Against the Silicon Leviathan | Elijah del Medigo
A classic from the LapsusLima archive.
This essay was first published @ LapsusLima on April 25, 2020. Like whisky, it has aged—and darkened—beautifully.
The American system is in its death throes, its institutions woefully unprepared for anything that’s not mismanaging their decadent post-history. In the absence of decisive leadership and capable bureaucracy, this is becoming rapidly apparent to even the most intransigently dim observers. It is also fast becoming dangerous. Tens of thousands of lives have been, and will continue to be, lost to the incompetence of American technocracy. Competent leadership is indispensable, and it is becoming ever clearer that the restructuring of American institutions cannot be provisional. The most astute observers of American affairs have already realised that COVID-19 is no mere crisis; it is a watershed moment, a pivot for the American state, where the future will largely belong to those who have the vision and the acumen required to take the reins and ride things forward.
Curtis Yarvin may be among these people. He recognises the failure of American institutions amid this crisis, and the importance—and vacuum—of leadership we’re faced with. He knows a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and that the void in the American administrative state will be filled by one ideology or another. The current moment is, therefore, an opportunity to advance a vision of the future unbound by the shibboleths of mainstream political discourse. “It would be more than a shame if we chose not to learn from this test,” Yarvin writes. “It would be a crime. Though the guilty will not be punished, and should not be punished—it is already a crime. If we fail to act on what we learn—this too is a crime.”
His critique of American institutions has been consistently incisive, and it is no less so here. “The simple truth,” he writes, “is that the virus has tested our government and it has failed. France has fallen. It’s done. This is America’s Chernobyl—we can never again go back to believing that the government we have is wise and capable.” Coronavirus has completely exposed the institutions of American government as sluggish, sclerotic and stupid. It is no longer possible to pretend the emperor is wearing clothes. To borrow a Moldbuggian metaphor, we’re all red-pilled now. Welcome to the Desert of the Real.
Since the American system has failed in responding to the crisis, Yarvin argues, the solution cannot come from inside the proverbial house. Whomever assumes our institutions are up to the task will find themselves fighting a fire from within a burning building. Plans that build on a presumption of adequacy will be stillborn, in that they will be “too strong and aggressive for the actual systems that would have to execute them. They demand more state capacity than America has. They demand less than the problem needs. They are off by an order of magnitude in both directions.” Yarvin has a plan of his own, which he characteristically calls Plan A: “Plan A is as strong and hard and fast as I can make it. And it thinks completely outside the box.”
This plan, or elements of it, merit serious consideration. But a solution to our current crisis is not Yarvin’s only goal; it may not even be his primary one. His goal is to change the conversation going forward, to dispense with the vanities of Americanism and present an alternate vision for the post-corona world. By dint of accident or not, he gives this away early in his essay, when he writes that even though Plan A is both unpalatable and infeasible, “[you] will still find Plan A interesting as a thought-experiment.” He knows nobody is listening to him. He knows his plan will not be implemented; that it won’t even be considered. For better or worse, it is beyond the pale of American discourse. That’s the whole point, actually: “Plan A will not happen. You are not ready for it. In fact, I’m posting it on Medium because no one else will publish it. My point is: if you lived here, you’d be home by now.”
The essence of the Plan A ethos and, more broadly, of the entire Moldbuggian worldview, is predicated on two theses, “one simple and one hard.” The simple thesis is the obvious one, the dreadful fact which has burst, uninvited, into the salons of right-minded discourse, shattering the Overton window. It’s the fact that failure in the face of COVID-19 was bipartisan. It was universal. It was unanimous. The so-called “Trump administration”—though Yarvin denies there’s actually any such thing—failed. The media-industrial complex failed. The conservative media apparatus, its purported counterweight, has likewise failed. The FDA: failed. The experts, failed. The circus of American politics? Failed. And the apparatus behind it, which does the alleged work of governance, has also failed. That “the whole machine has failed” is irrefutable reality.
