Saturday 13 July 2013

The Leftism of Mencius Moldbug

* clear from his first and foundational (and, I believe, unrepented?) statement of 2007:

The basic idea of formalism is just that the main problem in human affairs is violence. The goal is to design a way for humans to interact, on a planet of remarkably limited size, without violence...

The key is to look at this not as a moral problem, but as an engineering problem. Any solution that solves the problem is acceptable. Any solution that does not solve the problem is not acceptable. 


At that time MM was available for e-mail discussions, and - as I recall, I've lost the e-mails - I took him to task over this; as being a project which was obviously Leftist in aim, but having different methods: in other words; the same end, but different means. 

But if I didn't say so then (when I was a libertarian secular pro-democracy kind of person) I certainly would do so now: This is a Leftist project!

However, I now recognize that all secular projects are Leftist, inevitably, since they are merely species of utilitarianism - different variants on how to enhance the pleasure of various people or groups, or diminish their suffering (e.g. by eliminating violence).

In other words, these are hedonic projects in which the pleasure-pain axis is the bottom line - indeed, how could they be anything else? since religion is ruled out as the goal of socio-political organization


If it wasn't obvious then, it is obvious now - since Moldbug's concepts and terminology have become a typical Leftist talking shop (about of the kind familiar to those such as myself who steeped themselves in the world of quasi-Marxist small magazines of the 1970s to 90s) - I mean animated conversations about precise definitions, tactics, and purity. 

The underlying idea is that if the ideological structure can be got right, then reality will crystallize around it in the desired form. 

These conversations are interminable since the basic underlying ideas are incoherent except at an extreme level of abstraction - but they are not without effect; as the phenomenon of Political Correctness shows. 

Those obscure and obsessive Marxist nutters wrangling about the 'isms' in the small magazines of the 1970s to 90s are now the intellectual lunatics in charge of that asylum which is 21st century public discourse. 


So I would not characterize the Moldbug acolytes as nonentities who are wasting their time on trivialities - it is perfectly possible that these ideas could catch on and spread, and that some of these advocates could become successful and influential. 

I merely want to make the point that this is Leftist would-be careerism, in one of its purest and most characteristic guises.


I mention this because MM himself, and some of his followers, seem to suppose that they are engaged in a reactionary project - or even that they are aiming at restoring some previous historical phase of human political organization.

But all previous phases of human political organization were religious - and Moldbug's ideas are not preceded by a religious Great Awakening, and so amount to wanting past social organization but minus its single most importantly motivating and cohering factor.

Pick and mix politics of preference - wanting what you want and not what you don't: and convincing yourself you can have it. 

Which is, if I may say so, a typical Leftist trick!


FHL said...

I was going to write a reply to your last post about "simplification", but then you just posted this post, which is actually a partial summery of my reply.

I work for a roofing construction company. I am a salesman. We deal primarily in insurance work. I starting working with this company almost as soon as I graduated college, at the beginning of this year.

I graduated with a degree in philosophy. But I can somewhat safely say that I have never seen any system so complex and so convoluted and confusing as current situation in the roofing market.

It sounds ridiculous, I know. How can a business as seemingly menial and concrete (or should I say, asphalt?) as roofing be such a convoluted business?

I would not have expected it myself, and I didn't expect it when I first took the job.

I can try to simplify the situation, but it would be difficult. It took months for me to dig through layer after layer of the extremely awkward business it has become; each layer put on as a response to another layer by an independent, perhaps opposing, individual; and in its present form having grown to something rather grotesque.

All I can say is that the extreme complexity arises due to individual agents all looking out for their own interests. You cannot simplify the system, that is impossible. Because there is no overarching system. There is nothing to simplify. It seems chaotic because it is chaotic. If you look it up on the internet you will see that people have tried to simplify it, but they are all lies, some more-so than others, but lies all the same.

I moved in with the boss of my company for a couple of months(out of necessity, as I didn't have the funds to get a place of my own straight away), and I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out the intricacies of the business. My boss has been in this business for almost half of a century, and he is extremely intelligent. I mean that very seriously; he really is, from what I have seen, a legitimate genius. Difficult to handle, extremely frustrating to live with, and completely brilliant.

As he told me when I became frustrating because I couldn't figure out how the system worked: "You are dealing with the world, and individuals with individual interests, not set ideals. Nothing is black and white; everything is grey. There is the way things work in theory, and there is the way things actually go. They are not the same. Nothing is set in stone; everything is negotiable."

I do not like this job very much, and will probably quit soon.

But I do not think people will start to simplify things, at least not correctly. The more secular the world gets, the more selfish individuals get, the more truth gets obscured, and the more divided and convoluted the world becomes. Part of the problem is we have passed some sort of point-of-no-return, where the situation has gotten so extremely complex, that it cannot be simplified without either hurting people who were not involved in any sort of related wrongdoing, or telling a whole lot of lies.

I see nothing but discord and confusion for the immediate future.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - That's very interesting (although I can't for the life of me see any connection to the theme of the post!) - assuming what you say is true, then if the apprenticeship transmission of this craft is broken, then the knowledge will not be recoverable.

