Dark Enlightenment, Part One: The Cathedral & the Red Caesar
The first of a two-part series on the neo-reactionary fringe: the dissidents of the New Right, America's ascendant antidemocratic political movement.
Conservative politics is not just for Evangelical Christians, anti-abortion crusaders, tax-averse libertarians, Q crazies, and MAGA cultists. There has emerged a New Right: young, smart, edgy, urbane—even hip. Its political philosophy is coherent and compelling. Its religion of choice, if it has one, is Catholicism. It operates in large cities like Washington, Miami, and New York. Its thought leaders are high-minded, well-read intellectuals. Known as the neo-reactionary fringe—NRx for short—its radical, antidemocratic ideas have seeped into the Republican mainstream.
Welcome to the Dark Enlightenment.
Part One: The Cathedral & the Red Caesar
I. Wherefore “Woke”
“Woke” has become a rightwing watchword. First used as an adjective by the blues musician Lead Belly, the word was lifted from African-American Vernacular English by well-meaning white leftists and almost immediately appropriated by conservatives, who use it as an umbrella term for all the progressive, do-gooder, social justice-y things they despise.
For Republican politicians, “woke” has been a particularly useful coinage, because, among other things, it serves as a euphemism for “Black,” and running on racist dog whistles is a time-honored and effective GOP electoral strategy. But the term does not confine itself to racial justice. “Woke” is expansive, and includes feminism, gay rights, trans rights, animal rights, environmentalism—whatever liberal cause célèbre the stereotypical curmudgeonly uncle might deride during an awkward Thanksgiving dinner-table discussion.
When Ron DeSantis promises that “Florida is where ‘woke’ goes to die,” when Nikki Haley declares that “wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic,” when Elon Musk denounces the “woke mind virus,” when Leonard Leo decries “wokeism in the corporate environment, in the educational environment [and in] entertainment that is really corrupting our youth,” they are sending a message that registers with their acolytes, even as the rest of us—myself very much included—misconstrue the underlying meaning.
For a long time, this overreliance on the word “woke”—little more than a monosyllabic sound byte, overused to the point of parody—struck me as both lazy and dumb. This was red meat for the MAGA base, I figured, which made sense because that audience is also lazy and dumb.
But I underestimated the “anti-woke” movement. There is an intellectual underpinning to it. Its tenets do cohere, even if its adherents arrive at it from different entryways. It is nihilistic but purposeful, antidemocratic if not un-American, seductive, subversive, and at times extremely persuasive—and it has been with us for decades.
II. Industrial Society and Its Future
One of the seminal works of “anti-woke” literature, Industrial Society and Its Future, was published in 1995 as a supplement to the Washington Post. If the title is dull, the manuscript makes for fascinating, if disturbing, reading. The 35,000-word polemic is an overt call for “revolution against the industrial system.”
Here is an excerpt from its first section, “The Psychology of Modern Wokeism”:
Almost everyone will agree that we live in a deeply troubled society. One of the most widespread manifestations of the craziness of our world is wokeism, so a discussion of the psychology of wokeism can serve as an introduction to the discussion of the problems of modern society in general.
But what is wokeism? During the first half of the 20th century wokeism could have been practically identified with socialism. Today the movement is fragmented and it is not clear who can properly be called “woke.” When we speak of “woke” in this article we have in mind mainly socialists, collectivists, “politically correct” types, feminists, gay and disability activists, animal rights activists and the like. . . .
“Wokes” tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality. The reasons that woke give for hating the West, etc. clearly do not correspond with their real motives. They SAY they hate the West because it is warlike, imperialistic, sexist, ethnocentric and so forth, but where these same faults appear in socialist countries or in primitive cultures, the woke man finds excuses for them, or at best he GRUDGINGLY admits that they exist; whereas he ENTHUSIASTICALLY points out (and often greatly exaggerates) these faults where they appear in Western civilization. Thus it is clear that these faults are not the woke man’s real motive for hating America and the West. He hates America and the West because they are strong and successful.
Words like “self-confidence,” “self-reliance,” “initiative,” “enterprise,” “optimism,” etc., play little role in the woke vocabulary. The woke man is anti-individualistic, pro-collectivist. He wants society to solve everyone’s problems for them, satisfy everyone’s needs for them, take care of them. He is not the sort of person who has an inner sense of confidence in his ability to solve his own problems and satisfy his own needs. The woke man is antagonistic to the concept of competition because, deep inside, he feels like a loser.
And from its penultimate section, “The Danger of Wokeism,” we have this:
Our discussion of wokeism has a serious weakness. It is still far from clear what we mean by the word “woke.” There doesn’t seem to be much we can do about this. Today wokeism is fragmented into a whole spectrum of activist movements. Yet not all activist movements are woke, and some activist movements (e.g., radical environmentalism) seem to include both personalities of the woke type and personalities of thoroughly un-woke types who ought to know better than to collaborate with woke individuals. . . .