Now to the hard one: “that the virus is not just a test of our government. It is a test of our form of government.” Yarvin asserts the latter has been tested and found wanting, and the entire edifice of American government must be pulled down on account of it. While he doesn’t use the phrase, what’s implied is that the American regime has lost the Mandate of Heaven. “The strongest possible attack on the virus cannot use the organization, personnel, policies, or principles of the existing government. It is not any one of these aspects that has failed. It is all of them together.” The system has failed, and the system must be replaced. It’s a rhetorical ploy—to form a new government without using any of the “organization, personnel, policies, or principles” of the existing one is a risible proposition, and it’s obvious Yarvin doesn’t anticipate this happening even if he were to find himself appointed COVID Czar— but that’s the point: his essay is not an exercise in problem-solving, but an experiment in mind-changing. The goal is to convince the reader, who’s presumably more amenable to out-of-the-box ideas than before, that the Moldbuggian Weltanschauung is preferable to the calamitous sclerosis of bipartisan consensus. It doesn’t really follow that, since American institutions have failed in their response to COVID-19, we must now jettison the organization, personnel, policies, and principles of these United States; but it’s clever, an audacious bit of sophistry, and more likely to take now.
It’s worth examining Yarvin’s proposed solution while bearing in mind that it is less a battle plan for the current crisis, though it masquerades as such, and more a vision for future American governance. “The strongest possible response will come from a new agency, built as a startup. This Coronavirus Authority will scale up faster than any existing organization can execute. It will use the old agencies only where it finds them useful. And it will dissolve itself once the virus is beaten.” The solution, Yarvin states, is a startup, run by—guess who?—a tech-sector entrepreneur. “The right organization for a Coronavirus Authority starts with an experienced CEO who has taken a company from the garage to three commas.” Yarvin doesn’t want a figurehead or a Corona Czar, he wants a CEO with absolute power. Just how absolute? We’re getting there. Sit tight.
The authority of the CVA (Coronavirus Authority) must be Schmittian, or, to say it in plain words, absolute. “The CVA will not work unless it can hire and fire its own staff by its own rules—which means startup rules—which means no rules. Or as close as possible. The current generals have to go. But the existing agencies—even including the Pentagon—are nowhere near universally and uniformly useless. Where they are useful, they must be used. But if the CVA is to be useful at all, it needs unconditional and unlimited authority over all public and private actors. No one may resist it. Everyone must obey it. The White House must not micromanage it; Congress must not regulate it; even the Supreme Court must not overrule it.” In other words, the CVA—and its tech-CEO head—will be absolutely sovereign. Yarvin’s vision for COVID-19 management (and, one suspects, for more) is an all-powerful corporation with absolute authority over both public and private sectors: Silicon Valley fascism. The state of exception will end, Yarvin assures us—the CVA “will dissolve itself once the virus is beaten”—but we all know what happened to the institution of dictatorship in ancient Rome. It was a temporary role, lasting thirty days, until it wasn’t and it didn’t. Many seizures of power have taken the same form: absolute authority granted to one leader for an allegedly limited period of time, until, quite suddenly, the temporary power becomes the de facto temporal power. No country has yet done this in response to COVID-19, though Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is edging toward it.
Of course, Yarvin isn’t explicitly arguing for the good startup CEOs of Palo Alto to run the country—at least not yet. While his CVA would have plenary authority over “all federal, state, local, and private actors”, he reassures us that “the CVA will die by succeeding (or be canceled for failing). Its absolute powers are no threat to our sacred Constitution.” Yarvin, as Moldbug, wrote in 2007 that he had “never read any of Rand’s books from cover to cover.” That seems to still be true, because for all of Rand’s abysmal failings as a writer and a thinker, her Atlas Shrugged contains a rather excellent satire of this sort of optimism about limited-scale absolutism. As does every history book. The list of men who possessed unlimited power and surrendered it for the common good is remarkably curt, and the people on it are not Yarvin’s type. The sort of person Yarvin is describing to possess absolute power over all areas of American government and society and relinquish it once the crisis has been averted, would have to be of Washingtonian stature. Or, to put it in Moldbuggian terms, he would have to be “deluded by ideology”, and Moldbug has already told us he thinks constitutional principles—the very sort of ideology that, to Yarvin’s mind, deluded Washington and Adams—will be of no use to us here. So even if we take him at his word—since this is, after all, a thought experiment—the prospects are hardly promising.
