EDITOR’S NOTE 17/3/17: The author of the book under discussion, Elizabeth Sandifer, recently came out as transgender. This article has been updated accordingly,
The Referendum was over a year ago now, but I still remember June the 24th. The polls had predicted the result for months, so I was unable to share the shock of my social network. I felt only a grim resignation, one I struggled to put into words. Then, around lunchtime, my phone pinged. A book I’d backed over a month ago had finally been delivered. Glad of the distraction, I downloaded the epub.
The first sentence: “Let us assume that we are fucked.”
Ah, yes. That was the stuff.
Specifically, it was Neoreaction a Basilisk, the latest book from blogger and media critic Elizabeth Sandifer. It details the philosophical roots of the Neoreactionary Movement, or the Alt-Right, or the Dark Enlightenment, or whichever name makes them sound most like the villains of a crap cyberpunk novel. They’re essentially a group of ultra hard-rightists, who believe in unchecked capitalism combined with absolute monarchy, with a spoonful of white supremacy to help the medicine go down. They’re a diffuse and largely leaderless group, but they’ve become more visible in the last few years, contributing to the general air of chaos by, among other things, bringing down Hilary Clinton with the power of shitposting, getting appointed to Donald Trump’s cabinet, and leading the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville. They have garnered plenty of mainstream attention, but Sandifer’s book largely eschews their headline-grabbing antics, instead focusing on their philosophical roots, by examining three writers considered foundational to the movement.
First, there’s Eleizer Yudkowsky, an AI researcher and blogger (best known for his epic fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality). Yudkowsky is not himself a neoreactionary, but his blog, LessWrong, dedicated to making sure humanity can be reincarnated on an immortal AI god in the far future, provided an early forum for the movement. Then there’s Mencius Moldbug, A.K.A. Curtis Yarvin, who believes in both absolute monarchy and the reinstitution of slavery, and expresses these views in long-winded blog posts which purport to be political philosophy. And finally there’s Nick Land, an ex-Warwick university researcher who turned hard right and coined the term ‘Dark Enlightenment’.
While Sandifer is open about the factual wrongness of these men, she is far more interested in their existential wrongness, using them as a jumping-off point for discussions about John Milton, China Miéville, and Thomas Ligotti, among others. Sandifer posits that all political philosophy is a response to existential dread — a reaction to the knowledge that we are, indeed, fucked. Whatever problems there are with Sandifer’s methods, she’s certainly in tune with the zeitgeist.
Sandifer’s prose is dense, but accessible, and she’s frequently hilarious in his assessments of Neoreaction. She’s particularly dry in her treatment of Moldbug, the most openly ridiculous of the three, who once seriously argued that Steve Jobs should be crowned King of California, with the aim of maximising the state’s profits. Sandifer notes that “while there are a great many obvious critiques of liberal democracy, “there’s just not enough respect for profit” really doesn’t feel like one of them”. Other highlights include Moldbug’s idea that educational systems make dominant ideologies desirable, to which Sandifer responds “the phrase is not “just as cool as school””, and Moldbug’s maxim on the dangers of democracy, “Cthulhu always swims left.” Sandifer points out that this constitutes a rewrite of “Martin Luther King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” as Lovecraft fanfic”.
This approach can feel ostentatious, especially given the idiocy of the ideas on display, but Sandifer subordinates her quips to more piercing analysis. The key insight is the assessment that we’re fucked from the beginning, which is both depressing and oddly liberating. The book builds ruthlessly from ridiculous blog posts to the fundamental horror of western civilisation, what Nick Land calls “the great black hole that is hidden at the dead center of modern political possibility”. This is the horror embraced by neoreactionaries, and this death-drive is part of what makes them so perverse. In embracing the horror of this view, Sandifer runs the risk of siding with Neoreaction’s outlook, and Land is certainly the most intellectually credible of the book’s unholy trinity. But Sandifer is clear that this view, while intriguing, is one which threatens as much as it enlightens (darkly or otherwise).
While Neoreaction is one half of the title, the other half — the Basilisk — refers to an idea of Yudkowsky’s, which didn’t so much ‘get away from him’ as ‘turn around and bite him in the arse’. Roko’s Basilisk was an idea posed by a commenter on LessWrong, who “used the peculiarities of Yudkowskian thought to posit a future AI that would effectively torture everyone from the present who had ever imagined it for all eternity if they subsequently failed in any way to do whatever they could to bring about its existence”. The result was “a frankly hilarious community meltdown in which people lost their shit as ideas they’d studiously internalized threatened to torture them for all eternity”. Needless to say, “it was not the sort of incident from which one’s school of thought recovers its intellectual respectability.” But ridiculous as it is, the basilisk remains a menacing presence throughout Sandifer’s book. The fear that our ideas could think for themselves, that consciousness itself might be the enemy, is a key part of the assessment that we are fucked.
The slogan ‘take back control’ echoed throughout my reading of the book. It was a fatuous claim when Vote Leave made it, but it might be outright impossible given the reality, not only of global capitalism, but of human thought in general. Neoreaction a Basilisk is frequently a tough read, but as dives into the abyss go, it’s well worth taking. Given the state of global politics — Brexit, President Trump, the looming threat of human extinction — this book feels like essential reading. Just be aware that, when you gaze into the abyss, it may gaze back in the form of shitty blog posts. Oh, to be eaten by a more intelligent monster.