The woke man is oriented toward large-scale collectivism. He emphasizes the duty of the individual to serve society and the duty of society to take care of the individual. He has a negative attitude toward individualism. He often takes a moralistic tone. He tends to be for gun control, for sex education and other psychologically “enlightened” educational methods, for social planning, for affirmative action, for multiculturalism. He tends to identify with victims. He tends to be against competition and against violence, but he often finds excuses for those wokes who do commit violence. He is fond of using the common woke catch-phrases, like “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” “capitalism,” “imperialism,” “neocolonialism,” “genocide,” “social change,” “social justice,” “social responsibility.” Maybe the best diagnostic trait of the woke man is his tendency to sympathize with the following movements: feminism, gay rights, ethnic rights, disability rights, animal rights, political correctness. Anyone who strongly sympathizes with ALL of these movements is almost certainly woke.
In the great many pages between these two passages, there is much more in this vein.
TL;DR: The country is in trouble because individualistic values are not as highly regarded as they were back in the day. All this tree-hugging and social justice warring has made us effete, and since technology only accelerates our decline into fatal effeteness, we must make war on technology. Ned Ludd FTW!
These are unorthodox ideas, to be sure—but then, despite his fancy Harvard education, the author of Industrial Society and Its Future was an unorthodox guy. He died this past year at FMC Butner, a federal correctional medical facility in North Carolina. His name is Ted Kaczynski. We know him as the Unabomber. The neo-reactionaries refer to him as “Uncle Ted.” To understand the tenets, such as they are, of the anti-woke movement, we have to understand Kaczynski’s manifesto.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how the Unabomber was using the word “woke” in 1995—mea culpa, I cheated a little to make my point. In the above excerpts, I swapped out the word “leftist,” which is what appears in the original text, for variations of “woke.” But make no mistake: “woke,” in the current sense of the word, is exactly what Uncle Ted had in mind.
III. The Cathedral
Curtis Yarvin is arguably the most influential NRx thought leader— “the alt-right’s favorite philosophy instructor,” as a BBC journalist once called him. The grandson of Jewish American Communists, the son of a U.S. diplomat, and himself (like Kaczynski) a math prodigy, Yarvin graduated from Brown University in 1992—just two semesters after most kids his year, myself included, graduated from high school—and was at UC Berkeley when he dropped out to work as a programmer.
With funding from Peter Thiel—the Frankfurt-born tech billionaire who hovers Sauron-like over the Dark Enlightenment universe—Yarvin formed his own start-up, Tlön Corp, to expand upon Urbit, the decentralized computer network system of his invention. (To my tech-ignorant ears, Urbit sounds a lot like Pied Piper from HBO’s Silicon Valley, and Yarvin bears enough resemblance to Martin Starr’s inspired character on the show, Guilfoyle, to make me wonder if he was one of its inspirations.)
From 2007-2013, Yarvin wrote rightwing political commentary at Blogger, under the (rather unappealing) pseudonym “Mencius Moldbug.” He now produces a Substack called Gray Mirror. The New Right magazine IM-1776 describes him as a “self-described ‘monarchist’…often credited as the founder of ‘neoreaction’” who has “long been one of the leading writers and intellectual figures on the dissident Right.” He’s a good writer: well-read, persuasive, and often funny. As an intellectual exercise, I enjoyed engaging with his ideas, as off-putting as I often found them, because they made me question my own. I get why he is held in high regard by the neo-reactionary fringe.
One of NRx’s foundational concepts is “the Cathedral,” a term Yarvin coined “a long long time ago” and about which he harbors “ambivalent aesthetic feelings.” (I rather like it.) Rather than put words in his mouth, I’ll let him describe the concept himself:
“The cathedral” is just a short way to say “journalism plus academia”—in other words, the intellectual institutions at the center of modern society, just as the Church was the intellectual institution at the center of medieval society.
But the label is making a point. The Catholic Church is one institution—the cathedral is many institutions. Yet the label is singular. This transformation from many to one—literally, e pluribus unum—is the heart of the mystery at the heart of the modern world.
The mystery of the cathedral is that all the modern world’s legitimate and prestigious intellectual institutions, even though they have no central organizational connection, behave in many ways as if they were a single organizational structure.
Most notably, this pseudo-structure is synoptic: it has one clear doctrine or perspective. It always agrees with itself. Still more puzzlingly, its doctrine is not static; it evolves; this doctrine has a predictable direction of evolution, and the whole structure moves together.
The professors and journalists have sovereignty because final decisions are entrusted to them and there is no power above them. Only professors can formulate policy—that is, set government strategy; only journalists can hold government accountable—that is, manage government tactics. Strategy plus tactics equals control.
