The Moldbug Variations
Well, well, well.
Three years ago, Peter Thiel called me a conspiracy theorist at a Baffler-hosted debate in New York between him and David Graeber. What prompted the characteristically winking and dismissive Thielian deflection was a question from a New York Times reporter, concerning a story on this very blog by yours truly. The story detailed connections between the democracy-loathing venture capitalist and a prolific, flowery neo-feudalist blogger who called himself Mencius Moldbug.
Moldbug was comfortably anonymous, with a modest but influential following in Silicon Valley circles, until TechCrunch revealed his identity as Curtis Yarvin, a San Francisco software engineer whose strange and quixotic startup, Tlön, had garnered some investment capital from Thiel. Moldbug’s moribund blog remains one of the ur-texts of the “neoreactionary” movement, a subset of what is now euphemistically termed the alt-right, but which I characterized at the time—more accurately, I think—as the mouthbreathing Machiavellis of the silicon reich.
Yarvin suffered some modest career setbacks and conference disinvitations once his identity as Moldbug became common knowledge, but Thiel stood fast. I did not outright accuse Thiel of plotting some kind of monarchist coup with Yarvin, but in 2014 Thiel was apparently quite sensitive to the suggestion he might be in cahoots with the alt-right underground.
Three years ago, Peter Thiel called me a conspiracy theorist at a Baffler-hosted debate.
“Actually, I found that vaguely flattering,” Thiel told the Times. “It was the full-on conspiracy theory. In truth, there’s nobody sitting around plotting the future, though sometimes I think it would be better if people were.”
Note that in his comment, Thiel denied nothing. Indeed, part of him seemed to enjoy the attention. I certainly delighted in the irony of being called a conspiracy theorist by a wealthy and well-connected serial conspirator—even though at the time, Thiel had yet to be exposed as the financier behind a covert legal campaign to defund and destroy his journalistic nemesis, Gawker Media, from existence.
Now let’s jump ahead to the first week of October 2017. BuzzFeed published a long expose based on leaked emails that revealed further coordination between alt-right personalities such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon, the heir to the late Andrew Breitbart’s online propaganda empire and, more important, a key adviser to Donald Trump.
The full story is worth your time. But a careful reader drew my attention to this exchange concerning Thiel and Yarvin, which took place some time after May 2016—the exact timing is unclear. In any case, BuzzFeed reported that Thiel and Yiannopoulos had “made plans to meet during the July Republican National Convention. But much of Yiannopoulos’s knowledge of Thiel seemed to come secondhand from other right-wing activists, as well as Curtis Yarvin, the blogger who advocates the return of feudalism.” The story then quotes this exchange:
Yarvin told Yiannopoulos that he had been “coaching Thiel.”
“Peter needs guidance on politics for sure,” Yiannopoulos responded.
“Less than you might think!” Yarvin wrote back. “I watched the election at his house, I think my hangover lasted into Tuesday. He’s fully enlightened, just plays it very carefully.”
There’s a lot going on here. For a start, it’s unclear whether Yarvin’s long hangover was emotionally or chemically induced. I assume he was high on victory.
More substantively, this is further confirmation that Thiel and Yarvin are not merely business associates—Thiel never bothered to claim as much and, if he had, who would have believed him?—but ideological comrades. Their relationship clearly pivots on observing and discussing politics—as friends do. It is, again, unclear exactly which election Yarvin watched at Thiel’s house, but given the rough timeline, we can take for granted that it featured Trump as a candidate for president of the United States.
In 2014, Thiel was apparently quite sensitive to the suggestion he might be in cahoots the alt-right underground.
In other words: a smoking gun, exposing the full-on conspiracy! I can’t say I’m surprised. After the Baffler event with Thiel in 2014, Yarvin emailed me to offer his congratulations on my new book deal. It was strange, because I hadn’t even signed a contract yet, much less told my friends about the possibility of publishing a book on the dark politics of Silicon Valley. I had, however, told some people at The Baffler, one of whom told Thiel at the event—who in turn, I figured, related the news to Yarvin. So I knew the two of them talked. Yarvin suggested getting lunch if I was ever in San Francisco. It never worked out.
Second, it’s noteworthy in the Milo correspondence that Yarvin considers himself a political adviser to Thiel. There was obviously a bit of boastfulness in that comment, and I’m skeptical that Thiel really calls on him for close-in tactical counsel in the sense that Trump relies on men like Bannon. However, I don’t doubt that Yarvin is a valued voice in Thiel’s circle of friends. And it’s a matter of record that Thiel is a valued voice in Trumpland—we’re talking about someone who was reportedly offered his choice of cabinet positions, and who the White House called upon to produce names for nominees and appointees to federal agencies.
Which leads us to the third, and probably most disturbing, point here: Yarvin considers Thiel “fully enlightened.” What does that mean, coming from a founder of the “Dark Enlightenment” movement?