Anonymous said...

I think that FHL is saying the overarching theory that Moldbug is working on is ultimately impossible to construct because the world is too complicated.

You've said before that anyone talking about politics on the internet is deep down a leftist, or something similar. The idea of government as a human construct rather than divinely ordained comes from Hobbes, doesn't it? The matter of leftism is a matter of "why" rather than "how". If on some level leftism is formal and analytical, it's always based on some religious idea.

NC said...

I see a parallel in transpersonal psychology. For the individual the awakening to God, Universal Consciousness, the Ground of Being, is transformative. It is as if the exposure to a central light transforms and orders all else in an individual.

MM is thinking in societal terms that by copying the byproducts of that revelation you can get the same effect.

It's like AA without God!

Arakawa said...

I suppose Moldbug treats government as just another profession, just as roofing. His theory is an attempt to figure out (a) how to put professional statesmen in charge of government and (b) how to design a perfect incentive structure that will perfectly incentivize them. (a) is a solid notion, (b) is the usual perpetual-motion-machine building.

Moldbug also doesn't really worry about where to find statesmen, generally pointing to CEOs and people like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore.

Thing is, such effective people are, whether good or evil, inevitably pragmatists who are equally capable of working around or through whatever system Moldbug supplies to accomplish whatever goal they fancy as statesmen, just like they do with every other political system that they exist in.

Which moves any political discussion squarely from 'what kind of system do we need' to 'what kind of people do we need'?

Anti-Democracy Activist said...

As we've agreed upon before, "secular right" is a contradiction in terms; right up there with "conservative democracy".

Much of what has gone wrong with the right in the past 50 years has been its being infected by the virus of Ayn Randian Objectivism. This is, of course, not (as many of its supports claim) the opposite of leftism, but merely the other side of its coin. Traditionalist conservatives made common cause with such people during the Cold War on the "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" principle, but it's time to leave that idea in the 1980s along with Space Invaders, leg warmers, and the Walkman.

These sort of people will be of no help to us. They are believers in what Spengler termed (derisively, as is proper) the "Idea of Progress" every bit as much as Marxists, "Progressives", or Ray Kurzweil-style utopian techno-fetishists. They deny Christ, human nature, and historical reality in equal measure, and are all guilty of being the one thing that men can least afford to be now - delusional.

AB said...

Yes, you're absolutely right regarding Mencius Moldbug.

And it's not just Moldbug but that entire crowd calling themselves "reactionaries", "neo-reactionaries", the "dark enlightenment", etc. They are a melange of libertarians, commerce and technology fetishists, "Singularitarians", etc. There is a contingent among them who hope for a kind of technological rapture where humans and even perhaps all life as we know it is wiped out and replaced by robots and artificial intelligence, and where they will possibly achieve immortality by having their minds "uploaded" to machines. They believe such a thing is "inevitable" and even "good".

They are leftists, but they style themselves as the opposite because they're opposed to the current leftist order, which they view as unlikely to be able to successfully progressively steer the course of events towards their utopian vision.

pwyll said...

Moldbug may or may not be an evil leftist in disguise, but reading his blog was one of the major influences that led to my conversion to Catholicism. Furthermore, I would never have found out about your blog if I hadn't been reading his.

I don't think his utilitarianism exists in a moral vacuum, either. Though he's an atheist, I think this comment he left on your blog is an extremely curious statement for an atheist to make:

Bruce Charlton said...


I don't think MM is evil! And he had a good influence on me as well.

See what I have written about him over the years

JP said...


I don't think the self-styled reactionaries want a technological rapture. That's a different lot.

FHL said...

DL said: "I think that FHL is saying the overarching theory that Moldbug is working on is ultimately impossible to construct because the world is too complicated."

That's exactly it (I also agree with Arakawa's thoughts as well). Although in retrospect, it doesn't tie in exactly with the topic of your post, I admit.

But my main problem with secular "conservatives" is that they seem to think of people like chess pieces and themselves as the chess players. Like these people, whom they think of as chess pieces, are just going to play along. But really now, these people have free will, and they will use it, and sometimes they are more intelligent, or more crazy, or more determined, or just more unpredictable than you imagine. You can't just "rig the system" and expect them to co-operate with some abstract principles you have in your head. You are a chess piece too. When you move, they will move all around you, not directly in front you where you can accurately judge the situation like some overseeing god. And some of them, especially your enemies, will be taking up defensive positions in response to you. People aren't just going to hang out in the same place.

Don't underestimate the free-will of individual persons; they will run circles around you if you even think you have the situation under your control.

Christianity is the only thing which gives a stable answer, a powerful, non-changing guide to life. It is the rock in a stormy chaotic sea. If the people are not Christian then trying to guide them or control them seems, to me at least, like trying to guide or control the wind. Sure, you can funnel it to some degree, you know, maybe here or there for awhile, but overall, the weather is not under your control. And it's silly to propose solutions to change the weather.