Having dabbled in both academia and journalism, I can say with some assurance that, while both undoubtedly have influence over key decisions—especially collectively, in the way Yarvin is talking about—neither professors nor journalists are the final arbiters of anything. Nevertheless, I think I understand what he means.
In 1922, Walter Lippman, in his groundbreaking book Public Opinion, suggested that intellectuals and experts in various fields—collectively, “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality”—are necessary for democracies to function, as the “bewildered herd” of popular voters cannot be relied upon to know anything about anything, much less everything about everything. A hundred years later, that specialized class has prevailed, and expanded, and, per Yarvin (and per Lippmann), accrued power. The Cathedral, as I understand it, is Mencius Moldbug’s poetical name for Lippmann’s class of experts.
Another New Right thought leader, former private equity guy and Trump’s Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications Michael Anton, also recognizes and despises the Cathedral, which in his view isn’t limited to academics and reporters. “[T]he people we nominally elect don’t hold real power,” he writes in an essay for Up from Conservatism: Revitalizing the Right after a Generation of Decay, a new anthology edited by the head of the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life. “And when they do, they often use it for unconstitutional ends. America’s real rulers are not the constitutional officers we vote for, and certainly not the American people, whom our understanding of political legitimacy asserts to be sovereign. They are, rather, a network of unelected bureaucrats, revolving-door cabinet and subcabinet officials, corporate-tech-finance senior management, ‘experts’ who set the boundaries of acceptable opinion, and media figures who police those boundaries.”
The Hillsdale College professor Kevin Slack expands the Cathedral even wider. In an influential cris de coeur titled War on the American Republic: How Liberalism Became Despotism, Slack rails against an “entire cosmopolitan class that includes much of the entrenched bureaucracy, the military, the media, and government-sponsored corporations.” That’s a fancy way of saying “The Deep State.”
Lippmann holds that the Cathedral is necessary for a democracy to properly function; Yarvin, Anton, Slack, and their fellow neo-reactionaries want it eradicated. (As best as I can tell, Trump’s ominous campaign promise to immediately fire a vast segment of the civil service has its roots in an acronym Yarvin made up: RAGE, or Retire All Government Employees.)
This notion of a specialized class is not a particularly controversial idea. They are not wrong. In the aggregate, the Cathedral—or whatever name you wish to assign to it—really does hold enormous power over governmental policy, artistic taste, societal mores, public opinion, and so forth. And the NRx guys should know, as all three of them are members in good standing of the “cosmopolitan class” they revile: Slack is a college professor; Anton, a revolving-door official and corporate-tech-finance executive; and Yarvin, an influential member of the media (if not, to be accurate, what he calls “the legitimate press.”)
So the million-dollar question is not whether the Cathedral exists, but whether it should.
IV. Red Caesar
One of the main drawbacks of the U.S. government is that, because power is diffuse, change cannot happen quickly. This is by design—the checks and balances we learned about in elementary school. The two chambers of Congress seldom march in lockstep. The President has veto power over bills sent to his desk. The Supreme Court can toss out, on a whim, any law it doesn’t like. The last time that Capitol Hill got legislation passed lickety-split was during FDR’s Hundred Days. Roosevelt was creative, fast, and efficient; he threw a shit-ton of legislative spaghetti at the wall; he had healthy majorities in both House and Senate—and even then, the Supreme Court shot down some of his more grandiose agenda items.
A small-r republican system of government does not lend itself well to fast, radical change; a democracy, even less so. What does is a dictatorship. And when the changes you want to make are deeply unpopular with the voting public—think eradication of abortion, privatization of Social Security, elimination of gay rights, or deregulation of firearms—the surest way to ensure their implementation is if a dictator—a “Red Caesar”—imposes them on an unwilling citizenry. (To be fair, this is also true of the more radical changes the “woke” left would like to see implemented.) Therein lies the appeal of autocracy to the NRx set.
Small republican communities may have little power against an insulated national bureaucracy, but perhaps the New Right’s own cultural revolution is the fertile soil for political revolution, either as autonomous islands of republican civilization in an increasingly fragmenting order or the bulwark for a Caesar. At some point in the decline of every empire, with its dissolute senators, it finally dawns on a truly great leader, one born of the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle, “Hey, I could run this thing.” The New Right now often discusses a Red Caesar, by which is meant a leader whose post-Constitutional rule will restore the strength of his people.
