A Serious Critique of Mencius Moldbug
I think first it is very important to understand [the] project to see a little bit more about what the whole shape of it is, and delay the barrage of nitpicking objections and criticisms until we have seen what the edifice as a whole is.
— Daniel Dennet on Julian Jaynes
I recently read something Mencius Moldbug wrote about the response to the Coronavirus and thought it was clever. Who is this guy? So I went to his blog, and read An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives.
It was a pretty fun read, to say the least. Let me summarize some of the main points:
- The core belief of progressive ideology is antipathy to the old order, therefore it is inherently destructive
- Progressives control America via captured institutions (elite universities and the mainstream media) and the deep state
- Progressive control (and liberal democracy in particular) leads to social decay and inefficient government
- America would be better off with corporate dictatorship
- We should replace our existing democracy with said corporate dictatorship via a coup (as opposed to using the political system)
Needless to say, this is pretty outlandish stuff. So let me walk through the ideas one by one and give a rating for how convincing his ideas are to me.
1. The Religion (Progressive Ideology)
An antinomian is anyone who seeks, consciously or unconsciously, to disrupt or destroy the nomos. He is a breaker of oaths, a burner of deeds, a mocker of laws — at least, from the pronomian perspective. From his own perspective he is a champion of freedom and justice.
Mencius Moldbug believes that Progressives are antinomian. That is, their main concern is with breaking down order. He isn’t 100% wrong. For example, one of the main intellectual trends within the progressive movement (critical theory) is based on the idea that society is fundamentally racist, misogynist, homophobic, etc. In other words, it is designed from the ground up to support certain power structures.
In fact, fairly recently I myself wrote that the primary distinction between right and left is that the left opposes the prevailing hierarchy. In other words, it is primarily antinomian. Then, I revised my theory and argued that the main difference between right and left is that the left opposes tribalism. Then, even more recently, I wrote that the main difference is that the left favors universal solutions whereas the right prefers local ones (although the definition of ‘local’ varies).
All of these ideas are somewhat related. All present governments appear tribal, local, and unequal (i.e., racist, misogynist, homophobic, etc.) to those with an eye to infinity. Past governments look even more so. Progressives see progress toward some liberal democractic ideal. They see the end of history itself, in a convergence toward universal freedom and equality.
So of course progressives aren’t satisfied. But that doesn’t meant they are primarily motivated by a desire to destroy things. They have a vision of how things could be better and want to implement that vision on the largest scale possible.
Actually, I think that Moldbug’s obsession with the form of government (instead of, say, his own family) comes from a progressive place. He doesn’t just want to solve some small local problem. He wants to solve America, and America is sufficiently big that it can hold his ambition. In fact, he probably wouldn’t limit his solution to America.
I guess this is where I don’t really know enough about Moldbug’s ideology. What is the ideal size of a nation? A true progressive ultimately believes that all humanity should be under one roof, and that humans should all take responsibility for each other as brothers and sisters. I personally believe that human beings aren’t biologically equipped to care equally about everyone, so we should focus primarily on local coordination.
However, I also believe that some kind of trans-tribal government is necessary to help maintain peace on a larger scale. Is a world of nation states the right solution to this? A single world government? Honestly, I don’t know for sure and I don’t know how one would know such a thing. We can’t really conduct scientific experiments on the matter, and historical analysis can only go so far.
So, in my current assessment I give MM a score of 5/10 on this one. He does have something useful to say on the nature of progressive ideology, but I don’t think he nails it on the head.
2. The Cathedral
From my perspective, not just Harvard and Yale, but in fact all major American universities in the Western world, offer exactly the same intellectual product. Which institution is more to the left, for example? Harvard, or Yale? You can pick any two mainstream universities, and you will not be able to answer this question. It’s a sort of intellectual peloton…The same is true of newspapers. The so-called “mainstream media” is certainly a synopsis. Just as there is a bright line between mainstream and non-mainstream universities, there is a bright line between mainstream and non-mainstream media. The latter may be all over the map. The former constitute a synopsis. And the journalistic and academic synopses are clearly identical — mainstream journalists do not, as a rule, challenge mainstream academic authority.
MM believes that the progressive ideology dominates American society not because it is held by the majority of Americans (we did elect Donald Trump, after all) but by dominating elite universities, mainstream media and the civil service.
I find it pretty hard to disagree with this one. The vast majority of Americans educated at elite universities are progressive. Although not entirely. At HLS, I participated in the Federalist Society and helped edit the Journal of Law and Public Policy, both conservative institutions which had a very strong and active presence. But from my experience, it is true that there is a “synopsis”, and that it is mostly aligned with progressive politics.
But why does progressive ideology predominate among the highly educated? My explanation is informed by analyzing my own progressive tendencies. For as long as I can remember, I have been pretty confident about my ability to solve problems using rationality. I have also been comfortable with abstraction.