The economic component of Yarvin’s Plan A involves the Fed printing new money and, essentially, buying out every publicly traded company for the duration of the pandemic. “The Fed monetizes all financial assets—trading them for new dollars at the last quoted price. If you had stocks or bonds, you sold them all to the Fed. Your portfolio is all cash. The number has not changed. The Fed owns all public companies. Debts between them are debts to itself; they cancel. The companies operate as normal, not worrying about their P/L. This state of affairs—literally the state capitalism of the Soviet Union—will, like the Soviet Union, slowly decay. But the epidemic is measured in months; the command-economy rot, in decades.” What companies already have the necessary apparatus and the records to proceed will simply operate as normal, sending out their usual payroll checks. It’s an immodest proposal, of the sort that’s rapidly acquiring mainstream traction. By not relying on any one theory of economics, it’s also syncretistic, which is nothing new coming from Yarvin: his self-described ideological awakening, after all, began with the Austrian School and ended up in a space much more like neo-mercantilism.
On this count, Yarvin should be taken at his word. The sort of policies he recommends are necessarily provisional, because they would be suicidal if extended for prolonged periods of time. “Issuing paper money”, he notes, “is the 20th-century version of an old trick: debasing the coin (mixing base with precious metals). In the past, we see two kinds of regimes debasing their currency, for two different reasons: acutely by capable regimes (even Frederick the Great once diluted his money in a war), and chronically by incapable regimes (like most of the bad Roman emperors).” If the reference to Frederick the Great made your ears prick, you’ve been paying attention. He was, after all, one of Carlyle’s great men, discussed in On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, the book that made such an impression on Yarvin before his Moldbug days. Like teacher, like student: “Neocameralism, a Moldbuggian neologism for the State as profitable corporation, is a reference to the cameralism of Frederick the Great.” Yarvin’s essay isn’t really a game plan. It’s a form of fan fiction, an alt-historical narrative of the neocameralist response to our current crisis.
I’ve so far not resorted to the term “American democracy” to describe the system Yarvin is critiquing, because democracy per se isn’t the issue. Taiwan and South Korea, he himself observes, are democracies, and their response to COVID-19 has been light-years ahead of ours. The problem, Yarvin thinks, is individualism. “Americans are children. They are puerile, spoiled and arrogant. When they look in the mirror, all they see is a king or a queen. Can kings be managed? Like wildlife?” Yarvin argues that Asian collectivist societies have handled the crisis better because their people are docile: they understand the art of being ruled. This betrays a Foreign Policy-level understanding of Asian societies, of course: people in China, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan do not obey their governments because of some innate difference between the American and Asians (any more than the Mandate of Heaven). They do it because they’re made to do so by implicit or explicit threat of force. Yarvin might as well have included North Korea in his list, with its claims to not have had a single instance of coronavirus within its borders.
Where Yarvin is correct, however, is in his second distinction between the United States and the Asian countries that have more or less successfully contained the spread: unlike the United States, those countries have a little thing called a society. With characteristic Moldbuggian bravado, he writes that “[h]ere and there across California and America are old, rotting pieces of our grandparents’ country. But Humpty Dumpty is done. We have no country; we have no society; we have no government.” Though an exaggeration, it makes the point that Yarvin’s trying to make, which is that, where it counts, the United States government cannot control its citizenry. “All our pundits have ideas about what the government should do. My idea is: first, why not try having a government?”
