The Living Thing / Notebooks :

Contemporary neo-feudalism

King Bannon, Jester Trump, and the Strange Case of the Fate of Billions

Listen To Me:

must deserve it

The neo-feudal world and its aristocracy’s quest for trollightenment. Also its aristocracy’s recruiting of the disaffected to further its agenda. MRAs, Gamergates, the “endarkenment” (surely this should be “endimming”?), the new gilded age. Trolls, Moldbug, Bannonism. The mobilisation of clientelism amongst those who, losing their hopes to recent economic and political trends, blame people who benefited in any measure for masterminding diabolical conspiracies and want revenge. Multiculturalism and tolerance and its discontents. Are the institutions of neofeudalism capable for fostering human progress? Or even economic growth?

Jacob T Levy asks How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

The latest idea making the rounds of the fringes of the Libertarian Right (and, to be fair, the Libertarian Right is a fractal body that is 99.999% fringe): Neoreaction, also known as Libertarian Monarchism or, among those partial to wearing fedoras and goatees, the “Dark Enlightenment”; the idea that, perhaps, the Enlightenment and the rise of democracy wasn’t such a good idea, and a return to absolute monarchy would be better for freedom.

The Moldbug blog is a fascinating read for its internal market positioning; It’s probably a better read if you grew up in the USA without any political studies after your compulsory “civics classes” (is that what they are called?) and have internalised the local oddities of their particular political discourse. I wander what e.g. an Australian targeted one would look like?

To understand this new right, it helps to see it not as a fringe movement, but a powerful counterculture.

When did the right wing get so bizarre? […] weirdness, perhaps, is what happens when a movement grows very quickly and without any strong ideological direction — from a disciplined party, from traditional institutions like churches and chambers of Congress, from anything more organized than the insurrectionist internet. […]

Britain, where the idea of free trade was born, is withdrawing from the largest free market on the planet because of fears that national identity and sovereignty are under threat. In France, a reconstructed neofascist, Marine Le Pen, has just won a place in the final round of the presidential election. In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant right became the second-most-popular vote-getter — a new high-water mark for illiberalism in that once famously liberal country. Austria narrowly avoided installing a neo-reactionary president in last year’s two elections. Japan is led by a government attempting to rehabilitate its imperial, nationalist past. Poland is now run by an illiberal Catholic government that is dismembering key liberal institutions. Turkey has morphed from a resolutely secular state to one run by an Islamic strongman, whose powers were just ominously increased by a referendum. Israel has shifted from secular socialism to a raw ethno-nationalism.

We are living in an era of populism and demagoguery. And yes, there’s racism and xenophobia mixed into it. But what we are also seeing, it seems to me, is the manifest return of a distinctive political and intellectual tendency with deep roots: reactionism.

Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It’s far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt. If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today’s Republican Party — from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to today’s Age of Trump — is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power.

The business community learned its lesson early. “You work for me, you don’t criticize me,” the president was reported to have told one major federal contractor, after knocking billions off his company’s stock-market valuation with an angry tweet. Wise business leaders take care to credit Trump’s personal leadership for any good news, and to avoid saying anything that might displease the president or his family.

The media have grown noticeably more friendly to Trump as well. The proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner was delayed for more than a year, during which Time Warner’s CNN unit worked ever harder to meet Trump’s definition of fairness. Under the agreement that settled the Department of Justice’s antitrust complaint against Amazon, the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, has divested himself of The Washington Post. The paper’s new owner — an investor group based in Slovakia — has closed the printed edition and refocused the paper on municipal politics and lifestyle coverage.

Meanwhile, social media circulate ever-wilder rumors. Some people believe them; others don’t. It’s hard work to ascertain what is true.

Nobody’s repealed the First Amendment, of course, and Americans remain as free to speak their minds as ever — provided they can stomach seeing their timelines fill up with obscene abuse and angry threats from the pro-Trump troll armies that police Facebook and Twitter. Rather than deal with digital thugs, young people increasingly drift to less political media like Snapchat and Instagram.

[…]if combined with the DHS and the FBI, which appear to have remained loyal to the President throughout the recent transition, this creates the armature of a shadow government: intelligence and police services which are not accountable through any of the normal means, answerable only to the President.

(Note, incidentally, that the DHS already has police authority within 100 miles of any border of the US; since that includes coastlines, this area includes over 60% of Americans, and eleven entire states. They also have a standing force of over 45,000 officers, and just received authorization to hire 15,000 more on Wednesday.)

I’m not a huge fan of framing geopolitical events in conspiratorial terms usually, but it’s worth measuring how far Bannon does wander down this road.

This is more about recycling what is convenient from the neoreactionary program, judo style, through re-branded empire rather than toxic nationalism.

I come finally to the nation-state. We are used to taking it for granted, but we forget that this idea established itself barely two hundred years ago. As Elie Kedurie reminded us in his famous essay on nationalism, the fact that we today consider national self-government “the only legitimate type of government” is more a testimony of the success of a concept born in a specific ideological and historical setting than proof of its universal validity.

I’m curious about the relationship between the actual political authoritarianism and the current support base, the angry merely mildly privileged.

I’m not presuming angry reactionaries are people without legitimate grievances, although I really want to think about the reactionary and disproportionate and possibly long-term self-destructive responses here; esp scapegoating of that another party on the basis of being visible, other and/or involved, rather than plausibly to blame or malevolent, or free from oppression themselves. Just because the response is disproportionate, or ill-considered, or is harnessed for reactionary ends, should not be taken to mean something bad did not happen to the aggrieved people. Although if the thing (people) they are blaming is not the root cause and their strategy is not a real remedy it is of course an interesting question how this can be manipulated for even more nefarious ends.

For a lefty version of this problem, see The Soft Target:

Even more modest reformist goals sound increasingly forlorn at this end of modernity. […] All the institutions and systems involved in what seem to be the most awful, oppressive or unjust dimensions of everyday life in the 21st Century seem to be vulnerable to nothing but their own frailties and contradictions. The powerful are mostly behind walls, inside fortresses. They have the money and the influence to outlast or overwhelm most legal challenges. They don’t particularly fear mass protest, not that there seems to be much danger of protests being genuinely massive in the United States as they have been in many other countries. The political process is drowning in oligarchic money, and even if reformers get elected, they often find it nearly impossible to challenge entrenched interests or do much beyond tinker with the status quo.

Most targets are hard, both in the sense of “difficult” and “protected”. So what has happened in a lot of what passes for democratic politics in the 21st Century, particularly in the United States, is a preference for soft targets: institutions that have to remain ‘open’ in some sense to protest and dissent, or individuals and groups who are compelled for some reason or another to remain accessible and responsive to public criticism.

Directable generalised rage is a fungible coin in modern politics. See: “I don’t have a job because black people/asians/latinos/women took it”.