One of the main tendencies of progressives is to have faith in certain universal abstractions. For example, it is easy for a progressive to think that concepts like “democracy” and “equality” can be effectively applied at any time and place, and on any scale. So it is very easy for us to believe that a place like China would be better off if they just adopted an obviously superior form of government.
Now, am I saying China is better off with their authoritarian system? I don’t know. To me that is such a complicated question that I just prefer to remain agnostic. I can comprehend the narrative where democracy is better, but I can comprehend some alternative narratives, too.
In fact, my problem isn’t even that implementing democracy is complicated. My agnosticism runs so deep that I’m not even sure democracy is better for China in some far off historical convergence.
Anyway, if there were no progressive consensus, I don’t think we would have ever seen a book like The End of History and the Last Man. Here’s one of the highlights from the Wikipedia article:
The end of history means liberal democracy is the final form of government for all nations. There can be no progression from liberal democracy to an alternative system.
It’s a pretty bold claim, but I would say that coming out of high school (and even much later into my life) that claim would have seemed so….normal. And that despite the fact that I have some pretty strong conservative tendencies. So yeah, it seems clear to me that the “synopsis” has such a grip on American education that even conservatives are pretty progressive.
So, on point #2 I give MM a score of 9/10.
3. The Problem
Instead of showing you a quote, I am going to link to a video that I think pretty much sums up what MM thinks is wrong with society:
Does the progressive synopsis cause this? Does the Cathedral cause this? I’m pretty sure progressives themselves don’t think so. They would argue that this kind of thing is caused by factors like economic inequality, systemic racism, the war on drugs, our history of slavery, etc. In other words, it’s cause we’re not progressive enough.
So who is right? Assuming we agree that this is a bad result and that it symbolizes a deeper problem, like gang control of many “corners” in the US, what should we do about it?
Option 1: we impose order by any means necessary by imposing our laws with as much brute force as necessary to wipe out this kind of behavior.
Option 2: we give everyone a good education and decent job.
Honestly, to me they both seem like compelling answers. Maybe one of them seems way more compelling to you, though, so let me explain. Let’s start by considering the case of Singapore. When I was a kid, the only thing I knew about Singapore was that they were barbarians who beat anyone who disobeyed with a cane. More lately, it has become clear that Singapore is also an economic miracle with very little crime.
So basically, we have some evidence that option 1 might work. However, we also have evidence that our existing policy of mass incarceration (compared to most other countries) contributes to systemic poverty. Plus, it is pretty well known that our prisons are breeding grounds for gang activity.
I hope this tiny amount of evidence at least convinces you that this is a complicated problem. And crime isn’t the only thing MM thinks is wrong with our society, it is just a good indication of how ineffective our government seems. I won’t even get into our response to the Coronavirus.
But I will say this. I think that part of the problem with our society is that we have systematically undermined key institutions (i.e., families) that help prevent psychotic corner men from attacking random passersby and other such anti-social behavior.
Blaming our government for ineffectiveness might be the wrong approach. Maybe we shouldn’t hold government directly responsible for things that are better addressed on a local level. But maybe we should hold government indirectly responsible for undermining the institutions that can solve the problem. Or maybe we should hold ourselves responsible for strengthening our own families and local institutions.
In any case, I give MM a 4/10 on this one. Yeah, our society has some major problems, and our government is largely ineffective in many ways. But progressives aren’t entirely to blame. Plus, he loses points in my book for not sufficiently emphasizing the importance of local institutions.
4. The Solution
As a progressive, you consider undivided government (“dictatorship”) the root of all evil. It is impossible to enumerate the full list of reasons behind this belief. It’s like asking you why you prefer a romantic candlelight dinner for two at a simple, yet elegant, French restaurant, to being dragged alive behind an 18-wheeler at highway speed until there is nothing on the rope but a flap of bloody skin. When we add the abominable and astonishing suggestion that said government should actually turn a profit, we reach maximum horror. But if we are not willing to question even our deepest beliefs, our minds are hardly open.
Ok, so MM thinks the progressive ideology causes societal decay. What does he want to do about it? Well, basically he wants to turn the whole country (or state? I’m not sure what is his preferred level of organization) into a joint-stock corporation with a single executive who is appointed by some unspecified set of stake-holders. The executive’s job would be to turn a profit (by, for example, collecting property taxes) and distribute it to the owners.
Is this a good idea? Maybe. If I were playing a some kind of society simulator game with a few college dorm-mates, I would not be too surprised if some variation of the CEO model performed better than our version of representative democracy. Unfortunately, assuming we aren’t actually living in a simulation, we can’t just try every form of government and see which one works best. And without trying it, I do not think human beings are equipped to work out all the consequences.
One of the clever things MM says is that this form of government can only work due to recent advances in cryptology. Specifically, we need to put a chip in every weapon, facility, door, computer, etc. that is controlled by the executive. If they stay past their welcome, flip the switch and none of their stuff works.