Yarvin is correct in his diagnosis of American institutional failure. Since the end of the Cold War, American liberalism has sunk into complacency. History is comprised of events—war, famine, pestilence, death—and the liberal managerial class has done its best to forget these things exist. The only war our smug liberalism recognises is the endless war, both within and without American borders, to expand its own hegemony. We’re used to dealing with “the moral equivalent of war”, rather than actual war, and the two, as we’re painfully learning, are not the same. Our elites’ oversea adventures and attempts to radically transform the fabric of American society were wars of choice. This is a war of survival and, as Yarvin reminds us, “a war of survival is a total war. Unless the population submits utterly to the government, unless the government can accept that submission and execute effectively enough to deserve it, that war will simply be lost—just as we are now losing World War V.” He is correct in that decisive action is urgent and necessary. He is correct in thinking the solution will likely involve the top-down coordination of existing agencies. (Nor is he the only person to advance this: Harvard’s Harvey Fineberg, whom Yarvin quotes, suggests the same.) He is correct in stating that such action will be radical and authoritarian by the standards of American politics. And he is correct, up to a point, about the causes of our institutional failure. The American administrative state is embarrassingly incompetent. Our institutions are calcified and incapable of forceful action. He is correct in noting that American politics suffer from what Adrian Vermeule calls “tyrannophobia”, and he rightly notes that “one pathology of libertarian [he could have said liberal] thinkers is their tendency to equate power with its abuses […] The existence of child abuse is not a refutation of parenting.” His diagnoses of administrative malaise and institutional sclerosis are, broadly speaking, on-the-nose. But diagnoses aren’t so difficult as prescribing a cure.
Ever since his Moldbug days, Yarvin has shown a tendency to smugness. His latest essay is no different, its last few paragraphs a case in point. For those of you who haven’t read it, I will spoil it for you: he says the Romans had an office of the tribune, a kind of temporary dictator. Then, in case you missed it, he points out that he lied: the Latin word for temporary dictator is ‘dictator’. “Sorry. Are you going to let a word stop you?” It’s mildly funny. It’s infuriatingly twee. It’s vintage Moldbug. It’s also disingenuous. Those who’ve read their history remember what happened to dictatorship in ancient Rome: it was abused by Julius Caesar, who declared himself dictator in perpetuity; which sparked an assassination, a civil war, and eventually morphed into the role of emperor.
Besides, who exactly would Curtis Yarvin have us select to serve as dictator? The criteria he puts forth points to someone like Elon Musk, hardly a reassuring thought. Even if we gave Yarvin the benefit of the doubt and assume he’d choose someone like Mark Zuckerberg (whose company stockpiled masks for God-knows-how-long, and why), Jeff Bezos, or even Peter Thiel, the prospects aren’t compelling. This is usually what happens with dictatorship: it’s all very well to theorise about strong leaders; it’s much harder to find them. We’ve already got a CEO in the White House. Look how well that turned out.
Then there’s the unpleasant fact that what Yarvin is advocating for—state capitalism and an all-powerful executive, dictatorship—is obviously reminiscent of other, recent attempts to revive the office of dictator. Yarvin is, of course, no fascist but a Carlylean, and real Carlylism has never been tried: “Fascism is Carlyle, implemented by swine. Thus, you can go through Carlyle, finding Carlylean heroes, and replacing them with swine. The result will be fascism.” Yet the fundamental insight of the American constitutional tradition, the very one which Yarvin wants to jettison, is that all leaders, left unchecked, devolve into swine. There is no Carlylean great man who can swoop in to save us. Yarvin is no fascist, but a writer of fan fiction.
Though Curtis Yarvin, née Mencius Moldbug, has always fancied himself a radical thinker, he isn’t one. He presents no coherent challenge to the liberal ethos of managerial technocracy; his sole complaint being that our current managerial technocrats are not efficient and competent enough. His ideal form of government is corporatism in its purest sense: a government that’s run exactly like a corporation. His corporatism is not fascism but the apotheosis of liberal social contract theory. His desire for a benevolent authoritarian lording over an all-powerful and ruthlessly efficient bureaucracy is, likewise, not fascism; it’s the enlightened despotism of his idol Frederick the Great. Yet the line between enlightened absolutism and absolutism, plain and simple, is vanishingly thin, and Yarvin is among the last people I’d trust to draw it.
The problem with Yarvinesque neo-reaction isn’t that the diagnosis is mistaken—our country is, indeed, run like a poorly-managed corporation—but his belief that the solution is to run America like a well-managed corporation instead. Whatever the actual solution is, it will have to reorganise governance towards a genuinely substantive vision of the good society, which should take inspiration from the American tradition rather than discard it wholesale. Nothing in Yarvin’s work can help us do that.
Image: the Digital Leviathan, as found on Twitter, 2020.
Elijah del Medigo is a pseudonymous author living on the East Coast. He tweets @HeliasHebreus.