After the Tech Crunch article was published, I had a very long Twitter conversation with a self-styled “anarchist.” I’ve transcribed it here (with minor modifications). It demonstrates plainly that even in radical anarchists we find the Puritan’s universalist impulse to re-make the world in its own eyes, with its own moral compass as a guide, consequences be damned.
The conversation begins with my trying to explain that the coupling of “monarchy” and “neoreaction” is overly simplistic:
Scharlach: The core of neoreaction is not monarchy. The monarchy angle is oversold in the Tech Crunch piece. There are a few earnest monarchists in the neoreactionary ranks, but most of us simply believe that monarchy would in some ways (certainly not in all ways) be better than universal democracy. Defending monarchy is an intellectual point we like to make, not a solid policy proposal.
Anarchist: Fine. So what is the core of neoreaction, if not an apologia for monarchy?
Scharlach: In a few words? Neoreaction is a critique of democracy and demotic excess.
Anarchist: That’s just as absurd as the monarchy business. Everything we enjoy in the West today is thanks to democracy. Democracy is the most positive force in the history of the world.
Scharlach: Quite the opposite. I’d argue that everything we enjoy in the West today has occurred in spite of democracy.
Anarchist: That makes no sense. You must be a racist.
Schlarlach: Can I at least give you some examples of what I mean before you write me off as racist?
Anarchist: Alright. Go ahead, racist.
Scharlach: As one example, I know that every department at my university is very un-democratic when it comes to accepting students. We require both undergraduates and graduates to score well on the SAT and GRE, respectively. There is no voting, no policies to accept all students equally (like at a community college). Once in, students have no say whatsoever in their graduation requirements. And yet my university is ranked in the top 50 nationally and in the top 10 in at least a dozen specialties. As another brief example, how about every successful tech company in existence? Do the janitors at Google get a say in how the company is run?
Anarchist: Okay . . . so you have examples of un-democratic systems that aren’t absolutely shit in every situation. So what?
Scharlach: Oh, but I have lots of examples! I can list them for you if you want.
Anarchist: Spare me.
Scharlach: So why is it then “racist” to suggest that non-democratic social orders might be worth trying?
Anarchist: But non-democratic social orders have been tried. In fact, I’m tempted to argue that the obverse is true. We’ve seen a lot of examples of tyrannical systems trotted out with “democracy” written all over them.
Scharlach: And you don’t find it a bit . . . interesting . . . that so many tyrannical systems seem to find “democracy” a useful cover?
Anarchist: What? Huh? I don’t get what you’re saying? Huh?
Scharlach: Nevermind. I agree that we don’t have anything like true democracy in America or anywhere else on earth. But I would argue that wherever you find things working—in government or in the private sector—you’ll find very little that resembles a democracy in any sense of the word.
Anarchist: Then how about we try democracy? It seems like trying more non-democratic models would be trying the very same things that aren’t working.
Scharlach: Wait. Didn’t we start this conversation based on the assumption that a lot of things are working?
Anarchist: Huh? What? I don’t get what you’re saying? Huh?
Scharlach: Nevermind. How do you define democracy? What is this system that you claim to venerate even though it has never really been tried?
Anarchist: Democracy, as I define it, is a system of governance by which individuals group together to decide on those things that impact the whole.
Scharlach: So everyone should have a say in everything. Sounds very unstable.
Anarchist: No, let me clarify: individuals group together to decide on things that impact them.
Scharlach: Sounds like a tricky distinction to make. In such a system of governance, it’s only a matter of time before political leaders convince people that everything impacts them.
Anarchist: That’s not true. It seems like there will always be a clear distinction that can be made in any given context whether something directly impacts you or not.
Scharlach: Alright. So why do people in Vermont get to vote on Mexican immigration, when said immigration only impacts people along the border states? Or why do I get to vote on same-sex marriage laws when such marriages have no impact on me whatsoever?
Anarchist: That’s not democracy in my anarchistic sense of the word. Under the current authoritarian government model, people get to vote on these issues. But I don’t like how you’re putting immigration and same-sex marriage together here.