This is a fun thing to think about. Sure people might try to get around it, but maybe we would catch them trying to get around it. Cat-and-mouse game ensues. The point is that even in the best case scenario, this form of government is an engineering challenge. Just like it’s success might depend on recently acquired technology, it could also depend on technology that we don’t have yet. And implementing without the right technology is very dangerous.
If a bunch of countries were dead set on implementing this kind of government, they would probably fix all the bugs after a few centuries of civil war and brutal slaughter…you know, all the things that went on before we settled on our current form of government. I’m just not sure we want to inflict that on ourselves just yet.
The truth is that at some point our technology will probably develop to the point where our current forms of social organization doesn’t make sense. Our government will collapse (for reasons as yet unknown, like AI singularity, zombie apocalypse, etc.). When it is time to rebuild, this will be one of the first options I propose to replace the old system of government.
At the end of the day, I score this one a 5/10. You might be surprised to see such a high score for such a radical proposal that I don’t even support. It’s just that I actually am kind of intrigued by the idea and I’m glad someone took the time to flesh it out a bit more. Maybe it will come in handy someday.
5. The Method
A revolution is a criminal conspiracy in which murderous, deranged adventurers capture a state for their arbitrary, and usually sinister, purposes. A reset is a restoration of secure, effective and responsible government…There is a simple way to distinguish the two. Just as the new permanent government must not retain employees of the old government, it must not employ or reward anyone involved in bringing the reset about.
The last point I am going to address is the best way to implement a joint-stock dictatorship. To be honest I am a bit disappointed with the distinction MM wants to make between a reset and a revolution. The main problem? It seems like you can’t tell the difference between a criminal conspiracy and a restoration of pure government until after the fact, when you see whether they reward the revolutionaries. MM understands this problem to an extent. In fact, he even goes so far as to say this:
No doubt many involved in the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini thought of their project as a reset. They were quite mistaken. It is a cruel irony to free a nation of democracy, only to saddle it with gangsters.
This is not reassuring. Even to those involved, you can’t really tell the difference until it’s too late. Only then, in a moment of cruel irony, do the conspirators realize their mistake.
MM starts by suggesting some proposals for a “soft reset”, like introducing competitive examinations for the civil service (in order to prevent these positions from being filled by graduates of elite universities). But in the end he argues that these won’t work because “if you strike at a king, you need to kill him.” In other words, if the Cathedral feels threatened and is still in power, they will crush you.
So what is his solution? Nationalize and then eliminate the press and the universities. No risks there, I assure you. And how are you going to get the power necessary to do that? Simple:
Success involves (a) convincing a large number of people to support the proposition that X should be done, and (b) organizing them to act collectively so as to make X happen.
Well, ok, that easy, eh? I am pretty sure MM understands that this is not going to happen anytime soon. Treating him generously, he is content with being a lone prophet whose writings will be remembered in the time of crisis when our constitution is hanging by a thread, and his small group of followers will be ready to cut that last remaining thread and install a more perfect form of government.
At the end of the day, I am going to give MM a score of 4/10. He gets four points because he actually does have some useful things to say about organizing a revolution (I mean, reset). And I can’t be too picky about someone failing to provide enough detail about their plan to overthrow our democracy.
So, adding up these scores we get a final tally of 27/50, where a score of 0 means he is a raving lunatic with nothing useful to say and 50 being we should definitely all sign up for the revolution (I mean, reset). In other words, according to my highly mathematical model, there is a 54% chance that MM is right and we should throw out our form of government and start from scratch.
Interpret this how you will. But I think it is at least worth reading and I will definitely start reading him more regularly if for no other reason than to remind me that there is something else out there beyond the liberal consensus.
But even if you think MM’s ideas are crude or dangerous, I suggest that it isn’t right to dismiss him outright. For example, this review in the National Review seems to think the ideas can be easily refuted in a few paragraphs:
But whatever their merits as literature, as political philosophy Moldbug’s writings are completely daft. And it will be worth our while to spend a few minutes considering why, since it will give us occasion to think about the perennial trade-offs with which politics confronts us, and the perennial need for balance. A few minutes is really all it will take, because, on about your third day of reading Moldbug, by which time your inner Gertrude is positively shrieking “More matter, with less art,” it becomes pellucidly clear that this whole great outpouring, stripped of its gaudy costume and seen in the definite architecture of its skeleton, is a simple stick figure of an argument, standing, like most stick figures, on two legs. One leg is diagnostic, the other prescriptive. We proceed to chainsaw them off.
Then they proceed to make a few good points about how dictatorships have not always been benign. True, but hardly a complete takedown.
By the way, I hope you don’t interpret my cursory arguments as a dismissive “chainsaw”. My primary critique is that the truth is probably just impossible to know, so we shouldn’t be too sure of our favorite political ideology regardless of whether it is supported by all the experts of the Cathedral. If an interesting character like Mencius Moldbug provides us with an alternative view in a fresh and entertaining way, we should tone down the “nitpicking objections and criticisms” and just see if we can learn something new.