Yarvin sees our existing government as “a bureaucracy, which is one kind of oligarchy. (‘Deep State,’ if you absolutely must.)” He argues that the Cathedral is beyond repair—and he may well be right on that point—because power leaks all over the place. But his solution is extreme: “An organization which focuses responsibility toward the top, without leaking, is an organization structured like an army or a corporation. In this form of organization (used by almost everything that isn’t a government), your manager actually is your boss. Final authority and responsibility lands on one person,” he writes. “This form of government—the form that doesn’t leak power—has a name. It is called a monarchy.”
As Americans, our first instinct is to reject monarchy wholesale, just as the Founding Fathers did 250 years ago. Didn’t the Sons of Liberty skunk an entire shipload of tea to thwart a king? Wasn’t there, not long ago, a rightwing political movement called the Tea Party? Why should we even consider such a drastic step?
Well, monarchy does have certain advantages. In the interview with IM-1776, Yarvin cites the work of the UNLV professor emeritus Hans-Hermann Hoppe (another Cathedral member!), the author of Democracy: The God That Failed and a vociferous opponent of democracy. “Hoppe [points out] that a hereditary monarchy in the classic European style, far from being a barbaric relic, is simply a [sovereign corporation] that’s a family business,” Yarvin explains. “Because the time horizon of a family is indefinite, like the time horizon of a state, the hereditary monarch exhibits the least tension between personal and national interests.”
Well, sure, but that doesn’t mean living under a monarchy—or, more likely, a soft dictatorship—would be a walk in the park, for the poor or for the rich. Traditionally, kings have a way of extracting tribute from their wealthy subjects in amounts that would give Grover Norquist the vapors. There’s a reason why Thomas Jefferson et alii ixnayed George III.
For the rest of us, meanwhile, autocracy seems antithetical to liberty—although Kaczynski didn’t think so. Uncle Ted points out that “[m]ost of the Indian nations of New England were monarchies, and many of the cities of the Italian Renaissance were controlled by dictators. But in reading about these societies one gets the impression that they allowed far more personal freedom than our society does.” Nice that the Unabomber formed that impression from books, but survivors of the despotic Soviet bloc regimes—and most Iranians today—would respectfully disagree.
The thing is, a King of America would tear down the Cathedral—an end that would justify the means. “An absolute hereditary monarch has no interest in employing a dysfunctional bureaucracy,” Yarvin says. “Since he wants to see his nation thrive, he is more likely to adopt the economic and social system that seems to make nations thrive: libertarian capitalism. So we come full circle, in a kind of layer-cake of libertarianism, then absolute monarchy, then more libertarianism.”
Here, Yarvin is operating under a false assumption. The historical evidence is overwhelming that absolute monarchs are less interested in seeing their nations thrive than in seeing themselves thrive—whether through bloody conquest, amassment of riches, or decadent hedonism. The annals of imperial Rome are littered with self-absorbed, feckless, ineffectual emperors. For every Marcus Aurelius there are dozens of Elagabaluses. Yes, there have been exceptional kings, emperors, sultans. But they are just that—exceptions. Most are at best ho-hum, and if their nations prosper, it is in spite of them and not because of them. The Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the British Empire owed their longevity to robust bureaucratic systems that were durable enough to withstand the meddling of crap monarchs—in other words, the Roman, Byzantine, and British equivalents of the Cathedral.
Then there is the matter of how the United States might acquire a hereditary king: by coup d’état. A president would have to seize power, crumple up the Constitution, dismantle the apparatus of government, and declare himself Ruler for Life. Joe Biden is not going to do this, just as George Washington didn’t, or the Roosevelts, or Eisenhower, or Reagan. The only guy who would do such a thing is the presumptive Republican 2024 presidential nominee, Donald John Trump. Which means we wouldn’t get the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle; we’d get the ass of the horse.
As unlikely as all of this sounds, the threat is real. As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch—to my knowledge the first columnist from a major U.S. newspaper to take this seriously—wrote in a recent column, when “a desire to blow it all up” is “translated by the extreme right’s ‘intellectuals’ into an explicit plea for a dictatorship, you can see that America is poised to cross the Rubicon—a metaphor rooted in the river in northern Italy that Julius Caesar had to cross with his army in 49 B.C. in order to drive out Rome’s democratically elected government and seize power.” Heck, “Rubicon” even sounds like a convention of New Right dissidents.
Unpopularity alone is not enough to prevent the current Bedford Falls incarnation of the United States from morphing into a Pottersville of Kevin Slack’s wildest dreams. As Uncle Ted points out, “[R]evolutionaries should not expect to have a majority of people on their side. History is made by active, determined minorities, not by the majority, which seldom has a clear and consistent idea of what it really wants.”
My guess is, a return to monarchy is one of those seldom occasions when the will of the majority would be pretty clear and consistent. But even if the majority of Americans somehow wanted an absolute monarch, why on earth would we opt for King Donald I?
The more urgent question is: why do they want that?
Photo credit: Alem Sánchez via Pexels.
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