Note: you wouldn't be able to control people even if they were Christian, but at least then people would co-operate, they would either work together, or at least they wouldn't lie so much to each other, whether in roofing or politics, since they would have the same ultimate underlying goal in mind, to further the Kingdom of God and to further people in Christian life and teaching.

FHL said...

...and also, proposing solutions to change the beliefs of society on a whole, including people's beliefs in religion, seems to me to be similar to trying to change the weather. Like: "If we only did A, then people would all be Christians."

If only it were so easy...

... then we wouldn't have free-will.

Society, I don't think, will ever be completely Christian again; I'm not even sure that it really ever was. It's something we will have to deal with, like tornadoes, or hurricanes, or droughts, or cancer.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - Very interesting stuff.

It is amazing the extent to which the control of modern society is a fake - it is mostly a matter of redescribing chaos and corruption as if this was the outcome intended all along - if you think about it, this is just another aspect of moral inversion (we generate evil, but intrepret it as good).

FHL said...

"It is amazing the extent to which the control of modern society is a fake - it is mostly a matter of redescribing chaos and corruption as if this was the outcome intended all along - if you think about it, this is just another aspect of moral inversion (we generate evil, but intrepret it as good)."

Extremely so! It's like the girl who, after brushing the dirt off her dress after she tripped and fell, says: "I meant to do that."

Except unlike the hypothetical girl, who would probably be joking, they aren't joking. They actually want you to believe it, and become infuriated when you don't.

Gabe Ruth said...

Dr. Charlton, you are of course correct about the nature of Moldy's project at the outset, but you are too hard on him when you lump him with all the degenerates that call themselves reactionaries now and think they are doing something. The whole group has added literally nothing to the conversation since Moldbug started it, and I am embarrassed that I wasted a second on any of them. I also don't think you can accuse him of being deluded about his "doing something".

Tangentially, I happened across Fr. Seraphim Rose's letter to Thomas Merton (which you mentioned a while back), and I was struck by how relevant it was to this post, just from the left instead of the right.

Thanks for the candid assessment of your employment. Recently, my father asked me what I think of ongoing efforts to maintain macroeconomic stability, known as NGDP targeting. My dad has a real job and so he doesn't have as much time as I do to think about these things, but I had to think about how to explain to him that something like NGDP targeting is the only way to preserve the current status quo for any amount of time, and that it is still not even close to worth it. Your anecdote is a very good illustration of why.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - You misunderstand my opinions. MM wants to be a reactionary, but does not want to become religious - he wants the socio-political effects of religiousness, although he thinks that religion is untrue.

I expect that sooner or later he will recognize the necessity of religion, then the truth of religion, and will then be converted (probably to Christianity).

I would guess Foseti is probably in this category too.

MM's followers vary - but are mostly anti-Christian, rather than currently-unconvinced.

About 'doing something' you may have misunderstood what I wrote - since the MM-influenced self-styled reactionaries are actually Leftists (as are Libertarians) then it is possible that they are indeed moving towards some kind of 'success', in the same sense that self-styled libertarians may have successful careers in writing, academia, the media and think tanks.

Libertarian ideas are 'used' by the mainstream Left to generate arguments and evidence in favour of mainstream Leftist policies such as mass immigration and attacks on the Christian church, marriage and the family, and the military.

In these areas of policy 'libertarians' serve 'Liberal' goals - and this is indeed the reason why the Left tolerates libertarians.

MM's followers are - unlike libertarians - mostly socially conservative (they are mostly, I think, disaffected secular libertarians) but since they have the same basic goals as Leftist (i.e. this worldly, hedonic goals) then there is no reason why some specific Moldbuggian ideas, analyses and policies may not be appropriated by mainstream Left/ Liberals.

This kind of thing happens all the time. Any influence my own ideas have had (e.g. on UK medical education) have been by appropriating specific ideas in what seemed to me a distorted and incomplete fashion to produce results I opposed - but that is the nature of influence.

I don't suppose Nietzsche would have been happy to know he was the official Nazi philosopher; while Heidegger, who actually put in an application for this job, was rejected.

If MM has a real world effect (which is certainly not impossible) he will almost certainly come to despise the distorted and counter-productive nature of his own influence - since the people with power enough to make influence effective are the people who will use it for their own (anti-Moldbuggian) ends.

Unknown said...


When you say that there is nothing of value in the reactionary community you are too hard on it. There may yet not be a productive genius on the level of Moldbug around, but there are plenty of lesser lights that reward time spent reading them. For example, one of my favorite pieces lately is Michael Anissimov's "Oaks vs. Sandboxes" ( where he discusses the differences between atomistic society and hierarchical ones. I would think such writing would get a favorable reading here.

The Moldbug-sphere is growing and bearing many good fruits.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CA - "The Moldbug-sphere is growing and bearing many good fruits. "

Growing, yes - but I don't know of any (never mind 'many') good fruits!

Rejection of the sexual revolution, early and stable marriages, large and loving families? I think not...