The latest collections of essays from Philip Sandifer is named after the first and longest entry. Thematically the collection takes the reader into a strange world that has intruded into our space in the form of the alt-right. The first four are the most closely interconnected thematically:
- Neoreaction – a basilisk: a look at the deep but incoherent ideas of a trio of thinkers behind neoreaction.
- The All Seeing Eye of Gamergate: a reprise and discussion of the events and nature of Gamergate as a phenomenon.
- Theses on a President: a discussion of Trump – primarily in terms of his prior history as a character.
- No Laws for the Lion many Laws for the Oxen: an examination with regular collaborator Jack Graham of the Austrian School of economics
These are followed by two more:
- Lizard People, Dear Reader: A look at the strange ideas of former UK TV personality David Icke
- My Vagina is Haunted: A discussion of the anti-transgender prejudices of a set of some feminists.
And finally, the collection is capped off with a reprise of some of the themes in an essay entitled Zero to Zero.
The first four provide a historical tour of an idea-space that is both alien and familiar in which psychic monsters wrestle with the Enlightenment. Arguably they fall out of sequence, with the fourth essay perhaps making more sense as a starting point.
The Austrian School of economics should be little more than a footnote – or perhaps a case study in the pathology of ideas. It remains significant as an obsession among libertarians and libertarian influenced members of the right, particularly in the USA. As a form of economics, it is deep nonsense. Deep in so far as it has a complex set of ideas and represents an extensive philosophical program to establish a unique approach to economics within an ideological frame. Nonsense in so far as it makes no methodological sense. For anybody who has discussed politics on the internet for the past few decades, you’ll have encountered the apparently bright, earnest but oddly incoherent ‘libertarian’ who would assert that Von Mises had demonstrated such and such but was unable to explain what they meant. The key element is a strong and fundamental rejection of empiricism as a principle – the Austrian School attempted to build up economics as kind of axiomatic discipline.
To call it pseudo-science is almost misleading – pseudoscience implies a superficial imitation of the scientific approach. Instead, the Austrian school was what might be called a pseudo-geometry – one of many failed attempts to rebuild a discipline following the model of Euclid’s elements. This approach can create some magnificent but fragile intellectual architecture – Spinoza’s Ethics being the most lasting example. As an approach it is rather like dead reckoning as a means of navigation: it requires a sound starting point and no errors in the steps taken on the way but the further you progress without checking to see whether your calculated position matches observations, you are inevitably doomed to get lost. In the Austrian’s case, neither their starting position nor there derived conclusions were sound and the resulting edifice of a theory is essentially bunk. Yet this bunk remains influential as a repeated idea within the libertarian influenced the US right.
As an essay, I thought ‘No Laws for Lions’ was less successful than the others, mainly because it sought to contrast the Austrian School with Marxist economics. It isn’t that the contrast isn’t interesting but in the company with the first three essay (which I will come back to) feels like a diversion. That is not really a fault with the essay as a thing in itself more with how it fits with the historical theme that develops when you look at the four topics as they develop in historical order:
- The Austrian School as an influence on modern US rightwing thought (chapter 4).
- Neoreaction as a 21st-century philosophical pathology grounded within internet culture. (chapter 1)
- Gamergate as an intrusion of the ‘alt-right’ into the mainstream popular culture. (chapter 2)
- Donald Trump (chapter 3)
The steady decline into nightmarish incoherence and simplistic fascism on the right are what becomes clearer through these essays.
The title essay is the longest and most complex. It has more of the complex (perhaps self-indulgent) structural play that Philip Sandifer does well (well I enjoy it – your mileage may vary) and inevitably that means a lengthy diversion into the visionary mythology of William Blake. However, even if Blake isn’t your thing, this is worth a read (and you can skip the Blake bits if necessary).
Neoreaction: A Basilisk looks at three figures that play a kind of foundational role among the rightwing of internet culture. They are simultaneously figures of great influence and nearly no influence at all when it comes to the alt-right. They are highly influential in so far as they helped create (for one of them, unintentionally) a dialogue which encouraged a rejection of much of the development in political-philosophy since (and including) the enlightenment – if you’ve been wondering why when talking about the alt-right we keep bumping into a distorted view of the middle-ages or find that we have to re-litigate debates from the 14th century, this is why. On the other hand, the current alt-right really have no intellectual foundations at all and best understood as the same toxic form of racism, misogyny, paranoia and authoritarianism that is best described as fascism.
The three figures examined are Eliezer Yudkowsky, Mencius Moldbug, and Nick Land. Of those Yudkowsky is the most interesting and, as Sandifer does repeatedly point out, not a ‘neoreactionary’. What Yudkowsky has in common with not only Moldbug and Land but also the Austrian Economic school, is this same expectation that a broader understanding of the world can be built up from some secure intellectual foundations. As a way of understanding the world, it is doomed to fail for the same reasons I’ve described above.
We lack a good word for the process. ‘Madness’ is to associated with mental illness and as a fallacious way of discrediting those you disagree with. However, it is the best analogy we have. I’ve used the term ‘pathological’ but that still has medical overtones – what we need is a word for how a person can follow apparently (or superficially) rational steps and find themselves advancing anti-rational positions. In Yudkowsky’s case, this is particularly ironic as he has been overtly concerned with avoiding fallacious reasoning.
With Land and Moldbug, this push towards a philosophy that is both far-right and anti-rational is more intentional – a desire to create an edifice of connected ideas to reject modern assumptions about democracy, society and humanity. Sandifer connects all three with their sense of horror about the world that is best described as ‘Lovecraftian’ – as if they each peered into their own ideas and saw horrors and two of them found the horrors particularly attractive.
The Gamergate essay is more familiar territory. Familiar villains (Vox Day, Milo et al) and their villainy. A more simplistic alt-right the baroque complexities of the neoreactionaries but connected by a common theme of internet culture, as well as a kind of nihilism used to justify authoritarianism. Within the process of Gamergate, the kind of epistemological angst explored by Yudkowsky’s thought experiments about future AIs becomes a direct and immediate problem as Gamergaters faced their own confusion as to who was who, which false-flags where which and what anything meant anyway. As the Gamergate proceeded, flinging deep and serious harm at individuals, the epistemological nihilism grew in turn with pranksters and trolls not always clear whether they were one, the other or sincere campaigners for a set of ideals that nobody could adequately express.
Which takes us to the punchline: Donald Trump. The escape from the crisis for the right becomes as inevitable as the Greek tragedy. With a loss of any sense of truth (empirical, observational, logical, ethical) the singularity becomes not some all-knowing future AI but an authoritarian solipsist. A man for whom truth is purely subjective and who the right puts in charge apparently because he is the only being who does not doubt – of course he does not doubt because he doesn’t understand why he should (again rejecting empiricism, observation, logic, ethics and empathy).
The essays chart a landscape of something – a monster or a mad-god that we encounter as either unvarnished evil in our modern world or as gibbering edifice of ideas that simply do not form a coherent whole and which seek only to justify the unvarnished evil. I’m not sure these are even ideas that can be understood or should be but I think collectively these essays help define the ugly shape of them.