This short piece is not intended as a refutation of neoreaction: for that, you'll be wanting to read this.
Among the most prominent figures in neoreaction are a computer programmer called Curtis Yarvin (alias "Mencius Moldbug"), a philosopher called Nick Land, and a chap called Michael Anissimov who blogs at a site called More Right. I have drawn heavily on their writings in this article. I can't honestly recommend reading them, if only because of their highly variable literary quality. Yarvin can write quite well when he's in the mood; but he isn't always in the mood, and even when he is he doesn't seem to have an "off" button. Land's prose is almost unreadably bad.
What do the neoreactionaries want?
In short, an end both to democracy as a political system and to liberalism as a political ideology. Precisely why they want these things is an interesting question; we'll come to that shortly.
The explicitly anti-democratic outlook of neoreactionaries has led to some commentators labelling them as Nazis or fascists. This is misleading. It's true that racial politics is of interest to neoreactionaries - they often refer to it with the euphemism "human biodiversity" (or "HBD" for short). Nick Land in particular really dislikes the strong social taboo against racism, judging from the rhetorical energy he spends on it. But the neoreactionaries aren't morbidly obsessed with race. These guys aren't the SS, or even the Ku Klux Klan. Nor are they fascists in the stricter sense of the word. Neoreactionaries would reject the state-controlled economic model which was central to fascism. On the contrary, many of them seem to have a deep and uncritical love for freemarket capitalism.
Curtis Yarvin is a particularly interesting case. He calls his ideology "formalism". His goal, which is entirely praiseworthy, is to reduce the amount of violence in the world, and in particular the amount of organised violence. He writes: "when we look at the astounding violence of the democratic era, it strikes me as quite defensible to simply write off the whole idea as a disaster, and focus on correcting the many faults of monarchism". His chosen method of reform is to make the world more certain, since he associates violence with ambiguity. Therefore, everything in the world, including cities and countries, should be assigned to the absolute ownership of specific, identifiable business corporations. This isn't as radical as it sounds, since Yarvin doesn't want to transfer anything to new owners, just to recognise who (beneath the misleading legal and political structures) really controls the stuff at the moment. The latter should be allotted shares in the corporations: "we need to figure out who has actual power in the US, and assign shares in such a way as to reproduce this distribution as closely as possible". The king would be a kind of CEO.
The most obvious problem with neoreaction is that it is a solution in search of a problem. Modern Western liberal societies are the most stable, peaceful and prosperous in human history. People who live in undemocratic and illiberal countries go to enormous lengths to migrate to them. We must be doing something right.
Neoreactionaries acknowledge this line of argument but (obviously) don't buy it. Land disputes the causation between liberal democracy and societal success. Yarvin argues that modern Western countries are so successful because they are governed not by the demos but by a technocratic élite of civil servants and judges.
The really interesting thing is that, for dedicated enemies of political freedom, neoreactionaries are remarkably sympathetic towards libertarianism. They particularly seem to like a quote from the American libertarian businessman Peter Thiel: "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible". What neoreactionaries object to about the modern West is not just democracy and egalitarianism but the redistribution of resources that tends to go with them. For a social democrat like me, this is part of the whole point of having democracy - it's a feature, not a bug - but neoreactionaries don't see it that way. This isn't just standard-issue mainstream conservative fretting that we're spending too much on welfare. From the neoreactionary perspective, centre-left fiscal policies are destined to bring about nothing less than the end of civilisation. I'm not exaggerating. Land says that "a time of monsters is approaching", and predicts "social collapse into murderous barbarism or zombie apocalypse".
It seems to be a common rhetorical strategy of neoreactionaries to present their ideas as being no more than a perceptive and necessary recognition of the facts of life. Land uses the term "flinty realism"; Yarvin and Anissimov use the rather overworked "red pill" metaphor from The Matrix. On this view, neoreactionaries are just telling it like it is. Hierarchy just is better than democracy. Black people just are inferior. The reason why the overwhelming majority of other Westerners don't agree with this stuff is that they can't handle the truth.
This rhetorical posture is no doubt satisfying to those who adopt it, but the rest of us need not take it at face value. The desire to categorise and discriminate, the attraction to discipline and authority, the conviction that only strong leadership will stop civilisation from collapsing into chaos.... These ideas recur with depressing regularity in anti-liberal literature from Hobbes to de Maistre to Mein Kampf. Whatever you want to call them and wherever in the human psyche they come from, the one thing they're not is an expression of unencumbered realism.
Neoreaction and Reaction
Does this, then, mean that neoreaction is just the latest expression of the same recurring psychological tendency? Is Curtis Yarvin just Donoso Cortes with an internet connection? Well, yes and no.
Most of this blog is about traditional reactionary thought, of the sort that flourished in the decades after the French Revolution of 1789. Neoreaction, however, is a rather different beast. Anissimov says that neoreaction "comes to similar conclusions as trad[itional] reaction while working within a completely different framework". I would put it more bluntly. The only real point of contact between the original reactionaries and the neoreactionaries is that they both have the same enemies - democracy as a form of government and liberalism as its content.
In its principles and its reasoning, neoreaction is modern to the very core. It just happens to arrive at premodern conclusions. Its proximity to libertarianism would have been baffling to the likes of de Maistre, Chateaubriand, or even Evola. Its passionate embrace of small-state capitalism is enough to take it immediately out of the classical reactionary tradition. For reactionaries, capitalism was the enemy, and was synonymous with political liberalism. Even the "HBD" stuff is anachronistic - the classical reactionaries weren't very interested in race. Most of all, the sheer vulgar materialism of the neoreactionary outlook is foreign to reactionary culture and spirit. Mr Reactionary reads Evelyn Waugh and goes to the Latin Mass; but Mr Neoreactionary curses the IRS and has a STEM degree.
This is consistent with the demography of the movement. A disproportionate number of neoreactionaries seem to be connected with the tech industry in the United States. According to Yarvin, his formalism is "an ideology designed by geeks for other geeks". And only an American could think that handing everything over to business corporations is the way to solve the world's problems. Another consequence of the STEM degree thing is the near-autistic degree of rationalism evident among neoreactionaries. There is a branch of modern reactionary thought, centred on the Orthosphere, which attempts to preserve the theocratic ideology of de Maistre and the others. This strand of thinking at least shows some sensitivity to conservative arguments rooted in concern for social ecology and for the non-material aspects of the human condition; but neoreactionaries barely realise that this stuff exists. These guys are hardcore materialists, and atheists to boot. When they refer to the institutions of modern liberalism as "the Cathedral", they don't mean it as a compliment.
The mainstream conservative writer Tim Stanley thinks that neoreaction provides
an insight into how desperate elements of the Right have become. They believe they've lost the battle for control of the West and would now like to withdraw from democracy altogether. Some are driven into the arms of Putin, some into the Far, Far Right and some up trees with guns. As such, the Dark Enlightenment is probably more tragic than it is scary. Or, at least, let's hope it stays that way.Quite so. But the most succinct summary remains that of the editors of RationalWiki, who suggest that neoreactionaries are just "the latest in a long line of intellectuals who somehow think that their chosen authoritarian thugs wouldn't put them up against the wall".