Scharlach: Why not? In both cases, we’re talking about people voting on things that don’t directly impact them.
Anarchist: What? Huh? I don’t get it? Huh?
Anarchist: No, wait, I have an answer: if there is true democracy, “immigration” and “Vermont” become meaningless concepts. Sexuality, in contrast, is a universal human constant.
Scharlach: How would democracy override geographically bound populations and population movement? Those seem like universal human constants, as well.
Anarchist: Uh, uh, uh . . . not every decision is geographical. Consider internet protocols and transnational standards.
Scharlach: That’s a complete non-sequitur, but I’ll bite: lots of people are affected by tech standards who have no idea about technology. Should they get to vote on tech standards?
Anarchist: Actually, if you look at how internet standards are decided, the answers is, Yes: rough consensus among people who are actually coding. With the internet, the rules are a) anybody can participate, b) anybody can make a standard, and c) anybody can choose to use or not use it. And in practice, there is no voting. There is deliberation until rough consensus is reached among those who show interest and actually get involved.
Scharlach: “Deliberation among those involved until rough consensus . . .” That’s actually a mildly neoreactionary way of looking at things. Left-anarchy and neoreaction overlap here. But I’d also point out that we can define “those involved” in this context as individuals who have come together through a decidedly un-democratic process. In theory, “anyone” can participate in computing, but in practice, very few people have both the intelligence and the access to technology needed to code. So, “deliberation among those involved until rough consensus” works in the tech world because the people involved have been culled from the populous and are homogenous in many ways. So, in the end, I agree with you that what you’re defining as democracy can work—but only in small, homogenous groups. But the larger and more racially mixed the group, the more difficult it is to reach consensus about anything. Too many competing factions.
Anarchist: What does race have to do with anything?
Scharlach: Replace “race” with “culture” if that makes you feel more comfortable. Most of us neoreactionaries believe that some cultures are simply incommensurable with others. Impossible to reach consensus about things affecting the group when incommensurable cultures are forced to inhabit the same space.
Anarchist: Sorry, but how much have you traveled?
Scharlach: I’ve grown up in and around Los Angeles. Half my family is Mexican. I know plenty about cultural diversity, if that’s where you’re going.
Anarchist: So what’s wrong with cultural diversity?
Scharlach: It’s fine when there’s consensus about it, I suppose. It’s bad when enforced from the top down.
Anarchist: Cultural groups are not as different as you’re implying here. I’ve traversed enough of this planet to know that human cultures are very similar . . . the differences are relatively small.
Scharlach: The differences are small? That’s interesting. I heard just the other day that Afghanistan might go back to stoning adulterers.
Anarchist: What? Huh? I don’t get it? Huh?
Scharlach: Nevermind. I’d just say that your globe-trotting has most likely been from cosmopolitan city to cosmopolitan city. Everyone looks the same in those cities because they’ve all just adopted your Western norms and ways of living. These people are a minority.
Anarchist: Well, then, the key for democracy is to . . . . to . . .
Scharlach: To what? To make sure that no one on the globe really is all that different from anyone else?
Anarchist: You’re putting words in my mouth!
Scharlach: You just said a moment ago that you define democracy as a system of governance in which individuals group together to decide on things that impact them directly. So let’s look at the Afghan example: do you think it’s alright for Afghans to stone adulterers?
Anarchist: Of course not! That’s horrid! It’s especially horrid because it’s almost always the women who get punished, not the men! Misogyny!
Scharlach: Maybe. But I personally think Afghans have every right to stone adulterers if that’s their cultural consensus. Just as Americans have every right to jail anyone who stones anyone else, if that’s the American consensus.
Anarchist: So you have no problem with murder, slavery, genocide, so long as they’re “culturally consensual”?
