, combines a similar attitude of victimhood with megalomaniacal feelings of personal superiority. It takes the form of insisting that one is part of some natural elite that deserves status and power, but is persecuted by the weak and inferior who dare to demand equal status with the strong. Much of the reactionary tradition is a long series of “irritiable mental gestures” in response to the outrageous fact that, somehow, the clearly inferior keep gaining the upper hand. This is usually followed by tedious instructions on how the naturally superior can take power “back.” Even if a reactionary has never in fact wielded power, such a person clearly belongs to what Yarvin calls the “natural aristocracy,” which would have been in power all along if the normal order of things hadn’t been corrupted by the Left. It’s a philosophy of spurious grievance appropriate to a postmodern culture.
For Yarvin, most people are nothing more than a mass of hobbits who “suck” and should be governed by their betters. (Perhaps this is why he so often condescends to his readers by presenting supposedly serious political ideas as if they’re rules for a game of Dungeons and Dragons.) Modern thinkers from Immanuel Kant to Martin Luther King Jr. have regarded a good society as one where mature individuals take responsibility for their thoughts and actions by governing themselves. But this will always be disagreeable to someone like Yarvin, who doubts that most people are capable of political maturity and thinks a few “dark elves” like himself should be in charge because only they are grown-up enough to exercise power effectively. The irony is that the whole tone of Yarvin’s rhetoric is one of perpetual adolescence: obsessed with status, blinded by delusions of grandeur, and impatient with the negotiations and compromises of ordinary political life. In place of “the Cathedral,” Yarvin offers his followers an imaginary castle, and invites them all to imagine themselves on the throne. For a certain kind of alienated young person, this may be a satisfying fantasy. It is not a serious politics.