Yarvin believes there is no such thing as democracy—and Thiel has said as much, as well. Yarvin’s stunted political imagination prizes strict hierarchies—despotisms, monarchies, and experimental new feudalism via a “patchwork” of corporate fiefdoms managed by absolute dictators who might be appointed by a vote of property-owning “shareholders.” Unlike some advocates of Silicon Valley secessionism, Yarvin has never been shy in acknowledging that this amounts to a revolution and would require the forcible overthrow of the established order. He advised, for instance, that the new dictator of California should throw the old elected governor in Alcatraz, and then briskly proceed to pack the government with Google guys.
Yarvin’s Dark Enlightenment dogma also is steeped in pseudoscientific racism. Yarvin preaches that intelligence is determined in large part by the laws of “human biodiversity”—which hold, in his telling, that white people are congenitally smarter than black and brown people, and that Chinese people may be the smartest of all. It takes no great stretch of the imagination to see how a blood-and-soil white nationalist like Bannon and a racist bomb thrower like Donald “Good Genes” Trump would find a great deal of reassurance in this toxic philosophy.
Yarvin’s Dark Enlightenment dogma is steeped in pseudoscientific racism.
Yarvin’s idea of enlightenment also means believing that history as we’ve come to know it is a lie. It means believing that the Soviet Union was the greater evil in the Second World War and that Nazi Germany acted in preemptive self-defense against the nefarious scheming of Stalin and FDR. It also means believing that ever since that war, upstanding American fascists have been unjustly persecuted by the state, and that the United States has been ruled by a conspiracy of wealthy establishment Communists and a “ruling underclass” of violent black mobs who are their eager pawns.
To be enlightened, in Yarvin’s world, means forming an uncomfortable alliance with street Nazis—the Stormfront set—and other déclassé white nationalists. The same goes for right-wing terrorists such as Anders Behring Breivik, whom Yarvin denounced, but only in the most limited and depraved terms possible. Yarvin wrote that Breivik should be condemned because his 2011 massacre in Oslo was ineffective as terrorism, which Yarvin considers a legitimate military tactic. Nazi terror was legitimate because it worked, Yarvin wrote. Breivik’s killing spree, which targeted young Norwegian leftists, was illegitimate because it was insufficient to “free Norway from Eurocommunism.” After all, he only killed ninety-two people! “We can note the only thing he didn’t screw up. At least he shot communists, not Muslims. He gored the matador and not the cape,” Yarvin wrote on July 23, 2011, one day after the terror in Oslo, and five years before going to Thiel’s house to hang out and watch their guy, Trump, get closer to power.
As Yarvin evidently sees Thiel as his project, Thiel presumably sees Trump as a useful vehicle to achieve his “enlightened” vision.
It’s worth considering that Thiel is not just another wealthy Trump adviser. He is a contractor for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon, and the Homeland Security Department, through his Big Data surveillance startup, Palantir. (The name is a Lord of the Rings reference; like many big race theorists in Silicon Valley Thiel and Yarvin adore J.R.R. Tolkien, which can be read as an epic glorification of a winner-take-all race war. Tolkien’s trilogy also conveniently doubles as a regressive fantasy universe where heroic Nordic souls either gain power by force or come into it via birthright—in both scenarios, a lineage that leaves them untroubled by the irksome niceties of democratic procedure.)
If things weren’t going so badly, we might hold out hope that the federal inspectors general, and any straight shooters in the relevant counterintelligence offices, might deign to review Thiel’s associations and political beliefs. They also could, while they’re at it, reconsider the wisdom of paying his companies to develop expansive databases with sensitive details on hundreds of millions, maybe even billions, of people, along with life-or-death military secrets. Imagine what a committed anti-democrat might do with that kind of power. Sauron would be jealous.
As long as we’re fantasizing, we might also hope that the other members of Facebook’s board of directors—where Thiel, an original investor in Mark Zuckerberg’s world-conquering platform, continues to serve in the bogus interests of “viewpoint diversity”—will recognize the harm of tainting the company’s already beleaguered brand with such associations, and act appropriately.
The kids, as they say, are alt-right.
But what’s the point? No one in corporate America ever does the right thing. The idea is so laughably preposterous, I actually had a hard time typing out the last couple of paragraphs. As for the government—particularly this government, with the aforementioned bomb-throwing racist troll in charge—ha! There are few points on which Thiel and Jimmy Carter and I are in complete agreement, but one of them is that Americans do not live in a functioning democracy.
Granted, I’m not clear about exactly what in the present set of power arrangements is not to Thiel’s liking. He is a fully licensed oligarch, richer than god, with many fawning acolytes and access to as much youthful, revitalizing blood as he desires. Perhaps he imagines that with a proper feudal society in place, he would finally have the one thing his vast fortune can never buy: respect.
The good news is that many millions of people remain determined that Yarvin and Thiel and Trump won’t succeed in remaking the world in accordance with their whims. But insofar as they’ve set out to permanently alter the direction of the political right, they have already won. The kids, as they say, are alt-right. Feudalism is the new conservatism. The ideological assumptions of the capitalist elite, the Christian right, and the living remnants of the old European aristocracy have reverted from postwar neoliberalism to the premodern ancien régime. Armed with all the influence, tastemaking prowess and cash that comes with a power base among an aggrieved and endlessly indulged Silicon Valley power elite, the high priests of digital innovation have built a bridge to the thirteenth century.