Scharlach: I think that any attempt I might make—as an outsider—to solve a problem in Africa or the Middle East would only make matters worse. And you should agree with me, too, if you believe your own version of democracy just defined a moment ago. You need to ask yourself, if you’re such an anarchist, such a believer in organic decision-making among people involved in something, why do you feel this impulse to interfere with something happening in an alien culture five thousand miles away from you? Do adultery laws in Afghanistan “impact you directly”? Does slavery in Africa “impact you directly”?
Anarchist: First, even if it didn’t, we still need to take moral stances on some things. And, second, yes, it does: slavery in Africa makes electronics cheaper for me.
Scharlach: This is exactly what I was talking about at the beginning: in a democracy, it’s only a matter of time before everyone comes to believe that everything affects them directly . . .
Scharlach: And in the end, maybe everything does, in some Cloud Atlas kind of way, affect everyone at some level. Which is why the universalist democratic impulse is dangerous. When everyone has a voice about everything everyone else does, the world becomes its own tyranny.
At which point the anarchist blocked me from his Twitter feed.
Among many other things, Nick Land’s “Lure of the Void” series is a poetic, though only partially metaphoric exploration of Exit and the forces that keep it closed. In the series, space is figured as the unending frontier into which people could literally free themselves from terrestrial controls and concerns, that is, the concerns of the neopuritan Left (how can you bring Heaven to earth when you’ve already left for the heavens?). The Cathedral has thus de-emphasized the political theatrics of the Space Age, made space exploration a part of history, not a part of the future. Land writes:
Disillusionment is simply awakening from childish things, the druids tell us. This is a point Murphy is keen to endorse: “space fantasies can prevent us from tackling mundane problems.” Intriguingly, his initial step towards acceptance involves a rectification of false memory, through a (sane) analog of ‘Moon Hoax’ denial. Surveying his students on their understanding of recent space history (“since 1980 or so”), he discovered that no less than 52% thought humans had departed the earth as far as the moon in that time (385,000 km distant). Only 11% correctly understood that no manned expedition had escaped Low Earth Orbit (LEO) since the end of the Apollo program (600 km out). Recent human space activity, at least in the way it was imagined, had not taken place. It was predominantly a collective hallucination.
Murphy’s highly-developed style of numerate druidism represents the null hypothesis in the space settlement debate: perhaps we’re not out there because there’s no convincing reason to expect anything else. Extraterrestrial space isn’t a frontier, even a tough one, but rather an implacably hostile desolation that promises nothing except grief and waste. There’s some scientific data to be gleaned, and also (although Murphy doesn’t emphasize this) opportunities for political theatrics. Other than that, however, there’s nothing beyond LEO worth reaching for.
This week, NASA put what may be the first nail in the coffin of long-term manned space flight funded by non-private sources. The headline reads: Trip to Mars would likely exceed radiation limits for astronauts. But the limit is, naturally, a Cathedral-enforced one:
NASA limits astronauts’ increased cancer risk to 3 percent, which translates to a cumulative radiation dose of between about 800 millisieverts and 1,200 millisieverts, depending on a person’s age, gender and other factors.
“Even for the shortest of (Mars) missions, we are perilously close to the radiation career and health limits that we’ve established for our astronauts,” NASA’s chief medical officer Richard Williams told a National Academy of Sciences’ medical committee on Thursday.
I don’t doubt for a second that most astronauts would gladly sign on for long-term space flights even if such adventures increased risk of cancer in later life. Nor do I doubt that these astronauts will gladly work for yet-to-be-founded private companies that, like governments of yesteryear, refuse to give up advancing knowledge and profit simply because the pursuit might be a little dangerous. But this latest NASA announcement proves the general validity of Land’s thesis: the Cathedral, quite literally, does not want the humans to escape.
The history of exploration of new lands, science and technologies has always entailed risk to the health and lives of the explorers. Similarly, the history of settlement of new territory is a bloody one, with great risk to the settlers. Had they not taken those risks, we might still be in the trees in Africa, and unable to write books like this on computers. Yet, when it comes to exploring and developing the high frontier of space, the harshest frontier ever, the highest value is apparently not the accomplishment of those goals, but of minimizing, if not eliminating, the possibility of injury or death of the humans carrying them out.